In the current arc of “Action Comics,” Smallville becomes “Horrorville” under the stewardship of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder. As the Man of Steel reels from the aftermath of “Superman: Doomed,” his hometown’s recovery has been interrupted by a horrific monster that seems to have taken over the mind of virtually all of its residents. Cut off from the outside world, with his ally Toymaster under the control of a new kind of monster, Superman — along with Lana Lang and Steel — struggle to free Smallville from its control.
CBR News spoke with Pak about the current storyline, including the reason he and Kuder gave Superman a beard, the draw of Smallville as a setting for Superman stories, the challenge of bringing horror into the mix and much, much more. Plus, he also discusses bringing a Joker-level foe into the picture for the upcoming arc of “Batman/Superman.”
Greg, you’ve brought a really cool concept to “Action Comics” in the “Horrorville” storyarc: bearded Superman! How long have you been wanting to add Superman to the masses of bearded folk?
Greg Pak: [Laughs] It wasn’t anything I had been planning on for years — it wasn’t like it was in my back pocket — “Finally, here’s my opportunity to do bearded Superman!” I think this came about because at the end of “Doomed,” he’s at the end of the universe, and he’s flying back towards Earth as fast as he can, but it takes him two months. A beard just made sense. Over the course of two months, Superman might grow a beard, and that might be a cool way to show the toll of this journey to indicate that time has passed. The fact that he keeps it is to show a shift in mindset after coming back to Earth after “Doomed.” I’ve been blown away by how many people out there in the world seem to love the beard! It’s been kind of fun. I think everyone who’s drawn the beard has done a great job with it. It’s a bearded kind of world right now, so I think the time was right.
Moving on to the real focus of “Horrorville,” this arc certainly occupies a slightly different wheelhouse than your previous arcs, really putting the emphasis on horror aspects of the DCU.
We’re always trying to come up with new ways to tell Superman stories and new opponents we can give Superman. Just in thinking over things — I’m not sure where this came about, but I stumbled into it and realized I hadn’t seen this kind of story told with Superman. I’m sure everything’s been done in the 75 years of the character’s history, but this particular thing I hadn’t seen any time recently, and it seemed like it would be a fun thing to do.
Also, it’s always good to give Superman opponents that he can’t just punch out, and this was a good way to challenge him. Horror, I think, works because we care about the characters. It’s all about emotion, really. Horror movies often have some kind of subtext of guilt or tragedy, and in the wake of “Doomed” in particular, it felt like a good way to give us a way to explore some of that subtly — to explore some of the emotional and relationship stuff that’s going on in Superman’s world. The genre just lends itself to that in a really great way.
It’s clear that during “Superman: Doomed,” Smallville got hit really hard. What’s the draw to exploring Smallville at this point?
Well, Smallville has had a lot of stuff happen to it, and the people of Smallville in the wake of “Doomed” — they were all put into comas in “Doomed” by Brainiac, and now something very strange is going on with them. It felt like a great way to pick up on those threads that had been laid down during “Doomed,” but let them play out in a completely different kind of story.
Smallville is also his hometown, so it provides a great place to tell stories that matter to Superman. Yes, he cares about everybody because he’s Superman, but when you set a story in Smallville, you’re able to draw some great backstory and delve a little deeper into Superman’s relationships and responsibilities, because we’ve got Lana there and other folks that Superman knew as a kid. It’s a great place to tell Superman stories.
I’m glad you brought that up, because part of the arc so far has also been about Clark remembering his early experiences as a child growing up in Smallville. How important is that contrast between child and adult going to be as the arc progresses?
You will see some more of that. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoilers, but there definitely is.
Horror movies are primal, in a way. Horror stories often dredge up childhood horrors. That stuff is part of the story in certain ways.
Bringing Toymaster in from the “Batman/Superman” arc was a nice surprise. Is it fair to assume that you have bigger plans for the character moving forward, should he survive?
[Laughs] He’s a great character. He’s been a lot of fun to write, and if he survives, I’m sure we’ll see more of him.
Seeing Lana Lang and John Henry Irons’ relationship progress is also very cool. How do you see their relationship heading as your run on the title continues?
That’s a great question. They seem to be very well matched, and we’ll see if that continues. I don’t want to let loose with any spoilers, but if you care about those characters, keep on reading. There are some pretty big Lana/Steel moments coming up in issues #38 and #39 of “Action.” For that, in particular, you’re going to want to keep your eyes open.
Lana has gotten a renewed focus in “Action.” What draws you to the character? What excites you about writing her?
She’s been a ton of fun to write because she’s somebody who grew up with Superman. She’s his closest childhood friend, she’s the only one from his childhood who knows his secret, and has kept it all these years. Having a character like that, who knew him back when, provides some great perspective on the book. There’s something really nice about having a friend from the past who can ground your character, and call your character out, even.
It’s also one of those neat dynamics where she knew him when he was just Clark Kent, just a regular kid in Smallville. That’s fundamentally who she thinks he is. Maybe that’s even who he thinks he is — but he’s also Superman, now. It’s nice to have someone who remembers you before you were all that. [Laughs] Having someone like that who can bring back those moments from the past, but also talk to him in a different way from people he might have met as Superman gives him a whole new dynamic that’s really rich for building character in those moments.
Also, I dig Lana because she’s big and bold, but also a regular person. She has very human reactions to things. She’s not perfect — she knows it. Right now, she’s harboring this anger toward Superman, towards Clark, for killing her parents, even though she knows that’s irrational. He was saving the whole world, but she can’t help but feel that. That kind of very human reaction from a very good person, struggling with those kinds of feelings has been — I love writing those kinds of moments. I think they bring some emotional honesty to the book that a book like this needs.
You’ve been working with Aaron Kuder for a while now, who’s really been able to let loose on some of these horror elements. What has it been like to collaborate with him on the designs?
Aaron’s amazing. He’s tremendous with monster design. I think he’s one of the best monster artists in the business. It’s very hard, I think, to come up with a monster design, a design for a new villain or a new threat that feels fresh and new, just because looking at comics alone, we’ve got almost a century of people drawing monsters every day! [Laughs] It seems like everything has been done. For someone to be able to come in with a fresh eye and come up with something fresh and new is just amazing.
From day one when we started working together, I was blown away by the kinds of stuff he could draw. Also, everything he draws feels real. It all feels visceral and it works organically, if that makes sense. You feel like there’s a coherent biology behind it all, and you don’t understand it all necessarily, but it’s there. It makes it feel real, and real is scary — especially when you’re dealing with fantastical things. He’s just tremendous to work with.
Shifting over to “Batman/Superman,” you’ve said that the upcoming villain the Unseen Terror is an attempt to give Superman a Joker-level rival. What is it about the Unseen Terror that really hammers this point home?
Well, Superman has dealt with Doomsday, which just killed everything in its path. He’s dealt with people like Lex Luthor or Zod, who are ruthless about fulfilling their objectives. But the thing about Luthor and Zod is that they’re evil, but you can understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to achieve. There’s a way in which you can wrap your head around it and deal with that person. You have some sense of the rules that person has for him or herself, and what they’re going to do. With Doomsday, once you figure out that he’s biologically driven to destroy every living thing, you know how to deal with that. There’s a way in which, with those villains, you can kind of wrap your head around [them].
But Joker is incomprehensible. You don’t really know what motivates him — and even if you figure that out, you don’t know what he’s going to do next. He’s unpredictable. Having Superman deal with that kind of villain just felt like a great opportunity. He’s out of his wheelhouse — that’s the kind of villain that Batman deals with all the time. Superman’s not used to that, and in particular, he’s not used to dealing with someone who’s as lethal and unpredictable as the Joker, but powerful enough to genuinely challenge Superman. That’s a terrifying combination. The big question is, “Who is Superman’s Joker?” and that’s what we’ll find out as the story progresses.
As they discover this together, how will the relationship between Batman and Superman continue to progress as a result?
Superman is leaning on Batman a little bit to figure out how to deal with this. Superman’s normal methods may not work. Presumably, he will learn something more about that than he knew before. By having to deal with a villain that’s like Batman’s villains, he may need more of Batman’s help, and he may learn more about his friend that he didn’t fully grasp before.
Similarly, Batman may learn something about who Superman is by the time this is over. How does Superman deal with a villain like Batman’s? Does he do it differently? What does Batman learn from that whole thing? That’s one of the glories of doing this book. You’ve got these characters that are so similar in many ways, but very different in methodology and motivation. They challenge each other in interesting ways, and end up learning from each other in interesting ways. This provides an opportunity for that kind of story.
Ardian Syaf came on recently, taking on art duties from Jae Lee. What do you think makes Ardian a good fit for the book, and for the arc you have planned with the Unseen Terror?
Ardian is great. Every page he turns in, he’s got the clean lines and amazing detail of somebody like Jim Lee. He can deliver that huge action like with JRJR, and then he does great subtle character stuff like the Kuberts. He’s this amazing combination.
With this story in particular, there are a few things that I love — he’s totally evoking this sense of dread that this kind of mystery evokes. There are a few pages which get a little stylized that really contribute towards that. There are a few pages that include some Joker stuff that he’s done amazingly well with. I think he gets the tone of the story really well.
You just look at the pages of Superman and Batman throughout this story, and he’s nailing it. Superman’s got this open-ness to his face. You can read his emotions more clearly because of who he is. When he’s faced with these kinds of horrors, Ardian’s doing a great job of just bringing it out. But with both Superman and Batman, as the tension ramps up in the story, you can just read it in the lines of their faces. It’s just the way Batman sets his jaw, or Superman’s eyes. In every issue, there are panels that are just jumping out at me. I’m loving working with Ardian and I hope people check it out just for him. He’s totally amazing.
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