REFLECTIONS: Talking with "Freshmen's" Hugh Sterbakov

Sun, August 26th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Robert Taylor, Staff Writer

REFLECTIONS #219

Because I loved the first "Freshmen" miniseries so much, I was very apprehensive about the prospect of another miniseries. The fifth issue of the first series stands as the only time this jaded comic reader has ever come close to tears reading a comic book. Indeed, the comical drama of a group of college students suddenly endowed with superpowers manages to hit home with its rabidly devoted fanbase not because of the humor or irony (the always-bickering couple must work together to have their superpowers work properly), but because he grounds that in universal feelings we all have dealt with (what happens when that relationship goes completely sour, but one person isn't ready to move on?).

Because I loved the first series so damn much, imagine my utter surprise at finding that the second miniseries was even better. Writer Hugh Sterbakov (who created the characters along with Seth Green) went to a much darker place, introduced one of my favorite comic villains ever in Mr. Fiddlesticks, the evil reincarnation of every annoying rhyming children's book hero, and an ending so emotional I almost lost it. Again.

Like the first miniseries, the second miniseries was plagued with scheduling problems, with original artist Will Conrad leaving halfway through the series. Sterbakov talks about all that and more below, so I'll shut up and let him talk now.

Story continues below

Robert Taylor: Hey Hugh, how are you doing?

Hugh Sterbakov: Life is great as always.

RT: Let's go all the way to the beginning and talk about the specific origins of "Freshmen 2." At what point did you begin to think about a sequel?

HS: As I was writing the first series, someone mentioned on our message boards that it would be cool for Paula to use her powers on Brady to stop the toxic relationship with Renee. I began thinking about why Brady was immersed in that and what Brady would do to get out of the relationship. That led to me thinking about Brady going to Annalee for help, which obviously led to the creation of that gigantic conflict.

The character of Mr. Fiddlesticks was something I had in my head for a long time. I had an outline in my head when we were putting together the trade of the first miniseries. I knew which metaphors I wanted to work with and which themes I wanted.

Overall, I'm really pleased with it. We were aiming for our "Empire Strikes Back," and I think we got there.

RT: Let's talk about Mr. Fiddlesticks some more, because what a f$#%ing cool villain.

HS: He was a lot of fun.

RT: When you were being told children's stories when you were younger were you terrified the characters were going to jump out of the book and eat you? [laughs]

HS: I was one of those kids who was afraid of everything.

When my mother told me it was time to go to bed I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach like I was in a "Saw" movie. That's how bad it was. Everything would scare me. Mother would read me some nice kids stories and I would still be terrified.

I always found those books to be 90% sweet and cuddly and 10% terrifying.

I knew from early on that there was going to be a schizophrenic and would be manifesting his fears. When I thought about that, I immediately thought of a clown. But I'm one of those guys who thinks like a rebel, and wanted to do something different than people would expect. So I thought of a character that would work really well in a children's book, but could still be scary. I decided that he should rhyme with his dialogue, and tell a kid to kill his little brother in a rhyming tone.

RT: I got goosebumps.

HS: It was intended that way. My stomach dropped when I wrote it.

RT: Aside from his origin, how much of Fiddlestick's origin in the books do you have worked out in your mind right now?

HS: Not that much. I wrote a lot of it for that specific issue, but beyond that, I just read "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" and looked at the tone of the book and essentially copied it. I made Fiddlesticks exactly one of those characters.

RT: Let's talk about the pacing of the series, which is much tighter than the first series. I know you planned it for eight issues, but it ended up being six. What fell out on the cutting room floor?

HS: The main thing that went out was Brady's origin story. The truth is that the story would have just been interesting to die-hard fans of the comic. There wasn't a lot of action in it. I wanted you to get a sense of Brady beyond who he was established as.

Everything else I didn't want to sacrifice and so I tried to squeeze it all in. The fifth issue especially was very jam-packed. A few moments especially didn't get the focus they needed because it was packed so tightly. Just because of the breakdowns of where the arc had to go, the first issue was written as the first issue of an eight-issue miniseries, but then everything speeds up.

If I had eight issues, the last issue would have been two issues. There would have been more evil Annalee and more about the death of Amy.

RT: One of the cool pacing things you did with that last issue was to make the story be essentially over with issue five, and then have the epilogue go cataclysmically big in the final issue. Why did you decide to pace it that way?

HS: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do that with Brady and Renee, with her going bonkers. What I wasn't sure about was what to do with the evil version of Annalee. I knew that the end of Fiddlesticks would lead to the evil Annalee. I don't think we are going to see more of that; I don't want to go into Dark Phoenix territory, because that has been done so well, but she is going to struggle with the scope of her powers.

What I realized after the fact, was that doing less with the evil version of Annalee opened up a realm of possibilities in the reader's mind about the real character.

I know people expect something much more traditional and were freaked out by the odd bookend that final issue was, but I thought it turned out great.

RT: What would you go back and change?

HS: I would kill for five more pages in issue five and six.

The one thing that nags me is that I wanted to destroy the Jupiter Building. When Liam rumbles his stomach and the shockwave is moving, it was supposed to destroy it, but I just didn't have the space.

I would have liked to do a scene where Annalee confronted her father face-to-face, but that is something now that is hanging out that and readers want to see in another story. But it would have been nice to have them lock eyes before he gets away, or something like that.

To a great extent, the rushing saved it because it helped the pacing. Maybe it's a good thing to have all writers have fewer pages then they think they need because it improves the pacing.

RT: How will you be playing with Annalee and her father in the next series?

HS: When she gets in the car at the end, it becomes obvious that more so than anyone else, she is the one on the hunt for him. Going into number three, everyone has their own agenda right now.

Have you read the backup in the trade yet?

RT: I don't have it yet! It hasn't gotten to my store.

HS: There is a lot of fun stuff in there. The backups develop a purpose for Liam in the third series. So there are different opportunities, but I don't want to hang it too much on the father relationship, because we've seen that a lot.

But the Jupiter Corporation is opening up a world that can introduce more superpowered characters and bring back in some old characters. I also really want to focus on the school, because I don't think we had enough time for a lot of that in the second series. Those scenes always go over so well, and I'm able to write them well.

RT: Let's talk about Amy. Why do you think she was such a breakout character for this series in the way Paula was in the first?

HS: I wrote her as everybody's dream girl. I wrote a girl who was unafraid. I took her from a screenplay that I wrote awhile ago that was, essentially, "The War of the Roses" in a college dorm. We got stuck in development. And so I pilfered a lot from that.

And there was a girl that I spent time with before I met my life who was more experienced than me, so charming and funny, and taught me a lot about relationships and life. So I know what it means to a guy when he experiences someone like that.

I thought about Norrin meeting a girl of his dreams who is what he isn't, which is comfortable with himself. I knew it would help him get over Annalee, and that was something I had to do quickly because I didn't have a lot of time.

For the most part, most people who work or read comics would love to meet an Amy. By the third issue, when she is walking around in a t-shirt that says "No Organic Web Shooters" and is so confident and charming and cute, I thought it might be too much and cause a revolt if I kill her. I want to please fans, not alienate them! (laughs)

RT: Did you ever think about not killing her and offing someone else?

HS: I thought about a lot of things.

Yes, we do have some extraneous characters. I've had trouble figuring out what to do with someone like Long Dong or the Intoxicator. So I thought about killing somebody else.

But ultimately, I realized that if you love the characters, you know it will have an impact. It all goes back to the Gwen Stacy thing. People really loved her, and now, all these years later, we are still going back and talking about the story. Every "Spider-Man" writer, for 30 years, has been living up to that story.

I had to make people love her, otherwise it wouldn't matter.

RT: What happened with the artist change halfway through the series?

HS: There is no bad blood.

Will Conrad and I had a conversation after the fact and I told him that I would work with him again in a heartbeat if scheduling issues didn't get in the way again. It wasn't all his fault either. He got pink eye, and sent me a scan of his eye at one point. He just got really behind.

He was doing great work.

My concern is that I don't want to end up taking the blame for it. I had all six scripts done before we found an artist, so I didn't want to take the heat for it.

Top Cow isn't a large outfit, and they need to do what they need to do to be financially viable, and what they needed to do was to finish the miniseries before San Diego so they could release the trade. It got to the point where we knew that we might not make it.

The first choice was to get a different artist to do the scenes inside Leonard Kirk's mind in issue five. Then Will would do the rest of five and rush through six. But that didn't happen.

And then Jorge Correa came in and pumped out those issues really fast and really saved us. He barely speaks English, and his manager was translating my script into Portuguese for him. There were a few moments in the sixth issue where I needed him to be very specific, but he really rose to the task here.

But I love Will and he did phenomenal work. It was hard to replace Leonard Kirk, who was the artist on the first series, but he went exclusive to Marvel Comics, which broke his heart and broke ours. Will stepped in, looked at the series, and made the decision about the tone and blew us away. It's extremely likely that when we do "Freshmen 3," we'll have a different artist, but I will never discount what Will added to the series.

RT: How did Leonard like his reincarnation in "Freshmen II"?

HS: There was an issue he hadn't read yet, but he read on the message board about the wink-wink joke and read it quickly. He and I are big fans of each other, he designed the characters and I hope he was charmed by it and understood that we were giving him a tip of the hat.

RT: Let's talk about Green Thumb's attempted suicide, because that really was a high point for the series.

HS: I got to a point where I thought he would attempt suicide and fail. I wanted to put him on the roof and thinking about killing himself, and originally I had him step back off the roof. But I thought that, again, the cliché is that always happens.

So I talked with my wife about it and I thought it would be a lot more powerful if he actually takes a step off the roof. That would not be what people would expect. One of his powers manifested in the way that he did not die when he fell.

I'm well aware that it has not been fully explained what happened, but I want to play with it later.

There are a lot of main characters in comics who are dealing with major issues. But this is a kid coming at it from a different angle. There are so many things coming at him, and he can't even say what is wrong with him out loud.

You know very well that I have had really bad luck in Hollywood, and this one script that went out and caught fire - the whole town went nuts over it, but it was a sexy thriller, and suddenly everyone started getting afraid of the tone. A weekend passed, and on Monday morning everyone passed, and it was suddenly over. I didn't even have the motivation to kill myself, I just wanted to spontaneously combust and be dead. Then my best friend Bill sat down on my bed and said "What are we going to do?"

The fact that he said "we" saved my life.

I wanted to put that into the comic in a way that would make him not feel alone, and the way Norrin reached out to him was a first step in doing that.

RT: When are we seeing "Freshmen 3" and will it be coming from Top Cow?

HS: It's interesting to me because I never know.

I'm in a bubble. We come out with an issue and it feels like nothing more than a ripple, but then I will get a barrage of email praising it.

The good thing about Top Cow is that they are our biggest fans. They are trying to find a way to do it. The biggest question mark is how well the second trade paperback sells.

But they do expect to do more and have talked to me about doing more. They may decide to go straight to trade paperbacks, switch to quarterlies.

Also, the Hollywood deals might be happening. We have some real A-list talent interested.

I also think we want to do more backup stories to keep people interested, like the ones in the trade paperback.

RT: How much influence did Seth Green have with the second series?

HS: We went to Coliseum of Comics in April 2006 and I told him I had been working on the second series. As I told it to him, I came up with more ideas, and it blew both of us away.

He was much less involved, but was my biggest fan and cheered me on.

RT: Speaking of "fans," who is your favorite person who is quoted on the covers?

HS: Brad Meltzer. He got in touch with me through Myspace and told me that he liked my work. I asked him if he'd give me a quote and he said yes. He gave us the quote because he liked us.

That having been said, to have George Lucas' name on your book is unbelievable. The insanity of having Stan Lee be the penultimate quote is insane!

RT: What's new in the second trade paperback?

HS: There are a lot of corrections because we were rushed and there were a lot of mistakes. A line of my line direction made a caption!

The backup story this time isn't just one character, but four characters.

I know a lot of fans know our situation and are going to buy it, so I wanted to give them something more that was deeper and add something to the overall story that was told.

RT: How much more of the story is left to be told?

HS: This is something I want to stick to. "Freshmen 3" is going to cover summer vacation and then we are coming back with "Sophomores." I'd love to go all the way up to their senior year and how the world is reacting to them and how they are reacting to the world and slowly but surely destroying more and more of that campus.

And I want to deal with all the things I went through in college. Every year was very formative for me, more socially than academically.

RT: Lightning Round!

HS: Zap!

RT: If you were writing a yearlong weekly comic book series with three other writers, who would they be?

HS: In general or comic book writers?

RT: Up to you, bub.

HS: I would choose Dan Milano, who is the creator of "Greg the Bunny." He helped create the "Freshmen" characters and is a great guy. Geoff Johns is a great guy and amazing comic book writer. I don't know Kurt Busiek very well, but I'd love to work with that guy. And Brad Meltzer. I don't know anybody who cracks that core of superheroes like he does.

Was that four?

RT: I'm not going to yell at you.

Favorite comic book movie of all time?

HS: It's a dead heat between "Superman" and "X-Men 2." But I love "Batman Begins." too.

I wrote this whole conversation in "Freshmen 2" but had to pull it out because I didn't have space for it.

Next Week: Paul Jenkins!

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