'Batman and the Signal' Artist on Bringing Gotham Into the Daylight

Batman and Signal - Publicity - P 2017
Cully Hamner/DC Entertainment
Cully Hamner discusses collaborating and the forgotten daytime of the Dark Knight's hometown.

Who takes care of Gotham City when Batman has to catch up on his sleep? Starting in January, the answer is The Signal, as the Dark Knight’s former sidekick Duke Thomas steps out of the shadow of his mentor to take care of Gotham during the daylight hours in the upcoming Batman and The Signal miniseries.

Co-written by Scott Snyder and Tony Patrick — the latter an alumnus of DC’s 2016 Writers Workshop component of its New Talent Workshop program — the series is illustrated by Cully Hammer, whose career highlights include co-creating RED with Warren Ellis and the Jaime Reyes incarnation of DC’s Blue Beetle with John Rogers and Keith Giffen. (He’s also worked on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, DC’s Black Lightning: Year One and the creator-owned The Ride anthologies, among many other series.)

Heat Vision talked to Hammer about bringing Gotham into the daylight and working with Snyder and newcomer Patrick on the new series.

Batman and the Signal isn’t just the first series featuring Batman supporting castmember Duke Thomas in a title role; it’s also the first time readers are going to get a chance to see Gotham City in the daylight for an extended period. Did you feel any pressure about establishing the alter ego of Batman’s dark city?

I wouldn’t say I felt pressure, I’d say it felt more like an opportunity. We’ve seen in the movies, sometimes, a little bit of Gotham in the daytime, but traditionally the city is a nighttime environment. But I wanted to play with adding of reality to that, because obviously cities don’t just exist in the nighttime. There is a daytime life that happens, there’s a civic life that happens, there’s the rush of people going to work, the sun between the buildings … There’s a lot of things you can do with color, and with long shadows, and reflections, that you can’t really do when you’re doing the traditional Batman story.

That plays into Duke’s costume, as well. The color scheme was baked into Greg Capullo’s original design, and I wanted to run with that but I also wanted to do something with the Bat symbol and almost do a reverse version of it, so that you’ve got a white graphic on his chest that’s reflective, so it can pick up the sunlight. Things like that.

What are the things about creating this new space that’s exciting to you?

It’s exciting because there’s so much that’s familiar — it’s still Gotham, there’s still going to be crazy villains, there’s still going to be the Gotham City Police Department and there’s still Batman — but it’s a different side of the prism. You’ve got Duke, who in this series is more of a figure of fun than you might expect. There’s a real sense of humor to this book that you don’t necessarily get in a regular Batman book; I was just proofing lettering the other day, and there’s a moment I had drawn in the book, and the dialogue Scott and Tony added to it made it a lot funnier than I expected and I literally laughed out loud. That was awesome. This is how it’s supposed to work.

In terms of the interplay between writing and artwork, you mean? Is this being dialogued after you’ve drawn the pages, or was what you were just talking about a dialogue tweak?

The way we’re doing this, we’re going back to doing what they used to call “Marvel Style” — the guys write a plot outline, page-by-page, and I take that outline — which is telling me what’s happening and why it’s happening, but it’s not necessarily a panel-by-panel description. I take that outline and I break that down myself, so I have a lot more storytelling ability in terms of how to present what they’re trying to get across, then they take what I’ve drawn and they dialogue it. It’s the old Stan Lee school of writing, and I think DC is doing a lot more of that these days because they want to hand a little bit more decision making back to the artists, and make the books even more visually exciting than they have been in the past. For me creatively, it’s a lot of fun to work with the guys that way.

It gives the artist more author ownership over the finished book.

I would never say that I’m writing, per se; that’s what they’re doing. But I am storytelling, and like you say, it’s giving a little bit of the storytelling back to the artist, which is I think as it should be. As much or as little as the artist wants.

Something that’s clear throughout your projects is that, as an artist, you really think about the story. You put a particular emphasis on the clarity of the finished product, and also on the collaborative process — what was it like working with Tony on his first major DC project? Was there a lot of give and take?

Well, the give and take there is kind of like trying to stop a fire hose, because he’s got so many ideas coming out at once. Some of it is just trying to direct it, and some of it is saying, "OK, let’s run with this, maybe not do that …" I think Scott would say the same thing. It’s a matter of shaping the stream of ideas that he has, but I think both Scott and I came to it with a lot of reactive ideas to the ideas that Tony was coming up with.

What I would say is that, if Tony’s the engine, then Scott and I are the wings. He’s the propulsive force, and we’re the ones saying, "Let’s take that force and direct it." This is his first big gig, and he’s got so much energy and it’s a case of taking that energy and helping him turn it into something.

When you said "as an artist, you think about the story" — we’re supposed to do that! It’s part of our job, we’re storytellers. We’re supposed to think about the mechanics of how things work and then depicting it visually. We’re not just filling a shopping list of shots, we’re contributing to the storytelling. We’re a partner, we’re not the audience for the writer. If the writer writes the song, then the artist performs the song, that’s how I think about it.

How much information do you get? What do the outlines look like, when you get them?

I’m getting "Page one, this happens, page two, this happens," that kind of thing. Sometimes it’s a couple of lines, sometimes it’s half a page. It depends on how much description they want to put in there. Sometimes, there’s placeholder dialogue so I know what the characters are kind of trying to say, sometimes not. On the first issue in particular, there are parts of the story that were written as being a page that I extended to two or three pages. Then, because you’ve only got a limited space, you’ve got to take other parts of the book and try and truncate them a little bit. It’s an interesting balancing act, and that’s mostly in my purview.

The comic becomes more of a conversation between the writer and artist, in a sense.

It’s one of the things I’ve developed a skill at doing over the years — and I think anybody who’s worked in comics for awhile is able to do this — is to see how much space a particular scene should take up. That’s one thing that artists, generally, are going to be a little more skilled at doing that than most writers. We can see, "Oh, this is going to take three pages," or "This is going to take half a page," that kind of thing. It’s definitely been that kind of relationship between me and Tony, where I’m kind of teaching him to look at things like this. I’ll get an outline and call him up and say, "This is great, but you’ve given me a 15-panel page." He’ll say, "I did?" and I go, "Yeah, this is two or three pages" worth of story," and he pockets that lesson for the next issue.

It’s a learning process, but also for me, a re-familiarization process, because I haven’t worked this way in a long time. Nowadays, people tend to work in a full script capacity. DC is really making an investment in getting artists back on board, being part of the process and doing more than just filling a shot list and hitting the deadline. That’s still important, obviously, but they want the artist to feel more involved, I think.

That sounds as if if must be more rewarding for the artist, to have more of a say in … everything: the atmosphere, the pacing, the storytelling in general …

From a certain perspective that’s true, but then again, is it more fun or more work? [Laughs] Then again, is that really more work? If I’m not on board with the storytelling and I’m just drawing what’s there and I’m bored … Which is not always the case! I’ve worked with a lot of writers who write full script, Warren Ellis, Greg Rucka, guys like that, who are just so good that you’re never bored with what they do. They do full script, and it’s a joy to work with them. This is the first time I’ve ever worked with Scott, and it’s been a masterclass working with him. I don’t know if he works this way always, but it’s been so fun to work with him. And Tony’s getting up there real quick.

I was lucky enough to watch you lead a session of DC’s Talent Workshop earlier this year, and it really brought home how process-oriented you are as an artist …

That’s just something I can’t help. It’s just how my brain works, I have to think about something and tear it apart. The other guys, Tony and Scott, will tell you, even when it came to generating the story for this book; Tony had a story, and Scott and I both really weighed in on what he was doing. I probably do so more than a lot of artists do. Like you said, I’m a process-oriented person. You establish something, and that immediately sets up a bunch of questions I’ll have, and for my mind, those need to be answered. It really sets up a nice interaction between writer and artist, as far as I’m concerned, because we’re all trying to tell the story.

I feel like, in the last few years, you’ve been shifting into a more behind-the-scenes position at DC. You worked on the design for a lot of the New 52 characters, you’re part of the DC Talent program …

I think that’s fair to say, but it’s not something I’ve sought out. I’ve been in regular contact with development in the past few years, and I’ve taught a class, which is something I enjoy. I love talking about storytelling and process with people, and there’s been a large influx of talent the last few years. It’s fun to talk to them. There’s a lot of talent and they’re hungry to know what to do with that talent. Anything I can say to help that along is totally cool with me. I enjoy the fact that DC is making an investment in that, as well.

It makes me feel old thinking of you as the experienced old hand, because I can still remember buying Green Lantern: Mosaic off the stands, and that was your first book. You’re still the newcomer, dammit! [Laughs]

I think that way sometimes and then I’ll talk to somebody who’ll say, "Oh, yeah, I read that comic you did when I was in the fifth grade," and I think, "Oh, OK. I get it." You have to really take a step back and realize that I’ve been doing this for over 25 years. Somehow, I’m still doing it, and still loving it.

Batman and the Signal No. 1 will be released Jan. 3, 2018.