For long-time Superman fans, something jumped out from Monday's DC solicitations:
Cary Bates is writing Superman again.
Superman: The Last Family of Krypton , the three-issue mini-series Bates is writing that begins in August, returns the writer to the character for which he's best known — this time in an "Elseworlds" story that imagines that Kal-El's parents crashed with him on Earth.
Bates started his comics’ career in the '60s as one of the youngest creators to ever work in the industry, having sold an idea for the cover of Superman #167 to DC when he was only 13 years old. Since then, the writer has shown a lot of diversity, working on everything from The Flash and Fantastic Four to Jonah Hex and Vampirella.
But he's most associated with Superman, having written a slew of issues in both Action Comics and Superman at various times during the '60s, '70s and '80s. In fact, as Bates tells us, he was even the screenwriter for what was supposed to be the fifth Superman film.
Although he's done much of his recent work in animation, the legendary writer recently re-entered comics to write the True Believers mini-series for Marvel. Now he's returning to the world of Superman to tell a story that twists the character's origins in a way that could chance everything...
Newsarama talked with Bates to find out what he thinks of modern comic books, where he's taking the characters in his story, and why he's back to writing Superman after all these years.
Newsarama: Cary, where did the idea for this Elseworlds story come from? Did you pitch it?
Cary Bates: I don’t recall exactly when or how the concept hit me, but it started with the title and an image of what would be on the very last page. In 2006 I wrote up some preliminary notes but held back for a year, since DC still had a moratorium on Elseworlds. Jump ahead to 2007. When I was at the DC offices meeting with Dan one of the projects I brought up was Last Family. I played down the “elseworldly” aspects and pitched it as a character-driven story that would follow the El family over a period of thirty years. After hearing a few more specifics, he told me to write up a formal proposal and we were off.
Nrama: What kind of problems does having a family of Kryptonians on Earth present that are uniquely different from the more familiar story we all know?
Bates: How the human race would react and interact with a family of super-Kryptonians living among them was fascinating to explore. As the cover for issue #1 implies, Jor-El and Lara arrive on Earth with the whole world watching, so secret identities are off the table. Once they disabuse a skittish public of its paranoiac alien invasion fears and show off their super-powers, it isn’t long before the Els are the most famous family on Earth. And because of the 24/7 media buzz, guess who becomes the most recognizable, most photographed baby on the planet?
Nrama: How does that change who Kal-El becomes?
Bates: Up till now, Superman has always been portrayed as an orphan, the lone alien living among humans who had the good fortune to be raised by the kindly Kents.
But now that Jor-El and Lara are never far from his side, the orphan/lone alien card goes out the window. Kal-El is now a child celebrity being raised by super-powered parents who seem like gods to the rest of the human race. That’s a monumental sea change that will upend just about every aspect of the Superman mythos. How Kal-El’s alternate life unfolds in this alternate reality should fuel the whole nature-vs.-nurture debate for years to come.
Faced with so many new possibilities to explore at every juncture, for me it became a question of how to thread the plotlines while staying true to characters that have been so indelibly etched over the years. The Kents, for example. At first blush, one might assume they’d be irrelevant or redundant in a world where young Kal-El’s upbringing is dominated by Jor-El and Lara, but that doesn’t necessarily follow for reasons I can’t reveal. Or Lex Luthor. In this reality we’ll see aspects of a raw “inner Luthor” that have never been exposed before.
There will also be an iteration of Brainiac that will seem both familiar and perverse to long-time fans.
And don’t assume all the changes triggered by Jor-El and Lara’s sojourn on earth are restricted to the immediate Superman family. Though there are no other superheroes on Earth when the Els first arrive, their continued presence will have an indelible effect on all the heroes to come. And beyond that, there will even be intergalactic ramifications.
Nrama: It's interesting to think about how this changes the whole mythos. What do you think Superman's story represents in our world today, and how does this story represent a different side of that theme?
Bates: Superman was/is the prime template for all superhero myths. The classic imaginary tales and Elseworld stories I liked best all share one underlying theme: sooner or later, Superman’s true essence always perseveres. No matter what universe or time period he ended up in, no matter who the other key people in his life turned out to be, or what hardships or burdens he had to endure, eventually the big guy always found a way to achieve his true potential and fulfill his destiny.
Nrama: Since you wrote Superman for decades, how did you feel getting back to these characters after some time away from them?
Bates: Superman has always been a mixed bag for me, both highs and lows over the years. He was the inspiration for most of the cover ideas DC bought from me as a teenager. My first script sale at 17 was for a World’s Finest story, and that kicked off nearly two uninterrupted decades of writing Superman… in retrospect, probably too much.
But there were other perks. Warner Bros. appointed me as the “DC script liaison” on Superman III. But by the time I was sent over to England, Richard Lester was halfway though principal photography — too late for any new input, studio-sanctioned or not, to be of much practical use.
But the trip wasn’t a total bust because I met producer Ilya Salkind and we really hit it off. Six years later, he hired me to come down to Orlando and serve as story editor on the Superboy series he and his father had put together for Viacom. And that job got me the gig (with fellow Superboy story editor Mark Jones) to write the screenplay for what was supposed to be the fifth Superman film. It dealt with Brainiac and Kandor and was intended to be Chris Reeve’s return and final farewell to the role.
But then Warners re-acquired all the rights in 1993 and our "Superman Reborn” script became just the first of many attempts to reboot the franchise that fell apart over the next 14 years.
Anyway, after Reborn went south, I was understandably burnt out on Superman. By then I’d left DC, quit comics, and couldn’t foresee any scenario where I’d ever be writing the character again. And yet 17 years later here we are...
Nrama: Here we are indeed. But are you pitching other stories as comics? Do you have other work coming out anytime soon?
Bates: Last December, I entered into a contract with DC to create a new superhero duo book. I’ve been developing it with Ian Sattler, and you should be hearing more about it a few months down the road.
Nrama: Now that you're getting back into it, how do you think comics writing has changed over the years?
Bates: No question, the bar has been raised higher than it’s ever been before. There’s much more competition now, given all the movie and TV writers now doing mainstream comics between film projects. With so many comic book properties already in release or on their way to the screen, the medium has never had a higher profile.