In Batman: Earth One, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank deliver us a Batman: Year One on a different planet – one where Alfred Pennyworth is a grizzled, wounded ex-soldier who is thrust into fatherhood when his friend Tommy Wayne and his wife are killed one night in Gotham City. We also get a Bruce Wayne who is a long way from becoming The Batman we're all familiar with.
In the pages of Justice League, that same duo is giving us a brand new spin on the former Captain Marvel that the layman knows as Shazam, in which Billy Batson has been scarred enough by his life as an orphan that he's become aggressively bratty to keep people at bay before they can hurt him again.
We got the chance to talk to the British artist Frank about both of these projects and their departures from our previously accepted norms for the characters, and here's what he had to say about these two high-profile reboots.
CRAVE ONLINE: What was the collaboration like with Geoff Johns on Batman: Earth One? How much input did you have in the direction of the story?
GARY FRANK: Geoff's very collaborative. I'd guess if you'd speak to most of the people who work with him, he's great fun to work with. He's very open, very generous in terms of allowing input from whoever he's working with. We spent a lot of time chatting, obviously late at night for me because of the hours difference, whispering into the phone so as not to wake up the family. We went through loads of ideas. It was very collaborative, but ultimately, of course, it was Geoff's vision and we were doing everything to serve Geoff's vision. From my point of view, I couldn't be happier in terms of the input I was allowed to put into this stuff.
CRAVE ONLINE: One of the crucial changes in this story is something a lot of us didn't realize we hadn't seen in a long time – you can actually see Batman's eyes. Obviously a conscious choice – what brought that about?
FRANK: I did it once before on The Dark Knight Dynasty hardback a long time ago, and I always kind of liked the idea that you could see – it's the window of the soul, et cetera, et cetera, cliche, cliche, but it really does help, especially when you're dealing with a much more human Batman than perhaps we're traditionally used to. We're very much dealing with a man in a costume here rather than an icon or a superhero. It's a guy dressing up and doing these things because he feels that he needs to do them. To go with the white-out eyes, it just wouldn't have been appropriate. It really helps if we can see what he's thinking and see what he's feeling about the experiences he's having. So from that point of view, it was absolutely necessary.
CRAVE ONLINE: How fun was it to draw Batman screwing up that much? It seems that every time he goes out, he makes some kind of colossal mistake.
FRANK: Yeah, it feels almost like a prequel, or certainly it's the first act. He's not really being Batman in this book. We end this book in such a way that we know that Bruce and Alfred are now about to start working on Batman and actually making the Batman that Gotham's going to need. When I was doing it, I didn't get the whole script straight away, just the pages a bit at a time, I actually coined the phrase at some point – I said to Geoff "are we going to call this Batman: Black and Blue because of the fact that he's continually getting the crap knocked out of him?" It's very necessary, I think. You take the knocks with him. He's a very mortal guy in this book and he's very much trying to find his way. You kind of start to see by the end of it glimpses of what Batman will be in the final scene. He still makes mistakes. He still does stupid things – the umbrella with Penguin – he still lacks that experience. That's what he's going to get from Alfred. Alfred has a military background and Alfred's going to knock some of that out of him. Obviously, eventually, he'll progress to a point where he surpasses Alfred. That's going to be the next chapter, moving him on a little.
CRAVE ONLINE: How much fun was it to make Alfred less a butler and more a badass?
FRANK: Alfred was great fun, yeah. Geoff's idea for the whole story was that Batman would be an amalgam of the people around him and every character needs to bring something. So that was the Alfred that we needed to make Batman what he became. The idea of the boy growing up and becoming this avenging crusader with nobody behind him but a guy with a tray of drinks in his hand – it just didn't fit what we needed the character to be. He needed some strength behind him, some steel, and Alfred was the logical choice.
CRAVE ONLINE: There's one point that I'm curious about, and this applies to comics in general as well, but the whole disturbing undercurrent with Birthday Boy seems to be part of the "SVU-ing" of the culture. How unsettling is it to have to render child endangerment in such grim detail?
FRANK: I think the whole point of doing a modern Batman is that Gotham has to disturb the modern audience. Gotham has to be a terrible place that requires him to do what he does. The old stories, the original origin of Batman, going back to the early stuff – it's very much of its time. How do you make Batman relevant? There are lots of things that you need to change because frankly, in a world where you have drive-bys and have people getting killed in the streets all the time, the ante has been upped in society a little. In order for this guy to function in the same way that he would've in a different era, we have to bring in some of the modern world, and unfortunately, the modern world is, or certainly seems a lot blacker. Certainly, that's what the audience requires if the audience is going to be disturbed in the way we need them to be. We can't do a modern Batman continually beating up thugs in zoot suits with tommy guns in violin cases. The game has to move on. It has to feel relevant.
CRAVE ONLINE: On the flipside of that, you're also working on the reboot of Shazam. Geoff described Billy Batson's foster-siblings "The Little Rascals with powers" at Comic-Con – does that mean we're going to be seeing that weird Voltron-style Captain Thunder merge that we saw in Flashpoint, or will they each get to have their own identity?
FRANK: I really don't want to give too much away. These are things which are still upcoming. What can I say about Shazam? The idea of family is very important there. The basis of Shazam is the idea of family, and it's something Billy has obviously never had and to some extent has hardened himself against. He feels he doesn't need anybody, or he tries to make everybody else feel that he doesn't need anybody. The Shazam story is following this poor kid who has had a tough life, and breaking down those barriers, allowing him to explore his potential as a person, as a human being. That comes about as he begins to open up and allow other people to get closer to him. That idea is that family can make you more than you are on your own – this is the idea behind the way that the character's progressing.
CRAVE ONLINE: Did you get to design the new look of Shazam?
FRANK: I did, yeah. The costume – we talked about that. Geoff came over last year, and we were talking about what the feel of the book was going to be like, and Geoff was very keen that it would have a magical feel. Many of the other characters had obviously had a redesign, but we were quite keen that the character would look quite different and distinct. He couldn't look too much like his costume was from the same place where everybody else was getting their costume from. The JLA are superheroes who have their modern costumes, but the thing with the Shazam costume is that it has to be timeless. It has to be something which somebody could have worn many, many years before – with minor tweaks. There are small things which are slightly more modern about it, but it had to look like it came from nowhere. It had to look like it had not much in common with the other costumes in the DC universe, with the obvious exception that it had to look a little bit like the Shazam costume.
I say 'the Shazam' costume because I don't know whether I'm allowed to say 'Captain Marvel,' but you know the costume I mean.
CRAVE ONLINE: Yeah, they've officially said he is no longer named Captain Marvel.
FRANK: Yeah, he's not. He's not.
CRAVE ONLINE: So, on a personal level, what is your favorite part of Batman: Earth One and what is your favorite part of Shazam so far?
FRANK: Of Batman: Earth One, just the way that the whole thing is a big, grand, complex piece of work. The fact that it all kind of plays from beginning to end, it was all done as a piece. I like the way that all of the various elements of the story mesh and serve an idea, serve a central theme. The Shazam stuff is just fun. It's just purely fun. I love the way that the kids behave and bounce off of each other, I like the magical kind of atmosphere, and I love the way that Geoff writes the kids – the tantrums and the fact that none of them are perfect. The original Billy Batson obviously was a perfect child, but it's very, very hard, I think, for a modern audience to really identify with that. These kids are flawed and annoying in the same way that real kids are, but at the end of the day, hopefully, they come off in a lovable way as well.
CRAVE ONLINE: Although the Riddler seems to be the next on the list, judging by how the book ends, but do you already have ideas for the Joker, or is Earth One a place where we can see the other Bat-villains have their time in the spotlight instead of the Clown?
FRANK: There are lots of elements to the answer to that question. There's the fact that I think most people would assume that the first major villain would have been the Joker. Does the Joker necessarily serve what we want Batman to be doing in the first book? Well, no. I don't think we really want a young, mixed-up kid going up against his deadliest foe in the first chapter. There are plenty of other things. One day, we will get to Joker, but at the moment, we have other characters. He needs to get there slowly. There are other things to do with the character first. You know, not every decent Batman story has to be a Joker story, so people hopefully won't be too impatient for the Joker and they'll just kind of enjoy the ride.