EXCLUSIVE: Straczynski Pens "Samaritan X" At DC

Thu, March 18th, 2010 at 7:03pm PDT | Updated: March 18th, 2010 at 7:15pm

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, Staff Writer

Over the past few months, writer J. Michael Straczynski has been making quite the splash in his new four-color home of DC Comics. First, word hit that the writer known best as JMS would kick-start a new publishing initiative with "Superman: Earth One" – a Shane Davis-drawn project whose draw was seeing an ongoing superhero serial told in the original graphic novel format – and then later the publisher announced that JMS would take over both the "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" comics – providing fans the chance to see him play in the broader DC Universe. And for his next DC comic, JMS will end up doing the former and the latter at the same time.

DC announced today, EXCLUSIVELY through CBR, that the writer will pen "Samaritan X" – an original graphic novel set firmly within the DC Universe. Centering on the titular, Gotham-based hospital, the graphic novel will bring in various heroes and villains from DC's pantheon and potentially spin off as its own ongoing series in the future.

And while the publisher kept word of an artist and release date under wraps for the time being, the news of "Samaritan X" and its promise to reveal new story threads for DC's core fictional universe in a format rarely if ever seen for that segment of the market begged plenty of questions. Below, CBR News goes straight to the source with the first interview with Straczynski about "Samaritan X" including word on what heroes and villains will appear and why now is the time for a DCU OGN.

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CBR News: At this point, I'm sure the project and its conception is very new so let's start with the basics: What is "Samaritan X" both in terms of its story and its format, and how did this come about amid all your other writing work at DC and beyond?

J. Michael Straczynski: Starting with a graphic novel and a potential regular monthly series thereafter, the book is about the Samaritan X Hospital, based in Gotham, which specializes in individuals with super-powers. At its core, it’s a human drama set against the backdrop of super-human characters from the DC Universe, where the skills of ordinary men and women may mean life or death for the strongest among us.

Samaritan X is as impressive outside as it is inside: a twenty-story gleaming glass and steel tower with two landing platforms on the roof, bullet-proof glass three inches thick, a staff of the best and the brightest in a variety of disciplines, and every high-tech, cutting-edge medical, scientific and diagnostic tool ever created, all in service to an area of specialization, and a clientele, that is utterly unique.

In a world where super-powered individuals fight a never-ending battle against evil, Samaritan X is where those wounded on either side of that struggle come to be treated and saved. Within its walls the essential human drama of life and death is made even more intense by its application to those whom the world calls heroes or villains, the celebrated and the vilified, the nearly immortal and the previously invulnerable.

The cover for "Superman" #700, which JMS will contribute to before taking the title over with #701.

When an eternally young character suddenly begins aging…when Metamorpho discovers that he can no longer control his chemical reactions and is a danger to himself and others…when Supergirl needs a life-saving operation but her skin cannot be pierced by any known science…when a female hero is about to have her first child, and fears that the strength of her contractions in birth could kill her normal son…when Cyborg discovers that his life-sustaining cybernetic implants are failing…when a hero with fiery powers discovers he can no longer turn it off and may have to live the rest of his life never touching another human being, even his own children…when a hero is wounded in battle and brought to the hospital for treatment only to be pursued there by his enemy, who is determined to finish what he started regardless of who gets caught in the middle…when a hero on the edge of collapse suffers a psychotic break…when young men and women from all over the world discover for the first time that they have powers and don’t know how to handle them..when those or a million other things go wrong with people strong enough to tear apart whole cities with their bare hands...their best hope for survival is Samaritan X.

As to how this all came about…my original first pass at a document goes back about two years. I was thinking about all these battles that take place between guys with powers, and what happens when they get sick, and wondered, wait a second, where would they go? What would they do? The concept came out of that.

My first thought was that this would make a terrific comic. The ideal situation would be to set this inside a known comics universe, but as far as I knew at that time, you couldn’t mix and match a creator-owned title into an established universe, it had to be one or the other. So resignedly, I created some new powered characters of my own. In addition, even though there would be powered characters in each issue, the core would have to be centered around human, non-powered characters, and I wasn’t sure if any of the major companies would go for that.

I was getting a lot of requests for television series concepts, but I wasn’t sure if Samaritan X was too offbeat for American television, so I pitched it to several UK companies, including Impossible Pictures and Kudos Entertainment. I’ve also talked about it with Warner Bros., and they like the idea a lot and that process is ongoing.

As this was going on, I’d literally be unable to sleep at night, thinking wouldn’t it be great to drop this concept into an established comics universe? but thinking all the while that it could never happen because this was a creator-owned project and as far as I knew you could use established characters in a creator-owned book.

Then one evening I was having dinner with Dan DiDio, who loved the idea. I mentioned how I’d always wanted to do this as a comic in a known universe but contractually I didn’t know how it could happen. “Leave it to me,” he said.

After a few months of talks, he came back and said, “We’re going to do something a little unusual: we believe in this concept so much that we’re going to make this a creator-owned title inside the DC Universe.” This would give me access to all of the DC characters within the setting that I’d created. "Samaritan X" would feature the most recognizable names in the comics universe.

It was like Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July all rolled up into one.

Original graphic novels are a rare breed in superhero comics, and while DC has done more than a few such projects in a general sense, this is one of the first OGNs I can think of that is being set up in the modern DCU in a very direct way rather than as a "timeless" treatment of a character like, say, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's "Joker." What was the attraction for you in combining this format with the shared universe that is the DCU, and in what ways to you expect the format to be more challenging than the monthly 22-page format and more freeing while still playing in the big sandbox?

I wanted those characters, I don’t want to do a “timeless” version of something or someone. These are life-and-death stories of a different sort than we’ve seen before in comics, and the opportunity to use characters like Barry Allen or Kara-El or any of the rest of the DCU is just too wonderful to pass by.

For the most part, the book will operate outside continuity, which will free us to do just good, solid stories. But from time to time, particularly if there’s a big event in which major characters have been injured, we can easily dial Samaritan X into that story, and show the consequences of the big battles. It’s not a matter of having one big sandbox, it’s a matter of having a nearly infinite number of sandboxes, and access to all of the Big Toys.

Because of the popularity of hospital/medical shows, I think "Samaritan" X has the potential to bring a fair amount of media attention and, with luck, attract some mainstream readers who are new to comics. We need to keep bringing new readers into the fold, and this could be a good gateway drug, for lack of a better term.

"Wonder Woman's" anniversary 600th issue will also help roll in JMS' run on that comic.

While I'm sure you're very early in the writing process for "Samaritan X," we know that you're rather far along in the scripting process for "Superman: Earth One." What have you learned and enjoyed about the creation of the latter that you think will affect how this new graphic novel will take shape?

The script for “Superman: Earth One” was finished this past December, and about 99% of the art is in hand as well, so we’re good to go on that one. I’m now in the process of working out the next story for volume two.

I’m not sure the two are compatible in that the Superman GN is about 120 pages in length and the first "Samaritan X" GN should be a bit on the shorter side, since it’s a new commodity. Certainly what was best about writing the Superman GN – aside from the fat that, well, it’s Superman – was being able to pace the writing to 120 pages, instead of aiming for 22 minute breaks. It’s like the difference between writing for television, knowing you have to build in a break for commercials, which kills the momentum, and writing a movie, where you can build the tension and the characters without interruption.

You've got the duel hooks of a brand new DCU locale in "Samaritan X" and a cast full of classic DC superheroes. Taking each in their own time, what is it about the Samaritan X hospital as a place that makes it an attractive setting for big superhero stories, and more specifically what makes it a unique locale for the DC Universe?

It opens up a whole range of stories and questions and dilemmas that we’ve never really explored in detail before. Let’s say that a super-powered criminal is slated for execution. But he’s nearly invulnerable, so the authorities come to Samaritan X and ask them to help figure out how he should be executed. Should they cooperate? Is that something they should be doing? The law and the courts have sanctioned it, but is it right for a doctor to participate? And in another case, what happens when a world-class criminal, a powered killer, is brought under arms for treatment to Samaritan X and gets loose, taking hostages?

"Samaritan X" will let us look closely at the powers we have come to take for granted in the super-hero genre. How could someone actually fly, or breathe underwater, or turn invisible...and what side-effects would come as a result? If someone’s skin has become impenetrable, but he also cannot feel the wind on his face, or the touch of a woman’s hand...is it a fair trade?

What happens when someone’s powers get out of control, threatening his survival and the lives of everyone he loves? How do the doctors and staff find a next-of-kin donor in order to save the life of a hero who has kept his identity a closely guarded secret, and would rather die than compromise that secret because it would expose his family to the wrath of his enemies?

We will take as our primary conceit, "How would these powered characters, and the doctors caught in-between, actually function in a real-world context?" To that end we will explore the physics, the physiology and the psychology of such powers, creating the first procedural series focused on Powers and how they work

It’s not just a new physical venue, it’s a new story venue, allowing us to tell those kinds of tales without reducing the staff and those involved to just background characters. It's their story as much as it is the story of our powered characters.

Early art from "Superman: Earth One."

You said "the skills of ordinary men and women may mean life or death for the strongest among us" which leads me to believe that our focal point characters are going to be the doctors, nurses and staff that run the Samaritan X hospital day after day, night after night. What can you tell us right now about our main cast for "Samaritan X"? Who are they, and what draws them to working in such an environment?

Correct. Our stories will be told from the ground-up, from the perspective of our human characters, who find themselves thrown in the middle of dangerous situations, willing to risk their own safety to save the lives of others. If a battle is raging thirty stories up between two massively powerful characters, we will see that battle not only from the clouds but from the streets, as buildings are shattered and innocents threatened.

Our main human character is Dr. Francis Long, Chief of Staff of the hospital that he helped to found. Samaritan X was his dream. Twenty years ago, he was called in to treat a beautiful hero known as Lady Eternal, whose abilities began spinning out of control, threatening to kill her. He risked his life to save hers, and succeeded.

That first rescue inspired Francis to begin putting together a hospital that would specialize in Powers. As such, he functions as the hospital’s prime cheerleader, its public face at times of controversy, and its chief critic when things aren’t going well. He is enthusiastic, excitable, brilliant, eccentric, and the bane of anyone not as smart or driven as himself.

In the aftermath, as Lady Eternal recuperated, they fell in love. They are still in love twenty years later, but that love is becoming increasingly more difficult, because he is aging...but she is not. She will forever be eternally youthful. But she loves him just as much now as then, and that in her eyes he is also eternally young.

They must keep their relationship secret from the rest of the world for his safety, forcing her to come to him at night, in the shadows, when no one is around.

Other characters include:

Dr. Steven Montoya, an emergency room doctor who is often the very first doctor to see an incoming powered character or a civilian wounded in battle. Before the specialists can get their hands on the wounded patient, Montoya is on the front lines trying to figure out how to keep them alive long enough to get the kind of treatment they’ll need in the long term. Because there’s no way to know what kind of character will be brought in next, the emergency room is equipped with every imaginable kind of device, packing all the hardware and power that might become necessary: diamond saws that can chew through armor to find torn flesh beneath, titanium clamps to strap down arms capable of toppling whole buildings, lead walls to contain projections of heat, cold, or radiation, and isolation rooms that allow him to use mechanical arms to conduct delicate operations on even the most dangerous super-powered characters. He sometimes has to be as much mechanic as physician.

Dr. Felix Rose, who specializes in understanding how these powers work. More scientist than physician, he is often pressed into service on the more extreme cases. He’s all about the science, with very little in the way of bedside manner, looking on the super-powered characters more as projects than as people. He’s curious about where these powers come from, how they function, why some get it and others don’t, and what can be done against them if there’s a need to take them down.

Sandra Lin and Lionel Parks, paramedics who risk life and limb by going into the midst of a major fight in order to retrieve fallen heroes. They’re good friends, drinking buddies who are not involved with one another. Lin is from Hong Kong, while Lionel is from the Bronx. Their dreams and points of origin differ greatly but their passion for danger and saving lives is equal.

And then there’s Corinne Clark, a psychiatrist and counselor at Samaritan X who works with the community of super-powered characters and their family members. Her job includes helping newly discovered or badly injured heroes and their families cope with their situation. Because there are some things that can’t be fixed by medicine: the character who learns one day that he will never fly again...another who at the age of 17 has just found that she has powers and will never be normal, never fit in...and a third who has dedicated his life to saving others, and must now cope with the knowledge that there’s nothing that can be done to save his life.

Each of these characters has their own specialty, but also their own agenda…and some of those may not be quite what we think it is at first glance.

On the flipside, the series promises to feature many heroes and villains from across the DCU. Seeing as the hospital is located in Gotham, many fans may assume that means we'll see a lot of Bat-themed good guys and bad guys in the mix, but what are your plans in terms for who we will be seeing along the way? Do you have a shortlist of favorites you want to include?

In addition to the names listed earlier, I think the broader spectrum of good guys and bad guys we have, the more interesting the book will become.

The name Samaritan X is both fitting for a hospital and a bit mysterious as well. Is there some significance folks should be drawing from the name in terms of the arc of the story?

It suggests a hospital that deals with things beyond the normal, and that makes it a cool title and an even cooler place.

And along with the core cast of doctors and such within the hospital, are there any metahumans on either side of the law that might be taking a spotlight role within the book?

Because of his background using various compounds to enhance his abilities, I’m considering using Hourman (Dr. Rick Tyler) as a consultant on some of the cases that come through. It’d be nice to have that personal connection to some of the heroes that need help.

JMS currently writes the continuity-free "Brave & The Bold" for DC.

Come to think of it, it strikes me that one of the very intriguing and complicated elements of a hospital like Samaritan X is that while the staff are tasked with treating all those who are hurt, it can be very hard for the law to ignore that villains are being bandaged up alongside the heroes. What can readers expect in terms of Samaritan X being a place where all wounded will eventually end up?

That’s the wonderful dilemma of the whole thing. A doctor’s first obligation is to heal, no matter who the person is. So yeah, sometimes really bad people will come through Samaritan X, which is why part of the facility is set up with all the reinforcements of Fort Knox…not that that’s going to be enough in some cases.

It was recently announced that you'll be coming on to write the monthly adventures of both Superman and Wonder Woman. While this project is by no means something that would be labeled simply a "Batbook," did you think about what it might be like to have the so-called "Trinity" at your beck and call?

As much as the book is set in Gotham, I don’t see it becoming a Bat-book, any more than a hospital in Metropolis necessarily becomes a Superman-book. As with any leading hospital or medical facility, patients come not just from all over the country but all over the world. Will we see Batman from time to time? Of course, it’s inevitable. Do I want that to dominate the book? No.

To wrap, no artist has been announced for the project just yet, but what kind of tone do you have in mind for the book?

We’re still in the process of finding the right person and hope to have this nailed down soon. I’d love to see this book come out in the Summer or Fall.

TAGS:  dc comics, j michael straczynski, samaritan x, jms

 
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