Kicked off in 2010, DC’s Earth One publishing line strips its heritage characters from decades of continuity and clutter for accessible stories from veteran creators. Writer J. Michael Straczynski provided the first step with Superman: Earth One, a wind-resistant, Gen-Y take on a character often associated with Greatest Generation bravado. This version of Clark Kent — technically existing in a separate reality from the one in the monthly comic — struggles with such coming-of-age hurdles as isolation, identity and power-sapping lab freaks. A space opera of warring races and divided families unfolds in the background, hitting the grandiose notes that Straczynski orchestrated as the showrunner of Babylon 5.
The exercise has proven weird, audacious and unpredictable, remixing a beloved mythology with added sex appeal. About that: Superman hangs with an escort and Lois Lane can be calculating and combative. The third volume, released this week with art from Adrian Syaf, introduces Clark to a new set of growing pains. A crazy uncle (whose name may rhyme with Nod), international politics and awkward sex talks with Ma Kent hurdle Big Red through a gauntlet of epic fisticuffs and emotional revelations. Paste emailed with Straczynski to find out more about his process for writing the character, how the government would handle a real alien and why prostitute/superhero stigma is the worst.
Paste: This is your third Superman volume set in the continuity-light Earth One publishing line. What continues to attract you to this series?
J. Michael Straczynski: The keys to what attracts me to this are right in your sentence: “Superman” (no further explanation necessary), “continuity light” (allowing me to create a new Superman for a new generation without bumping into myself or a larger mythos) and “series” for an overall story that’s being told, of which this is the third chapter.
Paste: Isolation seems to be the underlying theme here; many of the characters — from Lisa’s double life to Alexandra’s final monologue — express the theme emotionally, and then it plays out on a much larger scale as Superman is literally abandoned by every government on earth. How did this concept develop? What attracted you to it?
Straczynski: Writing, especially any kind of fantasy or speculative fiction, comes down to one essential ingredient: asking the next logical question. Someone like Clark Kent, blessed and cursed with those abilities, would have to build in a certain distance between himself and everybody other than his parents out of fear of hurting them, especially in his formative years when those powers were manifesting themselves and could easily get out of control. He also knows that he is not from around here, and that further isolates a person. He is, as the saying goes, “among them but not of them,” and that can’t help but to create a certain loneliness. So asking those questions brought me to that theme, and became a launching pad to look at that theme from the perspective of various characters: the loneliness of the brightest guy in the room (the Luthors), of living a life you can’t share with others (Lisa)...it wasn’t the driving point of the story, but as subtext, it’s there. Fiction should illuminate more than just the characters on the page, but deal with things we confront every day on an emotional spectrum.
Paste: Your run on Squadron Supreme and depiction of Hyperion felt like a test run for this volume, exploring the realpolitik ramifications of having a benign alien with the potential for mass destruction on American soil. How do you think the government would actually respond if this scenario actually occurred?
Straczynski: You’d be looking at how governments and population would respond to the notion of an actual alien in our midst (which by most studies would sent society into total upheaval), someone who seems nearly infinitely powerful (likely the same result), and that’s a pivot-point moment for human history. So no, I don’t think they’d respond with hearts and flowers and hot cocoa.
Paste: In the end, it felt like unilateralism was the greatest enemy, as shown in Superman’s fiery speech to the United Nations. That said, the benevolency and forgiveness shown by Superman was was almost Christ-like in its flexibility. Is there a line you have to straddle where Superman might become unrelatable in his sheer goodness?
Straczynski: I’m not sure it’s so much goodness as understanding, and there’s a fine line there. He’s not stupid. He knows what his presence has done to the world (see the answer right before this), knows people are both hopeful and scared, and realizes, to his chagrin, that he’s contributed to that by overstepping his bounds politically. So he has to acknowledge his own culpability here as well as others. Doesn’t mean he isn’t pissed, but he has to aim some of that his own way. In terms of being relatable, I think we can all feel what it’s like when someone we think has our back betrays us, even when there’s a (from their perspective) justification. As long as we stay with the vulnerability of the heart, I think Superman will always be relatable, regardless of the invulnerability of his skin.
Paste: Lisa’s a huge shift from Lois Lane as a romantic interest, and I definitely found myself defending her in discussions debating whether she’s too unconventional for a superhero commonly seen as purity incarnate. Did you encounter any resistance from DC when pitching an escort girlfriend for one of its most traditional character?
Straczynski: Well, going back to the Christ analogy above, let’s remember that JC stepped up to save a “fallen” woman from being stoned to death…that he hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes and absolved criminals crucified to the left and the right. If that society is good enough for JC, it’s good enough for CK, wouldn’t you say?
I’d also suggest that if folks are slagging on Clark accepting Lisa for who she is without judging her, that says a lot more about those folks than it does about Clark. I’ve had women friends who, through bad circumstances very often totally outside their control, had to work for a time as escorts. It wasn’t what they wanted, and they got out of it the second they could…and not an inch of that makes them inherently bad people or unworthy. We all do what we do for exactly the same reasons: it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Let you who are without sin cast the first stone….
Paste: It was also interesting to see the female supporting cast emerge with the most influential characters in this book. Lisa and Ma Kent basically reinstate Superman’s faith in humanity and Alexandra pressured her husband, Lex, into using the technology that hobbles Superman. Did you intentionally focus on bolstering the female cast?
Straczynski: It wasn’t a conscious thought of, “let’s emphasize the female characters here,” it just worked out that way. I think the moment you start to agenda-ize (if that’s a word) the work in that way, it becomes false.
Paste: What was the thought process behind subverting Lex Luthor into a hero?
Straczynski: Well, that’s a broader question. Is he a hero? If you define a hero as someone who follows his conscience, who has a conscience, then the answer is yes from his point of view. His actions taken against Superman in the book are embarked upon because he believes, or at least hopes, that he’s doing the right thing for Earth. His later decisions are motivated by the same belief. The question is, which of those decisions makes him a hero, and which makes him a bad guy, if they both proceed from the same wellspring?
Paste: You’ve stated before that you could continually work on the Earth One Superman indefinitely. Are there plans for future volumes? What themes or characters would you like to explore?
Straczynski: The details are still under wraps, but let’s just say for now that I’m definitely on board for another book…maybe about Clark, maybe someone else…who can say?
DC will also run a Superman Essential Graphic Novels eBook sale from February 10th to February 16th, charging $5.99 and $9.31 depending on the book. All three Superman: Earth One volumes will be on sale in addition to such works as All-Star Superman, Superman: Red Son, Superman: Action Comics, and many more. The sale is available on Amazon, Comixology, Nook, iVerse, Apple and Google Play.