Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Max Allan Collins "Second Chances" Writer Interview

Talks about writing Jason Todd as Robin and dealing with the mess of a DC reboot. Thoughts below.

You didn't create Jason Todd, but I'm curious how much of the character's development was you and how much freedom you had?

I'm afraid I don't remember. I just know that I was asked to do a reboot. Starting over was definitely not my idea. I may have come up with the Jason Todd as juvie notion. It seemed that if Batman was going to essentially fire Dick Grayson because he didn't want to put Robin in harm's way anymore, then the only way he'd take a new Robin on was if the kid might die or otherwise go down a criminal path if he didn't.

I had a whole storyline developed that was later ignored that had to do with Jason's father and Two-Face. I frankly don't remember exactly where I was headed, just that the book dropped my concept and went in a direction that ultimately led to the fans voting Jason's death.

I never got the vibe Jason would go down the wrong path in his origin story. Jasons' morals were clear, he only stole to survive. He rejected Ma Gunns' teachings to do the right thing even if Batman didn't believe him. I could see Bruce thinking that way though.

The Two-Face story did end pretty quickly but Jason seemed to come around to Bruces' way of thinking.

Why did you end up quitting the book?

I was, from the very beginning, surprised by the lack of direction. I asked for a bible on the comic book, but there was none -- it's frickin' Batman, and there's no bible? I mean, I would ask where exactly the Wayne mansion was -- how far from Gotham City? Nobody knew. I asked for a layout of the Bat Cave. There wasn't one. I found this nebulous approach to so important a character really astounding.

Everyone talks about the lack of direction DC has these days but apparently reboots always had this problem. While we do have "bibles" for DC information their not that exact. I tried to look up a map of Wayne Manor to see how many rooms it had, where everyone slept, etc. The only one I found was one for Batman 1966. I'm kind of shocked no one has done one after all these years.

Denny did some things editorially that drove me crazy. In the first issue of the reboot (#408), I had opened with a caption indicating that we were starting over. It was a little arch, something like, "In the kingdom of Gotham there was a dark knight with a faithful squire," but it did indicate a fresh start or anyway a new entry point. Denny cut it, without discussing it with me. I guess I knew we were really in trouble when I had Batman get hit over the back with a baseball bat, hard enough to splinter the bat, and Batman went down from the blow -- Denny said I made Batman look weak, and changed it. I can't write about a character who is impervious to baseball bats splintering across the back.

In general Batman seems weaker in past stories than he is in current canon. I think that Batman gradually became too badass to the point he doesn't come across as human any more. It was odd for me to read these stories because he's been hyped up so much but I understand where he's coming from. I might have poked fun at some of these issues, that doesn't mean I hated them. I came in expecting something grimmer since everyone acts like Jason constantly was in gloomy stories. These were fun and I honestly enjoy them. Jason Todds' origin in #408-409 is honestly my favorite version. That's the perfect version of pre-Robin Jason and explains how he ticks perfectly.

I'm sure Denny had plenty of reasons to be unhappy with my work, but the thing is, he rarely spoke to me about it. I got a call from Dick Giordano once, and he began lecturing me about what I was doing wrong. I patiently explained that the things he didn't like were all Denny restructuring my work -- for example, crosscutting between scenes that Denny had taken apart and made separate. At the end of the call Giordano apologized.

Reading between the lines, I think Denny expected my Batman to be as gritty as my Ms. Tree work. But my vision of Batman was more traditional -- not campy or kid stuff, but not so dark. Remember, I came on right after Miller's "Year One" run, so I looked pretty soft to a lot of readers.

I appreciated his take, some of it was silly but that made it fun. (Although Harvey going on about twos did annoy me after a while.) He let Jason be a kid and fleshed him out without falling into street kid clich├ęs. Communication never seems to work behind the scenes and it's sad to see this played a role in Collins leaving and Jason dying.

The major problem, though, was the succession of artists. I was teamed with a talented guy named Chris Warner. We were going to be the new hot team. Then Warner missed his deadlines, got fired after a single issue, and one artist after another was trooped in -- often the artist doing part two of a two-parter would not even have access to the character designs of the previous artist. It was a mess. In eight issues, I had five artists. The only one I had for any kind of sustained run was Dave Cockrum, who didn't understand my approach at all.

In fact, it was something Cockrum did that made me call Denny and quit. I created a character called the Mime, who was something of a dry run for Harley Quinn, and there was a bit about a police line-up where a bunch of mimes were called in so the guilty mime could be picked out. The gag was that all the mimes looked identical -- my script spelled it out. Cockrum drew a bunch of different-looking mimes -- fat, tall, short, skinny. I called Denny and quit.

There was an issue I wrote that was never used, though I later used it as the basis of one of the two prose Batman stories I did.

It does seem like a lot of editorial crap, misunderstandings and outright ignoring going on here. We still hear about this stuff happening today which makes it all the more frustrating for creators.

A few years later, when they had the poll, should Jason Todd die, were you horrified? Surprised?

Amused. I'm one of, if not the most hated Batman writers, so I take a perverse pride in that. But frankly, it wasn't my version of Jason Todd that was really hated, but the one that followed.
If you want to see a better representation of my vision on Batman, read "Child of Dreams" with Kia Asamiya. My adaptation was a very free one.

Frankly it always disgusts me that people were quick to label Jason especially after we saw him written as a rounded character. Just because he gets moody (for a good reason too) people think he had to die? That was the worst of comics right there and to this day few seem to realize that.

Did you ever think that Todd would become this significant character? I mean, he was killed off, but he came back. He's in the New 52.

No. I would much rather have written the Dick Grayson Robin.

That's disappointing to hear. I get why Collins feels that way but at the same time I think if I had been in the same position I'd adore the character I created.


  1. Very interesting commentary. Smart. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story in the interview. It's always fascinating to hear what happens behind the scenes.

      I'm glad that we finally have more Jason Todd issues out in trade. It never sat well with me that Jason was the Robin that hardly had any stories printed up in Graphic Novels.

  2. I found the interview very enlightening, the logic for Jason's particular background is incredibly sound and holds up even today (although it seems to have lost some of its impact with new additions at the mythos like the We Are Robin cast). Shame that Collins (Hi by the way Mr. Collins) never had the chance to fully develop Jason in the way he wanted, who knows, Jason could've taken a very different road with them.

    I think that Bruce's exploits becoming increasingly more unbelievable stems from his place as THE flagship character for DC. The cost of being popular I guess.

    The whole bit about editorial is depressing specially knowing that is something that remains even today.

    Comic book fans tend to fall into very closed and short sighted mentality very often, anything that deviates from THEIR vision is an error and must be purged.

    Yeah, I can't blame Collins by his experiencies with DC souring him to the characters, a lot of creators suffer from the same. I met Norm Breyfogle a few years ago and there were a lot of bitterness on how he talked about his time on DC and the way they ended their working relationship.

    1. I think this origin has Jason portrayed the best with the right amount of spunk and morals that others sadly lack. The way Jason stole his tires and Bruce LAUGHS on the day his parents died were perfect touches. Definitely, we know for example that Starlin was said to dislike Robin which had the deck stacked up against Jason from the start.

      That might be part of it although it might depend on the editor. I remember a consistency problem with Spider-Man where a brick knocked him out that caused an uproar.

      It really is. Only a handful have come out with the new 52 but it wouldn't surprise me if there's more.

      Some of the behind the scenes stories are truly horrible even current ones. If Liefield was correct DC kept constantly changing their approach to characters and their stories up until the deadlines for new 52 issues. Static Shock was apparently a mess because the artist and editor forced the writer to do what they wanted. For a creator this is an absolute nightmare and makes for an awful working environment.