When it came time to tap a writer to continue “Smallville” — the fan favorite Superman TV series that ran for ten years on the WB and CW networks — in comic book form, there was really only one man for the job: Bryan Q. Miller.
A writer on the show during it’s later seasons, Miller earned a reputation on the screen for bringing denizens of the DC Comics Universe onto screen with uncanny accuracy, and soon he’d shifted to writing DC comics himself including a beloved run on “Batgirl.” Those skills have served him well over the first year of “Smallville Season 11” which serializes first as a digital comic before moving to print form.
Last week, DC announced that the “Season 11” comic would expand in its own way with a special one-shot story running alongside the current “Haunted” arc of the book. As Superman deals with the problem of the mysterious Black Flash alongside Bart “Impulse” Allen in the main narrative, the one-shot will explore Smallville’s take on Martian Manhunter and Batman. CBR News spoke to Miller about all the threads he’s been playing with since the book’s launch, and below the writer describes how the comic is and isn’t like the TV show, why more and more DC heroes are on the way to the book, who the audience is for this hybrid project and why in the end, it’s all about establishing a Lex Luthor/Superman battle for the ages.
CBR News: Bryan, “Smallville” has been chugging along for about a year now as a comic. Overall, how much has that year been like a year on the TV series for you as a writer? Are you following the kind of story structures you would if you were writing for TV still?
Bryan Q. Miller: It’s kind of this wonderful, unholy marriage of how we put together the show and how I typically put together my own comics work. It seems like it’s not broken out like we would on the show, but actually it’s quite the opposite of that. I outline everything exactly the same as on TV. I’m knee-deep in a lengthy outline for an arc two stories from where we are now, and I break that stuff the same as we did in the writer’s room. Where the two methods change up is that in the show we’d have a teaser and then five acts, but in the comics online, every week very easily presents itself as the act of a very long episode. So in the case of these “mega-sodes” like we did for “Detective” and now “Haunted” you end up having 12 acts. That makes it very easy to slip into the same method of filming an act of the show just making each one a chapter of the digital comic. The real trick is also adding in at the end of every three acts a button or cliffhanger that’s big enough so that the print reader — because we do have a fair amount of people who read the series only in print — will want to come back a full 30 days later and read the next part.
It’s much longer than a commercial break.
[Laughs] Right. On the digital, our commercial break is only a week. So we can afford to have smaller exclamation points for every single week, but on that third week we need something bigger to bring the print reader back.
It’s really its own animal. For all the digital books, I think it very much is its own unique animal for how we’re telling our stories. Panel count versus page count and all that stuff makes it a brave new world on the digital front.
“Smallville” as a series evolved over the years from a sci-fi teen drama that occasionally used a bigger piece of DC mythology into a full-on superhero show that used DC characters almost every week. I feel like the “Season 11” comic has upped the scale of that idea even more. You didn’t just do a Batman episode. You did Batman, Nightwing and a villain team-up with Mr. Freeze. How intentional has that been?
I think where we got to with the show, which was something of a natural progression, was that the first half of the series was pure Smallvile. It was him as a teenager in his hometown dealing with all the trials and tribulations of what that means…including meteor-affected bad guys. Season 6 and 7 were kind of the transition years where once we hit Season 8 and Clark moved to the big city, suddenly it was a whole different world. You realize that as complicated and difficult as your world previously felt, the change of going to college or getting a career or whatever suddenly makes you a small fish in a very big pond. That led to sci-fi conceits with the Earth 2 stuff, magic conceits with Zatanna and Fate and heroic stuff with the JSA. The later seasons were all about making that world bigger while also seeing that growth and exploration through Clark’s eyes. And that also kind of explains why no one ever really talked about the JSA before because it really wasn’t on Clark’s radar. The show was so focused on teenage issues
With the book, we’re taking that to its next evolution — especially since with the drawn and written page we’re able to blow a lot more stuff up. We’re just going to keep broadening that world based on the foundation of the sci-fi, magical and heroic stuff we did in the later years of the show. This is more about the building of a community of heroes in “Season 11.” We did our Batman arc, and we’re in the middle of a Flash arc now. The next arc we have coming up will explore some stuff with Booster Gold who we met in Season 10, and we’ll have a side story with Martian Manhunter and Batman. It’s more about creating the entire world and fleshing that world as presented over the evolution of “Smallville” as a series than it is just being “Smallville: The Comic Book.”
Right now you’re dealing with the return of Bart Allen alongside some more traditional Flash ideas like Jay Garrick and the Black Flash. Bart’s inclusion on the show as opposed to other Flash characters was always a kind of strange move to make. Are you trying to reconcile all those different ideas here, and what does that give to Clark’s story?
The “Haunted” arc with Impulse is shaping itself up to be about the character’s nature andÂ the inevitability of how everyone is haunted by things they did in their past whether physical or metaphorical. You can only run from your past so far before things catch up with you. Who more perfect to tell that kind of story than Impulse whose whole nature is based on running? What we’re also trying to do is connect and reconcile some things between “Run” — the episode where we met Bart in Season 4 — and the mention of Jay in our “Absolute Justice” two-hour episode that Geoff Johns wrote. It’s a Smallville take on the Flash mythology while at the same time making sense of the little deviations we’ve had over the course of the series.
“Argo” is the next arc that uses a lot of elements from the later seasons on that sci-fi front. We’ve also been seeing Earth 2 and the twisted versions of the cast from the show bleeding over into Smallville the town, bringing thing full circle in a sense. What was it about the parallel earth setup that seemed particularly important for this phase of the story?
With Earth 2, it gives us a few things. For one, it lets us flesh out and complete a sentence that we started very late in the game in Season 10 with [the episodes] “Luthor” and “Kent.” With the Oliver and Chloe plot, we never saw a Chloe on Earth 2. That was both for practical reasons and story reasons. We didn’t have Allison Mac during filming for those episodes, but we also didn’t need her to get the ideas across. But back in “Guardian,” which started out “Season 11,” we started everything with a ship that crashed through the dimensional rift from Earth 2, and it held their Chloe. And of course, she had black hair because when you have good and bad twins, just like in “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jennie,” one has to be blonde and the other brunette. [Laughs] It’s the same thing with the goatees on “Star Trek!” Chloe 2’s warning before she died was “Crisis is coming.”
Now, comics people know kind of what we’re going for with that, but for our regular “Smallville” viewers who aren’t as steeped in DC mythology it’s kind of a big mystery. Now we’re getting back into the Earth 2 stuff with Chloe which not only allows her to search for the answer of what the Crisis is and how to stop it, it also gives us a chance to see what we didn’t see in terms of other pieces of the story of “Luthor” and “Kent.” It’s going to be like that bit in “Back To The Future II” where Marty is crawling under the stage while Marty is also on the stage playing “Johnny B. Goode.” This gives us a chance to play with that conceit a little bit.
It’s interesting you bring up how to approach writing these stories both for comic fans and TV fans. I get the impression from DC that a significant portion of people reading the comic were TV fans who sought out the digital series. Have you had any interaction with fans that gives you an idea of who you’re writing for most of the time?
The one sobering moment for that was that we had a Comic-Con panel preceding Season 8, and we made a big announcement there that Geoff was going to be writing our Legion of Super-Heroes episode. We were all very excited about that, and we knew that the internet would be excited about it, but from the 5,000 people in that room, we got crickets. And I think there was a large component of our audience that existed in the venn diagram of people who did read comics and specifically knew DC Comics and watched TV and watched “Smallville,” but there wasn’t a huge amount of overlap considering the size of the TV audience. So that was our first moment to say, “This is a chance to introduce people to DC mythology.”
By the same token, when we started the comic on comiXology, I believe the stat we got was that 40% of everybody who bought issue #1 was brand new to comiXology and had never purchased a digital comic before. So I think there’s definitely some precedent that shows a large chunk of the audience who followed the show and the brand didn’t previously read comics. I think that’s awesome.
Brandy Phillips: We see the same thing with our digital comics based on video games too. A lot of new fans come in, and it’s a great way to introduce them to comics. There were a lot of questions coming in after “Smallville” launched of “How do I download this? I’ve never read a comic before.” It’s exciting for us that titles like this are reaching new audiences.
Miller: To call this a gateway drug is a little more salacious than we need, but it gets the point across that the DC Comics app and the comiXology app are great ways to get people who normally wouldn’t go into a comic shop or wouldn’t read comics online to discover a whole range of stuff they never would have dreamed existed before.
While “Argo” is the next arc serializing in the book and will be focusing on Clark, Booster Gold and the Legion, you’re also getting to tell a side story with Batman and Martian Manhunter that will eventually be published as its own one-shot. How did that opportunity come about, and why pair up those two for a solo story?
It was an interesting situation to be in because for various reasons we didn’t have John Jones super present in the last couple of years of the series. “Effigy” was one of the stories I had in my pocket during my years on the show, and every once in a while I’d pitch it out there, but it would never work out. I try to not turn anything I’m writing on the book into some stories other people worked on because it’s not fair to the other writers on the show, but “Effigy” was my little darling, but logistically it didn’t work out. I was planning on making it a part of “Season 11” at some point anyway, and when the opportunity came up to start doing these parallel stories on weeks where we had no digital chapter, it seemed like the natural thing would be to revisit John Jones. He was a presence on the show, and the “Smallville” viewer would recognize him. It’s not like we’re introducing some new character that Clark’s never met.
The complication was that we already had a pretty big arc that Superman and Clark are very present in with “Haunted” so we didn’t want to cross the wires and have Superman in two stories scattered across different weeks. But the response to Batman’s introduction in “Detective” was so strong that it was natural to have him on the adventure with John Jones. It was a story that was going to happen regardless, but I think it’s really for the better the way it’s being done. Batman and Jones have a very interesting interplay that’s different from Superman and Batman’s interplay.
People asked for Batman for a long time on the show, and it never worked out. Now that he’s in this series where you have the actors from the other characters in your head while you’re writing, do you have a dream actor for Bruce who you imagine when you write these scripts?
It was tricky. We did that with Hank Henshaw in the “Guardian” arc, and at the outset I talked with Pere Perez my artist about how I had Matthew Fox in my head. Jack from “Lost” was very much the idea we were going for with Hank Henshaw, and ironically we turned Henshaw into someone very similar to the character Fox played in “Alex Cross.” [Laughs] But for the Batman arc, since it was my first time working with Chris Cross on art I didn’t want to stop him from putting his stamp on the Batman stuff. So we didn’t “cast” an actor for that story, but in my head it’s always Kevin Conroy. I mean, his voice from the Bruce Timm stuff is always Batman to me.
The other big piece of the show outside the DC mythology stuff that was a hit with fans of the show was the various interpersonal relationships in the cast. There’s the romantic subplots with Clark and Lois and the kind of internal fights between Lex and Tess who now lives in his brain. What’s the relationship that you’re expecting the biggest change from in comics arcs?
The challenge in laying out “Season 11” is that when you normally do a TV show, you know that at least you’re doing 13 episodes or 22 episodes. So you can lay out how you want your character arcs to progress. For certain arcs in “Season 11” there were characters and character pairings that I knew exactly where they’d end up. But given the nature of comics, it’s not as firm as knowing, “I’ve got 22 stories to tell” so there’s been ebb and flow for what I can do and when. Where the season will get to is building up the legit Superman/Lex Luthor relationship as a twisted mirror version of the friendship Clark and Lex had growing up. We’ll get there.
Aside from that, by the time “Haunted” ends, it will shift the paradigm for all of our couples in the series. We’ll see those ramifications play out over the next few episodes, but especially three arcs from now we’ll have a very heavy Superman/Lex story. We’ll revisit that with a vengeance after we’ve gotten a few more episodes out of the way.
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