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Change in the Air: Mark Waid Talks Batman vs. Robin's Explosive Twist

Change in the Air: Mark Waid Talks Batman vs. Robin's...

By Alex Jaffe Tuesday, December 20th, 2022

There aren’t many names higher on the list of DC talent I’ve been wanting to interview than Mark Waid, legendary writer of books like The Flash, Superman: Birthright and Kingdom Come and architect of DC mythology for decades. And what better occasion to finally make that happen than at a pivotal moment in Batman vs. Robin, Waid’s first big event comic since his decade long sabbatical from DC?

Before the interview, we shared some stories about near run-ins and the similarities of our work (“Ask the Question” gets Mark’s approval) before getting down to business and doing what we both do best—taking a step back from the action to inform the public of exactly what’s going on in the middle of a tricky comic book scenario.

It’s great to have you back. It really feels like having a DC family member back home. Let’s talk about Batman vs. Robin and all the stuff you’ve been doing with this new bad dude the Devil Nezha—am I pronouncing that right? “Nejj-ha?”

Sure.

“Sure.” Let’s get it on the record. How am I supposed to be pronouncing it?

I say “Nezza,” but it’s a millennia old Chinese word. So, I say, whatever you like.

Makes sense. I just didn’t want this to turn into another “Raysh”/“Raz” al Ghul thing.

No, no, no. But it is “Raysh.”

Reading about the Devil Nezha, I can’t help but think about your 1995 event, Underworld Unleashed. That was about another powerful devil taking control of the potent forces of the DC Universe. Is there a connection between these stories?

Only in that my three favorite story tropes are time travel, Last Man on Earth, and deals with the devil.

So it’s a thematic sequel.

It’s a thematic connection, yes.

I like that. We’re kind of checking in on how those themes have developed in the thirty-year interim here. So, through Nezha, the involvement of the Monkey Prince’s retinue and your new origins for the Lazarus Pit, there seems to be a lot of Eastern mythological influences that you’re bringing to the mystic side of the DC Universe. What inspired this particular direction?

When I needed to come up with a heavy hitter villain for the first arc of World’s Finest, I did what I often do, which is go back in mythology. Not necessarily Greek mythology, but mythology around the world. Looking for more stories and characters that the American pop culture is not terribly aware of. And the story of Nezha and his place in history as a figure of legend really spoke to me, and I thought there was a lot that could be done here.

It certainly opened my eyes up to a lot of mythology that I wasn’t familiar with. And it seems to be working really well with what Gene Luen Yang is doing over with Monkey Prince.

And that’s no coincidence! Gene was my backstop all along with Nezha, to make sure that I got my P’s and Q’s straight, and that I didn’t run the risk of cultural appropriation or anything like that by getting it all wrong. There were liberties taken with the myth in World’s Finest, minor liberties, but of course, it’s myth. It’s not a documentary. So, I felt like I had some latitude there. Gene gave me the thumbs up, and then he and I have been working very closely on Batman vs. Robin and Lazarus Planet to make sure that we’ve tied things together. I really like what Gene’s doing in Monkey Prince, and the fact that he was working with that mythology, and I was working on that mythology from a different angle, was coincidence that turned into opportunity.

Speaking of that mythology, and going back to our favorite fictional tropes, you’ve been setting up one of my favorites in Batman vs. Robin, where it turns out the big villain is only getting everything together because he’s terrified of an even bigger villain. We got to know Nezha in World’s Finest as this Chinese warlord who killed his father and gained great magical power. Now it seems that turnabout is fair play because he’s preparing for his own son to make the same move against him—this new figure we’re meeting named King Fire Bull.  What can you tell us about this guy?

Scary. Very scary. Suggested to me by Gene Yang, and developed in large part by Gene, I realized that another father/son battle only made sense in a book called Batman vs. Robin. And once I had that, the rest fell into position pretty easily. King Fire Bull is not necessarily a villain, per se, more a force of nature, but very much drawn from actual Chinese mythology.

So, study Chinese mythology and you’ll learn more about King Fire Bull from there.

Exactly. And read Monkey Prince!

The thing that’s got the most people talking about Batman vs. Robin are the interactions that Batman has with the Robins. There’s this sense that they’re being warped by this evil influence. And there’s this question of how many of the grievances that they have with Batman, and that Batman has with them, comes from their innermost insecurities, and how much of it is just wanting to hurt the other person?

I think 99% of it is just wanting to hurt Batman. But none of that could exist without the tiny little mustard seed of something there. Something buried, forgotten… “Resentment” is probably even too strong a word for some of these feelings.

It’s like the story of the Princess and the Pea. No matter how many mattresses you have between yourself and the pea at the bottom of the bed, you’re going to feel it. And I started picking apart what possible grievance—and again, I use that word, and it’s a little strong—because it’s not like they actively have axes to grind against Batman. But we all remember things that our parents did that were not great.

It’s a matter of picking through the grievances that these characters would have. Tim’s made the most sense to me because he really did sort of drop off the face of the Earth once Damian showed up. Stephanie very clearly never felt like she got the chance that the other boys got. Jason’s grievance is one I’ve actually had for a long time myself, which is I didn’t understand why Batman didn’t spend every waking moment trying to find Jason once he was alive again. And Dick’s, I just stumbled onto. I’ve been thinking a lot about Dick Grayson because of World’s Finest and thinking a lot about his life as a circus performer. And I stumbled onto the idea that OF COURSE he would miss the roar of the crowd. OF COURSE he would miss the thunderous applause. Not in any way where he holds Batman really responsible for the loss of that, but the Sword of Sin just amplifies everything.

Now that we’ve talked about Batman’s kids, we have to talk about Batman’s dad—Alfred Pennyworth. You kind of teased us with the opening of this series by bringing Alfred back to life after he was killed by Bane some years ago now. We’ve all missed Alfred a lot. And unlike Batman, apparently, we were blinded to the signs that something was obviously wrong. But then you showed us that his return was temporary after all, as a way for Nezha to get to Batman. So my question is, why would you bring Alfred back just to take him away again? Do you want to hurt us, Mark?

Yes! Yes, I do! I want to twist that knife and I want you to be talking about the story! It was actually the very first part of the story I had, before I had anything else. There was this idea that I would pull another “Return of Barry Allen” on you and make you believe.

I even had the proofreader at DC convinced. In the first issue where I threw my first clue out there, that Batman refers to Alfred’s grandchild, who doesn’t exist, as a way of Bruce testing Alfred, the note came back, “Hey, we need to change this, he doesn’t have a grandchild.” And I had to step in and go, “Whoa. That’s the whole story. Don’t change that.”

Yeah, I was like, “When did that Riddler maze story happen? Did I miss an issue?”

Exactly. Yep.

The way I saw it was that, if nothing else, it was an opportunity for Batman to finally say goodbye to Alfred, which is something that he was denied the first time around.

Right. And that was the heart of it. That was what I was building to all along—the chance for them to have that conversation they never really had.

That takes us to the moment you’ve been setting up this issue. You took all the magical forces of the DC Universe, channeled them through Black Alice, put them into the Helm of Fate, broke the Helm of Fate into pieces, and then dropped those pieces into a Lazarus Pit. What the hell happens now?

Ohhh…bad, bad things. You add that to the Lazarus Resin and everything goes kablooey. The entire island explodes and a giant volcano erupts with magic Lazarus energy that coats the globe. Every angle, every corner of the Earth. Magical storms are happening, massive typhoons, but more than that, the laws of science are beginning to fail. And our remaining heroes, of which there aren’t many at this point, have to band together to figure out some way to stop this. And they know it has something to do with King Fire Bull, but they don’t know what yet. They will find out in Lazarus Planet: Alpha.

I wanted to ask about those characters. You have an extremely eclectic set of heroes at the forefront of Lazarus Planet, many of whom don’t usually get the chance to be center stage. How did you draft that roster?

That was a big part of it! I’m looking for the ones that don’t normally get center stage. Blue Devil is a really good example. Good character, but we don’t see him very often. But he makes sense for the story because his trident has the magical property of being able to detect demons. So, he uses that to go after Nezha, to find out where he is. Things like that made sense to me. I had to keep the cast fairly small because thirty pages and three different locales and a bunch of action doesn’t lend itself to an army of superheroes. But a lot of them were chosen because they just don’t normally get a lot of screentime.

Recently, we all got to read Dark Crisis: Big Bang, where you gave all the continuity nerds the thing we’ve always wanted—numerical designations for established Earths. I’ve got a few things I’d like to inquire about. If you can’t comment, that’s fine.

Sure.

Um, what about WildStorm? What Earth is WildStorm now?

We haven’t found it yet. Barry hasn’t found it yet.

Okay, so that’s probably the answer you have for all of these. Barry’s still out there looking. Is there a chance we might see him chart some more of the multiverse in the future?

Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. But part of the problem we had was that I only had two pages of material, right? I only had two pages of comic. And to continue to add world after world after world would make it four-point type. And I don’t want us to issue anything you’d need a magnifying glass to read.
 

Well, readers, keep looking beyond the Bleed for the further cartographical adventures of Barry Allen, and make sure to pick up Lazarus Planet to see what madness Batman vs. Robin hath wrought. We hope we’ll get the chance to talk with Mark again very soon.


Batman vs. Robin #4 by Mark Waid, Mahmud Asrar, Scott Godlewski and Jordie Bellaire is now available in print and as a digital comic book. Get caught up with the series now with an Ultra subscription on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE.

Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.