Exclusive: Sam Humphries on Nightwing #35, Dick Grayson’s next chapter, and a Guppy Christmas for everyone

Sam Humphries is a delight.

After talking with Batman News a few short weeks ago, the newly-minted Nightwing scribe had another chat with us about his debut on the title.  We talked for quite awhile about anything and everything to do with his upcoming Nightwing arc “The Untouchable,” including new Blüdhaven landmarks, Dick Grayson’s new job, and the surprising inspiration behind Guppy.  Enjoy the conversation, but be forewarned: we discuss pretty much everything about Nightwing #35, so there will be spoilers.  Be sure to read your copy of the issue first and then dive in as we discuss any and all things Nightwing.

Spoilers ahead.

Jay Yaws: Obviously, I’ve read the issue, and thought it was great.

Sam Humphries: Thank you man.

JY: You were right: it is a good jumping-on point.  I got it right this time.

SH: Yes!  See?  Now you know what I’m talking about, right? [laughs]

JY: [laughs] Absolutely, yeah.  Tim’s run, he left that off with a nice bookend for everything he was doing, and then you just jumped in, going off what he built while taking it in some new directions.

SH: Yeah.

JY: It could have easily been a Nightwing #1 again, in the best possible way, I think.

SH: Sure, yeah.

JY: You get the ideas of what Dick’s like as a character, and then how he interacts with the citizens of Blüdhaven, and even kind of goes in some of the thematic things you’re trying to touch on with the “Untouchable.”  He does feel kind of like an outsider here, so it’s almost like… nobody can really get a grasp on him, and he can’t get a grasp on himself yet.

SH: Yeah, and with regards to Tim’s run– I mean, I’m repeating myself at this point, but I’ve got to say– Tim’s run on the character across a couple of different titles is just an all-time, hall of fame Dick Grayson run.  And it was really important to me that Tim got to resolve his run, to bookend it like you say, and the other thing is I didn’t want to disrespect his run by trying to do a weak imitation of what Tim had done, you know what I mean?

JY: Yeah, exactly.

SH: Like, Tim left nothing on the table as far as things he wanted to do with Dick and the supporting characters and Blüdhaven and all that.  There’s nothing he tried to do and fell short of that I felt I could do better.  So, for me and Bernard as well, it was important for us to pay respects to the previous run by building on it.  Not ignoring it, not tearing it down, not retconning it, but also taking it in a new direction, just like the way Tim did when he took over.

JY: Yeah, definitely.  And it doesn’t feel like that.  It definitely feels like a continuation without being an imitation of Tim.  It’s not derivative in any way.  It feels like the next step in Nightwing’s life, and some of the new concepts you’ve introduced… I like the Justice Tree.  That was… I don’t know, that just really stuck out as a really cool piece of Blüdhaven history, a cool landmark.  I couldn’t find anything, either in my own memory or anywhere online.  Is that something that you came up with new?

SH: It was inspired by a real life tree, actually.  It was inspired by the Treaty Oak in Austin, TX, which is a famous oak.  A massive tree, just beautiful, and the city has kind of sprung up and built around it.  Depending on who you listen to, that was where Texas was born or that’s where the native peoples used to council their– there’s some history behind it, but really the Charter Oak these days kind of gains its strength from being a beloved landmark.  You know, people propose to each other there, people picnic there, people grow up there, like that kind of stuff.

JY: Yeah.

SH: And that was– on one of my favorite podcasts, which is a crime podcast called Criminal, where I’ve kind of turned to and re-listened to a bunch of episodes when I started planning Nightwing, and I was like “well I like the way they tell stories and I love the stories that they tell,” thinking that I would come away with some really grisly murder idea or terrifying some kidnapping story or something like that– [laughs]– but instead, what I came away with was this story of the Treaty Oak and I thought that that was a really interesting way to anchor a lot of things about Nightwing and about Blüdhaven.  And as we go through the “Untouchable” arc, we see not just glimpses of Dick when he was Robin and glimpses when he was a Hudson University college student, but we see what Blüdhaven was like back then.  We see what Blüdhaven was like before the casinos, when it was a wharf town.  We see what Blüdhaven was like when it was under rapid development, and we see what it’s like today with its neon canyons.  And a big, beautiful tree is something that can maintain itself through all those developments.  It seemed like a really strong visual and a strong symbol to tie together the history of Blüdhaven.  And we’ll see that Nightwing has a very strong and emotional relationship with the tree over the years.

JY: And he crashes a limousine into it, which is just so tragic.

SH: So, he slams a gold Hummer limousine straight in the trunk– [laughs]– right in the first issue.  But hey, a mighty tree that’s been there hundreds of years, it can take a limo crash or two.

JY: Yeah, it looks like it will be okay.  I think I’ve actually been– I live in Texas, and my grandparents used to live in Austin.  I think I’ve been to that tree.

SH: Yeah.

JY: Was it the Charter Oak?  Is that what it’s called?

SH: The Treaty Oak.

JY: Treaty Oak.  Okay.

SH: Sorry, did I say Charter Oak?  I meant the Treaty Oak.

JY: Treaty Oak, yeah.  It’s been… probably a good two decades, but I know I’ve been there and seen that.  That’s a really cool bit of natural… a piece of nature is in the middle of the glitz and glamour and even grime of Blüdhaven.  I thought that was a really nice and interesting touch.

SH: Yeah, and you know, it’s unexpected.  You don’t have a lot of famous nature in the middle of Gotham or Metropolis either.

JY: Yeah, it gives it its own character and its own history without outright having to say “here’s where this came from” and going into fifteen pages of exposition on it.  It just makes Blüdhaven feel that much more alive, which is very nice.

SH: Yeah.

JY: But speaking of that gold Hummer limo–

SH: [laughs] Yeah…

JY: I told you I absolutely loved the very concise and to the point slogan for the League of Limousine Assassins: “to murder.”

SH: [laughs]

JY: Which that cracked me up for a good minute or two there.  [laughs]  It’s just so ridiculous.  I love a good grounded, really serious villain, like a Two-Face who is as tragic as they are terrifying, and they think through their plots and everything, and you can really see what makes them turn bad and also still sympathize with them.  But I also love a chomping at the bit group of villains who will just outright say “we’re doing this because we love to kill people”–

SH: [laughs] Yeah!

JY: –which is hilarious in its own macabre way. [laughs]

SH: You’re absolutely right.  With the League of Limousine Assassins, I wanted to hearken back to some of the crazy, weird crime gangs of Batman books in the Sixties, like the Gorilla Gang?  Who are just a bunch of criminals who dress up like gorillas to steal things or whatever.  And I thought about what would be a good gang that could only exist in Blüdhaven, or was most logical to exist in Blüdhaven.  And as a town with a lot of casinos and resorts and hotels, the streets have to be lousy with limousines, so if you are a league of assassins, a crime gang that wants to blend in, getting into limos is a pretty good way to disguise yourself in the scenery.  And we’ve got the Judge, who is a new villain, and I think he belongs more towards the other kind of villain you’re talking about, and you’ll see this as we get deeper into the issues, deeper into the story as we learn more about his backstory and where he comes from and why he does what he does.  He’s got a different little edge to him as well, but I thought it would be a good balance to have a crazy, madcap crime gang rolling around too– literally rolling around in their limousine.

JY: Oh definitely.

SH: At first it was just something I threw in there in the outline, and the more I developed the story, the more I realized that the League has a role to play and we see them again in the second chapter and we see them again in the… I think the next one is the fourth chapter, and they have a role to play all the way throughout the story.  So they’re not some one-off, throwaway idea; they’re an important part of “The Untouchable.”

JY: That’s good to hear, because I loved that goofiness, if you will.  Because it is goofy and silly, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be by design.  And it is in a city where one of the citizens is a talking gorilla, so will we see Grimm again and the other Run-Offs?  I liked some of the chemistry that they had there, and you talking about the Gorilla Gang reminded me  of Grimm’s placement in Blüdhaven.

SH: Yeah, I love all those characters and what Tim did with them.  So for now, I’m no going to try and step on what Tim did with them.  I’m going to let them rest a little bit.  So no immediate plans for them, but I really did love those characters.

JY: Sure.  Then there’s Dick’s entrepreneurial pursuits.

SH: Yes. [laughs]

JY: You were not kidding– [laughs]– you were not kidding when you said it was something that was perfect for Dick Grayson.  So it’s a cross-training studio, which makes… perfect sense.  I did like how he acknowledged– or rather you acknowledged, through Dick– that through Wayne Enterprises, Nightwing will always be funded, but the problem is Dick Grayson is not always going to be funded, so he at least needs a front.  So having possibly the best gymnast in the DC Universe run a gym is a good fit.  And again, I don’t know if you meant to do this or not, but I did love how you referenced Nightwing having a mullet by saying “it’s business in the front and Nightwing in the back.”

SH: Ahhhh, very good Jay.  Very good.  I was wondering if anybody was going to catch that.

JY: Well I certainly did, because I am always looking for any sort of reference to Nightwing’s mullet. [laughs]

SH: [laughs] They wouldn’t let me give him the mullet, but I had to throw a little historical nod in there.

JY: Sure, and you apparently have your own brand of barbell equipment as well, so that’s nice to see too.

SH: I did, which is great because I don’t lift weights at all. I’m more of a runner. [laughs]

JY: [laughs] I just thought “hmm, ‘Humphries barbell.’  Okay, okay.”

SH: Yeah, maybe I’ve got an entrepreneurial spirit as well.

JY: Hopefully you at least get residuals.

SH: Right.  We’ll see.

JY: Do any of those characters in there, are they going to be making any return appearances, or are there going to be rotating customers, in and out, nobody really making a mark for a time?

SH: No, it’s the first one there.  Wallace and Helen were very deliberately chosen characters and deliberately developed.  They’re not gonna be major characters in the arc, but as minor characters as Dick’s clients and maybe as friends.  They do have roles to play in the story moving forward.  You caught a little bit of who they are and what they do.  Wallace is an exotic dancer by the name of “Kid Delicious,” and Helen is an aspiring hockey player.

JY: Right, she’s taking boxing classes, but she’s an aspiring hockey player.  That’s right.  I was about to say she’s a boxer.

SH: Yeah yeah, good memory there.  She’s a hockey player who’s trying to get an edge up anywhere she can, including going to Dick’s studio for some hardcore training.  But yeah, you know, the cross train studio, his clients, these are all important things not just in Dick’s life but they’re important to have in the book because you don’t want to just have a character who is Nightwing all the time.  You want a character who is also Dick Grayson.  You have to balance things, like he’s worrying about his Yelp reviews, and he’s worrying about his clients and his business.  You want to see characters who have to balance two really important things in their lives, because we also do that.  You know, it’s easy to say “I should fight crime, but here’s this terrible thing in my life I should skip.”  That’s an easy decision.  But when you fight crime, but here’s this business that I’m not just putting my blood, sweat and tears into but it also means something deeply to me personally, that’s a far more interesting story.

JY: Yeah, it was a smart idea to put him in that career.

SH: Credit for that entirely goes to editor Chris Conroy, who came up with the idea in a story meeting.

JY: I was about to ask that.  In our interview you said he came up with the idea, but I didn’t know if you meant to be an entrepreneur and you came up with the actual career or the career itself.  But it makes sense for Dick, obviously for… many reasons that we’ve already stated, and it seems kind of… I don’t know if low-risk is the right way to put it, but if he has an emergency it would be easy for him to say “hey, the gym has to close down early today.  Sorry, we’ll pick up tomorrow.”  So it’s definitely something that he can have a lot of control in how he managers the hours there.  And I always liked in Dixon’s run back in the Nineties how he became a cop–

SH: Sure.

JY: That was a great idea.  It was kind of a parallel to Clark Kent becoming a journalist.  Clark would always find out the breaking news as he needed it–

SH: Mmhmm.

JY: And then he could go off and be Superman–

SH: Right, yeah.

JY: And Dick could be a cop and have access to police records and resources.  But it still felt a little risky, I always thought.  And I loved it, there were a lot of great stories that came out of it, but it was kind of a risky proposition.  So having him own a gym is pretty good for the character, I think.

SH: Yeah, and we’ve got a number of Blüdhaven P.D. and Detective Svoboda.

JY: Yeah, and I love her.  At first I wasn’t sure what to think of her.  I thought she was just going to be a one-off character, but then she came back.  I really love her gruff, cigar-chomping personality.  She’s a lot of fun, and I liked how you’re continuing to use her as pretty much his only friend in Blüdhaven right now.

SH: Exactly.  Well, for eighteen pages, at least.

JY: [laughs] Right.  And then she, you know, does what she does…

SH: This is full spoilers, right?  This interview is full spoilers.

JY: Oh, sure.  So yeah, then she straight up shoots him and he falls off a rooftop.  So that’s where we leave Svoboda, is under… I mean, I’m sure you bring it up later, but that gold chip?  Is that some kind of mind control device that the Judge uses, or do we need to wait to find out about that?

SH: Remains to be seen, but the gold chip is a very important clue.  If you’re reading, you want to keep your eye out for the gold chip as a clue that somebody has been… compromised by the Judge, or maybe more accurate to say somebody whose core desires have been discovered by the Judge and used against them by the Judge for his own means.

JY: Yeah, because when the issue opens… which props to Bernard Chang and… gosh, who was the colorist?  Maiolo?

SH: Marcelo Maiolo.

JY: Maiolo.  Marcelo Maiolo.  Gosh, that was just a gorgeous splash page.  I mean–

SH: I know, right?

JY: All the reds, and the… not even reds, purples and pinks.  I loved it.  And that dynamic shot of Dick just diving down to the limousine?

SH: They do so well together, Bernard and Marcelo.  They’ve been working on Batman Beyond together for a long time.  I think the two of them have been doing it together for about two-and-a-half years.  They work so well together and I’m just joining… I’m jumping on that train.

JY: I definitely like they they’re bringing a… they have a great style and they work well together, of course.  But I like that they don’t make it look like Batman Beyond— which was a great looking book, don’t get me wrong– they try to give it a distinct look, but they do interject some of those red and white panels whenever… that was kind of a trademark that they did on Batman Beyond.  I noticed that as well when reading through.  So it’s a nice visual continuity there at least with the way they do their visual storytelling.

SH: Yeah.  They’ve got a great style together.

JY: In regards to the Judge, when you brought that up just now about how they’ve been compromised based on their personal desires and everything.  That is kind of how it plays off.  The seeds are planted there: who is this guy, what does he want, what does he do, what’s the extent of what he can do?  But he just whispers in that lady’s ear and then she just straight up stabs and kills the… what was that, blackjack?  Is that what they were playing?

SH: Blackjack dealer.  Mmhmm.

JY: Blackjack dealer.  Yeah.  And then I think Guppy even confirms it later that he told her something that was based on her desire, but she had not recollection of it.  Definitely an intriguing introduction to the Judge, and with a lot of Dick’s guilt too.  You use flashbacks sparingly, but it’s enough to telegraph how this one guy has kind of haunted Dick all of these years.

SH: Yeah, and we’re going to see… we’ve indicated in this first chapter that Dick has faced the Judge twice before, and he failed.  And people, don’t go hunting through your back issues to find him, because this is a new character we’ve invented.

JY: [laughs]

SH: We’re inserting him into continuity here, but I assure you it all works out, continuity-wise.  So, in issue 37, we have a special guest artist, the living legend himself Klaus Janson is coming to do an issue with some help from Jamal Campbell.  And in that issue, we go back and we see Dick’s… not just Dick’s first encounter with the Judge, but Dick’s first time in Blüdhaven as Robin.  And then in issue 39, we see Dick Grayson, college student, with the second time he faces down the Judge, as illustrated by superstar Phil Jimenez–

JY: Right, I remember that.

SH: With an assist by Jamal Campbell.  So, it was important this issue to establish the history, particularly the emotional effect it has on Dick because… Dick Grayson is a lifer.  He’s been a crimefighter, he’s been a superhero for a larger percentage of his life than Batman, Superman, or most of any of these DC Comics characters.  So for a character to come back like the Judge who just emphasizes the times when Dick has failed to be an effective crimefighter, that hits deep.  Because if he’s not a crimefighter, then what is he?  And that’s an idea we play around with a little.  So we wanted to indicate that in the first issue with some really quick, brief flashbacks knowing that we’re going to dig deep into those episodes in Dick’s life, what they mean to him, and how they connect to his present day investigation of the Judge with Klaus Janson and Phil Jimenez.

JY: Yeah, sure, and you said that the Judge is a brand new character that hasn’t been established before, but you’ve said that Guppy, the Sensational Character Find of 2017, is a legacy character.

SH: [laughs] He is.

JY: And his father is King Sturgeon, is that right?

SH: His father is King Sturgeon.

JY: King Sturgeon.  When I read that, I was like “oh, okay.  Is he an old character?”  But no, King Sturgeon is a new character as well, isn’t he?  I couldn’t find any history on him either.

SH: He absolutely is a new character.  Both Guppy and King Sturgeon, you’re right.  Guppy is a legacy character, by the strictest definition of legacy.  He is the son of an old supervillain, and again, kind of like the League of Limousine Assassins, Guppy was an idea I had that I thought was interesting, and the name King Sturgeon I thought was cool.  But the more I played with them in the development stage of this arc, the more they grew into every stage of the story and the more I realized that these weren’t one-off characters or jokes or ideas.  These were players that had, not just things to do in the entire story, but things to say to illuminate not just Dick’s investigation but also illuminate Dick and illuminate Nightwing and illuminate his role in Blüdhaven.  So Guppy is a legacy character, kind of a cracked mirror reflection of Dick because Guppy’s life is not going so well.  He’s kind of a two-bit hood on the streets of Blüdhaven and his father is King Sturgeon and both Guppy and King Sturgeon have a connection to the Judge that we will see, and there’s a lot more coming to Guppy’s story and the repercussions of his encounter with the Judge.

JY: You’d think, King Sturgeon just sounds like a classic name.  When I read that I was like “oh, was he created maybe after Killer Croc took off?”

SH: [laughs]

JY: “Well, let’s create a couple of other Batman baddies named after aquatic creatures so they can have their own League of Aquatic Assassins” and everything.  But nope, sure enough, King Sturgeon’s a new guy, not capitalizing off of Gerry Conway’s lasting impact.

SH: Yeah.  With the Judge and with Guppy and King Sturgeon and with the League of Limousine Assassins and with a couple of other elements I won’t reveal yet, it was really important to us to make these dyed in the wool Blüdhaven characters.  These were rogues and villains and bad guys and supporting characters that could only come from Blüdhaven. These are characters whose stories, they just wouldn’t make sense and they wouldn’t ring true if you put them in Gotham or Metropolis.  There’s another character who we haven’t seen yet in the first issue whose name is Baby Ruthless–

JY: Yes.

SH: –and she’s another character who belongs wholeheartedly to Blüdhaven.  She is Blüdhaven proud… a Blüdhaven native, and you couldn’t just pick her up as a character and put her in Coast City or anywhere like that.

JY: Sure, and I love that Guppy… I mean, the name Guppy kind of carries a “ok, is this guy a joke or not?”  Even as a shark-guy in a bomber jacket or whatever he’s wearing, but his personality is just so jittery and skittish.  I mean, he looks like if you took away his appearance, he would still be that same character, which I thought was really strong.  It wasn’t just a gimmick, it definitely felt like Guppy… like you said, he’s a hood and he has history and he’s a person.

SH: Yeah.

JY: So I appreciated that.

SH: Thank you, yeah.  Yes, definitely the breakout character of 2017 and 2018.  I took a lot of influence from… all those things you said about Guppy I shamelessly stole– I’m sorry, I mean influenced Scoot McNairy, who is one of my favorite actors.  He is in Halt and Catch Fire and Godless, the new western on Netflix.  But he just has this fantastic performance in the movie Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt.  Where he plays a two-bit hood who is kind of jittery and can’t get quite on his feet and it’s like the tides of fortune are always against him.  And that’s how I had to start thinking about Guppy, like you said, he’s a shark-guy because there’s a thing there that we’re going to do with it, but I would kind of get stuck there.  But “what would he be like if he wasn’t a shark-guy?  What would his personality be if he was a human?” and I had to kind of concentrate on that and I really dipped into Scoot McNairy’s performance and sent some reference to Bernard for that, and Bernard picked that up and ran away with it.  And with Guppy and kind of with every character, you need to relate to them as humans and not as a crimefighter or a weird shark-guy or a monster or whatever.  And if you do that, hopefully you’ll get the strongest character possible.

JY: Sure, and with that, it doesn’t feel gimmicky, which is always good.  And you’re also saying anyone’s fan-casting of Guppy needs to begin and end at Scoot McNairy.

SH: Exactly, exactly.  I would be loath to put the masterful Scoot McNairy under twelve pounds of shark latex, but you are absolutely correct.

JY: But there are just parts people are born to play, and I guess Scoot McNairy is a shark-guy.

SH: [laughs] I wrote it for Scoot, with love.

JY: [laughs] “For Scoot, with love.”

SH: Yep.

JY: One last thing.  You know who would be a good character to introduce in Dick’s cross-training life?  Tad Ryerstad, Sam.  Tad Ryerstad.

SH: [laughs]

JY: Nite-Wing.

SH: I tried to cut this off before you got to good old Tad, but I should have known that your fandom was too strong, Jay.  I could not get in your way.

JY: Well, I apologize. I tried to sneak it in, and I guess the day is mine today, but perhaps next time it will be yours, Sam.

SH: Perhaps the next time we talk.  You at least planted the idea in my head.

JY: In all seriousness, it’s a great issue.  Visually it’s stunning and gorgeous, with lots of great details between the neon of the city and the haze of the flashback and everything in between.  And it’s written so well too.  There’s a lot of narration, but it always moves.  It’s paced incredibly well, and it is very Dick Grayson, which first and foremost as a fan of Nightwing, that is what I like to see.  That’s what I want is a good Dick Grayson series.  We got it before with Tim, and before that with Tim and Tom on Grayson, and I’m glad to see, as a fan moving forward, the series is in good hands.

SH: Yeah, man.  We’re going to keep this hot streak going.

Nightwing #35 is in comic shops and on digital platforms now.