In Hollywood, Jeph Loeb collaborated on the scripts of Teen Wolf and Commando, co-created Buffy the Animated Series with Joss Whedon, then took a job as consulting producer on the WB's series about the young Clark Kent: Smallville. He's more famous, however, as a comic-book writer, most frequently teamed with artist Tim Sale. Loeb-Sale titles include Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, Superman For All Seasons, Daredevil: Yellow, and Spider-Man: Blue. Paired with artist Jim Lee, Loeb also wrote the bestselling Batman: Hush. I spoke with Loeb at the DC Comics booth at the 2005 WonderCon in San Francisco.
Groucho: What is your earliest impression of the character of Batman?
Jeph Loeb: Uh—wow—It would probably be the television show, the Adam West television show. Probably—I read a lot of—I read mostly Superman so if Batman was in the Superman comic, I would do that. I wasn't really, like, wowed, and then I don't think I bought 'em off the stands. I think I bought 'em later: the Denny O'Neill/Neil Adams stuff. And then it's "Okay, now I understand what this is all about." That and the [Steve] Englehart and [Marshall] Rogers and loved those ones: the Silver St. Cloud, all of that. It's great. I think probably there.
G:What was your first Batman assignment and how did you land it?
JL: That had to do with the late, great Archie Goodwin. I had done Challengers of the Unknown with Tim Sale. Archie Goodwin was the editor on Legends of The Dark Knight. Tim had done a three-part story with James Robinson, and he was the first artist asked back. Because the whole idea behind the book was to use different people all the time, but Archie had such a good experience working with Tim, he said, "I want to do another arc with you." So Tim said, "Could Jeph Loeb write it?" And since Challengers had seven readers, and Archie happened to be one of them, he said, "Actually you know what? I like that guy. Have 'im call me." So I called, and I pitched what would become the first Halloween special. Those were intended to be three stories that were gonna be in Legends of the Dark Knight, and they were Halloween stories 'cause I remembered really clearly this story that Denny and Neal Adams had done called "Night of the Reaper" where they had gone, on Halloween, up to Rutland, Vermont, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world, that comic-book creators would go to, like, a town, and I didn't realize they were all up there smoking pot and stuff: I was a kid. So I said, y'know, I'd like to do a Halloween story. I think Batman and Halloween is a cool idea. So when I did it, Archie had forgotten that Issue 50 hit in October, and so he—and he had promised Denny, who had created the book, that he would get that issue. And so he said, "I don't know what to do. I think what we ought to do is we can hold the book for a year and come out next Halloween." So I said, "You know, it's been so long since you guys have done a Halloween special. How about if we do that?" They'd never done a Halloween special! (Laughs.) But the fact that I was saying that there was one, no one seemed to say otherwise. So they collected it, and it was in one 80-page book, and they put it out at $6.95, and up to that point, the highest comic like ever had been $4.95, so I think they were all like sitting around going, "This is never going to sell. Go away. Nobody's going to order it." And we sold 100,000 copies, and people were like, "Oh my god! We just sold a comic at $6.95!" And then that started my relationship with Archie, and you know, I pretty much did anything he wanted to do. We started doing the other Halloween specials, and that was before The Long Halloween.
G:In what ways does the artist you're working with influence your grand storytelling design?
JL: Totally. I would not tell the same story with Tim Sale that I would do with Jim Lee. I try to look to an artist's strength. I would always believe that—because of my background in film—a writer's job is to first create a character that the actor, or the artist, can best excel with. They're the ones that are going to get you into the theater. They [didn't come] to see your story. They came to see Tom Cruise. But it's your job to keep their asses in the seats. And it's your job to have them come out of the theater and say, "That's the coolest movie in the world." That has nothing to do with Tom Cruise! That has to do with the story. And the same thing holds with any time I work with an artist. It's like I say to them, "Look, you and I have to make a movie that everyone is so compelled they have to keep coming." And I—just there are certain things that Tim does well in terms of mood and lighting, illustration: extraordinary. The things that Jim does in terms of just energy and dynamics, and I, you know, I think the big difference between the two of them is like Tim does everything with the lights off; Jim does everything with the lights on. And you have to figure out how to tell that story. And that's just picking two guys, I mean, you know [Ed] McGuiness and [Michael] Turner could not be any more different from each other, and to me, that's the fun. That's the challenge. I love—particularly when I'm working with guys that I'm as lucky to work with—I just love having that challenge.
G:What other writers in any medium make you downright jealous?
JL: Well, I don't know about jealous. I—there are guys that I—I actually go in the other direction. If I read something that I can't do, I'm delighted...I'll go to a movie, and I'm totally caught up in it, and I leave afterwards: I don't come out and go, "Aw, you know, I wish I could have done that." I actually come out and go, "I'm so glad that somebody can do"—this is—like I can't lift 500 pounds. If a guy can lift 500 pounds, I go, "That's pretty cool: you lift 500 pounds!" And in comics there are guys that, y'know, I read their stuff and I just go, "That's great!" I go in the other direction, which is like I'll go to a movie, and when the movie sucks, I'll go, "And I can't get a movie made? And this guy got a movie made?" It's the same thing. It's like, when I read comics, I just—if it's not very good, that's what gets me angry. I sit there and I go, "This should be better. This could be better." You could take these same ideas, and if you did this, this, and this—. That's what—Geoff Johns and I do that a lot, you know. "Did you read that?" "Yeah." "What's wrong with it?" And we like, "Well, if they had done this and this." "Aw, that would have been so cool!" Then we start tellin' our own story, and I'm sitting there going, "What are we doing?!" It's like: the stories already come, gone, it's somebody else's, and we can't ever do it!" So.
G: Is there a story you're itching to tell that, for whatever reason, has hit a stumbling block?
JL:No. I mean I think that I'm very lucky that people that I work with—both at DC and Marvel—have been very, very generous in terms of letting me do what I want to do with who I want to do it with. I mean, if anything it's just about the people I want to work with. You know, do I want to do more Batman with Jim Lee? Absolutely! The key part there is "with Jim Lee." So I have to wait until Jim's available in order to do that. Do I, y'know, are there—? I can't—there's a handful of guys like that. The Supergirl story's a perfect example of it. I knew that story, but I knew if I didn't have the right artist, there was no point in doing the story. And when Turner became available, it was done. It was finished. It's like, he knew Mike and I had wanted to work together. Make it happen. And then it just became about business.
JL: Can you make that deal? And there are still a few guys that are out there that, you know, when they become available, I'll be there. It also depends on the character: you know, I mean, it's like I always say: "If Tim Sale wanted to do an Aquaman story, we would do the best Aquaman story we could do." But I know he isn't going to want to do that, so it doesn't really matter. But it—there are certain guys that just like, you know, absolutely. Let's go do that.
G: What do you think has been your single most successful Batman story?
JL: Well, in terms of sales, I'd have to say Hush, but in terms of, I think, impact, and certainly impact on my career, was Long Halloween. I think people were surprised to find my voice, and I mean there are people who knew me—you know, I—the funny part about it was: by the time I was doing Long Halloween, I had spent three years in the X-Men office. So I had a whole career in—with the X-Men, and I was selling four, five-hundred, six-hundred thousand, eight-hundred thousand comics, but when you work in the X-Men office, you're not selling those comics, the X-Men are selling those comics So Long Halloween, I think, was sort of the first time that both—that sort of Loeb-Sale imprimatur suddenly became something. And, believe me, when we started, we were as terrified as anybody else. I mean we're talking about a comic-book story that was going to be thirteen parts long, and it was a murder mystery, and at that point, there was a show on television called Murder One. Steve Bochco was going to do the entire series around one story, and by Episode Three, people went, "Ehhh, I don't like this show so much." And they were screwed because there was no place to go. And all I kept saying was, "What are we going to do if they get to the third issue and they go, "I don't care who Holiday is, but I knew at its core, it was really a story about the origin of Two Face. And even if the Holiday story didn't work at all, I could always go to that relationship, and that was much more interesting to me than the mystery itself. And just caught us completely off-guard: how big it got. I mean, it just exploded, but not at the beginning.
G: Is the story arc something that you ruminate over, over a long period of time, or do you tend to develop the picture, the big picture, in one fell swoop?
JL: Depends on what I'm doing. I figure out the ending first. I figure out where I want the character to be emotionally at the end of the story. And with most of my stories, the character—particularly a Batman story—he's devastated. So I know I got to get there. I'm not going to do a story where the ending's happy. Dark Victory was the closest in that, you know, he's formed the relationship with Robin at the end but even so when you read it, he's so like ambivalent about it, and worried whether or not he's doing the right thing. It's not like, "Oh, great! Now I have a friend!" So—and that's what great about Batman. It's just like all the stories end, and he's won, but he hasn't won emotionally. He always loses the girl. So—and then it's about laying it out. So I tend to sort of pick out the big parts. The other thing is that—more so at DC than at Marvel—is that DC wants some kind of outline to know where you're going, and they also want a list of the characters that you're going to use, just so you're not stepping on somebody or, you know, you're not using the Joker when fourteen other people are using the Joker: that kind of thing, which is pretty smart. At Marvel, sometimes it's just—at least it was in Marvel Knights just because they so trusted me and Timmy—we would just do it. We knew where we were going. We'd have a conversation with them, and they would just say, "Okay, that's fine, as long as you're going to stay on that track." So I have a map, but it's very much like when we work at Smallville, which is: at the beginning of every season, we say, "This is where we are; this is where we want to be at the end of the season: what's the journey? And these are probably things that should happen along the way." But that's the fun of it. It's sort of like going along. One of the downsides of doing Hush was that—because Jim and I had done it in secret—we had nine issues finished when the first issue shipped, and both he and I were kind of regretful of it in the sense that, you know, issue four we had done like eighteen months ahead of time, so it was like—some of it was like you'd look at it and go, "Would we have done it different now?" And I actually, one of the things I like—and it's a very dangerous game because you're playing it close to deadline is: I like getting reaction. I like knowing how the story's going, how people are receiving it. That doesn't necessarily mean I go on the net, or something. You can get a sense—sometimes I get—like I'll go to a store, and I'll talk to people there, but it's like if a character's talking, it's like, you want to be able to focus the story in that direction. And if it's already done, and it's lettered, in pencil, it's inked, and it's colored, mmmmm: that's what it is. I remember a story that the writer, a very famous writer who was working in comics—was doing a big mystery in one of the Superman books—in one of the superhero books. It wasn't a Superman story. And he said, "Do you want to know who, y'know, the 'Black Mask' is?" And I said, "Actually, I'd like to read it." And he said, "No, ehh, let me tell you." So I said, "Okay." It's kind of like knowing the ending of Identity Crisis. And then he told me. And I went, "That's great! That's—" I mean I really was like blown away, and he goes, "Yeah. I'm just sitting on a panel when a fan put up his hand and said, "I bet it's this guy." I said, "So he guessed it?" And he said, "No. My answer is this." And I looked at him and I went, "Hey, that's not as good." And he goes, "I know." I said, "Well, you have to change it." He said, "I can't. The book's already like done, lettered, penciled, whatever." I said, "Call the editor and throw it out." I mean it's—and that's—but that's common. Y'know, it's like we're on Episode 20 of Smallville. All anybody's seen so far is 14, so y'know, you make choices along the way. Characters die, and like all of sudden your story comes out, and people go, "This is greatest character that ever lived. What are you doing?" Stephanie Brown, who became the new Robin. She hit. I told David—I knew it was going to happen—I said, "You gotta stop it. Put her in a coma. I don't care what it is." He said, "The story's done. It's cooked; it's baked. We've moved on and there's been stories afterwards. You can't throw all that out. The only time they've done it was in The Death of Superman. And in The Death of Superman, they didn't know how big it was. And once they realized how big it was—because it was supposed to go right into the wedding, and they stopped it, and they said, "Wwwell, hang on a second"—that's when they created the Reign of Superman, and they slid it in, and got away with it!
G: Without ruining the surprise too badly, can you give us any hints of what's upcoming on Smallville?
JL: Nope. Sorry.
G: There's rumors about—
JL: I have a deal with the guys that run the show—Al Gough and Miles Millar—that I can tell—I can talk about anything that's happened in the past; I can talk about what a great experience it is working on the show; if I talk about anything that happens in the future, I get sent to the Phantom Zone, which is a closet somewhere on the ninth floor, and I've been there. It's unpleasant.
G: Understood. The Long Halloween and Dark Victory are being greatly credited for their conceptual influence on Batman Begins. From what you've seen, what are your expectations about the film?
JL: Oh, I just think it looks great. I—you know, I'm a fan of [David] Goyer's and a fan of [Christopher] Nolan's, and the stuff I've seen looks amazing. But I don't know the story, so I have no idea what—it wasn't like I sat in the theater looking at the trailer, going, "Oh! That's in blah blah blah." They tell me their stuff. I mean, they keep doing interviews talking about me, but, okay, great. I mean, I'm very proud of it. I hope some day to write a Batman movie. That would be terrific, but right now it's just—it's very flattering, and I can't wait to see it. But I doubt it's going to be like Sin City. The Sin City trailer, I could watch a hundred times. I just think it just looks cool as hell. And that just because of Frank [Miller], you know? So it's not going to be that. I mean it's not as though anyone's like taking—otherwise they'd call it Dark Victory. It's not what it's going to be, so—. But there's little things along the way that makes me smile. Sure. I've seen stuff in movies all the time where I go, "Okay, fine. I know where they got that from. They read that and took that, and that's cool." Sometimes it's cool to me just when it's like not something that I did, but somebody that somebody else did, and I go, "Oh, look at that!"
G: Lastly, what would you personally like to see in a Batman film that you think hasn't been done?
JL: Many, many things. I, you know, it's a cop-out answer. Y'know, I just—just tell the story, just tell the story, you know? And I also—and I've said this before—I think that the Superman movies and the Batman movies should be like Bond films: they should come out every eighteen months. I think that the expectation that they have to be eight-hundred-million-dollar movies is retarded. And I think you just make some good ones, you make some bad ones. You just—you go and you do—the idea that like Superman 4 and Batman 4 killed the franchise, it's just like I—honestly? I would have said, "Okay, let's just start over." I mean I—you know. Octopussy is not a great movie. If you kill the franchise at that point, you don't get to Goldeneye. You don't—I mean, it's—just keep making them. And that's how the movies should be. I just love the characters. I think they're great on film. Let 'em go.
G: Thanks very much for talking to me.
JL: Take good care.