Reflections: Hugh Sterbakov

It's not quite time to call the crazy superpowered kids from Top Cow's sleeper-hit series sophomores, but it's getting darn close.

The first two volumes of "Freshmen," co-created by Hugh Sterbakov and Seth Green and written by Sterbakov, covered the first year in the lives of average college students who just happened to be in a lab when a mad scientist's experiments went horribly awry, giving them strange powers and abilities. One character can jump into other people's minds and control them, two have telekinesis, one can cause earthquakes with his stomach, one can make anyone drunk with a single burp, and one grew a very long penis.

Sterbakov's signature mixture of comedy and drama never became top-sellers on their own, but the collected editions became instant hits with readers. Now Sterbakov is back with the one-shot "Freshmen: Summer Vacation Special" (with art by newcomer Sheldon Mitchell) that focuses on Green Thumb, a hero who can speak to plants and has a very unhealthy relationship with one he calls Susie. The one-shot sees Susie become a 50-foot ficus version of a woman scorned.

In this edition of REFLECTIONS, Hugh Sterbakov speaks to CBR about "Freshmen: Summer Vacation Special," and also teases what fans can expect from the upcoming third volume of "Freshmen."


CBR: Why decide to do a single issue special for "Freshmen" instead of launching another miniseries?

Hugh Sterbakov: A couple reasons, actually. First, I think Top Cow is still trying to figure out how to force us down the throats of the comic-buying public, which has decided that they like a side of dark with their dark. And also, a much better reason is that we're doing a tremendous amount of work on "Freshmen" behind the scenes at the moment, so we can spring a bunch of stuff on you later. Beware.

What are our favorite characters up to on their summer vacation?

Charles, Paula, Elwood, Liam and the Beaver have been hanging out with Liam's folks in Amish country. That much we'd covered in the back-up story in the trades. That's an important little tidbit that's going to have a big impact on what comes next after the Summer Special. Jacques is off in France, Renee has probably been stewing somewhere and, as you'll learn in the back-up story in the Summer Special, Annalee has been hunting her father. And Norrin has been -- oh wait -- that's a secret.

With all the monster plant growing, how much do you love old '50s sci-fi movies?

Actually, they always drove me bonkers. I loved the ideas, the flavor, the set-ups -- I would go ga-ga over the movie posters -- but then when I saw them they were almost always a huge disappointment. I'm too much of a writing snob to really enjoy them. I wind up sitting there and ignoring the bulk of the movie and rewriting it in my head, until the monster comes along and destroys everything. Then I'm happy.

No, I'm lying. I'm never happy. Then I'm less distracted, let's say.

Is there a lot of follow-up on the huge gigantic big cliffhanger that ended "Freshmen II" involving Norrin?

Not in the "Summer Vacation Special." Ha ha, sorry.

Why not?

I like to gauge exactly what the audience wants, and then give them the exact opposite. It's why I'm so successful. Um -- just kidding. Sort of. The truth is that it's too much to play out in a one-shot. It's a big, sprawling, emotional thing, something that will unfold well into the next full series, whenever and however that happens. I'd be selling that story short by cramming it into a one-shot, and I'd rather not do it at all than not do it justice.

The story turns out to be a very nice epilogue to "Freshmen II," and lets me clean up a couple of dangling story questions that aren't pivotal to the main cliffhanger. This story is going to let me open up a couple characters for new directions in the future without it feeling like an awkward transition.

The blessing and the curse with "Freshmen" is that we're extremely character-driven, and when you love characters you want to spend time with them. The sad truth is that the restrictions of the publishing schedule make it so I'm not able to deliver doses of these kids as often as I -- or the fans -- would like. But we're working hard to bust out into other mediums, and once that happens, a wider audience will follow and, hopefully, so will more facetime with our characters.

How hard is it to strike the correct balance with Charles and Susie, his plant? Obviously the relationship can be played for great laughs, but Susie also helped to coax Charles to near-suicide before.

That's a really good question. What I've done in the past is play Charles' plight as straight comedy for everyone but Charles. At the end of "Freshmen II," it was revealed that Elwood had, through his drunken stupor, gotten a little insight into how dark Charles' demons are, and that's going to draw them into a closer friendship. This is an ever-evolving story of a team coming together, and Charles has always felt like an outsider. But now, through Elwood, he's begun to find a brotherhood, and that's the key to a team. But Charles still has a lot of angst, and a lot of shame, and Susie will use that to manipulate Charles in the "Summer Vacation Special." It's a one-off line that should make sense to new readers, but those who've read and remember "Freshmen II" will know that she's really pushing his buttons.

Balance, though, between drama and comedy, has always been the key to "Freshmen." Invariably, I think our best issues strike that best balance. "Freshmen I" #3 is probably my best work on the series, and I think it's because the balance hit a real sweet spot.

Let's talk about your Summer Special, artist Sheldon Mitchell.

This is Sheldon's first book, but he's been studying under Marc Silvestri for some time now, including doing some background art for him. Sheldon also drew two exclusive covers for us, and the wonderful Rodolfo Migliari, who has delivered an astounding cover for every issue we've done to date, has outdone himself with a gorgeous cover that pays homage to the same 1950s sci-fi movies that inspired this issue.

Which character has surprised you the most over these three stories?

Brady, hands down. When I created the "Drama Twins," Renee and Brady, I sort of let them speak to me through their dialogue. It became clear early on that Renee was the aggressor in the relationship, and that was necessary because, let's face it, it's not palatable to watch a guy beat on a girl, emotionally or physically, in public. So Brady became this punching bag in the first series, and then I had the opportunity, in issue #4, to let him speak his mind about it. And I couldn't have been more thrilled with what came out, this impassioned plea about his love and attachment to this girl, who always seemed to be on the verge of really loving him before pulling back and beating him up. I had a relationship like that out of college, where I loved this girl and just wished she could be nicer. It was so hard to live with, and even harder to let go of our love. But she was toxic. And I was to blame too -- she made me into a person I wasn't proud of.

It wasn't until the first series was over that I started to think that, like me, Brady deserved more, and I began to explore a revolution for him. That led to the great storyline that dominated "Freshmen II," which was Brady striking out on his own, standing up to Renee and trying to find a life for himself. Learning to read, learning to face his demons.

Looking back, what are you most pleased with about the "Freshmen" universe?

I truly love these characters. I have a lot of frustrations, both with myself and the universe, about how things have gone, but I'm so very proud of the characters. I think the messages of the series are sound. It'd be really easy for a pundit to disregard the book because of drug use, or because they don't like the way our Amish character is portrayed, or they don't like comedy in their comics, or any other reason. Maybe Liam wears buttons when they should be hooks, or maybe he's got a beard when he shouldn't. But this is a young Amish boy who is alone and afraid, bound by his determination to do right by God and also growing more and more protective of his friends. I'll take that predicament, that character's heart and his righteousness, any day. And I'm just as proud as the voices of the other characters, most of which started as some variations of a cliche and have grown into wonderful young adults who surprise everyone,

Whether I'm meeting a 70-year-old literature snob or a 14-year-old cynic or a 33-year-old hipster, I can show them the "Freshmen" trades without having to explain myself or apologize for anything. That's really nice.

On the other hand, what do you need to work on the most, or what do you look back on and cringe about?

I'm still trying to find a way to slap this book in the faces of mainstream comic fans. It just may not be possible, with the dark turns the most popular books have taken in the past couple years. But if it is, I'm determined to do it. To that end, I think we need more action. Mr. Fiddlesticks was a genuine super-powered bad guy, and really scary in his own right, but I probably underused him. As we expand into other mediums, though, I hope I'll get a chance to revisit Mr. Fiddlesticks, and really explore his creepiness.

Also, "Freshmen II" started out too slow, and I'm always cramming for space, so pacing definitely continues to be an issue for me.

And then there are things that make me cringe that are beyond my control, like the myriad of problems we had trying to finish the second series. We switched artists, had late books and an avalanche of other problems that squashed the impact of "Freshmen II" #6, which was, in my mind, going to be a mind-blowing surprise climax that really grabbed people by the throat and told them they had to be reading this series.

How were sales on the second volume's trade paperback?

Sales of both trades have been surprisingly strong. The first trade sold out and is now in its second printing, and we just released a hardback of it as well. And I understand the second trade is right behind it -- someone told me both books were in the top 10 sellers for the past year. That person could be a filthy liar trying to keep my chin up, though. The second series was greenlit based on the sales of the first trade, so if we keep going like this, hopefully we'll be able to do more.

We spoke with Top Cow publisher Filip Sablick a few weeks ago and he said the third volume of "Freshmen" isn't on the schedule yet. What gives?

It hasn't been possible -- I've been too busy working on a couple other projects, both "Freshmen"-related and otherwise. The "Summer Vacation Special" is out there now, so we'll see how well it does and then put our heads together with Top Cow to see what makes sense for everyone. The intellectual property is on the launching pad, so to speak, right now. If it takes off, you'll likely be wearing "Freshmen" underoos until you're in an old age home. If not -- well -- my dog and I will cry ourselves to sleep for a couple weeks and then go back to the drawing board.

What can we expect from the third volume when it develops?

The big headline is that we'll have yet another new romance that's going to shake up the team in a new way. I'm determined to get more insight about Elwood and Liam, and a new villain, one who will be somewhat familiar to readers, is on-deck to shake things up a little. Quite honestly, I haven't given a tremendous amount of thought to it; I don't like to tease myself.

Are you planning on writing any more specials like this?

It's not my preference as far as format, but I'd rather do this than nothing. It's a practicality issue more than anything else -- a question of what my schedule will permit and what the market will support.

How many more "Freshmen" stories do you have for fans to look forward to?

I'd like to at least see the kids graduate college and move on to the real world. I have some notes on the big climax at the end of their senior year that would put a fine point on the themes of self-discovery that we've been exploring.

Next Week: Kurt Busiek makes his "Reflections" debut in a two-part interview that dishes on all the "Trinity" questions you can't find the answers to anywhere else!

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