Legends of the Dark Knight is a series most Batman fans know and love. It’s a chance for a variety of writers and teams to step in and tell a story about their Batman. In issue #4 Stephanie Phillips gets to do just that. She takes Batman deep into a mystery set in both Gotham’s past and present and I had the absolute pleasure of getting to sit down with her and talk all about it.
Matina Newsom: Hello! I am really excited to be chatting with you today about Legends of the Dark Knight.
Stephanie Phillips: Thanks for doing this, it’s awesome.
MN: Yeah, I’m really excited. I loved the issue a lot. I opened it up and went “oh my gosh I’m going to love this so much!” The whole aesthetic and ambiance of just the first couple pages was totally my vibe.
SP: I know, Max killed that. He did such an incredible job on those pages.
MN: Yeah, it looks incredible.
Getting to put out a story in Legends of the Dark Knight is really exciting, and I was curious what drew you to do a story for it, and what your relationship is with it as a series in general?
SP: I remember reading some of the Legends of the Dark Knight growing up. So hearing DC was reviving that and getting a call to participate was like: Oh! That’s, you know, that’s something I don’t know that I considered a bucket list item because I just never thought it was possible. It’s something that I was always reading–I actually own pages from some of the older Legends of the Dark Knight stories, which is really cool, because I went back and I was looking at them and I now own one from Max from our story. I’m able to put them on my wall side-by-side and be like this is a really cool thing to get to participate in, and give my own ‘What is the Batman story I really want to tell’. For me that’s a very detective, a little bit like horror, going back and doing some Gotham history and trying to get all that to connect.
MN: Yeah, I adore stories that dive into Gotham’s history. So seeing this I was like, “Yes, another one!”
SP: Absolutely, I just always remember Snyder did such a cool job of establishing some of this past, so I wanted to make sure it connected with what was done before and build off of that, which was cool.
MN: Gates of Gotham is one of those stories I read often.
Looking at this story, how is it different from some of the other things you’ve worked on before?
SP: It’s definitely a little darker. I think with Harley even though the setting is dark, Harley is vibrant. So, part of the fun is having those two things clash with Harley. Something really macabre can be happening around her and she’s really enthusiastic about something. That’s really a lot of the fun of writing her.
I think one of the challenges with switching to writing Batman specifically is that I see them as so polar opposite with dialogue. Harley is overly vocal. Every thought, no filter. Something reminds her of something, and she’s down a rabbit hole and she’s telling you about it. Whereas Batman, I would write dialogue and go back and edit out as much as I could. What’s the bare minimum that he can say? I think Max did such an incredible job with Bruce’s facial expressions that I could edit even more out. His frown gave you everything you need to know about this scene. That was a lot of fun.
But yeah, it’s a different challenge. You know, growing up with Batman and getting to write him for the first time was daunting but it was also one of those things of trying to find my Batman and the voice that I wanted to give him for the story.
MN: Yeah, that’s super great. I couldn’t imagine trying to write Batman.
SP: Yeah! I couldn’t have either, so that was –I think my go to was just like make him say as little as I possibly can. And I also love Batman and Alfred, so getting to bring Alfred into the story and have them kind of go back and forth and have Alfred be that person that kind of pushes Bruce a little bit. I think in Batman stories you need that character that’s going to question this thing that’s dark and gloomy and the Dark Detective and things like that. Somebody that’s got a little more vibrancy that can be like, “Yeah that’s, I mean that’s kind of funny.” You know, looking at it from an outsider’s perspective. I think Alfred gives us that.
MN: He really does. He had some great scenes. I paused one time and was like “oh, longsuffering Alfred.”
SP: Letting him drive the batmobile, I was like I kinda just want Alfred to just like go for a joyride. That sounds fun!
MN: I loved that part. I was like “*gasp* it’s Alfred!”
SP: That’s awesome, I love Alfred.
MN: It was phenomenal, yeah every time he shows up I love him, and I think that he was just a real star in this one.
SP: Thank you! I appreciate that.
MN: He was great.
You’ve got a phenomenal art team on this book. Max Dunbar– I loved his Bruce, loved his Batman. And the colors, the colors were beautiful. What was it like working with Max and Tamra and the whole team? What was your favorite part about working with them, and what’s different from some of your other teams you’ve worked with?
SP: The team is really collaborative so I liked that a lot. I worked with Tamra Bonvillain before and I really liked working with them. And you know it was my first time working with Max, but I think just right out the gate we were both having so much fun designing things and like the Batmobile for this issue? Max wanted to do something that was a little more unique, so kind of like his own take on the Batmobile. I think my only note was that I really wanted to do echoes of the Bat logo throughout the design so even when this net pops out it kind of mirrors a bat.
MN: I noticed that!
SP: I told Max, I was like “That might be a really dumb idea.” But Max made my really dumb idea look super cool. He really just did an incredible job on the interior pages. Anything where I was like, Max, do you think this is dumb? He took it and made it cool.
So yeah, I thought that might be too silly or over the top. And I was ready for Max to be like, we’re not making the net look like a bat. But I was really thrilled with how that came out. And he didn’t tell me I was stupid, he just went to it and he was like, let’s see what we can do. And that batmobile design– I love the Batmobile. And so I was just thrilled that we got to put something out that was kind of like our own Batmobile version. And you know, I hope somebody lets Max draw that more because it’s pretty incredible.
MN: Yeah, for sure. I loved it. And I loved that net. I was like, that’s a bat!
SP: I’m glad people aren’t laughing at me for the bat-net!
MN: No, I loved it. I liked it. It was like, oh, gosh, Batman, I love Batman so much.
SP: I think he’s got this really interesting flair for the dramatic. He’s that kid in high school that’s super gothy and thinks they want to sit in the corner and be cool. And then, they’re just so dramatic that it’s like–I think that’s why you need someone like Alfred that calls them on that kind of thing. Like, of course Bruce is awesome. And we love him. But yeah, of course, he would have a net shaped like a bat and call it the bat-net.
MN: Yes, I agree. For sure. That was a delightful addition to it. So, I think it was a great idea.
In talking about the story a little bit more, this is a one shot versus the multiple issue stories that Legends of the Dark Knight does. What was your approach to working on just this single issue story? Was it a character first approach or did you have a story first approach? How’d you tackle it?
SP: I think I wanted to figure out –like once we had this idea for the West End Wraith– we wanted to kind of make this a dark crime story that touched on Gotham history. So we were trying to do –I mean, on the surface– I think it sounded like a lot of things: detective story, Gotham history, elements of horror. These are all things that I remember about Batman, these really long, kind of like wide shots of things that are really dark, that are illuminated by lightning. Those are kind of like touchstones of Batman’s Gotham for me. So I was excited to get to add those in visually.
And then I also wanted there to be some kind of thematic pull for Batman to have to think about being a vigilante and what that means. And at the end, him choosing what’s right or wrong, and how he can make a difference without overshadowing somebody else’s story. Which was important for Bruce to understand or come to that understanding by the end. We wanted Bruce to get something from this detective story he was on.
I was trying to think of, how can we show old moments of Gotham while still grounding this in the present? Because I didn’t want to just do a full on Batman in the 1930s, which would be very cool, but I still wanted something grounded, very modern. With Max, we came up with this idea of like, he has all these simulations, and he would get so invested in it, that we’re kind of seeing it from his point of view. And Tamra just came in with this idea of making some of those simulations look a little bit more pixelated so that the reader doesn’t get crazy lost in Bruce’s mind. And I was just like, wow, Tamra came up with this incredible idea. As soon as Max and I saw it, we were both like, that’s it, that’s perfect, you helped ground what we’re doing. Which again, was one of those things where I hope the reader doesn’t get super confused by us really showing you what Bruce is seeing and thinking. And I think Tamra had a cool solution for that. So that came out really nice.
MN: I loved the whole idea of the simulation in there. It was a really cool way to blend past and present together. I did a double take when he’s in the hallway and looking at the crime scene, and I was like, “I like this!”
SP: Yeah, I like being able to see things from a character’s point of view. We’ve done it a little bit with Harley, especially in Fear State, kind of like a Hannibal type here’s how we see Harley solving the crime in her mind. With Harley, again, it’s something that’s so over the top. Going in Harley’s mind is like, carnival ride and fun, and I love that about her. And it was kind of interesting that like, Bruce’s, we’re not entirely in his mind, we’re in this construct of Gotham that he’s made. I liked getting to have Alfred say that line: Why couldn’t you just have made model trains like the other boys. Instead you made this crazy computer simulation of Old Gotham. Which is awesome. I would love that. I would love a computer simulation of Old Gotham. Like maybe an old Gotham map or something, that would be super cool.
MN: I totally agree. I loved it. It was a very cool way to tell the story and approach it and to tackle this investigation.
To jump back to the creation of the story a little bit, I’m curious. Legends of the Dark Knight is a digital first series, and then it gets published physically. Was writing for that any different from traditionally writing a comic? Or was your process different?
SP: I think one of the biggest things was I had to think about pages in terms of “Can Max reasonably find a place to break this in half?” So printed that will be one full page, but in digital, the pages are cut in half. And so I think it was trying to be respectful to Max and not give him something that was like: “I guess you’ll figure it out”. I tried to do some work up front to try to see even just a panel count, like keeping that in mind a bit more than I maybe otherwise would have. Or not doing one big page splash but doing three panels or something so that you could have a big second half of the page that shows Batman in some cool position. So I mean, it was just kind of thinking a little bit more about how it was going to be used. But other than that, you know, I don’t think we worked wildly different. I think it came out really cool on the digital end, too. I went and looked at it and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. They found good page breaks”.
MN: I’ve really been super excited about the digital, digital first format. There’s been a ton of books coming out that have been published that way, and there’s some stuff that I’ve just really loved. Legends of the Dark Knight has been one of those that I’ve just been looking forward to coming out every time. I was curious, what are your thoughts on that publishing process and comics in general? Do you think that’s kind of the way of the future?
SP: I think during the pandemic, maybe my view on that shifted a little bit. I like that more of the digital first stuff started popping up as readers were looking for more and more content. And I still like that at the end of the day, Legends of the Dark Knight will get printed, –or the Sensational Wonder Woman that I worked on that was digital first. These are still getting print copies.
I think it was a best of both worlds thing going on where the price of the digital comics was super reasonable. So you know, there’s a lot of them that I read. And I like that. I like having these little installments or snippets, and the stories are really good. So you have these one shot stories that are really fun to participate in. Because I get to tell a really cool one shot Batman or one shot Wonder Woman or something like that about a story that I’ve wanted to tell. And I think for readers, that’s really cool. You have a low price point, a bunch of content coming out faster during a time when I feel like we’re not consuming it fast enough. You know, there were times during the pandemic where you’re on lockdown. You’re like, where do I get more content from? So I thought that was a really smart decision to be like, let’s put some of these things out there for people to gravitate towards.
And now, as shops are opening up again I’m seeing a lot more of it on stands. I think some of the Superman: Man of Tomorrow, comes out in trade this month, like the first installment of it. So then getting to see it printed is really cool. Even though I’ve read them digitally, I’m still picking up the trade because, I want that, it looks nice, I really want that on my shelf. So I’m sure there are other people like me double dipping as well. I think that low price point helps. I can buy a .99 cent digital edition, and then it doesn’t hurt when I go buy a $15 trade.
MN: I totally agree. I’ve been picking up the physical copies of pretty much everything, even though I’ve been reading them digitally, too. I think it’s a good way of doing it.
MN: Okay, so we’ve talked a little bit about the content of the book already, but I wanted to discuss the West End Wraith again. You talked a little bit about coming up with the character, but, what was your thought process? What was your design process? Did you and Max work really closely on creating that fabulous design on the page, because they look great.
SP: Yeah, at some point, if they do a trade or something, I’m hoping that they print some of the other designs as well. We went through a lot of iterations of trying to get this right. On the one hand, we really wanted to make sure we concealed her gender, and have that be something that was flowing and ghostlike, and –blobby is not the right word– but just one shape, almost. That way it would translate kind of cool to the mirror shelf that we have. So just seeing a reflection or a shadow. So we were thinking about where that design was being used. I also think it just looks super cool. Max did an amazing job on that. We wanted it to be period appropriate as well. So pulling in inspiration from big coats, or things from the time period was a lot of fun.
And the name, like, I’m just a big fan of alliteration. So I went through a couple different iterations of the name until I think that’s the one that I proposed and everyone on the team immediately was like, I think you just hit the winner, that’s a good one. So yeah, I wanted to tell a crime story that touched on the past, but I wanted there to be that kind of twist at the end where, you know, this isn’t just a straightforward who-done-it Scooby Doo mystery. There’s a little bit more nuance to it.
I think that’s something that challenges Bruce. Bruce can catch the bad guy all day, but when Bruce has to also look in the mirror –which is one of the reasons we have a lot of mirrors in this book– be able to actually look in that mirror and kind of look at his own behavior and choices and see how they might reflect on his past or on the way that other people maybe make similar parallel choices and how he interacts with them. And that’s what we really wanted to highlight. But it was important for Bruce to kind of have that moment, like, that’s not my story. I will help to tell hers, I will help to support hers, but you know, this is, it’s not for Batman to go kick, you know her bad guy. She took care of her thing, and let her have that moment. That was something that I also, I don’t wanna say struggled with, but I had a few different endings. But ultimately, for me, it was, you know, Bruce needed to recognize his story versus somebody else’s.
MN: I really love the resolution to the story a lot. And this train of thought brings me into another question that I had, which was that you tackle some pretty big ideas in this, about accountability, and about not letting stories get lost in the past and really kind of standing up for what’s right. I was just curious about what inspired you to go pick that story and tackle that kind of through line?
SP: I think, especially working on Harley’s story, accountability is this huge theme for things I’ve been working on lately. It’s interesting to see how all these characters have a different sense of accountability. So even somebody like Batman who is, quote, unquote, the good guy, versus Harley, who’s still trying to figure out that path towards goodness –if we want to call it that– I think they have a different sense of accountability and kind of seeing what that choice is.
I like having that moment where Alfred got to question that choice, like, is this the right thing? And him saying, you know, he let something happen, or his family let something happen, there is accountability for him for what’s happened here. And also looking at the justice side of it. There have been many times in Bruce’s life where he felt like justice was not served, which has led to Batman. And if you turn the table and he was like, the West End Wraith is a disgrace, that would be very hypocritical. So while he might not condone all of her actions, it was about understanding them and also taking accountability for his own past in maybe leading to some of these things. I think the most important part, and what makes Batman somebody that is likable and interesting to us is that he can take that, take accountability and make a change and alter his course based on that.
I think that’s something that’s interesting to see with Harley too, as she takes accountability, like, how does she course correct? It’s very different from how I think Bruce course corrects. It’s a very somber moment of, Batman is now watching, Batman now knows what to watch for. Bruce can do one thing Batman can do one thing. Harley course correcting is usually lots of trial and error. I think that’s something I’m very interested in, which is the notion of accountability, and how it’s different for all of these characters in Gotham, how they interact, or how they rise to the challenge or don’t. Of what that accountability looks like.
MN: Yeah, I love that. That’s a great way to look at it for sure.
We’ve been talking about Harley quite a bit, and you’ve worked on a lot of Gotham stories lately. Harley and this and you had that Urban Legends tale. What’s been your favorite to tackle so far?
SP: I think Harley, just because I have such a long runway with this. There’s a sense of, in the same way that Harley is trying to make amends for her own past, it feels like every new issue I get to write, I get to continue to try understanding her. That’s a really cool thing of getting to know this character really intimately because I get so much time with her. Getting to develop that voice.
I think it was announced last week, I’m doing some Detective Comics backups with Batman as the new Arkham tower is being built. And Harley will feature in that as well. That was really interesting to write her alongside Batman –which you know, we did that a little bit in the series– but it was just funny to write the two because I feel like Batman, even though I probably know him better than any comics character out there. Like that’s who I grew up with. That’s why I gravitated towards comics in the first place. But I’ve written and worked with Harley so much that when I go to write the two, the Harley dialogue will just spill out. Whereas Batman, I’m still thinking, I’m still getting to know my Batman, or my Batman voice. I don’t think that’s something I quite realized how much I’ve grown with Harley until I started writing those scenes and realizing Batman takes me longer. Harley is like, I can just write the dialogue for this all day because I love it and we’re both a little overly verbal. So that makes it easier. Whereas, you know paring down Batman and really trying to get his reactions right. But of course having him react with Alfred in Legends is a lot of fun, and having him react to Harley in the Detective Comic backup –which we called Arkham Rising— is a lot of fun as well. And more Gotham history because it’s definitely looking at a lot of old Arkham history, which I love.
MN: That’s really exciting.
SP: And you know David Lapham is drawing it. He’s one of my favorite artists, so getting to work with David is pretty incredible. His pages are gorgeous. So, I’m excited for people to read that.
MN: Yeah, I will be on the lookout for that one for sure. Yeah, I love any kind of dive into history and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your Harley series. And I’ve liked the way you know Harley and Batman have played off of each other when we’ve seen them together.
You’ve already kind of touched a little bit on some of my other questions with Harley but I was gonna ask if you have any tidbits that you want to share with the audience anything to get people excited about her upcoming fate?
SP: There’s so much cool stuff upcoming. I think we showed off the cover that has Gotham City Sirens on it. And I’m really excited for a reunion with the Gotham City Sirens.
Keepsake appears for the first time next week in issue number five. So our newest Gotham villain and, speaking of accountability, I think we’ve talked about characters that rise to the occasion or try to figure out how to take accountability. This is a character who is very adamantly opposed to taking accountability. And, that’s something I wanted to introduce into Harley’s universe, as she’s trying to understand taking accountability is really tough. Looking at yourself and saying, I did something wrong and trying to figure out what that means for you is incredibly difficult. And so it’s easy to then see a character come in who’s like, I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m perfect. Like I feel like it’s what’s her name, Mona Lisa from Parks and Recreation? I’m perfect, I’ve done nothing wrong ever in my whole life. And her dad is just like, I know that about you and I love you.
I feel like Keepsake’s got a little of that. He’s worked for every bad guy in Gotham imaginable. Even the bad guys in Gotham don’t like him. And yet he’s just like, “I’ve done nothing wrong ever. I don’t understand why people have this view of me”. Which is interesting. And you know, on some level, I was like, wow, this is really hyperbolic. This is dramatic in a different way. But then, recently, I was watching the Doctor Death show on Peacock about a doctor that in real life killed a bunch of patients. I think he maimed 33 out of 38 patients he operated on. And to the end was like, I’m a genius, and people just don’t understand, I’m the best surgeon to ever exist. And I started watching that. I’m like, man, I thought Keepsake was really dramatic. I thought our version of like this narcissistic bad guy that can’t take accountability was so over the top. And then I’m watching it and I’m like, he’s really not. This guy is crazy, and to this day is like, no, I’m brilliant. So it became almost an affirmation that we’re kind of hitting on something of this theme of accountability that maybe I don’t have an answer for but I’m definitely interested in how we explore it in Gotham.
MN: Yeah, I love that. That’s really interesting.
SP: It’s a great TV show.
MN: I’ll have to check that one out. Because that’s fascinating. I love that juxtaposition of this character who just has zero accountability versus this exploration of accountability that you’re doing. I think that that’s really exciting and something that fits really well for Harley as a character and, talking about Legends again, that fits really well for Batman in this story that you’ve crafted. So it’s a wonderful idea and through line, and questions to explore and make people ask.
That’s something that I love about comics and fiction in general, it makes you sit down and ask questions and really think about them. I love that your work, especially Legends of The Dark Knight, poses this big question and this thought to audiences about accountability. I feel like it’ll probably make a lot of people sit down and go “Hmm”.
SP: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, it made our Batman sit down and say that too. That was part of our hope. To put Bruce in a position where he has to think about something and reflect on it. And from the get go, because I’m ridiculously on the nose, I guess, because of that reflection theme– what is it page one– we’ve got mirrors. You know, mirrors at the auction, using those as this thruline transition where Bruce is literally forced to continuously look in these mirrors. And when he does, that’s when he sees the wraith. I think that’s something that can be a little difficult in a comic, and Max and Tamra both just really killed that looked amazing.
Issue #4 of Legends of the Dark Knight releases physically August 17th. If you want to skip that wait you can grab it digitally as issues #7 & #8 today. And don’t forget to be on the lookout for Harley Quinn, with issue #5 that just released today!