Almost everyone, comic fan or not, knows the story. On a doomed planet, two parents make the ultimate sacrifice to save their only son - rocketing the child off to a distant world whose yellow sun grants him powers beyond that of any normal man. Raised by a kindly couple, the boy grows into a man, a Superman, who uses his extraordinary abilities to fight for truth and justice.
But...what if? Every fictional idea, every story conception begins by asking that very question and sparking the imagination. What if Jor-El and Lara joined the young Kal-El in the rocket to Earth? What if instead of a last son there was a last family? Legendary Superman writer Cary Bates joins with artist Renato Arlem this August and returns to the character that made him famous to answer those very questions in DC Comics' new miniseries "Superman: The Last Family of Krypton."
Bates first began working in the comic industry at just 14 years old when DC Comics bought his cover idea to "Superman" issue #167 back in 1964. Faster than a speeding bullet, the budding creator began selling scripts to the company, becoming the writer on titles such as "Superman," "Action Comics," "The Flash" and "Legion of Super-Heroes." The three-issue, double-sized upcoming series not only returns Bates to the Superman world after nearly two decades of absence, it also returns the Elseworlds concept to the DC Universe. Between re-acclimating himself with the House of El, Bates spoke with CBR News about the upcoming miniseries, how life on Earth affects two of the most well known Kryptonians and how he looks to add a new persona to the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic.
Although Bates officially returned to comics after a 15-year hiatus with the 2008 Marvel miniseries "True Believers," the upcoming "Last Family" marks his homecoming to DC Comics and the Superman line. For a man who worked with the character for approximately a quarter century straight, the return proved a rather surreal experience. "The first cover idea I ever sold to DC, when I was 14, was for Superman, as well as the first script I sold in 1967," Bates told CBR. "From then on, I was writing one to three Superman stories every month until 1985. I was story editor/staff writer on the Viacom 'Superboy' TV series in 1989, then the co-author of the Salkind's aborted Superman Reborn script in 1991-92. And now I'm back talking about 'Last Family' in 2010."
However, according to Bates, the break from writing the Man of Steel actually helped him approach this series with a new view on Big Blue. "If you start writing a character at 17, when your world views are relatively naive and simplistic, and then come back to it some four decades later, nothing's the same," said Bates. "Re-entering familiar territory with a half a lifetime's worth of writing experience gives you a whole new perspective and a much more nuanced mindset. In addition, I think the years I was away from the comics business proved to be beneficial because I was able to re-imagine a whole new take on Superman with an objectivity I might not have had otherwise."
Much of this re-imagined take stems from the absence of a certain vital element in the Superman mythos - his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. Many writers and fans alike attribute the hero's benevolent nature to the Kansas couple and their altruistic influence while raising the super boy. In this version of the story, the Els arrive with the whole world watching and the young Kal grows up as a member of the most famous family on Earth - a lifestyle contradictory to the low-key one experienced with the Kents. All of this adds a new twist on the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic and the age-old question for many Super-fans on which persona is the real one.
"I'm not sure there ever will be a definitive answer to that," admitted Bates. "This project complicates the question even further by adding a third persona to the mix, so it becomes a Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman dynamic. If I've done my job correctly, readers should come away from 'Last Family of Krypton' with different but equally valid conclusions about who the 'real' person is."
However, as much as the miniseries allowed Bates to explore a new side to the world's first super hero, it also allowed him to develop the characters of Superman's parents Jor-El and Lara in a context never before explored with them. "The Jor-El and Lara in classic Superman lore are always portrayed as these godlike icons we barely get to know before Krypton self-destructs," explained the writer. "Scenarios where they've lived on in past Elseworlds almost always portrayed them in the context of a surviving planet Krypton or Kryptonian society. But this project envisions them as a 'last family' - the three lone survivors of their race who come to Earth to live out the rest of their lives. Because 'Last Family of Krypton' covers a span of some 30 years, we'll not only be seeing what they might've been like as parents over the long term, but also as man and wife. Will the marriage remain as rock-solid as it seemed to be on Krypton? How will decades of being exposed to Earth society and culture affect them? Over the years, will they grow closer or gradually drift apart as they develop different interests? All of these questions and more will be dealt with over the three issues."
The arrival of the House of El on Earth also causes a ripple effect across DCU history beyond the personal, intrinsic changes to the characters. In the classic scenario, Superman's debut heralds the emergence of countless other super heroes, including Batman and Wonder Woman. While Bates said that "there will definitely be ramifications from the El family's presence on Earth that will have a bearing on the emergence and evolution of other super heroes," the writer chose to keep the details of those ramifications a surprise for readers. However, Bates did tease some of the changes concerning Superman's more immediate supporting cast.
"Lex Luthor plays a major role in the series, but this will be a Luthor unlike any that's been seen before. We first meet him as a 10 year old, and you'll see how his relationship with the El family evolves over the course of 30 years," he said. "Brainiac figures prominently as well, albeit in a totally new context. Lois, Jimmy, Perry and the rest of the usual supporting cast all have roles to play as well, some more than others."
The idea of twisting history and seeing the effects of one small change on the whole - such as the ones in this particular miniseries - defines what the Elseworlds concept originally set out to explore, and Bates admitted to being a longtime fan of the genre. "That very first Superman script I sold in 1967 was an imaginary story for 'World's Finest.' I went on to write a number of them for Mort Weisinger and later, Julie Schwartz," recalled the writer. "For me, alternate realities are fascinating because they allow you to reinvigorate familiar elements in unorthodox ways that can offer new insights into well-established characters or storylines. For a recent example of how well the technique can be used to great effect, just look at the 'flash-sideways' sequences that ran parallel to the island sequences throughout the final season of 'Lost.'"
As for what the future holds for the writer now returned to the comic book world, Bates admitted he currently doesn't plan on leaping any other Elseworld buildings for the time being. However, the writer hinted at another project with DC that may be set to cause some world changing of its own. "Currently I'm working on a new series for DC that will celebrate certain classic elements of the superhero mythos even as it turns the genre inside-out in ways not even Dr. Fredric Wertham could have imagined in his worst nightmare."
Forget looking up in the sky for a moment this August 4 and take a look in your local comic book store for issue #1 of "Superman: The Last Family of Krypton"