Interview with ‘Batman and Robin and Howard’ Author Jeffrey Brown

Damian Wayne has many fans. The popular Arab American character, son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al-Ghul, is an adorable crime-fighting — and previously murderous kid — whose fundamental charm and sincere desire to do good has captured the hearts of many DC fans, so much so that he has a current ongoing series. But we don’t see enough of Damian’s school life. When does he get to be a regular pre-teen who gets to have fun at school and make friends?

We at The Nerds of Color were fortunate enough to speak with children’s book author and artist Jeffrey Brown — writer and illustrator of such popular books like Darth Vader and Son and Rey and Pals — to talk about his take on Damian Wayne, his new friend Howard, and having Batman/Bruce Wayne for a dad in the upcoming Batman and Robin and Howard.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

So I really enjoyed this book. I think kids and adults alike well as well, especially fans of Damian Wayne. He’s been a very popular character for several years now. So what can you tell fans of Damian Wayne — or new fans coming in, for that matter — what to expect or to understand about this popular character through reading your book?

Yeah, so you know, one of the fun things about Batman and Robin and Howard is getting to do my own take on characters that have such rich histories, and Damian Wayne, as Batman’s son, has popped up in the comics for the last little while, but usually is more of an adult character. It’s almost like he gets to skip all of childhood, and he’s already like fighting crime and super serious. I wanted my Damian Wayne to have a chance to be in the middle of that growing up, while at the same time he’s Robin, but he’s dealing with things that that kids deal with — trying to negotiate to make friends and having to balance schoolwork with home life. So hopefully, it’s like a little different tick. That’s interesting, especially for kids in the middle school age range.

Yeah, it definitely reminded me of books I read like that when I was in elementary school. So something else I really loved about this book is we typically think of Batman/Bruce Wayne as having it all together. But in this book, he absolutely does not. He really is sort of like a struggling dad. He doesn’t know what to fully do. And that is actually atypical for him with Damian. He seldomly does know what to do with Damian in any universe. So how was it writing a Bruce Wayne who’s basically like the silly dad, who’s just trying to do his best?

Yeah, that kind of comes out of my own experiences. So my older son is 14 years old now and so my time of being cool to him is pretty much over. And so I wanted to kind of portray how Batman is super cool to the entire world, except for his teenage son would see him as kind of goofy and embarrassing. So it’s kind of like seeing him through Damian’s eyes, but then also kind of showing him as a more fully realized human. You kind of get to see behind the mask, I guess. And Batman just has some moments where, you know, he’s distracted by thinking about how is he going to get Damian to do his homework and that causes problems when he’s out fighting crime.

I love it. So how would you say you highlighted the importance of Alfred through your book? Because we really know that Alfred is such the core of the bat family, I think especially here.

Yeah, you know, there’s a lot of the Batman comics. I think that I read him growing up as just this really lonely guy with like, a lack of family but Alfred. As much as he’s the butler, he has always seemed more like family, and so my take on Alfred was kind of turning him into kind of a grandfather type, especially to Damian and kind of showing how Alfred is maybe a little more formal with Bruce Wayne, but then with Damian, he’s more like the friendly grandpa who can kind of spoil Damian a little sometimes, but still, keep him in check. And give Damian and Bruce a little more support with family in the story.

So, the third main character in this book, Howard, he’s a completely original character as I understand it. I found reading that Damian and Howard have a very common dynamic for any school kid. They become friends, but they’re initially antagonistic toward each other, but then they grow to see each other’s best traits. So I’m wondering if you took inspiration from maybe your own kid’s dynamics, or your own experience going to school?

Yes, definitely. I mean, not any specific experience, but just thinking about when I was growing up, and how I made friends and how friendships change and how people who you think like you have nothing in common with and then you become friends with them and you realize you realize like, why weren’t we best friends from the very beginning? And so the initial idea for the story was actually just thinking about that, like how it would be for kind of like the really popular good student, kid, good athlete, and then someone came along, and you were gonna show them the ropes, but then they ended up kind of taking over and you feel threatened. And so Howard’s reaction to Damian is at first kind of, you know, insecure about his place in school and among his friends. And Damian is kind of taking advantage of that because he has his own insecurities that have to do with his life at home. And so, I wanted the story to kind of be about how at first it seems like they’re just bringing out the worst in each other but they realize they can actually bring out the best in each other and that being like working together. That makes them both better.

Yeah, and that was absolutely evident throughout. So another aspect of their dynamic, I found really interesting was that it seemed as though class was really coming into play here. We see images of Howard’s home life. It seems like he’s a from a working-class family. He’s also African American, so there might be a racial dynamic in there. Did you try to incorporate anything about that, at least when it comes to class?

Yeah, that was probably the trickiest thing about this book. It’s something that you know is a hard one because it’s a kid’s book. And those are complicated issues for adults, let alone for kids. So it’s something that I wanted to at least be there for readers to think about. So you know, being overt or having it take over the story, because you could easily write like, you know, 100 issues of a comic book series, just dealing with that aspect of things. So yeah, I tried to do my best to kind of touch on those issues and kind of have them there so that readers can see them and be aware of them because it’s something that you know, when I was a kid reading Batman comics, like, okay, Bruce Wayne’s, this billionaire and crime fighter, like I never would have thought about those things. But I think you know, today, one, kids are pretty smart. I feel like kids, like my son’s age, are smarter in a lot of ways and are more aware of of those issues than I was when I was his age. So yeah I wanted that to be part of the story because I think you shouldn’t have a Batman story where that’s not an aspect because it is. Like, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire and you should think about that.

Yeah, and I think for Damian, like that very awkward dynamic of going to school with a butler, with a limousine and him feeling obviously very self conscious, like that really came across. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

Well, I think the other thing is like you, I mean, you might think that I wanted to have the kind of trope of the rich kid being out of place and you know, coming in and realizing like that everyone without money is the same. And so I didn’t want it to make it too much of like, that direct trope, but at the same time I wanted to kind of portray Damian as being more human and more like everyone, especially as a kid. He maybe hasn’t had the time to kind of develop the way that Bruce Wayne did, who was hobnobbing with all the wealthy elite. And I kind of felt like if maybe Bruce Wayne sending Damian to this new school that’s like a public school and is maybe a way of trying to get Damian to be more aware of those things. And yeah, I think with Howard you know, it’s just he’s kind of a foil for Damian, personality-wise, but I don’t know. I didn’t want to make it too, like, binary in that sense, but so not exactly the opposite.

That is good and really important. I really appreciate how it was like subtly there without being so explicit. I think that was very well done. So one other question about the characterization of Damian. So he is one of DC’s preeminent Arab, essentially Arab American, characters. His Middle Eastern heritage is very important for a lot of us Middle Eastern fans. So I’m curious, in a potential future book or sequel if we might get more exploration of Damian’s Arab heritage? Will we eventually meet Talia or Ra’s in a future book for example? I’m wondering if you could speak to that event.

Yeah. So I was trying to juggle a lot, and having Damian’s mom and that dynamic was something I also wanted to be there. But, like, with the length of the book, and everything else is going on, it’s like, how can I kind of put that in? So that at least it’s like there’s an awareness of it, but I didn’t really have time to explore that, and that’s definitely something that Damian is missing. Living with his dad and not having his mom in his life as much as she could be. And so yeah, that might be a story in its own, or I can figure out a way to have that in a future book. Have that be more prevalent. I kind of made the hard choice of like, okay, I can’t spend 30 pages on this. So how can I try to at least put a little bit in?

I guess I have another question about the art style of the book. So I really liked it. I found it to be both sort of intricate but still like relatively, for lack of a better term, simple enough for kids to gravitate towards. So I’m curious if there were any sort of other comic books or stories that you were taking inspiration from in the development of this. I wonder if you could speak to that.

So my art style kind of developed over time. So it kind of started with my autobiographical work, which is like I was drawing stories about adult relationships from my life, but trying to draw like when I was a kid, and so they’re super rough, leaving all the mistakes present. And, you know, really giving the emotion of the line work adds to whatever emotion is in the story. And so since then, doing like, like the Star Wars books, especially Jedi Academy, it’s kind of reached this balance where it’s a little more refined, but it still has the feeling to come through the art. And so it’s maybe more of like an expressionist’s style, as opposed to like a realistic style.

Well, it’s a great style either way, and I just gotta say, I love those panels where you have the sad struggling Batman. I love Batman, but I also love it when Batman struggles very well.

That’s one of the fun things about this book! I was like I don’t know. I didn’t want it to be too jokey. But Batman is a little bit the comic relief in the story. And you know, I think like, again, that just goes back to like, you’re seeing Batman as Damian would see and as he sees them as he is kind of, like a goofball. When it comes down to it.

Jeffrey Brown doing essentially what the Joker could not do! Making Batman look like a goofball! Jeffrey, thank you so so much for speaking with The Nerds of Color today. I can’t wait for everyone to read this book.

Yeah, thank you so much for having me!