Tony Patrick is a world-builder — both in his personal life and in how he approaches writing comics. That’s been especially prevalent in his work with DC Comics’ The Signal; Batman and the Signal worked so exceptionally well thanks to Patrick’s own skills and insights in cultivating this fresh and exciting young hero. Now, he’s returning to The Signal with an all-new one shot, Batman: Secret Files – The Signal, due out on July 6.
The new 40-page one-shot aims to flesh out The Signal’s return as a solo hero in Gotham. However, he’s got a few friends — and Batman — to help him along the way. With depth and heart galore, this one-shot carries forward key story threads from that first series while setting up an interesting future for one Duke Thomas.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Patrick to discuss the upcoming book and the many facets that went into developing what could be the start of a much larger story. We not only discuss his approach to Batman — who is currently undergoing a rebuild in James Tynion IV’s own Batman series — but also how he’s developing the larger Gotham that Signal occupies, among many other topics and tidbits.
AIPT: The Signal is not only a great concept for a character but just a really cool character in general. Good Lord, maybe the best costumes since Spider-Man? But I wanted to ask you to start, do you approach writing a comic differently knowing you have double the page count?
Tony Patrick: To have more real estate is like candy for me. The more real estate, the more opportunity I have, in terms of articulating the ecosystem. I’m really driven. My goal here is to help establish Gotham’s daytime ecosystem, and there’s no better character to do that than Duke Thomas, aka the Signal. So more real estate, more Duke, more daytime?
AIPT: What is it about the Signal, Duke Thomas, that works for you as a writer and your approach?
TP: Part of my backstory, my history with the Signal. I mean, because I was in the DC Writers Workshop. And when I was trying to figure out what character would resonate with me, I started to look at different characters and besides their ethnicities, like resonates with me from the big three or Titans. Duke resonates for me because I got a chance to watch a lot of black and brown teams grow in my personal universe. When I found myself at Comic Con passing by this T shirt, and I’m like, wait, what, black Robin? Wait, what’s going on? Because I was reading Scott’s [Snyder] run off and on. But I hadn’t seen We Are Robin yet. And then all of a sudden it caused me to go back and look at We Are Robin. A friend of mine, who’s actually working on grifter, Matt Rosenberg was like, “What do you think about Duke Thomas,” and I’m like, wait a minute.
But when we talk about this moment of the zeitgeist of anyone who represents, to me, the changes that we’re experiencing in our world now, I believe that is Duke Thomas. I believe if we talk about civil unrest, police brutality, if we talk about needing to shift from a heavily capitalist, and maybe corrupt city then you got this teenager who is born and bred in Gotham. You see this on Izzy Ortiz’s shirt in the first few pages, which is “Born in Gotham.” Which is like, B.I.G., right? So there are little messages that I’m throwing in there that you got from these kids from the Narrows. It gives me more capacity to write for next gen Gotham, which Duke embodies as far as I’m concerned.
AIPT: And the previews show you’ve got Cassandra Cain as well, another youth. Heroes born of Gotham.
AIPT: Whereas like Bruce, he’s got a completely different background and childhood, of course, not even close to the same sort of life experience.
TP: I think that’s also the beauty and opportunities that exist within a daytime ecosystem. We’re dealing with a Bruce Wayne, we’re dealing with a Batman who knows, “I can’t do this forever.” So how does Batman preserve what could be a legacy? Not his own, but help cultivate a new one. And so if we move away from just thinking about Batman soldiers, Batman’s army, to like Batman’s team, to Batman’s family, and to a general legacy, for next-gen Gotham, I think that’s like this crazy opportunity that we watch Bruce Wayne evolve. At this point in our narrative, Bruce is not as rich as he once was. I think it is a time of vulnerability, but it’s also a great time to support those that he believes in, and to also reflect on his own mistakes. And so in my mind, Duke is the ongoing “Bat” that he believes will usher us into the next stage of what Gotham needs.
AIPT: It’s also how there are different kinds of crime going on in the day in this issue. It allows Duke to have his own kind of battles and journey apart from anything that Batman can actually fight because of the time of day.
TP: Absolutely. Shout out to Bryan Edward Hill, who did a great job on Batman and the Outsiders. Same with Brandon Thomas, who’s doing some some some great work now currently with the Outsiders. We’ve had a chance to watch Duke evolve because we started with this premise that the signal is Gotham’s daytime hero. In Batman Secret Files Signal #1, we start to speak to Duke’s training. So you’ve gone from this solo attempt that we see in Batman and the Signal, we see him start to work with a team. Jefferson Pierce, Katana and Cassandra Cain, Orphan, and more in the Outsiders.
And now here we are, again, with kind of this reinstatement of cracking the code of daytime, what are the threats? Because we understand established the nighttime challenges. We understand the nighttime ecosystem, but how does that lead into a daytime set of challenges that might be unexpected? The byproducts of nighttime lead us into a more dangerous daytime Gotham, which is in this issue, we start to talk about the white market. So this is a dream of mine to talk about this like daytime black market that extends beyond Gotham, if you will. That is also another opportunity for a set of rogue galleries and Gotham criminals, and Star City criminals and maybe even a few folks from Metropolis, and other places in the DC universe to level up.
AIPT: Batman in this issue is very stern. He’s almost kind of a mean, professor in his tone. At least, that’s how I took it. And I just wanted to ask you, what was your approach to Batman for the story?
TP: It’s interesting that you say that, because I think we’re also looking at a very pained Bruce Wayne and a pained Batman, in this case. If you’re reading the main title, right, and James [Tynion IV] is doing another fantastic job battering this guy from all angles, and destroying his life and rebuilding him. My challenge is to give him these soft, poignant moments, while he’s still being battered. So he possibly could seem like a mean, professor. But I think this is the tough love that he’s giving Duke because he also knows how wrong everything can go, how it can all fall apart at any moment. And there is a speech where he speaks to Duke in the beginning of Secret Files Signal #1, where he tells him, “Listen, this is my motivation and I’m betting on you, and just prove me right.” You do see the slivers of emotion. My take on Batman is you know, it’s more than the vigilante it is someone who has been assigned to be the protector of a city that they love and doing all that it takes to ensure that it that it’s still standing that’s sustainable.
And I relate that to what’s happening in New York. We’re watching it go through a reopening phase, and the challenge is that of what it’s been hit with. When I think of Bruce Wayne, the Narrows, and Gotham and his new residence, you are seeing a different Batman/Bruce Wayne.
AIPT: I know there’s gonna be a lot of people that love the Batman in the Signal that’ll pick this up. What can they expect from this book?
TP: I’m trying to do this without giving out too many spoilers, but we will say that we are starting to tackle the central mysteries in the Signals personal universe in this issue as well. Let’s not forget that he does originate besides his relationship with the bat family, and in particular Batman in the beginning, he does come from a group of autonomous Robins. One of the central questions I wanted to play around with is like, what’s the fallout from that? If it seems like you might be selected to work with Batman, and I haven’t, you know, and I’m one of those remaining defunct We Are Robins. I started touching on this a little bit in “The Quiet Ones,” which was in Robin King #1.
So that was my reintroduction to being able to work with with Duke again last summer, during Death Metal. And so we started to set up the Signal is working with orphan and Robin and spoiler. And so what does that look like if they’re slated to be next gen Gotham versus all of those other teenage vigilantes, teenage potential teenage protectors that are out there? Let’s not forget, Duke also has two parents that are still infected with Joker toxins. So for Batman in the Signal fans, there’s few surprises for you. Where we begin to pick up some of those threads.
TP: As usual I’m looking for more real estate, to tell the expanded story. One of the things that I’m obsessed with is Arkham juvie. And so we introduced that in Batman and the Signal. There could be some more threads and correlations there as well.
AIPT: When the Signal was first introduced, I was like, wait a minute, this reminds me of X-Men and the mutants and their abilities. Is it wrong for me to say that? Or do you have a better way of defining his abilities? Because it’s something I can’t shake.
TP: Instead of thinking of it, as in the Marvel Universe, it’s the X gene. Here, we could talk about the metahuman gene, I think I’d love to think about it in terms of, in particular with Duke Thomas, because from what we might understand there could be a bit of Immortal blood that Duke has, and there’s a larger story with the lineage he comes from. One of the things that we played around with in Batman and the Signal, is there a character that ignites other characters powers? And it’s something that we started to play with a little bit in Batman and the Signal. We didn’t answer any of those questions. And I’m not answering those that question now. But I think it is more than just the X gene, or the meta human gene. I think what we’re talking about is a continuum of powers that might have already pre-existed, that you may tap into. That’s my version of it. And I’m sure I could be countered at any time. So I’ll just express it that way.
AIPT: Tony, a lot of what you said resonates since you’re approaching this story in a realistic way of how the youth heroes are defining themselves and finding a place in Gotham. Can you talk a bit about developing younger heroes like Duke?
TP: Part of my other gig, and this is not a joke, is I’m considered a world-builder. And I’m this world-building facilitator with different communities and organizations. And so literally, I get on Zoom with eight to twelve people, and we imagine the future together, and we try to distill that down to actionable programs or art, or other, we’d say containers specific solutions. So having a chance to play with a fictional world and look at a fictional ecosystem is like gravy for me, you know? So I’m thinking about it from every angle.
AIPT: It sounds like your approach utilizing the characters in a semi-realistic way to sort of envision, like a lesson on our own lives.
TP: It’s a direct reflection, right. It moves in both directions. Because our fictional world definitely influences our real world and our real-world influences in turn, influence our fictional world. But I also understand the gravitas and the responsibility to continue building and so I have to look at it from sometimes the ecosystem, and then I can scale back down to Duke to see where he belongs and how he’s the embodiment of it.
AIPT: Last question. This book is clearly setting stuff up. What might we expect in the future after this one-shot comes out in July?
TP: I would love to speak about that. But I too have no idea. I have stories lined up in and some of them are ready to go. But we have to see how this book is received to determine how much more real estate in Gotham I’ll be able to inhabit. But I’m definitely looking forward to it if the opportunity presents itself.
Batman Secret Files: The Signal #1 can be purchased in comic shops on July 6.
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