New Girl in Gotham

I actually met Devin online several months ago in a late-night philosophy chat I was having with some friends. What she brought to the conversation was a light hearted, yet candid and well thought out perspective that made me a bigger fan of hers than I already was. That was all it took for the rest of my chums, who soon started looking for "All things Devin." So far, most notably, a short story in The Batman Chronicles #7, "Like Riding a Bike," and the recent Batman Plus.

What impressed me the most about her, though, was the fact that as a professional she's been a good friend to all the fans. She takes the time on her stories to show her care for the characters, which she realizes in turn is showing respect for all the people who care about them.

But you're not reading this for MY perspective! You want hers!

So without further ado...the woman who was affectionately referred to in the DC chat rooms as "Devin Grayson? The writer who best depicts Nightwing's personality? That Devin Grayson?...if not the only Grayson...the only female Grayson...

...guess who, Devin Grayson!!

How about a little background about yourself?

As a writer, I always fret over questions about the past because it's a story, and every human life is so complicated. Fortunately we have a sort of convention for these summaries: I was born in New Haven, Connecticut where my father was finishing up his doctorate work at Yale. Before the age of two I was relocated to Northern California and grew up in the East Bay. For college I decided to check out the other coast, and ended up at Bard in upper state New York. I nearly went to Boston to pursue a doctorate in Shakespearean Literature, but both financial and moral considerations made me hesitate. I mean, does the world really need another paper on Othello? It may at that, but not by me. What I was aware of needing, and I saw this too in many of my peers, was heroes.

I ended up moving back to California where I lived in San Francisco with my muse, eventually moving back to Oakland where I had landed a job with the research division of a large HMO. I was taking writing classes at University of California at Berkley and covering my cubicle walls with pictures of the Gotham gang. People would stop by my cubicle just to gape -- it was a Bat shrine, a toy store, a completely obsessive exercise in pretending to be somewhere else. I was either going to make it as a writer or be committed to a mental ward. ;-)

I know you're a fan, but how long have you been reading comics?

Actually, my background in that sense is somewhat rare, as I didn't discover comics until I was twenty-three (I'm twenty-six now). I've been passionate about writing most of my sentient life, but I was working on the Great American Novel, natch, until one afternoon I was standing in front of the T.V. channel surfing and I stopped on the Fox network, utterly amazed. It was the first season of Batman: The Animated Series and there was a very un-Burt-Ward looking Robin with his feet up on the dashboard of the Batmobile. It sounds corny but it really was an electrifying moment. There was so much there: in the dynamic between the two characters, in the rich originality of the animation, in the recreation of modern myth. It was love at first sight, and being a researcher by trade, I ran to the comic store that same afternoon, where a friend of mine was working. I demanded he update me on this, "Robin stuff -- I mean, when did he loose the little green shorts?" My friend asked me if I meant Tim. Tim? "Well, there have been three Robins actually since -- oh, four if you count Carrie Kelley...." Three Robins? What the hell was going on? To clarify, he swished through the poster rack and stopped on that Art Thibert Nightwing poster. "I think you mean this guy." I did indeed.

What do you read?

Actually, although this always surprises me about myself, I keep noticing that I read an awful lot of nonfiction; psychology texts, biographies, philosophical musings. And I read a lot of "classical" fiction, because as a former English Major, I'm always completely embarrassed when someone asks me about a canonical text I haven't yet read.

In terms of comics, I'm very much a DC-babe. I love sitting out by the lake near my house or in a pub reading comics and getting to tell my friends that they can't bother me because I'm working. What great work, hunh? Because I got into comics so late, I still have all kinds of wonderful material to catch up on, though you might be surprised at how much I've already torn through in my relentless search to get to the soul of these characters and the heart of this medium.

In terms of inspiration, I think Neil Gaiman's work was the first that really pulled me into wanting to read comics, Alan Moore made me want to write them, Frank Miller utterly confirmed my hunch that I wanted to write Batman, and Scott McCloud got me excited about writing them well, really learning the medium. Now I obviously hang on Chuck Dixon's every written word, and I'm also a huge Mark Waid fan, and I'm inspired every day by the wisdom, dedication, and passion of the DCU editors.

Would you consider yourself a "fanboy"?

Oh, yeah, definitely, though I suppose I'm regarded as more of a fangirl ::laughs::. I think the phrase has come to carry a lot of negative connotation, and there are some valid reasons for that, but basically, you don't get into comics by accident; everyone in the industry is a huge fan. And that's exciting energy to be around -- people who love their work, people who can't imagine doing anything else.

The negativity associated with that term comes in part, I think, from the sense that not only are people paying more attention to fictional realms than to their own lives (which I'm not so sure I would agree has to be a bad thing -- there can be very enriching ways to be involved with allegory and myth), but that they're paying attention to stupid parts of a fictional realm. That part I kind of have to go with. The idea that there's ONE ULTIMATE CONTINUITY out there and nothing should ever, ever veer from it; that's not what story telling is about. Batman is a legend. Think about it in terms of Greek mythology, for example; how many different versions are there of Hercules' travels? It's not so much about what "really happened," as about "what might this mean?" The needs of meaning are, for every generation if not every human being, different. That's not to say that I don't have a favorite version of continuity, or that I don't believe it's important to construct an air-tight universe with deference both to what has gone before and to the interests and sensibilities and expectations of the readers -- that's damn important. But I think a line has to be drawn; there has to be room left in which to tell good, hopefully meaningful stories. On the other side of that line is my negative connotation of "fanboy."

What's you're take on the state of comics as a whole right now?

Actually, I'm almost ridiculously optimistic. I think it's an exciting, relevant, still-growing medium that a lot of people have yet to discover. I think it has tremendous potential as a cultural tool for epic storytelling. We're so self-conscious about heroes and heroics these days; comics illicit a sort of affectionate disrepute that allows them to tackle great big complicated moral issues and archetype-saturated modern myths with the kind of complete abandon that often ends up slamming right into the Truth.

In terms of the industry, I know there's some panic, some sense that things aren't going as well as we'd like. Sales go up, sales go down. I just can't accept that we're nearing the end of anything. I mean, come on, I just got here! ::winks:: Comics will be around, in some form or another, for a long time to come. On that I gamble my career.

How do you feel about the portrayal of women in comics?

I had a very interesting conversation with the honorable Denny O'Neil about this when I was visiting New York last month. Obviously there's a feeling -- or could it even be considered a rumor? -- that women have gotten a bad rep in comics, been misrepresented. I suppose the argument centers primarily on aesthetics. Well, it's true, I don't look as much like Selina Kyle as I'd like to, but then I could say the same thing about most of the women in movies and on T.V. And Scott Peterson, for example, is very forthcoming about wishing he looked more like Dick Grayson. These are, well, superheroes. By definition they're stronger, smarter, faster, and yes, better-looking than most of us will ever be. That part doesn't bother me. It's not as though there are no powerful female characters. Oracle is one of the bravest, most interesting heroines in any fictional medium. Huntress could kick your ass. Catwoman has outsmarted Batman. She's hardly lacking brains or chutzpah.

I actually think the biggest problem with comics in terms of the inclusion of viable females has more to do with the disproportionate number of male creators than the ways in which the existing women in comics are portrayed. And my personal feeling is that that has less to do with the industry (which I have not yet found to be any more sexist than any other damn industry, and in fact somewhat less so) than -- brace yourself -- the stores. There are less female comic creators than male not because the industry won't hire them -- the industry is starving for them! It's because there are less females than males invested in the medium. And that, again, is not because there are no cool female characters nearly as much as it is because there are very few comic shops where a girl can walk in and be treated with respect. Comics are really tricky things to "get into." The only practice you have, if you're not introduced to them early, is comic strips. My step-mother can barely figure out how to follow captions across a page; this medium is new to her and these things aren't particularly intuitive. "Do you look at the picture first, or the words?" Well, that's a reasonable question. And say you go into a store and you're trying to follow one particular character. You either get sneered at for not following cross-over information in Wizard or what have you, or you get a leer, a grunt, and a finger pointing towards the monthly. Fanboys, in the negative connotation, love knowing more than you do. And since they've taken so much time to master this information, they're not always real generous about sharing it. That, if anything, is what will kill the medium. Accessibility. I was lucky enough to find a great comic store (Dr. Comics and Mr. Games on Piedmont Ave in Oakland if you allow plugs!) and have friends who knew the ropes (I mean, somebody has to tell you what's up with Crisis and Zero Hour or you are lost) -- but I worry that there are a lot of people out there getting turned off before they get turned on.

What's your format for doing a story?

Format? You mean, how do I go about writing? Oh, good! I get to spit out my recently-absorbed McKee notes [a reference to Robert McKee's Story Structure class which Devin completed last month]!

Stories start with an idea, something you want to say. In serial drama, it's often a revelation about the character, something they have yet to learn about themselves. Now, in comics, the next thing this almost always necessitates is a crime. I gotta tell you, I've always fancied myself a bit of a rebel, but I've never before wanted that juvenile delinquent past I sometimes lie about at as much as I have lately!

From there I do any research I need to do and think out the key scenes, and then try to arrange the best order of presentation for them. Then I take a stab at the proposal, which usually basically is the springboard. The editors give me feedback and I rework the boards until I get something we're all happy with. The scripting itself is mostly a matter of a large pot of coffee and a mood-sustaining cassette on "eleven."

How long does a typical comic take someone like yourself to write?

Coming up with and shaping the initial idea usually takes an afternoon or a drive across the Bay Bridge. The research stage varies a lot; for the Catwoman Annual, for example, I got hung up for nearly a week on this question of the components of the existing security system in the Cairo Interpol Office, and the science that might disable a system like that. The springboard plotting is probably the most labor-intensive part; you're setting up all the clues, grounding everyone's motivation, making sure there's enough at stake, that the pacing works, that you're not going off on too many tangents. Hammering out a standard twenty-two-page script from a good spring-board usually only takes one nice, uninterrupted period of, say, four to six hours. Then the preliminary editing can slow you down again; fitting everything into the proper page count, leaving the artist enough room to really do their thing, clipping your text back, watching for page-turning moments and beats.

I don't know how that compares to other people's speeds -- obviously Chuck Dixon is both incredibly disciplined and also tapped into the speed force. I'm still finding my rhythm, I suppose. I've noticed that although you learn to move fast because you're hardly ever working on just one project and deadlines count, the time you spend on any given project really does show. Though you can get to the point where you've worked something to death, especially for someone still learning the craft like me, every hour put in counts.

You're work so far has been exclusively in the Bat universe. Is that something you've planned, or something you want to move away from?

That's very much by plan. These are exactly the characters I wanted to be working with. I couldn't be more thrilled, nor more grateful to have been given this opportunity. I love these characters like friends, and to be able to influence their lives like this is a sort of religious experience for me.

I do have proposals in that I'm excited about that veer away from the Batcave though. Ideally, I'd love to stay very involved with Gotham, and also be working on something completely original.

I know that Nightwing holds a special place in your heart. :) Why is that?

Heh. That does become quickly obvious, doesn't it? There are many reasons but the two I can most readily explain have to do with consistency.

As a character, Dick is a fascinating study in contradictions. He's a natural-born performer who hides behind a mask. He's an effusive, gregarious soul who is used to isolation and secrets. He's a genuine romantic who doesn't know much about relationships. He's an exceptionally competent and charismatic leader who is also the ultimate sidekick. He's a formidable enemy and an incredibly generous friend. He's surrounded by death, and completely in love with life. And he's restless and contemplative and in many ways something of a loner who is yet without question the most loyal man you could ever hope to meet. He's part puer, part Trickster, and every bit a man, a hero. Denny-san once brilliantly referred to Batman as "urbanity co-opted." I've come to think of Dick as "loyalty endured." And that resonates for me, for my generation. The struggle to be useful and content in a dark, chaotic world. The fight to maintain a sense of purity and innocence while never, ever blinking or turning away from reality.

As a fictional entity, he's existed for over fifty years now, and been treated by more writers and artists than I can readily rattle off. He's been through a number of significant transformations, and yet there has been something about him that has remained quintessetially unaltered. The character has a soul, even if it resides in the fictional plane. I feel honored to assist it in it's continued expression.

I hear tale that you were inadvertently responsible for Nightwing losing his ponytail. Could you explain?

::laughs:: Oh, it may have already been marked for removal, but yes, my earliest contact with the DC offices went something like, "I-love-these-characters-so-much-how-do-you-get-into-comics-and-would-somebody-please-get-rid-of-that-awful-pony-tail-thank-you-so-much!" One day Scott Peterson called me at work and asked me to fax in a picture of a new hair style. It's not the one they used, but I got a fax of the new cut with a note along the lines of, "there, are you happy now?" Now I like to think that if it weren't for that ponytail, I might not have ever bothered to write in. ;-)

Ok, how about a little info on the upcoming Nightwing annual you have coming out.

Sure. I believe it's due out next month and as most fans have heard by now, this year's theme is Pulp Fiction. Nightwing's, specifically, is the sub-genre "young romance." So it's a little more purple, a little more playful, than what you'd see in the monthly. But it's not an Elseworlds and although I fully admit to having had fun with it, I think there's a good, involving case at the heart of it. And yes -- Dick gets married. I got to peek at Greg Land's pencils and they are, not surprisingly, brilliant. It looks great and I'm very excited about it.

What can we look forward to from you in the near future?

That's a perfectly reasonable question, and yet I have to be a bit evasive. I don't like to talk about things too far in advance -- it's bad enough that I have to wait as long as I do to see the finished projects after getting excited about an idea, you guys certainly shouldn't have to! But I know both the Catwoman Annual (Pulp Horror), and a Batgirl and Robin story, "Photo Finish," in The Batman Chronicles #9 are well on their way towards completion, and the long-promised Nightwing/Huntress miniseries is in production. Beyond that I'll just say...I look at my "to do" list and start purring. ;-)

Interview by Daniel Dawson
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