In the months that writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank were working together on Action Comics, the title didn't exactly shy away from change.
Clark Kent may have still been the same heroic Superman, but the emotional upheaval he experienced made for some dramatic storytelling. From redefining the book's supporting cast, including a creepy new Brainiac, to bringing back the original Legion of Super-Heroes, to depicting the death of Jonathan Kent, to introducing thousands of Kryptonians to the planet, this creative team's run was nothing if not game-changing.
Yet just as their run together passed the one-year mark, Johns and Frank left Action Comics and began working on a new project that looks to be making some changes of its own. Superman: Secret Origin #1 debuted last week, beginning a six-issue mini-series by the creative team that promises to combine the well-established history of Superman with new insight into what makes the character tick.
When the story finishes, it becomes DC's official origin story for Superman and will, as Frank described it to Newsarama, "polish away some of the muck that has accumulated over the years and get back to what made the character so great in the first place."
Now that some of the secrets of the character's origin have been revealed in the first issue, Newsarama talked to Johns and Frank about how they got to this point and where Superman's "Secret Origin" will go from here.
Nrama: Geoff, your fans have seen you tackle "Secret Origin" stories for both Green Lantern and now Superman. Why are Secret Origin stories so important to you as a writer?
Geoff Johns: The term "Secret Origin" has been around DC Comics for a long time. I wanted to re-introduce it for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I found "Year One," which was specifically that first year, to be too limiting to the story I wanted to tell with both Green Lantern and Superman. I want to look at much more than the first year.
To me, "Secret Origin" stories are both introductory stories for new readers and a deeper look into the formative times of current readers' favorite characters. It's more about character than plot, the way I’ve been approaching them. It's a look at the relationships that developed between Hal and Carol, or Clark and Lois, a bit differently. Or Sinestro and Abin Sur. Even Perry White and Lois Lane are on a totally different level when Clark first meets them, as is the Daily Planet itself.
I got a Facebook message today from someone who had never read a Superman comic book, even though they work at a comic store, until Superman: Secret Origin #1. And now, for the first time, she is reading a Superman comic and enjoying it. There are so many discussions about accessibility to today's monthly comics and my purpose with both Green Lantern: Secret Origin and Superman: Secret Origin is to introduce them, and in the case of current readers re-introduce them, to these characters. My hope is to continue these, most likely with The Flash: Secret Origin, which would include the beginning of the Rogues as well.
With Superman: Secret Origin, I knew it would never work without Gary. I've said it countless times, but he is the best Superman artist of this era bar none. We both have put our heart and soul into this and we’re both extremely proud of it.
Nrama: Did you two talk a lot about the overall vision of this series and what you wanted to communicate? How collaborative was this issue? Were you always on the same page in this story?
Gary Frank: We've been talking about this story off and on for at least a year. There are things that we've hashed out in conversations which have made it into the final cut, but I think it's clear that Geoff has had a pretty clear idea of what this project was going to be about from the beginning.
I think we both share the same vision as to how Superman should be portrayed. It's interesting because, if you get two fans of Superman talking on the subject of the various origins – which bits of Silver Age Supes are good, which bits of Man of Steel don't feel right, etc. – any consensus seems to be pretty short-lived. People have really diverse and passionately held convictions about how this character should be done.
But I just can't find anything in what Geoff is giving me that doesn't seem right. I can only speak for myself, but there has been no tongue-biting on my part. No "Oh well, I'm just the artist. What do I know?" moments. The story Is exactly how I'd have done it if not for the small problem of not having a fraction of Geoff's ability.
Johns: Gary and I have spoken at length about Superman; we've been talking about "Secret Origin" for what feels like forever. Clark, Lois, Ma and Pa, for hours on end. We’re obviously aware of the fact that this story has been told before, but we were very clear on how we were going to tell it and why. We wanted to bring a warmth to it and a perspective that hasn’t been seen before. I think that will become especially clear once we hit Metropolis. As soon as I did, I realized I could write Superman: Secret Origin monthly.
Nrama: Geoff, Gary once told us that you were showing the "birth of Clark Kent" in these issues – how he becomes that awkward man named Clark while also being the world's greatest superhero. There's been a lot of discussion about "why" DC is telling a Superman origin now, but why is the "how he became Clark" side of the story so important to you – and to Superman – that you wanted to explore it in this story?
Johns: Clark Kent is awkward for a reason, and I wanted to explore that. He’s the most genuine person you’ll ever meet, but deep down, he doesn’t fit in. Regardless of his powers, when he comes to Metropolis, he’s a young man who was raised in Kansas moving to the big city, so there’s a bit of culture shock and awe that goes with that.
Nrama: Geoff, can you give us a peek into how your thinking in this story in particular evolved? For example, what led to your treatment of Lana and Clark? When you whittled down their past to just these pages, what were you trying to show about their relationship?
Johns: It was very clear to me. Lana thinks they are destined to be together and Clark doesn’t think he’s destined to be with anyone. There’s more on this next issue.
Nrama: What were the two of you trying to portray in these scenes about Clark's relationship with his parents? Can you point to a Jonathan/Martha/Clark scene or image in particular that you think speaks volumes about the Superman we see today?
Frank: Personally, I really enjoyed the Clark/Jonathan bits. So much of who Superman is comes from his Pa, and I really wanted to convey how much the young Clark admires him and why. So, for instance, in the scenes which take place in the truck, I wanted to really get across how much it hurts Clark to feel that he might have let Jonathan down. How distressing it is for him to be a disappointment in this man's eyes.
Conversely, He's so excited when he tells Jonathan about how he saved Lana, that he can barely contain himself. That moment, basking in his father's pride, is the moment he dedicates himself to helping people, and that's not a coincidence.
Johns: And that continues throughout “Secret Origin,” even when we head to Metropolis.
There’s a bit in issue #1 where Pa says, “You don’t want to disappoint your mother, do you?” And Clark responds, “That gets me every time.” And Pa smiles and says, “I know.” That sums up the entire relationship to me.
There are more removed and alien takes on Superman’s beginnings, but Gary and I always thought his story should be heart-warming and inspiring and full of humor and hope – which this family brings.
Nrama: Geoff, we've talked before about why the Legion of Super-Heroes was so important to the origin of Superman. But since I'm sure you've considered this... why is Pete and Clark's friendship important to who he became, and how did you explore that in this origin story?
Johns: Pete Ross was Clark’s best friend until all the changes started. He was who Clark thought he was himself.
Nrama: Gary, was it challenging to come up with designs for all these characters as their younger selves? What characters were a bigger challenge than others, or which ones did you spent more time perfecting?
Frank: Clark was a headache, to be honest. For any other character I could have just gone for a cute, snub-nosed kid but, given that I already knew how he would look as an adult, I had to get something that wouldn't jar horribly with that. It's the sort of the thing that would have smoothed itself out naturally over six or seven issues but, because of the format, he had to be a believable young version of the adult Clark from the beginning.
Nrama: Geoff, obviously some of the choices about defining Superman's past are going to line up perfectly with some past stories and conflict with others. How difficult was it to arrive at these? Was it a team effort at all? And how much importance did you place on various past origins as you decided what made sense for today's Superman?
Johns: We approached this character first. I took everything into account, and there have been some wonderful additions and perspectives on Superman’s beginnings, but it all came down to character and what elements best supported Clark’s journey from issue one to six. Gary and I wanted this to feel familiar but fresh, and that meant sticking to what we believed was core and exploring it from the perspective of what it mean to Clark instead of forming some kind of checklist.
For instance, it was established way, way back in a Silver Age comic that Clark was trampled by a bull and that was the first time he learned he was super-strong. That was reflected later in Man of Steel. But I really wanted the first time he learned he was strong to be a moment where he moved to save someone anyway, where he risked his life not knowing he was invulnerable.
But if you look close there are bits from every era, even a nod to '90s villain Kenny Braverman (a boy from Smallville that became a super-villain named Conduit). It was important for both of us to recognize everything that came before and not throw anything away. This is not about us, but about what we feel is best for an origin story for Superman.
Nrama: Who came up with the Chloe on the cast? And hmmm... what could could it mean?
Frank: Geoff came up with that. Ask him. He usually knows what he's doing....
Johns An obvious nod to Smallville’s character Chloe Sullivan.
Nrama: How did you come up with the idea for the glasses?
Frank: Well, we were going to ditch the glasses and give Superman a mask instead, but no one could agree on a color.
Johns: I wanted the glasses to grow organically out of Clark’s changes and I wanted them to be a little too big when he first wears them. They’re made out of the crystal circles from his rocket so, at the time, they couldn’t do anything to cut them smaller.
Nrama: Just to clarify, does the indestructible material still exist on Superman's costume today? Is that canon for his current costume?
Frank: I guess this is a Geoff question but, if I may, don't forget that Superman will eventually learn a lot about Krytonian technology and will eventually be able to recreate those materials. The costume isn't, of course, literally indestructable and, besides, he's a growing lad...
Johns: It’s strong. As you can see by the broken scissors and sewing machine. But, as Gary says, that doesn’t mean it’s completely indestructible. More on this later.
Nrama: It's clear from a few of the images we saw that you two are setting up things that you wrote/drew in Action Comics during your run. Will there be clues within this series for other things coming in Superman stories of the future?
Johns: This is mostly stand alone, but obviously our take on Superman in “Superman & The Legion of Super-Heroes” and “Brainiac” carries over into this. There are a few elements that play into the modern day story going on, but it’s meant to be read on its own.
Nrama: Gary, what has this experience been like, drawing these iconic images from Superman's past? Did the experience of drawing any images in particular elicit a response as you worked on them?
Frank: The family stuff was great but, in terms of iconic images, the arrival in Metropolis has been the most exciting. The first time in the Daily Planet offices, the meeting with Lois. These are the bits that make me tingly and warm.
Nrama: Geoff, what details or images you've noticed in the art have surprised or specifically impressed you as you got Gary's pages back?
Johns: As I said before, no one else could do this but Gary. The expression on Clark’s face on the very last page blew me away. I find myself cutting dialogue because I don’t need it to convey emotion. Gary delivers consistently, time after time, on that.
Nrama: For both of you, having collaborated with quite a few artists and writers, what do you think works so well in a Geoff Johns/Gary Frank team-up?
Frank: Geoff just writes stories that are fun to read and draw. Simple as that.
Plus, of course, he's really generous as a collaborator. He gets me thinking a little more about every scene, how I can get a little more out of the characters. I guess it's like the way a certain director can get a little more out of a particular actor. I find myself operating at a slightly higher level than usual because Geoff allows me more investment in the project.
Johns: Like I said above, there’s a deeper level of emotion I hit working with Gary. He’s constantly thinking about the character before anything else. His artwork is confident and clean, his storytelling pitch perfect, and his collaboration a sense of inspiration. I hope to work with him for a long, long time to come.
Nrama: So are you two still planning to work together again when this mini-series is finished?
Frank: I am. I hear Geoff is changing his phone numbers.
Johns: I am building a room with a desk and chains so, yes. But we can’t talk about it.
Nrama: And what would you guys like to share about what readers will see in future issues of Superman: Secret Origin?
Frank: Oh, I just want people to read it and see how fresh an old story can feel.
Johns: I can’t wait for people to see Gary’s Lois Lane in action. Funny, beautiful, strong and surprisingly she’s become my favorite character to write. I know why Clark fell for her and, hopefully, so will everyone else.