Superman's 'Wonder'-Land: Adi Tantimedh talks 'JLA: Age of Wonder'

It's been dubbed by some as "The Year of Superman" at DC Comics, but it's seems as though it could also be called "The Year of Elseworlds" without being incorrect. The Elseworlds line, where stories of alternate worlds and imaginaries stories are told without the restrictions of the "main" continuity, is coming back quite strongly in 2003 with Mark Millar's highly anticipated "Superman: Red Son" and the talked about "JLA: Age of Wonder" from comic book writing newcomer Adi Tantimedh. It's his first major published comic book work and, as he explained to CBR News, it's a project close to his heart.

"'JLA: The Age of Wonder' is a two-part prestige graphic novel due for release on April 9th," Tantimedh told CBR News. "It's an epic scientific romance about what happens when Superman emerges in 1876, when the industrial revolution is about to go into full-swing, and he and his fellow science heroes proceed to change the world with the inventions they bequeath to society. However, the world changes so fast that things go out of control, to the point where the Germans fight the first World War in 1911 with the atomic bomb. The heroes helped build this world, and now they have to fight to save it.

"The series explores how rapid technological change can alter a world, and how the direction the world goes in can be hi-jacked by the agendas of businessmen and politicians; how simple ideals are not enough. That ideals must be fought for and protected.

"The initial spark for the story was the question, 'What if H.G. Wells wrote a Superman story?' Since superheroes are an off-shoot of science fiction, Superman and the Justice League were the perfect vehicles with which to explore themes of history and technological change."

The story of how Tantimedh (accomplished in other fields but unknown to most comic readers) got his foot in the door is one that is bound to be remembered if for no other reason than the simplicity of it all. "I just phoned up Andy Helfer and ended up pitching the idea to him," says the writer. "Andy said it was the fact that I'd been working in film and television, and had written a short film that won a British Academy award, that got me in the door. It indicated that I had writing experience and that other people have already taken a risk on me. Andy was as tired of generic superhero stories as I was, and was interested in doing a story that had more bite to it."

To that end, Tantimedh assembled a group of characters that he felt best represented the different facets of superheroes as a whole, but also could play off his "science heroes" notion, making sure there was always one character at the forefront: Superman. "The heroes chosen for this story are mostly science-based, since they're logical off-shoots for a Scientific Age and an Age of Wonder," he explains.

"Superman is the root of it all, of course. Since he emerges in 1876 instead of 1938, he would not technically be a superhero, since there were no superheroes in the late 19th Century. He would be inspired by the spirit of the time, and be a scientist-adventurer. And he would end up bringing about a host of other scientist-adventurers as well, including Theodore 'Ted' Knight, who becomes The Starman, Bartholomew 'Barry' Allen, who becomes The Human Flash, US Army Captain Harold 'Hal' Jordan, who becomes the first Green Lantern of Earth. And they don't form the Justice League, but rather The League of Science. Later on, other science heroes emerge, like 'Eel' O'Brien, The Plastic Man, and Raymond Palmer, The Atom.

"When times turn dark, the world also sees the emergence of a hardcore-socialist Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, who defends the underclass in the Lower East Side of New York, and the grim, gargoyle-like Batman. And a very tragic Princess Diana of Themyscira.

"All of them products of this new world Superman and the League have brought about."

Some fans have always felt that Superman, as a character, is unfairly revered by DC and some creators, but Tantimedh explains that those fans simply need to see that Superman is, well, super. "Superman is the figure that kids fall in love with at a very young age, and the simple reason is that he's very pure. He's here to help, and that's quite admirable. Who wouldn't be touched by that?"

All good heroes need a good villain and with Superman as the chief protagonist, it would make sense that Lex Luthor is the chief antagonist. Following the trend established in the eighties, Luthor will be a business tycoon, but Tantimedh does admit that he wouldn't mind breaking the mold when it comes to Lex. "Well, this Luthor is actually the business tycoon model in my story as well. He begins as a lowly clerk in Edison's Menlo Park workshop, but he's already someone who can see the big picture, and the ambition and vision to see it through. He's an enabler who can bring the right people, be they scientists, moneymen or politicians together to make things happen. I made him symbolize the ruthless advance of Big Business and the relentless pursuit of Power. In Book One, he's a young businessman looking for the main chance, and by Book Two, he's become Secretary of War, with the ability to redraw the map of the world, but his chessplayer's eye view means the countless lives sacrificed to his vision of the world are nothing but statistics.

"In effect, the story is about Superman and Luthor's visions for the future directly at war with each other.

"Having said all that, it would be interesting to explore Luthor as the mad scientist one day. I'm sure there's a good story to tell that makes him a bit more than 'Arrr, I hate Superman and I must invent a giant Cuisinart that will kill him!'"

One way that Tantimedh is taking the Superman/Luthor dynamic further than the current Superman comic books is by using it to explore some political and philosophical notions, which is something many comic books are criticized for not doing. "Superheroes are metaphors," explains the scribe. "Once you realize that, the dramatic possibilities are endless. It seems a waste to just have men in tights punching each other and dole out another escapist power fantasy when the material at hand is a lot richer than that. And that doesn't mean you have to create a load of moody, overly-earnest, po-faced and speechifying stories either. Superheroes are larger than life, and they should be in stories that explore real ideas, but still in a fun and entertaining manner.

"Superman represents selfless altruism and hope, and his stories should be morality tales about the never-ending battle to help people and do good in an imperfect world. I personally think that's more interesting than just having him fight Darkseid or yet another Superpowered Villain of the Week, or wallowing in the banal soap operatics or trouble in his marriage to Lois or whether Clark's going to be fired from the Daily Planet."

As Tantimedh spoke to CBR News about the general plot of the two issue prestige format mini-series, explaining how the series would cover technology affecting social and political change and then showing the heroes in WW1, it became clear that many would see eerie similarities between this book's contents and the current world situation. "Ironically, I finished writing the script months before September 11th, 2001, and have not altered a word," admits Tantimedh. "At the time, I was wondering whether the story had any relevance beyond entertainment. Then 9/11 occurred, and now I have people telling me how prescient the book is, since it covers terrorist bombings, and, especially in Book Two, anxiety about going to war, the devastation of a Western city, an attempted political coup and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, even a fin-de-siecle version of a Star Wars defense shield (which Tesla had designed but never got to build in real life).

"I think the readers might find the book more thought-provoking than we originally planned, but I can't predict how they'll react to it."

The story will also cover a large time period in only two issues and Tantimedh feels that by doing so, it gave the story a better sense of change. "A story set in the past becomes a prism through which we can examine ideas and issues from a more removed, objective angle than if it were set in the present. This is specially when you deal with hot-button issues like going to war, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

"And having the story span a 30-year period is a way to convey a sense of rapid change. I'd been thinking about Alvin Toffler's writings about how technological change can accelerate the development of society. Besides, I also wanted to see if I could actually pull it off."

But even with the rapid pacing that is in place to give the reader a strong sense of change, there's still the challenge of balancing characterization with the plot and Tantimedh feels that he's up to the challenge. "Well, character develop and plot progression are a delicate balance, and we went through several drafts of the script before we got it right. In the end, it was a matter of identifying the key points of the story and the key moments that showed the characters' development as they moved through the story.

"Granted, some of the supporting characters may not have gotten as much 'screentime' as I would've liked, and there a lot of characters and scenes that had to be left out, like the League's encounter with Aquaman, or the emergence of 'the Hawkman of China,' or even the exploits of a Mata Hari-style spy named the Black Canary and her mysterious controller Oracle, to name a few."

The artist on the series is Galen Showman, who Tantimedh reveals wasn't the original artist, but turned out to be an excellent choice. "We had originally approached P. Craig Russell, but Craig was already busy with his adaptation of Wagner's 'The Ring of the Niebelung.' He suggested Galen, who's a frequent collaborator of his. Galen has incredible sensitivity for the subtleties of people's faces and how they interact, as well as a classical sense of design and draughtsmanship which suited the Fin de Siecle feel of the story perfectly.

"Galen's perfectionism and the sheer epic scale of the artwork just takes my breath away. He obviously went off and did his own research on the period and invented a lot of the architecture in the books. What began as throwaway sentences in the script became some amazingly intricate, painstaking drawings that must have taken days!

"Then there's his astonishing emotional range: there's something incredibly subtle that he did with the way he drew the characters in the book. The characters start out looking light and funny, but their facial expressions deepen and take on shades of pain and darken as they grow older, suffering personal tragedies and losing their innocence. This is especially true in his depiction of Superman and Luthor, who each go from youthful optimism to, respectively, sadness, guilt, and even bitterness and corruption.

"This is what comic book storytelling is really about!"

The pleasure of working with one talented artist in the form of Showman was enhanced by working with another talented artist in Russel, whose work Tantimedh admires and who he says contributed greatly to the series. "Craig provided the page layouts and brought his sense of pacing and design to the story. He broke down a very intricate script and freed up Galen to explore the details and the emotions of the story."

Even with many looking at "Age of Wonder" a bit more critically because it is his first major comic book assignment, Tantimedh says the experience was a pleasure and he was able to work with the world's biggest heroes by using a simple philosophy. "It was great fun to write Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al. The only pressure was writing them well enough to be true to the story, and I can say that they aren't any easier to write than any other flesh-and-blood character that doesn't wear a costume or have powers. It still takes the same amount of thought. The moment a writer condescends to the characters he's writing, he's sunk.

"I had a lot of fun immersing myself in the research, which gave me an excuse to catch up with a lot of American social and technological history. It was great fun research in libraries and on the Internet, looking at blueprints of unrealised inventions and speculating on what would've happened if they came to be. And then using it to write the world and the characters as believable people, playing with the fact that, for example, Edison was not a very nice man, or that Tesla was hugely eccentric, and having them interact with the likes of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor.

"The other fun part was seeing the visuals brought to life by master illustrators like Craig and Galen."

This same maturity is being applied to all his dreams for the comic book world and particularly, he hopes to contribute to comic books becoming a mainstream medium once again. "From a practical level, I want to write comics that are entertaining, fun, and also culturally relevant, i.e. reflecting life and culture as it continues to evolve and change. That's the beauty of the immediacy of pop culture forms, and comics are in an especially good position to play with the toys. I want to write comics that aren't just about superheroes, but in other genres as well, such as romantic comedies, social satire, action thrillers, crime noir, science fiction, and so on. 'JLA: The Age of Wonder' enabled me to tackle historical fiction and political commentary on top of superhero action. My writing the forthcoming 'Blackshirt' for Moonstone books lets me indulge my yen for darker, more adult noir fare.

"On a greater level, I also want to see comics become more accepted as part of the culture, with the same legitimacy as prose novels and movies, and the key is well-written stories in as many genres as possible, not just superheroes, which have, alas, trapped the medium in its current ghetto. Japan has the most pervasive comics culture in the world, with comics in every imaginable genre (including a few we haven't thought of in the West) and appealing to every possible age group and demographic, where it's so much a part of everyday cultural life no one even bothers to think about whether it's a degraded medium or not. They'll talk about the merits of a manga on a talkshow as they would a new play or novel."

In order to achieve his goals, Tantimedh feels that his aforementioned experience outside of the comic book world gives him an edge and helps him approach writing with a fresh voice. "Well, working in film and television trained me to write dialogue that sounds true and natural coming out of people's mouths, the rhythms and cadences of conversation. And it's probably because I've worked with a lot of really good, dedicated people in Film and Television, so I've been hardwired to avoid writing cliché, especially the cheesy clichés that have dominated superhero comics for a long time.

"Having said that, writing comics is actually more difficult than writing a screenplay, in that screenplays describe continuous action, while comics depict a succession of still images to connote movement and narrative progression. You have to describe every single still picture. When you write comics, you and the artist are also the casting director, the choreographer and the Director of Photography as well, creating every detail from scratch."

Going through that difficult process and putting all this passion into "JLA: Age of Wonder" has led Adi Tantimedh to create a project he feels that a lot of readers will enjoy. "It tells a primal, mythical story depicting Superman and the JLA in a manner that isn't often seen. It taps into something that's been on people's minds. It'll immerse you in a world that's familiar yet different, and it has great action and explosions. With very beautiful art."

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