A BOF INTERVIEW: Lee Bermejo

Lee Bermejo is one of the finest artists in comics. When it comes to Batman, I don’t know that anybody draws him better. He’s been a favorite of mine for over a decade, and I’ll follow his work wherever it leads me.

Recently, his work took him around the U.S. for the recent hardcover release of he and Brian Azarello’s BATMAN: DAMNED. As soon as I saw that, I tracked down that he’d be showing up at a comic shop near my work.

I HAD to make it.

Fortunately, BOF’s fearless leader Bill “Jett” Ramey, has been a longtime friend of Lee’s and reached out about getting an interview. Lee graciously agreed and we were all set.

The following interview was about 10-15 minutes and a really great experience. Sadly, I’d had to rush through the busy-ness of downtown Chicago so I showed up sweaty, panting and surely sounding nervous. But Lee is as cool of a guy as you’d hope, kindly signing the books I brought, answering all the questions I asked, and even gave me some time despite having a flight to catch.

So I want to thank Lee, and Bill, for an experience I never thought I’d have.

Now, on with the interview! – Ryan Lower

Congrats on BATMAN: DAMNED.

Lee Bermejo: Thank you.

Was it proposed to you to kick off Black Label?

Yeah, it was years ago now. Black Label initially started off after we did JOKER. A couple people in Vertigo and DC proper wanted to do kind of an adult line with their superhero characters. But I think at the time it was based purely on the long-term success of some books like THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE KILLING JOKE. But also on new books like JOKER, which they weren’t expecting to be such a big seller. And they didn’t really have anything else to follow it up with. Another book similar to that. So they wanted to do what they were calling the Jokerverse, because it was supposed to be an expansion of this book. So you know, Catwoman and Brian (Azzarello) and Cliff Chiang were supposed to do a Batman book that would spin out of this. That never happened for a variety of reasons. Then a few years ago, Jim Lee came to Brian and I and said we’re reviving this Black Label idea and we had a supernatural Batman story we wanted to tell, and that was their perfect book to start off with so the rest is history.

So this multiple…I don’t know exactly how many times working with Brian now.

I think this is the 5th time working together.

Is it easier now? Who comes to who with the idea?

We tend to come up with things together. For earlier books, Brian definitely had the idea for Lex Luthor. So that was his. And Joker kind of spun out of our doing Lex Luthor. Since then, we’ve kind of come up together. Other than BEFORE WATCHMEN, almost everything else has been our kind of desire to do. It’s been a great relationship and we continue to surprise each other I think and we’ll continue to do stuff together.

Do you have any projects coming up in the future with him?

We’ll definitely do another project together. Probably something creator-owned but you never know.

BATMAN: NOEL is one of my favorite Batman stories. Was this a lot more difficult because you did everything?

You know, it wasn’t more difficult. I wanted to write and because I came from Wildstorm, everybody was very wary to let me write anything you know, because the 90’s and Image comics and no one at that point in time wanted to let a young artist write his own book. So I wrote it on spec. As kind of a “hey let me do this book and prove I can do it” so that I can do SUICIDERS, my creator-owned book. So that was kind of the deal. But it was a great project, I was thrilled to be able to do it.

It’s an annual Christmas time read (for me). Instead of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, it’s BATMAN: NOEL.

I always appreciate hearing that. That’s nice to hear.

Do you have any ideas of you doing another written and drawn by stories?

Absolutely, yeah. If I’m not working with Brian on something I’ll probably work on something of my own.

Is it a lot more time consuming doing the writing too?

Yeah just because it takes me a longer time to figure out. I’m not a quick writer. I take my time and stories evolve over time. So, it takes me a little longer than the average guy.

Do you think you’d prefer being able to write your own stuff too so it’s all your vision, or is it never an issue collaborating?

I really like collaborating with Brian. And I wouldn’t be against collaborating with a few other people too. But it’s just, for the most part, Brian and I work on a project and we’re already talking about the next thing while we’re working on this thing. It usually just tends to be one thing leads to the next. But yeah, I’d like to write more if I can.

I think the biggest evolution of your artwork between these two (JOKER and BATMAN: NOEL) is there is a moment (in one) that looks photorealistic and drawn and (another) seems very realistic. Did something just hit you of like oh I’m going to try this style throughout the whole book?

I’d started trying that style on a book called GLOBAL FREQUENCY years before that. And the reason this is like that is because I had this theory that I would control the rhythm of how people read the story. So if something was a little bit more rendered and painted, I thought that maybe they would focus on that image a little longer. So it would create a rhythm for the storytelling. And then when I finished that, the thing I learned was I don’t want to control the rhythm, I want to let the reader do that you know? So then that’s the reason I did this story entirely in one style. I don’t want to tell you how to read the book or try to control anything other than just the basic storytelling.

I noticed after this (BATMAN: NOEL) was BEFORE WATCHMEN and then BATMAN: DAMNED, in which it seems like the whole book is this style.

And BATMAN: DAMNED is the first thing I’ve colored other than a cover you know. So, yeah that was kind of the next evolutionary step I think was coloring and stuff.

Do you feel as if this is your style and this is how you’re going to do it from hear on?

Hopefully, I’ll still evolve and change little things. I might go back and do something simpler too, not so painterly. I might go back and do a bit more line art because that stuff still appeals to me. I felt like this just really fit that particular story. So we’ll see, I don’t know. Hopefully, that won’t be it though for the rest of time.

This is a question I’ve always wondered. 14 years ago, you drew for BOF a picture of Two-Face and Joker, your versions. And it just so happens Heath Ledger’s Joker resembled yours pretty close. Was there ever any talks from studios or anything to you?

No, never. There’s no communication between the studio and us. There was no communication at the time. I had no idea what they were doing. If they had an idea of what I was doing, that was never made clear to me. That’s one of those things I get asked all the time and the unfortunate answer is I was doing my thing and they were doing their thing, so whatever ya know. All I know is mine predates theirs.

Who’s been your favorite to draw in the DC universe?

Probably The Joker. But it changes all the time. Just depends on the project. In the DAMNED book, I enjoyed Deadman quite a bit, drawing Deadman. So the character always changes.

I’m not usually a big Etrigan fan, but that’s been my favorite version of him.

Yeah, I love that version. I’m a big fan of the [Jack] Kirby Etrigan too but it wouldn’t have fit in this world. So it was great to be able to reimagine those characters kind of in our own way. That was fun.

Did you like drawing Swamp Thing in this?

I loved it. I’m a huge Swamp Thing fan. So that was a lot of fun.

Is there anyone left you haven’t drawn, that you think you’d like to tackle?

Yeah I love Bizarro. I would love to do a Bizarro story maybe one day.

Have you had a chance to see the new JOKER movie?

I have, I saw it in LA a week ago.

What’d you think?

I loved it. I thought it was excellent. I really liked it. But it’s exactly my kind of movie, I like those kinds of movies so.

Open to interpretation and that style.

Yeah I’m a big fan of TAXI DRIVER, and NIGHTCRAWLER is a more recent kind of movie that was similar I thought in tone. Yeah, I’m a fan of those kinds of films.

Do you have, out of Jokers on screen, do you have a favorite?

I love all of them for different reasons. It’s kind of a copout answer but it’s true. I even love the Cesar Romero Joker from the 60’s.

I don’t think you’re alone. I think somehow the character it seems anybody who takes him on ends up doing something unique.

Yeah, I just don’t like the Jared Leto one. That was the only one I didn’t really care for.

I don’t think you’re alone there either. Do you have a favorite Batman on screen?

I’m a big fan of Michael Keaton because when that came out, I was the perfect age for it. And that was still my favorite…BATMAN ’89 is still my favorite Batman movie.

I think that would almost make sense considering your style in your Batman drawings and stuff.

I just really love [BATMAN ’89]. I think looking back on it now and having multiple iterations, that’s my favorite.

Lee Bermejo (L) and Ryan Lower (R) at Graham Crackers Comics in Chicago

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