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Interview
Last Updated March 4, 2002

To see a larger version of any artwork on these pages, click on the picture

T he following interview was published in the May 1983 issue of the Phoenix New Times, a local Phoenix weekly newspaper. Don was getting some notoriety in the area as the local comic book pro, but this interview was geared mainly toward the changes happening in Batman. Still it contains some very interesting information about Don in his later years, not to mention a couple of great photographs of Don. One accompanies this article, the other is the background on the main page of this site. Unlike many of the mainstream publications that interviewed Don over the years, Dewey Webb and Phoenix New Times got the facts right and did a very good job They entitled the article...

Batman is his Beat

by Dewey Webb
Photograph by John E. Harris

Zap! Wham! Pow!

Remember stately Wayne Manor? Well, Batman doesn’t live there anymore. He’s moved to a penthouse. And neither does Robin. He split the scene about the same time he started shaving.

Holey puberty! Is nothing sacred?

Negatory. Because even though it’ll come as quite a shock to anyone who hasn’t given the Dynamic Due a second thought since the Batusi vanished from the nation’s dance floors, time waits for no man, not even Bruce Wayne.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1939 – the year Batman first donned his cowl for DC Comics – Gotham City was the proverbial toddlin’ town, a felonious fantasyland where a secret identity was a virtual prerequisite for citizenship and practically everyone sported a pair of leotards under regular clothes. For years the city existed in a time warp that had nothing to do with the real world. But about twenty years ago – after years of thwarting flamboyant theme criminals like the Joker, the Penguin and Cat Woman – the extended Bat family (by now a leotarded lineage that would make Alex Haley’s genealogy pale by comparison) finally met its match.

Don Newton, the Valley artist who now draws Batman for DC, describes the batmosphere that almost crippled the Caped Crusader’s illustrious career: “The original Batman was pure escapism,. He was a two-dimensional character who did nothing but fight crime. The stories were sheer fantasy – you’d see the Penguin spend $2 million on a giant blimp in order to steal $1,000. Then in the early Sixties it suddenly became very ‘in’ to read Marvel comics (a DC competitor). They had introduced Spiderman, who was a much more realistic character. They’d have him arguing with his aunt, stuff like that.” Batman finally got a further rude awakening to the real world when his circulation started slipping.

“Over the years, DC has finally gotten Batman to the point where he’s operating a little closer to reality,” Newton says, sitting in the studio of his Mesa home. “Now he yells at his underlings, has personal problems and he might even take a drink occasionally.”

Newton has been drawing Batman since 1977, the year the Cowled Crusader provided him with a permanent sabbatical from teaching art to elementary school students. “I’ve been doing part-time work for comic books for the last ten years,” he explains, pointing to a comic book spin rack filled with published examples of his work, including such titles as All New Haunted Love and All New Teen Confessions, “I did those for Charlton Comics. Since then, I’ve drawn for just about every other comic company there is at one time or another.”

Newton works from scripts that read very much like the visual portion of a screenplay. “They generally don’t include the dialogue anymore since there’s a feeling that it stifles the artist’s creativity,” Newton says. Instead, most of the scripts just contain a breakdown of what action has to take place on each page – the balloons, dialogue and Batmanesque special effects noises are added later. “Some of the scripts are really detailed but it all depends of the writer. I’ve gotten some where the entire page is spelled out in one paragraph: “He flies over the city, looks down, sees the crook running, flies down and knocks him out.’”

Unlike the old days when the only name adorning the title page of a Batman tale was that of creator Bob Kane, today’s comic books list almost as many contributors as Star Wars’ credit crawl. While Newton is the one who actually draws the panels, he shares the artist credit with another person who later inks in the penciled sketches. “The average person may not quite be able to put his finger on it, “ Newton says, “but the inker can really make or break a story from a visual standpoint. Some of them are just capable artists but others are real craftsmen.”

After the panels are inked and lettered, the pages are turned over to yet another artist who colors them. “I very rarely get involved with that process unless I can foresee a possible problem, that will affect the story,” Newton explains as he searches through a stack of penciled pages. “But on this one” – a hospital scene depicting Inspector Gordon hooked up to some I.V. bottles – “I made a note to the colorist that the bottles should be filled with clear liquid. I didn’t want them to put red in there or it would look like the bottles were filled with blood. He’s not getting a transfusion.”

Newton spends an average of three hours apiece on each of the 23 editorial pages that appear in each issue of Batman

Newton spends an average of three hours apiece on each of the 23 editorial pages that appear in each issue of Batman. But because of the comic book’s relatively new emphasis on realism – during his heyday, the artistic extent of Batman’s realism fell into a stylistic chasm somewhere between Disney and Dick Tracy – one splash page (or lead art) can eat up as much as five or six hours alone. “It all depends on what you’re drawing,” Newton says. “I don’t know anyone who uses models; it’s too expensive. I’m lucky in that my forte is drawing people. What slows me up is the technical stuff like drawing machinery, in which case I’ll dig up something out of my files. Or when one of the stories calls for a foreign locale I’m not familiar with, I’ll get out the research books.” As a result, National Geographic readers may experience déjŕ vu three months from now when they pick up the Central American Batman adventure currently on the drawing board.

Even though he works in black and white, Newton admits to spicing up his limited palette by occasionally sneaking in-jokes into Batman backgrounds. In the current issue, for example, Batman has call to use a pay telephone booth whose walls are scrawled with the phone numbers of Newton’s cronies. And on occasion, Newton sketches a favorite Phoenix building into Batman’s world. “I’ve destroyed the One Book Shop (a Tempe sci-fi emporium that markets Newton’s original art) any number of times. I’ve even drawn myself a couple of times,” Newton laughs. “Sometimes more successfully than others.” He’s talking about the time a colorist mistook his perm for an Afro and innocently performed a race change operation.

Batman isn’t the only one who’s changed with the times; so have his adversaries. “They got rid of some of the villains who were just too gimmicky,” Newton explains. “But we’ve still got the old standbys like the Joker. But now he’s lost most of his charm and he’s basically psychotic. Cat Woman’s still around too – only now she’s turned over a new leaf and is working against crime. I don’t think she’s nearly as interesting anymore.”

The topic turns to the fate of the Bat family, and a scowl crosses Newton’s face. “I’ve never been real fond of derivative characters,” he says. “Look what they did to Captain Marvel. It was ridiculous – there was Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, Uncle Marvel, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny… should I go on?” Luckily for Newton’s sensibilities, most of the Bat Pack was shown to the family plot with DC’s latter-day nod to reality. But, we’ve still got Bat Girl, “who’s really Inspector Gordon’s daughter, Barbara,” Newton says dourly. “I don’t care for her much. I don’t think she works.” What happened to Betty Kane, Bat Woman’s niece, the original Bat Girl? “Oh, she was killed,” Newton says nonchalantly. “Ninjas, I think. Or maybe it was Tong warriors, I forget. I think I drew that one but all I can remember is that whoever killed her was Chinese.”

But enough talk of bat times past; one must look to the future. “Big things are going to be happening to Batman,” Newton reveals, letting the bat out of the bag on the most significant development the Gotham Goliath has faced in years.

To fully appreciate the implications of this shocker, one must flash back to 1940, the year the Caped Crusader took young Dick Grayson under his wing. Dick started off life as a big-top brat, the son of circus aerialists John and Mary Grayson. But John and Mary dropped out of the picture (literally) when extortionists slashed their trapeze one fateful night. Viola!  (sic) Instant orphan! But thanks to Batman, Dick hadn’t really lost his family, he’d just gained a secret identity.

Newton smiles and shakes his head in the way employees are wont to do when the boss screws up. “When they first introduced Robin, he was about twelve years old and all the kids who read the book could look at him and say, ‘Yeah, that could be me.’ Then a few years ago, the editors made a big mistake. They let Robin grow up and go to college. Now he’s got hairy legs and he’s still running around in the little fairy boots. That costume was fine when he was twelve, but it looks ridiculous on someone of his age.”

Since shipping Robin off to the halls of academia (where he still fights crime under the banner of the Teen Titans comics), the powers-that-be realized there was a lull in Batman’s life, a void they tried to fill by introducing another juvenile called Jason Todd.

“Jason is another circus orphan,” Newton smiles, “Yes, just like Robin, But the problem was that no one was quite sure what to do with him. For a long time he just sort of hung around. Then they realized that Batman and Robin were too deeply ingrained in the American consciousness to team him up with another partner. People would accept Batman and Robin, or just Batman, but it wasn’t going to work with Batman and anyone else. So pretty soon you’re going to see Dick Grayson give his outfit to Jason and make him the new Robin. Then Robin will become someone else,” Newton is laughing by the time he comes to the end of the convoluted story.

But there’s still a big problem. Unlike the dark-haired Robin, Jason is a redhead. Newton has an explanation for that, too. “Oh, there was a big discussion about that. They finally decided that since Jason idolized Robin, he’d probably want to look as much like him as possible, which would mean changing the color of this hair. I don’t know whether he’ll dye his hair or just wear a wig -- that hasn’t been decided yet, but he’s got to do something. Warner Communications (the conglomerate that now owns DC) is going to make a big Batman movie, and then there are all those merchandising items like the dolls that would be obsolete if the new Robin didn’t have dark hair.” Leave it to Batman to conquer the roots of all evil, even when they’re dyed.

 

This interview is copyright 2013 Dewey Webb and the Phoenix New Times.

Copyright 1998-2015 The Art of Don Newton
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