Everyone knows Superman and at least a few facts about the enduring DC Comics hero. And near the top of just about anyone’s list is his journey from the doomed planet Krypton to Earth.
But was Krypton truly doomed? That’s what Marc Guggenheim asks in “Tears of Krypton,” a three-part story that kicks off today in DC’s weekly digital-first anthology series, “Adventures of Superman.” Guggenheim, an executive producer on The CW’s “Arrow,” the screenwriter of this year’s “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” a frequent comic book scribe and generally a very busy person, knew that he might have just one shot at writing a Superman solo story, so he aimed at doing something “quintessential,” plotting a story which seeks to challenge some of the fundamental components of one of fiction’s most celebrated characters.
CBR News discussed “Adventures of Superman” with Guggenheim, discussing the pros and cons of being free of continuity, his collaboration on the story with artist Joe Bennett, being conscious of not ripping off Alan Moore and working in DC’s digital format. The writer also talks about what it takes to bring a comic book icon like The Flash into the live-action world of “Arrow,” offering insight into the recent news that Grant Gustin will play Barry Allen in three episodes of the show’s second season as a precursor to a potential spinoff show.
CBR News: “Adventures of Superman” has given a variety of creators a chance to present their takes on Superman separate from the current New 52 continuity — how did you take advantage of the freedom you had in putting together this story?
Marc Guggenheim: As a writer, it forces you to ask yourself the question, “What makes a quintessential Superman story?” For me, it’s about, “What pieces of Superman are critical, and what pieces are sort of optional?” What can you strip away in order to tell your story and still have it be a Superman story, and what do you need to include? I thought that was a really fun and interesting exercise. My professional involvement with Superman has sort of been a little strange. I did the script for two issues of “Superman/Batman,” I had Superman cameo in my “Justice Society of America” run, and I was going to write “Action Comics” for all of five minutes. I’ve got some experience with him, but not anything I’d consider substantive.
I thought it was important to see the Daily Planet, and it was important to see Superman saving the city from something big and fun — and I realized that probably one of the most quintessential elements of Superman isn’t in my story, and that’s Clark Kent. Even though the Daily Planet appears in my story, and Lois and Perry and Jimmy appear, there’s no Clark Kent to be found. But there is quite a bit of Kal-El.
The story finds Superman going back to his Kryptonian roots — and discovering that the planet might still be extant?
I found myself thinking about ways to do a Krypton story that haven’t been done before. We’ve seen Superman go to Krypton through time travel, we’ve seen him go to it in an alternate reality; we’ve seen him even return to Krypton in his own mind, in the Alan Moore story, “For the Man Who Has Everything.” I kicked around the idea of, “What’s another way to go to Krypton?” That had me thinking about some very elemental questions that I as a reader had never asked before, which is, “How did Superman know that Krypton was destroyed in the first place?” The only way he knows that is that Jor-El told him so in the message that came with the rocket ship that sent him to Earth. Once I realized that, it made me wonder, “What if Jor-El was wrong? What if Jor-El was lying?” Is that really the only way you could confirm whether or not Krypton was destroyed? If I were Superman, I’d want to go there. One of the images I had in my head was Superman flying to Krypton, and ending a chapter with him seeing it there, and intact. Once I had that image in my head, I realized I had a story. It was something that was very powerful and very elemental.
One of the moments I really wanted to see as a reader and a writer was Superman reuniting with Jor-El. I wanted to see Superman flying down into Krypton and seeing the reactions that people would have to him. It raised some interesting questions — do people on Krypton know that there’s a Superman? If they do know there’s a Superman, do they have the capability of space travel? Then they could fly a spaceship to Earth, and there could be a whole planet full of Supermen. That’s where a lot of my comic book work comes from — just me asking myself questions that I find interesting, and seeing if those questions address the story.
Going into a series like this, it must be almost intimidating to not have the usual parameters with a character like Superman, since there have been so many Superman stories done over the last 75 years. Was there any amount of pressure in that sense?
There was definitely a huge amount of pressure of, “This has already been done,” particular with respect to the Alan Moore’s “The Man Who Has Everything” story, because that story looms so large in my memory. I was very cognizant of, “How do I tell my story without ripping off Alan Moore?” I really just had to keep myself honest at every stage.
The biggest fundamental difference between my story and Alan Moore’s story is that Alan Moore’s story is a little bit of an Elseworlds in the sense that he writes it from the perspective of a Superman who has always remained on Krpyton; he was never set on Earth. I based a lot of my story on the fact that Superman was coming back to Krypton after growing up on Earth, and experiencing the planet completely from that perspective. It’s that difference in perspective that makes this story very distinct from “The Man Who Has Everything,” in my mind.
This was my first time writing Superman in any substantive way, and for all I know, it could be my last time writing Superman. I really felt an enormous pressure to leave nothing on the field when it came to writing this story. I really, really wanted to take my shot at writing the best Superman story I could possibly write, and let the chips fall where they may.
It seems like your story presents something of a timeless version of Superman — is there an era or interpretation of Superman that you had in your mind, or is it an amalgam of different versions of the character?
I’m this weird child of the ’80s where so much of my formative Superman reading basically happened just prior to “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and just directly after “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” That’s the pool of material I was drawing from. I wanted to have a Silver Age feel, but at the same time, feel like that John Byrne “Man of Steel” era. I probably sort of split the difference — my partner on this, Joe Bennett, I think the Krypton he created really lends that Silver Age quality, while the stuff on Earth is very drawn from my memory of John Byrne’s work.
â€¨Part of the fun of doing this kind of anthology and not being tied to continuity is, you’re also not tied into continuity in terms of visuals. That’s incredibly important when you’re dealing with Krypton. Krypton at this point has had many, many, many different visual interpretations. Joe really threaded the needle by designing Krypton so that it feels uniquely his own, but at the same time, it feels very much like Krypton, and it feels very much like the Krypton you would be familiar with, if you were familiar with decades of Superman publication. In many ways, what I was trying to accomplish as a writer, Joe truly accomplished as an artist.
It’s one of the reasons, quite frankly, why I like writing comic books. I can come up with a story, but it is incredibly important to get the artist’s contribution. It can make the whole thing complete. The look of Krypton, the look of the rocket ship that carried young Kal-El to Earth, all of that needed to be redesigned because we weren’t just aping one particular chapter from continuity.
It sounds like you and Joe Bennett clicked on this story.
I think he’s done the work of his career. I was shocked to discover that this is his first time drawing Superman in any sort of meaningful way. I think he approached the art very much how I approached the writing — this is his first chance at Superman, and he’s treating it as a very, very special thing.
I see influences of Jose GarcÃa-LÃ³pez, and Curt Swan, and John Byrne. There’s one panel in particular that strikes me in particular as incredibly George Perez. He’s just incredible, and it makes for a special story.
The challenge with doing any anthology is getting people to pay attention. The lack of continuity is a double-edged sword — we talked about all the positives, but the negative is that they’re very dismissible stories, because they “don’t count.” The only solution to that challenge is writing and drawing something that is important not because it’s setting new continuity, but is worth reading just as a story on its own terms. Its appeal has to be undeniable. That’s a lot of pressure, but Joe and I both really had a blast, and I always leave it up to readers to read and decide for themselves if we fit the bill.
The other challenge is when a story’s first being published in digital form, you’re not asking them to invest in the entire story all at once. You’ve got to win them back at the end of every chapter, and there are three chapters here. One of the challenges was crafting cliffhangers to make the return trip the following week to buy the next chapter undeniable.
Does that affect your writing approach at all? Doing it digital-first, with the knowledge that it will be in print not long after?
It’s interesting. It does present its own unique writing challenges, because the way DC is publishing these digitals, they need to work both in digital and in print. If you care about how something gets read, you care about both ways it will see publication.
I was lucky in the sense that this isn’t my first time doing this digital format for DC. I had a lot of experience doing it with the “Arrow” digital comic last year, and the challenge is, you need to make each digital page its own satisfying read, and each print page its own satisfying read. Part of that means you have to structure each page with a beginning, middle and end, but you also have to do it in a way that doesn’t mean you’re cramming in too many panels into any given page. But at the same time, you don’t want too few panels on any given page, both digital and print. It’s a lot to keep in your head, and it’s a lot to juggle and make work.
Again, I’ve got to give Joe his props — he really did do an amazing, amazing job. I had a lot of story to tell, even having 30 print pages and 60 digital pages to work with, I still had a lot of story to tell. I had to be creative in terms of how to portion out the panels per page, and he had to be creative in how to lay out each page to take advantage of that ratio — or in some cases overcome that ratio. He really did an amazing job.
Of course, you’ve been very busy over the years in TV and film, but it appears that even though you’re not writing comic books as regularly as you had been doing, you’re still keeping busy in the medium as much as you can. How important is it to you stay active in the comics field?
To write comics, it takes time out of sleep. So there’s definitely a cost to it. The reason I pay that cost is, I love comics. I always have. I read them constantly, I’m always buying new comics on every Wednesday. I enjoy writing comics for two reasons: No. 1, I get to participate in the medium that I really enjoy as a consumer of content. Comics inspire me, and what they inspire me to do is write comics. I’ve been really enjoying a lot of the comic books that are being produced these days. If I read a good comic, the first thing I want to do is write a good comic.
As far as the medium itself, it just provides some nice alternatives to what my other writing work is. I write in television and features, and every time I go to a different medium, it offers different pros and cons. One of the things that I love about writing comics is, in addition to playing with the toys that I grew up with, I also get to collaborate with artists like Joe Bennett. There’s something, to me, very precious and special about that collaboration. Even if we’re not going back and forth via email, even if we’re not talking about the page layouts, the scripts really are like letters to the artists. I’m inviting them, essentially, to have a conversation with me. That is a type of collaboration that I find really rewarding. Every time I get a page back from an artist, and I see how they’ve interpreted what I’ve written, you’re part of a very unique kind of partnership.
It’s a different kind of partnership than you have in television or film. Television and film are very collaborative mediums, but when I see dailies from “Arrow,” that’s the contribution of literally a hundred people. And that’s special for that reason, but it’s nice to get the contribution of just one person. That’s a different kind of relationship. If I didn’t love doing comics, I certainly wouldn’t make the time for them. The fact that I do make the time for them is probably the best indication of the fact that I really do love it.
The “Arrow” second season premiere is about two weeks away —
Yeah, Oct. 9! It’s coming. It’s so weird, actually, because we just started filming episode seven [last week], so it’s the strangest thing in the world to be thinking in terms of the premiere. In many ways, it feels very deep in my rear-view mirror — but it’s really not. And that’s part of what’s interesting and fun about it.
This season is set to have a lot of new additions from the comic book world, headlined by Barry Allen.
We’re just in prep now on the first Barry Allen episode. It’s really exciting. Every time we bring a new character from the DC Universe onto the show, it’s always this really interesting process of discovery, because we’re getting a chance to do a different corner of the DC Universe. It presents its own challenges from a production standpoint, in addition to casting, costumes have to be designed, you’ve got to solve a whole host of different problems. But great, great, great fun.
It must take a lot of forethought and planning with introducing such a famous character like The Flash.
The good news is that Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kriesberg and Geoff Johns and David Nutter have really been working on this for months now. David Nutter is so deliberate and so thorough in planning, as we saw during the filming of the “Arrow” pilot. There’s a reason David is the Steven Spielberg of TV pilots.
“Adventures of Superman” is available now via digital download. “Tears of Krypton” gets a new life in the physical world with a print version — “Adventures of Superman” #8 — this December.