Not The Sophomores: Sterbakov talks "Freshmen II"

Wed, October 18th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

This November, school is back in session for the students of Freese College, as Top Cow brings us the second installment of Hugh Sterbakov and Seth Green's "The Freshmen" franchise. CBR News spoke with Sterbakov over lunch in Los Angeles to find out what we can expect in the second semester.

Sterbakov and "The Freshmen" co-creator Seth Green spent their formative years in and around the city of Philadelphia, and their long-time friendship has been mutually beneficial, both personally and professionally. It was Sterbakov who encouraged Green to take the role of Oz on a little television series called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Green, in turn, lent his name and talents to the creation of "The Freshmen." Described by Sterbakov as "Revenge of the Nerds" meets "X-men," "The Freshmen" was first developed two years ago as a movie pitch, with Green attached to star. It then tried to find a home on the small screen, before finding its way to Top Cow.

Sterbakov, who studied screenwriting at UCLA, admits that it was nepotism that got him his first meeting with Top Cow editor Matt Hawkins, but not in the form most people think. Within a week's time, both Matt Senreich (creator of "Robot Chicken") and Freddie Prinze Jr. dropped Sterbakov's name to Hawkins, who proceeded to set up a meeting with the screenwriter. A meeting which, thanks in no small part to Seth Green's involvement, resulted in "The Freshmen."

"As far as the story, [Green] doesn't write it with me," Sterbakov told CBR News. "But he sees the scripts first, we talk it through. And he's helping promote it like crazy, because he believes in it, believes in me. And it's a property he has ownership in." Though Sterbakov has nothing but undying gratitude for Green's creative input and promotion of the series, it's hard for him not to feel like he's living in his friend's shadow. The writer has been approached by more than a few dissatisfied customers who felt they were duped into buying a book that misrepresented Seth Green's involvement. "We never sold it like Seth wrote it, we sold it like I wrote it," Sterbakov insisted. But at the very least, Sterbakov has been cautious about how he represents the actor's involvement, to stave off more of the same confusion in the future.

"But I've gotten a lot of support from the right people," Sterbakov was quick to qualify. "Brad Meltzer got in touch with me, told me he really liked it. The reviews have been fantastic, I've got a lot of fans at Wizard, a lot of fans on the Internet, people are buzzing about it."

Another fringe benefit of being a childhood friend of Seth Green's is a familiarity with many of the Hollywood actors of Green's generation. This reporter experienced this firsthand, when "Spider-Man 3's" Topher Grace dropped by during the interview to chat with Sterbakov (who, by strange coincidence, happened to be wearing a "Spider-Man 3" baseball cap at the time).

"I write my comics like a screenplay," Sterbakov told CBR News. "I go back and reformat for panels after the fact. Which I'm sure is very backwards, but it's what I know how to do."

On the one hand, if and when the "Freshmen" film does fight its way out of the development hell it's currently mired in, adapting the original six-issue arc to a screenplay shouldn't be a chore at all, since the arc already follows the traditional 3-act structure. On the other hand, Sterbakov admitted that, for him, telling a stand-alone story in 22 pages would be nothing if not daunting. "It's like any kind of training, you've got to utilize it, then you have to unlearn it and learn your new medium."

The two primary problems Sterbakov has faced in trying to realize his vision for "The Freshmen" in comics form actually both stem from his familiarity with telling stories in the longer form of feature-length screenplays. The first problem was pacing. "Because I come from a screenwriting background, I tend to want to develop my stories somewhat slowly." As a result, the first couple of issues of the first "Freshmen" series were a slow build, focusing primarily on character development, which Sterbakov believes is paramount to telling a good story in any medium. "If I don't make people like these characters, they're not gonna want to come back."

The other biggest issue Sterbakov has come up against is that for both "Freshmen I" and "Freshmen II" he's found himself forced to tell a story in six issues that he'd prefer to have told in eight. Sterbakov is still struggling with these issues of pacing and story compression in "Freshmen II," but he and his collaborators have come up with some innovative ways of circumventing them.

Between issues 1 and 2, "we're gonna do issue 1.5 on the Internet, which tells a subplot story." The subplot story is purely supplemental, you aren't required to read it to understand the overall story, but Sterbakov felt too strongly about this subplot to let it go, so he found a way to have his cake and eat it too. "We're looking at December 1 st to get it on the Internet," Sterbakov said. "It will be free, just go to the website."

One hurdle the book faces to finding its audience is retailers' tendency to under-order, which promises to be an issue for "Freshmen II" as well. "We sell out on day one," Sterbakov explained. Retailers order X number of copies, sell out on Wednesday and don't reorder. "And we're gone, we're off the shelves for four weeks." Sterbakov is working hard to maintain an Internet presence, trying to get the word out about the release of each issue in advance, and encouraging readers who can't find a copy of the latest issue to ask their retailer to order one.

"I think now is a Golden Age of writing comics," Sterbakov said. Sterbakov was quick to sing the praises of both verterans like Brian Bendis and relative newcomers to the medium like novelist Brad Meltzer. "When I came up in the '80s, I don't know how people would have reacted to 'Freshmen,'" Sterbakov mused. But in today's marketplace, where adults are as likely to pick up a comic as children, and character-driven, decompressed storytelling is on the rise, "now it fits in. And people hopefully can survive an issue without anybody beating each other up."

Sterbakov says "Freshmen's" cast of characters aren't superheroes in the strictest sense, "They don't go into a phone booth and come out as another person," said Sterbakov He likens this to the current trend of blurring the lines between superheroes and their alter egos. The writer was likewise never too keen on his heroes donning costumes. The original movie pitch was, "What if kids in the real world got powers?" But since costumes are a staple of the comic book superhero story, that part of the mythology became unavoidable for the first-time comics writer. "The kids very rarely wear their costumes in 'Freshmen II.' The more control I get, the more it's gonna be like my original vision, which was: no costumes, real world, talking like real kids, acting like real kids, and fighting supervillains, but supervillains that stem out of the world they live in."

"It's a tough thing, because 'Freshmen' is so unique, it doesn't fit into any framework," Sterbakov said. "I don't even understand how comic sales work anymore. Comic sales are so low in general, all the money seems to be from the ancillary market." But Sterbakov recognizes that "Freshmen," is on the verge of penetrating the ancillary market, with the possibility of a film or television version still on the table, talk of a video game tie-in, and a pending toy line.

The covers for the original "Freshmen" series boasted humorous quotes from various celebrities, and this tradition will continue with the sequel series. The quote for the cover of the first issue of "Freshmen II" is attributed to Sarah Michelle Gellar: "Why isn't it called 'The Sophomores?'" When CBR News asked Sterbakov the same question, he had this to say: "In all fairness, this is their second semester, so it's still their freshmen year." And since the property has an established logo and marketing concerns to consider, should the demand be great enough for further "Freshmen" stories, "we'd likely say something like, 'Freshmen: The Sophomore Year.'"

The existence of "Freshmen II" was not always a forgone conclusion. The first few issues of the original series boasted high sales numbers (which were no doubt bolstered by the buzz surrounding Seth Green's involvement) but a production lag resulted in a 12 week gap between issues three and four. And halfway through a six-issue miniseries, it was impossible to regain that hype. "It's about consistency," Sterbakov said. "People hate late books, and they have enough choices now that they don't have to put up with it." But Sterbakov is committed to keeping a regular publication schedule for "Freshmen II," and thinks that the Internet subplot series will help keep the buzz for the second book alive.

Leonard Kirk, who penciled the first series, has since signed an exclusive deal with Marvel, and was unable to return for the second installment. "Leonard did a phenomenal job," Sterbakov said of the artist. "He brought an amazing amount of personality to the characters. He was the perfect artist for the first series." That having been said, Sterbakov believes that "Freshmen II" artist Will Conrad was a logical progression. "[Conrad] has a much more sexy take on the characters, much more dynamic," which Sterbakov thinks will lend itself to the more action-oriented sequel series. "And Blond on colors is unbelievable. I mean, that guy, he could make the yellow pages look colorful."

In the first series, a batch of over-flow freshmen, temporarily housed in the Boughl Science Building, were imbued with superpowers as a result of a mysterious explosion. "They had a pretty traumatic first semester, second semester is gonna get a lot worse," said Sterbakov of the second installment, which he likened in tone to "The Empire Strikes Back."

"My idea for 'Freshmen II' started with the genesis of this bad guy, Mr. Fiddlesticks," Sterbakov said. "So we definitely have a much darker, more serious, more life-and-death scenario." And the conflict doesn't merely stem from without, but from within as well. "The kids turn on themselves in this series. They're young and dealing with a lot of things," Sterbakov explained. "I mean, think about all the transitions you go through when you first go to college, on top of getting these superpowers."

The first issue of "Freshmen II" hits the stands on November 1 st , and the first installment of the Internet subplot series is slated for release in December.

 
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