Exclusive: comic writer Derek Fridolfs talks Arkham Unhinged, Arkham City and more

If you found your way to a site called “Batman-News” then chances are you’re familiar with a little game called Batman: Arkham City. Well if you’re one of the millions who loved this interpretation of the Batman mythos, you’ll be pleased to know that there is now an ongoing series taking place in that very universe or “Arkhamverse”.

Writer Derek Fridolfs spoke with me recently about his new digital exclusive series “Batman: Arkham Unhinged”, his love of Batman, his writing process and how he first cracked into the comic business…

Arkham Unhinged

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a hundred times, but it needs to be said for all those who are just hearing about Arkham Unhinged for the first time: What’s this book about?

Arkham Unhinged is a continuation of the Arkham City mini-series and digital exclusive chapters, that are complimentary to the Arkham City game. Whereas the mini-series took place in the year leading up to the formation of building Arkham City, Arkham Unhinged continues off of that, to tell stories in the Arkham-verse that range from days before Arkham City is opened, months and years before the first Arkham Asylum game, and mostly current to what is happening inside of Arkham City during the game. And with enough time, we’ll be exploring what happens after the game ended as well. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of characters whose stories are open to be told, so the opportunities are endless.

How much time will pass between the first issue of Arkham Unhinged and the opening scene of the video game Arkham City?

I’ll expand your question even further. The first two story arcs of Unhinged (issues #1-6) lead up to the very opening scenes of the Arkham City game. This is after Catwoman and Two-Face are the last two criminals captured, leading right into the opening scenes of what Catwoman is after when the game begins. So yeah, I imagine the time to probably be a few days or less between those story arcs and the opening of the game.

A lot of folks won’t support digital comics because they fear online success could kill the print version of comics. Can you assuage their fears?

I believe the idea is to get comics out in as many formats to people as possible. Most of us have obviously grown up with print, support it, love it, and don’t want to see it go away. Neither do the companies. But also the idea is to expand and get new readers as well. Digital is one of those ways, especially with a comic like this, that is as much geared for fans of the video game as it is for fans of Batman comics. People should buy what they feel comfortable with. These digital comics are priced extremely reasonably for the casual reader that might want to give digital a try (99 cents for 10 pages every week), as well as those that want a weekly fix rather than just a monthly or bi-monthly fix.

What’s a question you’ve been eager to answer, but have yet to be asked in regards to Arkham Unhinged?

Hmm… tough to say. Nothing stands out. But mainly just myself telling people to be patient. Everyone has a character they’re interested in seeing more of and wants to know when said character will show up. And I always feel the need to say, this is a weekly ongoing comic with no end in sight. Long term. With a lot of stories being worked on and a lot of characters being worked in. Just because you haven’t seen your favorite yet, doesn’t mean they’re not coming up in a future story.

What do you think is the most exciting element of Arkham Unhinged for those who know how Arkham City ends? What reason is there for fans to go back to before it all began?

I just think there’s a lot of area left unexplored, going back to even the first Arkham Asylum game and before. A lot characters that might not’ve gotten much if any screen time in the games, that I’m excited about fleshing out their stories. There’s a lot of history in the Arkham-verse that’s only been hinted at in the games and this is a chance to dive in and find out more. And of course, a lot of stories that were never discussed in the games that have come out of ideas in the process of coming up with stories.

You have to remember that Arkham City takes place over one long night. That leaves a lot open for what went on before or after that. As well as what Batman’s extended family was up to while he’s been working alone inside Arkham City. And of course, what motivates all the villains both before they got into Arkham City and after they’ve been there. And as time goes on, we will get the chance to cover territory after the “ending” of the game.

Black Mask didn’t get a lot of face-time in Arkham City. With Arkham Unhinged, you have the unique opportunity to flesh him out and expand on other characters as well. What other under-used characters from Arkham City are you most excited to use?

Arkham City is one giant sandbox. It’s what makes it so enjoyable for a writer to have a majority of Batman’s best rogues gallery at their disposal. So yeah, there’s a ton of villains that I’m anxious to use…some that I’ve already turned in scripts for and others I’m still waiting to work on. A lot of interesting ways that some of them cross paths before they arrive in Arkham City, and after they’ve been there awhile and have battled over territory and power. Plus I think there’s a lot of cool smaller stories you can do to focus on a villain or a thug and how they’re living in there. Coming up, you’re going to get the whole backstory origin to the Abramovichi twins, and also some fun stuff coming up with a lot of the girls in the game, and other side characters.

Will you be creating any villains of your own?

I know that’s something I’ve always admired about Paul Dini and his writing for DC and Batman. That he’s definitely added his own Dini-verse of characters that just add into the greater scheme of villains in Gotham. So that’s definitely something I’m interested in having a chance to do and I think there will be some opportunities for that, as long as it doesn’t conflict with anything DC and Rocksteady have concerns with. But I would like to introduce a villain here or there, since Arkham City is a huge territory to dump all of them in there and see how everyone reacts. Wait and see.

Do you get much freedom to redesign a character even if it’s a minor tweak like the bottle in Penguin’s eye socket replacing the monocle?

Something like that was obviously set up with Dini and the Rocksteady crew when they were designing the story for the games. Any major or minor change being done in these comics would have to be vetted through the eyes of DC and Rocksteady to see if it fits. I think with a lot of comic adaptations, most are related in name only with very little guidance. But I can say that every script and idea I turn in is a process of getting approved by DC and Rocksteady to see if it’s something that will fit into the greater scheme of the Arkham-verse. It’s been an enjoyable process pitching ideas and getting notes and critiques back on scripts. Any changes they’ve sent have been well thought out and not arbitrary. And most of the time, very minor. A lot of times, they really are giving me a lot of leeway to create and be a part of this, and it’s very refreshing to feel like I’m one of the many parts helping to shape the future direction of this universe.

Will Arkham Unhinged be collected in a trade paperback? Obviously, if it’s incredibly successful they’ll turn it into one, but have you heard any whispers about such a thing happening yet?

As of now, these are digital exclusives. Of course, the Arkham City digital exclusives were eventually collected into a hardcover with the mini-series, so anything is possible.

In issue #5 there’s a store that Batman takes refuge in while being hunted by Tyger. Did you name this store, Derek’s Electronics, after yourself? Be honest.

Ha! I’m really not that vain. heh Let me put it another way…it wasn’t named that in the script. That was something that Brian Ching (the artist) drew in there, and caught me as much by surprise as anyone.

Are you going to tell colorist Tony Avina that Vicki Vale is a blonde or should I?

Remember her appearance here takes place before the game. So anything is possible.

You’ve got an answer for everything don’t you, Mr. Fridolfs…Moving on. This book appeals to both longtime comic fans and those who just have a passion for the video game. Why is it that this digital series is not offered up as downloadable content through the XBox Marketplace or Playstation Store? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Also, if I just gave DC a big moneymaking idea I’d like to see a little something-something from this *rubs 2 fingers and thumb together in money-expectancy hand-gesture*

For both questions, that’s out of my hands, obviously.

Should we expect the extended DC universe making a cameo? Is it at all possible for you to give cameos to characters like Superman or the Justice League in future Arkham Unhinged chapters? What about a simple name-drop?

At this point, probably not. This is definitely Batman focused. And I’m kind of fine with that and would hope most fans would be too. There’s always the New52 comics for that, if there’s some need to scratch that itch of seeing Batman with the Justice League. I’m happy enough to focus on Batman and all the characters that inhabit Gotham.

In one of your digital chapters for Arkham City you did a story about The Riddler moving into his new hide-out. This isn’t exactly a question as much as it is me saying that I want to see an Arkham Unhinged story about the contractors who installed all of his Riddler trophies and puzzles around the city. Is there any chance you can make that happen? It could be hilarious.

I think I hinted in there who his main contractor was. And it’s someone that’s worked for the Broker before.

I’m talking more about the manual labor side of it. One issue devoted to the hard-working guys who went out there with hardhats and tool belts and installed pressure pads, death traps, and upside-down trophy cases. The real heroes who made the largest portion of Arkham City’s gameplay possible: will you tell their story?

There’s nothing planned for that. Maybe there will be at some point in the future, but I’m guessing not. Only because it turns into more of a gimmick based on something minor out of the game rather than a pertinent story. But who knows. Anything is possible.

(Why so serious? Funniest response to that could’ve just been “No.” but hopefully he at least thought about it!)

SPOILER QUESTIONS: Right now you’re sort of playing it safe so as not to give away any major spoilers that occur in the Arkham City video game. How long will it be before you can really let loose and give us stories about the characters that aren’t revealed until the story’s climax?

This is something left up to DC and Rocksteady to determine. Obviously I want to tackle some of the stuff that happens over the course of the ending to the game. But they want to leave enough time for everyone to have a chance to play it without spoiling things. I will say, some characters we’ll get to see sooner than later, and others have yet to be determined.

Arkham City

What’s your best score on the Arkham City challenge maps? I got a 41,580 on Blind Justice. Can you beat that? (UPDATE: My current score is now much higher than that)

Nope. I’ve mainly just played the game itself and not much in the way of the challenges.

How often must you check in with DC and Rocksteady in regards to story ideas? Has Rocksteady or Paul Dini given you notes as to what characters and plot points are off limits because they may interfere with future games?

When I got hired onto Arkham Unhinged (and to a lesser extent on the Arkham City digital exclusives), I’ve been in contact with DC and Rocksteady quite a bit. They’ve been very helpful in giving me lots of backstory and notes and answering a lot of questions. Of course, I was also able to go visit the Burbank offices and play through much of the game before it was released. One of the many perks heh!

But yeah, the process of this is always sending in a batch of ideas to them, and then waiting to hear back which ones they’re interested in. Then I work up an outline and first draft of a script, get back notes, and turn in a final draft. A lot of back and forth, but a real smooth process.

Do you have a favorite idea for an Arkham Unhinged story that was turned away by Rocksteady or DC? Can you describe it?

Without getting into specifics in the chance that it could eventually happen, I did pitch an idea I felt was huge in scope but extremely dark. But it was felt that it wasn’t the right fit at this time but could get incorporated later. So we’ll see. It definitely was something that happened in the game that I felt would make for a great story. How’s that for vague?

It gives us all something fun to speculate about and that’s the best kind of vague.

Batman in General

List your top five favorite Batman movies (animated stuff counts).

Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker is my top favorite. I just love that dark flashback with Batman’s final battle with the Joker, and then juxtapose that with an older Bruce having that come back to haunt him. So well written (kudos to Dini) and animated. Not just my favorite Batman but probably favorite DC animated story. Mask Of The Phantasm is a close second. Toss in Sub Zero and both of Nolan’s films, and that should round things out.

Could you see the Arkham City universe translating well to a live action film now that Nolan’s trilogy is coming to a close? What about a full-length digitally animated film, like an expanded version of the Hugo Strange trailer?

Who knows. I doubt we’ll see a live action one, just because it gets very expensive hiring that many actors to play that many parts. And of course to fit everyone into one movie that’s under two hours, would be a nightmare to write. Whomever they get next to do their version of Batman will probably concentrate on just one or two villains. Anymore, and it gets to be bloated. Of course, that works better in animation, traditional or digital. Go figure. So yeah, anything is possible. The Arkham games have been wildly successful, including the comics. So the idea is to keep that universe alive and continuing.

When did you first fall in love with the Batman mythology?

I remember watching the Super Friends and maybe having a comic here or there given to me by my parents. But it wasn’t until Batman: The Animated Series debuted, that I just fell hard for it. It was my senior year of high school. Fond remembrances of watching it after coming home from school and in college. Loving the design style and the stories and mood. It hit me in a big way, as I tested out for storyboard jobs for Warner Bros but never was fortunate to get on. Of course, all these years later, I’ve gotten to work with Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, so it all worked out!

Writing

What comics had the biggest influence on you (these don’t have to be Batman…but should be, if you know what’s good for you *shakes fist*)?

I’ve had a range of tastes and influences. Jeff Smith’s Bone probably has been my biggest. Have always loved his ability to pace a story with humor, adventure, and drama. And his animated brush style is fantastic. Same goes for Mike Mignola on Hellboy and Amazing Screw-On Head. His sense of design, lot of black on the page, mood, and just a sense of history. And of course the Batman Animated crew whenever they worked on Mad Love or some of the Batman Animated Annuals I was hugely inspired by. Other favorites include Larra Hama on GIJOE (the comic that got me into comics), TMNT (the original black & white Mirage books), and Peter David’s long run on the Incredible Hulk. Oh yeah and J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline in the Spidey titles. That was a huge deal back then. Yeah…so many great books and I’m leaving a lot off.

When did you decide you wanted to get into animation and comics?

It wasn’t until I was in college and even after college. I had always like comics but never really considered it as a career. Went to college on a music scholarship, graduated with a degree in English, and then went to art school for a year in LA. During my college years, I ran into a local group of aspiring creators, and spent my time with them as we’d hit up conventions and try to break-in.

How did you break into the comics business?

A solid 5 years of mailing in samples to submissions editors and hitting up WonderCon (back when it was in Oakland) and San Diego Con to sit through portfolio reviews and try to get critiques. After 5 years of pursuing this with everything I had, I got to a point where I had two huge opportunities. I was one of 6 testing for a final spot as an inker for a new company starting up (CrossGen) and also tested to be the inker for Chris Bachalo’s Steampunk. I came close on both, but due to my inexperience and lack of name recognition, I didn’t get either. It was a huge blow that was very depressing, to come close but miss it. I was just about ready to move on, when I contacted inker Tim Townsend. He had heard from Bachalo that I had tested for him but didn’t get the job. Tim offered to pass along my samples to his editor at Marvel without any guarantees other than it would get in his hands and not into some nameless submissions pile. I jumped at the opportunity and mailed out photocopies that day. Within a week, I was inking my first book at Marvel…half an issue of Wolverine. And at the same time Wildstorm called me, having pulled my samples out of a submissions pile and gave me work inking some new kid named Dustin Nguyen. And the rest is history.

How much correspondence do you have with the artists? Do you find that you get the best results when you give them a lot of detailed notes or when you let the artist run wild?

Arkham Unhinged has allowed me to sort of act as both writer and art director. The editor has artists he likes to use, but he’s also open to hearing my recommendations for artists. So it’s fun to recommend friends I’ve worked with or artists I’d like to work with, and gear scripts for each one. Plus I also write full script and usually have enough detail in there for the artist to have enough to go off of, but also make it their own as well. I try not to get too heavy handed. I’d rather them have fun drawing it and I can always work off of that. A bit of give and take.

Do you walk around with a notepad and scratch down ideas when you’re out at the grocery store?

No. Usually I just keep mental notes while out. But I do have plenty of notepads and paper around at home where I might jot down an idea at all hours of the night and then work that into my writing later. Ideas have a way of being very spontaneous, so I try to always be prepared to jot down and not forget. I know when I visited Burbank to play the game for the first time, I did bring a notepad and spent much of my time talking to everyone there and jotting down ideas.

What sort of discipline must you have to write comics? Do you give yourself a quota of X amount of pages to write every day like some authors?

I think as a writer, you get no days off. And by that, I mean, you’re always writing…whether it’s on paper, on the computer, or in your mind. There’s a thought process always going on as you’re thinking constantly about your stories, and maybe outside influences that seep in as well. For me, I don’t set any specific number of pages to write or even a specific time. A lot of time, it’s just based on when the mood strikes and what I’m currently working on. Unlike most writers, I’m inking too. I’m inking a monthly comic and writing 2 books, all at the same time. So I have the luxury and schedule to sort of go back and forth, mix and match, between the two. Some days I’ll concentrate on writing all day. Others, I might write for some of the day and ink some of the night. Or days where I’m only inking and don’t get back to writing for a few days. So yeah, it’s all dependent on what I’m feeling on any certain day…and of course, deadlines.

The Future: Batman Beyond Unlimited

Next February we’ll be getting Batman Beyond Unlimited which will include two stories, Batman Beyond by Adam Beechen and Norm Breyfogle and then there’s Justice League Beyond by Dustin Nguyen and you. What can you tell me about Justice League Beyond at this time?

I can say, this has been a long time in coming. Dustin and I have been working on this for awhile, so we’re anxious to see it come out. There’s a lot of it done, and he and I are both writing it and handling the art.

There’s probably not a whole lot I can say about it at this early stage. But I’ll say that Terry/Batman is a part of the Justice League now. They’ll be going up against a large threat, and it’s a chance to see Dustin draw a huge amount of characters. And we’ll also get stories that focus on each of the members of the League and their back stories, to get fans caught up with these characters whom they might not be familiar with.

Dustin and I are huge fans of the show, and you’ll get to see that displayed throughout the series. I’ve been hugely inspired by all that Timm, Dini, and crew did on those shows (including the JLA shows and the previous Batman and Superman shows), and all of that will tie-in to what we’re doing with Justice League Beyond. It’s definitely geared for fans of the shows.

Preview images from Justice League Beyond. Click the thumbnails to expand the images.

    
Thanks again to Derek Fridolfs for taking the time to answer my numerous questions and DC editor Ben Abernathy for making this interview possible. Batman: Arkham Unhinged can be purchased at comiXology.

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