The biggest thing to happen to Superman in years… is not making Clark Kent Superman. Funny how the world works, eh?
The WB's television show "Smallville" is a true success story, defying hard-core Superman fan expectations and seemingly gaining more viewers with every episode. Now in it's third season DC Comics has a companion bi-monthly comic book series that has not tied into the show greatly as of yet… but will begin to connect in some major ways. Clint Carpenter, script coordinator for the "Smallville" show and writer for the comic book, found some time in his busy schedule to chat with CBR News and brought readers up to speed on both series.
"'Smallville' represents a new vision of the origins of Clark Kent/Superman," explains Carpenter. "As the title indicates, the show (and the comic) take place in the town of Smallville, the town where Clark Kent was raised. Having found an alien infant subsequent to a meteor shower, Jonathan and Martha Kent took the child in and named him Clark, raising him as their own. 'Smallville' joins the action during Clark's teen years as he comes to grips with the powers his alien parentage endowed him with, and as he learns to use them wisely. The familiar characters from the DC vision of Smallville are there: the Kents, Lana Lang, and Pete Ross. One twist, however, that has made the show unique and interesting is that Lex Luthor is not only present in Clark's life at this early point, but he and Clark are good friends. Lex isn't yet evil, and the conflicts in the show often center around Lex's struggle between dark and light. Some new characters have been added for the show to aid (or hinder, as the case may be) Clark and Lex in their journeys. Chloe Sullivan is Clark's friend who is an aspiring journalist and who is fascinated by the phenomena caused by the meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth. Lionel Luthor is Lex's father, a ruthless tycoon who enjoys a love/hate relationship with his son."
Whenever a comic is launched to accompany a television series, the question of it's validity in the show's canon- it's official timeline- is asked and while "Smallville: The Comic" isn't going to change the show's continuity, it will accentuate it, says Carpenter. "I would say that the comic is more of a companion piece. Canon is established by the show, but hopefully the stories in the comics can strengthen and elaborate on the canon.
"Though the differences in the production schedules of the show and the comic won't always cooperate, we are trying to tie the comic more directly into the current events of the show. For example, the most recent issue, #5, features a story that takes place right after the end of Season 2. Since the beginning of Season 3 left a gap of about three months where we don't know the specifics of what had happened during that time, I think there's some interesting stuff to be found in issue #5 for fans of the show. #6 will also be a good example of this. The show recently entered repeats with a cliffhanger -- Lex is locked in a mental institution and seemingly insane. #6, which goes on sale the same day the second half of the cliffhanger airs, will elaborate on how Lex ended up there by giving some backstory that we haven't gotten in any of the episodes.
"In addition to tying to comic more closely to the show, we're also tying it more closely to 'Smallville's' presence online. They're doing great things at www.smallville.net and we're working to do some cross-promoting and sharing of storylines with them."
There's not going to be much in the way of major changes to the principal cast members- Clark, Lex & Lana- in the comic book, but Carpenter is enthusiastic about the fact that there's still an opportunity to do a lot of character introspection- it just depends on which characters. "One of my favorite aspects of the comic is that I can add some additional depth to the non-lead characters, particularly with the back-up stories. Writing stories around Chloe or Pete or Jonathan are a lot of fun, particularly when there isn't the necessity of tying their arc into Clark's or Lex's like there usually is with the show. #6, for example, has a back-up about Pete and his misadventures with the ladies. It's nothing earth-shattering plot-wise, but hopefully fans of the show will enjoy seeing one of the smaller characters in a slice-of-life-type situation. If my best friend had superpowers, would I use him to up my game? I think I would."
The success of "Smallville" calls into question why the Superman comic books sell so relatively few copies- with the exception of "Superman/Batman"- when The Man of Steel is one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world. "It's all about the journey," contends Carpenter. "We know how the story ends, but we're less familiar with how it gets there. I think past incarnations of the Superman story have assumed, more or less, that Clark was always good and Lex was always bad, if they broach the subject at all. In 'Smallville,' while they both have inclinations in those directions, they also sometimes act out of character, and often it seems they could go either way. I think the tension and conflict that creates, in conjunction with the universal popularity of Superman, are what draws people to the show. And it doesn't hurt that the actors are all ridiculously hot."
While Carpenter is script-coordinator, that doesn't make him one of the writer of the show… most of the time. "I do work on the show, but I'm not on the writing staff. I'm actually the script coordinator, which means that every third episode or so my name flies by really fast during the end credits. I work closely with the writers in proofreading their scripts and doing technical stuff to get the scripts ready for production. I did, however, write an episode last season as a freelancer. It was 'Precipice' -- the one where a stalker stabs Lex's girlfriend and Lex turns vigilante -- and as my only episode, I'd have to say that's the one I'm most proud of. The producers have been really generous in giving me opportunities to hone my writing skills through that episode and through the comics. Plus, just being around the writing staff and interacting with them day to day is an education in itself."
Getting back to the comic book, Carpenter admits he wasn't initially tapped to write the series, but a series of events put him in the Captain's chair. "Mark Verheiden, our co-executive producer and one of the writers of the 'Smallville' one-shot comic, was originally going to head up the comic, but was finding that his duties on the show didn't allow him a lot of extra time. Needing a back-up story, and being the nice guy that he is, he asked me if I wanted to pitch an idea. I did so, he liked it, DC liked it, and I wrote it. Then Mark got even more busy and offered to let me do the whole thing, with him as a co-plotter on most of the lead stories. I said sure, Al and Miles signed off on it, DC signed off on it, and here we are. Again, I'm a very lucky guy."
As he mentioned before, the comic series will tie into the cliffhanger at the end of November's "Shattered" (with issue #6), which found Lex Luthor committed to a mental institution by his father, who had been working to drive his son insane. But with comics having to be planned so fan in advance and the show running weekly, is it hard to coordinate everything? "Yes, it is hard to coordinate. I started writing the story in August when the two parts of the cliffhanger weren't even scripted yet, so I was working off outlines that often change significantly as they become scripts. In this particular case, the story ties into the cliffhanger but also into the season premiere, which had already been filmed, so that helped. And working with Mark is very helpful because he usually has a good sense of which elements of the scripts are unlikely to change as the stories get revised.
"There is, however, some risk involved. While Clark is in Metropolis on Red Kryptonite in #5, he robs an ATM. Shortly before the season premiere aired, they shot a new scene for it in which Clark robs a whole bank of ATMs. At that point, the comic was already being colored and it was too late to change, so to fans of both the show and the comic, it probably seems that Clark did an awful lot of ATM-robbing in Metropolis."
The release of issue #6 has been moved up two weeks in an effort to make sure similar "errors" don't occur- Carpenter says he hopes fans get a hold of this issue before they see the new episodes. "The closer the comic is tied to the show both polt-wise and time-wise, the more vital it feels, and since it was possible to do so, we felt like it would be better to release the comic on the same day as one of the episodes to which it's tied. Hopefully, the fans will agree."
That said, don't expect the series to go monthly anytime soon, with Carpenter explaining, "Honestly, I'm not sure when or if it will go monthly, or what the reasons are for doing it bi-monthly. I'm happy with the way things are, so I leave that stuff to Tom Palmer and Eddie Berganza."
Despite promotional pushes to the comic reader community and consistent success of "Smallville," the sales of the comic haven't been stellar. "As far as I know, DC is satisfied with the current sales, though I'm sure they'd always like more," admits Carpenter. "But I think there are a variety of reasons why the comic hasn't exploded in the rankings. First of all, the show reaches an audience of millions, most of whom have probably never set foot in a comic book store. The hard-core comic fans are vocal, but they're a fairly small proportion of the show's viewers. So, most fans of the show probably have a low awareness of the comic and of comics in general. Then, amongst the comic book fans, I think there's something of a general disdain for tie-in comics, with the idea that they exist just to cash-in on a popular TV show or movie, and that not much heart and skill goes into producing them. I hope we're turning that feeling around, and amongst tie-in books, I think we're doing pretty well. If anything, I hope comic fans will take notice of some of the great artwork we have. I think Tom Derenick, who has taken over the lead stories starting with #5, is doing fantastic work and his likenesses of the actors are incredible.
"As for how I would market things differently, we reach the largest audience with the show itself, so if I could have anything I want I'd love to have an ad for the comic during the show like they do with the music that's featured each week. The show's presence on the Internet is pretty high, too, so I think the connections we're going to have between #7 and #8 and the Web sites will help raise our profile with the non-comic fans."
If you came to this interview looking for hints to future "Smallville" or "Smallville: The Comic" events… you came to the wrong place. "Because I'm an excruciatingly slow writer (just ask Tom, my editor), and because we don't want to get too far ahead of the show's production, we don't plan all that far in advance," laughs Carpenter. "But if everything works out so that we can do the Web site tie-ins with #7 and #8 the way we want to, I think it'll be pretty darn spectacular."
So what if Clint Carpenter could do whatever he wanted with "Smallville" The Comic?" Well, it seems carte blanche wouldn't help him too much. "I really don't feel very restricted in the stories I write, so there's not a whole lot I'd do differently. I've had some calls for a Lana/Chloe pillow fight -- how's that sound?"