Former BATMAN Editor Aims for Classic Superheroics With MICHAEL MIDAS CHAMPION

"Michael Midas Champion" preview
Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

More than ever, kids these days want superpowers -- so what if one boy and his bully got them? The recently released graphic novel Michael Midas Champion takes that idea, along with the concept of being a classic boy scout kind of superhero.

Written by former Batman editor Jordan B. Gorfinkel and illustrated by Scott Benefiel, Michael Midas Champion is a story of a boy who became a superhero, and how it changed his life. Originally invisioned as a pitch for Superman, Gorfinkel carried the story with him for decades and made it into a story about growing up.

Newsarama talked with Gorfinkel about this new OGN released by Penguin, the origins of it from his time editing Batman and orchestrating "No Man's Land," and how the help of his friends and family honed the story into what it is now.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

 

Newsarama: Jordan, what can you tell us about Michael Midas Champion?

Jordan B. Gorfinkel: Michael Midas Champion is the graphic novel for everyone. I know, total cliché, everyone says that. But it’s true! All the superlatives apply: it’s epic, it’s thrilling, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry… The story has action, adventure, romance, comedy, suspense and gorgeous art. I should have listed art first: illustrator Scott Benefiel's drawing, fabulously four-colored by the late, great digital painter Jonny Rench, literally glows—which is by design. More on that later. Wherever you are on the comics spectrum, from fanatic to phobic—been collecting your whole life or never read one before in your life—you’ll enjoy Michael Midas Champion.

Newsarama: The marketing copy for this book calls Champion a "new kind of hero". You know heroes from your time editing Batman and other DC books -- how is he a different kind of hero than all the others?

Gorfinkel: Two differences spring to mind. First, I’m not giving anything way by revealing that Michael Midas Champion has to exercise and eat right to maintain his superpowers. He’s akin to an Olympic athlete, one whose workouts strengthen him exponentially. Also like an athlete, psychology is a contributing factor; he’s got to think positive and keep his head in the game to be at peak power. (Candid admission: this book had a lengthy gestation period and I remain shocked that in all that time, to my knowledge, no one else came up with this angle on superpowers. Woo hoo!)

That’s how Michael derives his power. Of course, power makes not a hero. Using power for good, that’s what does. However, staying on the side of angels, particularly when you’re as jacked as Michael Midas Champion—or Batman—requires a lot of inner strength. And that’s Michael Midas Champion’s life journey: learning to make what is Kryptonite for Batman (so to speak) his true source of strength.

Spoiler Alert: that source of strength is family.

Batman runs away from family. Initially, so does Michael. In the first handful of pages, Champion fails his mission and the world is destroyed. Kablaam, no more Earth, just a superhero laying on slab of rock, floating out into the vacuum of space. Pretty tough defeat to come back from—and story beat to start on! What can I say, I like challenges.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

Newsarama: And what is Champion up against here?

Gorfinkel: Michael Midas Champion is up against his childhood bully, Truck, grown into his arch-nemesis super villain. Ironically, Truck is driven (you’ll forgive the pun) by love, the very thing that that Michael fears. How does the saying go? Hell hath no fury like a super villain scorned.

A hero’s journey is only as exciting as his villain's and Truck’s is dark and dramatic. Michael battles other villains as well. Stupid Samurai is hands-down my favorite (is a creator allowed to choose favorites? Too late!). But it’s Truck who takes Michael to the deepest depths, figuratively and literally, as you’ll see in the conclusion of Book One. Mild Spoiler Alert: we telegraph Michael’s personal descent with changes to his costume. What The Dark Knight Returns version of Batman is to, say, Carmine Infantino's Batman is older-aged Champion to younger, fresh faced Champion.

Newsarama: Where did the idea for Michael Midas Champion come from for you?

Gorfinkel: Michael Midas Champion is the distillation of all the comics I've loved over a lifetime of fanboydom and the themes I started exploring in the Batman franchise during my near-decade editing and creating at DC Comics.

The direct answer as to where the idea for Michael Midas Champion came from is that on my way out the door at DC, I pitched the company two stories as a writer. One became the Jacobian, the backup feature for the flagship title Detective Comics (a huge honor!). The other pitch was the life story of Superman. In my tale, Clark would be born, he’d live, love, suffer, learn and grow, and he would die. A Superman story with stakes. I didn’t get green lit on that one; thus, in the grand tradition of Charleton and Watchmen, I changed the names and the story treatment formed the genesis of Michael Midas Champion.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

Background: The Batguys—Scott Peterson, Darren Vincenzo and I—retired amicably from DCU Editorial at more or less the same time. We rechristened ourselves the Troika, gathered weekly, and developed a ton of original IP. The way it worked was that one of us would pitch an idea to the others and together we’d apply our Batguys hive mind towards developing it, usually as a treatment with some art (We knew a few artists, so that helped!). I initiated Michael Midas Champion and it was workshopped by the Troika.

Here’s the funny part. I wrote the story as a spec screenplay. I took it around Hollywood. Batman opens doors, something I experienced firsthand when I was scouting successful screenwriters to write the opening "No Man's Land" arc, and recruited Bob Gale of Back To the Future who hit it out of the park (What a thrill to catch scenes of The Dark Knight Rises that were straight out of "No Man’s Land."). Michael Midas Champion screenplay in hand, I met with the heavy hitters of the time. I vividly recall sitting in the production company conference room of Kathryn Bigelow (she had comic books on her waiting room table alongside the latest Variety, bless her). I think Joel Silver’s company was another visit. Sorry for all the name-dropping. Please understand, shopping my original project around Hollywood was an exciting evolution in my career. To this day, I consider my tenure at DC Comics to be the best darn graduate degree program in the world (and I got health insurance to boot!).

What was Hollywood’s response? That’s the funny part: no. A big resounding no. I got turned away because, and I’m pretty much quoting, they “can’t see the movie poster in a superhero family movie.” 

This was right before X-Men and The Incredibles. You just gotta chuckle.

At the time, I was spending most of my time performing and producing music. But I believed in the story. So I did what came naturally. I adapted the screenplay into a graphic novel. I was incredibly blessed to be funded by cherished friends from New York City and over a few years, I packaged the entire book, which eventually was steered to Penguin Random House by way of literary agent Judy Hansen, on whom I cannot lavish enough praise.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

As for us Batguys, Troika IP continues to pay dividends to this day. Scott has one of the projects set up at First Second. All I can say is that it’s apocalyptic and pure adrenaline; Scott will kneecap me if I say more (I mean it: he inherited Denny’s kneecap men. Ask Denny.). Darren’s published another with SpaceGoat Publishing, check it out. Shameless plug: If anyone reading this is seeking new projects, our library is deep; call me.

As to what sparked the idea of telling the life story of a superhero, Superman or otherwise? It begins with The Indiana Jones Chronicles. I don’t recall if the show was on network TV or I saw it on videotapes that Chuck Dixon gifted me. Anyway. The show was a miss—George Lucas erred by promoting it as educational, and the lead actor was badly miscast. Regardless, what caught my attention was the series bible. Mr. Lucas had worked out the entire life story of his hero. Indy was born in 1900, he died in 2000. Armed with that knowledge, Mssr. Lucas and his production team could craft stories from anywhere across the hero’s 100 year lifespan—which foruitously overlapped with the tumultuous, rich tapestry of 20th century history. The writers could even jump around in time, from young Indy to old Indy, connecting the dots of the hero’s life in single episodes. When you read Michael Midas Champion, you’ll clearly see this influence.

Fans of "No Man's Land" may know that I drew inspiration for that yearlong storyline from the syndicated TV series Babylon 5. I observed how J. Michael Straczynski wrote the show as a novel for television, with rising tension, B plots developing into A plots and real stakes because the series had a beginning and it had an end. I set out to do the same for Batman in "No Man's Land," to put real stakes back into the franchise, a renewed feeling that anything could happen, including—especially—heroes dying, something that is notoriously difficult to do in continuity titles. After all, you need the hero alive in order to sell the next issue. Sure, you can blow up the universe, i.e. reboot, and start again, and sometimes, as in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s brilliant.

My jumping off point for Michael Midas Champion, then, was putting the ultimate stake, death, squarely on the table in a superhero story. And right away, from the beginning of the book. Boom—the hero screws up his life and takes humanity down with him. Now that that's done, let’s explore his life story, how his choices brought him to this unfathomable low point—and how in the world he unwinds his fatal predicament.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

The early reviews of Michael Midas Champion are very positive, for which I’m grateful. Plug #2: stick around for Book Two, the conclusion, because everything is amped up even more and pays off deliciously! While we’re chatting, someone who picked up the book off of a Facebook post just wrote me, “Holy @#$!, when is #2 coming out? I loved it! You have a winner on your hands.”

Another reviewer's constructive criticism was intriguing: we shouldn’t have drawn the characters so attractively. The characters are flawed on the inside, so they should look flawed on the outside, this reviewer reasoned. That’s a valid approach and I’d like to try that—in a different book. In this book I sought to subvert the classic image of the Adonis superhero by contrasting the god-like exterior with a frail interior. It’s right there in the title character’s name, Michael Midas—Midas, the king with the golden touch. Or in our case, the superhero with the golden visage who must find his golden touch.

Now, if you ask me, the strongest of the main characters in the book is the love interest, because Dani’s the one who grows up. Which brings us back to family.

I viewed "No Man's Land" as the spiritual successor to Batman's "Year One." During my tenure with the Batguys, indeed during the entirety of that Denny O’Neil editorial period, Batman evolved from a loner into a family man, albeit begrudgingly. You may say, The Batman Family Man (Yes, I said it.). Seriously, post-"Knightfall," the Batcave was starting to get crowded: Nightwing, Oracle, Azrael, Robin, Alfred, Huntress, Spoiler, I’m sure I’m forgetting others. With "No Man's Land," I sought to give Batman a reason to reject his budding emotional evolution—in plain English, to reject growing up—and fall back on what always worked best for him in his early years, going it alone. Over the course of the yearlong "No Man's Land" storyline, he’d learn, many times the hard way, that he could no longer turn his back on his loved ones. That the true source of a hero’s strength is family.

All this was subtext. As Denny instructed, and constantly reinforced, our foremost job as “funny book” professionals is to entertain. The standard rookie mistake is pitching "The Day Batman Didn’t Put On His Costume” story. People want to see ol’ Pointy Ears bashing the bad guys. So, too, in Michael Midas Champion: tons of action and suspense, expertly choreographed by Scott Benefiel, who cut his teeth in videogame design and storyboarding.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

And yet… And yet, I drew the unmistakable conclusion that the special sauce in comics, the one which differentiated good comics from memorable comics, those that linger in our heart long after we seal them shut in Mylar, was family.

Claremont & Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men

Wolfman & Perez’s The New Teen Titans

Johns and Kubert’s Flashpoint.

And yes, the Batman family. 

Personally, I don’t want to be just a superhero. I want to be a superhero in a superhero family.

I hasten to add two more sources of inspiration for Michael Midas Champion:

One, my wife does trainings on bullying prevention, a hot and timely topic, particularly in the digital age.

Two, the films Superman: The MovieThe Princess Bride and It’s A Wonderful Life.

Mix, stir and bake into Michael Midas Champion: the life story of the superhero who must overcome the bully by embracing his loved ones.

Or, as fabulous publicist Lys Galati phrases it succinctly: What happens when Batman grows up.

Newsarama: How'd you connect with Scott Benefiel to do this book together?

Gorfinkel: Aaron Sowd. Best dang designer in the biz and a crazy in demand storyboard artist and pre-viz producer. Aaron connected me with Scott. How Aaron and I met is a nice story for another time. Aaron designed the Champion and Prodigy costumes, which Scott augmented. Scott designed the rest of our cast and their world including the setting, Urbana Falls, which is a character in its own right. As you can probably tell, I enjoy Marvel, but in my heart I’ll always be DC. There’s a specific reason why—again, for another time.

Scott and I took the time we needed working on the project—Scott arguably working even harder than I. Yet we never did a debrief to reflect on the accomplishment. In a way, that’s appropriate. Comics is like poetry: once it’s released, interpretation is the province of the audience.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

Bottom line, Scott’s inventiveness, fluidity, creativity, humor, grace under fire and pure honesty, both in his art and his life, are a high watermark. Truly a match made in heaven of artist and subject; I cannot imagine anyone else having done this project. 

Newsarama: I really enjoy the landscape format here, like what DC has done in the past with Zuda books. How'd you come to decide on this presentation?

Gorfinkel: Thanks! 

Predictive reasoning: I started at DC in the analogue age of hand lettering, Dr. Martin’s dyes and photostats. I retired from DC editorial at the dawn of scanning, Photoshop and the digital age. As I was conceiving Michael Midas Champion, it seemed logical that print content would be migrating to screens. Home video was already being letterboxed to presage widescreen TV sets. Ergo, Widescreen Comics. One day, I figured, when we were all reading comics on a Star Trek-like PADD, our book would already be formatted.

Jump ahead a decade to the ubiquity of the iPhone and iPad.

Credit: Scott Benefiel (Penguin/InkLit)

(For my next trick, I plan to design comics for the Apple Watch. What? Scott McCloud already did it? Darn.)

Again, I’m a bit surprised more people aren’t working in this way. Granted, drawing in a horizontal format poses challenges not for the lighthearted. Landscaping is the illustration equivalent of trying to stand up straight with a low ceiling; you can’t. Scott adjusted to the format expertly; the reader never feels the strain. He, however, did; I don’t think Scott’s completely forgiven me yet for establishing such constrictive formatting rules. As a consolation, we let him stretch his legs, so to speak, in the framing sequence, by employing standard comics layout techniques. That also worked well for the story, serving to visually differentiate between the story and the story within the story.

Scott adjusted his drawing style in another inventive way. In the script, I envisioned an “American Animé” art style, one that mashed up an American rendering style with an open Japanimation style. Scott stripped his art of all crosshatching, paring his illustration down to core contrappasto, entirely devoid of business. Scott made it look easy, but it wasn't. Creating full-bodied forms exclusively from outlines and line weights requires a high level of skill and experience. They say, and it’s true, that writing a sharp, pithy headline is harder than writing the articles. Same goes for American Animé: there’s some serious sophistication supporting the simplicity.

One of the attractions of animé is the coloring. The art seems to glow, like it’s backlit. I wanted that feel for Michael Midas Champion and Jonny Rench made it happen. Once again, the ideal match of artist and subject. As gorgeous as Michael Midas Champion looks in print, you gotta see it on the iPad. The book is dedicated in Jonny's memory, and also my business associate Dan Cord’s. Dan in particular would have been giddy reading the book to his two kids. I hope they hear his voice when they read it themselves.

Newsarama:  What are your long term plans for Michael Midas Champion past this first book?

Gorfinkel: Long term plans for Michael Midas Champion are simple: spread the word to sell out the first print run, go into a second printing, and build momentum for Book Two!

I’m blessed to have a wonderful publicity team to help in that effort. We feel we have a universally appealing “fairy tale in superhero clothing” that will be enjoyed by anyone that reads it, and we’re working diligently to get the word out.

In addition to traditional comics and book trade channels, we’re connecting with people, groups and organizations that support the pro-social themes we explore in the book, foremost bullying prevention, fitness, family values, making healthy choices in life. We’re proud to associate with Chase Masterson and Carrie Goldman's Pop Culture Hero Coalition, for example, and noted Stop Bullying Now founder and lecturer Stan Davis was one of my script advisors. We’re trying to get the attention of the White House’s LetsMove.org (anyone out there with a connection, let us know!) and we’re reaching out to other initiatives both celebrity driven and grass roots.

In all of my creative endeavors, my feeling is that it’s great to entertain; it’s even greater to entertain and do some good. I’d love it for Michael Midas Champion, in addition to delivering thrills and chills, to move people emotionally for the greater good. I invite anyone reading this who supports the aforementioned causes to go to www.MichaelMidasChampion.com and hit the links to like us on social media, to join with us to help, or refer us to organizations, schools, libraries, informal education programs—anyone and everyone who would like to work together to make a difference. We’re developing a free teacher’s guide to be available online and are open to any and all ideas on how we can use this book constructively.

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