EXCLUSIVE: JMS Explores Dark Side of Teenage Superheroing in "Sidekick"

J. Michael Straczynski has always been an incredibly busy creator. Launching his career in television writing for cartoon series' like "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "The Real Ghostbusters" the man known as JMS to his fans moved to the realm of live action with "The Twilight Zone" and "Murder, She Wrote" before heading for the realm of science fiction with the creation of "Babylon 5," for which he wrote the majority of its 110 episodes.

Eventually, JMS set his sights on comics. A lifelong fan of the medium, he began by penning a few "B5" books before launching Joe's Comics through Top Cow, where he created "Rising Stars" and "Midnight Nation." Eventually, he left the world of creator-owned comics and spent time working for Marvel and DC Comics, where he had significant runs on "Amazing Spider-Man," "Thor," "Superman" and "Wonder Woman."

Earlier this year, JMS made the return to creator-owned work, resurrecting his Joe's Comics imprint under the general Image Comics banner. The first project is "Ten Grand," a supernatural mystery co-created with artist Ben Templesmith.

His next book is in the vein of classic superheroes, but with a darker twist. "Sidekick," illustrated by Tom Mandrake, follows a young hero named Flyboy as he attempts to find his way in the world after the death of his mentor, The Red Cowl. Unfortunately, no one takes Flyboy seriously and the ridicule takes its toll on the former sidekick.

CBR News spoke with Straczynski about working with a comics legend like Mandrake, his plans for "Sidekick" and why he felt the need to explore the darker corners of the superhero mythos.

CBR News: "Sidekick's" premise sounds pretty dark: Flyboy, a former sidekick, can't get any respect after his mentor is killed. What inspired you to look at this aspect of the superhero life?

J. Michael Straczynski: The thing about working for the Big Two companies on titles like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Thor" and "Superman" is that you learn -- quietly, slowly, by inference as often as by direct statement -- that there are some things you simply don't do to your characters or those around them. You are, to a degree, typing with mittens on. That doesn't mean you can't tell good stories -- there are plenty of them out there -- it just means that you know where the walls are, which is right and proper when someone hands you something you don't own. They trust you not to go too far.

But we launched Joe's Comics with the goal of doing exactly those things.  We have absolutely no qualms about going too far. We're not necessarily looking to create franchises with these characters. The books will stay around as long as we can tell good stories and not a second longer, so we're absolutely fine with the idea of beating the crap out of our characters and going straight for the taboos.

So that's a big part of it, and the other is just the part of the writer in me that loves to watch a character just totally disintegrate in front of one's very eyes. This is going to be an absolute train-wreck, and I can't wait to see it unfold.

Where does the story open in issue #1? Is the Red Cowl still alive at that point, or has he been gone for a while?

The Red Cowl has been dead a little over two years (or at least that's the story). Flyboy is still grieving, though as much for his career as his mentor. He keeps trying to jump-start his career, and it's just not going anywhere. He unsuccessfully tries using Dreamstarter (a la Kickstarter) to get some money for new equipment, tries helping the police solve robberies in ways that lead us to suspect that he may have staged the robbery in order to solve it -- he's flailing and frustrated and generally, garden-variety pissed off, which puts him in exactly the right position for us to start maneuvering him into a long fall.

What can you tell us about Flyboy's history? Why does he have such a hard time convincing the hero community that he's not a joke?

Flyboy's parents were murdered by The Surgeon, one of The Red Cowl's primary enemies, in a sequence we'll see in issue two. The Red Cowl, feeling responsible for that loss, but also seeing possibilities in a kid who could fly and was very close to invulnerable, adopted him. The Red Cowl was already on the edge of not being taken seriously because he doesn't seem really bright. He wears a red cowl, so he decided his name should be...the Red Cowl. His insignia is his own face, so he's wearing his face on his chest. Barry was a boy who could fly, so he was designated Flyboy. So Barry began at a bit of a disadvantage, and the way some of their cases went down, with Flyboy often being the Constant Hostage, did little to instill confidence in the residents of Sol City.

You're working with a seasoned veteran in Tom Mandrake. What made him the right choice as an artist?

I really wanted an artist who has a modern sensibility but who could infuse that with a Silver Age vibe, and Tom's perfect for that. The more this looks like a classic Silver Age comic, the more subversive the story becomes.

You've talked about taking a kind of "BBC approach" to the current batch of Joe's Comics books, getting in, telling your story and getting out. What's the plan at this point for "Sidekick" in that regard? 

As with "Ten Grand," we'll do twelve issues, then take a break, recalibrate, see if there's another story we want to tell in this world about this character, and if so, we'll tell it. If not, we're done. Again, this is about just telling fun stories, not about creating franchises that run and run until they finally auger into the ground at several times the speed of sound.

Judging by the sales for "Ten Grand," readers have responded to this idea. The last time you spoke with CBR, the first issue had sold 67K copies, and then it was announced that it was going back for a second print. Have you seen any numbers for "Sidekick" yet?

I haven't heard numbers yet, the book only began taking pre-orders last week. We should know more in a few weeks. But yeah, we're very thrilled at how the Joe's Comics imprint has been received. We've easily topped 70,000 on issue one of "Ten Grand," which puts us right into the top 10-15 titles for that month, right alongside "Walking Dead."

Between your creator-owned comics, projects for other companies and your TV and film endeavors, do you keep a strict schedule for when you work on a particular project?

Yeah, I write ten hours a day, every day. I work on various projects during each day, depending on where my brain is at any given moment, so which I hit and in what order varies wildly from day to day and hour to hour. But that's the fun of it.

Finally, in addition to Joe's Comics, you have a few TV and film projects in the works under the Studio JMS shingle. How are things progressing with "Sense8" and "The Flickering Light?"

We're now in the prep stage on "Sense8," hiring personnel and staff and looking at locations. We'll need a long runway for this because we will be shooting in seven countries at once next year, and that means making deals with foreign production companies and scouting locations long before we start filming. The Wachowskis and I are also deep into writing the balance of the scripts for year one. "Flickering Light" is still in the casting process, and we hope to have that worked out soon.

J. Michael Straczynski and Tom Mandrake's "Sidekick" #1 debuts from Joe's Comics and Image on August 14.

DC Readers Name the 'Villain of the Year' in New One-Shot

More in Comics