Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
After studying jazz trumpet for much of his schooling, Evan “Doc” Shaner took a swift and sudden turn toward drawing and illustration during his first month at college. He graduated from the school newspaper to freelance work for IDW Publishing and Dark Horse. These days, he hears John Williams’ fanfare as he hones Superman’s ‘S’ curl for the pages of an upcoming “Adventures of Superman” serial with Ron Marz. It’s a momentous time for Shaner, newly announced as the penciler for Dynamite’s upcoming “Flash Gordon” title. It’s his first time working with longtime friend Jeff Parker or colorist Jordie Bellaire. It’s also an introduction for many readers to his playful aesthetic, informed as much by newspaper gag strips as it is by Golden Age swashbucklers.
CBR News asked Shaner to look back at his musical roots and to connect that expertise with his insight on the operatic heroes crowding his drawing board.
CBR News: When did the music start?
Evan Shaner: I started playing during elementary school. My dad is a music director. His dad was a music instructor. So, I think I started around the age of nine or ten, playing trumpet.
Was the trumpet your weapon of choice, or was the trumpet thrust upon you?
No, I think when everybody goes and picks their instrument in elementary school — I think I wanted to play the saxophone. My dad brought one home for me to try on my own terms. [Laughs] I hated it. There were just so many buttons, I just didn’t want to deal with it. I eventually ended up on the trumpet somehow. My dad and grandfather both played, but I don’t think that’s why I picked it.
That’s true. And though I never thought about being a teacher, I went to college and entered the music program. Largely because, with AP testing, I had much of the first year requirements squared away.
What did you like to play?
Oh, jazz. I had some classical background too, but somewhere along the way — probably high school — I lost interest, at least in playing classical music. Trumpet in classical literature is pretty boring, at least to me. I decided early on that I wanted to play jazz, and I played with a number of groups in high school.
Did you do marching band?
I did in high school, but only really because everyone did. It was more of a social thing. Plus, my dad was the music director. He in no way pressured me or made me do it, but it just seemed like there was no reason not to.
It’s funny. I have a friend whose father was her school’s music director as well, and it had a big impact on the kind of music she enjoyed even outside the band room. I think when she’s driving on her own, she’ll still rock out to some John Philip Sousa.
[Laughs] Growing up in the ’90s, I was completely unaware of the popular music going on. I don’t know if that’s common to all band teacher kids or not, but I had no idea. My dad didn’t really play it around the house. I think maybe he had one MC Hammer album.
So I’d heard of MC Hammer, but even then, a lot of the music from the
’90s to — geez — all the way to the early 2000s, I found out about it much later.
Nothing wrong with that, but it is kind of fascinating to see how your taste for music evolves, divorced from what most of your peers are latched onto. I never played an instrument, aside from the recorder they made all the 4th graders mess around with. I’ve always wanted to be that guy at parties who could sit down at the piano and noodle around a bit, get something going. Is there an opportunity for that with a trumpet?
Yeah, it’s definitely not the guitar on the quad. It’s not the party instrument, where a guy could just bust it out and everybody’s cool with it.
I envy it though. It’s an ice-breaker either way. I guess I just conceded that I’m not mathematical enough to learn an instrument.
You know, it’s funny. Math has always been, by a long shot, my least favorite subject. I’m terrible at it. People would always show me those articles and surveys about how great music is for math skills. I have an extremely musical background. Not that I’m great, necessarily, but my whole upbringing was based on music. I’m terrible at math.
When did you realize that music might not be a part of your career, or even your vocation?
It’s hard to say. I came back after my first week at college, and my first weekend back home I told my parents I didn’t think I was going to make it as a music major. Just out of lack of interest. That’s not to say I was so great and left it behind. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a practice room.
Well, I know you still play from time to time. Let’s exercise a bit of that musical mind with a thought experiment. You’re working on “Adventures of Superman” and “Flash Gordon” comics in the coming weeks and months. I’ve asked you to play Sergei Prokofiev with those ensembles. Which musical instruments would represent each of these characters in a “Peter and the Wolf”-style composition? Have you given it some thought?
I did! With some, I’d think of an instrument first and say, that’s got to be so-and-so. I will say that on either list, the lead female roles are a complete mystery to me.
Lois and Dale. I cannot pick, for the life of me. I’m not sure if I’m trying to avoid picking an instrument with any kind of feminine connotation. I’m not sure if you’d consider a flute to be feminine, but it’s a common instrument for girls, starting out. I’m not sure why it’s such a challenge, but I’ve yet to come up with something.
I can definitely see Lois being a tall order. Understanding Lois can almost provide the key to conceiving a great Superman story. It’s all about that chemistry, and realizing Lois’ part in the story seems like the cornerstone, especially when the ensemble is of real concern. And it should be.
Definitely. My wife is saying, “A drum set, because Lois Lane is hard-hitting.”
I like that. Like the rhythm of the typewriter or computer keyboard, too.
The one that immediately springs to mind because of “Superman: The Movie,” is the trumpet for Superman. That fanfare from the John Williams score — that is Superman to me. Then there’s Otis. Otis will always be a tuba for me. I’ve seen that credited to Lex, but that’s absolutely Otis’ theme to me.
How about Lex?
Grand piano. Looks real classy, but it also has a wide range, both in terms of literal notes and what can be done tonally with a grand piano.
That one’s spot-on to me. You think of how emotive classical piano can be. How sorrowful. Even how thunderous it can be. It’s that deeply nuanced combination of a percussion instrument and a string instrument.
Here’s an easy one. I thought, if Superman is a trumpet, then Bizarro is a trumpet that someone beat all out of shape with a hammer.
[Laughs] Or they ran over it with a car. All broken notes.
I think Brainiac has got to be a theremin. At first I thought about a Korg synthesizer, but Brainiac to me is such a ’50s sci-fi staple that if he’d ever been in a movie, you know you’d hear a theremin whenever he was on screen.
How has Brainiac never been in a movie? It makes absolutely no sense to me. This is one of my pet causes. They keep going back to that well with Lex and Zod. Brainiac seems like such a no-brainer for both critical and commercial reasons.
I couldn’t agree more. I like Lex. He’s the Superman villain. Zod is another story. Brainiac, I just think of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Classic mad science run amuck. How about Jimmy?
Jimmy was another tough one. I think I finally settled on the harmonica.
That never occurred to me, but I think I understand it.
It’s for no real reason.
Does any classical or symphonic composition exist for a harmonica?
There has to be. There must be.
I guess there’s Ennio Morricone and the “Roseanne” theme. Not the first one. That’s a saxophone, I suppose. The later one with the guy from Blues Traveler. There’s a real character to it though, which makes it more than perfect for this kind of exercise. How about Perry White?
I settled on a stand-up double bass. He needed to be something big with a certain sense of authority, but I don’t think he’s a bass drum or a timpani.
Oh, a kazoo.
Nailed it. Pa Kent?
I thought of both Ma and Pa Kent as French horns. It’s all about that sense of Americana. Those amber fields. It’s less about fanfare, but it’s very–
Dignified? There’s a quiet but resolute dignity to a French horn. I like that choice a lot. Have we left anyone out?
Just thinking about instruments first I came to the trombone. Gotta be Steve Lombard.
I love it, because it’s almost certainly what he’d choose for himself in his less than subtle way. He’s a national treasure.
I made a concerted effort to include Steve Lombard, as well as Ron Troupe and Cat Grant, front and center in some Daily Planet scenes. Not that anyone was fighting me on it.
Now I have to ask what instrument Cat Grant would be.
How is this not already a thing? How is this not touring? They did a Superman musical on stage and on television. “Kal-El and the Wolf” needs to happen. Let’s look at Flash Gordon.
I picked trumpet again for Flash Gordon.
Let’s remind the reader that you yourself play the trumpet, and have assigned it as the voice of both Superman and Flash Gordon.
There may be a bit of bias. But I also wouldn’t make every hero character a trumpet.
Batman wouldn’t be a trumpet.
Even Captain America wouldn’t be a trumpet. He’d probably be a bugle. As for Flash Gordon, at least in what Jeff and I have planned for him, he’s a very bright character. Very go-get-em.
What’s the tone for that book? Very heightened, I hope.
There’s an aspect of that. It’s high adventure. I’d already signed on, but Jeff totally hooked me in by describing Flash as “unblinkingly optimistic.” He faces down any challenge with a smile, without giving it two thoughts. He’s up for anything.
How about Ming the Merciless?
I knew it had to be a string instrument. I’m tempted to say a double bass again, just because it needs to be something with a real presence.
How about the series in general? If not a single instrument, then what kind of score do you hear as you look at that team blast off into the unknown?
It’s definitely in that John Williams mold. I’ve got a playlist of movie scores I’ll listen to while drawing, when podcasts or a TV show are too distracting for the work at hand.
What’s on it?
“The Iron Giant” score by Michael Kamen. James Horner’s score for “The Rocketeer.” That would actually fit quite well for “Flash Gordon.” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is on here. “John Carter.”
The Giacchino score? I love his stuff. What’d you think of that movie by the way?
I haven’t seen it yet. I plan to eventually. I’m just a big fan of Giacchino and picked it up sight unseen.
That movie got railroaded a bit. It’s flawed, but not quite the disaster people make it out to be, aside from the poor returns. I think you’d quite like it. Then, there’s also something to listening to a score to something you’re never seen. You’re not tethered to the associated visuals, so your mind can go in all sorts of directions.
I do plan on seeing it at some point, but for now, right, there’s no associations.
You’ll have fun with it. It’s up there with Billy Zane’s “The Phantom.” You’re a swashbuckler, I can tell.
The one I really liked — and I saw it again not too long ago on Netflix — was “The Shadow.” I can watch it now and recognize it’s not a great movie, but I saw it at just the right age as a kid. I had a smaller TV in my room. It was my dad’s from college, this small black and white TV. They must’ve been playing “The Shadow” on NBC one night. I remember when he revealed a building hiding in plain sight, my mind exploded.
Never count out Jonathan Winters. That’s the lesson. He’s the cymbal.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Evan Shaner and his upcoming projects or follow him on twitter at @DocShaner.