In his long career as a comics writer, Roger Stern has written some of comics’ greatest characters in some of their biggest moments. He wrote the epic Avengers “Under Siege” story where the Masters of Evil assaulted Avengers mansion. In his Captain America run, he pitted the Sentinel of Liberty against the vampiric Baron Blood for a thrilling and powerful story. He was also one of the writers who helped kill comics’ greatest icon in “The Death of Superman” story line. This summer Stern returns to write another big moment for the Man of Steel, his first original novel in many years, “Superman: The Never-Ending Battle,” a 384 page novel that is the latest entry in Pocket Books Justice League series. Stern spoke to CBR News about the Man of Steel’s big prose adventure and some other comic projects he has in the works.
While “The Never-Ending Battle” isn’t Stern’s first novel, it is his first original Superman novel. He’s become quite familiar with The Man of Steel not only through comics, but prose as well. He’s previously written an original novel based on the TV show chronicling Clark Kent’s teen years entitled, “Smallville: Strange Visitors.” Stern also wrote the novelization of three of the Superman comics’ biggest storylines, “The Death and Life of Superman.”
Over the years Stern has come to know what makes Clark Kent tick. “Superman is a sincere, compassionate man, and a bit of an idealist. In fact, his high ideals– Truth, Justice, and the American Way, remember?– have sometimes been mistaken for naivete by those who don’t bother to try to understand him,” Stern told CBR News. “Superman is loyal to his friends and loving to his family. He also has a wonderfully wry sense of humor. And while Superman is slow to anger, you do not want to get on his bad side.”
Stern also emphasized that bravery is another one of The Man of Steel’s important traits. “It should go without saying that he’s courageous, but I’ve actually known some people to question that,” Stern said. “You may have heard their argument, ‘Anyone as powerful as Superman doesn’t have to be brave.’ Nonsense. There have been many instances of Superman facing menaces whose power rivaled his own and plenty of times when he was weakened to the point where he was as vulnerable as any mortal man. That never stopped him from standing up to his enemies and he’s often put his own life on the line to save others. If that isn’t courage, I don’t know what is.”
Superman has experienced many wonders and learned many things, but according to Stern, the most important things Superman feels he has learned came from his parents. “You have to understand that Superman grew up in the heartland; he’s the quintessential Middle American,” Stern explained. “And even though he’s been all around the world, and has experienced all the good and bad that humanity has to offer, he still lives by the values the Kents instilled in him.”
Superman’s qualities and values will be tested in “The Never-Ending Battle.” “There’s a mysterious, shadowy figure who leads an international terrorist organization that’s out to destroy civilization as we know it and he’s devised a way to control the planet’s weather,” Stern said. “That’s Superman’s main problem. He and the rest of the JLA first have to figure out who is attacking the coast with hurricanes, and the plains with tornadoes, and the whole country with hail and blizzards and parching heat. And then, they have to find a way to stop this guy before he wipes out North America.”
Stern would not reveal anything about the main villain of the book, he did say that some existing DC villains would make appearances. Assisting Superman in his battle with the villains of the book will be his teammates in the JLA. “The other Justice League members are all V.I.C.s…Very Important Co-stars,” Stern explained. “All the core members of the League are there: the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, J’onn J’onzz, and the Batman, plus the Atom. Even Aquaman shows up. There’s quite a lot of interaction between Superman and the other Leaguers– both individually and working as a group. Kyle Rayner is the Green Lantern throughout most of ‘The Never-Ending Battle’; circumstances called for one Leaguer to play, you should pardon the expression, the ‘green kid’ of the group. But Hal Jordan is definitely referenced in the course of the story. Also, in the course of the story, Superman sets out on a road trip with another member of the League, Green Lantern takes a tour of Ivytown and we all learn J’onn J’onzz’s favorite flavor of ice cream.”
“The Never-Ending Battle” also features appearances by a number of the supporting cast of the Superman comics. “Hey, it just wouldn’t be much of a Superman story without Lois Lane, now would it? After all, she’s his wife– well, she’s Clark’s wife– and the Clark/Lois dynamic is very important to the story. Jonathan and Martha Kent are also prominently featured; along with Lois, they really help define Clark. And there are major scenes with Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Catherine Grant, Inspector Turpin, and Superman’s number one fan– Bibbo!”
Stern also used some supporting characters from other DC Comics in the book. “Alfred Pennyworth also has a very important role in the story, and he always makes the most of his scenes,” Stern said.
Stern described the tone of “The Never-Ending Battle” as unsettled. “The situations our heroes face are sometimes threatening, sometimes downright dire and often frustrating,” he explained. “But there are still moments of great joy and there’s always hope. Given the current state of the world, I think it’s something we can all empathize with.”
Some of those threats will prove dire and frustrating, not only for Superman, but for Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent as well. One of the themes Stern explores in “The Never-Ending Battle” is Liberty versus Security. “It was an earlier journalist, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, ‘They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ In the course of the story, Clark– in both of his identities– has to consider some serious questions about power and authority, as well as about truth and justice.”
In “The Never-Ending Battle,” Clark Kent is a journalist in good standing at The Daily Planet unlike recent Superman comics in which is exiled to the police beat section of the paper. “I’d say that the events of ‘Superman: The Never-Ending Battle’ take place a little off to one side. While I would never go out of my way to contradict the comics, the JLA novels have their own internal continuity,” Stern explained. “Still, in many ways, this book is a sequel to ‘The Death and Life of Superman’; think of it as a look in on the earlier book’s cast just a few years later. There’s been a wedding, some funerals and at least one change of address, but these are still the same people.”
Comic writing is still one of Stern’s loves. He has not abandoned it entirely for prose. He’s currently hard at work on a multi-part story for “JLA: Classified.” “It’s really a little early to say much about the ‘JLA: Classified’ story. The plot outline was approved not that long ago and Mike Carlin tells me that, with all the issues he has lined up, my story won’t see print until sometime in 2006. I can tell you that it will be five issues long. And once I get all five parts plotted, John Byrne will fit it into his schedule.”
Stern has also been writing the adventures of two of Marvel’s prominent characters. “I recently wrote three six-page Spider-Man strips for Panini UK’s ‘Marvel Rampage’ magazine,” Stern said. “My UK editor seems quite happy with them and has commissioned me to write three Hulk strips for the magazine. It’s a lot of fun, though it’s also a lot of work to craft a story for such a small page-count. I just wish they were available to the American readership. Unfortunately, you can’t buy ‘Marvel Rampage’ unless you live in the United Kingdom or know someone who does.”
Stern hopes that his “JLA: Classified” arc will lead to more work on American comics. “I’m sure there are readers who know my work only from trade paperback collections or from my novels,” he said. “I’d welcome the opportunity to write new comics for the North American audience.”