There’s something strange going on at the Arkham Apartments. Strange people in colorful clothes seem to be having the time of their lives. When young Bruce Wayne meets a few of the building’s residents, he becomes fixated on learning more about them. Who are these ArkhaManiacs? Do they know something Bruce doesn’t know? And what’s with the guy in the purple suit who’s always smiling?
ArkhaManiacs is the latest in DC Comics’s line of young reader graphic novels. Created by the Eisner-winning Tiny Titans team of Art Baltazar and Franco, the book reimagines Batman’s rogues gallery for an all-ages audience in a story that’s filled with jokes, unexpected twists, and easter eggs for older fans of the characters. It’s a unique look at the world of Batman, and it’s undeniably endearing and fun, and everything we’ve come to expect from Baltazar and Franco.
The Beat had the opportunity to chat with Baltazar and Franco about ArkhaManiacs, their first full-length foray into the world of Batman’s villains, their unique take on the relationship between Bruce Wayne and The Joker, and a few of the things they’re saving for a possible sequel.
(This interview contains mild spoilers for ArkhaManiacs.)
Joe Grunenwald: You’ve dabbled in the Batman universe in the past, but this is your first time doing a full book featuring Bat-characters. Had you just not gotten around to them before?
Art Baltazar: When we were making Tiny Titans, we had the idea for the ArkhaManiacs pitch way back then, I think it was in 2008 or 2009, and when we submitted it the first time for pitching to DC, they liked it but they wanted us to include the characters and stuff in Tiny Titans and hopefully get a spinoff that way instead of launching a whole new thing. Then a few years ago, we brought it back. We had an opportunity to talk about that one thing you’re always waiting for when the publisher asks you, ‘What else ya got?’ And that’s what they asked us so we said, we’ve got this idea for all the Arkham villains called ArkhaManiacs. And that was it and they loved it.
Grunenwald: It feels a lot like Tiny Titans, while still definitely being its own thing. The residents of Arkham Apartments are a little less intense than their mainline counterparts, while still being instantly recognizable visually and characterization-wise as these characters. That’s something you guys have done exceptionally well going back to Tiny Titans. How do you approach making somewhat more adult characters kid-friendly?
Baltazar: We write things that make us both laugh, so we don’t have kids in mind when we’re drawing and writing. We kind of just make what’s funny, and we make books that kids could read rather than books for kids. This one was a little different —we knew that we were trying to get a point across to kids to use their imagination, so that was a little bit of a different take on this. In the past when we would write Tiny Titans we wouldn’t really try to get a point across, we would try to get the joke across, the gag, we wanted kids to laugh. This one had the same but it was challenging to write it long-form, like a 120-page gag. [laughs]
Franco: We get asked that question a lot with our work, and I think it’s just because we’re in a child mindset ourselves, cause my wife is like ‘Quit acting like that’ all the time. [laughs] So I think we’re just kind of in that mindset and it’s just kind of innate in us. Not that we try to tell stories like that, it’s just something that comes out of us. It’s one of those things we’ve always been able to do ever since we’ve written, together or apart, actually, now that I think about it.
Franco: Like anything we’ve written, it’s always been a very innate thing.
Baltazar: Yeah, if we’re not both laughing at what we’re writing, we don’t usually put it in the book. If we’re laughing, we’re like, ‘bam, make sure you write down that, that’s good.’ So yeah, everything Franco said. [laughs]
Grunenwald: Yeah, I liked how you’re definitely telling a long-form story, but you still manage to get a lot of gags in there, one- or two-page bits to make you laugh. It’s a very funny story.
Franco: Thanks. There was a lot more stuff that just didn’t make it into the book. WE had to edit down for pages, and we self-edited a lot of stuff, but there’s a lot more stuff that we came up with that didn’t make it in the book.
Grunenwald: Save that for the sequel!
Baltazar: Yeah, that’s our plan. Hopefully people read this and buy two or three copies each, and we’ll make another one because DC will say, ‘wow there’s only a million people in the world but we sold four million books!’
Franco: Why stop there? Just buy five and make it a full boxed set of the book. [laughs]
Grunenwald: The relationship between l’il Brucie Wayne and The Joker is at the center of this story. We’ve seen a lot of stories about their relationship before, and this is very unique among them. What does each of them think of the other in this story?
Franco: If you look at Joker, whatever your first impression of seeing him on that page [where he first appears]. We had talked about that, we talked about the rainbows and the flowers and the skies parting and stuff like that. WE thought about that and we thought it was hysterical when Joker showed up, so we thought that Bruce would just be like, ‘What the…’ And that’s kind of the reaction we wanted, so I guess that’s what he would think.
I look at it like Joker knows what’s going on all the time. He may be wacky, he may be looney, but he definitely knows what’s happening all the time.
Baltazar: Joker looks at Bruce thinking, ‘Ahh, I could work with this.’ Bruce is so closed off, and he’s so fascinated by, ‘Why is Joker like that? Why is he walking with a smile? What’s going on in his world?’ And when Joker encounters Brucie he says, he pats him on the head, ‘Hello, Brucie,’ because he knows him already, and it’s kind of like that project where you’re trying to teach your kid how to read, or you’ve gotta open their mind so they can see what you see, until they figure out that code, and then the world expands, and that’s kind of what [Joker] does to Bruce. There’s a moment in there where he tells Bruce, ‘close your eyes, concentrate,’ and then [Bruce] opens his eyes and he goes ‘I got nothin’.’ That happens several times until he meets Clayface. Clayface really helps [Bruce] imagine things, so it’s kind of fun. Joker’s always in his own thing and Bruce doesn’t even see it. He’s there but he doesn’t see it yet, y’know?
Grunenwald: Why do you think Bruce is so closed off from his imagination at that point? Has he just not had the opportunity to open it up before, or is there something else behind that?
Baltazar: He’s like that stuffy rich kid, with the sweater vest, top button buttoned, kind of kid, who doesn’t really go out because his parents are super-rich and protective. His best friend is his butler, so that’s his world, and anything out there that’s attracting his attention he’s curious about, but he’s always told, ‘No, just stay home, you don’t need the outside world, just stay here in your own little thing.’ They’re over-protective and keeping him safe, his parents. I’m talking all in riddles like The Joker. [laughs]
Franco: Yeah, we talked about, even on a more base level, any kid that finds something new and explores something new. Think about the first time you saw a comic book and it kind of opened your eyes. What made you want to read them and be with comic books for the rest of your life? It’s that kind of exploration and idea of, ‘Oh wow, this is something new and this is something cool and I want more of that, I want to see what that’s about.’ And I think that’s what his wanting to go to the apartments is all about. ‘Those guys are really colorful, and they look like they’re having fun. I want to know more about that.’
Baltazar: Yeah, it’s a whole new world that he doesn’t know about.
Grunenwald: That’s a wonderful analogy you make to discovering comics. I hadn’t even considered that but it’s incredibly apt.
Baltazar: A few years ago I showed my kids Star Wars for the first time. My daughter was about 10 and my son was about 12, and we sat down and watched it. We watched the original three. And then after that they both said, Wow, that was really good,’ and my daughter said, ‘Are there any more Star Wars movies?’ And as a dad I was waiting for that question all my life, and I said, ‘Yes, there’s six more. There’s a new one coming out in the theater, and there’s three more about Darth Vader when he’s young, and there’s TV shows.’ It was the same thing, I opened their world. They were like, ‘Wow, there’s lots of Star Wars beyond three movies.’ So that was the perfect time to unlock that secret code, and that’s kind of where Bruce is now. He could ask Alfred, ‘Is there any more besides these three Star Wars, movies, Alfred?’ And he’d say, ‘Just look out the window, Bruce.’
Grunenwald: You sort of mentioned it already, but there’s sort of a reveal in the book that we’re at a point in Bruce’s life where his parents are still alive. I hope that’s not giving too much away.
Franco: Oh wow, spoilers! [laughs]
Grunenwald: You mentioned it! I’m just following up. [laughs] But I feel like that’s a point in Bruce’s life that we don’t see very often. Was there a reason that you wanted to set the story at that point versus after their death, other than obviously that’s really dark?
Franco: It evolved from a gag, and then we talked about it and we wanted that to be part of the book. But it started with that whole gag.
Baltazar: Yeah, and we felt it was better for Bruce because he’s not tainted yet, he’s not angry. He doesn’t know what’s coming. It’s kind of like, you experiment with something, before the world touched them, here they are, they’re still cocooned in their own little world, before the hurt comes. So that’s kind of what it was with Bruce. We thought it would be cool for his mindset to be still a little kid. In our comic we feel he’s like eight years old – I think in the regular continuity his parents get killed when he’s ten, and this is at least two years before. So he doesn’t know any of the evil that’s out there. The vengeance that’s in his heart, he doesn’t have that yet. We thought it was cool. He’s not even thinking about being Batman yet at all, until, maybe he gets influenced a little bit in this book.
Franco: But that’s also for the older fans, because any older fan who comes into this book is gonna know the backstory of Bruce and what happened. And when you turn that page and it’s a surprising thing, we wanted that reaction from the older fans.
Baltazar: That was one of the first gags we came up with for the whole book. In our original layout we had, that was real long, another twenty pages, that whole scene. So we had to condense that. We write a lot of stuff. [laughs]
Grunenwald: You said there was a lot of stuff that you weren’t able to fit into this book. Was there anything or any particular characters you were particularly sad didn’t make the cut this time around?
Baltazar: I was trying to get Two-Face in.
Franco: Yeah, we had a whole thing with Two-Face in there.
Baltazar: And Scarecrow, we had more stuff with Scarecrow. There was another guy, too, the guy with the puppet–
Baltazar: Yeah, Scarface, we wanted him. There was a lot more, there was more Killer Croc stuff, there was more Bane stuff, but we ran out of room. We have so much stuff for gags or to deal with what each of their apartments is like in Arkham Apartments, that we couldn’t go into it because it was eating up too much real estate in the book. Too many pages were going away.
Franco: The story got in the way!
Baltazar: Yeah! I loved the part, too, when Bruce is sneaking out of the house. That was one of my favorite parts, when he’s hiding in the yard against the wall, avoiding the cameras. That was real fun to do, but that scene took a lot. We had to get that one right. That scene had to be in there, and he was very Batman-like there. And if you notice, he’s wearing blue and grey all the time, too, like Batman.
Grunenwald: I did not notice that!
Baltazar: Yeah, he always as blue and grey.
Grunenwald: I’ll have to go back and read it again and take note of that. To close, what’re you excited for readers to see in ArkhaManiacs?
Franco: The whole thing!
Baltazar: Yeah! I’m excited to have another DC Comics book, and it was really fun to write this one, too, because it brings back the feelings from Tiny Titans. It felt like we’re making another Titans book. I just like that type of humor, and it’s really easy for me and Franco to write this way because it’s natural. It feels real natural. We’re not trying to write a certain way, we’re just writing and having fun. So hopefully people can feel the enjoyment and the fun that we put into it.
Published by DC Comics, Art Baltazar & Franco’s ArkhaManiacs graphic novel is available in stores now.