How New 'Detective Comics' Storyline Brings Batman to the Brink

Peter J. Tomasi 'Mythology' story takes the character directly to his 80th-anniversary issue next year.
Mark Brooks/DC Entertaiment

In the run-up to the landmark 1000th issue of DC Entertainment’s Detective Comics — the title that debuted Batman back in 1939 — the Dark Knight is going to be faced with a case unlike anything he’s ever faced before, all thanks to a writer he should be very familiar with: Peter J. Tomasi.

Tomasi has a history with Batman stretching back more than a decade, having worked on the character as an editor as well as writer. With this week’s Detective Comics No. 994, he re-teams with longtime collaborator Doug Mahnke for a storyline called “Mythology,” that introduces a threat that runs through Batman’s career, from his origin all the way to the present day … after a fashion. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Tomasi about what lies in wait for comics’ most famous detective.

You’re going back to the beginning with your Detective Comics run — and just in time for Batman’s 80th birthday and Detective No. 1000, as well — with a storyline that not only targets those closest to Bruce Wayne, but connects to his origins as a crime-fighter. Was this intentionally built as an anniversary arc, or is it a lucky coincidence?

We’re not going back to the beginning per se, but this story is focused on attacking the foundations — the building blocks so to speak that made Bruce Wayne evolve into the Batman we know today. When the gods smiled down and put me in the position to be the lead writer on Detective Comics No. 1000, it was imperative to me to build the steps not to just what I hope is a great detective story, but a highly emotional arc to this once-in-a-lifetime anniversary issue.

I looked at the story I wanted to lead into Detective No. 1000 in this way: To what end will Bruce go to uphold his sacred oath of protecting Gotham?

Well, death, of course, is the first response that comes to mind, but as the old saying goes, “dying is easy, living is hard.” This initial arc will tell a story in the present that redefines and deepens aspects of Bruce Wayne’s past and how his intense mission to be the best he can be is something he takes quite seriously and has shaped and changed his life in more ways than one.

As we all know, Bruce/Batman may not have superpowers, but what he does have “is a very particular set of skills” acquired over a long career in specialized training and crime-fighting: strength, martial arts, willpower, detection, science and technology, intimidation, stealth, disguise, forensics, man-hunting, self-healing, escape artistry, etc., and of course being smart as hell. We’re gonna peel back the layers and explore everything that makes Bruce the Batman he is today, while also shining a light on the extremes he’ll go to maintain that dedication and focus.

So after all that blabbing, my answer is no, not one hint of a “lucky coincidence.”

Detective No. 994, your first issue, hits the ground running and doesn’t let up, and by the end, there’s a real sense not only of the threat facing Batman, but the scope of your story. In many ways, it feels like a great jumping-on point for people who aren’t comic book readers, as well as those who’ve been keeping up with the Dark Knight for years — you’re delving into the history of the character, but not for simple nostalgia. How do you balance satisfying expectations with doing something new?

What’s amazing is that Batman’s been around for 80 years and there’s still involving, exciting, and interesting stories to tell if you’re willing as a writer to dig deep. There’s certain elements readers expect from a Batman story, and our job is to give the readers those things but give it to them shaken, twisted and turned upside down. I purposefully wanted my first arc to have an open arms approach to current, past and new readers alike. Like you said, it’s a perfect jumping-on point if you haven’t been reading Batman.

The first page tells you all you need to know about Bruce’s origin, then we’re off and running, and not only through the streets and heights of Gotham, but across the globe. I’ve always enjoyed widening Batman’s scope and taking him out of his familiar element for character and visualization reasons. As readers will see, Batman’s history and its dismantlement is the detective story and I approached this by exploring the key touchstones of Batman’s mythology — which by the way, is the title for the story arc — and come at them from different angles, just like the opening scene in the aquarium.

That opening scene — it harkens back to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, with a seemingly impossible discovery that people can see in the preview below. It’s a case almost as familiar to audiences as it is to Batman at this point, given the number of times his origin story has been told across different media, yet the characters remain particularly poignant and open for exploration, even — especially — in the way you use them here, he writes, being suitably spoiler-aware. What was behind using them here?

Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths are iconic catalysts in the Batman mythos that not only generations of comic book readers have in their DNA but also fans of the films and the animated series do too. I didn’t just want to use their alley deaths in that ol’ familiar way. I wanted to find a new angle on it, a new emotional hook to ring Bruce/Batman’s bell so to speak and drag him into a personal detective story that eats away at what he knows and loves.

You’ve worked on all manner of Batman-related comic projects in the past, from editing the Bat-titles to writing Batman and Robin and Super-Sons; why do you keep coming back?

Why the hell not? I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to be one of the few Batman gatekeepers who’ve had a chance to not only help guide him from behind a story editor desk, but also write his monthly adventures. To be in that club that has the likes of Denny O’ Neil and Archie Goodwin is amazing, and for my timing to have worked out within the space of two years to have written Superman in Action Comics No. 1000 and now Batman in Detective Comics No. 1000 in March of 2019 – damn, 10-year-old Petey Tomasi never saw those stars aligning, that’s for sure.

Also, it really boils down to the fact that Batman is my favorite comic book character. Batman comics were the first ones I read growing up and I connected to them immediately; the toys, the re-runs of the show, the Halloween costumes, you name it, I wanted it. Everything about his look and crime-fighting ways, along with that great rogues gallery, never failed to get my imagination kicking into high gear.

But the main reason I do keep coming back as a writer is very simple: Batman is a great storytelling engine. He fits in any genre. You can pull him outta Gotham and put him anywhere and he still works. From the mean streets to the surface of the moon, dealing with villains who want to be god, to villains like Darkseid who are literally “New Gods” — Bats can mix it up with anybody. But when all is said and done, in my opinion, the key is to show that he’s a human being, that when he walks away he’s got a little limp, some heavy duty battle scars, physical and emotional, and good ol’ Alfred waiting in the cave with the sutures and bandages to get him back into the night. That’s how I like writing Batman. Making sure we see the human side and the toll of his mission is just as important and interesting than wearing the cape and the cowl and kicking ass.

As you just pointed out, you’ve also written your fair share of Superman, as well; you wrote the primary Superman title for a couple of years spinning out of the DC Universe Rebirth relaunch. Are there different writing muscles necessary for writing either character, given their shared histories and longevity?

Yeah, absolutely. When you’re tackling their respective books it’s their basic environments that the characters always work in that dictates the headspace you gotta be in when you’re at the keyboard. Bats is a creature of the night and Supes is a creature of the day. There’s, of course, many other contrasting elements that I take into account, their upbringing, etc. and at their heart each of them share a supreme loss that is key to their distinct formative years and their worldview.

Also, in regards to their shared histories, there’s their membership in the Justice League. There’s nothing quite as much fun than writing scenes where Bats and Supes interact; I just close my eyes and their dialogue flies across the page. They see things so differently, it gives their moments together a nice playful undertone or an undertow of anger and frustration.

This Detective run sees you re-teamed with Doug Mahnke, whom you’ve previously worked with on projects from Black Adam through your Superman/Wonder Woman run and more. What does he bring to your work that no one else does?

Man, the secret to any writer’s success in this business is making damn well sure you have the right artist to bring your words to life. When you find someone you like and respect you hold on for dear life and try to get them on as many projects as you can. I’ve been very lucky to work with artists whose craft I admire, but also lucky to call them friends.

I’ve known Doug for over 20 years. He is a master. Any artists working their way up should seek out his books and study them. He’s got all the tools: A great storyteller who knows where to put the camera so to speak for maximum effect in allowing the reader to be immersed in the story and follow along smoothly, can draw the subtlest of human gestures and without missing a beat, draw the grandest, visually operatic visceral moments on the next page that make your jaw drop. Doug can draw every human face imaginable, no cookie-cutter faces, even the background characters seem to have lived a life that you want to know, and he’s also able to ground any story genre and make it relatable, from Frankenstein in space to Batman fighting demons, to a silent moment like a superhero drinking a shake at a soda counter. You write it, he can draw it.

The five issues that Doug’s drawn so far are knocking me out — as are the inks, colors and lettering by Jaime Mendoza, David Baron and Rob Leigh. I hope readers have a blast with Detective Comics No. 994 and enjoy the rest of the surprises we’ve got coming their way.

Detective Comics No. 994, the first chapter in Tomasi and Mahnke’s ”Mythology” storyline, will be released digitally and in comic book stores on Wednesday. Take a look at the opening pages of the issue below.