In the waning days of 2009, DC Comics announced the creation of a new universe. "Earth One", with its history going back to the earliest years in DC continuity, is becoming the new subtitle for a line of graphic novels exploring the origin of their most popular heroes such as Superman and Batman with some of their top creators. Although dubbed "Earth One", these titles could almost be referred to as "Square One", because these books will take place in a separate continuity outside the multiverse popularized in DC Comics, and will be influenced by the stories told about these characters not just in comics, but movies, television shows and even film serials. These books are aimed at reintroducing the origins of DC's flagship characters in a modern age in much the same way of Marvel's Ultimate line took classic characters and put them in a modern perspective.
Scheduled for release later this year, Superman: Earth One will purportedly show a young Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers and his role in society using them not for personal benefit but for the greater good. Handling the task of retelling Superman's origin is writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Shane Davis. Of all the creators involved with the "Earth One" books, Straczynski is the newest to the DC fold but his history with DC – and with Superman – goes back much further. Straczynski was one of the first comics writers to come into the medium by way of television and movies, and while many have followed, Straczynski has proved to be one of the most permanent residents writing several top titles at Marvel in recent years, while still keeping an active career in the world of film and television.
In the first of a five-part whirlwind interview with JMS (as he's known to his fans) covering all sides of his career, Newsarama spoke with the author about the ambitious new project and a character he's been trying to write for years.
Newsarama: How would you describe the story you’re going out to tell in the first volume of Superman: Earth One?
J. Michael Straczynski: As a writer, one of my skills -- if one can call it that without getting big laughs -- is to re-examine the tropes of whatever genre or form I'm working in (comics, tv, movies, and so on). Coming from an academic background of psychology and philosophy, I like to ask why? We know that a certain thing is a certain way, but why is it that way, and does it have to be that way? Does Asgard have to be somewhere in the sky? If invulnerability keeps you from being harmed, does it also prevent you from feeling sensation? We can all agree that the sun rises in the morning, but put an atheist, a rabbi, an astronomer and an evangelical in the same room at the same time, and they'll all have different answers about why it rises in the morning.
So I like to look at why a great deal. When DC and Dan DiDio approached me about writing a Superman GN that would in essence reboot the character, why was the first question I went to. We all know that Clark Kent is Superman. But why is he Superman? What prompted him to put on that uniform? Why did he decide to become Superman? What was, for lack of a better term, his Garden of Gethsemane moment? Like Saul on the road to Damascus, what caused the scales to fall from his eyes and reveal his destiny, bringing a new name and a new mission?
The GN, therefore, begins with Clark's arrival in Metropolis at age 21, with his whole future ahead of him. He's had to hide his skills all the earlier years of his life, when he was learning how to control them, but now he can and he can be anything he ever wanted. For the first time, he can step out into the light and use those skills in measured ways to earn a living and create a lifestyle that can reward his family for taking care of him all these years. He could become the best-paid, most successful athlete in human history. He could become a leading research scientist. He could have it all. Or he could put on that uniform, show the world all that he is...but in so doing, end up dedicating himself to a life of service rather than money. At some point in time, he had to make that decision. So we show the process leading up to, and following that decision.
Along the way, we go to his backstory, how he was found (some small changes here, but nothing outrageous), how he grew up and discovered who he was, and we again ask the why question. We know that Krypton was destroyed, but why was it destroyed? Was it an accident? Do planets just up and blow up one day? Or is there something more that we don't know about? Was it a natural event...or a hit job on a planetary scale?
Nrama: Wow! I’ve never thought of it that way. This approach of questioning everything about Superman’s origin reminds me a lot of a classic newspaper reporter’s approach to something. And people may not know this, but you got your start as a newspaper man writing for several papers on the West Coast. Will some of that knowledge impart itself on depicting Clark’s later life at the Daily Planet?
JMS: Definitely. I started off as a reporter, working for The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, TIME Inc, and other publications for over ten years. So I know what the inside of a newsroom is supposed to feel like. It's evident -- and this isn't meant as a slam, just a statement of fact -- that a lot of those who've written for Superman haven't worked as journalists. As a result, the Daily Planet tends to function either as a mcguffin to get the story moving, or a place Clark needs to escape to do what's necessary. So along with rebooting Superman, the next job was to make the Daily Planet a real newspaper: Perry's a real editor, Lois a real reporter, Jim a real photojournalist. And of those three, probably the biggest change most folks will notice off the bat is in Jim's personality. (Not Jimmy.) Most newspaper photographers I've worked with over the years are totally insane, in the good sense of that word. They're freaking fearless. If the only way to get the shot of a career is to stand in harm's way, then by god that's where they'll stand (which is why most of those who've been killed in the journalism field over the decades have been photographers and photojournalists). Doesn't matter what's coming at him, Olsen will find his spot and plant himself like a tree until he gets the shot he needs.
Nrama: And it seems like comic writers have planted their feet into Superman’s early days, recounting his early days on numerous occasions. Why do you think the origin bears so much revisiting and reinventions?
JMS: I think it's because it's so iconic, probably one of the purest and strongest origins for a character ever created. The Chinese writer Lin Yutang once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?" Though I think that's a tad harsh, there's a truth buried in there: we embrace and sustain and long to revisit that which gave us joy as children. Everybody who grew up with Superman wants to relive that moment of being first exposed to that character and that story, and to share that moment with others. That the origin is so often re-told is the best possible indicator of how broadly, and how deeply, it has affected people for decades.
Nrama: Superman: Earth One wasn’t your first project announced when you returned to DC, but from later reports it’s said it was one of the first things DC proposed to you. Can you describe for us the “courtship” that brought you to DC, and how this project was introduced and initially developed?
JMS: I had allowed my exclusive contract with Marvel to expire a year or so before I ever told anybody about it. Finally, I decided to let DC know about it, and Dan DiDio sent back word that we should talk. There was never any question from day one that I wanted to do something with Superman, and DC was absolutely down with that idea. The question was what sort of book and format?
So here was a chance not just to write Superman, but to re-boot the character however I saw fit...it was stunning. I've written major movies and TV shows and novels and anything else you want to name (except poems, I suck at poetry), but the day we closed the deal for me to write and re-create Superman was one of the best moments of my life, and my career. I was jazzed for weeks. I'd try to explain that more cogently, but I can't. There are no words.
Nrama: Let’s try to crack that nut together. From what I’ve read you’ve been a big Superman fan going way back. What do you think initially attracted you to him, and why has he remained such an icon?
JMS: I got hooked on Superman at age five, watching The Adventures of Superman and the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons...and I've never looked back. If I've had any one true icon that I've carried with me over the years, it's Superman. Every wall of my home -- and the sucker is 5400 square feet -- is filled with Superman art, statues, and collectibles: original artwork by Curt Swan and others, autographed pages by Siegel and Shuster, Alex Ross glicees, posters, memorabilia...the place looks like it was decorated by a fourteen-year-old with a Platinum American Express Card (which is not terribly far from the truth). For me, the Fleischer version, Curt's Superman and George Reeves (and to a lesser extent, Chris Reeve) will always be the quintessential Supermen. Again, we return to the food one ate as a child.
As to why he's such an icon to me...which brings us again back to the why...I've never talked much about it, but I come from a hardscrabble, difficult and often brutal childhood. I come from the streets, I came from nowhere with nothing, and when as a kid I started to tell people I was going to be a writer someday, the reaction was laughter. Guys like me from New Jersey didn't become writers, that fell to Ivory Tower guys with patches on the elbows of their jackets and pipes and good families. Guys like me were supposed to end up working at gas stations or corner 7-11's. It didn't help that my family moved 21 times in my first 17 years, seeking economic opportunity, so that I was always the new kid, always the weird kid, always getting beat up. There was a period when I was about 13 that I literally got beat up every day, because no matter how badly I got beat, I would refuse to give in, so they'd try again the next day. And so on. They'd beat the crap out of me, walk away...and I'd mouth off...and they'd come back and pummel me again, and I'd keep mouthing off. I knew I could never win against superior odds, but by the same token, if I never actually gave up, I could deny them the victory they were after.
So the idea of someone who could fly away, someone who could be anything he wanted, who couldn't be hurt...all of that had tremendous appeal for me. As a kid, it was pretty much all that sustained me.
Nrama: What would you say are some key issues, storylines or just interpretations by certain creators, that are influencing you the most with this book?
JMS: It feels somewhat counter-productive to say, "Yes, we're going to make this character NEW and FRESH and ORIGINAL and we're going to do it just like so-and-so did it twenty years ago!" For starters, I respect the work of those who've worked in this arena too much to want to screw around with their approach. But by the same token, I'm not vastly changing the character's background, because again, it works, and I respect it, and that means you leave it alone as much as possible. So it comes down to character, tone, attitude and thematic elements.
Along with having worked for many years as a reporter, I also cut my teeth early on writing for the stage. I had my first play produced when I was barely 18, and had a bunch produced thereafter. (I also used to write stage reviews for local papers and radio stations.) And one of the things you learn in theater is that you can take something and totally change how that work is interpreted or viewed without messing too much with the underlying concept. Setting Two Gentlemen of Verona in pre-WW1 Italy. Moving Richard III into a modern version of Hitler's Germany. Casting Macbeth as a female. So that's kind of the approach I took with this. If Superman hadn't existed previously, and you were to create that character today, using the tools of the mythos but injecting a more modern approach, what would it look like? Smallville has done a great job with this on TV, so the other challenge was not walking on their turf. I think what we've come up with achieves that goal.
Nrama: Comic fans and pundits alike have commented on how these new Earth One graphic novels seem like an ideal introduction for the more “mainstream” reading audience out there. What do you think that a mainstream audience wants, in a Superman story?
JMS: I think people will always be drawn to Superman. So the question with this was, how do we make this more appealing to a mainstream audience looking for a book to read? One of the very smart decisions Dan made early on was to not do what a lot of folks had suggested, which was to write this as five individual issues which would then be collected, but rather to do this as one continuous story. You may wonder, rightly, "what's the difference?" The difference is in how you structure the story. If you're writing for individual issues, then you have to reach for a big climactic page 22. Everything is, in a way, skewed toward page 22. Then you rebuild toward the next page 22 of the next issue. By electing not to go that way, Dan cleared the way for this to be structured as a novel rather than a by-product of 5 issues, allowing it instead to follow the structure of a novel: introduction, rising action, complication, climax and denouement. It feels more like a novel, and our hope is that this is what the mainstream audience is looking for.
Come back tomorrow for part two of our interview with J. Michael Straczynski where he talks about The Brave & The Bold and other work at DC Comics.
Chris Arrant is a freelance writer that's written about comics for Newsarama, Publishers Weekly, CBR, TOKYOPOP and Marvel Comics. For more, visit his website at www.chrisarrant.com.