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Tom King and Phil Hester on crafting a hard-boiled noir 'Gotham City: Year One'

Comic Books

Tom King and Phil Hester on crafting a hard-boiled noir ‘Gotham City: Year One’

The mystery busts wide open this week.

It’s not often that superhero comics get to tell a mature, deeply noir story — let alone one set in Gotham City. As such, as Tom King and Phil Hester wrap up their very own contribution to that minor canon (that’d be Gotham City: Year One), it’s certainly something to celebrate.

Set in the 1960s, the series reveals a Gotham that was once considered the safest city in the world. However, over the course of its six issues, we learn that may not be true at all, and the choices and shadowy deeds of a select few are what inspired the city’s path toward becoming a criminal hot spot. It’s a transformative look at Gotham as we experience the death of a child that is not only tied to the Wayne family itself but a symbolic snapshot of what Gotham will become.

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Before issue #6 lands today (March 28), I was able to speak with both King and Hester, who helped peel back the mystery around how this compelling hard-boiled detective story took shape. We also explore its beginnings — it was an assignment for King to write a Gotham story sans Batman — and how noir is a big part of King’s life, among several other topics.

Gotham City

Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: I just interviewed Ted Adams about The Great Gatsby comic adaptation, and because I had that on my mind and then I was reading Gotham Year One, the finale, I was like getting connections between that and the Great Gatsby.

Tom King: I love The Great Gatsby. I have my favorite books of all time over my shoulder [King points], and there, it’s in my top 20 books. I love that book.

AIPT: Some of the things in this series, like where a body is buried and like the seediness that’s underneath that symbolic of evil that grows into the Gotham that we know, stuff like that is really interesting and complex and reminiscent of the kind of storytelling in Gatsby.

TK: I mean, thanks. I grew up on complex comics, you know, watch what Frank Miller did, what Alan Moore did. I’m of that generation that our goal is to declare, I think what all comic fans know and that I think it’s doubted too often is that this is a medium that can express complicated emotions and complicated moral situations. And it can be as powerful as any other medium. I think from the outside, people think we’re just good guys versus bad guys. And that’s all it is. But that’s not what we are. If you’re on the inside, you know, it’s a constant struggle to push forward and sort of assert that anything you can do with a book or a movie or a TV show, you can do with a comic. That’s my goal.

AIPT: As someone who studied Film Noir in college…

TK: Oh, sweet. Let’s go, let’s talk!

AIPT: I went to school for screenwriting, and film noir was my master’s thesis. Are you a fan of film noir, be it hard-boiled detective novels, movies, or TV?

TK: I’m a huge fan of film noir, it’s kind of where I live when I’m not living in comics. That’s like my nerd. I wanna say three years ago–I’m a big old movie guy, I’m a TCM guy–that’s how I relax when I’m not reading comics, I watch old movies. I steal from them constantly. True Grit for Supergirl [Woman of Tomorrow]. Although that was more stolen from the book.

About three years ago, I went to dinner with Michael Kronenberg, who’s a designer for comic magazines, and he introduced me to Eddie Muller, who runs TCM noir alley. And he is the most knowledgeable noir person probably in the world. And Michael and Eddie started talking, and they were talking in the sort of noir language about books and movies. I had seen the basics, you know, whatever, the top 10. But I hadn’t sort of dug into the dirtiness of it all. I want to learn this language. There’s something in here that will help me as a storyteller.

I literally took a year where every chance I could get, I was watching an old noir, and I know [Ed] Brubaker went down this alley. I was like, “I wanna figure this out. I want to know the difference between an Evelyn Keys and an Audrey Totter. So That’s what I did. It’s been valuable in my work and valuable in my relaxation.

Gotham City

Gotham City: Year One #6. Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: With a detective story like this Gotham Year One, there are so many different places you could have started before you started tangling it all together. Where did start, was there a certain character you fixated on or a moment in this story arc?

TK: I had done deconstructions of Noir with Human Target, which was more of a fun kind of Dick Powell making fun of noir, like Murder, My Sweet. For this one, when we sort of approached it, I was like, I wanna just drink from the fire hose. Not a deconstruction but a hard-boiled Chinatown noir. The straight Dashiell Hammett, Ray Chandler, right down the middle kind of noir which there’s a formula to that. There’s a private eye who works in a dirty city, and a beautiful woman walks in and lies to them. And those lies led him to uncover a huge conspiracy.

That one corner, that sort of private eye corner, the corner that John Houston’s making fun of in the Big Sleep, almost is where I wanted to start. So I started with a beautiful young woman walking into a private eye and then his partner being killed as happens in the Maltese Falcon, and then I needed a big crime.

It’s terribly obvious that I went with the Lindbergh kidnapping. I put that on top of that noir, and then I added to that, I added Gotham City. So it was those three elements. It was Maltese Falcon, Lindbergh kidnapping, Gotham City, and I started right there.

AIPT: Reading this, I kept thinking about the connections to Gotham, for instance, how Crime Alley got its name is really interesting, but at the same time, the story could probably stand alone without being a DC comic title. Did part of you ever think, oh, this could be an indie noir that I do on the side or from a different publisher?

TK: The assignment from the beginning was, “Tom, tell me a Batman story without using Batman.” Or, “Use the first 26 issues of Detective Comics to tell me a story,” That was the challenge from Ben Abernathy, my editor. I never thought, “oh, I should do this as an indie.” What I mostly thought is they’re never gonna let me do this again. And I should, I should just enjoy the fuck of this. For lack of a better phrase.

This is a DC comic. It’s getting all the push of a DC comic. I get all the wonderful benefits of being a DC comic, but there are no superheroes. Nobody has power. There’s violence, and there’s punching, but there’s not that much punching. The point of the thing isn’t the punching. A completely unique opportunity that I know doesn’t come around. I mean, I’ve almost been writing comics for ten years. You don’t get these every day, you know? Right. I’m writing Wonder, which I very much enjoy, but it’s superheroes, it’s people punching each other. That’s, that’s part of this.

AIPT: There’s an expectation.

TK: I’ve written a hundred issues of Batman. There’s not one issue where I thought, “okay, in this issue, there’s no superpowers, no punching, and it’s all psychological thriller.” That was almost a gift. I’m not comparing myself to Tarantino, but like, when Tarantino got Pulp Fiction, he’s like, “I have studio money to make an indie thing.” That’s what I felt like. I feel like I had studio money to do an indie project.

DC Preview: Gotham City: Year One #6

Gotham City: Year One #6. Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: It was probably exciting to get that assignment to do a Gotham story without Batman.

TK: It was exciting until I opened up those first 26 issues of Detective, which, if you’ve read them, you know, you’re like, oh, there’s gonna be some beautiful gems in here. But those first, I was like, Ooh, this is a desert. This is just full of, it’s like super colonialist kind of narratives of adventures going into foreign lands and beating up on people they shouldn’t beat up on. How do I extract from this something that is modern?

That’s how I hit on Sam Bradley and modernized. I was like, ’cause Sam was in the first one. In his first episode is very, and I don’t think there’s a better way to put it, but it’s, it’s racist. It’s, it’s anti-Asian. So I was going to make race part of this rather than sort of ignore that. And that’s, that’s how that kind of entered the equation.

AIPT: I love the concept of Gotham being the safest city in the world unless you’re Black, which I think you introduce early on, I thought was so smart of you because it makes you start to think about race today, even though it is set in the 60s.

TK: I grew up in Los Angeles I was 11 years old when the LA riots happened. My school was set a fire. I saw cities sort of torn apart by race and how that’s sort of revealed. When I was little, LA was supposed to be this sort of beautiful paradise. We were supposed to think of LA as, like, you know, Beverly Hills. A Hollywood dream. Underneath that sort of beauty that everyone’s projecting on us, there was segregation and exploitation. And eventually, that exploded into these riots. From a personal point of view, me personally waking up from a dream. So I wanted to project some of that into this book.

Tom King Phil Hester 'Gotham City: Year One'

Gotham City: Year One #6. Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: There are so many different aspects of noir that are nailed in this visually, including the silhouettes, the use of silhouettes in this book is freaking insane. I just wanted to ask what went into picking the opportune time to use silhouette.

Phil Hester: I’ve always had sort of a shadow-drenched style, and I wanted to make a conscious effort in this book to also play with negative space silhouettes. I don’t know if anyone will ever pick up on this, I’m, I might be the only person who ever notices it, but I think the theme of the book is how actions reverberate through time. Positive and negative. So I thought it’d bolster that by repeating compositions from panel to panel and page to page at different points in the book. And not necessarily repeating the actual setup of the panel but repeating the actual composition with different elements. Silhouettes became an important part of that because they were good shorthand for dropping in different compositional elements. It became a main weapon in my arsenal throughout the whole book.

TK: I work with a lot of artists who are panel based, who are just drawing panel by panel. That’s how I write my scripts. I think it’s much harder to tell the story the other way. I’ve only worked with a few guys. who can do it, who can kind of get rid of the panels and do some silhouettes. I’ve done it with Andy Kubert and now Phil. You have to be so, so good at your craft. You don’t understand the level of skill it takes for Andy or Phil to pull off that kind of storytelling. You can’t write for that, that has to be their vision.

AIPT: Sometimes I think of art as like jazz because, you know, the work Jordie Bellaire doing too with the atmosphere. I don’t wanna leave out Eric Gapstur inks as well. Phil, what was it like working with them?

PH: Oh, I’ve been working with Eric for a while. Gotham City represents sort of the 10-year anniversary of working with Eric. Our first assignment was for a Slam Bradley story long ago. Our editor was Ben Abernathy, and he’s got the memory of an elephant. And he remembered that we drew Slam. Eric’s been, my regular guy. We’ve always been looking for ways to get together.

This is our first time working with Jordie, and I have to say Jordie’s a genius. I have a very hard time proofing my own work because I don’t like to look at it once it’s done. When Jordie has colored it, it’s a joy to look at it again. Suddenly she legitimizes all my garbage. The choices Jordie makes are always surprising but always appropriate. And I couldn’t be happier with the coloring I got from her.

Tom King Phil Hester 'Gotham City: Year One'

Chaos in the streets! Courtesy of DC Comics.

AIPT: I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say you explain why Crime Alley is named that. Are there other elements that you wanted to sprinkle into the book?

TK: We got Crime Alley. We got ACE Chemicals, the Batcave, the bat symbol, and all those bullet holes in the living room of the manor. We even talked about the tunnel that goes to the back cave. The main thing was to get across how Gotham kind of sank, how it fell. How it went from being any other American city to the home of all sin in the world. How one man and one family’s sin became the city’s burden.

PH: I was just reading the script to learn to draw, there was a time that it hit me. It’s in a flash forward to the seventies, and it’s such a subtle moment that it’s a kind of a tribute to how well Tom has crafted the story that I didn’t see it coming, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I’m not gonna spoil it cuz I want people to be rewarded when they find it. But it’s the origin of Batman in a little tiny line of dialogue. It’s really incredible.

AIPT: With the final issue out on the 28th, might we ever get a sequel a year two per se?

TK: People are gonna have to buy the crap out of the trade cuz I would write these forever. Every bit of this process, I just loved it. I loved writing that voice. I love those captions. I love writing those hard-boiled characters. I love writing as if, you know, I’m Ben Hecht in 1940, and I can only use that kind of words instead of our kind of words. It was an utter joy. If we get the Supergirl sort of beauty of that, I’m just praying for that to happen again. So, so I can just keep doing these books for the rest of my life. For sure. I love them.

AIPT: Tom, I’d be remiss not to ask about Wonder Woman. How long have you known or how long have you been working on the project?

TK: Six months or something. It’s been a while. We’ve been building this for quite some time, and Daniel is Daniel Sampere, who is drawing the book super fast and super good. So I think by the time it comes out in September, we’ll have something like six or seven issues in the can.

AIPT: That’s amazing.

TK: One of the reasons I look like I’m very efficient is because I was very efficient during the pandemic. Some people baked bread, I wrote comics. I wrote Human Target which just ended, that was written a year and a half ago. I wrote Danger Street over a year ago. It’s completely done. Jorge [Fornes] has every single script. I had gotten so far ahead that I could write my books in order. I stole it from Brad Meltzer.

I’m writing Penguin and Wonder Woman, so I’ll go from one week of writing the most kind and generous DC character to writing the most evil, obnoxious, horrible human being. They both have dialogue and I have to remember, “nice one and this is the…” It’s such a bizarre switch between those two characters.

AIPT: Shoot, I got some penguin dialogue in my Wonder Woman comic!

TK: <laugh> It’s a challenge. Hopefully, I can go back to the novel-writing stuff. ‘Cause I think it made my writing a little better too, just from a quality.

Grab Gotham City: Year One #6 from your local retailer and/or comic shop.

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