In part 2 of our conversations with Bryan Edward Hill, we look closer at his superhero work for DC. Fresh off of his run on Detective Comics, one would only have to look at the title, On the Outside, to see what was coming next. Hill will write Batman and the Outsiders, a team book where they work in the shadows tackling threats too dangerous for the Justice League. In both series, Black Lightning plays a significant role and we discuss Hill’s take on the character and his approach at developing the group dynamic and relationships.
Gary Catig: I know you also write within the superhero side of DC.
Bryan Edward Hill: I do. I make you feel bad and then I make you feel good.
GC: You’ve explored the Wildstorm corner with Michael Cray, had an arc on Detective Comics, and even worked on a DC/Hanna Barbera mash-up. Black Lightning has a hit show and I was wondering if someone high up wanted to take advantage of his new popularity and include him into the comics, since I know you write him a lot.
BEH: That’s an interesting hypothesis. I don’t know. Corporate decisions don’t ever come to my desk. When you’re a writer, you’re a bit like a bounty hunter. You don’t really know why they want you to get the bounty, you just know they asked you to get the bounty. I can hypothesize, it’s likely, yeah. With the success of the television show and that character having a new life in popular culture, they probably wanted to have him reflected in the comics in some way, with some contemporary work to take advantage of the attention that the character was getting. If people who watch the show or heard of the show are more interested in the comic book because of that, I think that’s great.
I like what the show is doing very much. What I’m doing with Black Lightning is a little different. Their Black Lighting is more of a veteran and their story is more about a man returning to his form and redefining who he is. My story is about Jefferson Pierce, a little younger, who’s still forming ideas of who he is and what he’s going to be. So many of the superheroes in the DC Universe are finished. Wonder Woman is basically finished. Batman, essentially finished. Superman, essentially finished. Characters that are like Black Lightning are exciting because they still have so much ceiling. They have so much room to grow. I tend to gravitate towards characters that have a little bit more space because that’s exciting to me creatively. Rather than just spin another yarn about this character fighting this villain, in this way, with this resolution. I like to work with a character that can learn, and change, and evolve. “What is Jefferson Pierce going to turn into?”, is the big question. “What does Black Lightning mean to the world?”, is a big question for me. Those are the things I’m trying to engage with him specifically.
GC: I attended the DC Nation panel at Long Beach last weekend. One thing that stood out to me is with your Detective Comics run and also leading into The Outsiders, you wanted to explore the Batman and Black Lightning dynamic. I think one thing you wanted to set out is to develop their friendship into an important part of the DC Universe. Do you think you can elaborate on that a little bit?
BEH: Yeah, sure. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Jefferson Pierce is important to me. Bruce doesn’t have a lot of bros, really. He has the Robins and the Graysons, but those are all people who, in some way, he feels responsible for. Even for Dick Grayson, it’s hard for Bruce to divorce that paternal relationship he has with Dick from their relationship. It’s going to be a part of it, but with Jefferson, Jefferson is a stranger to Gotham. He’s a stranger to all those ways. He is a grown man brought into this process and he has his own perspective. As much as he respects Batman, he’s not just going to be Batman’s sycophant. He’s just not going to do what Batman says without questioning anything, and I think Bruce Wayne respects that.
He also respects that Jefferson doesn’t come from money. Part of Bruce understands that there are things that he never really knew because he always had resources. It’s a much different thing to live a life where you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from. Where you’re worried about paying rent. Even if he did a thing where he gave himself a new name and had no money and had to figure it all out, he still has the knowledge in the back of his head that he’s Bruce Wayne and at any time he can just access his billings. Bruce is never really without.
Jefferson had to come from a different environment. I think Bruce has a lot of respect for that because he knows how difficult it is. He knows how hard it is to come out of those predatory environments and become not only a person who is positive and productive, but a hero on top of all that. There is a lot of mutual respect. Jefferson also has a lot of admiration for Bruce once he realizes that Bruce Wayne is a guy in a suit. Jefferson has near elemental power at his command. Bruce is an actual athlete who dresses like a monster and risks his life. He doesn’t have the same physical attributes that Wonder Woman, or Green Lantern, or Clark might have so there’s a lot of respect there. At first, their relationship is one of calculated respect but you’re going to see trust grow over time, but it won’t be easy. Bruce is a man who keeps truth very close to his vest and Jefferson is a guy that would prefer someone to be a little more transparent. Don’t expect them to just get along.
That’s kind of the thing with The Outsiders in general. Don’t expect all of them to be a happy get along gang from the beginning because I don’t think that’s realistic. There are characters like Katana, Cassandra Cain, Duke Thomas, Jefferson, Batman. These are all people that have their own issues. They have their own things weighing them down. They have their own motivations and that’s going to create organic levels of conflict and they’re going to have to trust each other but because what their dealing with is so important, critical reaction is necessary in the moment. They don’t have the time to do it gradually. They’re going to have to do it in the field and that will hopefully create interesting storylines.
GC: I guess you touched upon it a little bit, but for Batman and the Outsiders, it’s another team book after Detective Comics. I was curious how this team of heroes came together in your creative process? Why did you specifically choose each member?
BEH: When DC approached me about doing the arc on Detective with Black Lightning involved, I asked, “Are you guys thinking about the Outsider thing?”. “Yeah, we’ll see how the response is, but we’re thinking of going in that direction.” I’ve always loved Cassandra Cain, so part of me being involved was getting an opportunity to write Cassandra Cain. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since Silent Running, the introduction of the character by [Kelley] Puckett and Damion [Scott].
Then Katana is a classic Outsiders member. And me being a martial artist, having an interest in samurai history, Kendo, Shinto, and all these things, I wanted to explore her in a real in-depth way. I wanted to give voice to the culture to which Katana comes. A lot of times, we’ll see Katana stories and she’s just an Asian lady with a sword. There’s a lot more going on to be explored. She’s kind of a mystic. She’s the only member of the Outsiders that has a persistent connection to the supernatural. Among the classic role-playing archetypes, she’s a bit of the warrior priestess of the group.
Duke is such a new character. Scott [Snyder] worked with him and [Tony] Patrick had a book with him. I wanted to put him into a situation where he was going to have to figure out, you call yourself The Signal, The Signal of what? To who? What does that mean? I think part of being part of Bruce’s world, is you need to have a real understanding of what you mean symbolically. What do you stand for? When people see you, what do they see? What are you holding the candle for in the world?
You have this thing now where you have these volatile characters that are being gathered by a volatile guy to work some heroism in the shadows apart from the work of the Justice League. Apart from the public eye. That’s all interesting because that allows me, as a writer, to do things that you won’t see in other team books. To have a level of intensity and consequence. To have emotional things that will be very unique to this book because I don’t have to carry the banner of the perfectly gelled, well-operated team here. My one sentence is this is a team book with the safety off. There are a lot of surprising things that are going to happen. You’re going to see a lot of consequences befall these characters when they take the step into Batman’s darker world. If Batman asks you to help fight enemies in the shadows that he created, you can pretty much imagine what lies in those shadows are fairly dangerous.
GC: Finally, we’ve talked about Black Lightning and you brought up Duke Thomas. What does it mean to you, as an African American, to write these strong black characters as opposed to someone else writing them?
BEH: That’s a really interesting question. I’ll tell you what. It’s not so much the characters that I think about. Writers write characters. Katana’s a Japanese woman and I have to write that, but I’m not a Japanese woman. What I do think about a lot is what I need for other writers of color. The responsibility I see isn’t so much to the characters, but I recognize that there aren’t that many writers of color who work at Big Two companies. There haven’t been that many black writers that have written Batman. On the panel, Christopher Priest came up to me, who I’ve always had great admiration for, and said, “You realize, you might be the first black writer to work on a Batman #1 anything.” I recognize, unfortunately, that I can be a symbol in a lot of ways. If I do interesting work, if readers appreciate that work, maybe that can make it easier for the next writer who looks like me. That’s more where the mindset is.
I work in TV, I work in screen writing and all that, and you have to be able to write whatever character that comes to mind. Here’s the thing: I think it’s with the best of intentions that people are like, “We got these characters of color, and we need writers of color to write these characters of color, and we need women to write these female characters.” I totally understand the intentions of that and the intentions are really good. Here’s where I think taking that thinking too far can be dangerous. Then, it’s easy to say, “Well, we don’t need to hire a woman until we have a female character. We don’t need to hire a black guy until we have a black character.” That puts us into a box of little camps.
If Brian Azzarello has a fantastic story for a black female character, I want Brian to be able to tell that story. And if I have a fantastic story for Clark Kent, I want Bryan Hill to be able to tell that story. What I’m really fighting for is a world where we don’t judge people’s ability based on their gender, their race, their religion whatever it is, and we just let people who are passionate about what they’re doing and can deliver good stories, work on whatever they love. I’m hoping one day, Bryan Hill writes a Wonder Woman thing and it’s not a big deal because I just have a cool Wonder Woman story I want to tell.
GC: You just want to be known as a writer, not an African American writer.
BEH: People are going to know you however they know you. Unfortunately, you have very little control over how people know you. What I want is to create a culture where anyone who has a great story to tell, can get an opportunity to tell that story. With a good story and a real passion, the best will rise to the top and that becomes the only thing that matters. That’s what will make everything better. I’m 41. I can carry my own issues with my journey into the future but I don’t want a 16-year-old being saddled with what I was saddled with when I was 16. Hopefully I can fight my battles and win those battles, so the 20-year-old Bryan Hill out there somewhere doesn’t have to fight those battles. They don’t have to worry about my battles on all that because we’ve already litigated that. It’s not a big deal. What I hope for is a future where if someone is writing something, and if it’s good you like it, and if it’s bad you don’t, but you don’t really have to be concerned with their personal identity because we just focus on the story telling.
Many thanks for Bryan taking time out of his schedule to discuss his upcoming projects. Batman and the Outsiders is expected this December 12th, 2018 and has artwork provided by Dexter Soy.