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REFLECTIONS: Talking with Hugh Sterbakov

by  in Comic News Comment
REFLECTIONS: Talking with Hugh Sterbakov

Reflections, Volume 3 Number 10

I have an unabashed love for all things “Freshmen” and I’m not afraid to admit it.

I loved the first miniseries from Top Cow so much when I read it that I decided to put it as one of my top books of the year – back when I was doing that. Writer Hugh Sterbakov absolutely captured the feel of college life while instilling the miniseries with drama and humor and superheroics in a way that made the overall package fantastic.

I teach a Freshmen orientation class at my college and for a semester I teach my students how to become acclimated to college and life away from their loved ones. This semester, I bought six copies of “The Freshmen” trade paperback and offered it to them to read, and the ones that chose to pick it up (shocking almost all of the class, and these were Fashion students!) and many wrote essays about how the book touched their lives on a personal level.

And now the second volume of “Freshmen” has begun, and I want all of you to read it. Now. So I’m interviewing writer Hugh Sterbakov to help convince you.

Story continues below

The “Freshmen I” team at CCI in 2005. In the back is Andrew Peopy and from left to right it’s Leonard Kirk, Seth Green and Hugh Sterbakov. Photo by Jonah Weiland.

Robert Taylor: Hey Hugh, how goes it?

Hugh Sterbakov: It’s going very well! I’m talking to you from a hotel room in sunny Phoenix, because Seth and I have a signing tonight at Atomic Comics to celebrate the release of “Freshmen II” #2!

RT: Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? What made you want to be a writer, and, more specifically, why a comic writer?

HS: It’s been a wonderful confluence of my favorite things in life. I grew up star-eyed by “Star Wars,” “Superman” and Indiana Jones, and knew I had to be in filmmaking. And I was also a rabid comic collector – I have every first-printing appearance of Spider-Man. When I got older and understood how films were made, I knew I wanted to be at the heart of the creative process, and that was writing. I’d been writing creatively, either in prose or drawing my own comics, as a hobby since I was in third grade.

So I came out to LA to get my masters’ degree in screenwriting from UCLA, and have sold a few projects that haven’t been filmed. When I got the opportunity to work with Top Cow, I jumped at it – and here we are.

RT: What has kept you in the filmmaking business for so long?

HS: I ask myself that every day while banging my head against the brick wall of the Hollywood development machine.

RT: Ouch.

HS: I just don’t know what else I’d do if I wasn’t writing. I’d go nuts.

RT: Are you more of a Marvel guy or a DC guy?

HS: I got into “Dark Knight,” “Watchmen,” the “Teen Titans” and the trial of the Flash while I was growing up, but my heart has always been in the wonderful Marvel Universe. There were months in the ’80s where I’d buy every book Marvel printed. It’s a sickness.

RT: If loving them is wrong, I don’t want to be right either. By the way, what do you think about the current creative choices for “Watchmen: The Movie?”

HS: You really can’t ever tell. Sometimes choices seem boneheaded to folks who insist they know how things should be. From the outset, nobody thought Bryan Singer was the right choice for “X-Men” or Michael Keaton was right for “Batman.” A lot of folks don’t think “Watchmen” should ever be filmed. Personally, I say go for it. It’s not like the movie is going to somehow magically invalidate the book. We’ll always have the book, so let’s see some well-meaning, talented folks take a shot at the film.

RT: So how’s about you tell me the cliffnotes version of how you got “Freshmen” kickstarted over at Top Cow. Ah, what the hell, give me the whole thing!

HS: Seth and I had pitched the project as a feature, but the studios were focused on developing their libraries of established comics that they went nuts buying after the success of “Spider-Man.” So a lot of the bigwigs told us to go establish it as a comic first and bring it back.

We put it on the backburner, because my focus has been on breaking down doors in film and TV and the comic industry is equally difficult to break into. But I’m blessed in that I have a lot of folks who really believe in me, and by happenstance two of those folks happened to drop my name to Top Cow honcho Matt Hawkins in the same week. Matt tracked me down and wanted to hear what the buzz was about, so I sent him a couple of my projects to look over for consideration as a comic.

“Freshmen,” although not the easiest sell in the comic industry, was ripe for the medium and had the bonus of having been created with Seth, so we dived into it. And I’ve never been more creatively fulfilled in my life – it’s been a fantastic ride.

RT: A big part of the book’s success was the overwhelming response by fans. Why do you think fans were so invested in the first miniseries?

HS: I think the characters spoke to people and folks found something that they could relate to and enjoy, while not needing an immense back story to understand. A lot of people, especially our female fans, picked it up because of Seth’s involvement and stuck with us because we have some wonderful characters.

RT: How were sales on the first miniseries, because I know you guys had some trouble later on with the book.

HS: They were great out of the gate, and then slowed down naturally over the course of the series. But the trade paperback far outsold expectations. So much so that we’ve kind of been scratching our heads to understand why and how that happened.

RT: I bought it!

HS: We seem to have a lot of readers who aren’t regular comic fans and are more focused on the final book than the individual issues. We’re taking a strong look at that for the future of the franchise, but I’m still determined that we can hang on the racks with the big boys if folks can find us.

RT: So you feel it was the trade that was a major factor in getting you renewed for another “semester?”

HS: It was a great trickle-down effect from the reviews to the dedicated fans who clamored enough to get those trade paperbacks moving. We have commercials running on “Robot Chicken” to promote us, and folks like the show and like the book.

RT: Okay, tell us about those cover quotes.

HS: During the first series, Top Cow had a policy of running self-congratulatory review quotes on their covers.

RT: Yes, I had some on “Witchblade” back from my reviewing days.

HS: It worked for something like “Witchblade,” which had a long run with ups and downs and their sales mantra was, “Hey, creatively we’re stronger than ever, and here are folks who will vouch for it.” But for “Freshmen,” a brand new series which was getting absurdly positive reviews, I felt like folks kind of already knew we were a good book, but they had to be convinced to take a look and add another title to their monthly purchases.

I thought we had an opportunity to make folks laugh, give them a sense of our tone, and hopefully get a little more attention than a standard review quote that might be glossed over anyway. So I reached out to Sarah Michelle Gellar for a snarky comment, and she and I came up with something together. It absolutely got a lot more attention, and we’ve run with it ever since.

RT: How much of “Season 2” did you have mapped out while writing the first miniseries?

HS: Very little. Ideas started coming together toward the end of the first series, but I was just focused on making “Freshmen” as jam-packed as possible with drama and comedy. I planted a few seeds for myself that I knew I could come back to later, like Annalee’s father and the hole in the wall of the dorm building the morning after the kids got their powers, but I didn’t know for sure how I’d utilize them. It all fit seamlessly when I came back to it, though.

RT: So, what happened in the first issue?

HS: After the kids got back from their winter break, we found out that Norrin was having visions of Mr. Fiddlesticks, who is a Cat in the Hat-type character from a series of children’s books. Fiddlesticks is driving Norrin a bit crazy, and at the end we find out he’s in cahoots with Annalee’s father, who was an investor in the Ax-Cell-Erator, the machine that gave the kids their powers.

Also, Brady has finally decided that he wants to be rid of his abusive girlfriend, Renee, once and forever, so he has come to Annalee to help him get over her. Annalee can jump into people’s minds, and she dramatically helped Paula, the Seductress, in the first series, so Brady wants the same kind of help. [Ed. Note: That story spilled into the special free online issue, #1.5, which you can read at the official Web site, www.freshmencomic.com) That’s a small, quiet story that I wouldn’t put into a monthly book that requires action, but it nicely and sweetly develops a major subplot in “Freshmen II.”

RT: Tell us more about the new characters beyond the Fiddlestick Man.

HS: There’s also a really fun, spunky new girl, Amy. She’s a comic book geek goddess, and a potential love interest for our lead character, Norrin, who is the comic fan who went for pizza when the kids got their powers.

Poor Norrin wants so badly to be a superhero that he’s built himself a Batman-style suit of armor to be the team leader. But Amy can challenge him in any pop culture trivia contest, and she’s going to be a handful for the guy.

RT: Which characters have gone through the most drastic change between the miniseries? And, of course, without getting too spoilery, who may be going through a drastic change in the near future?

HS: Each of the two series represents one half of the kids’ freshmen year in college, so all that happened in between was the Christmas break, which was actually covered in a back-up story in the trade paperback. Norrin, who is being closely monitored by the Beaver, has devised a new superhero persona, the Scarlet Knight, and had begun seeing Mr. Fiddlesticks in his dreams.

There are a couple kids who are in for big transitions during the second series. It’s clear that the Brady/Renee relationship is coming to a very, very dramatic head. Brady and Renee share telekinesis powers-they can only use it when they’re in physical contact, and she can pull things toward them while he pushes them away. So if they go to war, everyone is going to be in for a nightmare.

The Green Thumb, who can talk to plants, is another character that’s being featured in the second series. This poor kid has always felt like an outcast, and now he’s trying to handle the weight of all of the miserable plants in the world on top of it. He’s going to be forced to confront his demons in a major way, and folks will see that storyline really take off in issue #2, which is in stores December 20th. The plants are a lot of fun to write, because they’re funny, but they also have a serious, dramatic motivation, and that’s what this series is all about.

RT: The tone to this miniseries seems to be a bit, okay, much darker than the first miniseries. What merited the change?

HS: Nothing exterior at all, it wasn’t any kind of conscious decision in regard to marketing. It was all about the nature of the kids’ world and my training in screenwriting. The second act is always where things are supposed to get dark and overwhelming, and I came up with the right villain and scenario to make that happen.

I looked to “The Empire Strikes Back” for inspiration, and tried to dissect why that film is so successful, why the it’s so beloved with “Star Wars” fans, and bring those elements to “Freshmen.” I think fans of the series will love this entry…we had to move the spotlight off our most beloved character, The Seductress, but it’s worth it to spread out and get to know the whole team.

I’m desperate with anticipation to get this series into folks’ hands – I can’t wait to see what people think about the twists and turns this series will be taking. The sixth issue is so exciting and tense and gut wrenching that I wish I could put it out right now.

RT: I’m highly anticipating it. How much input has Seth had on this miniseries as opposed to the first?

HS: He’s fiercely protective of the characters and hugely supportive of everything I’ve done. We developed the story for the first series together, along with “Greg the Bunny” creator Dan Milano and his brilliant writing partner, Matthew Huffman, as a feature, so a lot of those elements were set in stone. But a lot of it came together while writing the comic – the entire Seductress storyline was invented for to round out the comic story.

I conceived “Freshmen II” entirely on my own and pitched it to him in more or less its final form, but, together, we broke down everything I’d done and we talked about it and analyzed it and solidified it. I do a lot of post-mortem work and try to learn from my mistakes, too, so “Freshmen II” benefits from the mistakes I made on the first series.

RT: How has fan reaction been to the first issue of the second miniseries? How were sales?

HS: Fan reaction to “Freshmen” has always been great. In retrospect, “Freshmen II” #1 could’ve used more action, but the first issue of the first series was also a lot of character work, and folks understood that. Sales were great too – we’re very hard to find in almost any comic store in the country. I really wish retailers would put a little more investment in us and stock us on the shelves, but they’re focused on the big crossover events and they’ve got to go where the money is. If we have to keep blowing out expectations with our trade paperbacks, then that’s just what we’ll do.

RT: Tease us a bit about what is coming up?

HS: This series is going to coalesce into a maelstrom of anger and conflict.

RT: So much so that you are breaking out the big words for that statement, I see.

HS: There’s already clearly a major strife building inside the team, and they’re about to be hit by a gigantic nemesis that they didn’t really see coming. The mythology of the series is going to develop quite a bit, too, setting seeds for the future, and expanding on a couple of our characters. Plus, as you learned in the first issue, the Beaver has begun building armor for Norrin. That’s going to lead to something sweet, funny and actually very fearsome.

RT: Oh no, is someone gonna die!?

HS: Yep. A couple characters are going to die, actually.

RT: No!

HS: Those eggs you have to break to make a cake? They’re about to be broken. And the fallout is going to be gigantic. The last page of this series is going to make folks’ jaws drop. It’s so evil, what we’re about to do. So evil.

RT: You can’t see me, but I’m crying right now. As far as the future of the series overall, will there be more miniseries, and will each represent a semester of their tutorage? Yes, I just said tutorage.

HS: Tutorage, huh? Wow, good for you. I guess bigtime comic journalists can get away with that. And apparently it’s a word. Congrats on finding that big new word, buddy.

Uhm, anyway…the future will always depend on economics, because I’d happily write “Freshmen” forever. I haven’t thought through the next series very much, beyond the very first scene and some basic mechanics. Liam, our Amish character, for example, dealt with something in the first series, which grows in the second series and clearly needs some more exploration.

And I’ve sort of taken some ideas from another story I created on assignment for a movie pitch a few years ago for “Freshmen II,” and I have all those ideas already fleshed out if I want to explore that further. It seems, from where I am right now, that the next series could unfold over their summer vacation, and then a trilogy of their first year would be complete and we could start to think about the Sophomore year at that point.

We’ll see how our cookies crumble.

RT: Tell us about some crazy fan encounters.

HS: Folks go nuts over Seth all the time. It’s very strange, to be the guy standing next to him and be completely ignored. Just on the way to Phoenix last night we had one kid come up to us while we were in mid-conversation and just stand there with a giant grin, unable to talk. Really, dude?

RT: What else do you have coming up?

HS: A lot of things I can’t talk about. I have the worst luck in the world as far as projects actually reaching fruition, but in 2007 I should have a TV show I created on the air, as well as at least one more comic book on shelves. And I wrote for a special project that’s in our family but hasn’t been announced yet, you’ll hear more about that very soon.

RT: What was your first comic book?

HS: My dad taught me to read with comics. I had the adaptation of “Star Wars,” and some very early Spider-Man issues, including almost all of the original Peter Parker series. But the book that got me into the bag and board life was “Amazing Spider-Man” #238. That’s when I became a comic lover, a comic snob and even a future comic writer.

RT: What comics can you never miss?

HS: I tend to follow writers, but the titles that at the top of my reading list every month are “Astro City” and “Ultimate Spider-Man.” But I’ll read anything written by Geoff Johns, Jeph Loeb, Brad Meltzer, Kurt Busiek, Mark Millar or Brian Bendis. And I’ve loved every bit of “Seven Soldiers.”

RT: What is your favorite comic book of all time?

HS: Hoo…boy. That’s tough.

“Amazing Spider-Man” #248 has a phenomenal back-up story called The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man, which I’ve always really loved for its simplicity and its heart. And Bill Mantlo had an amazing run on Peter Parker in the 80’s. But I guess my heart always goes back to “Amazing Spider-Man” #238. Roger Stern’s run on Amazing was really, really something. I didn’t really love “Hobgoblin Lives,” his follow-up to that run which came many years later, so I don’t know if it would have panned out all that well if he’d stayed, but, geez, what was printed was amazing. Ditto for all of the Claremont X-Men books.

Oh, and I was voracious for “Secret Wars.”

RT: Has there ever been a comic book that touched/changed your life? What was it?

HS: Well, for me, of course, it’s “Freshmen.” I’ve labored in Hollywood for ten years and had nothing tangible to show for it. But when I could pick up the “Freshmen” book and hand it to my dad and say, “Remember all those times I got thrown out of class for doodling? All those hours I spent writing stories or drawing comics? All that money you gave me to buy comics? Look what I did, pop.” That was amazing.

RT: If you could only write/draw one book for the rest of your career, what would it be?

HS: I think you can tell from all of my answers that I have a sweet spot for Spider-Man, but I’d be happy writing “Freshmen” forever. I love these kids, and I enjoy watching them grow and deal with these absurd powers.

Hawkins, Green & Sterbakov at CCI 2006. Photo by Ashley MacQuarrie.

RT: Who would be your writing/drawing partner?

HS: I’ve been really spoiled with my artists: I had Leonard Kirk draw the first “Freshmen” series and now Will Conrad on “Freshmen II.” These guys are the tops as far as storytellers and collaborators. They bring really bring me home with every issue. I could work with both of these guys until those darn cows come home. Where the hell are these cows, anyway? Do they need a map? Have we put out the word on them? Like, an APB or something?

RT: What’s the best comic book movie ever made?

HS: Oof – our characters debate this very issue in “Freshmen II” #3. It’s not an easy choice, and it’s very personal. The top contenders seem to be “Superman,” “Batman Begins” and “X-Men 2,” with the “Matrix” in there for some folks who seem to forget that it wasn’t based on a comic. And there’ve been huge chunks of greatness in each “Spider-Man” film as well. Ultimately, I think the answer is “X2,” followed closely by “Superman the Movie.”

RT: What is your weirdest convention experience?

HS: One year, in San Diego, while Seth was signing with the cast of “Buffy,” I was slammed to the ground by a ridiculously overzealous security guy. I didn’t even see him coming, he totally blindsided me. And I was carrying a gift for Seth that he’d bought for Joss Whedon, who I really admire. I got hurt, and embarrassed, and very, very angry. Security guard didn’t like me when I was angry.

RT: If you were remembered for only one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

HS: I hope to be able to entertain and amuse folks in exchange for all the great stories I’ve loved my whole life. I’ve had a lot of folks tell me that they appreciated the values in “Freshmen,” the overall theme that you’re okay and you don’t have to change yourself to fit in, and if people can internalize that even a little bit and maybe feel better about themselves, then I’d be very happy, because it’s a lesson I’m still struggling with myself.

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