10 Questions with David Hine
Batman recently came under fire from the conservative right for the recent addition of an Algerian Muslim to the Batman Inc. franchise. Writer David Hine was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule and be the latest victim for our 10 Questions.
Graphic Policy: First let me say thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I guess the first question would be how the character of Nightrunner came about? Who had input into his creation?
David Hine: I was assigned the Detective and Batman Annuals for 2010. It has become a tradition to tell a longer story across the two Annuals and this year I was asked to tell a story that involved the Batman Incorporated concept. I was given a very open brief. I could have chosen any country for the setting, apart from Japan and Argentina, where there are already upcoming Batman Inc stories. I have lived in Paris and spent a lot of time there. My partner is French, my son attends French school here in London. So France, and specifically Paris, was the obvious location.
Batman is one of the DC characters who doesn’t have a super power. He uses athletic ability, martial arts and intelligence, linked with technology. Our French Batman would have to share those characteristics, so he had to be a natural athlete. I immediately thought of Parkour, the free-running style that was developed in France. It’s a sport that is particularly popular with ethnic minorities and in the banlieues of Paris. That led me to a character drawn from the large French Algerian population of Paris. I pretty much presented the character fully-formed to editor Mike Marts as Bilal Asselah, AKA Nightrunner. Incidentally the name Bilal is also a nod to the French artist Enki Bilal.
Mike wanted to give newcomer Kyle Higgins the chance to write the backup strips that would fill in the back story of Bilal. I sent Kyle a load of links to web sits featuring locations in Paris, particularly the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, clips of Parkour runners, and footage of the riots in Paris of recent years. He took that material and ran with it, creating a really solid character with a very credible footing in the real world. Artist Trevor McCarthy came up with the costume and he and Agustin Padilla did a great job bringing the character to life on the pages.
GP: During the creation of the character, was there any discussion at all as to how the public might react to him?
DH: Only within the fictional world of the story itself. There is a lot of hostility towards the French Algerian community from some sections of the French public and we planned to explore the complications that might arise. We certainly envisaged right wing and racist reaction to a character who, because of their prejudices, would not be regarded as a true Frenchman. We talked about a scene where Nightrunner would unmask and declare himself to be a proud citizen of France. For the moment he’s going to remain masked and anonymous. There’s an irony to his being viewed as part of the establishment by his own community. It makes for some interesting potential for the development of a conflicted character. Honestly though, it never occurred to me for a moment that the very fact of choosing a fictional character with French Algerian, or Muslim background would in itself be controversial.
GP: In another interview you said you’d like Nightrunner be a character the French would like to see. How’s their reaction been to him? Has there been any controversy over his introduction there?
DH: We’ve had a lot of very positive reaction. Most people in France are very pleased to see their country get its own hero and particularly its own Batman. It’s always tough to depict a country and culture, as an outsider. There will always be nit-picking about how accurate our depiction of Paris has been, just as we British always examine every element of a comic written by an American, set in the UK. I did my best to make sure locations were accurate, although I’m sure a few errors will have slipped through.
I’m not sure how the real-life Cataphiles will react to their depiction as zombie killers. So far no complaints. Cataphiles are the guys who illegally explore the underground tunnels of Paris. I dropped in a few fun facts, like the on-the-spot cash fines that are imposed on them by the police who patrol the tunnels, known as Cataflics.
The only controversy about Nightrunner himself is purely as a reaction to the online nonsense that began on English-speaking sites, where a few fringe commentators appeared to be getting angry on behalf of the French. Overwhelmingly the response has been positive. Even the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois has expressed interest.
GP: What’s your reaction been to the controversy surrounding the character?
DH: It was really unexpected. The character doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial. I thought we had moved on from a time when a non-white Anglo-Saxon character might be seen as unusual. I realize this is part of an anti-Muslim sentiment in a tiny segment of the online community, as much as a racial thing. I get the impression that there are people who spend their time trawling the internet to find any mention of Islam that they can get outraged about. But it feels like a manufactured outrage and I don’t take it too seriously.
GP: Have you been following the bloggers at all? Or do you ignore such comments?
DH: Normally I would ignore them, but once this started spreading across the net, I did have a look at some of the sites. So much anger, so much hate, so much unfocussed rage and fear. I found them profoundly depressing.
GP: Is this the first time you’ve been a part of such a firestorm?
DH: I wouldn’t call this a firestorm. This was a case of a few people with narrowly insular views, having their daily rant. It’s very easy for these things to go viral on the internet and make them appear more important than they are. It’s the nature of online journalism to be lazy and link to these things because it makes a headline.
GP: The coverage of the story has been worldwide. Where the most surprising place you’ve seen it covered or had to do an interview with?
DH: I’ve been approached by all kinds of people, from the BBC to Arabic radio and TV, French radio and TV and even The Daily Show in the USA. I’ve avoided most of it, because I don’t think this is a truly controversial topic and is best ignored. But I am fascinated by the viral nature of the story’s spread. It even made Wikileaks.
GP: With the tragic events in Arizona fresh on everyone’s mind, have you received threats over the character?
DH: No. It’s all hot air. A few verbal ‘insults’ have been thrown my way, but being called ‘Leftist’ or ‘Politically Correct’ doesn’t bother me.
GP: Has the controversy changed your plans at all for Nightrunner?
DH: I haven’t considered in any detail how the character will develop. It would depend on the plot. Some writers think about character first and create plotlines to draw out aspects of those characters. I tend to think plot first and then let characters develop in reaction to events. That’s just the way I work.
GP: How much more of the character will we be seeing
DH: I have no idea. I do want to write more stories based in France and I wrote the closing scene of the Batman Annual with that in mind. Le Jardin Noir is the French version of Arkham Asylum. I’d love to have a shot at writing a kind of Arkham Noir with a whole new set of surreal lunatics. If that ever happens, I’m sure we’ll see more of Nightrunner.