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Batman ‘89 creators unpack their return to the world of Keaton’s Dark Knight

With Batman ‘89 collected into a gorgeous hardcover this past August, Sam Hamm and Joe Quinones talk about revisiting the classic cinematic take on the Dark Knight.

Cropped image of Batman holding his cape out
Image credit: DC Comics

While Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s tenure adapting Batman for the big screen may have come to an end with 1992’s Batman Returns, fans have received a continuation of this iteration of Gotham City and its characters with the comic book miniseries Batman ‘89. Illustrated by Joe Quinones, the miniseries also features writer Sam Hamm’s return to the cinematic world he helped envision as the screenwriter on the 1989 Batman film. Taking place sometime after Batman Returns, Batman ‘89 has Harvey Dent obsessively hunting for the Dark Knight across Gotham City before undergoing a monstrous transformation into the villainous Two-Face.

Joined by colorist Leonardo Ito and letterer Clayton Cowles, Hamm and Quinones take several of the unused concepts from the two Batman films starring Keaton while expanding its depiction of Gotham. From introducing their own twist on Robin and Barbara Gordon to paying off on the promise of Billy Dee Williams’ Harvey eventually becoming Two-Face, Batman ‘89 is an effective look at what made the Burton-directed Batman films so great while giving it a fresh and captivating twist.

In an interview with the Popverse, Hamm and Quinones share the origins of returning to classic Batman world for the comic book continuation, explain how the story was also heavily influenced by Batman Returns’ contemporary Batman: The Animated Series, and reveal what they each wanted to add to this world in the unique opportunity to revisit it 30 years since Batman Returns opened in theaters.

Cover of Batman 89 featuring a painted collection of characters
Image credit: DC Comics

How did the idea to revisit the world of the Tim Burton Batman movies and continue the story from Batman Returns in comic book form come about?

Joe Quinones: For me, the germ of that idea started in 1995 when I became aware of Batman Forever happening and all that entailed, with Michael Keaton and Tim Burton not returning. Being a kid of the ‘90s and a big fan of both of them, I was a bit bummed out but still a Batman fan and excited; I still enjoy that movie in its own right.

The real way this started for me was when I first read the Batman ‘66 comics. I thought that was so cool and used to watch reruns of that as a kid and had a special place in my heart for the Adam West version of the character. I thought it was so cool to revisit that world and expand on that universe, still existing within the world of the show but taking to heart the language of comics and all the things you can do in comics that you couldn’t necessarily do with the budget of a weekly TV show. It just seemed like such a fun creative exercise and I did a little bit of work on that, helping usher in Harley Quinn of the ‘66 Universe.

Shortly after that, I was trying to think of what I wanted my next book at DC to be and a friend actually suggested that [since] I love the Tim Burton Batman world, wouldn’t it be so cool [if I] did it. That started me down a path of thinking what I thought it should be and what I wanted to deal with in that universe, the thought exercise of what a third Burton Batman would be. That was in 2015 and didn’t end up working out at that moment.

A couple of years ago, Andy Khouri, an editor at DC, approached me and said “Remember that thing about you wanting to do an ‘89 Batman book? We’re doing it so do you still want to do it?” and I said “Yes!” That brought us to where we are today and there are a lot of stops and starts along the way, even from that 2015 pitch and, for awhile, we didn’t know who was going to write the book. We looked at a lot of people and a lot of scheduling stuff wasn’t working out, and I just had this idea: Sam Hamm is great, wrote the original movie, and wrote Batman comics before; wouldn’t it be great if we could get him to come back and revisit that world.

I thought it was a long shot but pitched the idea to my editors and they said it was great if I could make that happen. I reached out to Sam, and he was so gracious and kind and that got the ball rolling. I’m still kicking myself, it’s been amazing and tremendous working with Sam. He’s such a great writer and has a great handle on this world and these characters; it was totally a dream to come true to work with him.

Sam Hamm: I was sitting around and got an email from Andy Khouri just asking if I wanted to do a comic book adaptation for a movie that never existed. I thought that was an interesting idea and the first question I asked was if we would have thought balloons, and he said “I don’t think so because it’s going to be the adaptation of a movie so we would go over characters’ dialogue and not have a lot of narration.”

The other thing I was wanting to do was [have] a part for Billy Dee Williams, I wanted him to be a Batman villain, and I thought it was a great missed opportunity that he never got to play Two-Face. The chance to work with Joe and these guys, who were simpatico, I didn’t know a whole lot about Joe’s stuff but I saw some of these things and found that he had this insane range. He does some stuff that’s cartoony, some that’s very detailed, some that’s realistic, and he’s got a really dynamic page sense. I was spoiled by my only experience working in comics 30 years ago with Denys Cowan and Dick Giordano.

It just seemed like I hadn’t done Batman for so long that it would be fun to do Batman again. I had a long stretch where I was deathly sick of Batman. I was tired of Batman because I started out being a comedy writer. The first couple of movies that I sold that got made were comedies, and I got the Batman movie sort of out of the same process that Joe was describing trying to get Batman ‘89 off. I had an overall deal with Warner Bros. and was crawling on my belly to every executive that I met there saying, “Can I get a chance to write a script for this Batman movie?!” That was roughly a year-long process for me, where I was groveling and belly-scraping, doing everything I could do to try and glom my way on to the project, and I eventually did. And then, for the next 15 years, all I got offered was superhero movies! [laughs] It was like, “If you have something that has glass breaking, call Sam! He’ll get you things breaking that you never thought of before!”

That was sort of my livelihood for awhile, but this seemed like it would be kind of fun and it turned out that it was. The big pleasure for me is that it’s such a kick to imagine, in my own failed cartoonist way, what the story would look like, how you would tell it, and how it would shape up on the page. Comic books are so much more about the architecture of the page than screenwriting-- they’re two completely different disciplines. The biggest kick in the world for me is seeing what Joe turns my clunky, little ideas into. He just makes everything incredible, and I told him the other day that I think he saved his best stuff for the end. The stuff he’s doing in the last two issues, you just can’t help but drop your jaw.

Interior panel page featuring Harvey Dent's face split in two with two different types of dialogue
Image credit: DC Comics

You’ve expanded the cinematic depiction of Gotham City with this story while underscoring it with timely social messages. And at the heart of this, you’ve got Harvey Dent descending to villainy while Drake ascends to be a hero.

Hamm: We started out with the materials that we had more or less been given, the things that existed in the Keaton movies but not the subsequent Val Kilmer/George Clooney/Joel Schumacher movies. [That includes] the presence of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, which I thought was really cool casting at the time. I was a huge Billy Dee Williams fan from his work in Brian’s Song and Lady Sings the Blues.

We had that and the story was always that Marlon Wayans was going to be Robin. I don’t truthfully know if he was paid money for the part of Robin in Batman Returns or not but, when we first started talking about this, we said 'Wouldn’t it be cool if we had Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face? Wouldn't it be cool if we had, maybe not Marlon Wayans, but a Black Robin? Yes, it would!'

Then, the question becomes 'Do we pretend like we have these two actors who are Black and play characters, that in comics, are usually white? Or do we try to work out the logic of what it would mean for guys in that situation being exposed to a weird cat like Batman? What is the reality that those characters inhabit and how is that reality inundated by this crazy guy in a suit with a cape?' All that stuff. That was the way we decided to go.

Quinones: I think some of that was informed by the introduction of Burnside. Early on, I remember we had a conversation about what’s the true Gotham. There’s the Anton Furst design in the ‘89 film and the Bo Welch designs for Batman Returns. In the ‘89 film, everything feels pretty old and Gothic and, in the second film, things are a bit cleaner and more Art Deco. What we came around to is that they’re both right, they’re sort of different neighborhoods. That brought us to the idea that, in a third movie, we should see a different side of Gotham.

We’ve seen the old Gotham and business district, the Radio City Music Hall part of Gotham. Now we’re going to see what’s basically Gotham’s Bronx or Brooklyn. What does that mean and how is it different from the other parts of Gotham? How is that echoed in the people that populate it and the way that Batman reacts to it?

That brought us to the idea of Batman unintentionally being scary to people that he doesn’t intend to be scary to, a whole population of Gotham that is impoverished and might, by necessity, be drawn to crime. To them, Batman is this terror over them, not necessarily just to criminals but their friends and family members. If one person is caught by Batman and sent to jail, the effects branch out from that, and we tried to deal with a bit of that in the story.

Interior panel page of Batman 89
Image credit: DC Comics

Batman Returns saw Bruce go darker and more violent with his war on crime and, with this story, he’s a visibly older character. Where is Bruce on his personal journey here?

Hamm: That’s an interesting question… I got fired off of Batman Returns part way through the process. There are things in the movie that I think are great, there are also things in the movie that I don’t like. I know fans are in a constant debate on Twitter on [if] Batman kills. I think Batman started out carrying a gun in the original comic books, so I think there’s a case to be made that, if you have an invading army of people who are trying to kill half the population of Gotham City with poison gas, then Batman would treat it as a war and go into that war as a combatant.

The thing I don’t like in Batman Returns is that there are a couple of instances where he basically kills bad guys for a visual gag. I find that kind of untrue to the character, not just to the tone of the movies but untrue to what that character would do in those circumstances. I apologize to the fans because I know I’m making it difficult to ascertain what’s canonical and not, whether or not what’s canonical matters.

My feeling is we take Bruce Wayne and erase those couple of bits that don’t fit into my conception of him and go back to where he is on his trajectory. At this point, he’s been on the job for maybe three to five years, he’s got more experience than he had. He’s still learning on the job and not the sort of omnipotent, calculating Batman who could always figure out what the other guy has planned and have a defense ready for it. He’s a guy who will occasionally step into the middle of a mess that he doesn’t quite know what to do about.

That, to me, makes the character more interesting because you can unleash your sadistic impulses as a writer, thinking of what is the most uncomfortable spot I could possibly put Batman in, and then, what is the most uncomfortable spot I could possibly put Bruce Wayne in. You get to do that with both of the characters and that’s when you start having fun and finding out what you haven’t already figured out with what they’re about. That was part of the appeal of doing the book, that he’s still capable of messing up.

Joe, how much fun was it visualizing these sharp-looking suits for Bruce and Harvey, complete with power shoulders?

Quinones: It was super fun! I’m just kind of nerding out throughout the book, from start to finish. It’s just something I would’ve always wished to see that I’m squeezing in. Certainly, Batman: The Animated Series is a huge influence on the book, and it’s a sort of cyclical thing here because that exists because of the Tim Burton Batman movies, if not very heavily inspired by them. I thought I needed to bring that back around and feed some of that back into the world.

Things like there being an under-color to Batman’s cape, that’s a little bit of a nod to the series that’s also just an artistic choice. It’s interesting dynamically to see someone lit in all-black on film, it’s harder to make it as engaging all the time on the comic page, that’s part of the reason why I think it exists in the animated series because they very quickly draw your eye to the sky.

Doing things like giving Bruce the brown and yellow suit, those are Bruce Wayne’s colors on the model sheet for the animated series. The blue skin for Two-Face I’ve always been partial to, so I folded that in. I just like that it’s a step away from it being a medical abnormality; instead of a burn case, it makes it more of a cartoon character, and I’ve always liked that. It was wonderful to do all that, especially going back and redesigning Robin’s look, which I really labored over for awhile.

Obviously, I’m not Tim Burton and don’t think the same way, but I was trying to triangulate what would make sense within this universe. To me, a straight superhero suit in the way that Batman has a superhero suit just didn’t make as much sense for Robin, so I tried a bunch of different ideas and decided he was a city ninja so I gave him the face mask and a hood and everything followed up from there. It might have been in one of your early drafts, Sam, for Robin to be a mechanic in the second movie.

Hamm: In the script, and I think it was one of the last things they wound up cutting, he was going to basically be the guy that helps Batman rejigger the Batmobile after the Penguin implants that weird tech that allows him to take over the entire car. We were taking what we were giving, like, if Robin is a mechanic, let’s see what that gives us. What that actually gave us was a central setting for all the stuff taking place in Burnside, and it suggested a bunch of other stuff that could be there.

There’s a guy there who owns the garage, and he could’ve known Harvey when he was a kid with the neighborhood kids who, instead of getting into trouble, just came to the garage to play stickball. Mr. Otis, who owns the garage, became a major supporting character in the story because he is the mentor of these two guys, [Harvey and Drake], who are going in opposite directions, that becomes a big part of the conflict.

Quinones: That’s where the jumpsuit came from. In my initial pitch I did awhile ago, I did a couple of character studies and a fake cover. Drawing from the idea of the kid being a mechanic, I drew a character based on Marlon Wayans in a jumpsuit and my idea was the “R” was the logo for the autobody shop which we brought over to Batman ‘89. It wasn’t so much “I’m Robin and going to avenge the night dressed as a bird” but a folded identity of who he is and how ingrained he is in this neighborhood and, after the shop burns down, he’s avenging injustice in the city.

Robin character design
Image credit: DC Comics

We don’t just get more of Pat Hingle’s Jim Gordon here, but we also see his relationship with the police and his daughter Barbara. How was it bringing them so prominently into this story?

Hamm: I’ll tell you up front, one of the problems that I had with The Batman – which I liked a lot in a bunch of different areas – but the part that sort of mitigates it from being a dark, gritty, realistic Batman is that, from the first moment, you have this masked felon in a cape coming and hanging out at crime scenes with the police and they go, 'Oh, it’s okay, he’s with Gordon.' [laughs]

In any real world, there is going to be so much friction and antipathy between Batman, who just swings into a gang of felons and beats the shit out of them, and cops who have to wear badges, show their faces, get recorded, and write paperwork. The fact that Batman doesn’t have to write paperwork alone is enough to get every cop in Gotham City to hate him. [laughs]

I’ve always disliked the attempts to domesticate Batman, like Adam West as Batman, a newly deputized officer of the law. 'Welcome, Batman! I see you’ve brought your youthful ward Robin!' All of that kind of stuff that we correctly regarded as silly because it’s an attempt to say to a family audience that this guy is not a criminal, that he’s not a vigilante. I think one of the things you have to accept about Batman: Whatever you think he is, he’s a vigilante, and, technically speaking, he’s a criminal. He uses criminal methods to fight criminals and do something noble. One of the big questions about Batman is if that corrupts you, the license to do whatever you allow yourself to do to prevent a greater evil [pushes] you towards evil yourself.

I wanted to have some consequences for Gordon. He has this weird kind of pact going on with Batman. We’re three or four years now into Batman’s tenure in Gotham City, and there’s probably been quite a few helicopters that have been swung into the side of a building because Batman stopped a robbery or foiled a kidnapping or whatever. I always felt that Damage Control was one of the great, obvious ideas for a comic book – who are the guys that come in and sweep up after the superheroes?

Tim Burton and I, one of the first things we talked about was what kind of city do you have to create to produce characters like Batman and the Joker, because it has not existed in the real world. We needed something that's slightly askew. What kind of environment do we have to create? Joe thinks obsessively about that stuff, trying to create the reality where that takes place literally from the ground up with the architecture, the physical layout of the city. He’s just done a ridiculous job with the art direction in putting this thing together.

To go to Gordon, this is pretty much the closest relationship that Batman has with anybody, with the possible exception of Catwoman. It may, in a weird way, be the closest relationship that Bruce Wayne has with anybody in Gotham City. The way we set the story up, Gordon is the cop who finds Bruce Wayne on the street after his parents have been gunned down. There’s this act of kindness where he hugs the little guy whose parents have just been shot, and Bruce Wayne remembers that for the rest of his life. It may be one of the last times that anybody was ever really kind to Bruce Wayne.

My hat is off to Joe because, when we were first talking about this, I wanted to do a scene where Harvey was proposing to his girlfriend in some fancy restaurant. He said, 'What if we made that Barbara Gordon?' and I went, '...okay!' [laughs] It was like one of those things where someone hands you a can with a screw-top, and a spring snake pops out. I thought about that for about 30-40 seconds and said 'Okay, Harvey is proposing to Barbara Gordon!'

We already knew this whole plot line was going to bring Harvey and Commissioner Gordon into conflict because he has to jump over the commissioner to get at Batman. Once you can insert Barbara into the mix, it gives you an [entry] into the Gotham Police Department. It was just a great idea waiting for me to find it, and I never would have-- [Joe] gets all the credit for that.

Quinones: You made it sing. [laughs] One of the early conversations we had about Gordon is that he has a pretty meaty role in the 1989 movie, substantially less in the second movie and then, in the Schumacher films, he’s just kind of a clownish buffoon. So we figured we’d do right by him and give him a little more meat than he was afforded in those latter three movies, and I think Sam has done that.

Variant cover featuring  character designs
Image credit: DC Comics

How has it been getting to revisit this world and continue its story?

Hamm: It’s been big fun for me but primarily because I’m surrounded by such good guys. I’ve got Joe drawing this stuff, and what he does just blows my mind. We’ve got a great colorist in Leonardo Ito and the palette of this comic just kills me – the colors contribute so much to the mood, and the settings, and the world the characters inhabit. And Clayton Cowles, our letterer, has risen to every technical challenge we could throw at him – there's a ton of gab in this series, and he always keeps your eye moving down the page. So DC had the smarts to surround me with a team of absolute pros, and they've all been a treat to work with.

Whenever I would see new pages from Joe, I'd be shocked at how inventive they were, how fully thought-out, how minutely detailed. And of course his character work is so deft. Sometimes, as I went through his stuff, I'd almost forget that I'd written the story. I'd be so caught up in it that I had to keep reading just to see where it was going. And then a couple of weeks later, I'd see the new pages with the Ito colors, and I'd go through the same damn process again.

So mainly it's been great to be surrounded by so much talent. And of course, it is also a pleasure to be working in comics, where you can get away with stuff the major studios would never, ever let you do.

Quinones: It’s been incredible and something I have to pinch myself that I get to do this. This has been a dream project for me for about 30 years or so. The ‘89 Batman is largely why I’m a Batman and comics fan at all. I think I sort of dabbled, but after that, I became a pretty hardcore comics fan and it set me on a path that, in a roundabout way, led me back here. I find that beautiful and humbling, and it’s been wonderful.

Batman '89, the comic book continuation of Batman and Batman Returns, written by Sam Hamm, illustrated by Joe Quinones, colored by Leonardo Ito, and lettered by Clayton Cowles, is available now.

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