SDCC 2010: Stan Lee's STARBORN Flies With Chris Roberson

You're a dreamer. You're in a dead-end job. And in all the universe, you feel like you never got to find your place in the universe.

Everybody feels this way at some point or another -- but what happens when you're Starborn?

As one of the three new superhero series from Stan Lee and BOOM! Studios, Starborn takes a look at an ordinary joe who discovers that he's the heir to an galactic empire. Written by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep's Chris Roberson and drawn by Chaotic lead character illustrator Khary Randolph, Starborn is a book that Roberson vows will not simply skew to genre form. Before the book is released this December, we caught up with Roberson to talk about the series premise, how he grew up with Stan Lee, and how exactly to build upon the tapped well of high-octane sci-fi.

Newsarama: Chris, can you tell us a little bit about how you got to this point, doing Starborn? How'd you wind up in the mix?

Chris Roberson: I met the gang at BOOM! Studios at the 2009 SDCC, and then-managing editor, now Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon and I ended up talking late into the small hours about our favorite science fiction writers on the last night of the convention. That lead to me writing the prequel to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, as well as to another project that's still in development and too hush-hush to discuss.  

I'd heard about the line of books they were doing with Stan Lee a while back, and knew that Mark Waid was going to be writing one of the books and overseeing the line. Then I heard that one of my friends (and fellow member of the Clockwork Storybook writing group), Paul Cornell, was going to be doing the second book, so I knew it was shaping up to be something pretty darned cool. A few months ago, Matt contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in writing the third book. I didn't hesitate for a second, but jumped at the chance. Who wouldn't, for a chance to work with Stan Lee, and to write alongside talents like Waid and Cornell?!

Nrama: Out of all the writers in the Stan Lee line, you're the writer who hasn't worked on a Stan Lee property before. Just to start off with, what's been your exposure to Lee's work, and has it had any effect on your tastes as a reader or writer?

Roberson: I actually have worked with a Stan Lee property before, at least tangentially, only not in comics. A few years ago I wrote an X-Men novel for Pocket Books, which was probably the most fun I had working on a project before I finally broke into comics.

I've been a comics fanatic since I was eight years old, and it wasn't too much later that I laid hands on a few of the Fireside collections of classic Marvel comics that were just starting to come out then. I read and reread those things so many times that I'm lucky the pages didn't fall out -- The Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty, Origins of Marvel Comics, et cetera, et al. As a result, for a long time I was more familiar with the Marvel Comics of the sixties than I was with the new stuff. By the time I was eleven or twelve I was buying all of the new Marvel comics on the stands, as well, but my grounding always remained those classic stories by Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al.  

The last few years I've been engaged in a long reading project, with the goal of reading all of Silver Age Marvel, series by series. I've worked my way through all of the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, The Avengers, Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, etc (I'm just about to wrap up The Mighty Thor, for those keeping score at home). The level of invention in those stories is just amazing, but perhaps even just as amazing is the fact that it all hangs together so well, and events in Captain America would reverberate in the Nick Fury stories, which would bounce over to the Avengers, and so on.  

Nrama: What can you tell us about the lead character here? Just from what we've heard, he seems a little bit of an indictment against the Gen X slacker...

Roberson: Benjamin Warner is a dreamer. He works in a mind-numbing office job, but his thoughts are always somewhere else. Since he was a kid, he's been making up stories about an extraterrestrial civilization far across the galaxy, called the “Human Civilization.” He's tried to turn his ideas in novels, but so far he hasn't had any success convincing publishers to buy them. But he hasn't given up hope yet.

Then his whole world falls apart when things that seem to be straight out of his made-up stories start attacking him in the real world, and Benjamin is left with only two choices -- either his stories are somehow real, or he's gone crazy.

Nrama: Now, this isn't the first time you've gotten to play with sci-fi and fantasy worlds, having worked on Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love and Dust to Dust. So how do you approach the intergalactic nature of Starborn? What do you dig most about the actual "universe" of this book?

Roberson: Well, I've done even more work in science fiction and fantasy than that. Before breaking into comics a couple of years ago, I wrote more than a dozen sf/f novels. And I'm as much a fanatic for science fiction as a reader and a viewer as I am a comic book fanboy. Based on the conversations I've had with Matt Gagnon over at BOOM!, I think that was one of the reasons I was tapped for Starborn, because I've crammed my head so full of science fiction that I practically speak it as a second language.  

One of the things we're doing with Starborn that I personally find the most interesting to work on is that we're going back to the standard tropes of space opera, and trying to find new approaches to them. We can't pretend that this is the first story ever told about aliens in space or a ragtag group of characters in a spaceship facing overwhelming odds -- but what we can do is look at what makes all of the stories that came before work, and try to find interesting ways to work against expectations. I can tell you now that the “heroes” and the “villains” of this story might not be exactly who they initially appear to be…

Nrama: And going back just a little bit, what's the back and forth been like between you and Stan? What do you feel speaks to you about the property of Starborn?

Roberson: So far I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Stan in person, which I'll happily be able to rectify in SDCC next week. But all of the interaction so far has been funneled through Mark Waid, who is editing the line in addition to writing one of the three books.  

As for what appeals about Starborn, it's in large part the fact that this is a superhero book that is also a space opera book, and that we can switch modes depending on where the action is taking place. On Earth, Benjamin Warner will be a superhero, but across the galaxy he's the hero of an epic space opera. I love stories that take different genre conventions and mash them against each other--it makes the sparks fly!

Nrama: Now, you're working with Chaotic lead character illustrator Khary Randolph on this book. You've got a universe full of aliens, you've got a guy who has a history of creating characters -- what's the back-and-forth like between you guys? Have there been any characters that have really surprised you with how Khary has realized them?

Roberson: I've been familiar with Khary's work for a while, and was delighted when they told me we'd be collaborating on this project. It's early days, though, and we're just getting geared up, so I haven't actually seen any of his designs for Starborn yet. I can't wait to see what he comes up with!

Nrama: Finally, for still need some convincing about Starborn -- what would you tell them to get them interested? Are there any moments, any ideas that you're particularly stoked to see hit the page?

Roberson: In amongst all of the heroics and explosions, there's an idea that we'll begin to investigate pretty quickly, that for me is at the heart of the series -- what happens to the “good guys” after they defeat the “evil empire”? And what happens to what's left of the evil empire?

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