The other day I finally snagged myself a copy of 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' #14. This story, though not YET reviewed on this blog, features a very touching story wherein Ragman (with some assistance from Batman and Bruce Wayne) helps save his neighborhood from being overtaken by a real-estate company intent on buying up the property in the neighborhood and forcing the residents out (sound familiar?) via expensive rent and, it turns out, cheap thuggery.
It's actually an extremely well done comic and is often touted by myself and several other friends in the comics world as one of the better holiday themed stories out there featuring the DC characters.
So why not simply review that comic? Well, as you may know, Chanuka lasts eight days. So I figured I'd round out Chanuka at both ends with two very special posts! The first will be THIS very entry featuring an interview with the writer of 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' #14, Sholly Fisch! The second post (out on December 14th) will be my review of that very issue!
So let's get to it! Sholly took some time out to speak with me about comics, Ragman, this story, and more so without further adieu...here we go!
First and foremost, how did you get into the comics industry? What's your background?
Well, those are really two different questions, but the answers to both are basically “right place at the right time.”
Comics-wise, I’d been a huge comics fan since I was five years old. I finished college a semester early, so I had about six months free before starting grad school, and I got myself a job at a tiny publishing company in New York City. (They were about to publish their third book. That’s how small it was.) A couple of months after I started, a friend of mine was about to graduate college and got himself a job at the Wall Street Journal, so he was leaving his menial file clerk job at Marvel Comics, and I said, “Wait! Wait! Tell them you know somebody!”I did the file clerk job at Marvel until I started grad school (at which point, my sister took over the job and wound up turning it into a real job in international licensing). While I was there, I met a guy named Sandy Hausler, who was the assistant editor on Marvel’s in-house promotional magazine, Marvel Age. Sandy introduced me to the editor, Jim Salicrup, and I started writing articles for Marvel Age. (Incidentally, Sandy and I also wound up sharing an apartment for the next few years, so it’s been a very profitable friendship.) Through Marvel Age, I got to know the various Marvel editors, and found out when people were looking for stories. I started writing comics, and the rest is not-quite history.
As for my background, that has more to do with my day job. I have a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, and I’ve spent the past thirty years helping to make educational media for kids. The first fifteen of those years were at Sesame Workshop (also known as Children’s Television Workshop, depending on what year it was), where they make Sesame Street and things like that. By the time I left, I was a VP in charge of the educational side of things for all sorts of projects – TV shows, digital games, magazines, hands-on materials, and so on – and testing stuff out with kids to make sure they’d understand and enjoy them. Since then, I’ve continued to do the same kinds of work, but now I do it for lots of different clients through my own consulting business. At this point, I’ve been involved in projects on every continent but Antarctica, and sometimes, I still do some work for the Workshop too.
Were you a fan of specific characters or titles as a kid?
Oh, sure. As a young kid in the 1960s, I was just the right age to get caught up in the Batmania that was sweeping the country, and I read Batman comics, collected Batman trading cards, wore Batman pajamas... In fact, I still have the plastic Batman mask that I used to play with back then. I’d wear a blue towel around my neck when I played Batman – that is, when I wasn’t wearing a red towel to play Superman. At Marvel, I was a fan of things like Spider-Man, but my favorite was their parody comic, Not Brand Echh, which was the pinnacle of humor to me when I was six years old – and, actually, I still find those comics really funny. I even have a page of original art from Not Brand Echh hanging on the wall of my office.
As I got older, I still loved Batman, but I also discovered the vast array of other characters out there, and my number-one favorites shifted to Plastic Man and the original Captain Marvel. Not to mention that, in my opinion, no one has ever done comics better than Will Eisner, especially his Spirit. Over the years, I also developed a deep and abiding love for obscure, offbeat, or downright goofy characters, like Bat-Mite, Metamorpho, or Sugar and Spike. And “offbeat” certainly includes Ragman.
How did you happen upon the (for lack of a better term) DC kids line gig?
Heh. Well, I “happened” upon it through two years of repeatedly badgering DC editors. DC started doing comics based on Warner Brothers and Cartoon Network cartoons during a period of a couple of years when I had pretty much fallen out of the comics industry. Basically, since I was working full-time at the Workshop, I wasn’t able to stop in at the Marvel offices anymore, and I was doing all of my work by fax. (This was in those ancient days before e-mail.) That was fine, but because I was never in the office, I didn’t get to meet new editors in Marvel. And the natural turnover of staff meant that, eventually, I didn’t really know anyone there anymore, and my work opportunities dried up.
So, since I’d been writing comics for about a dozen years at that point, had worked in kids’ television, and had actually written a few scripts for a preschool show on Cartoon Network, I figured I was a pretty good candidate to write some of the Cartoon Network comics – not to mention that, as a lifelong Bugs Bunny fan, I would have killed to write Looney Tunes. But, of course, editors are paid to get their comics out on time, not to read unsolicited submissions. So I kept checking in every few months, and it took two years and four editors before Joan Hilty took over the kids’ line and gave me a shot. With my background in kids and media, it was a natural fit.
Actually, though, I like keeping a foot in both “kid” and “regular” comics. I strongly suspect I’m the only writer whose past credits include both Looney Tunes and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. The kids’ comics give me opportunities to just have fun, not worry about continuity, and even bring back all of those offbeat and goofy characters whom I loved over the years. The regular comics give me the opportunity to write stories that “count” in continuity and make my own little contributions to the mythos, like the time when I worked with astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson to establish a real-life location for Krypton. By doing both kinds of comics, I get the best of both worlds.
What inspired you to bring a character like Ragman into the title? Were you a fan of Ragman prior to the issue?
Yup, I’ve been a fan of Ragman since the ‘70s. In fact, I have a full set of his original series, and it was always a nice surprise when he’d pop up in Brave and Bold or something.
To be honest, I found his ‘90s ret-con a little odd, since “Rory Regan” doesn’t exactly sound like a Jewish name, and despite the claims of his revised origin, the golem legend doesn’t really have anything to do with clothes. But, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I grew up in a world where there weren’t any Jewish super-heroes at all, and even today, there aren’t a whole lot of them. So I’m always happy to find a new Jewish hero – especially when it’s a character whom I’ve enjoyed for years.
Did bringing a character like Ragman, with such seemingly "dark" themes, present an issue when translating the character into your story?
Not so much. Bear in mind, I recently put the Spectre into Scooby-Doo Team-Up, and in my House of Mystery issue of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, I had Cain chasing Abel with a shovel. Whenever I incorporate any DC character – dark or otherwise -- into the kid comics, I always try to home in on the essence of the character, and translate it into kid-appropriate terms. Actually, the bizarre juxtaposition of the dark characters in the kids’ comics often makes those moments the most fun and some of my favorite things to do.
How did the idea to use Ragman specifically in a Hanukkah story come about? DC isn't necessarily known for a wide breadth of Jewish characters, so why Ragman?
When I write a team-up series like Brave and Bold, sometimes the guest star comes first and I figure out a story that works for the character, and sometimes the story idea comes first and I think about what character would fit. In this case, it started with the idea of doing a Chanuka story. As I said, when I was growing up, there weren’t really any Jewish characters in comics, and there certainly weren’t any stories built around Jewish content. With that said, though, I always enjoyed Christmas stories in comics – and still do -- because they were generally change-of-pace sorts of stories with positive messages. Once I started writing comics, I wrote a few of them myself. And, every once in a while, I got to write a Chanuka-themed story, generally in unexpected places like Marvel’s parody comic What The--?! or even Scooby-Doo. It’s always a treat for me when I get to write the sorts of stories that never existed when I was a kid.
So, once I decided to write a Chanuka story, it made sense to make the guest star a Jewish hero. Since Ragman was an old favorite of mine, he was at the top of a very short list.
What inspired you to give Rory a "crisis of faith" for this story? Is it something you gleaned from prior Ragman stories?
Sort of. It was a combination of a couple of things. One was that, even though Rory has been established as Jewish, he’s never been shown to be particularly religious. So, if I was going to build a story around a Jewish holiday, that gave me some interesting character possibilities to play with.
Also, when I wrote the story, the whole “Occupy Wall Street”/“Occupy-fill-in-the-name-of-the-place” movement was going on. So the issue of poverty was on everyone’s mind, including mine. Ragman had always been based in slum neighborhoods, helping people on a very down to earth, grass-roots level; he wasn’t a “fly out into space and fight Darkseid” sort of hero. So that was a pretty natural fit. And I liked the opportunity for some role reversal with Batman, where another hero could berate Batman for being too “uptown” instead of Batman saying it to Superman or someone.
Mushing all of that together made for some nice parallels, where the pressure of larger social issues could wear Ragman down, and he could simultaneously reconnect with his heritage and also rediscover his faith in himself. Actually, one of the things that made me feel pretty good was that, around the time the issue came out, I gave a talk at my daughter’s elementary school about how comics are made, and since it was Chanuka time, I used that issue as an example. Then, a week or two later, my daughter came home from school and told me that her assistant principal used the story in a school assembly that day, when he spoke to the students about Chanuka. Not bad for a comic book...
In your mind, who is Rory Regan/Ragman? How would you define him?
To a large extent, I think it depends on who’s writing him, and what sort of series he’s in. For example, Ragman in Shadowpact was pretty different than Ragman in the original Kanigher/Kubert series.
To me, though – and I think this is true of most of his various incarnations – Rory Regan is a regular guy who’s trying to do some good. Growing up in a slum neighborhood with a father who ran a pawn shop, he’s been surrounded by poverty all his life, so he knows all of the challenges that brings, but he’s seen people overcome those challenges to enjoy life and help each other through the bad times, too. Given the choice, I don’t think Rory would take a Green Lantern ring and fly off into space to defend the galaxy. He knows he’s needed right where he is.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to tell you that (though I don't normally read these sorts of titles) I saw and picked up "Scooby Doo Team Up" #13 with the Scooby gang and the Spectre, Phantom Stranger and Deadman. Phantom Stranger and Deadman are some of my FAVORITE characters in the DC universe. So I HAVE to ask, what was the inspiration/what can you tell me about that story?
Yeah, that’s one of my favorite issues of Scooby Team-Up too. The inspiration was pretty simple – what could be more natural than Scooby and his gang of ghost-hunters meeting DC’s most prominent ghosts? Once I realized that the thirteenth issue would come out just after Halloween, it was a pretty obvious choice to do the story in that issue.
I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll say this fairly obliquely. But, as you could probably tell from reading the issue, there’s a Scooby/Spectre panel that popped into my head fairly early on, it made me laugh out loud, and I pretty much wrote the entire issue around it. Actually, when the proofs of the issues were making the standard rounds of internal review at DC, my Scooby Team-Up editor, Kristy Quinn, forwarded me a couple of e-mails saying that even the DC proofreader and legal guy found that scene hysterical. If you can make a lawyer laugh while he’s searching for anything that could get the company sued, you know it must be pretty funny.
Beyond that, add in the chance to do some fun moments with the Phantom Stranger and Deadman, and cram in just about every DC ghost character I could think of (including Kid Eternity, Captain Triumph, and the Grim Ghost – or “Gay Ghost,” depending on what year it was – all of whom are among my favorites), and it was a whole lot of fun to write.
Is there anything you'd like to promote?
Let’s see… I should probably mention that, for anyone who hasn’t read the Ragman story, you can find it reprinted in the third All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold trade paperback, which is subtitled “Small Miracles.” The book also includes the issue that teamed up every Robin ever (yes, including Carrie Kelly from Dark Knight), a completely insane story about Bat-Mite’s crush on Batgirl, and even a few pages of a time-traveling Batman teaming up with Super-Hip and Brother Power, the Geek in the 1960s. So it’s a pretty fun book.
Other than that, I guess I should plug my current series. These days, I’m writing Scooby-Doo Team-Up and half of just about every issue of Teen Titans Go!, as well as periodic stories for Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Outside the kid stuff, I also have a backup story coming up in this year’s Superman/Wonder Woman Annual. Oh, and every once in a while, I’ve been writing an occasional story for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles magazine in the UK. When you take into account that all of this is just the stuff I do late at night, after I finish my day job, have dinner with my family, and put them to bed, it’s pretty busy around here. I’m not getting a whole lot of sleep, but I’m having enormous fun.
And that is that! For those who are familiar with my usual interviews, you may notice a slight difference in "conversational" language. Well, this is one of the few instances where I conducted the interview via email as opposed to audio-transcribed-to-text. Hence the difference. Regardless it was ALOT of fun getting to speak with Sholly about Ragman and his work in the industry. I highly recommend you check out his works mentioned above and if you're missing the "fun" in the DC Universe, I promise you it's within the pages of the titles he's writing!
So thanks to Sholly once more for taking the time to speak with me, despite the crushing deadline of Chanuka upon us! I also wanted to thank fellow podcaster and blogger Rob Kelly for introducing us. Maybe in the near future I can look forward to a Green Lantern featured appearance in Scooby Doo Team-Up so I have an excuse to talk to him again for the podcast! Other personal character suggestions include; Firestorm, the JSA, Firebrand, Starfire, Infinity INC, etc. Though, if I'm being honest, a team up featuring the Golden Age Alan Scott, his wife the Harlequin, and his kids Jade and Obsidian is my personal favorite idea...
That's it for this time Tatters! See you on the 14th for a review of 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' #14! As always, please, Please, PLEASE do not hesitate to leave a comment on the blog directly and let me know what you think! And don't forget to share these entries with your friends!