One of the true gentlemen working in comics today, Sholly Fisch, has landed arguably the biggest assignment of his near 25-year career, writing co-features for “Action Comics.”
Handpicked by superstar Grant Morrison, Fisch couldn’t believe his good fortune when DC Comics offered the dream gig, but long-time fans of the writer’s work are not surprised at all. The former Vice President for Program Research at Sesame Workshop has made a career of writing highly intelligent stories generally aimed at young readers but enjoyed by all fans of good, clean storytelling.
Fisch, the President and Founder of MediaKidz Research & Consulting, has been writing comics since 1987 starting with “Marvel Tales” #198. Over the years Fisch has written a wide range of titles including “Clive Barker’s Hellraiser,” “The Ren and Stimpy Show” and “Scooby-Doo,” but it was his more recent work on “The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold” which caught Morrison’s attention.
With his “Action Comics” debut scheduled for next week, CBR News connected with Fisch, who shared that while the first two co-features of his run will feature Steel — as has been highly publicized — future installments will shine the spotlight on different members of Superman’s supporting cast, tying tightly to Morrison’s ongoing adventures with the Man of Steel in “Action’s” main feature.
CBR News: How did this collaboration with Grant Morrison come about? I understand from the solicitations that you were hand-picked for this assignment by the superstar writer.
Sholly Fisch: Personally, I suspect mind control.
It’s the darnedest thing, isn’t it? Near as I can tell, it all happened because Grant likes my work on “The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold.” Ironically, on the same day that I got word that “Brave and Bold” was being canceled, I also discovered that Grant told a panel in San Diego that “Brave and Bold” was his favorite current DC series, which was a huge surprise to me and remarkably cool.
A good Samaritan — who’ll remain anonymous, to protect the innocent — passed along Grant’s email address, so I sent a note to say thanks for the plug and for inadvertently cushioning the blow of cancelation. And that was the end of it… at least, until about two months later, when I got an email from “Steel” editor Matt Idelson. Matt said they were going to start running backup stories in “Action Comics,” Grant and Kristan Morrison suggested that I should be the one to write them, and — in one of the great understatements of human history — would I be interested?
Um… yeah. I was interested.
While writing with Mr. Morrison is no doubt an honor, you are also writing for “Action Comics,” the granddaddy of all comics. Is that something you’ve considered in terms of the historic nature of the title or is this just another writing assignment?
Oh, there’s no way that this could be just another assignment. “Action Comics” is the series that started it all — the one that launched superheroes as a whole — and DC has just started it all over again from scratch. It’s absolutely an honor, and when I stop to think about it, it can be a little intimidating too.
Luckily, since I’m just coming to the party with “Action Comics” #4 and madly playing catch-up, I don’t have time to think about it much.
Were you a fan of DC Comics as a young boy growing up in New Jersey, specifically the Man of Steel? And what about your man of steel, John Henry Irons? How familiar are you with that character?
Growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was a huge DC fan, as well as a loyal viewer of the old George Reeves-starring “Adventures of Superman” TV show, in syndication at that point, and the Filmation “Superman” cartoons. My favorite DC comics might have been “Justice League of America” and “Batman,” but I read plenty of “Superman,” “Action,” and “Adventure” too, and spent more than my fair share of time running around my family’s apartment with a red towel streaming behind me as a cape.
Of course, I was a lot older when Steel first appeared, so I can’t say that I also spent much time running around my apartment with a sledge hammer. But Steel’s pretty cool too.
Incidentally, I should say that the first backup story is about Steel, but not all of them will be. We’re taking sort of an unusual approach to the backups, and intertwining them with Grant’s lead stories. Each backup spins off of something in the lead story — sometimes a pivotal, central event, and sometimes something that happens almost in passing — and helps to flesh out readers’ understanding of Superman, the people around him, and what he means to the world.
In #4, for example, we see the beginning of a fight between Steel and Metallo — or more precisely, ‘Metal-Zero’ — in Grant’s lead story before the focus turns back to Superman. We see the rest of that fight in the backup, and along the way, we learn a little more about Steel, his motivation, and his personality.
After #4, the scene will shift to a pair of backup stories set years ago in Smallville. In #5, we’ll get a glimpse of Jonathan and Martha Kent’s lives before Kal-El arrived and they became “Ma” and “Pa.” “Action Comics” #6 will show us Clark’s last day in Smallville. Then #7 will jump forward again to Steel as we find out what’s been happening on the ground while Superman’s been busy, um… elsewhere. Finally, the backups will skip a month while Grant wraps up the current story arc in a full-length story in #8. And then, we’ll start all over with a new bunch of backups in #9.
Oh, I should also mention that the art for the two Steel stories is being drawn by Brad Walker, and the two Smallville stories are by ChrisCross. Thanks to Matt and associate editor of tomorrow Wil Moss, I’ve seen the art for the first story and about half of the second — and they both look great.
While you are no stranger to comic book writing, over the years your work has been primarily targeted to all-ages fare. Is that your approach for the co-features or will your stories be a bit more “heavy” in terms of storytelling and themes?
Well, the backup in #5 is about Ma and Pa Kent’s fertility problems. Does that answer your question?
People tend to forget, but I’ve written lots of different kinds of things over the years — everything from “Clive Barker’s Hellraiser” to “Looney Tunes.” So this is far from the first time that I’ve written stories for older audiences. Compared to my kids stuff, though, the stories for “Action” will indeed be more mature. But “mature” in terms of themes and characterization, not just as a code word for sex and violence.
While Grant has yet to unleash the high level violence he conjured up in “Batman” for “Action Comics,” you, as well as I, know what he is capable of producing.
Is this something you have discussed with him so you know where the over-arching story is heading?
At this point, I’ve read Grant’s scripts through #7, and I know a little bit about where the next story arc will be heading too. I’ll say that Grant certainly is living up to the ‘action’ in “Action Comics.” But, beyond that, sorry, I’m not telling…
In the first two-issue arc, how much interaction does Steel have with Superman in your eight-pages? And what about other DCU characters like Lex Luthor and the staff at the Daily Planet?
The first story really focuses on Steel, so Superman and Luthor only appear in one panel apiece. But, obviously, Clark has a much bigger presence in the “Last Day in Smallville” story in #6. The two Smallville stories will also feature the Kents, Lana Lang, and Pete Ross. And, as to who’ll show up beyond that… we’ll see…
What about away from the superheroics? What can you tell us about John Henry Irons the person? Do you feel his story echoes that of his folkloric namesake, the original steel-driving man? And he hails from New Jersey, right? You have to be happy about that.
Always happy to work with a fellow native of the Garden State.
Despite the super-strong guys repeatedly hitting each other in the head, the backup in #4 is equally about the kind of character-based stuff you’re talking about. Yes, there are echoes of the folk hero John Henry, plus at least one real-life person whom I’m sure nobody out there will expect to see.
Hopefully, all of it will help to get across the idea that John Henry Irons isn’t just a big, strong guy with a high-tech hammer. He’s a brilliant scientist and engineer, a very cool guy, and at least as likely to think his way out of a fight as to punch his way out.
DC Comics has made a major effort with the New 52 to diversify its line with characters of different races, genders and sexualities. As a noted child psychologist and educator, does the fact you are writing an African American superhero enter your thought process at all when scripting Steel, or is it better to be blind to color in the creative process?
Well, as you know — but people reading this might not — my day job for the past 25 years or so has been helping to create educational TV shows, websites, and other media for kids. Given that, I’d have a hard time not thinking about Steel as a potential role model, even though my first priority as a writer is doing my best to tell a good story. As a successful, accomplished inventor and bona fide genius — not to mention a superhero — the good Doctor Irons is certainly a role model, not only for African Americans, but for the rest of us too.
Speaking of such things, I’ll also mention that a person who came to mind a lot while I was writing my first Steel story was the late Dwayne McDuffie. Dwayne was an old friend from our mutual days at Marvel a couple of decades ago; in fact, when he later became co-founder of Milestone Media, he had me write a fill-in issue of “Static” during its original run. But something that most comics’ fans probably don’t know is that, apart from being a brilliant writer and a driving force behind minority superheroes, Dwayne was also a serious physics buff. So, as I’ve crafted a story about a guy who’s an African American physicist and superhero, I’d like to think that Dwayne would have appreciated it from both perspectives.
I wanted to close with your general thoughts on children and reading comics. Keeping in mind age-appropriateness, is it OK for kids, especially young boys, to grab a comic book instead of a traditional picture book when first learning to read? I know some experts believe comic books are an unnecessary evil but does it matter what kids are reading, as long as they are reading?
Hey, it worked for me. As a kid, I learned an awful lot of vocabulary and spelling from comics, and reading comics led me to reading any number of “real” books too.
Nowadays, it’s pretty much accepted educational practice that a good way to encourage kids to read is to give them reading material that they enjoy and that maps onto their interests. Personally, I believe that comics have great potential as a tool for promoting literacy, because their blend of words and pictures provides visual support to help early or struggling readers figure out the words.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re fun too.
“Action Comics” #4, which includes a Steel co-feature by Sholly Fisch, is scheduled for December 7.