It’s not often that a job comes around that manages to combine your comics obsession with your creative skill set. But that’s exactly what happened to DC fan and costume designer Jennifer May Nickel when she boarded The CW’s Gotham Knights, the latest chapter in the network’s iconic run of series based on DC Comics properties. A self-described nerd who has worked on projects as varied as vampire drama Legacies and Taylor Tomlinson’s stand up specials for Netflix, Nickel got to create the looks for a new generation of DC heroes on Gotham Knights (and villains… more on that later!).
Nerds & Beyond had the chance to chat with Nickel about her time working on the show from the second episode onward alongside the pilot costume designer Natalie Bronfman, including the DC Comics homages she’s excited for fans to notice and the process of creating a new version of Gotham from scratch.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nerds & Beyond: Congratulations on Gotham Knights, I think we’re all very excited to see where it goes! It seems like it’s a real labor of love for everybody involved. How did you get started in the project? Were you a fan of DC Comics before you started?
Jennifer May Nickel: Yes, I’m quite the fan of DC Comics, and Batman was and still is my first superhero love. So the world of Gotham is something that I’ve always been a fan of and beyond my wildest dreams wanted to be a part of.
Nerds & Beyond: Oh, that’s amazing. And so were you approached for the project because of that, or was that what gave you the edge when you were talking about joining the project?
Jennifer May Nickel: I worked on Legacies with our directing producer, Jeff Hunt, and we didn’t know if Legacies was coming back or not. And he said, “Well, I’ve heard some mumblings about a possibility of this new show called Gotham Knights.” And I said, “Gotham what?” He said, “Yeah, I was thinking of recommending you for the project if it goes.” And I said, “Oh, please do. Anything with the word Gotham in it, I am there for.” I remember the moment where my assistant costume designer, Marissa [Cowart], was there with me when he was talking about it and she was like, “Are you okay? Are you going to faint? He’s just talking about it. It hasn’t even gotten picked up yet!” I was like, “Just the idea, the possibility is…” So he put my name in the mix for it and obviously it did get picked up and I was lucky enough that they called me in to interview and I think my passion and my nerdiness for DC definitely shined through. And obviously I got the job!
Nerds & Beyond: Absolutely, so it was a true dream job!
Jennifer May Nickel: I mean, it’s not too often you get to design Harvey Dent, Two-Face, Robin, some of my favorite villains from the comics, it’s very exciting.
Nerds & Beyond: Are there any little design choices that you might have made for those fellow hardcore DC fans, a wink and nod that they may notice?
Jennifer May Nickel: There’s a whole lot of winks and nods every single week to the point where one of the co-creators and I were like, “Okay, I just need to sit back down and watch all the cuts so I can start making notes of all of my little Easter eggs,” because it was important to us that we are not bashing people over the head with them and that it’s not so overt that it’s distracting. But if you are a hardcore fan, you will probably notice
the little things and the little nods that we’re doing. And then I even do Easter eggs within … just little things about the script I put into the costume details. Some of the most forefront things are things like the color palette that we use is the obvious Easter egg for a lot of the characters. But then things get a little more subtle here and there. Some of the overt ones I think people will see without even thinking about it, are on Harvey Dent, on Duela, because she’s the Joker’s daughter, as well as our lovely little Carrie Kelley, her as Robin.
Nerds & Beyond: And you have to walk such a fine line as a designer because the show itself seems to be walking such a fine line of reinventing DC canon, doing something new with it in a way that’s unexpected, but at the same time, paying homage to all these iconic characters that people are already familiar with. What was that process like of saying, “Oh, okay, maybe this is one Easter egg too many,” or, “We really want this to be distinctive and different for the show, how can we do that”?
Jennifer May Nickel: From the very beginning, the co-creators all were very clear that we are in our own Gotham. This is our own world and while we want to pay homage to everything that’s come before us, we are not beholden to it either. It was very important for all of us to create a timeless look for the show. We also didn’t want it to be too cartoony. We take a lot from the Frank Miller comics and stuff from the ’80s with The Dark Knight, and we also take Long Halloween and little bits of things here and there. It’s not all just the Court of Owls run. So it’s paying a subtle and soft tribute rather than being like, “Oh, that’s a really bright and bold choice for Robin there.” We’re definitely not doing the short shorts on Carrie Kelley. [laughs]
So we’re taking the colors and having nods, but it’s not a super saturated Gotham. It’s our Gotham, there’s a lot of grit, there’s a lot of grime. Everyone’s crawled their way through in this Gotham to get where they are. We’re true to the characters in our world, but also having those little hints and bits to acknowledge where we came from.
Nerds & Beyond: Of course. And it’s difficult because you’re juggling so many different genres. You’ve got the more traditional, superhero, “all these kids need super suits” sort of costuming. But then also you have these characters who are at a rich kid school with more Gossip Girl type outfits. How was that to do both of those kinds of things in one show? Was it a creative challenge for you?
Jennifer May Nickel: It’s actually what I love creatively. I’m the kind of person who, for example, Doctor Who is a dream of mine and if I got to design that, I would be so happy. But I look at our show like [Doctor Who] because you have all of these different realms that you’re designing within. So you do have the rich kids and we have this school uniform. Obviously from having designed Legacies, I’ve done my fair share of school uniforms! But taking those rich kid elements and then having the dichotomy of that with our kids from the street who are parentless for one reason or another. It’s a whole bunch of misfits coming together, between being rich, smart, or the outsider, it’s all of them melding together in a cohesive way, but also still showing the odds that they’re at as well.
So it’s bringing refined clothes to people like Stephanie and Turner while on Duela, we do in her fittings what I would call “live cutting.” Olivia [Rose Keegan] is a very trusting human, which is lucky because I would come into the fittings with these giant, very sharp eight inch long scissors and just do live cutting on the costumes. She could see where my brain was going with it when I did what I call “Duela-fying” it. I would be cutting everything. I would have all these safety pins out, I would have accessories galore. It was just piling lots and lots of things on her to show her world, but then keeping Stephanie, Turner, and Brody in clean simple lines. And then the color palette for the rich versus the color palette for the poor as well, the lighter colors and more pristine for them, and darker, grimier, dingier for the poor.
Nerds & Beyond: Definitely. And you mentioned collaborating with Olivia on that particular aspect of her wardrobe. With the other kids, was there that same level of collaboration? Were there any ideas that they might’ve given you that you said, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t have done that,” or, “Oh, let me think about that for next time.”
Jennifer May Nickel: Yes, and especially, we did that a lot with Turner for his costumes. It was because he is now twice an orphan, and so it was very much finding out, now that he is back to being an orphan again, what does that mean to him clothing-wise? He doesn’t have access to the money that he had before with Bruce’s bank account. What would he have at the school that he maybe had in his locker that he can steal and grab and what are the choices that he’s making? And so Oscar [Morgan] and I had a lot of conversations
about what that could be. Since we are in a timeless era, what are the kind of clothes his parents may have dressed him in before they died? We took that line and started creating that kind of world. So it’s one of those little bits of bringing him in our collaboration.
Nerds & Beyond: Since these are fairly unique costumes, like you said, they’re an amalgamation of all these different ideas. It’s presenting a unique opportunity for fans of the show to see these characters in a new light. And certainly, I’m hoping we see a lot of Gotham Knights cosplayers walking around convention halls. Is that —
Jennifer May Nickel: I sure hope so!
Nerds & Beyond: [laughs] An exciting prospect for you or is that a scary prospect for you?
Jennifer May Nickel: Oh, that’s an exciting prospect, because the nerd that I am, I have been going to cons for years. I don’t necessarily cosplay because I am the costume designer and it’s one of those, “I do it every day.” I do enjoy watching how other people interpret costumes and costume design. It definitely would be a dream of mine to see people cosplaying my costumes. But I did joke with our co-creators that if we do get a panel at [San Diego] Comic-Con this year, I can’t do it for WonderCon, but if we get a panel for Comic-Con, then I was going to cosplay one of our super villains because I love them so much.
Nerds & Beyond: That would be amazing. You have your pick of true villains to choose from on this show. One of the ones that we’ve been hearing the most about, and certainly the most buzz has started to form around the costume for, is obviously Harvey Dent/Two-Face, played by Misha Collins. Although I’ve also seen people get excited about the ties that you’ve chosen, it’s not just the super villain costume!
Jennifer May Nickel: The ties have become a thing, and I was not expecting it! I came into this a little blind in the way of, I didn’t quite understand the fandom around Misha. One morning I woke up and my phone had literally blown up and I was like, “Oh God, what costume emergency did we have while we were filming late?” And it wasn’t that, it was that Misha had posted something with one of his ties and everyone just lost their minds over it in the best possible way. And it was one of those, “Okay, is this fandom cool?” Because some fandoms can be intense in good ways, and some fandoms can be… intense. [laughs] The fandom around Misha has just been so lovely to engage with and they’re all just so excited for him and supportive of him that it’s been this fun little thing where we are just having fun with Tie Tuesdays with Harvey Dent and people can guess the tie knots that we have going for him as the series progresses.
[The ties are] one of our subtle ways for Misha and I to bring in the switch in his brain and the flip that’s happening to Two-Face so it isn’t fully a sudden realization. It is a slow thing, it’s soft and subtle so that it’s not cartoonish. It has realism and a subconscious intent to it. One of those natural things is with the tie, because he could be Harvey Dent in the mirror, getting ready, but going off in his brain and tying his tie almost on autopilot. And then he has this whole convoluted knot that he did while he was off in his brain. That’s where it started and then continued to evolve from, and different knots have different meanings too based on the story of the episode, and also some of the things that we know are to come. By the end of the season, I’ll be able to have a whole page worth of notes for everyone of why we did what we did in our craziness!
Nerds & Beyond: Speaking of things that we know are to come, can you tease anything about Two-Face’s look? I know Misha recently was doing a convention and he teased that it was one of his favorite looks he’s ever seen, was very excited for everyone to see it.
Jennifer May Nickel: He also teased that my apartment smelled like smoke and I probably ruined some of my furniture in the process! And it definitely smelled. It reeked. Reeked. I reeked of smoke for two weeks. It didn’t matter how many times I washed my hair, I reeked of burnt wool and polyester.
Nerds & Beyond: [laughs] So rumor confirmed?
Jennifer May Nickel: Yeah! So that’s a good indication of a little bit of what it is. And I don’t know how I personally got out of that weekend unscathed, but I took lots of videos for cosplayers because I figured this might be something people would want to know how to do. So I definitely have a lot of instructional videos on what to do [to create the Two-Face costume]. It was one of the joys of my career being able to create that and that I got to do it [alone]. Because I have a whole entire team, but it was one of those, “Oh, we have to do it over the weekend.” I knew exactly the process of how to do it and what to do, and we didn’t have a chance for anyone else to be having their hands on it. If I’m going to be telling people how to do it, I might as well be the one doing it, because otherwise I’m just breathing down their necks and that’s no fun for anyone! This was my baby in a way, I got to bring that one to life and it was a joy.
Nerds & Beyond: Of course! And would you say that was your most technically challenging costume of this shoot?
Jennifer May Nickel: In some ways, but also in other ways, there were definitely more technically complex costumes and you guys will see that towards the end of the season with some of the super villains involved. And it was more technical because of the mass of them.
Nerds & Beyond: Ooh, good. A whole group of super villains then! Is there a particular costume that you’re really excited for people to see, whether it is one of those more super villain superhero costumes or just a fun nod that you really enjoyed putting in there that you’re hoping that people will notice?
Jennifer May Nickel: There is one really huge nod that I hope people will notice, and I can’t give away the full aspect of it, but there is a costume of Duela’s with what I think is blatant, so hopefully everyone else will realize it too, a direct clear nod to Heath Ledger’s Joker. It is tied directly to The Dark Knight and it is one of the highlights of my career to have been able to design that costume because it’s just in my mind everything I could have ever wanted for it.
Nerds & Beyond: As such a big fan yourself, getting to be involved in this project, what do you think that other fans are going to most enjoy at the end of the day, once they’ve seen the season?
Jennifer May Nickel: I think they’re going to enjoy the nerdiness of it, because it is truly a writer’s room of nerds, a pool of directors who are nerds, me, the set dec designer, the production designer, the prop designer… We’re all huge nerds and love the world of Gotham. I think that as the fans begin to see the show and as we get into our groove, they’ll see just how much love and sweat and tears and everything that we poured into the show to make a really good Gotham.
Gotham Knights airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW. You can find the rest of our coverage of the series here. Be sure to check out Your Bat Is Dead, Nerds & Beyond’s podcast covering all things Gotham Knights!