Interview with ‘Nightwing,’ ‘C.O.W.L.’ writer Kyle Higgins

Kyle Higgins
Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel (both pictured) head to Daydream Comics this weekend as part of Free Comic Book Day. — photo by Pat Loika via Flickr Creative Commons

Free Comic Book Day

Daydreams Comics — Saturday, May 2 from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Like many writers, Kyle Higgins found his voice in Iowa City. The comic book creator — whose credits include work for Marvel and DC Comics as well as his creator-owned series C.O.W.L. — spent two years at the University of Iowa and credits a creative writing course with setting him on his current path.

In addition to C.O.W.L., his work includes the co-creation of the character Nightrunner, an Algerian Sunni Muslim who serves as the Batman of Paris, and the helming of the Nightwing title as part of the New 52 reboot of the DC universe.

Higgins returns to Iowa City on Saturday, May 2 for Free Comic Book Day. He and C.O.W.L. co-writer Alec Siegel will join Brooke Allen, artist on Lumberjanes, at Daydreams Comics for the annual festivities. Higgins corresponded via email with Little Village about his time at the University of Iowa, the collaboration that makes C.O.W.L. work, his work in Gotham City and the importance of Free Comic Book Day.

What brought you to the University of Iowa — and then what led to the decision to transfer? (And were you a Daydreams Comics customer while you were here?)

It was a few things. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking, but I also felt like I needed a backup plan. So, I was looking to double major in film production and computer science. Iowa had a cinema and comparative literature program, as well as a computer science one.

I visited the school twice and really fell in love with the place. I’m from the Chicago suburbs and knew I wanted to get out of state — if I could. That said, Iowa didn’t feel so far away that it’d be a big ordeal for me to get home if need be.

But, by the time I enrolled, I’d pretty much decided that trying to double major would be crazy. Besides the work load, my passion was filmmaking. The cinema program was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t the right fit for me. With the type of directing and films I wanted to make, I felt pretty strongly that I needed to get out to Southern California.

That said, one of the first classes I took at Iowa was a required course called Rhetoric. It was taught by a graduate student who was studying in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I enjoyed the class very much, and on his recommendation…decided to take a creative writing course. That class was also taught by a [graduate] of the workshop, Tracy Manaster, who I credit with really helping me find my voice. Honestly, without her, I’m not sure I’d be writing for a living now.

I did shop at Daydreams, but not too frequently. Most of my money went towards pizza (laughs). But, funny story — one of my first DC editors worked at Daydreams while I was at Iowa. We figured out later that we’d met before, even though neither of us remembered it.

C.O.W.L. is an impressive series, with great writing and distinctive art. Tell me a little bit about the creative partnership behind the book and your hopes for it going forward.

It’s a collaboration, in the truest sense of the word. Alec [Siegel] and I plot everything together, script different scenes, rewrite each other and then pass those script pages to Rod [Reis]. Sometimes we’re very detailed at this stage — as far as panel breakdowns, character choreography, dialogue — and other times we keep things looser and just try to convey what the scene is about and let Rod interpret the page. This latter approach is how we typically tackle action sequences.

Rod handles a lot of the choreography and heavy lifting, and we script the dialogue afterwards to fit the art. The nice thing about working with Rod is that his sensibility is completely different than mine. I tend to be very logical and linear, and my writing plays out that way. Rod has the soul of a surrealist, and that comes out in his panel breakdowns. He’s constantly looking for new and different ways to design a page, to push the boundaries of graphic storytelling.

So, working together is a very organic process where we support and challenge each other. Alec and I trust Rod implicitly, and often we rework our dialogue to best take advantage of what Rod draws. But, in working that way, the final pages have a wonderful energy about them that are more than the sum of their parts.

As far as it moving forward, we actually just announced at C2E2 that we’re wrapping the book up with issue 11. We’re all immensely proud of the series and the work we’ve done. C.O.W.L. is Rod’s first book as an illustrator, and it’s Alec and my first creator-owned book. It’s always going to hold a special place in our hearts, and I wouldn’t rule out telling more stories in the C.O.W.L. world one day. But, there a bunch of other things that Alec, Rod and I want to do together. So, we’re going to go off and create something brand new. We’ll be announcing that book pretty soon.

A lot of your work involves the denizens of Gotham and (in the case of Nightrunner) characters with a connection to Batman. What do you like best about working with those characters? Were there any special challenges involved in writing Nightwing as part of the New 52 relaunch?

They’re fantastic characters that have a tremendous amount of history behind each of them. Batman and Robin alone have been around for 75 years. As such, their voices and personalities are pretty well-defined.

So, from an approach standpoint, it’s pretty easy to step onto a Batman book and know what the character should sound like and how they’ll react to things.

In a lot of ways this provides a certain kind of structure and form to what you’re writing. Your job is to find new emotional hurdles and struggles to put them through, which… can be really tough.

The double edged sword of characters with history is that they’re going to be around long after you’re done writing them. And, they’re not going to change very much. That said, it’s a dream come true to write someone like Nightwing. He’s been my favorite character since I was 12 years old.

It’s a huge honor to write characters with such a rich history. That was probably the hardest part about relaunching his book for the New 52.

We were trying to get down to the core of the character and keep past continuity vague. Especially early on, the idea was that all the Batman characters’ continuity stood…but we didn’t want to reference it very much because then the series wouldn’t be very accessible to new readers. So, it was a bit of a conundrum on how much to reinvent and how much to maintain via vague references to past adventures.

Plus, other characters Dick Grayson had relationships with before the New 52 were completely different. So, did he know them? Did any of their old stories happen? It was a tough nut to crack.

You’re participating in Free Comic Book Day at Daydreams. In your opinion, what makes Free Comic Book Day an important event? And more broadly, what are your thoughts about the future of comics in this era of blockbuster superhero films and television shows, digital comics and increased diversity among creators and readers?

Free Comic Book Day is a celebration of a medium that I love. It’s a chance for stores to — hopefully — reach new readers and introduce them to this fantastic art form.

I think the blockbuster superhero films are incredibly exciting, and I would have killed to have even a quarter of them around when I was growing up. That said, comics are more than their media rights. And the medium is more than superheroes.

As much as I love seeing my favorite characters on screen, I’m more excited by how many diverse new creator-owned series are coming out from companies like Image, Boom, Dark Horse, IDW and Oni. The film lover in me looks forward to adaptations of some of those. To this day, my favorite “comic book movie” is Road to Perdition. I’m not sure a lot of people even know it was based on a graphic novel.

I think digital comics are exciting, and I read a lot of monthly books that way, but I always buy the trade paperback collection. I love having things in print, and in my opinion…it’s the best way to experience the art form.

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