When CBR last spoke to rising star artist Shane Davis at last summer's Chicago Comic-Con, the DC Comics penciler hinted that his next project would be something big. Something really big. "It's probably one of the biggest things I'll ever work on, which is kind of scary for me,"David said then. "I'm a little nervous about what people are going to say when they see it."
As of yesterday morning, people saw what Davis meant as DC announced its new series of original graphic novels featuring their most iconic superheroes under the banner "Earth One." Teaming up with best-selling writer J. Michael Straczynski, the artist will draw a new version of Superman's origin in the first volume of "Superman: Earth One." Davis spoke with CBR about the project, why it will work better than the myriad other Superman origin reboots of the past and why the graphic novel is a form fans shouldn't fear. Plus, the artist gives an exclusive first look at his character designs for Clark Kent!
CBR: Shane, you've obviously been at this book for a while. At what point did Dan Didio bring you in to this whole process of drawing "Earth One: Superman?" Was it during your arc on "Superman/Batman?"
Shane Davis: No, it was during the Philadelphia convention before last. We were having one of the DC dinners, and I'm sitting at a table with a lot of different people – Andy Kubert and Billy Tucci and some others – and Dan sat down in front of me. We were at the center of this table where I swear to God it looked like "The Last Supper" or something. And I turned my water over and spilled it all in his lap. That's how it all started. [Laughs] I'm apologizing, and he's going, "No no no." Then he tells me, "This is what I want you to do next. I want you to an ongoing, 'new universe' Superman." After being floored by that and not knowing what to say to it, I think he named JMS as the writer to me. And I'm a big fan. I was a fan of his "Silver Surfer: Requiem" story and was enjoying his "Thor" stuff. He was one of the writers I'd always wanted to work with, and I think I knew at the time he was going to be at DC, but I didn't know what he was going to be working on at DC. This was a big treat for me.
And I really didn't take it too seriously. I mean, when someone comes up to you and says, "Hey, I want you to reinvent Superman for a new generation," you kind of just take it like "This person is pulling my leg." I honestly walked away that day thinking nothing would come of it. It's hard. Your brain just shelves these things and goes, "Oh, that's not real." It's like you get a Spam letter in the mail that says you won a million dollars, and you don't believe it, you know? [Laughs] And then it turned out to be true! I probably fought Dan on every level to do anything else because it scared the shit out of me. It really did. I was like, "You're being serious? Well, how's about I go work with Michael Green again on a short arc of 'Superman/Batman'?" I just started naming stuff. Me and [Geoff] Johns were like, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we did Aquaman?" There was another dinner at another convention where me, Johns and Ethan Van Sciver were talking to Dan and going, "Hey! What if Shane did Aquaman?" and Ethan going, "I want to do my Plastic Man story!" It was just me trying to do anything because it was so intimidating and unbelievable.
Then I went through all the stages of acceptance, and it hit me that I was doing it. Eventually, they handed me a big chunk of script – like 38 pages of it. And that's how I ended up on the book.
JMS said about this book that for him, the way to make this work was to make sure that you were presenting Superman as if he'd been made brand new in the 21st Century. As you started working with him on the story and on the character, how did that manifest itself?
I got to read those first 38 pages, and the pacing really didn't end at a 22-page stopping point, which was good. I was given a rundown of Clark there and who Clark was in JMS' words – how he was handling him. He left the descriptions loose, so the first thing I did was submit designs. DC had some notes on his script before I even drew the characters pertaining to two characters: Clark and Jim Olsen. It's not Jimmy Olsen. It's just Jim. And one note on Clark was "How about he have a Smallville letter jacket?" Now keep in mind, Clark is 21 years old and leaving home for the first time, basically. And Jim, they made a comment about him being more of Superman's pal and kind of a buddy instead of a hard-boiled photographer like JMS said in his interview.
So for Clark, the first thing I wanted to do was not put him in a high school letter jacket because he's 21 years old. Any kid that left home at 21 years of age to live on his own in the big city wearing a high school letter jacket deserves to get his ass kicked. [Laughs] You know what I'm saying? I don't think they really help you in the world. So I got rid of that old school mentality. You have to go in on this really respecting everything that's been before, and I noticed right then and there was that maybe the problem with there being so many Superman reboots and what I wanted to try and get away from visually is some of the Superman stereotypes. So Clark as a 21 year old male, I wanted him to wear layers of clothing. He's trying to blend in, and he's got some brooding aspects to him. He's trying to find his way in the world, and his past is his past. But he's trying to find his future. He doesn't want to stand out, so I gave him a hood. I wanted it to emulate the cape bunched up around his next, so it's a red hood on his jacket. I just definitely wanted to get away from the normal Clark Kent – tie, tucked all in, glasses, the slicked back hair. That really didn't make a lot of sense to me.
I had to make him a little bit more fashionable to today's audience. You know, geek fashion is a little more chic than it used to be. What a geek was in the '50s isn't really the same thing today. Clark Kent was a fashion stereotype of an era we're not in anymore. On that same note, I wanted to keep Clark's look broad enough that it'll survive the test of time. Not to say that Clark Kent hasn't survived the test of time. He just starts out here as more of the character that is he. He's becoming Superman. When he puts on the costume, it's the costume for the first time. So when he comes in, it's like, "I'm Clark Kent and I have these abilities" but he doesn't have a dual persona at this point. It was really interesting because this was more about developing a character who fit his situation and his past rather than going, "I know what Clark Kent is! I know what he looks like. Let me draw the same Clark Kent."
The same thing goes for Jim Olsen. JMS has a specific idea that he should be a cutting-edge, almost-getting-killed news photographer. And I thought JMS was dead on there. In the script, I wrote "Major Kudos!" That's much more realistic. Jimmy Olsen always came off as more of a doofus, and he may be a great photographer, but in some of the panels [from the classic comics] it was more about them talking about how he screwed up something. It doesn't seem like he would be the top newspaper photographer because of that. To have a job at the Daily Planet, he would have to be the top of the top when it came to photographers. And I thought that was an interesting story hook JMS was putting in there – Superman surrounded by a great photographer.
When you got those first pages in and had to start, how did the process go in terms of drawing a graphic novel instead of drawing an issue-by-issue story? What did that change about your process from what you did in the past?
The story is more about character-development. I think from a story perspective – and major judos to DC for doing a graphic novel – the things we're going to do with Clark will really make you feel him as a character. That's where our advantage is over previous attempts. As far as action goes, you're going to be a good chunk into the book before you see any real physical action. We have some bits where he's trying to do things like football or, like JMS said, being an engineer. The best way to do the origin story is to know that we don't have to do the costume on the 22nd page. We don't have to have to start off on pages one through five with a flash-forward where we see him in a suit and then stopping the story to go back and tell him how we got there. We were able to pace it correctly, kind of like a movie treatment. When we start the story out, people know Superman's going to be in there eventually. So we can take our time, and if it takes 23 pages to see him rather than 22, we can do that. In single issues, we weren't able to do that.
It was a big debate. I was 40 or some pages in, and people started asking, "Wait. How are we going to make this pop off the shelf a little more?" It seemed like people had this idea that we had to do something flashy, and I was really conscious of the endeavor in terms of it coming out as a graphic novel and what that meant and what that ultimate goal was. And I think that goal looks a little different to everybody. I think the creators have their hearts and minds in this place where our goal is to give everybody a quality, entertaining Superman story where we're not limited by the medium we're in. We're not on any leash on this, and we can tell the story in the proper manner without needing to supply people with a splash page of Superman in the first issue.
WIth that said, I wanted it to look classy and not flashy. That's the way I phrased it. I thought going super flashed up would be the wrong way to go. I wanted a timeless feel to it. I've been very blessed to be working with [inker] Sandra Hope on this, and she's great. And I'm working with Barbara Ciardo who was the colorist who worked on the "Wednesday Comics" Superman story. And we've all been working very close together. I've been working very close with JMS and am having lots of conversations with him. I've had a very hands-on design of the whole book to date as far as all the characters. There's not been one character I've drawn where JMS has gone, "Oh, that's not what I wanted." The minute I submitted my designs for Clark, not even Superman, DC had said, "That's a young Superman. That's what we wanted." It's weird how in synch JMS and I have been on every character right on down to JIm. Lois was a great challenge to me – to come up with a strong, feminine character that's attractive but is a business woman and not sex icon or anything. I've tackled every page and panel and character in terms of what was best for the story. And I think I've honestly had success on all ends, even with some of the newer characters.
DC has said this book will be the first in an ongoing series of graphic novels. Do you hope to continue working in this world into a second book?
I would be more than happy to start a volume 2 as soon as I'm done with volume 1. I'm pretty well into volume 1 now, like 80 pages, and I'd love to start volume 2 before that even hits shelves. But right now, everybody's looking at the first volume. I'd be more than interested to go on. I've got a lot of heart put into this character. Everybody loves Superman in general, but I mean this version of Superman. I've had fun figuring out how hard he punches and how he lands on the ground. Everything. His heat vision is different, and I reinvented the way his irises react to his powers. I have so much that I've put into the character on every level that it would really break my heart not to draw him again.
And as far as the costume goes, I never really felt there was a lot to change on the costume, and what there was to change was tailoring the boots in some scenes. I got rid of the "cowboy boots" and changed them into regular superhero boots. But there was a lot of development in the way Clark looks and how his powers manifest. I think I came at it from a different angle than people traditionally have. And it all worked out.
When we talked back in Chicago, you had said you were a bit nervous to see what fan reaction would be when you heard about this project. What do you think – or have you seen – about what the Wednesday crowd will make of this as an OGN and what the general public will make of it?
I think the general public will love it. I think whoever reads it will be satisfied because I'm satisfied with how the story has rolled out. I thought at first that the pacing sometimes might feel like we're not getting enough done, but as I flip through the actual book – because I keep a dummy book to flip through – there was so much story in the 80 pages I've drawn. I've seen the colored pages, and people are going to be blown away by the finished project.
I have been able to look at a few of the comments, and some of the negatives are people who wish this was in monthly installments and that they'd rather not have it in the graphic novel format. And my opinion is that as a comic fan and a comic creator is that I sum it up in one sentence: you have to get off the boat to walk on water. That's the scenario. It's a changing industry with changing formats. As a storytelling looking at it from outside the fan's perspective, there are restrictions to the 22-page format like I said above. I really feel this is going to be a lot stronger than people probably think. And the responses are great, but I don't think anybody will know until you hold it and read it how this frees up the character. There are a lot of superhero storytelling stereotypes that have become a joke in some sense just because, I think, how fast we jump into storytelling elements because of the 22-page format. It's a time restriction where you've got to do X, Y and Z within that first 22 pages to hook everybody. It's throwing the story baby out with the bath water to have to hook everybody in 22 pages and then tell the story over the next four or five issues. Sometimes, we're not doing what's best story wise in trying to sell a single issue.
Check back to CBR later this week for more on "Earth One" and more on "DCU in 2010!"