Max Landis might be known for spoofing Superman comics with his Death and Return of Superman.
But now he's writing one.
Best known as the screenwriter of the hit movie Chronicle, Landis makes his superhero comic debut in next week's Action Comics Annual #1, with an eight-page story that introduces the new Atomic Skull to the DCU. The story, which is described as a "silent" one, is drawn by Ryan Sook.
Landis, age 27, grew up around the movie business as the son of John Landis, the director of classic '70s and '80s films like National Lampoon's Animal House, Blues Brothers and Trading Places.
But he's since made a name for himself as a screenwriter, selling several spec scripts to major studios.
His big break as a film industry heavyweight came earlier this year with the successful release of Chronicle, a film he wrote about three teens who get superpowers. Filmed in a realistic, documentary-style, the movie won the attention of movie fans as well as superhero junkies, and it's supposed to be getting a Landis-penned sequel soon.
Comic books fans might also recognize Landis for a couple other reasons. First, he dabbled in writing comics before, with the Bluewater Productions title Back to Mysterious Island in 2008.
But Landis is also the guy who did the star-studded YouTube parody of The Death and Return of Superman, which went viral earlier this year and made fun of the famous story.
Newsarama talked with Landis to find out more about why he's writing the story, what readers will see in next week's comic, and whether he'll be writing superheroes anywhere else — whether in film or comics.
Newsarama: Max, what got you involved in writing this. Was it something DC approached you about?
Max Landis: DC approached me to write a back-up story and I lost my mind! You know, people think, because of Death and Return, a lot of people have seen that I think I'm better than superheroes or smarter than comics, which is just completely wrong in so many ways that I can't even define.
I'm obsessed with comics! And I love superheroes! So the idea that they would give me the keys to Superman? I didn't end up using him in my story, but the idea that they would let me drive that train, even for eight pages, is one of the most exciting and tremendously thrilling things that's ever happened to me in my career.
Nrama: In DC's description of the story, they use the word "silent." Can you describe what that means?
Landis: There's no words! As a screenwriter, we're often forced to let the director choose what happens on screen. You can say the plot, you can say the story, but ultimately the actors and the director and the cinematographer will determine how it looks.
So there was something really fun about being all of those pieces, of course partnered with the brilliant Ryan Sook, but being all those pieces myself.
And I thought, well, with the story that I'm telling, I can just say what happens and let the audience sort of put together the more relevant bits of information.
There was something really compelling to me about that, the idea to tell this as sort of a ghost story, where the audience sees something without being told what it is.
Nrama: So it's like a ghost story?
Landis: Yeah! It's super spooky, creepy cool.
Nrama: In past continuity, we've seen both Albert Michaels and Joseph Martin wear the mantle of "Atomic Skull." Now that you're introducing Atomic Skull to the New 52 universe, who is this version?
Landis: He's a new guy. He's sort of a combination of Al and Joe. And he's less nefarious and more... I won't say grounded, but more eerie. And his origin is quite a bit different.I think the thing that drew me to him was there's something tremendously creepy to me about atomic energy and nuclear energy and that feeling of heat.
So I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if a guy who was maybe already a little bit of a combustible guy — a guy who, maybe in his personal life, had already split an atom. What if he was given the ability to really blow down walls, to really blow shit up and kick ass?
And I wanted to kind of go into that in a way that wasn't direct and wasn't, you know, on the nose. It's not about a guy robbing a bank. It's a very different, much more personal type of story than that.
Nrama: We saw superhero elements in your movie Chronicle, and as you mentioned, you're a comic book fan. Is this Action Comics story an indication that you're interested in writing superhero comics down the line?
Landis: I'm only interested in writing comics with good characters, whether or not they have powers. Powers are super cool. I love them. But at the end of the day, I like writing people who I like writing. I like writing characters who I want to see what they'll do next. There are a lot of superheroes like that. And I love superheroes, so of course I'm open to it.
But I wouldn't say that the superhero element is what draws me to them. I think I'd be interested in Batman, even if Bruce Wayne just was, you know, a normal kid who lost his parents and then went and got a gun, and then refused to kill people and didn't have a Batplane. I think I'd find him just as compelling.
Nrama: The director of Chronicle, Josh Trank, is attached to a Fantastic Four reboot, and there are a lot of other superhero movies in the works at various studios. Are you attached to any of those franchise superhero movies, and do you have any ambitions to work on any of the big superhero movies franchises?
Landis: Something I'm doing at Universal is sort of an anti-superhero movie, but not in the Kick-Ass or Wanted / Mark Millar sort of version of anti-superheroes.
I love superheroes and don't really like making them look foolish, or making fun of the idea of superpowered altruism.
Now, of course, I made The Death and Return of Superman, but that was about a story much more than it was about a character. That was about the execution of a character. Of course, I opened with "nobody gives a f#$k about Superman," but that's due to poor execution and stories that don't necessarily hit on what's good about him.
I would definitely be incredibly honored to write, say, a Superman movie or, you know... I don't even know who's around, but Wonder Woman would be lots of fun. I've got a couple of ideas there.
But at the same time, those properties are so protected by studios, and you're under so many eyes, that I worry that I would be at the whim of a much larger force. And I've had enough of that.
Nrama: Interesting. As someone involved in the movie business who's also a comic book fan, I'm honestly surprised to hear you say that. But I respect it. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen in that situation.
Landis: Just because I like cheese doesn't mean I'm the best in the world at making cheese. Sometimes it's good to let other people who like cheese less make the cheese for you, because they'll do a better job.
Nrama: Good analogy. To finish up, Max, is there anything else you want to tell comic readers about this eight-page story?
Landis: Just that it's beautiful, and that Ryan Sook is a genius. And I think he's a really talented guy. He took what I wrote on the page and he made it come alive in a way that is unexpected and beautiful and surprised me.
And it was just overall, a very rewarding experience. It's a spooky little story, and I hope you guys like it.
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