For their incoming line of Stan Lee-created superhero comics, the folks at BOOM! Studios have promised a run of books ready to be picked up by new readers tired of tracking continuity across an entire line of books. But just because heroes like Soldier Zero and The Traveler won’t crossover in the immediate, that doesn’t mean their creators can’t.
Today, CBR News is pleased to present BOOM! Chief Creative Officer (and “Traveler” scripter) Mark Waid as he interviews writer Chris Roberson who will be handling story duties on BOOM!’s third and final Stan Lee release -Â “Stan Lee’s Starborn” -Â which ships to comic shops this week.
Already making a name for himself amongst superhero fans thanks to impending runs on “Superman” and “Superman/Batman” at DC Comics after launching a number of notable sci-fi series like Vertigo’s “iZombie” and BOOM!s own “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: Dust to Dust,” Roberson came prepared to write with Stan Lee. Below, he explains to Waid his years trying to break into comics, his plans to launch “Starborn’s” story of an average guy as the heir to an intergalactic empire in the midst of war, working with “Spider-Man” artist Khary Randolph on the series and more.
Mark Waid: Chris, what’s your background as a writer? Tell the fine folks out there what you’ve you been working on these past couple of years that they’d know you from – the work that caught our attention.
Chris Roberson: I knew when I was eight years old that I wanted to write comics for a living, but it took me decades to figure out how to break in. I started seriously trying in college, and failed miserably, so after years of beating my head against the wall I became a novelist by default, largely because I was able to type fast. I wrote eight or nine novels before any of them were good enough to sell, and wrote another thirteen or so that were eventually published, along with a few dozen short stories, all of them science fiction or fantasy of one kind or another.
Eventually, my pal Bill Willingham recommended me to his editor at Vertigo, Shelly Bond, and they gave me a chance to write a spin-off miniseries of his “Fables” series, “Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love.” That lead to a creator-owned book with Mike Allred at Vertigo, “iZombie,” which is on stands now. Around the time “iZombie” was being announced, I met Matt Gagnon of BOOM! Studios at SDCC, and we discovered we had similar tastes in science fiction and fantasy authors, which resulted in him offering me the chance to write the prequel to Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” for BOOM!
Who contacted you to sign you up? I’m sorry it wasn’t Stan himself knocking on your front door. Would you like that? Would you like me to ask Stan to swing by your place?
I still had a few issues to go in the PKD prequel, “Dust to Dust,” when Matt Gagnon contacted me again, and asked me if I’d be interested in doing one of the new superhero titles that Stan Lee was developing with BOOM!. I think I considered it for all of two seconds before shouting “Yes!”
And sure, send Stan on over! We’ll fix him up with some tasty Texas barbeque.
What was your initial reaction to hearing that Stan Lee was back to doing superhero comics?
Look, this is the guy who co-created nearly everything cool in the Marvel Universe, and arguably invented what we now think of as a “shared universe.” Before Stan and the birth of Marvel, superheroes might meet up to share adventures, or appear as guest stars in one another’s books, but the meetings were never incidental, the way they were in the Marvel books from the very beginning. The chance encounters, the brief cameos by heroes from other books reacting to what was going on, the fact that so many of the stories were set in the same city – all helped give readers the sense that this was a real place.
Face it, tiger, Stan is The Man. When I heard he was going to be doing new superheroes, I was sold.
Let’s talk about the series itself. In brief, what’s it about?
Benjamin Warner is a dreamer. He works in a mind-numbing office job, but his thoughts are always somewhere else. Since he was a kid, he’s been making up stories about an extraterrestrial civilization far across the galaxy, called the “Human Civilization.” He’s tried to turn his ideas in novels, but so far he hasn’t had any success convincing publishers to buy them. But he hasn’t given up hope yet.
Then his whole world falls apart when things that seem to be straight out of his made-up stories start attacking him in the real world, and Benjamin is left with only two choices – either his stories are somehow real, or he’s gone crazy.
What’s coming up? Where are we going with the book? Where do you want to go?
In amongst all of the heroics and explosions, there’s an idea that we’ll begin to investigate pretty quickly, that for me is at the heart of the series – what happens to the “good guys” after they defeat the “evil empire?” And what happens to what’s left of the evil empire?
Of the three books we’re launching, what is it that attracted you to this one and makes it a good fit for you? What’s the “Stan” of “Starborn” and what do you feel like you’re able to bring to the table as a collaborator? What makes it a personal project and not just another gig?
I think the thing that appeals to me most about “Starborn” is that it’s a superhero book that is also a space opera book, and that we can switch modes depending on where the action is taking place. On Earth, Benjamin Warner will be a superhero, but across the galaxy he’s the hero of an epic space opera. I love stories that take different genre conventions and mash them against each other – it makes the sparks fly!
One of the things we’re doing with “Starborn” that I personally find the most interesting to work on is, we’re going back to the standard tropes of space opera and trying to find new approaches to them. We can’t pretend this is the first story ever told about aliens in space or a ragtag group of characters in a spaceship facing overwhelming odds – but what we can do is look at what makes all of the stories that came before work, and try to find interesting ways to work against expectations. I can tell you now that the “heroes” and the “villains” of this story might not be exactly who they initially appear to be…
I’ve said in other interviews about this overall project that what you and Stan and Paul Cornell and I are working hardest at is answering the question, “How do you go about creating a classic superhero today without going retro?” Does that sound like a reasonable question? What is it about the 21st century and the way we do comics today that allows you to approach this story differently than Stan might have back when he first launched the Marvel Universe? Conversely, what storytelling techniques remain timeless?
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the years, so I’ll try to keep this brief and still make sense. For me, what’s fascinating about contemporary storytelling – across the board, in comics, novels, TV, movies, etc. – is what we aren’t shown, but immediately know. It’s those gaps that the reader (or viewer, or player, or what-have-you) fills in from their own experience with other stories. This is the power of using Types and Tropes (I’d say “Archetypes” but it sounds a little too highfaluting, and “Stereotypes” carries too much negative connotation).
Types are characters whose rich back stories are suggested by simple narrative tags. If you encounter a character in a Victorian-era story and are told that he is a “consulting detective,” you immediately get a sense of what they’re about, even before you are shown any details. If it’s a story set out amongst the stars and you encounter a “space princess,” same idea.
Tropes are story elements that everyone has seen a thousand times before. The ragtag band of rebels against the evil empire. The humble farmboy discovering that he has a special destiny.
So everyone encounters these kind of stock characters and story elements and assumes they already know all about them. Which is handy, if you want them to know all about that character or plot point without having to do the work of explaining it all yourself. But it’s also handy if you want to play against those expectations and make readers think they’re looking at one thing when they’re actually looking at something else entirely.
There have been a number of fantastic superhero comics in the last decade or two that have played around with this kind of thing. Kurt Busiek does it a lot in “Astro City,” Alan Moore did it pretty much continuously in “Supreme” and again in his America’s Best Comics stuff. And you, Mr. Waid, have done a devilishly good job of playing around with recognizable character types and then frustrating readers expectations in “Irredeemable” and “Incorruptable.”
I think the difference between now and the days when Stan and company were first constructing the Marvel Universe is that they were creating many of the character types and story tropes that we get to play around with now.
How lucky are you to be working with Khary Randolph, man? We promised you a good artist – did we deliver, or what?
I had known about Khary’s work before finding out he was taking on the art chores for “Starborn,” so I knew that he’d do a good job. But it wasn’t until I saw the finished art for the first issue that I realized just how good it would be! It’s like that guy leveled up or something, because this book looks amazing!
Alright one last question. What’s it been like working with Stan?
Are you kidding me? The answer’s in the question: I am working with Stan Lee! I mean, come on! How cool is ?!