Batman: Failsafe, Vol. 1, a new graphic novel collecting the first Batman story arc written by Eisner Award–winning writer Chip Zdarsky, and which was drawn by Jorge Jiménez, manages something improbable: a new challenge for the 84-year-old superhero guardian of Gotham City and member of the Justice League. The book is out now from DC Comics.
In one now-notorious sequence in the book, the Justice League’s moon-based Watchtower facility explodes, hurtling Batman into space. As ever, the superhero improvises. He further propels himself toward Earth using a rocket booster. After losing consciousness, he wakes up on fire during reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. He removes his specially-designed uniform pants, wrapping them around his face to protect the exposed skin, while falling toward the Arctic circle in the final leg of the 240,000-mile trip. The scene captures something that’s made the superhero endure while flirting with a sublime ridiculousness that’s rooted in the character’s grim persona.
Prior to taking over as series writer, Zdarsky’s career offered its own version of the unexpectable. He began writing and drawing independent comics, such as the humor series Prison Funnies, around 2000. In 2013, he teamed up with fellow writer Max Fraction for Image Comics’ creator-owned hit series Sex Criminals before taking over as writer of Archie Comics’ Jughead series.
In 2017, Marvel named him the writer for Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, and handed him the keys to Daredevil two years later. Last year, he signed a deal with the Substack newsletter/comics platform to serialize Public Domain, a loose, humorous take on who ultimately gets the credit for creating wildly popular corporate-owned comic book franchises. Zdarsky writes and draws the series, which was subsequently collected and published in book format by Image Comics.
Zdarsky’s Batman run has thus far been marked by fresh takes on a familiar character. In Failsafe, an all-powerful android is activated and set loose to destroy its creator, Bruce Wayne. The seemingly unstoppable robot assassin was designed by Wayne as a contingency plan to reign in any member of the Justice League who goes rogue, including Batman himself. It’s a story of youthful hubris and what happens when decisions from our past come back to haunt us. We spoke to Zdarsky about the book and the process of writing a character as storied as the Caped Crusdader.
Publishers Weekly: Do you find that you generally operate better when you have multiple projects to jump between?
Chip Zdarsky: Yeah, for sure. That's one of the things I always have to explain to my loved ones. They're like, "you have so many projects. You work too much." I'd be working the same amount if I only had two projects. I find my brain works better when there's like a lot on the go. I like putting out fires. That's my biggest thing. I need there to be fires, because I need to put them out.
People who haven’t freelanced don’t appreciate how important it is to have deadlines. Otherwise, it becomes easy to obsesses over a single panel.
For sure. It’s also good to totally switch around when you get too deep into a thing. Right now, I’m doing Batman and Daredevil. That’s not good for my brain. Daredevil, the way I’m writing the character, is a bit more of a serious take. Writing grim and gritty superheroes is fun, but when it consumes most of your life, you can feel a little bit of depression sinking in. I’m glad I’ve got my own thing with Public Domain, because it feels lighter, even if the subject matter isn’t, necessarily.
What is the process like in the months leading up to taking the reins on a series like Batman?
Batman is its own thing, because it’s so big. It happened really fast for me, during a period where I was too busy, because I just started doing the Substack newsletter stuff. Then I was offered the book by [DC Comics editor-in-chief Marie Javins] and [former DC group editor] Ben Abernathy. It was a Zoom call, kind of out of the blue, and I started holding my head. I almost started crying as I started talking. I was like, “please don’t offer this to me right now. Not right now. I just got this Substack deal and I’m writing and drawing a book.” I didn’t say “no” outright, but I definitely said, “I’ve got to go think about it.” They were accommodating, but the timeline was very quick.
I basically presented the first year and what I was thinking. That’s the thing with bigger characters. They really need to know what’s happening with Batman, because he shows up in a lot of books. Also, with a character like that, it’s got to be passed by higher [corporate] levels than what I’m usually used to. When I’m working on Daredevil, it’s like, he’s on his own and can do whatever he wants. Or I’m working on Spider-Man, I had to run it by some people, but I wasn’t on the main book there. But if I’m going to, I don’t know, give him a haircut, the toy department needs to be filled in about it. Somebody needs to know, even above my editors, because it’s got to be reflected across the brand.
The elevator pitch for Failsafe seems to be that Batman is the ultimate Batman villain.
Yeah. It can be a cliché at times, the hero creates their own worst enemy. But of all the heroes, Batman best fits that bill. One of the things I recognized when I came on the title is that this version of Batman is a little bit older. They’ve aged him up a bit, which makes sense, with so many Robins around. Because he’s older, his outlook has changed. I like the thought of the younger Batman being paranoid and coming up with all of these failsafes. The current day Batman recognizes that maybe these things aren’t needed now that he has a group of friends and family around him. He’s not the lone wolf out in the night air anymore.
Is it a book about becoming a parent?
On some level, sure. Especially in the opening chapters. I want to dive into the question of when you inspire people to follow you, are you responsible for them all? And what does that look like? Especially when there’s violence involved and life or death situations.
It’s also a book about generational trauma.
Yeah. Within my family and my wife’s family, with friends that I know, “Robins” represent inherited trauma in a lot of ways. They have their own, for sure. They’re along for the ride and they’re picking up that vibe from old Bruce Wayne there.
The idea of a Batman book without Batman isn’t a new one necessarily, but it does open up a lot of interesting avenues.
For sure. In our second arc with [artist Mike Hawthorne], we’re experiencing a Gotham that doesn’t have a Batman, and it’s just lousy in different ways.
It’s a question the character has struggled with over the years: am I helping?
He sees how the absence effects Gotham City in our second arc. It is better to have a Batman there. I very consciously did not have the other Robins in the second arc. I wanted that very much to be the question: where are they? Where’s Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Jason Todd? Did they go on to have good lives? Are they firefighters or something? What did their callings end up being without me?
There’s a scene in Failsafe where Batman “falls from the moon.” This is a question relative to Batman and superheroes in general, but is there a sense in which it has to be grounded in reality?
Definitely. It has to have a whiff of plausibility—as plausible as a man able to swing around a city with just a hook and a line. With that issue in particular, I brought in my friend Ryan North, who’s the smartest man I know. He wrote a book on supervillains and science, and he’s a computer engineer. I ran this scenario past him. Together with Ryan, we worked out the math behind it, the possibility of it and how far you can push the gravitational force before your body basically explodes. That was a ton of fun to actually figure out. I recognize it’s ludicrous. But it’s also cool and badass and the kind of fun I love in a wild Batman comic.