His name is not Stupido – Scott Lobdell on RHATO, Rebirth, and reductionist criticism

Scott Lobdell is a weirdo—and I think that’s why I like him so much. After tearing his Teen Titans to shreds, and ripping his Red Hood/Arsenal multiple new ones, I found myself eating a super-sized portion of crow after a few issues of his second crack at Red Hood and the Outlaws. The man I once insisted was not a storyteller had proven me wrong, and I wanted to understand more. After I interviewed RHATO letterer Taylor Esposito, Lobdell playfully asked me when I would be interviewing him. A few false starts and over a year later, the stars have at last aligned and I am pleased to present what I hope will be the first of many such talks. So enough setup—on to the interview!

Brian Warshaw: You’ve been writing Jason for a long time now—why does he appeal to you?

Scott Lobdell: While I’m a sucker for a redemptive arc in movies and television, the truth is that Jason’s redemption will probably take forever. That is, he’s always going to feel the need to make up for what he’s done—he’s going to always push himself to do the right thing for all the times in his past that he’s screwed things up. (We are a lot alike in that way, Jason and I, though I don’t own a duffel bag with heads in it)

I think that’s okay, though. I think that makes Jason more self-aware than a lot of other characters in comics.  He knows he has tragic flaws, and he doesn’t want to paper over them. If anything he wears them out in the open (he even wears a blood red bat symbol on his chest—sort of his own version of a scarlet “A”). Unlike Batman who is trying to save the eight year old version of himself—trying to protect his parents from a murder that happened thirty years ago—Jason is dealing with the moment.

BW: Reception to the current RHATO book has been very good on Batman News, and, as you know, I like the book a lot. But I (and a lot of folks) didn’t see it coming, because we weren’t too fond of the pre-Rebirth stuff. What’s different about your approach—or editorial approach, if you’re allowed to talk about it—now vs then?

SL: Interesting that you put the onus on me and not on you? LOL!

Is it possible that you went into the first series with expectations for what RHATO should be and became angry/frustrated because it wasn’t the series you wanted it to be?   Instead of judging it for the series it is?

Even recently you’ve been shaving points off the reviews that you start by saying “I would rather this arc be about this” or “I would rather we focus on these characters instead of this,” instead of taking the story for what is and not what is not.

Just something to think about.

I will say that, traditionally, in the past, readers of RHATO and Red Hood/Arsenal can notice where stories were set-up and set-up and set-up, only to have the conclusion of the story go careening off the tracks. I can say that there have been many times where I’ve started a story and someone from upstairs decreed that a particular plot thread had to be dropped, or a whole other plot thread needed to be added, or an entire story arc had to be gutted in the middle of the story. Those times have been very frustrating for me—but as a professional writer of some thirty years, I’ve always felt that part of the profession means that I need to turn in the story the editor/publisher wants and not always the story I want to write, or begin, or end.

Similarly, when an editor says “you need more narration here to explain what is going on” or “we would prefer you write third-person omnipresent because so many of our books are written first-person” or “we want you to use thought balloons on this title, but not thought balloons on that title,” then that is what I do, because that is what I’m asked to do.

Maybe more to your point, I love both my editors on Red Hood and the Outlaws since Rebirth.  They are both great guys and great editors.

But I had a much bigger storyline to start the series with, and it was tossed, and I was asked to write Black Mask as the main villain for the first arc. I admit that I agonized over that for the first few months of the series. Unlike even a Lex Luthor or Joker (who at least have battle suits and toxic Joker gas), Black Mask has no powers at all. He’s not even someone as inherently evil as the Penguin. He is just a guy who has henchmen with Tommy guns.

I was so angry for months that I had the chance to write Red Hood, Artemis and Bizarro—Trinity level super heroes—and the big villain they were up against was the Black Mask?!

Let’s take a minute and put it in perspective: any one of the three heroes could easily defeat every henchman Black Mask could order up and kill off Black Mask if they started out at sunrise, and still be home for breakfast. The idea that he would last five minutes against the Dark Trinity would be laughable. But that’s what I was tasked with.

Since it was going to be the first arc, though—and because I didn’t have any say in it—I was forced to concentrate almost entirely on character and less on plot (when I say “forced,” it didn’t take much, because my inclination is to always focus more on character than plot). So maybe what you and Batman News and other people are responding to was more the change of pacing from the first series: instead of hitting the ground running with a preexisting relationship between Jason, Roy and Kori (which wasn’t necessarily what people were expecting), the Rebirth had a much slower pace, and the characters were introduced to each other and to the readers with more detail.

Similarly, with this series, I have editors who are supportive of taking chances.  For example, the “Smart Bizarro” story was only going to be for three issues. “Scott, everyone knows he’s not going to stay smart, so you should just wrap it up.” But when I wrote his very first sentence, I was like “whoa! There is something so cool about this—there is such a bigger story to tell about the Outlaws with a smart Bizarro! This isn’t just about Bizarro, it is about how the team changes, how the dynamic between the three of them changes as a result, about how Jason and Artemis deal with Bizarro and their own feelings about him!”

I was between editors at the time and I said to my new editor “I know this was supposed to be only three issues, but we can do this! And this! And this!” And he was like, “you are clearly very excited. Write down what you are thinking and we’ll talk about it.”

Which is a lot different than writing-by-edict.

Is that what you might be sensing?

BW: I’d like to push back a little bit on the first part of your answer…

SL: I knew you would!

BW: I think that’s a fair question, and a fair point, but my situation is a little bit different than most of my readers. I started reading comics in 2013 ahead of the release of Man of Steel. I didn’t bring any baggage into Red Hood/Arsenal or Teen Titans when I reviewed them—I just had big problems with dialogue and plot. Not so much because I wanted the stories to be something they weren’t, but because I didn’t think they worked within themselves. Maybe my readers brought more baggage, but I don’t think so. In my (admittedly short) experience, big Jason fans loved everything you did (and let me know what they thought of my criticism). But most of the voices that chimed in disliked the same things I did.

I asked the question—and I’m grateful for your answer—because once Rebirth started, I ate a lot of crow. I did it with a smile on my face, because I was glad to be wrong, but I still had to do it. In one of my reviews for a Teen Titans trade, I’d said “Scott Lobdell may get paid to tell stories, but he is not a storyteller,” but Rebirth’s RHATO proved me wrong on that point. And it made me think a lot more about the complexity of this business, and realize that there’s a lot more at play than a guy’s capabilities. I never apologized to you about that storyteller comment—in hindsight, it kind of seems mean-spirited. Forgive me, please.

SL: You don’t need to apologize for anything.

In response to your reply, I feel this:

There are so many choices that go into writing a comic—especially when you are writing to making the twenty pages work individually and not with an eye solely on the trade.

I’ve read reviews where people harangue me for recapping something that happened last issue—or a character’s secret identity or their powers or etc. To me, I think it is important that if someone is reading just this comic (and not a trade, or not every issue before this), that they should have the information they need to enjoy the story. Now, can it be annoying to people who have read every issue (or even last issue)? Sure. But without a “Previously on…” highlight reel, this is the experience of reading a standalone comic. It is either/or. And often I’ll chose “or” over “either.”

For people who prefer either over or it can be irritating.   But I don’t necessarily find it a “fair” criticism.

Now you (or other reviews or other fans) might think it is fair because it isn’t what you want—but that doesn’t make it fair as a matter of course.

I’ll give you another example. There was a writer who did an issue of Swamp Thing that co-starred Superman.  It was very well-received, and the reviewers loved it, and even someone from upstairs at DC said “Scott, you have to read this. This is such a great comic. All comics should be this good.”

I read it and I was kind of appalled. I searched backwards and forwards in that issue, and I couldn’t find any reference to Superman.  As I recall, he was not even named in the issue. At all. I think I recall he was referenced as Clark once, but I can’t say for sure. I was staggered. How do you write a whole issue and never name the character, even in caption, even if the character is Superman? It was a few years ago now, but I remember thinking while the story was about Holland trying to hold onto his humanity, there wasn’t any context for Superman in this story:  about the idea that while he was raised as a human, he is not actually a human; and so it is odd that Holland is looking up to Superman as some kind of beacon.

Now, you can say, “Scott, every person on the planet knows who Superman is. And that he’s Clark. And what his powers are and his history and that he’s an alien.” But for the purpose of this story (that I read), none of that was there; and so, to me (strictly speaking, to me), the story didn’t do what it needed to do as a story.

Again, at the time people loved it. People went crazy for it. The reviews I read were stellar. The fact that I didn’t think it worked doesn’t change the reviews one whit.

I’ll just say one more thing on this. There are people who watched Happy Death Day [a recent film written by Lobdell] and thought it was the best horror script of the last twenty years. There were others who watched it and said it was the worst thing they’d ever seen committed to film. In essence, they are both right: for the people who loved it and thought it was the best, they enjoyed it. To the people who hated it, no amount of reviews will ever change their mind.

Some people like some stuff.   Other people like other stuff.

BW: Bizarro is probably my favorite character in the book, and one of my favorite characters period being published at DC right now. You’ve taken him in a different direction than most anticipated, and I think that was a great move. Can you talk about inspirations for your version? Where’s this guy coming from?

SL: I think it is right there in his name. So many times in the past he has been written as dumb.  “Me am cold,” when he is in the sun, and “me am hot” when he is in the Arctic. When I looked at him at the beginning of the series, I thought, “his name is Bizarro. He should think bizarre.” His name is not Stupido.

And then I thought about how maybe my entire life I’ve been either written off or admired or loved or hated over the reality that I don’t think about things the same way other people do. I just don’t. I’ll give you an example:

When I was growing up, I had two best friends, Buddy and Mickey, who had Muscular Dystrophy. They were both supposed to have died before they were thirteen years-old. We spent every day together—and as they were my neighbors, that was very easy. Well, they both lived until the age of twenty-four. So for about ten years of my life, every single day was a gift from God.

Every.  Single.  Day.

Every day, I would go to bed, and they were alive and happy; and every morning that I would wake up and they were there, I would thank God and the universe for it. We all hear the phrase “live every day like it is your last”—but we don’t. We get wrapped up in bills and relationships and jobs that suck, and instead of appreciating what we have, we grouse about what we don’t have or don’t have yet or may never have.

But I really and honestly and genuinely in all ways wake up and go to bed grateful for the day that passed, and look forward to the day I’ll be waking up to—even when those days have sucky things happening in them.

I’ve had some pretty staggering successes in life, and some pretty crushing failures, but on either end of the spectrum is a ferocious and cognitive and deliberate appreciation of the day—of the moment.  Like Jason!

I think there are people who might look at that day and say it is a bizarre way to think.  Heck, there are a lot of people who don’t even believe in God or the Universe—which, I admit, I think is kind of bizarre!

I don’t want to get to personal, but I think there are a lot of people who would think my views on sex are bizarre. I don’t—and I try to hang out with people who have similar thoughts and try not to get involved with Vanillas—but I understand there are many people who would consider my pursuit of my own sexuality bizarre.

Heck, Brian, I’m sure if you wrote down every thought you have in the course of a week, there would be lots of people that might find some of those thoughts bizarre. [I can confirm this–BW]

And therein lies the key to Bizarro. He isn’t the “stranger” or the “freak” or the “misfit toy”—he is the bizarre in each of us. In his own way he’s more a representation of Everyman than Superman will ever be. If Superman’s chest symbol represents “Hope,” then Bizarro’s chest symbol represents “Be.”

BW: I like that.

For better or for worse, when you put a guy and a girl together in a book, people expect them to get together. You’ve skirted the issue with Jason and Artemis, but you haven’t (yet) tackled it directly. Is there any internal pressure (at DC or just in your own head) to aim for or avoid that sort of relationship here?

SL: Hmmm. It seems like you do much better with the ladies than I, Brian!

My own personal experience is that about 99.8% of the women I’ve met in my life have never “gotten together” with me. Not women I’ve met socially, not women I’ve met through work, not even women I’ve met through, say, a dating app where the whole point of the app was to get together.

I think the notion that Jason and Artemis would get together based mostly on their proximity to one another to be an odd one, no?

After I got out of college, in my early 20s, I worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. If I recall, I was the only male nurse’s aide working at the time. I don’t recall dating or even hooking up with any of the thirty or so women I worked with at the time.  Though maybe, to your point above, that is more because I am weird.

You have to remember that both Jason and Artemis are two tragically-flawed peopled. They have both experienced a lot of trauma in their lives and I doubt either one of them are in a place (yet) where they really have the tools they need to build and maintain a healthy relationship with anyone, let alone each other.  And, spoiler alert, things are going to get even worse emotionally for all three of them in the coming months.

But yes, there have been times where it has been expressed to me by the powers at be [that I should have] have Jason and Artemis get together, but I’ve resisted the notion.  I just don’t think it serves either character.  I don’t think that, given their individual histories, they are a natural fit in a romantic way.

Can that change over time? Absolutely. People change. People grow. In real life and in comics.

But for the moment I just don’t see it happening. I think right now, they are better off being partners who razz each other, are fiercely loyal to each other, maybe even love the other—but don’t need to express that love romantically by kissing each other or sleeping together. But for the JaRtemis ‘shippers out there, hold out hope. I could be fired tomorrow and another writer might think it is a great idea!

BW: I think you might have misunderstand my relationship question a little bit (or I wrote it badly—I can take criticism, too). I’ve had one girlfriend who became my wife, and it’s not because I wasn’t interested in girls before her—it’s because none of them wanted anything to do with me! I just meant that people look at a work of fiction and instantly start pairing prominent characters—“shipping them,” as the kids say. But you answered the question anyhow.

SL: No, I understood. I was just teasing you—but also teasing readers or audiences who think that because two characters are in proximity to each other and because they are both awesome, that they should be together.

BW: Okay, last question for now: I’ve seen at least one comment in the past year from a reader who wishes that Jason was more brutal—that he would go back to killing people again instead of playing by Bruce’s rules. They kind of want him to be DC’s Frank Castle, I suppose. How do you feel about that?

SL: I agree to an extent that he should be more violent—more on that in a moment.

But I don’t think he should be the Punisher, because there is already a Punisher. Just like I don’t think there should be x amount of people in the Iron Man armor, or amount of people running around with power rings. I just think every character should be unique, and that maybe we’ve lost a lot of that over the years in the industry’s effort to “evolve.”

I always got the impression that the Punisher might track down a crime lord and make his way through three dozen bodyguards in the crime lord’s mansion—killing every one of them—and then the crime lord himself.

I think Jason should only kill when he doesn’t have other options. I think he should probably only kill when his life (or that of another person) is in imminent danger.

When the series started, I understood they wanted to instill a “No Killing In Gotham City Rule.”  But when we got to Qurac, I had him killing terrorists and soldiers who were trying to kill him.  I got a note: “he can’t kill, remember?”  I was like, “he’s in the middle of a war!” The note came back: “doesn’t matter. He promised.” Honestly, I was a little embarrassed: part of putting him in the middle of the war was so that I thought I could write a sort of Jason Unbound! So now I have him in the middle of a war and he can’t shoot any one. Sigh.

Lately I have gotten word to make the book grittier—darker—so maybe we will be seeing more of the more violent Red Hood.

BW: Well, Scott, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, and for being gracious to this (at times) highly-critical critic. It’s been a pleasure.

SL: Thank you!

I love hearing from readers. Drop me a line at mrwarshawreadsthecomics@gmail.com to let me know what you think of this interview, or if you have any follow-up questions for Scott. Or leave a comment below!