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Batman's heart of darkness: Mike Hawthorne talks reuniting with Chip Zdarsky on Batman

Fan-favorite artist Mike Hawthorne discusses his reunion with Chip Zdarsky to kick off a darkly surreal new story arc on the main Batman ongoing series.

Cropped image of main Batman cover
Image credit: DC Comics

After launching his main Batman run with Jorge Jimenez, Chip Zdarsky is reuniting with former Daredevil collaborator Mike Hawthorne for a new story arc beginning in January’s Batman #131 titled 'The Bat-Man of Gotham.' In the immediate aftermath of Batman’s grueling battle against Failsafe, which led to the Caped Crusader barely surviving a fall from the Moon to the Earth, Bruce Wayne awakens in Gotham City only to find it a bit more sinisterly different than he remembers.

In a quote provided exclusively to Popverse, Zdarsky had nothing but praise for working with Hawthorne again, declaring that “Mike makes you feel every punch thrown, every brick of the city, every emotion felt in ‘The Bat-Man of Gotham.’ He manages to be a dynamic storyteller while making the world feel so damned real. Everyone’s going to love his take on these characters!”

Joined by inker Adriano di Benedetto and colorist Tomeu Morey, Hawthorne creates a violent vision of Gotham that challenges the already war-weary Batman as he struggles to survive and recover from his recent life-threatening experience.

Leading up to Mike Hawthorne joining the Batman team, Popverse had the opportunity to chat with Hawthorne about his artistic inspirations for Batman, how he approached bringing this brutal, mind-bending story to life, and the creative appeal in getting to draw dark, grounded heroes that have to fight for every inch just to survive. Also included are unlettered preview pages of Batman #131, along with the issue’s standard cover illustrated by Jorge Jimenez.

Main Batman 131 cover
Image credit: DC Comics

Popverse: Mike, what are some of your earliest memories of Batman and what are some of the biggest images of Batman that still stand out to you all these years later?

Mike Hawthorne: My gut instinct is to say Arkham Asylum because that’s the first I remember just getting hit over the head with a Batman book. But if I close my eyes, am honest, and imagine what the archetypal Batman is, it’s probably [David] Mazzucchelli. That ad that they ran a million years ago of him just standing there with one shoulder covered with the cape, that is sort of the definitive Batman in my brain.

That and maybe the hyper-muscular Neal Adams, with this raw energy that makes him look like he can bounce off the walls but also do cool kicks. He literally looked like he was a ball of sinew and muscle just ready to kick ass but not beat anybody too bad.

I always think of the Neal Adams Batman lunging, like he was coming off a starting line.

Yeah, exactly! It always felt like he was moving, even when he wasn’t, whereas Mazzucchelli’s was the scarier one. It felt like he might actually beat you up and not feel bad about it. [laughs]

Interior preview page featuring Batman with a broken cowl lying on the floor
Image credit: DC Comics

A lot of Batman #131 feels like a running fight, and it's a bit more brutal than a typical Batman comic book fight. How did you want to convey that level of violence and desperation in these sequences?

That’s a good question because I was at Marvel for a long time and, when you’re with a company for a long time, you start to absorb what the unspoken rules were. Jumping back into DC, even when I did work there, I was working for Vertigo, so I really wasn’t sure where the lines were. Can we stab someone in the face? Can we do some crazy stuff? [laughs]

There was definitely a little bit of cautiousness with approaching the violence. I did make a conscious decision – and this is where a little bit of my art nerdiness comes in – I wanted to figure out how to approach this so it would feel different than Daredevil. I knew there were going to be a lot of comparisons, especially with jumping on this with Chip. I wanted to have this visual starting point to help me get through some of these things in a way that I could approach them in a way that feels unique to this book.

I decided that it needed to feel a little operatic, like a baroque painting, where you see these full figures and everyone looks like they’re rolling, tossing, and moving in some way. You started by asking about what my vision of Batman is and so I was also going back to Year One and the raw fight scenes in there, especially the scene when he’s fighting the police in that abandoned building. I wanted this guy to feel believable in the sense of Year One but also have this operatic approach that felt like baroque artwork.

DC’s been great about just letting me play around with this style and, you’re right, it’s essentially an entire fight; that’s kind of my thing. It was difficult to manage all the moving pieces but, once you get past that, it’s fun stuff to draw.

Interior preview page from Batman 131 featuring Batman with a broken cowl
Image credit: DC Comics

What about Gotham City? Batman is back in his hometown but there’s something that feels slightly off about it this time. How did you want to capture that visually?

Many years ago, I got a call from a Batman editor-- I think it was Bob Schreck, to date myself a little bit. [laughs] I was a kid, and he was looking at some samples of mine and he said to me “Your pages look great but you really have to treat Gotham like it’s another character. It’s not just a setting in the background.”

I made a mental note and told myself that if I ever got a shot at this thing, I needed to do that. Daredevil is in New York so that’s pretty cut-and-dry. You just look at the place where he is and make it look like that place. You still want to give it character but you can draw a straight line. With Gotham, I wanted to have a visual starting point, so I was looking at gothic architecture and 1940s New York. I tried to base certain buildings on actual buildings from that time.

Like you said, there’s something a little off with this Gotham. Gotham is always a rough place, but this one is supposed to feel particularly treacherous; it’s Gotham without the hope. I wanted to have a visual sense of that, and there’s always a sense of being hemmed in. There’s a scene in Batman #132 where there’s an alley, and I purposefully wanted to make it like a dead end alley, with a sense that you’re trapped in this place.

It not only feels dangerous but also feels a little inescapable and a little familiar. It still has to look like Gotham but this one – I don’t want to sound cliche, like it’s something you’ve never seen before, but it definitely feels like a darker and more foreboding version of the place.

Interior preview page from Batman 131 featuring Batman with a broken cowl
Image credit: DC Comics

Coming out of Batman #130, Chip Zdarsky and Jorge Jimenez have certainly put the Dark Knight through the wringer; he’s barely standing by Batman #131.

And there’s more of that coming! Chip clearly doesn’t like this man. [laughs] I’m drawing this thing and I’m like 'Christ, Chip! Chill, for like, five minutes.' [laughs] There is a lot of that.

How is it leaning into this broken down version of the Dark Knight?

For me, it’s perfect. I’ve been a freelancer for my whole career, and that’s a little like walking a tightrope with no safety net and I kind of like it that way. I’ve had opportunities to go and work in the studio atmosphere, and it just never felt right. This feels perfect for me just because I get to draw a version of Batman without limitless resources. This guy just has to figure things out, be as practical as possible but also as creative as possible.

To me, there’s a challenge to that visually that I wanted to get across. Every time you look at the guy, I wanted it to look like you could see the challenges that he’s having to deal with, even in a practical sense. He’s got to make things that maybe he would normally buy and things like that. I think visually, if I do my job well, it makes for a richer experience. You’re not just seeing Batman and assuming he’s got a gadget for everything. This is a Batman that has to figure stuff out on the fly and have to MacGyver some stuff. I dig it and think it’s fun.

Fight scene from Batman 131
Image credit: DC Comics

After coming off Daredevil, how is it working with Chip again, this time, in the DC Universe?

Chip is always a pleasure to work with, and Daredevil was super fun. I felt terrible because I left Daredevil on good terms, but I just had this opportunity to draw Wonder Woman that I had to take because she’s one of my bucket list characters, and they were going to let me do it in a different style than what’s in-continuity. I felt terrible leaving Daredevil because I was genuinely having a great time, and getting to work with him again, along with Adriano di Benedetto who inked me on Daredevil, it just felt very natural.

I think Chip definitely has a lot on his shoulders. Trying to balance these two behemoth characters is a big deal, but everybody knows Batman is the king-of-the-hill and that comes with a lot of pressure. But I think he’s handling it beautifully. He has a genuine clarity of vision that I love in a writer and obviously he’s an artist too, and I think that comes into play here. It’s probably a little more collaborative than Daredevil was because we’re making new stuff up, and he’s coming in with notes about layouts and different approaches that I maybe hadn’t considered.

As an artist, you kind of want to be left alone, but when it’s adding a richness to the book, it’s always welcome. It feels like Daredevil but we’re getting to run a little faster and harder.

Interior page preview from Batman 131
Image credit: DC Comics

While you’ve drawn characters like Wonder Woman and Spider-Man before, what is about these grounded, gritty heroes like Batman and Daredevil that appeal to you creatively as an artist?

Because they lend themselves to a type of humanity that I think everyone can connect with. Wonder Woman is super fun but you know there’s going to be a solution at the end of whatever crisis this is or she’s just going to muscle her way through it. With a character like Batman, you have to count on this guy to figure out a solution, not just punch his way out, which I think everybody has a soft spot for, personally. Everybody loves a detective story, but a detective story that’s got some of that underbelly that is visually rich and interesting, it just lends itself to some great visual storytelling.

I love all the rogues’ gallery characters-- you get to do something outside of good-looking superhero characters. I love drawing all the grime, bricks, and graffiti on the walls, the things that make it feel a little more real, that you have a connection to, and hopefully start to lose yourself in. Superhero comics are great, but I think when you see a guy flying in the sky, you can’t help but get taken out for a moment. I suspend my disbelief a little bit so I can accept a guy flying. With Batman, you can accept out the gate that this is a guy who might be rich but he’s just wearing a suit and doing crazy stuff. Not that most of us could do that, but you can kind of put yourself in his shoes.

Batman has the best rogues’ gallery in comics. Which one is your personal favorite?

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Joker, just visually. I’ve been dreading going back to Comic Twart, which was a collective I was on many years ago with a bunch of amazing artists. I always was saying that if I ever get to draw the Joker, I was going to give him a big gap in his teeth and make him as over-the-top as I can because I like it when the faces of the characters are unique.

You’ll see it often with superheroes, where they all kind of look like the same dude but with different hairstyles and costumes. I like it when you can expand on that. The Penguin is never going to look like the Joker and the Riddler is never going to look like the Penguin. All these characters are going to be unique and have great faces and different things. I think [my favorite] is probably the Joker. You can draw him a hundred times and it’s going to be a different interpretation each time because he has so much variance to what you can do with him.

Interior page preview from Batman 131
Image credit: DC Comics

Mike, what else can you tease about this new story arc starting with Batman #131?

There are a lot of new things happening, but I think it’s going to have a feel like you have been in these comfortable shoes before. Without spoiling too much, you’ve seen that amazing Jorge Jimenez cover with Bruce out of his Batman suit. There’s a cool visual thing going on throughout the comic where I have to show you when he’s Bruce or when he’s Batman but I can’t depend on his mask.

That is a fun treat for me as an artist and hopefully for the reader, when you can look at the guy’s face without the mask and see that it’s Batman right now, definitely not a playboy looking to have fun.

Batman #131 is written by Chip Zdarsky, penciled by Mike Hawthorne, inked by Adriano di Benedetto, colored by Tomeu Morey, and lettered by Clayton Cowles. The issue goes on sale Jan. 3 from DC Comics.

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