SPOILER WARNING: Major spoilers lie ahead for DC's "Superman Earth One" graphic novel.
Last week, a new kind of Superman arrived on the American pop cultural spectrum in more ways than one.
While comic fans had been anticipating the release of DC Comics' "Superman: Earth One" since its announcement late last year, the original graphic novel by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis hit the mainstream media with the force of a Kryptonian rocket thanks to a New York Post article that compared the young Clark Kent at the heart of the Superman reinvention to emo-rocking hipsters and the vampires of "Twilight." Over the week, the PR boost brought scads of national attention in newspapers, on blogs and on television including a "why mess with our heroes" themed editorial from CBS anchor Katie Couric.
As the buzz and debate played out, comic fans in both direct market shops and book stores gained their first look at "Earth One" in full, from its younger, stylish take on the Man of Steel to a twist on his planet-ending origins that included the new alien foe Tyrell. To look in on the creative process behind the heavily promoted OGN as well as the media flurry that accompanied it, CBR News spoke with artist Davis about his own reasons for revisiting the origin of the world's first superhero, his process for redesigning the world of Krypton and their new nemesis and the secret of Dan Didio's baseball cap. Read on for the full story, but know that major spoilers for the story of "Earth One" lie ahead.
CBR News: Shane, it feels like the press and buzz surrounding the book kind of crept up on everyone last week, just before the release. I know you had a signing to coincide with it coming out and you seemed to be following the stories as they hit the web somewhat. Did this all take you a little by surprise?
Shane Davis: I had set up a signing with Jason Blanchard from A Comic Shop. They do some pretty cool stuff and run a club where you can get your books at midnight, so I did it there so I could do a signing Tuesday night and then do it into Wednesday, too. Somehow, they lined up some spot for me on "The Daily Buzz," which I thought was just the local station, but I learned afterwards that I went out on national TV, live, which was kind of a joke on me. [Laughs] I was on the plane traveling when Katie Couric said what she did, so I was kind of in my own Bermuda Triangle when this was going on, and I never knew what was happening until after. It was kind of weird.
The national media loves to play up these buzz words that get attached to the book – "It's like 'Twilight!' It's Emo!" – but since you and JMS came in with an eye towards reinventing Superman for a new audience, do you think the intent of what you had in mind for the book came across to potential new readers?
I think a lot of the buzz on TV and calling it Twilight-ish or those labels was weird. I'm not sure those people actually cracked open the book. With some of the reviews that went on that angle, you can tell they didn't read the book. Like, a lot of judgement went to him wearing a hoodie, which is weird because he wears a hoodie for two pages in the book out of 136. I felt that wasn't exactly a great label, and the hood was meant to emulate the cape around his neck. So I did something on purpose that got taken as something else from people where, I don't know if they read the book or even thumbed through it. I have mixed feelings about that.
But at the same time, I can see - I just hate the word "Emo," but I can see how Clark had a lot of heavy questions about his life to ask himself. There were a lot of times where I drew him contemplating and thinking, "What should I do? What am I going to do?" Maybe that's where they get the Emo thing, too. What are you going to do?
It certainly makes it easier for a lot of these people to talk about comics when they get an easily digestible word to add to it rather than have to think about what they're addressing.
Yeah. Like with the "Twilight" reference, again. Where did that come from? I'm not a "Twilight" fan at all – I've seen the one movie and that's it – but they keep comparing him to Robert Pattinson, and I don't even know where they're coming from with that. [Laughs] It's off the wall! Just a little much, I think. But at the same time, if girls are saying, "Are you for Edward, or for the wolf boy, or for Clark," maybe it's not a bad thing. I don't know what you do with something like that. I guess it's negative but a positive at the same time.
It took a while to get this book drawn and released, and I've got the feeling that you've been anticipating getting it into the hands of people at long last...
You know, it's a big release, especially now that people have come up to me who have read it. There are some people who criticize it, but even if they criticize it, they still like it. Some people say, "It could have been a little less this or a little more that," but for the most part, I'm ecstatic about the number of people from my generation or younger that just love it. That's a big "Mission Accomplished." At the same time, I'm kind of excited to see the fans who hate it and go "Oh no, I know everything about Superman. Why would you do this?" You'd think that I took away their old Superman the way they act – like I redid their Superman. That's funny, because they still have the classic Superman with all the continuity that nobody can ever take away from them.
I was thinking about why they're so negative about a new Superman when they still have the old, and how it really makes sense is when you reverse-engineer that situation: they're more dragging their feet and grumpy that there's new Superman people and a new Superman. "Oh, great, now I have to go relearn something about Superman!" I think that was the reason to do a book like this. How many times have you seen him fight Lex Luthor or Brainiac or talk about being an alien? He's already done it a million times, so the most you've got to give is a creative twist on that. Everybody's looking for the new angle: what's the new Brainiac outfit? With this, I feel like it works well because it's new and fresh. We came at it with different reasons for Krypton exploding, different reasons for him being Superman and the idea that maybe he didn't even want to be Superman – all these things are different, and that's where a lot of old time Superman fans come at it a little upset. I feel like they're complaining because, "Oh, my God! Why did you say there was a new planet in Krypton's solar system? Now I have to readjust!"
I think I answered this on the TV show the other morning when they asked me "Why was there a reason for a reboot?" When you look at it, the character was made in the 1930s, and most characters deserve a continuity reboot because for characters made that far back, a new audience will come in and want to be there at day one. It's important beyond just Superman. Continuity is great, but at the same time, what if there's a new reader who's 20 who's coming into this without knowing the 1930s? What if the character, Superman, was built in a world that was a different world than ours today? Ideas like that are important to address.
The pacing of the book felt very much like movie pacing. There was a slow introduction to the character and his life, and then we got more and more about his past, all leading up to a massive action sequence at the end. As you were drawing, did you go through that script chronologically, or did you jump around doing different sequences as you felt they'd be most effective for that arc?
It's kind of weird. I don't ever draw a comic book in order, and I don't know why. I think I might get bored. I stay interested if I jump in and draw different things throughout the week. I don't go crazy with that, but I will turn in a couple of pages here or there – 20 and 21 but then I'll draw 1, 10 and 11. With that, I get a feel for it, and as I go I always flip back through the pages I've done, I'm reminded of what I've done so I don't repeat. It forces me to treat every page as unique while also treating every page as part of a sequence. I have to keep in touch with that sequence or I'm going to mess it up, but at the same time, I'm able to do my best at any one page. It's really a weird thing.
It's a best of two worlds thing, and it probably worked out best for this book because it had a set action climax. I ended up with this big book I'm flipping through. When I'm laying out pages, I've got 125 of them to flip through just to make sure that each splash is different in a way. There are only two shots in the whole book that mirror each other, and that was when he was talking to the tombstone and then to the pod at the end. That was on purpose.
We talked about your design of Clark as unique to the book, but another key element in making "Earth One" different from its predecessors was the design of the kind of "science fictiony" elements from Krypton and its sister planet to the spaceships throughout the final battle. How did you approach drawing those elements to make them stand on their own?
I've studied a lot of "Star Wars." I think everybody has. It's become this kind of unofficial look to all kinds of science fiction when it comes to ships and lasers, which Joe had a lot in there. You just get that kind of stuff floating in your head, but it had to go beyond that. A lot of my science fiction stuff came more from Tyrell's planet than it did from Krypton. With Krypton, I wanted to base it – since there's two big idols in Clark's life in Jor-El and Lara, I had to give them a real refined kind of clothing, society like. I gave her a big mantle or headpiece, and Jor-El had a real high collar. It looked like they had some rank in society. Mentally, it's easy for me to gravitate towards a person as a reference point for these people. With Jor-El, character-wise it's like Abraham Lincoln which you get in the beard a bit, and with his mother it was like the Virgin Mary as an iconic look.
That was just those characters, but it was weird going out into Krypton. I knew I didn't want it to be the crystal stuff. I had this set idea of molecules and how the Kryptonians could write on those. So we talked about that a bit and the theories behind that. I tried to play with the ships as being able to grow – they can replace their own damage like they have an immune system. Or because they're able to write on molecules and they're so advanced, the design of what that ship is is almost written into it like a DNA strand. Once you start thinking like that, a lot of it was about trying to make Krypton look different from Tyrell's planet. I wanted to make his world seem more barbaric and in the dirt.
It's always fun to create a new villain. What were you given for Tyrell to start with, and how did you develop him to try and make him an iconic Superman foe?
That wasn't that bad. I knew I had to come up with a villain to go toe-to-toe with Clark. I basically had the script with some dialogue, and I talked to Joe, who gave me an outline of what the character could do. With that dialogue and attitude, I could come up with what I did. With Tyrell, I looked at Superman villains and Spider-Man villains and Batman villains and asked what makes a hero and villain set apart from each other. What makes them good adversaries? First things first, you've got to get those two separated visually. So I asked what colors looked good. Superman is primary, so of course greens and purples and secondary colors work great. But then you go, "Wait. That's Lex Luthor's Kryptonite suit. What else can I do?" I didn't want to get stuck with purple or gold or something like that, so I thought I'd just take all the color out of the character since superman is so colorful.
That got me thinking on how Tyrell represents death. He's killing everything on this planet, and he's been floating around space going from solar system to solar system, annihilating planets looking for Clark. The guy is just traveling death. That got me thinking how Clark was rocketed away from the death of his planet only to be confronted again and again by dying from Kryptonite or Lex Luthor. When a villain shows up, you should be worrying if he's going to make it out or not. I liked how in my generation, the character did die, even though he came back. And in Doomsday, you had another character without color. So with Tyrell, I wanted him looking, with his science fiction wings, like a mix between a glam rock kind of look and sci-fi to make him an angel of death. That's exactly what he came to Earth to deliver: death to Superman.
I like the character a lot, and I feel like less is more with some of these guys. He was really charming, in a way, if you roll with him. To me, he was one of the more successful things in the book, and at the same time, someone gave us a lot of praise for using a new villain. The challenge for us as creators, which made more work for me and Joe, was to not give you the same old Superman story and villain. That made me want to come at this character with real attitude. In that first fight, where he knocks Clark off the page, I had to get that smirk in there to get across that this is Tyrell's whole life's dream: to get his fingers around this guy's throat. That's fun. At the same time, he dies. [Laughs] Spoiler alert! That was even more fun. When he lost his powers, Superman kind of had to crack his knuckles on that job, and I didn't want to pull any punches there. Those were brutal mouth and face punches from Clark. So, even knowing that the character would die, it was fun.
Toward the end of the book, we get a page showcasing some of the news reports in Metropolis after the fight, and one of the people reacting to Superman's debut looks an awful lot like DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio...
[Laughs] Yeah, that was Dan. I had to come up with different people for that spread. One is Dan and one is my dentist. Only a couple of them were people I knew. It's funny. I snuck Dan in there with a Superman baseball cap, and then everybody was talking about it like, "I don't know. Would someone have a Superman ballcap already?" And I said, "Yeah, you can make them at the mall in five minutes." [Laughs] But they said, "Nah, let's not make it a Superman cap just yet." So I had to take two seconds to erase that.
To wrap, I think people who have read "Earth One" will finish the story and have their curiosity piqued for what comes next. From this new character of Major Sandra Lee and her investigation into Kryptonian tech to Tyrell's ominous words at the end, there are threads here setting us up for another volume. What can you tell us at this point about plans for another installment?
I've heard the rumor of a second one. Doing that would be great for the comic industry and great for the fans that pick up the book. I've read Dan talk about how there are talks for a second book going on now, so fingers crossed, and let's see. I think it'd be a smart thing to continue "Earth One." I don't know if this is official yet, but we may be headed towards a sellout. When you see that and people liking the story so much, I think it's the industry's job to keep supplying folks with great comic book stories.
"Superman Earth One" is on sale now from DC Comics.