This interview was conducted on 23/01/2019
This year may mark the 80th anniversary of the creation of Batman but it’s also the 30TH anniversary of the 1989 Batman movie by Tim Burton and the comic book adaption that accompanied it. The Bat-Mania that the success of the movie inspired made the comic an instant hit with comic fans and movie goers alike but it wasn’t all plain sailing for the creative team of writer Dennis O’Neil, Artist Jerry Ordway and Colourist Steve Oliff.We were lucky enough to get a chance to sit down with Jerry Ordway and discuss his time on the project.
How did it come about that you got the job working on the movie adaption of the Batman movie? Was it something you lobbied for or were you asked?
I am friends with the editor Jonathan Peterson, and had inked a cover previously for the Superman 4 Quest for Peace, over John Byrne pencils, for him. He and I socialized often, and he mentioned he was asking his superiors to do a Batman movie adaptation. So we just talked about how good the Marvel movie comics were in the 70’s and early 80’s, and how it would be cool to draw one that looked like the movie! I also got to visit Pinewood studios in October of 1988, after attending a comic show in London, and that stoked my interest as well.
I have to say the likeness in your work to the actors and indeed the characters is astounding. That was something you didn’t see in other movie adaptions. Did this make the job harder or more complicated in anyway?
Thanks! Yes, it was a lot harder than just drawing generic faces would have been. But again, that was our original intent, provided we were able to get the actors to give likeness approval to us. I drew audition drawings, of Keaton as Bruce Wayen, as Batman, then Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier, and the Joker. Also, I drew one of Kim Bassinger as Vicki Vale. All three signed off before I started drawing the comic, and doing it way meant we didn’t have to submit pages as we went along for approvals. All done upfront, which was the genius of Jonathan. He had worked on the Star Trek comic previously, and DC had to submit each page and cover for approvals to Paramount Studios, which was often a pain in the butt!
Did you have a full script of the movie to begin with? Did the studio provide visuals for you both to work from?
Well, we had a copy of the shooting script, which Denny O’Neill wrote the comic script from. He had to streamline a lot, so make it fit a 64 page length. He also revised the script a few times before I started pencilling. And then, as I was drawing, we would get word of scene rewrites, and we tried our best to revise our stuff to match. Jonathan and DC’s licensing department got me plenty of reference to start, but as scenes were rewritten and improvised, the reference was harder to come by. You see, the initial material, encompassing the start of the film, through the Joker’s origin, was all referenced, or shot by a still camera set photographer, at the same time as the film footage was shot. So we had several hundred 8×10” stills, which were in sharp focus, to build panels from. The improvised reshoots were referenced to us as contact sheets done from slides, and the images were that same size, 1 inch square, and hard to see unless I used a magnifying glass. And there were sheets with up to 30 images grouped together, of much of the back half of the film. Scenes with special effects inserted, or composited, via miniature models, just never existed for us to see. I had to imagine what they would look like, which required some guessing.
As I understand it the script was in flux throughout production. How did you and Denny O’Neil cope with the script rewrites?
Once Denny rewrote the script a few times before I started drawing, Jonathan asked him if he wanted to do the additional rewrites himself, or just let us follow up on them ourselves. Denny was working full time as an editor, as well as writing freelance, so I think he was relieved to not have to keep up the rewrites himself. That’s a tiring and time-consuming process. He was glad to be finished!
Were WB hands off or did they interfere at all in what you were trying to do?
They didn’t bother us. We were doing a comic, they were concentrating on a 40 million dollar movie. We were so beneath their notice, they didn’t care, until right before the movie was set to open! DC’s circulation director, Matt Ragone, had arranged to sell the comics in the US movie theaters, and we created art for a cardboard display for the box office counter. We were all thrilled, because there was a comic store locator page at the back of the comic, meant to direct fans to find comic stores after buying it at the theaters. Well, word came down, the week before, that Warner did not want the comic to be sold on the first week of release. It was ludicrous, but they were embarrassed to have the studios selling comics and shirts! I imagine we lost some potential sales, as the movie had a huge opening week, but we no doubt sold a decent amount in the weeks after.
Comics and movies are very different mediums did you feel there was anything that worked better on the page than it did in the movie?
Well, comic book action shots, and dynamic poses are better in comics, because we can exaggerate them. We also have thought balloons and captions, to get inside a character’s head. Movie had voice over narration, but that’s considered cliché to do mostly.
Were there any scenes or moments that were lost in the rewrites that you wish had stayed?
So much changed, that it didn’t matter. We included the Alexander Knox covered in Batman’s cape-scene, because it helped explain how Batman could slip away when the police had surrounded the cathedral. That was filmed, but not used. There is also a scene with the Joker escaping the Chemical Plant in a helicopter right before the parade scene. That was in the preview cut, but trimmed from the release print, maybe just to trim a few seconds.
Looking back on it now how do you feel about the comic itself? It sold hundreds and thousands of copies and has a special place in the heart of many comic book fans of that time.
I’m proud of the work we did on it. It was like the hardest term paper you had to write, and it left me sleep deprived due to the schedule, but it was certainly worth the effort. But that’s just the way I approach every assignment. I do my best, and never try to take shortcuts. I’m still a fan of comics, and I know I would appreciate the effort, if I was a reader.
You have recently been sharing some images of the characters and pages from the comic online and they are simply stunning in black and white. What are the chances of seeing them released in some form in the future?
I continued to talk to DC about doing some kind of black and white edition, but nobody is sure what the likeness rights situation is. If they can clear up legal stuff, I know there are people at DC that would love to get it out for this year’s thirtieth anniversary. So I guess everyone who retweeted and commented on those pages needs to stay tuned, and hope it works out. If it happens, it will be because of them. But then, if it happens, they better buy copies!
Jerry thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
You can find Jerry on Twitter here- @JerryOrdway
And here- ordstersrandomthoughts.blogspot.com