Editor’s Note: We were fortunate enough to have a lengthy discussion with Chuck Dixon on his many works within The Batman Universe in late 2015. After formatting the interview for publication, DC Rebirth was announced and we had decided to release the interview closer to the return of the universe that Dixon was involved in since DC Rebirth #1 is releasing tomorrow. Hope you enjoy this peek into the mind of a major force behind The Batman Universe that spanned two decades.
TBU: Your first Batman work (and your first work for DC) was the initial Robin miniseries that launched the character of Tim Drake. You’ve spoken before that you didn’t accept the job at first because you didn’t care for Robin as a concept. In writing Tim Drake, what were some decisions you made that helped get a handle on and appreciation for the character?
Chuck Dixon: It wasn’t that I needed to be talked into the job. I just felt I needed some guidance. I’m a Batman fan from before I could read, but that didn’t mean I was 100% in sync with the then-current continuity. (even though I’d been avidly reading Alan Grant’s work on the Bat-titles) I asked Denny O’Neil some very pointed questions like, “What is Robin’s purpose in the Bat-mythos?” I think he appreciated my candor and gave me the framework of what they expected in no uncertain terms. Then I told him that I hardly ever accepted new work without some time to think about it; to make sure I had something that would fit with their plans and be a solid story. On the train ride back I came up with a loose idea of how I could deconstruct the plot (in other words, create drama and conflict) inside the framework that Denny gave me. I called him the next day and told him I was in. I had a plot summary to him by the end of the week and we were off and running.
TBU: How did “Robin II: The Joker’s Wild” come to fruition as a story?
Chuck Dixon: I think we all understood that Tim Drake should go solo against an established, A-team, Batman villain and defeat him. Denny allowed me to use the Joker after a few discussions and after he was certain that I “got” the Joker.
TBU: Before “Robin III: Cry of the Huntress” was published, you began your long run on Detective Comics. What led to you writing for DC’s longest running title?
Chuck Dixon: I was invited the first Bat-summit where Knightfall was presented. I thought that I was only along as a utility player. My contribution, I thought, would be to take notes so that I would be up to speed on this new super-arc as it related to Robin. I sat there the whole first morning listening as Denny, Jeanette Kahn, Doug Moench, Alan and Scott Peterson batted stuff around. As we broke for lunch, Denny pulled me aside and asked if I had any interest in taking over as Detective’s regular writer. It was one of the rare times that I simply said yes without thinking any more about it. After everything Denny had laid down in the morning, I needed to be on the Knightfall team.”
TBU: At the same time you were writing Batman, you were the writer for Punisher: War Journal over at Marvel. How did you approach the two characters, and did that approach stay the same when you wrote their crossover adventure with John Romita, Jr?
Chuck Dixon: In Batman/Punisher, the Joker pretty much articulates my take on the characters. Batman is the zealot driven by childhood trauma. Thus, a costume and all the toys and the sense of the romantic. He also has a code of fair play and strict rules of engagement. Punisher was traumatized as an adult, so he becomes an exterminating son-of-a-bitch using any weapon that will get the job done. He recognizes no rules.
TBU: How did the creation of Bane come about? Was it a group effort by the Bat-Offices at the time, and if so which elements came from whom?
Chuck Dixon: Knightfall was in the planning for a few months and Doug and Alan and I were all working on the issues of our respective titles leading up to it. We understood that we wanted to create a brand new villain to break Batman’s back but nothing had been discussed about him. Denny thought we should come out the other end of the stunt with a new bad guy. A lot of the elements of the event had been worked out around the creation of this new character but no ideas had been put forward by anyone about who this new bad ass would be. We were treating him as a blank that needed to be filled in.
My wife was pregnant and I couldn’t travel to New York City because she was close to her due date. Denny O’Neil kindly traveled down to Pennsylvania with Scott Peterson, his associate editor at the time for a kind of mini-summit. I think Jordan Gorfinkel was along too. Part of the agenda was suggestions for this new villain.
We knew we would basically be replacing KGBeast in the role of the brutal bad guy who also had a keen intellect. KGBeast had become old news with the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. Another conceit for the character was that he would be powered by Venom, the addictive super-steroid that Denny had come up with for an arc in Legends of the Dark Knight. And Denny promoted the idea of creating new villains with each event in the hopes of lightning striking. I liked this idea because I always thought DC’s villain bench was weak unlike Marvel where there are hundreds of great bad guys to choose from. I think that’s still true today, especially with DC’s penchant for knocking off characters left and right.
I never really imagined I’d be tapped to create the character. I assumed Denny had his own ideas or that we’d do it committee style with everyone submitting suggestions. But no one was really stepping up. I was the newest guy on the Bat-team so I didn’t think it was my place.
Anyway, I was concerned about trying to manufacture a character based on the need for him to be popular. I explained that popular characters were often created as afterthoughts or accidents. Wolverine and Silver Surfer come to mind. A lot of people have failed in trying to cobble together a character based solely on their desire that the comic readers love him. Since I was so skeptical about our success, and no one else was coming up with anything, Denny assigned me to figure out the origin of this character (who, at that moment, we were calling Doc Toxic) and write an extra-length special detailing his background and ending with his arrival in Gotham. I think Denny was relying on my obsessive approach to this stuff. He knew I’d sweat it.
The name “Bane” popped out at me while looking through a thesaurus to compile a list of possible names. That’s the name I kept coming back to when I thought of him and I eventually brought everyone else around to calling him that. The worry was that the name was too simple. I think that’s its charm; elegant and on-message. This guy is the bane of everyone he touches.
TBU: Knightfall is the first of the major, long-spanning Batman crossovers and one of the best-known in all of comics. What was it like maintain such a dense, serialized story?
Chuck Dixon: Denny chose a writing team who would approach the material earnestly and also hit deadlines like champs. We had all the arcs and subplots worked out issue by issue so that eager beavers like me could even work ahead without waiting for the next guy’s part. It’s the only way to do one of these.
TBU: Company-wide crossovers flourished throughout the 1990s, let alone crossovers involving the Bat-Books. Zero Hour happened immediately after Bruce Wayne regained the role of Batman, who then relinquished it again to Dick Grayson for a time. Going from Jean-Paul Valley to Bruce Wayne, to Dick Grayson then back to Bruce, all while having Tim Drake interact with all of them as the Batman…did that help keep the books dynamic to write or were they ever headaches for the writers?
Chuck Dixon: They were never a headache at all. At least not for me. The core drama remained consistent and there weren’t any changes as we went along. Denny, and Scott, and later, Jordan Gorfinkel didn’t micro-manage. If there were blips, conflicts or overlaps, we worked them out. Obviously, having a different guy in the Bat-suit made for dramatic grist and even some comedic moments. Like when the Joker realizes it’s not the Batman he used to facing when Az-bats goes after him with a flamethrower.
TBU: Over time, Batman family crossovers became more frequent. How did the process change over time? How did it improve? What lessons were learned? Was there a particular crossover story that you liked or felt was more suited to your tastes over the others?
Chuck Dixon: I thought Contagion, and especially Cataclysm were mis-steps. They always felt more like Superman stories to me. How can Batman deal with a disease or a natural disaster? I thought Legacy was a stronger crossover, but then I came up with a lot of that one so I might be biased on that one. I also thought that there was a major missed opportunity post-Cataclysm that we didn’t show more of the re-construction. We just used a gimmick that’s become fait accompli at DC, a caption reading, “Six months later.”
Readers would have enjoyed a few months of the complications and logistics of how Gotham was restored. I wasted a lot of time researching and coming up with methods of re-building a city in the shortest time possible. And the problem of how one would rebuild Wayne Manor without revealing the presence of the Batcave. All of that was wiped away with “six months later.”
Logistics were also the problem going into No Man’s Land. I thought the stunt had very feathery motivations and felt contrived. So much of it felt “comic booky” in the worst way. One example I pointed out was a scene where someone in a helicopter was throwing food to the refugees trapped in Gotham when the wall went up. They were tossing down sandwiches, unwrapped sandwiches, which were somehow, despite being thrown from a thousand feet through a chopper’s prop wash, to land in rubble intact. Unwrapped hoagies! I pleaded with them to change the art before publication but it never happened. No Man’s Land went on pretty much without me.
TBU: By 1995 you were writing the monthly series for Robin, Detective Comics and Catwoman. In the next two years you would head up the titles for Birds of Prey and Nightwing. All this plus the various one-shots and Elseworld Tales and by the end of the decade you had become the most prolific writer in the Batman offices. What was is about The Batman Universe that seemed to attract you to the various characters? Was there a book whose protagonist you found the easiest or most difficult to find a voice for?
Chuck Dixon: You forgot Green Arrow!
I’ve always been prolific and I took every advantage of being on an iconic character and having editors with faith in me to produce as much work as I could while the window was open. I was fully immersed in Gotham and everything about it. Each story either suggested another story or built upon the cross-continuity I was building inside my own titles. Everything I was working on sold steady so they kept letting me do my thing. In fact, someone on the 7th floor at DC told me that Nightwing was the company’s bell weather book, its title with the most consistent sales each month.
I was in the zone for a decade. Those were awesome days.
TBU: There were elements and characters in the Bat-Books that carried over from one title to another that helped build the world. Things like “Zesti Soda”, “Crocky the Dinosaur”, J. Devlin Davenport, Mayor Armond Krol and so on. What was it like shaping the Batman comics to become a world that you had a large hand in developing in the then-modern era?
Chuck Dixon: I loved that stuff! Back when I was a fanboy wannabe, I read Steranko’s History of Comics. He told the story in it of how the editors at Fawcett, back in the day, wanted to create a cohesive, consistent, environment for Captain Marvel. They created maps with place names and street names and made certain that their artists followed model sheets for various locations down to room-layouts for Captain Marvel Jr’s house!
Boy, did that appeal to me. Imagining a world on paper that could be made as real to the reader as their own hometown or neighborhood. When I got on the Batman books I got to play with the most famous geographic location in comics. I named streets, stores, parks and other locations. I even slipped a reference to the ’66 show onto the map, the Westward Bridge. (think about it) I got to do it again when I was tasked with creating BLÜDHAVEN from the ground up.
It was one of the most fun aspects of working on the books.
TBU: There were a number of female characters that were introduced as foils and some lasted longer than others. Lynx, Ariana Dzerchenko, Dava, Bridget Clancy, Echo and Query, with the most popular being Stephanie Brown a.k.a. the Spoiler. Which of these did you enjoy writing the most, and did their stories reach the intended end point you had in mind?
Chuck Dixon: Stephanie Brown is the one I have the most affection for. She seems most alive in my mind, wholly formed. I know what she’ll do or say in any given situation. And it’s funny, because she was created as a one-time plot device. But readers wrote letters asking when they’d see her again.
I’m not happy with anything that was done with her after I left. Dava, Bridget and Ariana are characters that did reach the end of the arcs as useful characters in continuity. I never had plans for them after their final appearances. But I did have ideas for Stephanie I never got to write.
TBU: When you created Stephanie Brown, was her character meant to last for that one story? She was illustrated somewhat older in her first appearance and her later flirtation with Robin wasn’t there. Was she originally meant to be an older character?
Chuck Dixon: I wrote her as a sixteen-year-old which would make her a little older than Robin but still keeping them minors. Some artists have trouble with drawing various ages. Even the best artists can draw a character either too mature or not mature enough. But, to me, she was still in high school.
TBU: During your run on Robin letter pages were filled with demands to put Robin and Spoiler together. Eventually his relationship with Ariana was terminated and they did. Similarly to Ariana/Tim, your early Nightwing run seemed to be setting up Clancy as a love interest before he and Barbara got together. Was that a case of the characters writing the plot or was Clancy always meant to be a false lead?
Chuck Dixon: Clancy was always there as a romantic foil that would never go anywhere. She was created when I was working on something with the TV on in another room. I was listening to a news channel and a reporter was interviewing people on the street in Londonderry about the truce with the IRA. I could hear these two young girls speaking with this adorable Irish brogue. When I walked into the other room to get something I glanced at the screen and the two girls speaking were Chinese. I swore I’d use that idea somewhere. A month or so later I was assigned Nightwing.
But, to me, a romance works when it’s between people who have something in common more than just mutual attraction. Dick and Babs. Tim and Steph. They didn’t have to lie to one another and shared experiences as masked vigilantes.
TBU: During No Man’s Land, you finally put together Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon, yet the epilogue featured him kissing the Huntress. DC said at the time that they had goofed. How often did stuff like this happen with multiple writers on multiple titles. How often was it caught?
Chuck Dixon: Things like this happened all the time. I remember in Knightfall one of the writers thought it would be clever to reveal Bane’s parentage in a scene so under dramatized that most readers either didn’t get it or forgot it after reading it. Bane’s parentage was, from his creation, to be kept a mystery for later storylines.
And, the way I’d been writing them, Dick and Helena Bertinelli had only mutual lust in common. She was never a serious romance subject for Nightwing. But different readers see it different ways and the editorship was shifting at that time into less diligent hands.
I am seriously biting my tongue here. Can you tell?
TBU: You’ve spoken before about proposals you had for Stephanie to become Robin and for Tim Drake to become Blue Beetle for a six-part miniseries. What were some of the ideas that went into that story? How would you have portrayed Steph’s relationship as Robin with Batman?
Chuck Dixon: Batman would have been impressed by Steph’s work ethic and dogged determination. Both of these were at the core of her character. She would have worked harder at being Robin than anyone else had. Even Tim. In the end though, Batman would find himself hampered by the responsibility of having a female sidekick. His natural, “preux chevalier” instincts to protect her would have made their working relationship impossible.
Over with Ted Kord, Tim would have been kicking it as Blue Beetle; a role far more suited to him than being Robin. Naturally, some catastrophe would have drawn him back into the role of the Boy Wonder.
TBU: You started what has become a mainstay in the DC Comics teams-the Birds of Prey. Where did the idea of teaming Barbara Gordon with Dinah Lance come from?
Chuck Dixon: That was Gorf’s idea from Day One. He was the mother of Birds of Prey. He came up with the concept and pestered me until I agreed to take it on. Then he pestered anyone who would listen to make it a monthly. I think they did it to keep him out of their faces. But he was right. They made an awesome team. His concept worked on every level that he insisted it would.
TBU: During your run on Birds of Prey, was there any push by editorial to get Barbara out of the chair?
Chuck Dixon: I made it known early that I’d resist that with everything I had. Most of editorial was in agreement with me.
TBU: Writing and presenting female characters in comics has been a talking point online for a while now. You were quite successful with your characterizations of Oracle, Huntress, Black Canary, Spoiler and so on. What do you think was in your approach that avoided any sort of problematic tendencies other writers may have fallen into?
Chuck Dixon: I was raised with two older sisters. I think that gave me an early glimpse into how girls act in given situations. And they do react differently than men. I never saw women as weaker or less-abled or (and this is where some male writers eff it up) less-interesting than men.
And, like young characters, female characters are naturally assumed to be underdogs. I think my favorite kind of story is of the “you don’t know who you’re messing with” variety. I love those scenes where the bad guys think they can do as they wish and girl kicks their ass.
TBU: How had the Bat-Offices changed in the transition from the Denny O’Neil days to after his retirement? Had that factored in any amount to your decision to leave your titles?
Chuck Dixon: They changed entirely. Denny’s retirement was the end of an era in comics. What replaced it was a clique system that morphed over years into something closer to Caligula’s court. Any interest in continuity or producing quality comics became secondary to shock value and deep cynicism.
I was out of favor with my main editor who made a case for firing me to anyone who would listen. The only reason he wasn’t successful was the fact that I had three titles that sold steady and in numbers close to one another. It was like this trio of titles that appeared near each other each month on Diamond’s 100. I guess the 7th floor feared they’d see a sales drop on those books when I left. And it wasn’t like readers were complaining.
But I couldn’t get anything else done. I had ideas for crossovers and such and got blocked over and over again. My time was over. When they refused, over and over again, to allow me to have Steph replace Tim as Robin for a six month arc, I knew my salad days as a creator for DC Comics were over.
Not content to having forced me out, my editor continued to work on my rep until, when new management took over DC, I was totally burned and blacklisted.
TBU: The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson was generally tumultuous throughout the 90s, and seemed like it was portrayed at its nadir in Nightwing: Year One. Batman’s behavior in particular throughout that six-part story was harsher than anything he’d been like prior. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or was that at the behest of the Bat-Offices at the time?
Chuck Dixon: Our take was that Batman could be a real prick sometimes. I likened him to the drill instructor who is hard on his recruits to prepare them for the cruelties of battle.
TBU: What led to your return to the Robin title? Tim Drake’s life was drastically different by that time, with the death of his father and the seeming death of Stephanie Brown. What was it like returning to his world?
Chuck Dixon: A total whim on management’s part. I was in Manhattan visiting other publishers and stopped by DC to see a few people. As in Caesar’s court, I caught the momentary attention of the emperor who, in a display of his power, gave me a book on the spot. Like when Caligula appointed a chariot horse to the senate.And, on another whim, I was shut out again.
TBU: During your second run on Robin, Tim seemed like he was angry with Stephanie for faking her death. That thread went in another direction when you were replaced. What were your original plans?
Chuck Dixon: I’d eventually reconcile them. It’s how you write fictional romances. There’s always something pulling them apart with force equal to what draws them together. But their relationship would be edgier after everything Stephanie went through.
TBU: When you were reviving Stephanie over in the pages of Robin, there was a book called “Gotham Underground” dealing with what seemed like (at the time) a different Spoiler who was working for the Penguin with the power to turn invisible. While later writers reconciled it, what was the plan at the time?
Chuck Dixon: I’m not sure there was a plan. Editorial had flipped the continuity table over and everyone lost track of where everything was. Even before the current regime, there was growing resistance among editors to play nice with each other.
TBU: A lot of hay has been made of the way your exit from the Robin title and DC Comics ended up. What led to your leaving the book a second time, and did the eventual portrayal of Tim Drake in the persona of Red Robin and his darker nature have anything to do with it?
Chuck Dixon: I don’t think anyone had the multi-Robins in mind at the time. My impression of the operating system at DC at the time was that no one knew what their plans were from week-to-week or event moment-to-moment.
I was busy writing Batman and the Outsiders and Robin, thinking everything was going along fine, and got a call one day from my editor who’d been ordered to fire me from both books. He had no reasons to offer me for being dismissed. And Caligula wasn’t answering his phone to explain any further. I had never heard of a creator being fired wholesale from all his assignments.
There’s probably a reason for that kind of raw, unprofessional behavior but it might require years of therapy on someone’s part.
TBU: Are there any particular versions of characters you worked on or created that you’ve enjoyed seeing carry over into the various DC media properties? For example, Tim’s portrayal in the Young Justice animated series was decidedly closer to your characterization that the one in Batman: The Animated Series.
Chuck Dixon: I love that Bane was first voiced by Henry Silva. In general, I‘ve always enjoyed how Bane was portrayed in their animated series’ and in the various games. In the movies, not so much.
TBU: In your essay to the Wall Street Journal, yourself and Paul Rivoche opined that comic books have descended into left-leaning politics and moral relativism. Specifically, an issue of an AIDS storyline that you objected to was brought up, where you were given less work after expressing your objection to the story being done. How would you compare that to the storyline of Stephanie Brown’s pregnancy or Karl Rank’s death from teen gun violence? In the way you wrote them, would you say they were less innately political than the AIDS story?
Chuck Dixon: My editor on both of those stories was Denny, perhaps comicdom’s most famous bleeding heart liberal. That said, we never got along anything but famously.
I am staunchly opposed to presenting political opinions in mainstream comics. No manifestos from Spider-Man. The reader should be able to project themselves on these characters. That’s necessary when writing heroic escapist fiction. Superheroes are wish fulfillment characters. We want to be Superman. We hope we’re as principled as Captain America. It’s important that these characters portray only the most universal values.
Now, I wanted Robin to maintain some level of relevancy to his readers and, at the time, guns in school was a huge issue and teen pregnancies were at their highest numbers. To ignore these issues was to make Tim Drake as out of touch as Archie Andrews was at the time. I approached Denny about these ideas and he was fine with it as long as the issue served the story. That was all I wanted, for these real-life troubles to provide dramatic grist for a solid story.
I believe we succeeded. Steph weighed every option she had and came down on adoption (which she at first rejected when she was offended by the mercenary aspect of it) after considering abortion or keeping the baby herself. There was real tragedy and suspense in the story as well as a few touching moments. But it was first and foremost a story. We didn’t tell the reader how to feel about it.
Same for the Karl Ranck story. A dramatic tragedy presented without hollow “solutions” for the issue involved. We showed the consequences of gun violence and maybe left the reader conflicted or frustrated. But we offered no pat political solutions. I feel we did these stories without stereotype or caricature or going down the weak cheese road so many of these “issues” stories do.
TBU: What projects can we look forward to see from you now and are there any coming up that you’d like to promote?
Chuck Dixon: Joe Frankenstein (by me and Graham Nolan) is in a second or third printing about now. And I have my own publishing imprint of prose action novels from Bruno Books. Fans can check them out here.
Editor’s Note: Our thanks goes out to Chuck Dixon for his candid participation in our questions. Be sure to leave any thoughts you may have below for them to be brought up on a future episode of The Batman Universe Comic Podcast.