Here at Batman-on-Film.com, we’ve always been big fans of Paul Dini’s landmark run on DETECTIVE COMICS that culminated in the HEART OF HUSH -- a cool, creepy, character-driven epic of action, romance, mystery, and suspense. The BATMAN REBORN event shuffled Dini and his art team of Dustin Nguyen (pencils), Derek Fridolfs (inks), and John Kalisz (colors) off of DETECTIVE and onto STREETS OF GOTHAM, where they continued to populate The Dark Knight’s city the same kinds of characters and stories they introduced during their DETECTIVE run.
We took special notice when Nguyen and Fridolfs stepped up for script duties on issue #12 and #13 which can be found in DC’s HOUSE OF HUSH collection. Fridolfs did such an awesome job scripting the backups (which began their lives as digital exclusives) to Dini’s main story in the new BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY hardcover that he landed a gig writing DC’s new weekly ARKHAM UNHINGED digital series.
Derek was kind enough to take some time out of an outrageously busy schedule to talk to yours truly, John Bierly, about his background, his love for Batman, and what we can expect from ARKHAM UNHINGED.
BOF/JOHN BIERLY: Let’s start at the beginning, Derek. Where are you from?
DEREK FRIDOLFS: I grew up in Fresno, California. It's in the middle of the Central Valley of the state, with Los Angeles to the south and San Francisco to the north.
BOF/JB: When did you become a Batman fan?
DF:I became a Batman fan all due to THE ANIMATED SERIES that debuted in '92. Up until then, I'd been mostly a Marvel comics reader, due to the G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS comics (and shows) and also Hulk, Spidey, and X-Men. Probably an occasional Batman comic here or there. But that animated show was just so influential to me at the right time, as I was in my senior year of high school. Loved the art style, the writing…everything about it. It immediately hooked me, and I've been a hardcore DC fan through their animation ever since.
BOF/JB: When did you first become interested in art?
DF: Art has always been a part of me as far back as I could hold a pencil (or crayons most likely). I was always drawing in class throughout the years. Oddly enough, once I got to high school, I didn't actually take an art class until my senior year. I was more involved in using my class electives for music and math. Art was always something done on the side for fun. When I hit college, I went to school on a music scholarship. Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. And then didn't know what I was going to do. Ended up going to art school for a year in Los Angeles, taking lots of life drawing, storyboarding, and animation classes. And shopping my portfolio around to all the animated studios I could find. Animation was just as tough to break in as comics, and comics hired me first, which worked out perfectly.
BOF/JB: What was your first comics gig?
DF: I had a few small press things here and there that amounted to pinups or short stories that never saw print. But my first real gig was inking half an issue of WOLVERINE #147, over Roger Cruz. And all due thanks go to fellow inker Tim Townsend. I had been sending in samples to companies, and got close on two major gigs at the time (one was making it to the last round of testing for an inaugural job at CrossGen, and the other was testing for a spot as Chris Bachalo's inker on STEAMPUNK). I came up short on both, partly due to being an unknown as well as not being up to snuff talent-wise. And after coming up short, I just felt a bit depressed and defeated…so close yet so far. So I was in contact with a couple artists that I'd talk to for advice.
One was Mike Zeck, whose work I greatly miss on sequential comics, as he works mainly in production art nowadays. I'd always get his advice, and he'd send me samples to ink over. And the other was Tim, who had heard of my recent disappointment from my email, and I think he had talked to Chris as well. And Tim gave me the kindest of offers. If I sent him a few photocopies of my best samples, he'd make sure to enclose them with the pages he was working on when it was mailed back to his editor. He said he couldn't guarantee anything, but that it wouldn't just go into some blind submissions pile -- that it would get directly into his editor's hands. So of course, I was greatly enthused and thankful and sent off copies that day. Less than a week later, I got a call from Mark Powers, who was editing many of the X-Men-related books at that time (tail end of 1999). And he offered me the gig of inking half an issue. So yeah, after a solid five years of constantly hitting up conventions, portfolio reviews, and snail-mail samples; persistence, timing, a smidge of talent, and a helping of luck all factored in.
BOF/JB: How did you meet Dustin Nguyen? Did you know each other before you began working together?
DF: Right in the middle of the Wolverine work, I was contacted by Wildstorm. They had seen some of my work and wanted to hire me for a short story in a new anthology called GEN ACTIVE. It was one of those rare times that they sifted through the huge stack of postal submissions and mine was one they happened to like. All those envelopes, stamps, and trips to Kinkos and the Post Office paid off! They had hired some upstart named after the 21 Jump Street guy to draw it (laughs)! Little did I know that one of my first pencillers I'd ink over would turn into a great friend and the longest career I'd have working with someone.
As it ended up, there were other short stories in more issues of the anthology with other inkers that were having their shot inking Dustin. But for whatever reason, he seemed to like me best. Maybe it was because it was the first time he'd seen someone ink over him, or that I kept close to how he'd want it to look. But whatever the case, he went to bat for me and requested me, and Wildstorm allowed it for when we'd work on the JET 4-issue mini-series that followed.
The first time I met him in person was the first time I went down to visit Wildstorm in La Jolla. We both were coming to visit and they took us out to lunch. My fondest memory was walking into our editor's office and seeing him sitting on the couch. We had been in email contact, but I remember handing him some art prints and he was very gracious.
We only worked for about a year at Wildstorm before the company decided they wanted to go with an in-house inker there. It was a bitter pill to swallow and woke me up to the realities that things can change on a dime, even if the artist you're working with wanted to keep you. Tastes change and conditions change. Dustin was being bumped up to a larger gig with THE AUTHORITY, which led to WILDCATS and Batman, so it was more beneficial to have someone in their studio that could give him a new look. While it initially hurt, it was probably the best thing for me in hindsight. It made me get out there and pound the pavement. Hit up other companies and develop more as an artist and inker working over other people. Up until then, I'd only done an issue for Marvel and then a few issues for Wildstorm. But after that, and after a year of coming up empty, I started to land regular work through Marvel, Dark Horse, Mirage Studios TMNT, and more. It expanded my clients and my experience for when I'd get the chance to work with Dustin again.
BOF/JB: You cited BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES as a huge inspiration. How then did you feel when you found out you'd be inking stories written by Paul Dini?
DF: It was a treat in more ways than one. Even though I hadn't been working with Dustin for a number of years, we still stayed in contact. He'd always say that he'd find a way for us to work together again, and I just sort of chalked it up to wishful thinking. But he said it would happen, and it was just a matter of time. So years later, he called me to say he had renewed his contract with DC under the stipulation that he'd get to name the gig he wanted to work on. They gave him a number of projects to choose from, most of them Bat related, and he decided to work on a story arc for SUPERMAN/BATMAN with Alan Burnett. And that he'd get to pick his inker and wanted to see if I was interested. Of course, I jumped at that chance. And following that arc, we moved right into DETECTIVE COMICS with Dini.
It was just one of those pinch-me scenarios. To have worked with two of the writers/producers involved with DC's best cartoons that I followed religiously as a fan, I just never thought something like that would happen. I lived, ate, and breathed those shows, starting with BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, to the point that I was going to animation school and taking tests to try to get storyboard work on them. So to have the chance to work on comics with those guys and with Dustin, still remains a great highlight. And of course DETECTIVE COMICS has such a long history for DC and for comics as a whole, that's it's fun to know we all worked on a run for that title.
BOF/JB: How did a typical issue of DETECTIVE, and later STREETS OF GOTHAM, come together? Did you and Dustin have any story input?
DF: I think it was mainly Paul that had the stories he wanted to tell, and rightfully so. I think there might've been some communication with Paul and Dustin initially. Maybe just finding out what characters he liked and maybe have them written into any stories. I think he knew we were fans of "Heart of Ice," so any chance to put Mr. Freeze in a story was greatly appreciated.
BOF/JB: What was it like working with Paul Dini?
DF: Very cool. It was always great getting the emailed scripts and reading them ahead of time, just from a fan perspective. They were always clever and well thought out. I just sort of pictured this was as close to seeing it like an episode of the animated show. The range of characters and how things he wrote into earlier issues seemed to all connect and pay off in later ones -- The “Dini-verse” of Batman.
Paul was always busy juggling a lot of projects, in comics, film, and animation. So it wasn't like we were in constant contact with him. But we knew he'd deliver a solid script each time. And we also got a chance to go do a store signing with all three of us in Vegas right after our first issue of DETECTIVE came out. So that was fun, to sit and hear stories and insights.
BOF/JB: What is it about your styles that make you and Dustin such a great team?
DF: I think being close to the same age and enjoying a lot of the same things growing up and in entertainment probably helps a lot. That we have similar taste that way, and sarcastic humor doesn't hurt. And with the collaboration, we've had a chance to grow over the years. When he initially started working for Wildstorm/DC when he broke in, he was greatly influenced by Travis Charest, and it even showed in his art. I remember those pages were extremely detailed with every hair and fiber meticulous. And back then I'd think to myself, I wonder how long I'll be able to keep this up trying to match that sort of detail. I give props to all the inkers that work with crazy detailed pencillers, because over time, that can wear both artists down. And it’s probably why a lot of those guys can't turn in monthly work. It's a lot to put on the page. But Dustin's style grew over the years and developed more into his own look. He streamlined it, focusing more on the storytelling and acting of his characters rather than if every nut and bolt was on the page. And I think that only helped open his work up to a larger more appreciative audience. Also, it makes it more fun to work on for my end. Everything that needs to be on the page is on the page. Solid enough pencils to follow, but loose enough that he leaves some judgment up to me on how I'll ink it. Sometimes it's mostly inking, and sometimes it floats more into finishing -- especially in that Denny O'Neil issue, #866, where the flashback was more in my own style off of his layouts).
So yeah, having a chance to work together as long as we have, we sort of have a real shorthand knowledge of what needs to be accomplished on the page to make it work. We both trust each other. I always try to adhere to the motto as an inker, to "do no harm." I'm there to polish and make his pencils look slicker and better than how they arrived, whenever possible. Because hopefully if it satisfies us (and meets our deadlines), then hopefully the readers will feel the same.
BOF/JB: You and Dustin wrote two amazing issues (#12 and #13) of STREETS OF GOTHAM. How did that come about?
DF: Thanks. That was just too much fun, and has sort of led us to what we're working on currently that's still to be announced. I think the two of us have always had ideas, whether fully formed in writing or just chatting. Usually it's the late nights working on the art and talking to each other, or chatting up ideas on convention trips. It's what led to us pitching and having fun with the LIL’ GOTHAM shorts and also having the chance to help script those issues of STREETS OF GOTHAM.
Our deadlines had caught up with us on STREETS, so in order to help everyone out on our schedules, our editor floated the idea that Dustin and I script the issues based on plot outlines Paul gave us. It was a two-issue, self-contained story that was a nice villain character piece and having Batman show up as well. Just a really cool project, getting a chance to put words in Dini's script and help pace it out and visualize how the story could be told. And Paul was very cool in allowing it all to take place. His plots had everything necessary to tell the story and have fun with it. The Carpenter seemed just like some throwaway character in her first brief appearance, but getting a chance to tell her story, we now have a soft spot for her whenever she gets a chance to appear.
It probably also goes down as one of the busiest times Dustin and I had working together. In one specific month, we were co-scripting one of the STREETS issues, we were handling the art on it, plus we were doing the art on that 30-page DETECTIVE O'Neil issue (#866, Dustin on pencils and layouts, and me on inks and finishes). And still getting it all in on time, much to the fear of DC if we'd be able to pull it off! But huge props to our editor Mike Marts, who never wavered and always told his superiors that we'd get it done. And it had to have been the best night of sleep I'd had in awhile after turning in the last scans. I fell into a coma of sleep.
BOF/JB: Tell us a bit about your current project. What is it, and how did it come about?
DF: BATMAN: ARKHAM UNHINGED is the new ongoing series born out of the previous ARKHAM CITY comics. It's one of the nice things about what DC is pushing with digital, in making affordable content on a regular basis (99 cents for 10-page chapters every week). The ARKHAM CITY comics did well, and this is just a continuation of that, for fans of the game and hopefully comic fans as well, to find their weekly “fix.”
Basically it came about because DC wanted to continue to promote and generate more stories based on the game as things move forward with it. The previous comics did well, and to be able to have more content coming out weekly, and since I've already been doing another project for DC Digital, they contacted me about working on this as well. Of course, I jumped at telling more stories for this since there's such a range of characters and story potential complimentary to the game.
BOF/JB: Where in the timeline of the ARKHAM CITY game and hardcover do your new stories fall?
DF: ARKHAM UNHINGED is the continuation of the story from where things left off in the ARKHAM CITY comics. The ARKHAM CITY mini-series and digital chapters from before -- which are now collected in the hardcover --fit into the continuity leading up to the actual groundbreaking opening of ARKHAM CITY. From the end of ARKHAM ASYLYUM to the start of ARKHAM CITY is supposed to be one year, and the previous comics were the months leading up to ARKHAM CITY. Now with the walled city of inmates up and running, in the game and in the comic, we're now able to tell stories that compliment what's going on in the game while also moving forward with it in the ARKHAM-verse.
It's also connected in the fact that characters and storylines covered in those earlier chapters all continue to be represented in the ongoing. More stories about Hugo Strange and his Tyger enforcement running the show, more insight into the villains and their motivations and goals, and more with Batman and his family of heroes trying to uncover the truth and fight against what's going on behind the walled-off city.
BOF/JB: How did you approach creating the story?
DF: I think first thing was to get as heavily involved with the game as I could. Back when I was trying to break into comics over 10 years ago, I pretty much gave up my video game playing. I wanted to devote my time to my art and submissions and eventually working regularly in comics. Games, while fun, would just be a distraction for what I wanted to achieve. So it's funny that years later, a job like this would come along where I'm now really invested in playing the games.
So yeah, I picked up a PS3 and crammed through ARKHAM ASYLUM in a couple weeks’ time to get a feel for the previous game. And then DC invited me to their Burbank office to have a chance to play through ARKHAM CITY before it was released. I had the tough life of spending a whole day on the couch in their studios, playing various levels, and having them show me all facets of the storyline happening in the game. And of course once the game was released, I've been playing it pretty regularly and taking a lot of notes for “research.”
Stories really come easy out of that. There's so much backstory and various things only hinted at in the game, that it really makes it easy to think up stories that might be interesting to cover. No writer's block here. I send off springboard ideas every few days, and leave it up to DC and Rocksteady to see which ones seems interesting to develop further. And after notes start coming back and forth, I'm off and running.
BOF/JB: What elements do you feel are absolutely necessary for every Batman story?
DF: I think storytelling in general, whether Batman or not, are all about motivation. What is it that the characters want? And who might be getting in the way of their goals. With all these criminals locked up in Arkham City, everyone has a different outlook about what they want to achieve. Some are trying to amass loot, others are interested in controlling their territory of the city or expanding on it, most have vendettas against one another, some would like to break out while others are comfortable where they are. And then there's Hugo's endgame, which is more than just having all the inmates locked up. Then you toss Batman into the mix as he's investigating and fighting to stop what he sees as a powder keg just waiting to blow up. So yeah, all the elements that you probably see in most Batman stories as the villains want one thing and Batman is doing his best to maintain order and stop them.
BOF/JB: Which characters do you have the most fun writing?
DF: There's such a range of personalities, that it really fills a creative niche working on any of them. I've found to really enjoy The Penguin, which sort of shocked me. I remember when it was first revealed before the game came out, that they’d given him a Cockney accent, that I wasn't sure how I felt about that. But the more I heard him in the game, the more he started to grow on me. And writing him has been a lot of fun. He's so deliciously dark and sinister, that I've found we're putting him into a lot of stories in some way or another.
And I enjoyed writing Mr. Freeze in the last of the ARKHAM CITY Digital Exclusives. He's my favorite of Batman's rogues gallery ever since Dini's "Heart Of Ice." So I'm hoping to get a chance to work more with him in ARKHAM UNHINGED.
BOF/JB: Which characters have surprised you the most?
DF: Definitely The Penguin. Also the Abramovichi Twins that were once conjoined. They've got an interesting backstory that should help establish them more than just mini-bosses in the game.
BOF/JB: What have you learned about yourself as a writer from working on this project?
DF: That it can be an involved but rewarding process working on a licensed project. In comics, we're very used to working with one editor and that's it. But on something like this that's tied into a game, you're getting notes and help from my editor, the staff working on DC's gaming side of the company, along with Rocksteady themselves. It's a team effort to not only make these stories fit into the continuity established for the ARKHAM-verse, but also to make them good. I've worked on projects where I'm left to my own devices, and others where you get pestered and every single line gets nit-picked. So it's a matter of rolling with the punches and compromising on any project you're on. And I've found this to be a nice fit for me. Questions get answered, notes are helpful, and they've been open to ideas. It's really what one wants when working on something as big as Batman.
BOF/JB: Who's doing the artwork? As an artist yourself, do you find it difficult to "let go" of that aspect of it?
DF: Each story arc has a different artist involved. We've used Mike S. Miller on the first, and now Brian Ching is working on the current one. Plenty of others coming up, from established names to talented unknowns. It really is one of the best parts of working on a big project like this. To act as a sort of art director, in recommending different artists to my editor. He has people in mind and is open to my own suggestions too.
I think there used to be a day when I was first breaking in, that I was ambitious and wanted to ink as many different people as I could. But nowadays, I'm happy having a long-term collaboration with Dustin Nguyen. I no longer feel the need to seek out other styles to scratch an itch. And for something like this, it's nice to take the art side of me out of the equation and just be the writer. To sit back and enjoy what other artistic visions can be brought to it. Every time I see new pages of art roll in, it's like Christmas.
BOF/JB: Since this is "Batman on Film," what's your favorite Batman movie?
DF: Definitely got to stick on the animated side of things. BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER might be one of my favorite interpretations of Batman ever. That incredibly dark and dramatic flashback to Batman's final confrontation with the Joker was so chilling. And then to show how that affects an older Bruce and his protégé, makes for some great storytelling. BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM is also right up there. It really is the CASINO ROYALE for Batman, showing how his early days and a failed romance lead to him reaffirming his commitment to being The Dark Knight.
BOF/JB: Any expectations for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES?
DF: I expect it to be good (laughs)! I've enjoyed both Nolan films, and there's a lot on the line to end his Bat-Trilogy on a high note. I expect nothing less and I'm sure he'll deliver.
BOF/JB: Batman on Film would like to thank Derek once again for his time and his thoughtful, thorough answers! Be sure to check out his ARKHAM UNHINGED stories at DC Digital! And for more about Derek and his art -- including links to his new pod cast -- visit DFRIDOLFS.DEVIANTART.COM.