Next week's Superman: Earth One, the book-sized tale by acclaimed television and comics writer J. Michael Straczynski, introduces Davis' new take on Superman in a story that's designed to attract new readers.
Announced last year, the Earth One story tells Superman's origin, but is set in a modern era with a more updated type of storytelling. It's completely set outside of current continuity, and puts Clark Kent in a modern city called Metropolis with characters that are more updated than the original story.
Davis, whose most recent DC work was on Superman/Batman and Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns, has been working on the Superman: Earth One graphic novel for a year. We spoke with the artist to find out more about the world JMS is creating in the book, and how Davis approached drawing this unique project.
Newsarama: Shane, when this project was first announced, you said you were pretty intimidated by it. Now that it's completed, how are you feeling about getting the chance to work on Superman: Earth One?Shane Davis: It was intimidating in the beginning. You know... someone handing you a job like this. But actually after doing it, I don’t know if I would think it’s as intimidating again as much as I think it was just me psyching myself out. It had its challenges, but in the end, I was doing the best I could with the best script I was given.
Nrama: How long did it take you to complete this project? And how was it different doing a graphic novel as opposed to your usual monthly comics work?
Davis: JMS has a very busy schedule and with the added time for the book reviews and so on and marketing, I think the book grew a bit in page count from the original 110 pages to 125. I’m not a monthly guy, but I’m pretty consistent. I always had to remember the pages I did before, and on every page I drew. [That] becomes very odd in the sense that, in laying a page out, I would need to flip back though 90-something pages to lay out [page #] 91, or at least keep them in mind.
It was a little stressful not having the full script at times, because I was afraid I may be pulling a punch that I need to save for later and vice versa. Sometimes I was a little scared about composing things because I didn’t know all the beats of the story.
Nrama: When the Earth One stories were first announced, it was implied that they would be continuing stories over more than one graphic novel. Will there be more Superman: Earth One stories from you? Or are you working on something else for DC right now?
Davis: I have not been approached by DC to do Volume 2 yet, but as readers will be able to tell, there is room for a second installment, and it’s a nice idea to be there to draw it. But my next project will be at DC.
Nrama: Did you tweak or adjust your style at all for Superman: Earth One?
Davis: Not more than I would for any other project, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a tweak. I’m constantly trying to grow as an artist, and I don’t treat one project any less than I would the other.
Nrama: In what ways did your artistic approach to the Superman character change because of the modern-day setting?
Davis: I think Clark Kent and the way he looks is going to be the first giveaway of me tackling Clark Kent in today’s setting.
With that said, other parts of him: his powers, the momentum of landing, and the whole bull-in the-China-cabinet thing... I wanted to explore his individual powers a bit and how they react to different vision techniques like heat vision versus the X-ray vision and so on. I came up with this nifty little technique where his irises mutate and change, so it’s a giveaway to the reader that you’re seeing what he’s actually doing with his eye power. And I’ve noticed that the character has a lot of superpowers connected to vision, and so I really wanted to make sure people knew what it would look like in the panel. Yu see his eyes themselves invert… to show his X-ray vision.
Nrama: What about other characters? Did you update things about their look as well?
Davis: Jim “Jimmy” Olsen is the one people will probably notice the most. I definitely wanted a rough-and-tough, on-the-edge looking guy. I wanted him to look a little unshaven, and for him to look like the guy that might have some war stories — even some love stories. I definitely wanted him to have that rough look like he’s been around and life’s chewed on him a bit. JMS wrote him to be this photographer that’s been around the world, who’s been in the heat of battle before as a news photographer in war zones. He’s also the type of guy that would almost kill himself for that right photo. I wasn’t afraid to make him look older than Clark. It just seemed to fit the personality of the character in the story. Not sure I would say that he is older, but with the stubble, he looks a little bit older and more rustic than Clark.
I think the next character people will notice a big change on is Lois. She looks completely different than any other Lois. What’s the deal with Lois, I couldn’t quite peg it. She looks like that girl that’s always snappy and out of reach that you wish you could tame, but you’re almost too afraid to tame. And I just kind of gave her that personality... gave her that snippiness to her, that at any moment she might bite back.
I always wanted in every piece of conversation for her to look a little tense and that feeling like, are you going to get a smile out of her? And if she is smiling, what is she going to be like in the next panel? I thought that was the dynamic of Lois and Clark. She’s a little bit of a firecracker, in that sense that she could go off at any moment. I'm not trying to say that I drew her as a hothead — I didn’t. I just drew her kind of edgy.
The other and third character is my favorite character, Tyrell. He’s a new character and with him, it was a great pleasure and a great challenge in saying, hey, come up with a new Superman villain. You look around at Superman and other comic characters and a lot of them have great cast supervillains. I love Superman’s supervillains.
With Tyrell, I kind of went back to the simple basics, to Superman and what he seems to be fighting, which is death. In my generation, the death of superman was a big Superman event and to think that he could die. I guess the irony in that is that as in any great fictional character, he’s fighting death. So I definitely, given Tyrell’s character and the alien invasion, I wanted Tyrell to look like an embodiment of death. There were a lot of visual cues I mirrored to Superman — like Superman has a spit curl... so he’s got a lock of black hair to make sure he’s not symmetrical. He has an emblem that goes down his torso, whereas Superman has the S symbol. I wanted to give him some type of flying prop, like a cape, but instead I gave him metal free-floating wings. I definitely wanted to give the look and idea of a void of color, which is the opposite of Superman, who is based off of primary colors.
And I wanted him to feel like Death chasing Superman, which I think gave great homage to the story of the character rocketing from a dying planet to Earth.
Nrama: How was the setting different from the one we all know? Was it a struggle to get away from the more iconic look of Metropolis or Smallville or other locations?
Davis: I don’t think it was as much a struggle as it took some balls to get away from it. I think one of the bigger problems with some of the Superman titles is Metropolis is art deco, and there aren't too many cities that are art deco utopias. You see parts of art deco in a lot of architecture, but if you investigate where art deco comes from, it comes from certain Egyptian architecture. And when you do the math, drawing an art deco utopia is what makes it feel fictional, and that’s not what I wanted out of my artwork. I wanted it to feel very believable.
When D.C/ Dan [DiDio] assigned me Superman: Earth One, I kind of stepped back and thought how was I going to make this feel realistic? Because that’s what I wanted out of Earth One: I wanted it to feel very believable. I wanted it to feel fresh and new and with that, I felt like getting away from art deco, so it looks like a city, a Metropolis. You can walk out on the street and there’s a guy in a cape flying over your head. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were seeing something completely realistic with a character with completely unrealistic abilities. I really wanted to focus on the man in Superman rather than the super.
Nrama: What would you say is the theme of Superman: Earth One? And how are you handling that visually?
Davis: It’s a coming of age story of a young man. I focused a lot on making Clark look like a believable young male, carrying him throughout the panels. I wanted to make sure he looked contemplative and questioning where he fit into the world. A big visual theme was just keeping him looking young, fresh, new, believable and real. I really wanted the viewer to feel like they were seeing Superman for the first time, to see Clark put on the suit for the first time.
Nrama: We had talked before about the fact that you're a fan of JMS's work. Is this comparable to what you've read from him before?
Davis: Because I worked on this, and because I’m such a big fan of JMS and he’s been given such a great character, this is the best — absolute best — thing he’s ever written. And you should buy 20 copies.