One of J. Michael Straczynski’s first memories involves watching a Max Fleischer Superman cartoon on television. There was an image, which the “Babylon 5″ creator says he “imprinted like a baby duck,” of the hero sheltering Lois Lane beneath his red cape to protect her from a flood of molten steel — it had such a profound effect on Straczynski that a reproduction of it hangs on the wall of his home. The prolific writer whose comic book credits include stints on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Fantastic Four” and “Wonder Woman,” among others, had an opportunity to try his own hand at the mythos of the Man of Steel with the bestseller “Superman: Earth One Vol. 1″; on the occasion of a follow-up volume released last week, Straczynski answered a few questions from Hero Complex contributor Jevon Phillips about the character he describes as a “deeply personal icon.”
HC: What’s your first and most lasting memory of Superman?
JMS: For me, growing up in a ridiculously poor family living in dead-end neighborhoods, Superman was a deeply personal icon, one that said you can do anything if you put your mind to it. What he stood for formed the core of who I wanted to be as I grew up, and informed how I view the world and my responsibilities to other people.
HC: You’re dealing with one of the most iconic characters in comics/pop culture. What did you want to bring to Superman in the “Earth One” volumes?
JMS: Here’s the thing about Superman: He’s the most powerful guy on the planet inside the DC universe. But in the last few decades other comic universes have arisen with dozens of characters on that same power level. So while he’s unique in the DC universe, he’s not unique outside that. So what makes him unique? What makes him interesting other than that he’s really, really strong? That question led me to want to redefine Clark in ways that made him more interesting and more flawed as a person. Not in a dark, mean, cynical way, because that’s way too easy. But as a true outsider whose heart is vulnerable. I wanted to emphasize the loneliness of a kid growing up knowing just how different he was from everyone else, who had to keep his distance for their protection and his own. Which ties into the element that seems to have brought in a lot of new readers, many of them in their 20s. At that age, we’re all trying to figure out where the heck we fit in with the world, with each other, and with our dreams. Clark is no different at that age. If anything, his extraordinary abilities make that even more difficult. The traditional Clark Kent/Superman leads with his chin; this Clark is a bit shy and unsure of himself, just as the world around him is unsure of who this guy is and what he wants.
HC: Do you prefer graphic novels to the monthly comic book grind?
JMS: It’s different in the sense that when you’re writing a monthly book, or a maxiseries, you have to structure your story much like a TV episode, with each issue being one act in that story. You have to build to the commercial break to hook the readers in to come back for the next act, or in this case, the next issue. Sometimes that requires not so much false jeopardy as repeated jeopardy that can, in time, become a bit predictable. In the original, straight-to-graphic-novel format, you don’t have to worry about that. The writing process is a lot more like writing a movie, you can settle in and tell the story at a different pace. This allows you the freedom to create little moments and develop your character more gradually, with more layers, than could normally be afforded in a 22-page book where you have to get to the point, and the action, as fast as possible.
On the personal side of that equation, two years ago I took a sabbatical from monthly books so I could use that time to go over all my work to this point and assess its relative strengths and weaknesses. The problem with writing a monthly book is that you’re going through your work like a man running for a bus, red-faced and out of breath. There isn’t time for reflection or critical self-examination. I’d reached a point where I felt I needed to take that time to evaluate my work for the purposes of making it stronger, while concentrating strictly on limited-series books or GNs like this. I will finally return to monthly books next year with the Joe’s Comics imprint from Image, which will put the sabbatical at nearly three years. I think it was time well spent.
HC: Lois Lane’s investigative curiosity has always been a talking point in the instances where she didn’t know Clark was Superman. You’ve touched on those instincts in the book. Could we see a deeper probe in future volumes?
JMS: By the end of Vol. 2, she’s set that investigation aside, and it’ll stay on the shelf for another volume or two because I need to shift the story in Vol. 3 — which I’ve already begun writing — to pick up some of the threads I introduced in Vol. 1. Any Shakespeare fans out there can get a hint about what might be coming in Vol. 3 if you recognize the name Tyrrell, which I borrowed from “Richard III” for our bad guy as a bit of foreshadowing. Once we’re on the other side of that story, I’ll swing Lois back around to her inquiry again.
HC: Clark seems to have more confidence as a journalist in this version, and he recently resigned from the Daily Planet in the ongoing series. What do you make of that?
JMS: I’m not sure I’d describe it as confidence as much as determination. He wants to be a good reporter, he knows this is where he belongs, but he has a long ways to go before he becomes a good reporter. Vol. 2 keeps hitting him on the head with the distance he has to go in that process. In all the other professions he sampled in Vol. 1, he could have been anything and done really well at it because those professions were kind of external in nature — a scientist, or an athlete, for instance. As a reporter, a writer, he has to do the one thing he has avoided his whole life: to reveal himself. Perry keeps riding him about the fact that he writes like he has something to hide, which of course he does. I think that’s probably one of the main reasons he took the job, in addition to the obvious ones: It’s the one that will actually challenge him the most.
HC: What did it mean to you to have a graphic novel on the New York Times bestseller list?
JMS: That was totally amazing … not to just get it there, but to keep it there for 37 weeks. I don’t think anyone anticipated just how well this book would do. And much of that was from people who’d never bought a Superman book before, who saw in Clark’s struggle something they could relate to and identify with. Being on the New York Times list says that we made the right choices with the book and the character. All of this, of course, links back to Dan DiDio, chief mojo at DC, who pushed this through and spearheaded this line of books.
HC: Your prolific output, as well as the myriad topics and media you’ve written in and about, are well-known. What might people be surprised to hear that you’re working on or considering?
JMS: Through Studio JMS, which we launched in June, we’re now moving ahead on two different TV series, we have four comics coming out via Joe’s Comics next year, we want to get our first movie shooting next fall … so we’re really kind of doing it all. The one relatively new area is Web series: We’re doing two of them, one for MTV.com called “The Adventures of Apocalypse Al,” and one for another distributor, “Living Dead: The Musical.” I’m also writing my autobiography, five words that should strike terror into any number of people out there… In the end, for me, the job is about having fun. I wake up every morning knowing how ridiculously lucky I am to be able to do what I love for a living, and that sense of wonder never, ever wears off.
– Jevon Phillips
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