Interview: Jeffrey Brown on 'Batman and Robin and Howard'
We chat with the cartoonist about his first foray into Gotham City and why Batman can withstand infinite variations.
We all know Robin as the kid sidekick, but rarely do we consider Robin as just a kid. He's got homework. He's got after-school activities. He has friends? That last one is a little tricker, especially as depicted in Jeffrey Brown's new middle-grade graphic novel, Batman and Robin and Howard.
After Damian Wayne leaps without thinking, Papa Batman denies his son further night patrols. The kid is grounded. It's time for Damian to refocus his energy toward academic studies. Not a problem; he never fails a mission. But there's this kid at the new school that's causing him stress.
Howard is top of his class. He has the best grades, and he's an exceptional athlete. No one can run circles around him on the soccer field. Until Damian Wayne arrives. They should be best buds, but they only highlight a dark doubt bubbling within their stomachs. If I'm not the best, what am I?
Jeffrey Brown is an exceptional cartoonist. His autobiographical work scored him instant recognition, and his most recent spins inside the Star Wars universe have earned him back-to-back Eisner Awards. Batman and Robin and Howard is his first trip into Gotham City, but we hope it's not his last. No matter how many Bat-books you've consumed, you've never read a version of these characters quite like this, and that, my friends, is worth celebrating.
When reading Batman and Robin and Howard, it's immediately apparent that Jeffrey Brown adores these characters, but he's not afraid to bend them to his will. Batman and Robin are precious to him, but he's not precious to them. He knows how to have some fun; sometimes laughing with them, sometimes laughing at them. Through it all, there's a tremendous amount of heart.
We joyfully chatted with Jeffrey about his new comic. We discuss what's unique about Batman that allows creators to smash and mold his iconography into an endless variety. We converse about the middle-grade format and whether he considers the moral behind the tale before the plot. He's a dad and can maybe better parent Damian than he can his own kids. Or, at the very least, attempt a test on Robin before trying it out at home.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity, but if you would like to hear the entire thing, you can join our Patreon. At the $1 level, you'll have instant access to over fifty bonus episodes, including dozens of unedited creator interviews like this one.
Brad: We just got done reading Batman and Robin and Howard. Me last night, Lisa, this morning. And it is absolutely our jam. I know we're not in middle school but it very much spoke to us in several ways. And one of them was in how you approach the characters of Batman and Robin, but also the Gotham City DC Universe as a whole. What is it about Batman that allows creators to bend him and his world in countless different ways?
Jeffrey: Full disclosure, I was always a Marvel reader except for Batman. I always loved Batman and I loved all the different versions of Batman. So when Frank Miller's Dark Knight came out, I was like, "Oh my gosh, it's like a totally different Batman." But I still loved all the other Batmans. And I kind of liken it to mythology where you have the Greek and Roman myths and there are slightly different versions and you kind of know the story, but then there are these tweaks that change things. So, with Batman, you don't have to know all the details of every version. As a writer, I can build off the the basics that everyone knows, and that gives me the freedom to take things in different directions without having to write a whole new story from scratch.
Brad: Sure, and you're used to doing this with the Star Wars characters, you have a lot of fun in that sandbox. It seems like you don't have any worry regarding messing up anybody's ideas of what these characters should be.
Jeffrey: Yeah. For me, I enjoy when people try different things and I don't have a problem if there's a version of Batman out there that's like, "Eh, that Batman story doesn't really resonate with me." I'm okay with that. I'm okay that movie adaptations of books aren't faithful to the books, because the book is the book. The movie can be the movie. I think the important thing is as long as a creator, you're approaching the source material with respect.
It's like, I like Batman. I don't think I would mess things up in a way that... because I wouldn't want to read something that was, quote-unquote messing up Batman. I don't know. It's like I always approach it with, "I like these characters and I'm going to have fun with it." And so, I don't really worry if someone's going to disagree with how I've handled the characters, because I'm okay if it's not their cup of tea.
Brad: It's clear from reading the book that you love these characters actually, and that if you didn't enjoy these characters as characters, you couldn't have as much fun with them as you do.
Jeffrey: Yeah, for sure. I mean, one of the really fun things was just taking Batman and thinking about, "What's a twist that we haven't really seen." In some of the comics, there have been more serious versions of Batman as a dad, but my comics always tend toward the humorous and as a dad myself, my oldest son is now 14, so I'm encountering this time where I'm no longer nearly as cool as I used to be to him. And so, just that kind of juxtaposition of Batman being really cool, but if Batman's your dad, you're like "He's just a goof."
Lisa: Well, I love taking Batman to the middle-grade space. A middle-grade book has its own conventions and constraints. And what I love about them is that they generally tend to be morality tales. And your approach to this one is, Robin makes a mistake out on patrol and Batman has to teach him a lesson. And then that lesson is underscored by what's going on with Damien at school.
So, I was wondering when you were coming up with the plot for Batman and Robin and Howard, did you come up with the moral first and then create a narrative to fit that? Or was it the other way around where you had the story and you go like, "Okay, well what's the moral of this story?"
Jeffrey: I mean, I never think about morality in that sense but my dad was a minister. So I grew up with a lot of storytelling where the morality was just completely diffused within the storytelling. And so maybe it's just something that kind of comes naturally, but really the story came first. My original idea for this story wasn't even for a Batman in Robin book. I always liked watching those cheesy high school movies and I had this idea of a story, where the popular all-star athlete, a good student at school, has a new kid show up and he's going to like, "I'm going to show this kid the ropes."
Then it turns out that kid is an even better athlete and just as good as a student. And then just having them kind of naturally become rivals to start, because of insecurity and jealousy, and then realizing that they're actually perfect friends. So, when I had the opportunity to work with DC, I was like, "Oh, I have this idea - I'll put Robin in as one of these kids." It just all instantly meshed. I guess in terms of the morals within the story, it was more just like, I just thought about how I would want to act and respond the best that I could if I was in these situations. Which obviously being a completely flawed human being, that's not the usual case, but in the story, I can at least aspire to that.
Lisa: I actually found it super comforting to know that Robin has middle school level problems, because a lot of the time he's just depicted as just kicking it with Alfred all day or out busting crime with Batman, which to me that is not going to create a well-rounded individual. So how did you go about building the little world around Damien?
Jeffrey: In the same way that I was trying to show a different side of Batman, I think with Robin too, especially in the comics he tends to have to grow up super fast. He gets skipped over, these formative years, and just goes straight to, "I have to be an adult and keep up with my adult dad." Middle school is a great place because there are the obvious situations that you're encountering for the first time. You've moved past the simplicity of childhood, but you're not quite at the complexity of adulthood. And so it's this interesting space when things can happen and you can watch the characters figure out how to navigate that world. So, it's a lot of fun to show Robin going through these more everyday real-world situations.
Lisa: I really appreciate the climax of this story, Damien actually ends up making a pretty huge value judgment. And it's the kind of value judgment that Bruce Wayne and Alfred, his parents, just have to roll with. They can't really argue with it. I think that it's a lesson that I think that Batman could take a note from. Everybody needs a confidant from outside of their family to vent and release some of that stress. Is that something that you've observed in your own parenting where sometimes you just go like, "Oh shoot, they're their own person, and I just kind of have to go with this?"
Jeffrey: Yeah, definitely. As they get older you just kind of have to accept that they're going to have some different opinions or even if you have the same opinions, they're going to think their opinion is different. It's interesting and I definitely try to pull, not necessarily specific incidents, but general feelings of my relationship with my kids and letting that inform how Robin or how Damien and Bruce Wayne act together.
Batman and Robin and Howard is now available wherever fine comic books are sold. You can find Jeffrey Brown on Twitter HERE and on Instagram HERE. You can also visit his website by clicking HERE. And, don't forget, you can listen to the rest of this conversation on our Patreon Page.