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Batman Strikes Writer Interview
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Article by John Norris, October 26, 2007

Faithful readers of THE CAT'S MEOW know that I review DC Comics' THE BATMAN STRIKES! on a monthly basis. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of one of the book's writers, Mr. Russell Lissau. In reading his responses, I discovered that he and I have something in common besides our love of comics; we started doing the comics-related thing(s) we do because of someone else's suggestion. I had never considered writing a review column until Mike Bullock suggested it. And I would never have thought about interviewing anyone until Mr. Lissau made it known that he would be available and willing if I wanted to do so. So…here we are. I hope you enjoy it.
 
COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM-JOHN NORRIS: How did you break into comics?

RUSSELL LISSAU: Everybody has a different story about how they broke in, and mine is certainly….different! I'm a lifelong comic book reader. In fact, I still own the first two superhero comics I ever got: an early issue of ALL-STAR SQUADRON and a BRAVE AND THE BOLD featuring Batman and the Earth-2 Huntress. I'm also a journalist, and I've written a lot of stories about comic books and their creators for newspapers, magazines and Webzines. I had a column in Wizard for about a year during the 1990s, in fact. And it was through journalism that I got to know – and befriend – established pros including (I'm gonna shamelessly name-drop now) Devin Grayson, Jill Thompson, Brian Azzarello, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. About five years ago, someone asked me, “You know, you write about comics enough – have you ever thought about actually writing them?” And truthfully I hadn't. Never even gave it a thought. I liked my weekly trips to the comics shop, and that was that. But then one day at my day job, I had a wonderful idea for a Superman story. It just popped into my head like an epiphany. So I spoke to Jeph about it, and he said it was a good idea and encouraged me to write up a proposal. But before I did, I spent something like a year studying comic book scripts, and the scriptwriting process, and how comics actually get made. I really wanted to turn in something professional, something that didn't look like a first-time effort. And when it was ready, Jeph introduced me to the Superman editor at the time and I pitched the story to him. Unfortunately, it was just as Azzarello and Jim Lee were starting their Superman run, so the editor passed on the idea. But he asked me what other DC heroes I like and suggested I try pitching stories about them. And since I have always been, first and foremost, a Batman fan, I started pestering the Bat-office – again with Jeph's introduction. (I really owe him quite a bit.) At the editors' encouragement I started pitching stories, and that led to my first published assignment, “A Friend in Need” in BATMAN ALLIES SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS 2005.

CITC-JN: What comics have you worked on so far?

RL: As I said, my first assignment was the lead story in DC's BATMAN ALLIES SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS 2005, which was the first Batman story after the “War Games” disaster in Gotham City . It was an incredible challenge, and although the story's got some rookie flaws I'm really proud of it – especially the exchange at the end between Batman and then-detective Renee Montoya. I followed up with a short story in Ronin Studios' HOPE: NEW ORLEANS , which is an anthology trade paperback benefiting the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross. And now I'm one of the regular writers of THE BATMAN STRIKES. I've had three issues published so far: February's #30, July's #35 and October's #38.


CITC-JN: How do you approach writing an all-ages comic versus one that's geared toward teens or adults?

 

RL: THE BATMAN STRIKES has certain understandable restrictions because it's a young readers book, and they're all common sense: no bad language; no sex; no over-the-top violence. Those are the big ones. It's marketed as a young readers book, and I wouldn't want a parent picking up a copy of STRIKES and then being shocked by the content. I have a young daughter, and she reads THE BATMAN STRIKES, and I try to write for her – I don't put anything in a story that I wouldn't want her to see.

 

Personally, I like when an editor gives me certain parameters or restrictions for a story. It lets me know what's expected of me, and it also creates creative challenges that often make me stretch as a writer. Take BATMAN STRIKES #35, which I co-wrote with penciller Christopher Jones. No one dies in THE BATMAN STRIKES, and it occurred to us that, as a result, the Joker's smile toxin isn't fatal. It only paralyzes a victim. And that led to us developing a story narrated by someone who'd been Jokerized – the first time that's ever been done, we believe.
 
CITC-JN: You're one of several writers who have worked on THE BATMAN STRIKES.  How did the opportunity come to you?


RL: Nachie Castro edits THE BATMAN STRIKES, and he had been the assistant editor on my BATMAN ALLIES SECRET FILES project. I had a ton of Bat-ideas after the first piece, but because of editorial changes at DC none of them were landing. It happens, no hard feelings. So, with his encouragement, I started pitching ideas to Nachie for STRIKES and got a few approved, then more, then more. What's great is, two of my STRIKES stories started out as regular DCU scripts – “Young at Art,” which was #30, and the recent “Pretty Poison.” I loved the original versions of the stories, so I kept them in my computer in case other opportunities for them arose. And they did!


CITC-JN: Do you submit your own story ideas, or are they given to you?


RL: I submit my own ideas. I write one-page pitches that summarize a story, and Nachie says yea or nay based on those. I also write beat sheets, outlines that describe what happens on every page of a book in short bursts, and those will give him a good idea of where I want to go with a story. A few times, the beat sheets have helped move a story from the “maybe” pile to the “yes” pile.

 
CITC-JN: THE BATMAN STRIKES is based on THE BATMAN animated series.  Does that put any limitations on what you're allowed to write?  How much input, if any, do you get from the editors and/or the show's producers?


RL: From the beginning, we have not been able to use characters until they first appear in the cartoon. So, for example, I had to wait to use Harley Quinn until she appeared in a fabulous episode written by Paul Dini. But last season the Justice League was introduced, and members of the League have appeared this season, too. And that's broadening the array of characters we can use – which is great. As for the show's creative team, I haven't interacted with them.


CITC-JN: Though you are a writer, let's talk about artwork for a minute.  I think that regular series artists Christopher Jones, Terry Beatty and Heroic Age have done some great work on this book.  What's it like seeing your scripts brought to life by these guys?

RL: Christopher's been a great partner. I'm always amazed when I see proofs of his penciled pages. They never fail to amaze me. I give a lot of panel description (not nearly as much as Alan Moore, but more than some writers) because I want an artist to know what I see in my head as I write a scene. Sometimes that even comes down to camera placement, if I have a really specific image in mind. I also thumbnail panel layouts – not the action in the panels, just the box layouts -- so I can control pacing and get a good idea for how much action should be on a particular page. Anyway, sometimes artists stay close to that vision; sometimes they stray from it. But my attitude is, whatever makes the best story is the right approach. And Chris has done a wonderful job. The great thing is, because we work together regularly on STRIKES, he's told me the types of pages he likes to draw (for example, 4-5 panels per page, rather than 6-7) and the things he finds challenging. And I try to cater my scripts to his strengths.

 

I'll also give a shout out to penciller Sanford Greene, who drew my first STRIKES story, “Young at Art,” and hit it right out of the park. It was a great experience and I hope to work with him again.


CITC-JN: BS has also featured great cover art from the likes of Jeff Matsuda, Sanford Greene and Jones & Beatty, to name a few.  Does the writer have any input as to what the cover should look like?


RL: I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't have input on the covers. They're generally a surprise when I see the solicitations, although Chris has shared his pencils with me. And that's OK with me. It's their gig.


CITC-JN: In your most recent story, "Pretty Poison," there's a scene in which Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson attend a concert by a band named Marcy and the Maulers, which you told me is a tribute to your late mother, who was a music lover.  Which prompts me to ask:  how much of Russell Lissau do you incorporate in your work? 
 

RL: My mom died a few years ago, before I broke into comics. She would have really loved that I write Batman tales now. I drew a lot when I was a kid, and she always asked why my sketchbooks were filled with dark, brooding portraits of Batman, the Punisher, Wolverine and other heroes. But she also encouraged me to be creative in a lot of different ways, and she was exceptionally proud that I went to journalism school and became a writer.

 

Writers often name characters in their books after friends and family, and I'm no exception. My most recent issue of THE BATMAN STRIKES features Arkham Asylum guards named Kahover, Nenni and Scolaro – the last names of three of my bosses at the newspaper. And this story centers on a carnivorous plant called the Madhusa Carnivora, which actually is named after a vegetarian friend of mine! So, my mom's name was Marcy, and I always wanted to use her name in a story. I've actually done it twice: In the new issue there's the band Marcy and the Maulers,” and two future issues feature a florist called Marcy's Flowers. She loved flowers.

CITC-JN: What sort of music do you listen to?  Do you listen to music while writing?


RL:  I have very eclectic musical tastes. My MP3 player has rock, punk, emo, jazz, folk and many other styles. There are even some kids tunes (I think Justin Roberts rocks) for my daughter. I generally don't listen to music while I'm working at my desktop computer, but I do if I'm writing longhand out in the world. It helps me tune everything out and focus on my work.


CITC-JN: Who has influenced you, both personally and professionally?


RL: My grandfathers, both of whom are deceased, turned out to be incredible influences on my comics career. My mom's dad bought me comics and, when I was a preschooler, played Batman and Robin with me. I'd be Batman and he'd be Robin. And my dad's dad made up Superman bedtime stories for me when I was a kid. They both really sparked a love of comics that, obviously, continues to this day. Professionally there are too many influences to mention. Chris Claremont on 1980s UNCANNY X-MEN, and the artwork of Paul Smith and John Romita Jr. on that title; Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's LONG HALLOWEEN and DARK VICTORY; Devin Grayson's amazing character study of Batman in BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS; Warren Ellis' THE AUTHORITY; Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark's work on GOTHAM CENTRAL; I could go on and on.

CITC-JN: Finally, any future projects that you can talk about?

RL: My next issue of THE BATMAN STRIKES hits in January. Issue #41 is titled “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and features the first Harley/Ivy team-up in the STRIKES series. I have four other issues in the can, too, ready to be scheduled, and I'm writing another one as we speak that will re-introduce a character I loved as a young reader. He hasn't been seen in a decade or so, and I think he'll be a perfect fit for THE BATMAN STRIKES.

I've also written an original graphic novel called THE JOB, and I hope to announce the artist on that project in the near future. It's a real-world crime thriller that's unlike anything I've done so far. There are some other things in the works, too, but the time isn't right to talk about them yet. The best place to read about my current and upcoming projects is my myspace page, www.myspace.com/rlissau. Thanks for the great questions, John!

I would like to thank Mr. Lissau for taking the time to answer these questions and for making my first review a fun experience.

By thy side,

John “Figaro” Norris



 

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