Good friends make us better people: an interview with ‘Batman and Robin and Howard’ writer and artist Jeffrey Brown

The latest all-ages graphic novel from DC Comics will soon be here, and Batman and Robin and Howard is s real gem.  Without getting into spoilers, it’s a fun and funny tale of a “grounded” Damian Wayne trying to be a real kid, making some true friends while he longs to return to being a superhero.  It’s a different take on the Batman and Robin mythos, and all the better for it, as it has some genuine heart-touching and humanity.

And also a recipe for a delicious-looking model of a cell.  Truly a comic for everyone.

Writer and artist Jeffrey Brown brings the irreverent-yet-loving tone he used to make books like Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess such big hits to the DC Universe, mixing equal parts humor and heartfelt insight into what it means to be a parent.  Brown was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions we had about the book, so read on to find out where his inspiration came from, why he chose which characters to use (and which ones he didn’t), and why Batman works perfectly as a dorky dad.

Batman News: How did this book come about?  Did DC approach you, or did you come to them with the pitch?

Jeffrey Brown: Michele Wells was part of DC’s push for more younger reader material, and asked me if I might be interested in pitching any idea. Batman was the first character that came to mind, but I didn’t have any Batman stories I’d been waiting to tell. I did have an idea for a high school rivalry type story, and it clicked that I could put Robin/Damian into that story, and it evolved pretty naturally from there.

BN: “Batman and Robin and Howard” just flows so well.  How long did it take you to settle on the name Howard for the title?

JB: Sometimes I use a friend’s name for a character, or even someone I admire. I’m not sure where Howard came from – it might’ve just been a name I heard that day, but as soon as I drew the first sketches that was his name, and it seemed to really fit him.

BN: Damian is sidelined for a good chunk of the book, after Batman “grounds him” from crime fighting.  Was this planned from the start, or did it come about as you were crafting the story?

JB: Initially I thought Robin might do more, but from the start I wanted to focus more on the emotional side of the story. As it developed, it made more sense for him to use his brain more – after all, Batman is the world’s greatest detective.

BN: Batman is in his classic blue and gray with the yellow oval chest logo, where Robin’s costume takes some cues from the various Boys Wonder.  What was your character design process like for the Dynamic Duo?

JB: I’ve always love the classic blue and gray scheme, and in my story I wanted to play up Batman through Robin’s eyes, which means how Damian sees him: a kind of goofy dad. For Robin, I also wanted to use the classic costume, but make it a little simpler. I had an idea that the reason Robin’s costume isn’t cooler is that his dad let him co-design it when he was a lot younger, and he’s still stuck with it, even if he thinks he’s ready to grow out of it.

BN: I really loved the themes you worked with here, particularly understanding, grace, loneliness, and friendship.  What made Damian and Howard the ideal characters to tell this particular story?

JB: The lonely orphan Batman has been done, and I wanted to give Robin his own type of family to grow up in. His dad is loving, even if he’s not always present, while Alfred is kind of like a grandfather to Damian. Howard, in contrast, has a more full family life, which is one of the things Robin is a little envious of. Together they learn about what they each have through what the other doesn’t.

BN: Batman, on the other hand, is more comic relief than he’s usually portrayed.  I, for one, welcome that, because he’s absolutely hilarious here.  Like other aspects of the story, how did this particular characterization come about?

JB: My older son is about to turn fifteen now, so my days of being a “cool dad” are over. I really like the idea that Batman is so intimidating and formidable, but then Bruce Wayne is awkward and doesn’t understand his teenage son. I liked showing that deeply human side that he’d have when he doesn’t have to be frightening criminals.

BN: Generally speaking, Damian Wayne has a bit of an attitude, and can be an acquired taste.  Here, he’s much more likable, though he does still have a bit of that cockiness that we’ve come to… if not love, then accept.  I think one of the things you’ve done to make him so likable is just letting him be a kid.  He likes soccer and video games, and has to do chores too.  Too often in comics, heroes aren’t really allowed to be normal people, so I’m glad that you let Damian have a “real life,” so to speak.

JB: One of the surprises for me writing this story was as soon as I started writing about that more real, complicated, human side of Robin, he was much more relatable, even if you aren’t a superhero with a billionaire dad. Which is why Howard is so important to his story – I imagine he’s what keeps Damian from becoming too obnoxious. Good friends make us better people.

BN: Besides Batman and Robin, the only other Batfamily member we see is Alfred.  Damian even mentions at one point that he doesn’t have anyone to talk to about his worries when Batman goes missing.  In your mind, do other Robins exist in this universe, like Dick or Tim?

JB: My thinking was that for this story, Damian is the only Robin. I think the parallel of trying to be a parent as Bruce Wayne to his son Damian at the same time as being Batman mentoring Robin makes for an interesting… dynamic.

BN: Save for a hysterical gag, you don’t use any familiar rogues either, though the book is more about Damian and Howard’s friendship than the mystery Batman is investigating.  Did you consider using any established villains at any point?

JB: I had thought about picking one of the major rogues to be the main villain of the story, but it’s really easy for the villains to take over the story, even if they don’t come out on top at the end. In a way, both Robin and Batman’s greatest enemies in this story are themselves, I guess!

BN: If you’re allowed to say so, would you have plans to introduce more members of the Batfamily or rogues gallery in a sequel?

JB: I may be in line to do another book with DC, and probably have more ideas than I know what to do with. I was thinking it’d be fun to deal with some other characters, but now that this book is finally coming out, I’m finding that I’m curious about what Damian and Howard are up to now, and I doubt I’ll ever get tired of drawing Batman.

BN: Have you made the candy-filled cell, and was it delicious?

JB: I haven’t, but I’m hoping one of my sons will need a project for biology class sometime so I can offer a helpful idea. Because it will be delicious.

BN: Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about, or anything else you’d like to tell readers?

JB: I’m always working on lots of things, but it’s probably too early to talk about any of the projects I’m writing and drawing lately. It has already been a great and busy year for me – my sci fi middle grade sequel A Total Waste Of Space-Time! came in June, and I have a new Star Wars book out for the holidays, A Vader Family Sithmas.

BN: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Jeffrey, and for a fun book like Batman and Robin and Howard.

JB: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me!

Batman and Robin and Howard will hit comic shops and digital retailers on Tuesday, November 9.

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