Gonna Party Like It's Yer Birfright (Part 3): Dave McCaig Talks 'Superman: Birthright'

Fri, August 15th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Superman: Birthright" #3, page 5
In CBR News' previous two in-depth "Superman: Birthright" interview, writer Mark Waid and inker Gerry Alanguilan spoke about working on the critically acclaimed series that has revitalized interest in Superman. Now the attention is focused on colorist Dave McCaig, whose work on "Birthright's" interiors has made the DC Comics maxi-series come alive for many fans. If you're new to the series, McCaig provides his own take on what "Birthright" truly means.

"Well to me, essentially it's kind of Mark Waid's take on making Superman believable and cool again for today's readers," explains McCaig. "He's found a way to bring him back to his roots, and focused on the things that are so right about the character. His virtue, good heartedness, and empathy. Plus his rough and tumble attitude from the 30's, and his good-natured smartassedness. This Superman is a good guy, but he's no wuss. He dishes out some damage and takes the badguys down hard.

"Superman's powers have been redefined lightly too, so they now make some kind of logical sense, which pleases the science nerd in me to no end. Now his heat vision, x-ray vision, and telescopic vision are all just a natural extension of his very alien sense of sight. It's really cool getting to see just how it works. This Superman sees beyond the human spectrum, and to him, living beings are surrounded by vibrant auras of energy. This gives him a deeper understanding and respect for life. So now, Superman can get totally pissed off at some bad guy, and melt his gun with his heat vision, and you'll just accept it, and know why he'd never even consider killing the guy. Not because we know from the Superman Rulebook that 'Superman does not kill,' but because you can kind of see why from his point of view, literally.

"Anyway, once Mark figured out how make us believe in the character, he just sat down and wrote a really kick ass story around him."

Now the pitch for "Birthright" seems like it'd have been enough to get McCaig onboard for coloring, but the Canadian says his involvement in the project came from working on a different DC series. "Well, I had talked to Andy Helfer while he was still at DC about maybe trying to get onto a Superman project, right around the same time that Leinil was asking if I'd be available for the series. He'd seen my work on 'Doom Patrol,' and thought we'd be a good match. So it was really good timing for both of us.

"Then Mark sent me his concept, and the scripts for the first three issues, and I wet my pants. That, along with Leinil and Gerry's amazing artwork, made it pretty hard to say no."

The character of Superman strikes a chord with McCaig and he explains how he interprets the character. Like Waid and Alanguilan before him, he sees Superman as one of the eternal superheroes and isn't afraid to say why. "I'd define Superman as he was originally conceived as this: A man who has great compassion for the people who adopted him as an infant, who wants to do his best to help them in return. He's an immigrant to our planet, who tries to stay true to his roots, while still trying to fit in here among us. He's great, because people can relate to him in a lot of ways. Lots of people are shy wallflowers. Lots of people have the hots for the cute girl at work or at school. And everyone wishes they could fly around and kick ass once in a while!

"Superman is the ultimate underdog as Clark, and the ultimate hero as Superman.

"Superman is eternal for three reasons.

"1. He's the grandfather of all superheroes, and set the standard for all that were to come.

"2. He has the best-costume-ever. That 'S' just rocks. I saw 3 different people wearing the 'S' shirt today while I was out running errands. That says something.

"3. Superman embodies all the things we as humans wish we were and aspire to be.

"Superman: Birthright" #3, Pages 6 & 7
"Honest, caring, and good. People can relate to Clark, and want to be Superman. He kind of represents hope, and escape for ourselves. I can't think of any other hero that people can relate to like that in comics. Batman's cool, but I wouldn't want to be him."

Despite this love for the character, McCaig can't wholeheartedly say he's always been gunning for a Superman project, something that may be a result of his favorite version of Superman. "I've always loved the idea of Superman and what he represented, but I never bought the comics as a kid, and mostly stuck to reading old issues my Dad had collected . Golden age Superman I like. I've always hoped something like this revamping DC's been doing might happen someday, because it brings the character back to those golden age roots in a lot of important ways. So of course I'm really happy that I have a chance to work on a version of the character that totally jives with what I've always imagined it could be."

McCaig isn't the only fan of Superman who hasn't connected with the modern version of the character. The sales of Superman's comics have been on the decline for the past few years and his popularity amongst fans has been the subject of much debate. "Superman's strayed away from what defined him as unique and special, which are those traits I talked about above," contends McCaig. "Superman's dying, nearly committing suicide, and Clark's wild success have all really tarnished the draw for me in the last few years. The two identities used to be night and day, but recently they've kind of become the same guy, to the point where I wondered why the character even had a secret identity. And don't get me started on his mullet hairdo in the 90's, or Superman Blue.

"Mark makes all this go away, and brings him back to his old iconic status, while still making him a compelling, modern, three-dimensional character, which is no easy task. This just shows why he's one of the best writers in the business.

"For my part, I tried my best to use a lot of 'mustard yellow.'"

In mainstream superhero comic books, coloring is important to convey the vibrancy of events and underscore the importance of certain scenes, so McCaig takes his job quite seriously. An eleven-year veteran in the industry, he did a lot of research into the areas of the world that Kal-el would be visiting and enhanced his knowledge of the Superman mythos. "I wanted to help tell a good story for a classic character, in a modern way that reflected the capabilities of today's technology, artistically speaking. I actually built an extensive set of computerized brushes for this project, and did a lot of planning on how to represent Kal-El's vision powers before starting in on the book. I also wanted to work closely with Leinil's natural style and sense of anatomy. Leinil is a great painter and colorist in his own right, as you can see by his great covers on this series, and it seemed best for me to incorporate his structure as much as possible into my style for the book so it would appear seamless. It makes a colorist's job much, much easier when the penciller and inker have a sense for color themselves, or a background in painting."

The idea of color theory isn't something well understood by all fans, but McCaig explains how it affects the visuals in "Superman: Birthright." "For this book, I've tried to set up pure, primary colors only on Krypton, to show how much more vibrant and radiant the people there were. Meanwhile, I've got Ma and Pa Kent always wearing earth tones. You'll see in Clark's room that I tried to make his upbringing a mixed bag of influences. I'm sure if Clark had his way as a kid, he'd have worn day-glow yellow shirts and candy apple red pants all the time, but his folks reigned him in with Earth sensibilities. Subtle things like this help tell the story, even if you are not consciously aware of it. Hopefully when you see Clark don this crazy blue, red, and yellow costume as Superman, it will seem more natural, knowing that on Krypton it would be pretty ordinary. Clark will try to blend into Metropolis by always wearing greys and tans. Dull, boring colors will make him seem even less Superman-like, and will tie him to Earth.

"Most importantly, I'm trying really hard to make Clark's eyes stand out as the only pure blue in the series wherever I can manage it. Maybe the odd blue sky will creep in here and there, but his eyes really pop out on the page. You'll see why this is so important in issue 3. Eddie Berganza (the editor) and I were actually trying to get production to budget in a fluorescent blue ink for Clark's eye color…it would have really wowed people, but it didn't work out."

Technical training is paramount when approaching coloring and it's about the skills, not the tools, so McCaig is here to dispel that and other misconceptions about colorists, beginning with, "That we can magically fix bad artwork, that any kid in their parent's basement can do the job, and that we're technicians because we work on computers. My grandmother used to think that coloring comics meant that I wore a lab coat on an assembly line, and every page that came by, I'd stamp the hat marked '14' with a blue rubber stamp. (Hint: I don't) Education is the key.

"I actually started a Web site a few months back for aspiring colorists as well as pros, called Gutterzombie.com. Some of the biggest names in the coloring biz are regular posters, and are very helpful when it comes to critiquing work if you're new. For pros, it's a good place to show off, exchange ideas, and shirk deadlines, so I invite everyone to come check it out, whether you just want to see what the heck we do, or want to join in."

Any comic book project has it's highs and lows and as much as McCaig loves "Birthright," he reveals that there have some difficult times mixed in with the fun. "The easy part of working on this stuff is following the lead of the guys who have put in the love already. Mark's killer writing, Lienil's great storytelling and artwork, and Gerry's amazing inks. I can't go on about how important good inks are to a colorist.

"The toughest part was getting the first issue in on time. The format of the book changed a lot right up to the last minute, and I ended up finishing the last couple of pages on my laptop, on a rickety bus with no struts, while heading out on a week long hiking trip in the middle of nowhere on Vancouver Island. I had to sweet talk the postmaster of the small town of two hundred that I started my hike from into taking a disc off with the last of my pages off my hands, and driving it over to Victoria to be Fedexed the next day. If that sounds complicated and stressful, it was."

When a reader first opens a comic book, it's naturally the art that hits them immediately and McCaig realizes his coloring is essential to retaining the readers. He may not be the first name readers look for when buying "Birthright," but his work is just as affecting as any penciller or inker, and he knows his name carries the same internal quality as Yu, Alanguilan or Waid. "I think I'm somehow naturally suited to this project, and the art is great, so I don't really feel any pressure at all. It seems to flow out of me, which is always nice, and especially so on what I feel is a landmark series. I put a lot of thought into what colors the characters would wear, but I had been thinking about this sort of thing in the back of my head for a while anyway. It always struck me that there needed to be a compelling reason for Clark Kent to wear such a bright costume when he flew around, so I guess some of the work had been done in my head for a while already.

"Superman: Birthright" #3, Page 14
"It helps that Mark and Leinil think in terms of color too…Clark's bright blue eyes were Mark's idea. As far as the painting style goes, I've been moving towards this look for a while, and thankfully it's really well suited to Leinil's art."

Similar to the situation of inkers, colorists are not often interviewed and McCaig says it's ok, likening his experience to a certain position in the film industry. "I like to relate the comic biz to the movie biz…" explains McCaig. "When people go to the movies, most of the folks in the audience couldn't care less who the cinematographer is, or what they do. They just care who stars in it, who directed it, and maybe who wrote it. But a movie can be made or broken on the merits of the cinematography. Look at 'Citizen Kane.' Orson Wells admired his director of photography so much, he shared screen credit with him. I'll bet 90% of the people out there don't know his name though.

"Colorists are the cinematographers of the comic industry. We are not responsible for telling the story in as direct a way as the writer or penciller is, but our work is very important anyway. We set the tone and mood with color, we direct your eye across the page, and set up depth of field. All important, but kind of secondary to the main story. So as long as the editors and pencillers know who I am, and fans like how the book looks in the end, I'm happy."

There are laughs to be had while working on "Superman: Birthright" and McCaig says that one funny story involves inker Gerry Alanguilan searching for him on the Internet. "Gerry did a search for me on Google in order to contact me, and ended up on my pal Dean's blog," he laughs. "I think it's sad that he googled higher than I did for a search on my name. I need to get my Webmaster on that."

With issue #2 of the twelve-part epic on the stands, "Birthright" has been very successful from the standpoint of all involved and McCaig says the fan feedback he's seen would indicate the readers are loving it too. "Well, the reaction has been extremely positive so far, outside of a small core of vocal die-hard status quo fans. I've loved the project from day one, so I kind of expected everyone else to as well. I suppose I was a bit surprised by the backlash of some Byrne fans, saying his version should not have been messed with. I guess in response I'd have to say that for the time, his arc was great, and I loved the stuff, especially Byrne's Krypton. But, a long time has passed, and Superman has been stagnating in sales and interest for a long time now. I really think Mark's version is better suited for today, has the potential to bring in new readers, and remains true to the original vision of Superman from the 1930's, back when more than a few thousand people read the book. The Byrne run will always be there in the bookshelf. Hopefully you Byrne guys will one day have this incarnation sitting next to it."

Like the Superman fan he is, McCaig's been watching "Smallville" and "Justice League" on television whenever he can and has a positive view of Superman's small screen presence. "Both are great. 'Smallville' really picked up in season 2. They used to film the Talon coffee shop scenes a block away from my place here in Vancouver, which was cool. It was smart of Mark to try to tie some aspects of the show into his version of Superman, too. New readers who enjoy 'Smallville' will have an easier time relating to Mark's story.

"The 'Justice League' cartoon rocks too, as does Teen Titans. I've worked on style guides for both cartoons through DC licensing, which was really fun to do."

If McCaig's coloring on "Birthright" is exciting you, he says you'll able to see his work on another great penciller's work pretty soon. "I really liked working on 'Doom Patrol,' and was sorry to see it cancelled. 'JLA: Age of Wonder' was a treat to work on too, and makes a good read. As far as upcoming projects, you can look for my work on the very first Marvel Catalog cover. Bryan Hitch is drawing it, so it should be a blast to color. I've got some stuff going on in the world of animation too, but it's currently in development, so I can't talk about it. And I'm always up for doing more painted comic covers, if any editors out there are interested. ;)"

Proving that the "Birthright" team always is up for teasing fans, McCaig provides "spoilers" for the future of the aforementioned Superman maxi-series. "Superman develops a taste for human flesh, and eats a hell of a lot of people. But I won't reveal who. (hint: not true)"

Fans recently saw issue #2 of "Superman: Birthright" hit stands and if that wasn't enough reason for them to buy the comic, McCaig hopes his speech can push them over the edge. "You can show a picture of Superman to anyone in the first world, and they will know who it is. Anyone," says McCaig of why the series is universal. "And, you should pick up 'Birthright' because it's the comic version of the Superman movie you've always wanted to see.

"'You will believe a man can fly, while wearing a blue jumpsuit with his underwear on the outside, and still be complex, credible, and interesting.'

"Hmm… Maybe I should leave the writing to Mark."

Look for an interview with series artist Leinil Francis Yu on Monday here at CBR.

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