J. Michael Straczynski has a lot to say about superheroes; for years he’s said it at Marvel and DC with the biggest characters in the world. But what he’s saying now in his new Image series Sidekick with artist Tom Mandrake is something the Big Two would never let him say on his own.
Launched earlier this month via his Joe’s Comic imprint at Image, Sidekick follows the life of a superhero sidekick named Flyboy who finds himself washed-up after his partner and mentor Red Cowl is assassinated. Pigeon-holed by his career as a sidekick and still carrying around the memories of his partner’s tragic death, Flyboy is walking down a dark path – and it looks to be getting darker every issue.
With Sidekick #2 scheduled for release on September 11, Newsarama spoke with JMS about this stunning superhero portrayal and how years writing for the Big Two inspired him to tell this story on his own.
Newsarama: You’ve made your name in comics doing superheroes at Marvel, at DC, and years ago on your own with Rising Stars. What led you to return to the genre – and return with this story?
J. Michael Straczynski: Superhero stories are kind of in my DNA from childhood on, so I think I’m genetically drawn to playing in the genre when the opportunity presents itself. Since this is m own company, it made sense to incorporate that opportunity, both here and in Protectors, Inc., which will debut at New York Comic Con.
Nrama: The premise of Sidekick is no secret – it follows a superhero sidekick after the death of his partner and his attempts at dealing with that – or not dealing with it, as you’ve said online. This is the kind of story I couldn’t see any corporate comics company like Marvel or DC ever let you do – even in something like Superman: Earth One. When did the genesis for the Sidekick idea come up to you, and how did it become fleshed out?
Straczynski: Whenever you write for someone else, you’re always aware – sometimes overtly, other times at an almost cellular, subliminal level – of the rules about what you can and can’t do. Which is why I’ve always avoided writing books with sidekicks or younger heroes in them; you know that the moment you start writing that you’re going to be typing with mittens on. So there’s been this itch for some time now to do a story about a character who fell into that category but in a way that we don’t tend to see often, if at all, from the majors.
Since the sidekick would always be somewhat sheltered and protected as long as he was in the shadow of the main hero, it made sense to have that guy killed, forcing the sidekick out into a world that has never really taken him seriously. Not the press, not the public, not the other heroes, not even the bad guys. It thus becomes part about fending for himself, and part about defining who he is in the absence of that mentor figure. It starts out very realistic and serious in the first few issues, then gradually becomes more surreal the deeper we go into the story as he begins a long slow descent into madness.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the Flyboy and his partnership with Red Cowl, before the murder happened?
Straczynski: To a degree, it was based heavily on hero worship. As we’ll see in issue two, Barry’s parents were killed by a Hannibal Lecter-like serial killer who himself comes to a very bad end very quickly. Seeing that Barry has some powers, including flight, the Red Cowl (aka Thomas Winchester) takes Barry under his wing to mentor him. Thomas is pretty much a parody of what we’ve seen elsewhere: the rich playboy who fights crime at night. But when the Red Cowl is apparently murdered, Barry discovers that all of Thomas’ money is gone, spent and misspent over the years...forcing him now to go out into the world and fend for himself. So there’s a measure of idealism he’s trying to cling to, but it’s being battered down by a growing resentment and rage about what happened.
There’s also the small support team that worked with Barry and the Red Cowl, including Thomas’ assistant Melody, for whom Barry had unrequited feelings, and a scientist who lives on a zeppelin that is always hovering over the city.
Nrama: After the assassination – as seen blatantly on the cover to issue 1 – what’s Barry’s life like?
Straczynski: He starts off trying to make sense of the world, and to find a place for himself in that world. He swore to apprehend the Red Cowl’s killer, but failed to do so. As the story begins, no one is 100% sure who pulled the trigger, though most assume it was the work of the beautiful Moonglow Twins, two of the Red Cowl’s most dangerous enemies. Part of the risk of moving on without the Red Cowl is that he stands to inherit some of those enemies, and Julia Moonglow, the most associated with the murder, starts coming at him very early on in our story. But what we don’t quite know is whose side she’s on, really, and was she in fact behind the Red Cowl’s assassination?
Nrama: What’s Barry trying to do to get out of this hole he’s in? Is he still Flyboy, or is he trying to graduate into a better name or look or anything?
Straczynski: He’s kind of in a holding pattern in a lot of ways. He’s sticking to the Flyboy name, even though it’s kind of a joke to a lot of people, in the hope that somehow he can make this work. He’s having a hard time letting go of that part of his life. At one point, however, he will try to leave that all behind and take on a new secret identity...and it will not go well for him.
Nrama: The ‘sidekick’ is an often-used archetype in superhero comics; what do you think about that role and how it’s used in comics?
Straczynski: I don’t know if it’s more an archetype or a trope. You have to remember where this all started. There was a point when comics were considered to be mainly of interest to kids, and it was decided that kids could relate more to someone their own age than an adult. So suddenly all these previously grownup comics were lousy with sidekicks: Aquagirl, Aqualad, Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, Stripesy...the list goes on.
What’s happened in the interim is that these kid sidekicks either aren’t kids anymore, or they’re not written that way. We’ve kept the character names but kicked the fledgling-kid notion behind those names to the curb. So it makes sense to kick Flyboy to the curb in a more literal fashion and see what happens next.
Nrama: That idea of a sidekick trying to find his own place in the world outside the shadow of his partnership is a striking thing. For some reason it reminds me of child actors trying to make a career as an adult in Hollywood. I remember you working extensively with Bill Mumy in Babylon 5 who traversed that gap from child actor to adult working actor. Do you see any resemblance between sidekicks growing up and child actors growing up?
Straczynski: I think there’s a line – thin, tenuous, but a line nonetheless – that you can draw between those two concepts. A child actor is successful because he’s perceived as cute, naïve, and adorable, and those child-like traits do not a leading-man make. We also tend to lock onto someone at that age and have a hard time seeing them in any other way. So a child actor has to really fight to get audiences to take him seriously as he gets older. That’s definitely in the same vein as what a sidekick – certainly this one – has to confront.
Nrama: Working with you on this is veteran DC artist Tom Mandrake. He’s not a flashy modern artist, and I think that’s a good thing for this book – he brings a sort of Silver Age veneer to this in addition to his decades of comics storytelling experience. Can you talk about bringing him on to do this book with you, and trying to strike that balance between classic superheroes and this malevolent twist on that?
Straczynski: The book needs to be quietly subversive in order to succeed, and the more it looks like a classic Silver Age comic (realistically, without falling into parody) the more subversive the story becomes. I’ve been aware of Tom’s work for some time, and reached out to him very early as our artist for this book. It’s been fun watching Tom navigate the more classic superhero pages and the darker, more emotional sequences as well. He’s brought a great range to this book, and it really helps to elevate it to another level.