We talked to Devin Grayson, writer of Nightwing and creator of Yelena Belova, about her long history in the comic book industry and exciting upcoming graphic novel Rewild!
COMIC BOOK YETI: First off, thanks so much for being here! We've got a lot to talk about. We're gonna talk about your start at DC, your new book coming out soon, and lots of other fun stuff, but of course we've got to start with the most currently relevant thing: You are one of the original creators of Yelena Belova, a very important character in the recent Black Widow movie! How did you feel when you found out your character was coming to the MCU?
DEVIN GRAYSON: Yes, I created her along with J.G. Jones! It was really exciting to see her! To be honest, you have mixed feelings about these kinds of things because the comic and movie worlds are so separate. I actually found out about Yelena being in the movie from a fan!
CBY: Really? No way.
DG: Yeah, nobody at Marvel reaches out, you just find out with everyone else! Of course, as soon as I realized it was true, I did get excited. I love Florence Pugh, I could not think of better casting, so I couldn't wait to see her. And the movie was an absolute joy, she was perfect in it. It was like watching J.G.'s art come to life.
CBY: So, from all that, I take it that you did like the movie's interpretation of Yelena?
DG: Oh yes, I was never worried about that! I knew they would do a good job.
"As I started to learn more about those characters, I began to learn more about the Bat Family and this loner who has assembled all these other people around him. I was fascinated with them all and followed them back to their start, which was of course in the comics. I didn't know much about the medium at the time, but I wanted to learn more, so I actually cold called DC Comics!"
CBY: I'm still shocked that you found out from a fan! I've heard from creators before that, like you said, the movies and comics are very separate, but I thought there would be at least something!
DG: Yeah, I also created Damien Darhk for my Titans run, and then he ended up on TV in the same way! It's so exciting and fun to see that happen, but we have no idea beforehand!
CBY: That's crazy! And it actually leads well into another question I had. After Black Widow, we know that Yelena is going to be in the upcoming Hawkeye show, I guess you had no idea about that! So what was it like for you, seeing that end scene with no notice, finding out what your character was going to be doing next? I bet that was a weird experience.
DG: Well, I did have warning about that – but from fans again! I'm psyched for the Hawkeye show, I think she's a perfect character for all that. Again, Florence Pugh is tremendous and I want her to be more involved in that universe!
CBY: Now I'm looking through all the books that you've written and I see one here in 2020 called Widowmakers which stars Yelena, what was it like coming back to that character so long after you first wrote her?
DG: It was really fun! I was ready to do it and, at that point, I knew she was going to be in the movie. But there's a funny story with this and the Doctor Strange novel that I wrote. When Marvel gives you an assignment like this, they're very straightforward that it's meant to promote the movie and all that. Then they tell you "and be sure not to reveal any plot points of the movie!" And so the only response I had was "...great, do I get to see a script?" to which they say, "No."
CBY: Well...I imagine there are harder tasks than not spoiling something you don't know!
DG: It's really crazy! All you can say is "I'll do my best!" and go with it! What was really funny was watching the movie after writing Widowmakers, because the scene where Yelena and Natasha break Alexei out of prison could have happened literally two seconds after a scene from that comic. It synchronized perfectly!
CBY: Now you've been doing a lot of Marvel lately, but you got your start at DC! In the late '90s, you wrote a lot of Batman and a lot of Nightwing. I know that's something you're really known for. What got you into the idea of writing for DC, specifically the Bat Family?
DG: That was the thing that got me into comics. I never read them growing up, but I saw Batman: The Animated Series after college and fell in love with it. I think the thing that interested me the most about it was that it made me realize that Batman had actually raised Dick Grayson. The idea of Batman as a father really stuck in my head, I just had to explore that. As I started to learn more about those characters I began to learn more about the Bat Family and this loner who has assembled all these other people around him. I was fascinated with them all and followed them back to their start, which was of course in the comics. I didn't know much about the medium at the time, but I wanted to learn more, so I actually cold-called DC Comics!
DG: Yeah, I just called and said I had been training as a writer but haven't read many comics, and asked what they recommended to help me deal with that learning curve. And the person on the other end of the phone was Denny O'Neil.
"Yes, cli-fi is short for 'climate fiction.' I've seen some places using that term lately and I'm so excited that it's becoming more common. It kinda means using the climate as a stepping off point for...well, horror stories mostly, given where we are."
DG: Apparently they didn't screen calls in those days! I just asked to talk to whoever was in charge of Batman and they put me through to Denny! It was amazing, such a great conversation. They gave me a lot of advice and great recommendations. And as I learned I became more and more fascinated with the medium of comics as a whole. It reminded me of jazz, in the sense that it was still sort of evolving and growing. It felt like you could do almost anything, and that the limitations were only there to encourage more creativity and improvisation. So I went in for Batman, my first assignment with DC was on the Bat Family. They had some anthologies going at the time, and I just did a few 10-pages stories for them. Eventually, Denny gave me Catwoman, that was the first series I did! I (unwisely) quit my day job and moved to New York for that, but it all worked out!
CBY: Alright, here's the natural next question then: Who's your favorite Bat Family member BUT you can't say Bruce or Nightwing, because I know those are gonna be your answers!
DG: Oooh, let me think. You did take out the two I would have picked first!
CBY: Hey, I gotta shake things up sometimes!
DG: Well now all the other characters are rushing back to me! The first thought that popped into my head was Tim, but then I thought "oh no, Huntress," and then I was like "Oh no, Oracle." Hmm...gotta narrow it down...Oh! You know what? Alfred.
CBY: Excellent answer.
DG: Thank you! I love him so much, and he was so good for that dynamic I was talking about with Batman raising a kid. I started to think of him as the mom of the house, honestly! Very emotionally aware, and he cares about all the other Bat Family members over the years.
CBY: Going down the list here of projects you've worked on after Batman, I see a ton of things from a ton of different publishers. I see of course work at Marvel and DC, I see Dynamite on this list, I see titles from both Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for IDW. You've really spanned the whole industry! What has it been like writing for so many different properties and places?
DG: Of course one of the biggest pieces of advice you get as a creator is to do some big-name books first to get your name out there, and then go into creator-owned. I've done creator-owned stuff before of course, we'll talk about my next upcoming book later, but I also love the challenge of working with established properties! Something about writing a character that's 30 years old and has 50 years' worth of in-universe history makes for a great puzzle! I love that game that you get to play with all these licensed properties, and I love that game. Take all this history, assume it's all true, and see what you can do with it!
CBY: It does sound like fun! But of course, you're doing creator-owned work too, and I'm sure you're very excited to talk about it! You've got a graphic novel called Rewild coming out soon at Berger Books from Dark Horse. Tell us all about it!
DG: Rewild is a contemporary cli-fi fairy tale-
CBY: Alright, hang on, what is "cli-fi?" Can you explain that term really quick?
DG: Yes, cli-fi is short for "climate fiction." I've seen some places using that term lately and I'm so excited that it's becoming more common. It kinda means using the climate as a stepping-off point for...well, horror stories mostly, given where we are. I live in California near the wildfires and it felt like a preview of the end of the world. It wasn't something that was going to happen in the future anymore, it was happening, and I had to find a way to write about it. I was trying to think of a way to talk about the issue that wasn't preachy, and I remember that I had a role-playing game character (I love role-playing games) who was a changeling, which is a human who was raised by fairies. I decided to use her as a starting point. What if all of a sudden she appeared in a town and announced that the fairies were real, affected by climate change, very pissed, and about to attack if humanity didn't get things together?
CBY: That is a fascinating concept, very very cool!
DG: Thank you! I'm using the fairies as sort of an allegory for our relationship with nature. I figured if I personified the beautiful - and terrifying - aspects of nature, I could explore how they could talk back to us. I think Yana Adamovic's art is perfect for that. I met her in Barcelona and we hit it off immediately. Her art is so dense, I'm still finding new details and creatures that are hiding in every page!
CBY: You said you met her in Spain? How did that come about?
DG: I met her at a conference there! Yana is amazing. I met her in Spain, but she's actually Serbian, and she has also been knighted for her art in France! She's my favorite woman of international mystery. She also speaks three or four languages fluently, she's amazing. Rewild is her American debut, actually! She's done plenty in Europe but nothing here, I'm so excited to introduce her to everyone.
CBY: That's awesome! I'll definitely put some of her art from Rewild in the interview article so that people can see it for themselves. Let's wrap up with a fun question. You've written for both Marvel and DC, if you could pick one Marvel character and one DC character to work on that you haven't been able to yet, who would you pick?
DG: Ooh, good question. Well, I was fortunate enough to write Batman and Nightwing right off the bat, that was amazing. Now that I know more about the characters and worlds, I think at Marvel I'd love to do more with Doctor Strange, and maybe Clea. I think she deserves her own series.
CBY: Oh yeah, I'd read a Clea comic in a heartbeat.
DG: And over at DC, I think I wrote Huntress before I really understood the character so I'd love another crack at her now.
CBY: Well, I hope you get a chance to work on them both! Before we end, do you have any last things to say about Rewild?
DG: Sure! It comes out this December from Berger Books at Dark Horse. It's available for preorder now on Amazon (link here!) and of course, you can talk to your local bookstore about preordering it from them. It's not necessarily for kids, even though it's a fairy tale. It has Vertigo sensibilities, there's definitely some darkness there. A major theme of the book is the difference between individual vs. collective insanity and what it means to not think like everybody else when everyone else's thinking is pretty off the rails. The two main characters are dealing with questions about their own reality that then lead them to question everybody else's reality.
CBY: It sounds like an incredible concept, I will be sure to pick it up when it comes out! Thanks so much for talking to me today, I really enjoyed this interview!
DG: Thank you, I had a great time talking to you, too!