Jeffrey Brown first came to prominence in the early 2000s with autobiographical work of a more adult, personal nature. Since the release of Darth Vader and Son in 2012, Brown has charted another career course into all-ages and middle grade reading circles. From the Darth Vader and Son series came Jedi Academy – and his own original kids books with the Lucy & Andy Neanderthal series and Space-Time (the second volume of which debuted in June). His newest middle grade graphic novel, Batman and Robin and Howard is the latest big IP to which Brown has turned his hand.
The Beat chatted with the popular author about his newest book, settling into the kids niche, and whether he may return to the more personal work he was producing at the start of his career.
Dean Simons: You jumped from Star Wars to Batman. Was it intimidating?
Jeffrey Brown: Not really. I mean, one of the things about Star Wars was that I grew up with Star Wars. I love Star Wars. So for me, it was getting to write fanfiction – it was as fun as much as it was work. And the same thing with Batman. Batman was always one of my favorite superheroes so, for me, it was less intimidating and more an exciting opportunity to get to play with these characters.
DS: Did DC approach you about Batman or did you have the opportunity to pitch to them?
JB: DC approached me about doing a book. They’ve been really great about doing a lot of books for kids and younger readers the past five, six years. They asked me if I’d be interested in doing something in the middle grade space and I had an idea for a middle grade story that was just kind of sitting in the back of my mind. I thought I could take that story, put Robin as one of the characters that was in the story, and then make it a Batman and Robin story. It all meshed together really nicely. So then I pitched that story to them, and they liked it – so here we are.
DS: I noticed that with Damian, your characterization is somewhat different to the way he is depicted in the comics. How did you develop your own take on the son of Batman?
JB: I feel one of the things about Damian in the comics is he tends to feel a lot older. He’s maybe impulsive but he always seems pretty emotionally mature. He’s kind of almost basically an adult more than a kid and so I kind of wanted to hit the spot of Damian where he’s a lot younger, and he is still more of a kid than we’ve seen. Especially being able to put him in real world situations like finding friends at school and getting homework done and things. I thought that was a really fun way to show this other side of him other than what you usually see which is the more Robin superhero side.
DS: Similar to Jedi Academy, Batman and Robin and Howard handles school life. Because it’s been a while since either of us have been at school, how do you manage to keep it natural?
JB: Part of it is just maybe I’m still reliving [laughs] my middle school days and regrets of how naïve and silly I was. And then also just looking at my own kids and observing them – not necessarily for specific situations – but you know, just kind of getting a read on how they’re developing friendships and things they might encounter at school and letting that guide how I deal with these characters.
DS: Do you engage with your own children when you’re trying to come up with material?
JB: Not so one-to-one, not so explicitly. Maybe once in a while, I’ll have them read something and let them give me feedback. I might say, like, ‘What do you think would be a good thing to happen in this situation?’ But mostly it’s just trying to absorb everything, more than drawing specifics.
DS: The relationships between Damian and his father (Bruce Wayne/Batman), and with Alfred – how did you manage to define those in such an engaging way?
JB: The one thing [with] Batman is, I really like the idea of a goofy Batman. [He] is just so super intimidating – but the most intimidating person in the world is still going to have moments where they do something embarrassing. For a teenager, your dad is always embarrassing, no matter what they do, no matter how cool they are to the rest of the world. And so that was kind of how I approached Batman.
With Alfred, I had this idea that – instead of either this very stiff and formal kind of butler character or sometimes you see him and he’s actually a crimefighting superhero too – I thought: if it was more realistic, how would that life look like? What would that life look like for them?
I thought Alfred would kind of be a grandfather figure. He’s a little more formal with Bruce Wayne because when they first knew each other that was more their relationship, but then with Damian, Alfred is just kind of like the fun grandpa who maybe let’s him stay up a little later and have more candy than his dad would.
DS: And with his estranged mother, Talia al Ghul?
JB: I think it’s an interesting situation. In the real world, moms and dads fight and sometimes they get divorced, and it’s bitter – and if you’re superheroes and you’re fighting, it’s an entirely different level. So, on the one hand, it’s just a simple joke to say ‘Yeah, my parents are literally fighting’, like they’re battling.
But I thought it also gives Damian a much more conflicted human side, because Damian doesn’t want his parents to fight. He doesn’t like it. And it’s something that he kind of deals with.
For Bruce Wayne, he maybe doesn’t want to fight, especially for the sake of Damian, but they can’t help but have this animosity between [each other] sometimes.
It’s something I didn’t want to get too deep in because you can do a whole book just about the relationship but I definitely wanted to touch it because it’s kind of, in the same way that Batman’s character is in some ways defined by this pivotal moment where his parents are murdered, for Robin there’s this pivotal aspect of his mom and dad being enemies.
DS: On developing Howard – when did the idea for the character occur? Was he there before you started the book?
JB: He was always there. My initial idea for the story wasn’t a superhero story. It was just a middle school story about two all-star kids. Where you have the super-popular, great athlete, best student kid at a high school, and then another kid shows up who he thinks he’s gonna show the new kid the ropes, and then the new kid ends up being like even better at everything.
That was kind of the initial idea. I took that and I thought, well, what if Robin/Damian Wayne was the new kid and how would that work?
And so Howard was always this character. My idea for his story was someone who identifies himself as being a super nice guy, really friendly and then can’t help but feel threatened by this new kid. How does he come back to find who he really is inside and get past the surface feelings of being jealous of this new kid and being who he really is, which is someone who can help Damian.
DS: I noticed there’s a lot of soccer in the book.
JB: Y’know – originally my idea was going to be American football. Just because that’s the standard American teenage movie story – American football. But personally, I didn’t play football in high school but I play soccer all the time now.
If you look at Jedi Academy, they play soccer; there’s some soccer jokes in the Darth Vader books. And I thought, you know, soccer – Damian Wayne has some connections to England. And it just made sense that maybe Bruce Wayne owns a team and if he was gonna own a team, he’s not gonna own a NFL team. He’s gonna own a soccer team, and it seemed like a better fit all around.
DS: So you play a lot of soccer yourself these days?
JB: Yeah. Not professionally, obviously. But I play pickup soccer. So that’s the exercise I get. And it’s fun to put that into the books.
DS: And going to back towards school. I noticed in Star Wars, you’ve got a lot of aliens and stuff – and so it’s naturally diverse in that sense. But in Batman and Robin and Howard, because it’s more down to earth, I noticed that Damian’s classmates are pretty diverse in terms of backgrounds and ability. Was that how you originally envisioned? Was it easy? Did it come naturally? Or did you have to plan it out?
JB: I mean, I guess in some ways it was planned out, but it also came naturally. I knew I wanted it to look like a diverse school. The schools that I went to growing up were varying degrees of diverse depending on what year it was or which school I was at. But I knew that was important. And it was definitely something that DC was totally behind. And we knew it was important to show that diversity.
DS: Coming up with the gags. Did you have many before you even started when you were thinking about Batman?
JB: Some. I don’t want to spoil anything – but Batman, he’s the world’s greatest detective so he’s going to figure out the secret conspiracy but at the same time he might get locked in a closet. So that idea was one that I had from the beginning.
I think other than that, it was more I had the general story and then with each draft of the book I tried to fit in more gags. Sometimes I might need a joke somewhere and I haven’t thought of it, and I kind of tried to keep adding [gags] through each version.
DS: They’re really funny, and there’s neat ways you tried to slide in a lot of DC villain tropes. I quite enjoyed that.
JB: Thank you.
DS: Has DC asked you to do more already or is Batman and Robin and Howard a one-off?
JB: Theoretically we’ll be doing another book so it’s just a question of figuring out the story. So originally, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do more Batman and Robin and Howard because I thought there’s so many other characters that would be fun to work with – or even coming up with new characters. But after doing this, the more I talk about this book, then I think it would actually be really fun to do another Batman and Robin and Howard story. Especially now we’ve kind of – again, without trying to spoil things – but Robin and Howard are in a different place at the end of the book and so there’s opportunities to tell different kinds of stories with those characters that could be really fun.
DS: Thinking back, when I first became familiar with your work, you were doing much more personal indie stuff. In more recent years you’ve been doing, I’d say for just over a decade now, you’ve been doing work for all ages, or kids books. How did you manage to discover your niche? Was it by accident?
JB: I don’t know if ‘accident’ is the right word, but it did kind of just happen organically. Basically I had kids and then started reading kids’ books more. and reading with them, and drawing with them. It was just a very natural transition.
The first Star Wars book was really meant for adults, but I kind of wrote it to be kid friendly. Kids just basically co-opted it, and that led to the opportunity to do Jedi Academy which was explicitly intended to be for middle grade. So it just kind of happened naturally and it just made sense.
DS: You’ve also managed to do your own series as well, you’ve got the Lucy & Andy Neanderthal books, and you’ve got Space-Time. Do you feel quite comfortable now in the kids genre?
JB: I do. I mean, one of the things that that made it easy was that the last adult autobiographical book I did was kind of about fatherhood and religion. It was about my dad being a minister. It was a collection of stories and moments that had been sitting with me for a long time that needed to come out and make this book about those subjects.
I have other stories, but nothing that’s coalesced into something that has clicked in a way where it’s like ‘this is a book, this is something I need to write’. There’s little bits and pieces and sketchbooks that I’ve done but, for now, I don’t want to force myself into going back one way or another. Doing Batman and Robin and Howard for middle grade was great. It was something that was fun and I feel very comfortable in this space, yeah.
DS: Do you miss doing more personal stuff to balance out?
JB: I guess. Sometimes I miss the more adult stuff but not like it’s killing me or something.
The one thing I miss is when I had more time to just kind of do random, weird stuff that was for no other purpose than, like, just an idea I had that I could sketch out in a day.
Whereas now my life is more structured around specific projects and they’re very involved. And the amount of work that goes into them doesn’t leave me as much time for doing just weird, random minicomics. So that’s probably the one thing that I do miss sometimes.
DS: So if you’ve got a lot of other projects that you’re working on at the moment, anything that you can tease coming up?
JB: Nothing that I’m ready to tease yet. But yeah, there’s a couple projects in the works, possibly another Batman and Robin and Howard story, or it might end up being a different book with DC. So I‘ve got lots of things lined up but it’s one of those times where it’s just too early to talk about because by the time they come out, and I finished drawing, everyone will have forgotten.
DS: Out of curiosity, do you have a favourite Batman from when you were growing up?
JB: The Dark Knight Returns was huge for me, because I read random Batman comics. I didn’t keep up with the series but I would read random ones. I was mostly a Marvel guy. I love the first Batman film with Michael Keaton. When The Dark Knight Returns came out…I was kind of aware that, like, you have the 1960s TV Batman and Batman can be slightly different from comic to comic, but that was the eye opener. Like, ’Oh, here’s this version of Batman that is totally a different take’. Built on the basic story that everyone knows, but really does its own thing. So as a creator, especially, seeing that as a possibility was really exciting.
DS: Is there a certain Batman that you’re drawing upon in Batman and Robin and Howard?
JB: Visually, it was the classic blue and grey. Trying not to make the ears too tall and pointy. But then, in terms of character, I really just tried to come up with my own take where Batman is kind of a little goofier. Kind of like how Damian would see his dad.
DS: Having now done Star Wars and Batman, is there anything else that you would want to have a go at?
JB: There is always…It’s a lot of fun.
I think one of the things when I’m talking to my students, when I’m teaching during school visits, is fanfiction is a great way to hone your skills – because as a storyteller you can tell the story without having to worry about building the world or get into all the background. A lot of that work’s been done for you.
There’s lots of superhero characters. I would like to do more with the X Men someday, Lord of the Rings is another one that I’ve always loved. That would be fun. But yeah, there’s probably like, a dozen others. Dune. I like Dune.
I haven’t seen the new Dune film [yet] but I am a devotee of the David Lynch film.
DS: You go into schools. How often do you work with schools or colleges?
JB: Yeah, so I teach a class at the School of the Arts Institute, here in Chicago. That’s a college class for creating comics. It’s just a studio, one-day-a-week class.
School visits. The last year and a half hasn’t been nearly as many. There’s been some virtual visits. But pretty regularly. It’s always fun. I miss them in-person because it’s an entirely different experience as it’s the one time where, as a cartoonist, you get people cheering for you. So that’s always nice.
DS: How have you found the reception of kids to your books? Your kids like the books as well?
JB: Yeah, my kids like them, or at least they say they do. [laughs] They seem to enjoy them. Maybe – my oldest is 14 now – so he’s kind of grown out of them and is maybe not as interested. But overall, yeah, kids like them.
One of the great things about kids is they can be brutally honest. But you don’t feel bad in a way that you might if you get a brutally honest review from Comics Beat or something.
They’re not afraid to tell you: The second Jedi Academy book was not as good as the first one, they really liked the first one more. But the upside is that they’re so sincere in their joy of reading books. When they love something, they really love it. And so it’s really rewarding to know that there’s a kid and that book is their favourite book and they’ve read it multiple times.
DS: Thank you for finding the time Jeffrey.
JB: Thanks for talking to me.
Published by DC Comics, Batman and Robin and Howard arrives in all good comic shops and bookstores next Tuesday, November 9th.