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TBU Exclusive: Devin Grayson on Her Batman Universe Work

devinDevin Grayson is a writer known to most Bat-Fans of the late ’90s and early ’00s. The originator of the Gotham Knights title (as well as writer on Catwoman, Batman and Arsenal Plus, and the Nightwing/Huntress four-part miniseries), Ms. Grayson’s most prominent through her runs on Nightwing and The Titans. As popular of a writer as she was in the beginning, Ms. Grayson’s run on the Nightwing book ended notoriously due to several gear shifts in the storytelling and an abrupt end to the story arc she was grafting with her original character, the Tarantula. Nearly ten years after her work in the Batman Universe ended, I reached out to Ms. Grayson and requested an interview in the hopes to clear up the vagaries of the end of her tenure on Nightwing, as well as answer some other questions pertaining to her contributions to the Batman Universe. Incredibly gracious, candid and enthusiastic, Ms. Grayson’s answers are immensely appreciated by myself and many bat-fans (and wing-nuts) alike. I would like to thank her for her honesty and time when reflecting over the good and bad times during her stint at DC Comics.


TBU: Your run on Catwoman in the 90’s seemed to be somewhat divorced from the rest of the Bat-Family. Was that by design?


Devin Grayson: Catwoman was the first series I ever worked on and I was still learning the ropes. I remember that it was important to me that Selina not be defined by her relationship to the men around her (as happens far too often to fictional females in general and fictional females in superhero comics in particular), but I think what you’re seeing there is mostly me at a point in my career where I didn’t know how crossovers or less formal “guest appearances” were arranged.  I understood my assignment to be a matter of telling stories about Catwoman, so that’s what I did. It was a revelation and a thrill to ask something like, “Hey, could I use Batman in this story?” and have the editor say, “Sure!”


At that time I didn’t know if using another character would offend the writers on the titles I might be borrowing from or how tightly that kind of continuity might have to be managed—when you’re the new girl, you step lightly. It’s a strange business and the learning curve is high.


As a writer, you get used to working alone. One of the most gratifying and unique aspects of working in mainstream comics is that you’re on a team; multiple teams, actually. There are the co-creators of whatever book you’re working on, the creative and editorial people working on the other characters in your character’s universe and of course the publishing company itself, not to mention the greater community of fandom, to whom you most definitely owe some kind of allegiance. I was happy to have one little corner of that universe to explore while I found my footing. I think most of the guest-appearances that did occur during that run were editorial instructions—I remember, for example, being asked if I knew who Trickster was and would I mind killing him in my next issue? I can’t think of many other jobs where you’re going to get a request like that.


TBU: The Bat-offices (and Denny O’Neil during his editorial tenure) have had a reputation for being very protective of their characters and what they can do in other books. How did this affect your run on “Titans” with Nightwing? Did you have any restrictions?


Devin Grayson: In my experience the Bat-office under Denny O’Neil was equally protective of its stable of freelancers, to which I belonged. I never had trouble asking them for anything. But I think by the time I was on The Titans, that incarnation of the Bat-office—the one which had trained me and which was filled with people I came to consider my close friends and mentors—that particular assemblage was beginning to morph into a whole new group of people. I had a much harder time with characters like the Flash, who I was initially told I could use but who then ended up tied up in some other major story line, and with the editor I was working with on the title, Eddie Berganza, having specifications about characters he wanted me to use that I might otherwise have passed on, like Argent.


But setting aside the Bat-office and looking at your question more generally—yeah, for sure, team books are a challenge, in large part because of the need to coordinate with so many different offices, and there are always, always restrictions. It’s worth it, though, because the chance to use iconic characters like that together—I mean, there’s a reason we as fans all love those kind of books.


The one that gave me TMJ, though, was JLA/Titans. Phil Jimenez and I went through a special kind of hell for that one. I can remember at least two times when we were borrowing computers in the DC offices for hourly rewrites and spending entire days running up and down the halls trying to get all the editorial offices to at least verbally sign off on some kind of an outline. I was so lucky to have Phil as my partner for that book, because he would usually laugh when I was ready to cry and, I hope, vice versa.


TBU: With “Gotham Knights”, you focused on members of the Bat-Family and how they each related to Batman in their own way. One of the more memorable stories I found was in issue #6 that dealt with Batman and Oracle, more specifically with Barbara and the truth about her parentage. Was it your idea to insinuate that Barbara was in fact James Gordon’s biological daughter, or was that a suggestion by the editors?


Devin Grayson: It wasn’t my idea—that idea had been around a long time before I got there—but to be honest with you, I don’t remember where it came from in that iteration. I think that story was in part a reaction to something someone else had written that I felt to be overly vague or in some way emotionally “off.”  I wish I could remember the specifics, I’m sorry.


TBU: With “Nightwing”, you became the pioneer for Dick’s Grayson’s main adventures after writing him in Nightwing Annual #1, the Nightwing/Huntress mini-series, the Titans, Gotham Knights and other appearances. As a fan of the character, did your past experience with him give you confidence to take charge with his solo series after Chuck Dixon’s departure?


Devin Grayson: I felt that I knew the character, yeah. But my confidence came from knowing that I had by then surmounted that learning curve I mentioned before, as well as from knowing that there were great editors, artists and writers around me ready and willing to lend support.


TBU: The Tarantula character was attacked by fans for being a “Mary Sue”. Do you feel her character was misunderstood? What were your original plans for Tarantula, and did you end up doing what you always intended with the character?


Devin Grayson: Oh, good, let’s talk about this. First of all, can we separate the words “attacked” and “fans”? People who attack someone’s work are not usually their fans.


Secondly, try to imagine a female writer creating a female character that becomes involved with the male protagonist of a series and is subsequently not accused of Mary-Sueing. I’m making up verbs, but I am not making up the fact that pretty much every female character ever introduced by a female writer into a series with a male protagonist has been called a Mary Sue. It’s a knee-jerk misogynistic reaction that my female colleagues and I have all learned to live with and that my male colleagues have never confronted (with the possible exception of Marv Wolfman concerning Terry Long). And it’s frustrating on multiple levels. Mostly because of the predictability of it, and the harm it does—female writers are called upon to create more female characters, but when we do and it’s met with that kind of response, it’s counterproductive—and also because of the assumptions it makes about the writer and the whitewash it throws over the character.


For those of you reading this who have ever accused a professional of creating a Mary Sue, think about what you’re really saying. It’s not truly a comment on the character, beyond the indication that you don’t care to learn anything about her. It’s a comment on the creator, about whom you are suggesting the following: 1) she’s not professional enough to separate her personal life from her work (and/or not sane enough to distinguish fiction from reality/ derive satisfaction from her actual life), 2) she’s not talented enough to create a character based on anyone other than herself, 3) her work does not need to be taken seriously because she’s essentially just using it as a masturbatory exercise, and 4) females are only capable of seeing themselves in female characters, which also implies that the writer in question may not have an authentic connection with the male characters she’s writing.


For the record, I have never wanted to be romantically involved with Dick Grayson. Like most of the readers following his exploits, I wanted to be him, not do him. He would make a terrible boyfriend, which is actually part of what his relationship with Tarantula explored—he was involved with Babs while that was going on and would have declared with utter sincerity that he loved Barbara at any point in that debacle (and yes, that relationship was deliberately a debacle).  Worse, he would have meant it. One of the (obviously too many) issues I was trying to look at there was the tension between Dick’s laser focus—wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, he’s 100% on it, which is part of what makes him so effective—and his romantic restlessness. Most of the people in his life are very protective over him and, in their own ways, very accommodating of his inexorable energy level. They understand that he comes and goes and that when you have him with you, he’ll do absolutely anything for you to the full extent that he is capable of doing it (which will often be superheroic), but that he will eventually be compelled to go help someone else. So if you have someone who has to save everybody, and has to bring his full focus to bear on everything he does and every interaction he has, and if he’s inherently loyal but also relentlessly energetic and itinerant by nature—what happens when he finds himself trying to help someone who does not share his morals, does not have his best interest at heart and is not above physical manipulation? That’s Catalina.


And I think I know which question is coming next, so let’s get right into that…


TBU: A major event during your run was the sexual encounter between Nightwing and Tarantula at the conclusion of issue #93. So much has been said about that scene in years since, from the fallout that occurred in the subsequent issues to you being quoted in an interview describing the scene as “[not rape], just non-consensual”. With the story being nearly ten years old, what would you like to say about that scene in terms of original intent, fan reaction and hindsight? Do you feel fans misunderstood what you were going for? Do you feel it’s something you would do again if given the chance?


Devin Grayson: I was wrong. I messed that one up and I apologize. My interview comments were uninformed and ignorant and I’m grateful for the chance to revisit the issue.


Rape culture and the mindboggling stupid and insensitive comments some comic creators have recently made about it have been in the news a lot lately and I reject the assertion—put forth in some of those interviews—that as creators we passively reflect society and have no actual influence over it. But I do admit that it can be difficult to filter through cultural currents with the sensitivity and thoughtfulness they deserve.  Our work should never be inattentively influenced by our social prejudices, but we, as humans and creators, often are.


I used a literal rape as a metaphorical nadir, and I know better. Or, at least, I should have known better and certainly do now. I was concentrating so hard on other elements of that scene which felt so much more narratively significant to me (Blockbuster’s murder, primarily) that I totally lost sight of the power and non-symbolic consequence of the gesture I was using. By the time I realized the severity of the mistake and how harmful it might have been to actual survivors of sexual abuse and assault (myself included), I had run out of time to make it right. I’m not sure I could have made it right, mind you, but I did at least have the intention of bringing the story back around to it so that the act didn’t exist completely devoid of consequence or analysis. But it does, and I regret that more deeply than I can say. So many factors went into that debacle—including an avalanche of increasingly arbitrary and bizarre crossover demands from upper editorial and the company’s failure to honor previously approved story outlines—but the responsibility for the ineffectiveness and potential harmfulness of that scene lies solely with me.


I would not shy away from tackling the subject of rape again but I would work with it only if I could approach it head on. It’s too charged of an issue to be used to reflect something else. If I could do it over again, I would make very different choices.


TBU: You’ve done interviews where you’ve alluded to the editorial interference on your Nightwing run. Gail Simone has mentioned on message boards that it runs deeper than most fans realize. We’re aware of “War Games” and “Year One” messing up your pacing, but what other types of editorial interference were you both referring to?


Devin Grayson: I had a great editor who was totally in sync with me, but the bottom line is that the entire culture of the company was changing. It was a major paradigm shift. One of the effects was that the chain of editorial accountability became very muddied and unstable; there was literally no way to get anything approved or cleared in advanced. I went from nearly ten years of rarely being asked to rewrite a single line to months of never receiving fewer than six complete rewrites on every script—not because the quality of the scripts had suddenly changed but because something in the fictional universe had shifted and needed to be accounted for. DC went from a model of group editors pre-approving story arcs to upper management micro-editing finished scripts. It’s just a different way of running things, and maybe it feels normal to the people who came in after the seismic shifts had settled. But being in the middle of that shift while it was happening was pretty rough. It was ultimately not a culture I did well in.


TBU: We now know that Dick Grayson was going to be killed during “Infinite Crisis”. When did you become aware of this decision if at all?


Devin Grayson: I didn’t find out about it until after it was published, but it didn’t surprise me. Dan Didio had made his feelings about the character quite clear to me on more than one occasion.


TBU: What were your original plans in terms of ending your run? Was Blüdhaven always going to be destroyed? If you had total freedom, how would you have wrapped things up?


Devin Grayson: God no, Blüdhaven was not supposed to be destroyed. Totally the opposite. I’d put Nightwing through hell, breaking him down to build him back up (as we often do in serialized stories) and his narrative redemption hung on this deal he had made with Slade Wilson to save Blüdhaven. And in my story, the deal—though controversial and not without complications—was totally supposed to work. Blüdhaven was supposed to have become—at least for a while—a city with neither superheroes nor supervillains, the one place in the DCU that was actually, oddly, safe. That’s the outline I turned in, and it was approved, and two issues into it (it was supposed to be a six issues arc), I was told that Blüdhaven was being destroyed in the next issue and that that would be the last issue of the series I would write. It was the absolute worst thing that could have happened within the logic of the story and it felt pretty awful on a personal level, too. The combination of the intended length of my story arc, the abrupt nature of my dismissal from the title and the event that cut off my arc mid-stride all resulted in a complete narrative failure. The fans and the character deserved better.


TBU: During your final issue of “Nightwing”, Dick Grayson proposed to Barbara Gordon. Was that always the plan? Some fans have speculated that the proposal was there only because he was about to die in “Infinite Crisis”. Did you know their engagement wouldn’t survive?


Devin Grayson: It was always my plan, and it was my intention to have the engagement be meaningful and long-lived. But yes, by the time I wrote that scene, I knew it wouldn’t stick because I knew that upper management was opposed to any characters getting married and had no interest in the Dick and Barbara relationship. So was I allowed to do it because other people knew at that time that Dick was destined to die? I don’t know. I didn’t know about Dick’s ensuing death, but I did know that my run—and probably everything I had created in it—was over as of the very next issue. But the proposal was a genuine part of my story arc.


TBU: Why did you leave “Nightwing”? Were you aware of any plans for Bruce Jones run with Jason Todd as Nightwing?


Devin Grayson: I didn’t leave Nightwing voluntarily, I was fired from the book. I wasn’t told why and I wasn’t told what was coming next, beyond Blüdhaven being blown up, which I was somehow supposed to set-up despite being right in the middle of a pre-approved story line that was supposed to result in Blüdhaven thriving and being crime-free for pretty much the first time in its history.


It’s probably just as well that I didn’t know anything, though, because I would have had a really hard time writing Jason Todd. There was a very small handful of characters in the DC Universe that didn’t feel authentic to me, and I was able to be there and work and just avoid writing them. There was kind of an understanding that if a creator didn’t like a character, it didn’t make sense to force them to work with that character.  Part of the paradigm shift I was mentioning earlier is that decisions like that were no longer available to individual creators.


TBU: One of your last projects for DC was developing a solo title for the new Batwoman character. What would the Devin Grayson Batwoman title have been like? Was your character close to what was eventually published?


Devin Grayson: Not really. My Kate was physically based on actress Jaime Murray and she was a lot more polished and private. I’m not sure, because I was never told, but I think part of the reason I lost that job was because I disliked the idea that she’d been involved with Montoya; I just felt like there weren’t enough lesbians in the DCU to have the few that we knew about hooking up with each other. My Kate also had a serious girlfriend, but she was a doctor. She didn’t have a twin sister or a blood-soaked origin and her father was not supportive of her sexuality. I feel like there’s a type of “strong, tough-as-nails” female we’re seeing over and over again in the DCU and I wanted to created something different; a woman whose strength is not defined by solely masculine terms.


As an openly bisexual female, I was psyched to finally be in a position to “write what you know.” But I guess it was not to be; in the end, they decided to go with a male writer.


TBU: DC was accused of cancelling your Batwoman title before the launch due to “cowardice” over the homosexuality issues. Do you know why the title was delayed?


Devin Grayson: I have no clue, it was bizarre. I had a six-month outline approved and was halfway through the second script when I stumbled across a quote in The New York Times from Dan Didio saying that DC had no intention of publishing a Batwoman series. I called my editor, but he didn’t have any more information than I did. And that was it. No one ever called me to clarify what had changed…in fact no one from DC ever called me again, period (until nearly ten years later about a whole different project, anyway). It was truly baffling. I have personal theories about what was going on behind the scenes, and my guess is that the delay had more to do with switching out the project writer than political cold feet, but I really don’t know. The hardest part about it for me professionally was that I was still under an exclusive contract with DC at the time, so I couldn’t work anywhere else, but after being dismissed from Nightwing, having several other proposals rejected and then being so unceremoniously removed from Batwoman, I felt like it was getting increasingly clear that I wouldn’t be working there, either. All and all, not a fun year, and a very sad way to end my working relationship with the company.


TBU: During your Nightwing run, the internet was dissecting some quotes you made about Dick Grayson’s sexuality. You’ve discussed before what would not be allowed in the DC Offices including certain inferences about Batman and Nightwing’s relationship and how you viewed Dick’s sexuality in terms of his upbringing. Do you feel this is something that would get less resistance today from both the fans and the DC Editors?


Devin Grayson: No, not really, nor would I expect it to. I don’t know about the fans, actually, I think they can handle a lot more than DC gives them credit for, but the editors, by which I really mean the upper administration, are not going to change their position on the sexuality of any character that’s ever been made into a toy, and I understand why. Some ideas really live better in fanfic anyway, and that’s in no way a put down. Fanfic rocks.


TBU: Despite how things ended up with your Nightwing run, did you enjoy your time with the character? Would you ever like to return to the Batman Universe, or do you feel that part of your life has passed?


Devin Grayson: I loved my time at DC all the way up until that corporate paradigm shift I’ve been talking about occurred. After that, everything was a struggle, and it was clear that the new, emerging company culture was not a good match for me, professionally or creatively. But none of that was about the characters. So, yes, absolutely, I loved working with Nightwing and my heart will always be in Gotham. And chances are good that the ethos of DC will shift again—that’s a natural part of business evolution—so who knows what the future might hold?


Currently Ms. Grayson’s recent work involves scripting for the graphic novel “UGLIES” by Scott Westerfield, contributions to both the Space and Heroic versions of the “Womanthology” hardcovers, participation in the Legends of Red Sonja series by Dynamite Entertainment, and a monthly column for Christina Blanch’s SuperMOOC website.


Posted by Donovan Grant

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