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Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

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Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

The all-star writer of Bitter Root on Superman! Plus, Bizarro talk!

It’s Holiday season, and we all know what that entails: Holiday comics!

This year, as ever, there’s a number of fun entries to the annual tradition, as creators and editors pull together a variety of works to celebrate.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

DC Comics has had a long a tradition of these, and it continues in today’s latest one-shot special: DC’s Very Merry Multiverse #1.

Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

Opening on a striking Ivan Reis cover, it’s an issue promising multiversal-mayhem. (Reis is a fitting choice, given he was the key artist on Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity, wherein the entire multiverse was re-forged and fleshed out, with a number of the characters seen above, like Captain Carrot and President Superman, being cemented there.)

There’s a number of fun stories in the 80-page giant, but the undeniable stand-out, the one that leaps out immediately at you, is the President Superman story. Put together by writer of David Walker, artist Gustavo Duarte, colorist Marcelo Maiolo, letterer Wes Abbott, and editor Andrew Marino, it provides a fun little glimpse into the universe of Earth-23, which hasn’t seen as much play as it probably should.

Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

Calvin Ellis of Earth-23, aka President Superman, first debuted in the pages of Morrison’s Final Crisis, then returned for a few short solo-stories in their Action Comics run, after which he proceeded to star as a key figure in their cosmos-spanning epic The Multiversity. Since then, Calvin’s popped up in the background of a few issues of Superman and Justice League event stories, used minimally in specials by editors with a passion for the character. All of which is a long way of saying, the character hasn’t seen much play, and despite being imagined as the most powerful black man in the multiverse, he hasn’t really been given to Black creators.

Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

That changes today, as David Walker, the incredible voice and writer behind the likes of Bitter Root (which you really should be reading), Shaft, Power Man and Iron Fist, Naomi, and countless more takes on the character.

But here’s the twist: It’s not just a President Superman story.

It’s also a Bizarro story.

Which makes total sense when you look at the delightful and brilliant artistic collaborator Walker’s partnered up with: Gustavo Duarte.

Duarte co-created one of the most memorable, charming and fun takes on the character in his 2015 DCYou mini-series, a comic that stood out then in the DC line-up, and still stands out even now, years later.

Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

So what happens when you put together Duarte, who is known for his incredible expressive cartooning, with Walker, whose work occupies such a wide range? You get a really fun, all-ages comic. It’s a story wildly different from most monthly comics DC publishes, amidst all the Batmen Who Laugh and Death Metals. It’s the kind of thing you might’ve seen in an issue of Tom Strong during the height of Alan Moore’s ABC Comics Line, and is closer to the work being done in the DC Kids/Young Adult OGN lines at the moment.

It might feel different from most of Walker’s usual output, both in the telling and sensibilities, but it’s also by no means something exclusively for kids. It’s a fun, sweet little holiday story for everyone, which is extremely kid-friendly. But, like the best stories of that type, and in classic Walker fashion, there is a prescient little message that underpins the whole thing.

Interview: David Walker and the case of President Superman and Bizarro

It’s a story built around a holiday that Superman created for the world, one wherein everyone, from any walk of life, anywhere, comes together in unison to celebrate. And like all excellent Superman stories, it kicks off on the eternally potent mantra: When the odds are impossible, we do the impossible!

The conceit of a world holiday like the above seems silly, but so is Superman, who always makes the impossible possible! The man who looks at the nature of things as they are, and rejects them, for he believes we can imagine better than that. For he is The Man Of Tomorrow. But for all that The Celebration Of Rapport seems silly, it’s a lovely expression of something powerful.

Built around two-days, The Day Of Giving, and The Day Of Receiving, it’s kind of the perfect expression of both Superman as an idea, and superhero fiction in general. You give away a part of your self, your very essence, self-lessly, to absolute strangers, and you do so with faith. And in so doing, you also receive the hopes, the fears, the dreams and burdens of others, complete strangers. And you carry them with you. You carry that weight and you feel it. You understand others, even if you’ve never known them prior. You care. The ability to do that, the willingness and heart to do that, that’s Superman. Thus The Celebration Of Rapport is, at the end of the day, Superman writ large on a cosmic-scale. The decency and capacity for goodness made into almost magical ritual of faith, one with the capacity to help and change anyone…even a Bizarro.

It’s a touching, beautiful story that you could hand to anyone as their first superhero story or Superman story. It’s about impossible things, and it’s just wonderful, wonderful cartooning that makes you grin. It’s perfect holiday comics, done in a mere 8-pages.

I had the chance to speak to the lovely David Walker on the story, and he was gracious enough to share his thoughts on the work and collaboration that went into crafting it. Now, without further ado, I give you, the man himself…

AIPT: This is your first meaningful crack at Superman and his mythology, yeah? You’ve done Naomi with Brian [Michael Bendis] and a bunch of Young Justice, which are all adjacent to and orbiting Superman, but this is very much your first shot at the enterprise. And it’s with Earth-23’s Calvin Ellis! That’s gotta be exciting!

David Walker: It is very exciting, but more because I’m working with Gustavo Duarte, and we have this new incarnation of Bizarro. I’m also excited because this is a more all-ages kind of story than what I usually write. I have friends with young kids, and I’ve really wanted to do something that was kid-friendly. I’m more excited about the possibility of this being some kid’s first Superman story than it being my first Superman story. And that’s not to say that this isn’t exciting, because it is.

AIPT: The thing I have to ask, given the occasion, What has your relationship and history been with Superman, over the years? Everyone’s got ‘their’ Superman, and it’s a character many are intensely passionate about.

DW: When my mom was a kid, she loved the Superman show starring George Reeves, and I grew up watching that in syndication. In some ways, it always felt like Superman was my mom’s hero, like he was a character meant for her generation. Back in the 1980s, when John Byrne offered his take on Superman, that’s the first time I felt like the character was someone I could relate to, and it was then that I really started finding him more interesting. But here’s the thing about me, I was a weird kid, and now I’m a weird middle-aged man, and for me, I was always more into Clark Kent than Superman. I know other writers who have these Superman stories they want to tell, but I’m more interested in telling Clark Kent stories.

AIPT: How did this lovely 8-pager come together? Were you and Gustavo put together first, or did you have the idea first and then have Gustavo come onboard?

DW: Andrew Marino reached out and asked if I would be interested in writing a Superman Earth-23 story for an upcoming holiday anthology. In my mind, before I even sent a reply, I thought, “I’ll only do this if it includes Bizarro of Earth-23, and if Gustavo draws it.” I’m pretty sure that I said something along those lines to Andrew, fully expecting to get shot down with one or both. I was really surprised when I got the thumbs-up on both.

AIPT: Gustavo’s an incredible artist, and it really shows here, as the synthesis of your voices really clicks. How was the experience of writing to him and collaborating with him? What was the process like?

DW: I’m an insane fan of Gustavo. He has his own section on my book shelf, and I study his work regularly, because he’s done so many incredible stories without any text. We had talked about finding something to collaborate on for about a year or so, and whenever any potential work came my way, the first thing I would wonder was if it could be something the two of us could do together. Since I had requested that Gustavo be the artist, and it had been approved before I started writing, I was able to write the story specifically for him. After the script was done, we bounced some ideas around, but I had 100% confidence in whatever he was going to do.

AIPT: How fun was it to get the pages back and see Gustavo’s take on not just President Superman, but a Green Lantern and Shazam Family hero?

DW: In the original script, I left it open as to who we would see in those appearances. Gustavo and I talked to Andrew about who it could be, with me begging for a Green Lantern. Now here’s the thing, Gustavo draws these really cool pig characters, so in the back of my mind, I was really hoping that he would do that for this story, but I didn’t want to push it. I told him from the beginning that I wanted him to have fun drawing this, and if he had fun it would come through on the page, which it did.

AIPT: As far as I can recall, I think you’re the first Black writer to write Calvin Ellis and Earth-23, and having written him, how do you feel about the character? Did you perhaps come out with a different feeling or sense for President Superman? How was your time in the headspace of the most powerful man in the world, I suppose, is my question.

DW: Am I really the first Black writer to chronicle Calvin Ellis? I didn’t know that. That’s crazy. My goal in writing this story was to do something fun and lighthearted that reminded me of the old Rankin Bass holiday specials I watched as a kid. The thought of writing President Superman was actually really daunting, because at the end of the day, Superman in general is daunting. Given the length of the story, I decided to lean into the idea of Superman being a truly beloved person, who serves as something of a unifier. I’m sure part of that decision was the tone of the story, but it was also just the current state of politics. There’s so much division right now, and I was certainly projecting my need for a little peace and harmony. I’ve since thought quite a bit about what I would do with a longer Calvin Ellis story, and it is so intimidating to me that I feel like I need to try and make it happen. Creatively it can be fun to run towards the things that scare you most.

AIPT: Bizarro is a terribly fun character, who’s had numerous takes over the years, including an excellent one by Gustavo. Coming to the character, what did you have in mind? What do you think works about that character, that still resonates, at least for you?

DW: I really fell in love with the Bizarro that Gustavo did with Heath Corson. I’d always liked the character, but there was something about him that really resonated with me, and started thinking about what it would like to write him. When the opportunity came up to write the Calvin Ellis Superman, I immediately wondered what the Bizarro of Earth-23 would be like, knowing that I wanted a bit of a comedic tone. I have a special place in my heart for the monster that doesn’t really know it is a monster, and is just trying to do their thing, but everyone looks at it and screams in terror. Deep down inside, I relate to characters like that more than I related to the hero of the story. Peter Boyle as the monster in Young Frankenstein is pure comedic brilliance, and I really wanted to take that kind of approach to Bizarro.

AIPT: Now for the big one, the one everyone is dying to know- Does Santa exist in Earth-23? And if so, is he pals with Superman? 

DW: Santa Claus on Earth-23 is a woman of indeterminate racial origins, and while she gets along with Superman, she’s not afraid to tell him if he’s done something wrong.

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