Batman foes Penguin and Man-Bat go dark in Villains Month tales

This September, DC Comics is striking its New 52 line of superhero comics of all do-gooders for a special Villains Month lineup of one-shot stories starring the DCU’s biggest and baddest. And when the heroes are taken off the board, that’s the perfect time for Frank Tieri to step in.

“How could you have a villain month and not have me involved?” laughs the writer who occasionally goes by the nickname “Mr. Villain.” With bad guy-focused projects from the underworld epic “Gotham Underground” to the more obscure “Lord Havok and the Extremists” under his belt, Tieri seems tailor-made for September’s event. DC apparently agreed, having tapped him for “Batman #23.3: The Penguin” with artist Christian Duce and “Detective Comics #23.4: Man-Bat” with Scot Eaton.

CBR News spoke with Tieri about his upcoming villainous work on “Penguin” and “Man-Bat,” and he described how the two one-shots spin out of recent developments for both characters in “Detective Comics,” why these stories will be darker than even Batman’s world is used to and what secrets haunt both man and monster come September.

CBR News: Frank, your contributions to Villains Month are a little different in that, while both Penguin and Man-Bat have showed up recently in John Layman’s “Detective Comics” run, they were both off to the side for the better part of the recent arc as Emperor Penguin took the spotlight. Where does that leave you?

Frank Tieri:
With Man-Bat, we pretty much directly follow what my friend John Layman did in “Detective.” There was some interesting stuff he did with the character, and we’re basically picking up with what’s happened between him and Francine. His formula — which played such a key role in Kirk’s falling out with Francine — will undergo some changes. And those changes may just change Kirk Langstrom — forever. The same goes with some of the Penguin stuff that’s been happening lately. After “Emperor Penguin,” Oswald took a hit, and we address that in our issue. We deal with the fact that the air of invincibility the Penguin once had in Gotham is maybe not there anymore like it once was. Sure, he’s back in charge again in our book but some of the underworld elements are now maybe looking at him differently. Maybe they see a weakness there — which would be a terrible mistake on their part. If anything, Penguin may just prove to be more dangerous than ever in our story. The other thing is that these characters are very different. Penguin is an out-and-out villain — there’s no doubt where he’s coming from. With Man-Bat, there’s more of a grey element there because of who Langstrom is. He’s not a villain — he was just a guy who created a formula that changed him into a giant bat creature. It’s a classic Jekyll and Hyde thing. That said, while you might not so easily put him into a category at the beginning of our story, he might be easier to place by issue’s end.

Check out Man-Bat below:

Well, the Man-Bat serum can be played a number of ways — as a curse, as an addiction, as a release. What does the serum represent in your story?

It’s all of what you said. Langstrom actually starts off our story with the intention of doing good, but with our title being “Descent,” I don’t think it’s hard to figure out that things take a dark turn from there. Again, we start out picking up with the recent revelations in “Detective” — that his whole life has been a lie. Francine married him basically to get her hands on the formula and has changed into a she-bat creature of her own, so the first thing we do is have him deal with her. Which won’t necessarily be a cakewalk seeing as how the last time he saw her in the books, he got his bat ass handed to him. What he has to do to beat her, it’s sort of signing a deal with the devil — and it’s really all downhill from there. The sad part of all this is that Kirk is really a noble guy with good intentions. He sees that Batman is not around because of the events of Villains Month, and Kirk wants to be Gotham’s new protector. But as so often happens with these things, things don’t always go as planned. What’s that saying, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”? That. A million times that.

In Man Bat’s case, Is this finally, truly, the tale of the monster?

It’s both. In my opinion, in order to tell a good Man-Bat story, you have to focus on the man and the monster. But what I will say is we may see more of the monster than we have before. A lot more.

Is part of the goal of Villains Month to set them up in their definitive New 52 versions? And will this Man-Bat be different from the versions we know from the classic comics or the animated series?

Let me put it this way: where Kirk begins this story and where he ends as Man-Bat will be two very different places. We will see a different Man-Bat than we’ve seen before by the time this is all over. A far more dangerous Man Bat at that.

Let’s shift to the Penguin. Like you said, he’s been knocked down quite a bit by the Emperor Penguin story. Is there something he’s trying to grab onto or rebuild in yours?

Well, I think the Penguin’s position is, “I’m back. Everything should be back to normal.” And other people might not feel that as much as once before. He has been beaten. He does have weaknesses. He’s lost some respect in the crime community, and maybe he himself doesn’t recognize that. The basic story here is that with Batman out of the picture in Gotham, crime has been up, to a terrible extent. Now, the governor of the state comes in wanting to clean up Gotham City. He wants to “Giuliani-ize” the city. [Laughs] He wants to make a new Gotham. And the first place he wants to clean up — the place he feels in the greatest source of trouble and violence in the city — is the Iceberg Casino and the Penguin. He sees it as the focal point of everything that’s wrong, and he’s going to the Penguin to pick a fight. But as we’ve seen withe Penguin in the past, when he gets his back up against the wall, he can be a very tough customer.

How do you view Oswald as a character? He’s always been a crime boss, but there’s also a take on him as a tragic character who was set aside by the wealthy. Is that something you’re looking to explore here?

As a matter of fact, there is a bit of that. The title of this story is called “Bullies,” which is partly due to what we learn about Penguin’s relationship with the governor. When they were children, the governor was basically one of the only people who protected Oswald Cobblepot in boarding school. Considering that was their relationship, you can imagine Penguin’s surprise when this is the guy who comes to pick a fight with him. I think whenever stories about Penguin’s early years are explored, there is bound to be some sympathy there because he essentially grew up as the kid who always got tortured in school. We all know that kid. We imagine what happened to him, what he grew up to be. Oftentimes, you see people who go through a rough patch, and how they respond to that shows you who they really are. In the Oswald Cobblepot’s case, he grew beyond who he was, but his response in becoming the Penguin wasn’t necessarily a pleasant one.

Art wise, you’re working with Christian Duce who maybe a lot of fans won’t know and Scot Eaton who’s been around a while. What’s been your impression of what each of them are bringing to their stories?

While I haven’t seen the Man-Bat stuff yet, I have had a chance to see some art from the Penguin story, and Christian’s really doing a great job. He’s totally capturing the right feel which is important for what we’re looking to tell here. These are both fairly dark stories, and we need the right artists to pull them off. We get pretty deep down into the gutter in both cases and deal with some horrifically violent, screwed up stuff. In fact, I’d say readers will probably need a wet nap or something to clean themselves off after they’re done. [Laughs] But if they are fans of villain books, then this is the right place for ’em. Because, believe me — we certainly villain the Hell out of these two books.

Here’s Duce’s take on The Penguin:

“The Penguin” arrives on September 18, and “Man-Bat” follows on September 25 from DC Comics. Stay tuned next week for more on Tieri’s villainous Marvel series “Infinity: Heist.”