Max Landis Chronicles Atomic Skull's Origin in "Action Comics Annual"

Max Landis, who leaped into Hollywood orbit in early 2012 with his screenplay for "Chronicle," takes to the world of comics with his eight-page co-feature titled "Anchiale" for "Action Comics Annual" #1, illustrated by artist Ryan Sook.

"Anchiale" a name shared with the Greek Titan goddess of the warming heat of fire, features the first New 52 appearance of Atomic Skull, a supervillain created by Gerry Conway and Curt Swan in the 1970s. Landis, a diehard DC Comics fan, nearly broke the Internet earlier this year when he released "The Death and Return of Superman" on YouTube the same day "Chronicle" was released in theaters. And while many members of DC Nation were distraught by his 16-minute video, Landis told CBR News the short film, which included cameos by Elijah Wood and Simon Pegg, was a labor of love, and over the course of our conversation, Landis left little doubt the 27-year old writer's working knowledge of Superman, DC Comics and the New 52 as a whole is excellent.

Landis told CBR that his take on Atomic Skull is a hybrid of the two previous incarnations -- Albert Michaels and Joseph Martin -- and, in fact, he's not even sure he would consider him a villain in this particular story. He also shared his thoughts about scripting a silent story for his comic book writing debut, revealed what he would do with Superman if he was enlisted to write an arc or series featuring the Man of the Steel and provided brief updates on "Chronicle 2" and "Vigilant," the television series he's creating with "Homeland" producer Howard Gordon.

CBR News: DC Comics has shown an ability to have some fun at its own properties' expense over the years, most recently seen with the "Robot Chicken DC Comics Special. But despite your self-proclaimed love for Superman, I was a tad surprised to see you named as a writer on "Action Comics" Annual #1 following the release of, if I may say, the brilliant "Death and Return of Superman" earlier this year. Did anyone at DC Comics openly protest your YouTube tribute to the bestselling arc when you agreed to write this project?

Max Landis: They all loved it. I talked to a lot of people at DC that were able to laugh at it, more so than a lot of the fans. Some people got pretty angry at me, and even more people thought I didn't like Superman, which I thought was really funny. I spent two-and-a-half months of my life making that movie. When DC reached out to me about this, it was a tremendously meaningful moment for me. The idea that they would give me Superman and run wild with him was so intimidating. And, quite honestly, shocking.

Again, while you openly profess your love for Superman, you unabashedly admit your disdain for the blockbuster event story about his return and death. What is it that makes "Anchiale," on the other hand, a story worth reading?

I think what will make it compelling for readers is that it's almost like a ghost story. It's creepy. It also tells the story of the Atomic Skull very succinctly, but again, almost like a ghost story. In some ways, it's more about the death of a person. It's really just about one guy and giving one guy eight pages.

If you saw "Chronicle," you know nothing appeals to me more than to spend a lot of time with one character. I love to explore why they are the way they are. I've only got eight pages here, but I tried to do that.

Your story features the Atomic Skull, who's not exactly one of Superman's primary adversaries. He's not Lex Luthor. He's not even Toyman. Why him?

The Atomic Skull is a character that's always been a nefarious villain, but he's never reached the heights of the A-list villain. His, in a broad sense, anonymity was definitely something that really intrigued me.

I understand this is a silent story, meaning there are no words. That's an interesting, if not daring, choice as a first-time comics writer, isn't it?

For the story that I was writing, I realized words weren't necessarily important, and the character being featured, in this case the Atomic Skull, probably wouldn't talk a lot during the situation that he was in. I decided to use pictures to tell the story, because as a screenwriter, you don't get to do that. You can't just write what happens and it will happen. You've got to break it up on the page. But in comics, I found, you can really, really, really paint with a bigger brush. You can just say what's there and it will be there. You don't need words.

We know the Atomic Skull is featured, but does Superman play a role in your story as well?

You'll have to see. [Laughs]

Do you have a big Superman story that you would like to write one day?

What would I do if I had the keys to Superman? Honestly, my opinion of Superman has always been that he should be a normal guy. In as much the sense, we don't go too cartoon-y, we don't go too far into the idea that he's an alien. We just focus on how fucking weird it would be to be Superman. I would love to write a Superman comic, a series or an arc, which is about how bizarre it is that he's this guy who grew up in Kansas and he finds out that he's an alien. They sort of brush that over constantly, but this is a guy who, if the New 52 timeline works out, grew up watching "Alien," "E.T." and "Independence Day." And then he finds out, "Oh, that's me? I'm from space. I don't feel like I'm from space." That's what's so special for me. He's not a billionaire. He's not a fucking Amazonian princess. He's not even a particularly picked-on guy. He's not Peter Parker. He's just a dude. And to grow into a slightly smarter than average dude and find out you're Superman, that's fucking interesting to me.

Can you imagine if you were Superman dealing with someone like Lex Luthor? You are dealing with villains that are psychotic and want to kill you. It would take a toll on you. Of course you can say with old continuity, he's done this a million times but with New 52, I think there is room to do those stories again. Superman meeting The Joker, a character that can't actually hurt him, but easier scarier than most of his villains because of his disposition, is a fascinating story to write. Imagine if you met The Joker. It would be fucking terrifying.

I feel like he should be a way-in for readers, which is a way that he really hasn't been used as. That's what I'd do with him.

You sound like you have thought this through. Do you have an interest in writing more comics, Superman or otherwise?

If I could find the time, hell yes, but I'm very busy right now. It's an exciting time for me but I'm very passionate about comics and I made time for this because it was so exciting.

Did you grow up reading DC, or were you a Marvel zombie?

I started with X-Men and made my way to Spider-Man. From there, I went to Spawn and then I found Batman and I didn't look back.

DC will like that - it should be on the back of one of their trades. Before I let you go, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about "Chronicle 2." Recently your father, John Landis, speaking to "The Playlist," shared that your screenplay for the "Chronicle" sequel wasn't exactly what the folks at Fox were expecting. Can you update us on the project?

I have no idea what's happening with "Chronicle 2." We'll see.

Very well, Max. I'll ask you about one more project. You're working with "Homeland" producer Howard Gordon, on a new TV series for Fox called "Vigilant." Any news on that front?

Oh my god, that's going really well. It's super fun. I fucking love Howard Gordon. And I love [co-executive producer] Hugh Fitzpatrick. And, it's been really fun working with Fox TV. That's show is crazy. It's going to be nuts. I hope it can be a series, because it will be really fun.

"Action Comics" Annual #1 goes on sale October 31

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