Month in and month out, Scott Snyder has been delivering a literal wild ride in All-Star Batman, depicting Batman’s cross-country trip alongside old friend Harvey Dent and his other side, the nefarious Two-Face. But just like Two-Face, this book has a second side, one under the artistic direction of Declan Shalvey.
Set prior to the main story and focusing squarely on the training of Duke Thomas, Snyder and Shalvey’s narrative about the Cursed Wheel keeps turning and showing more of what it means to be an ally of the Bat. The creators sat down with Comicosity just days before the arrival of All-Star Batman #4 to discuss Duke’s progress and just what it means to be an agent of the light in Gotham City.
Matt Santori: Both of you have been instrumental in taking Duke Thomas to the next level of his journey as a hero. Tell me a little about how you’ve brought him along, in look and personality, as the story grows.
Declan Shalvey: In terms of the look, Scott and I were talking beforehand and he always seemed to have a very clear view of what he was looking for. Not the exact direction, but definitely some visual ideas of how Duke could stand out — how he could be different. He didn’t want him to just look like another Robin.
At the same time, I wanted it to look like an actual evolution, so I focused in on more of the uniform he was previously featured in with the helmet and leather jacket. Then I really was thinking a bit about Kill Bill, you know? That kind of yellow outfit. Yellow is kind of a weird color that normally doesn’t work, but there it really worked.
I fleshed it out from there and moved it around after that. I kind of think of Duke as more of a brawler, so I wanted to draw him in something that looked strong from the torso up. I definitely wanted him to look like he could jump into a group and brawl, if he needed to.
Scott Snyder: Honestly, we were thinking about different designs and then Declan did that one and it was over. I loved that design from the very moment he showed it to me.
The thing that I think is so perfect about it is that it fits his personality. Duke is a character who has defied expectations about being Robin. He was a Robin in a very different way than anyone else we’ve seen.
He was the first Robin that announced that Robin isn’t something that needs a Batman. It’s a concept. It’s a movement. It’s really us in the shadow of the Batman. To me, it’s a concept that — after growing up in New York and with the climate as it’s been the last few years — feels resonant. At least for me, personally.
I think the idea of him being in a costume that’s bright and yellow (which isn’t a traditional Bat-color, except in the periphery) is about being visible. It’s something about being light and not hiding in the shadows. Everything about him is radiant, and it speaks to me as who he’s been since the very beginning.
The first thing we saw when Duke first appeared in Batman [in “Zero Year”] was him trying to answer a crossword puzzle question to take down the Riddler. Bruce was going to leave city, and Duke was basically like, “It’s ok. I got this. We’ll figure it out without you.”
There’s no disdain for Batman. There’s only tremendous respect and admiration. But I think he sees that there’s a separation between Batman and who he’ll become. And that’s always been built into his character. The sort of “sun quality” or daylight quality that’s built into him is reflected in such a brilliant way in the suit Declan designed.
We’ve tried to begin weaving some of his mission into this first story, too, with an emphasis on the importance of going out by morning and going out by day.
DS: There’s a certain kind of element of building a costume so that he doesn’t become Batman, Jr. too. Or to make it too Robin-esque. It’s definitely about making it iconic and new, but familiar.
I do like that the yellow ties into the yellow halo that Greg [Capullo] designed for the Batman chestplate. Even though it’s just a small bit of color there, it’s a nice connection.
MSG: It also plays into this idea of color theory and “The Cursed Wheel.” Scott, you’ve talked with us about this a little, but maybe both of you could expand on how you’re playing into that narratively in the second story.
SS: Sure. “The Cursed Wheel” is this sort of broader idea that has to do with a compressed version of the Batman training — something you can go through like a trial by fire to emerge clear in your strengths and knowing what kind of hero you’re going to be in Gotham.
I think one of the exciting things about creating any new character in Gotham is making sure they have a place that’s different than anyone else’s. It has to really fit who they are and give readers a character who is a hero or villain occupying a new niche — something that speaks to what we’re inspired or frightened by today, and hasn’t been seen before.
For Duke, the idea of the color wheel (and attaching different colors to Batman and the different allies he’s had) puts him in context. It gives him the challenge of figuring out who he is, not just in relation to Bruce, but in relation to a spectrum of heroes.
With the way he’s positioned at the end of the story, you’ll get to see very soon what his big mission will be in the city itself. I’m so grateful to Declan and Jordie [Bellaire] for the work they’ve done on this story. It was always meant to be the spine of the year, because the other story — the feature — would be moving from villain to villain.
The back-ups really form this yearlong story of who Duke becomes, but also this thematic through-line for the year in All-Star. As Duke really figures out who he wants to be, Batman gets closer to a darkness at the heart of his mission too.
DS: And for us, a lot of it is trying to suggest that in the story without being too overt. I think it’s been so great the way Jordie has been using colors as a splash here and there, and sort of pile it up in the end. You don’t want to telepath too much where you’re going and be very obvious.
But Scott was really clear from the beginning about how color would be used. So with Jordie being able to use color in this narrative way, it’s this extra bonus to the book.
MSG: One of the other things really interesting about this issue is the idea of how Duke sees the Joker differently than Batman does, in light of what’s happened to his parents in “Endgame.”
SS: Very nice. What I wanted to do here wasn’t just another Zsasz story or about a kid coming of age, but to do one how Duke sees the world differently than anyone else. The challenge that’s put to him is to look past a truly horrific crime to the motivation and human causality behind it.
Meanwhile, while working with Batman, Duke has the distraction of one of the worst things a kid can imagine happening in the background. To some degree, I think he even has it worse than Bruce, who had his parents killed in front of him at a young age — but they’re gone. Duke, for all intents and purposes, still has his parents right in front of him, but they’re this demonic version of them that linger and say these horrible things to him all day, every day.
The idea of being tortured by the very people who have been his support system before now is so horrendous. Duke has this in the background as he’s trying to cut through this fog of darkness to learn about his motivation and to become a great detective.
To me, the idea of the Joker for Batman is that this thing that’s happened to Duke’s parents is completely evil, that there’s no motivation behind it. There’s nothing to the Joker except darkness that can distract you.
But Duke sees that this isn’t so. He takes the lessons he’s learned and applies them even more effectively than Batman can, because of that one blind spot he has in the Joker. He says, the Joker has motivation too. You’re often just too close to it to see it. The motivation is that he takes anything that you love and he turns it against you.
The Joker goes after Batman in a way to show Batman that everything he takes pride in and loves is terrible. And a source of vulnerability and terror.
So, with Duke’s parents, the things that they say are actually just inversions of the things that they want to say. So, Duke ends up being able to see past the blackest blacks and the darkest shadows in the story to find something inspirational in his parents. He sees them as a source of strength, even when what they’re saying to him is the evilest and most unsettling kind of thing they possibly could.
I wanted to do something where Duke faces the darkness that Batman himself has trouble seeing through occasionally, and that he could see through it in the very way Batman has been preparing him to do in the more pedestrian case in front of him.
DS: I really like these kinds of stories of Robins and other members of the Bat-family having these parental elements to them. I have to agree with Scott. I think Duke actually has it worse than Bruce. He just has this constant reminder of what he’s lost.
MSG: My last question is one I feel fairly obligated to ask, given so much online chatter about Duke’s character. Will Duke Thomas get a code name anytime soon?
SS: Never! [laughs]
No, I was just at a Bat-summit this weekend in New York with the other Bat-writers, and we were going over the name that we have for him and I think people will be really into it.
We thought about it a lot and had many different options. But above all, I’m proud that Duke’s mission has been decided for a long time, and what his role would be in Gotham. And it has to do with brightness and daylight and all the things that I think are seeded into this story in a big way.
It was actually a running joke in the story in the book at one point and editorial made me take it out. [laughs] Like Duke would say, “You know, I still need a name.” and Bruce would ask, “What’s your best one?” Duke would just go on and give terrible names, like Knightstrike. [laughs] Batman would just say no, and then Duke would be like, “You thought I was serious? Um… ok. Huh.”
Now I’m kind of sorry we didn’t do that!
The next issue of All-Star Batman, #4, arrives in stores tomorrow from Scott Snyder, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire, as well as John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, and Dean White.