If we’re talking comic blind spots, this writer has always struggled with Superman. Batman’s pain and endless battle for control has always made sense. Same goes for Wonder Woman’s place as a perpetual outsider, or Martian Manhunter’s need for connection. But the Man of Steel always felt like a beacon of purity, a living deus ex machina for any pesky emotional or narrative buildings that needed leaping. Even if I could recognize how multifaceted Clark Kent truly was (as others have expressed in varying degrees of effectiveness), it felt as if the moment had already passed.
Then I read Superman: Space Age #1.
The new three-issue miniseries is the brain-child of writer Mark Russell and artist Michael Allred. Described by Russell as a “dream project,” the book follows a young Kent as he emerges as “the first superhero of the Space Age.” (There’s other similar “immersions” of some beloved DC heroes, FYI.) The story pulls threads from iconic ’60s moments, including the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, for a philosophic dissection of what makes Superman a powerful character and his many lessons/insights for humanity at-large.
Ahead of issue #1 debuting on July 26 (and final order cutoff, which is Sunday, June 26), I caught up with both Russell and Allred earlier this week via Zoom. There, we talked about this spin on Superman, balancing satire and spoof across the narrative, how Crisis on Infinite Earths factors into the story, and much, much more.
Some questions and answers were edited for clarity.
AIPT: How big of a Superman fan were are you going into this? And do you feel it was your role to either get people to come over to the side of Superman? Did writing this increase your appreciation of the character and what he represents?
Mark Russell: I’ve always been a Superman fan, and writing this definitely underscored that. Because I think that Superman has always been that needed thought experiment that superheroes have to be. How much different would the world be if we chose to be our best selves? And so for me, what I wanted to address with the Superman comic was what would it mean for us to approach the perils of the world without becoming one of them? Without giving into despair.
AIPT: Seems especially relevant these days.
MR: It was very cathartic for me to write it precisely for that reason Because I was dealing with so many of these questions just in in my own life as an American in the 21st century. It gave me an outlet to really answer these questions for myself in the form of a Superman comic.
AIPT: Does writing this maybe give you some of the answers? I think one of the things I realized about Superman is, ‘Oh, if he’s going through this stuff, if this solar-power demigod has all these problems and doesn’t understand things and can’t figure it all out, why should I?’
MR: Well, I think that it’s more than that. It’s more about how the struggle is the thing. It’s about trying to grow and come to terms with the world and to be what we need to become that matters, not necessarily the results.
AIPT: This first issue is pretty jam-packed. What was the process of the first issue, and hitting those big beats in terms of balancing so many historical and global events?
MR: That definitely was the challenge. Because there was a lot of things I wanted to talk about that weren’t necessarily able to make it into the comic. But rather than just do a sort of glancing look at a bunch of historical events, I wanted to talk deeply about a few [events]. So that was my approach, to just choose the few things I thought would be that were relevant not only to that world, but also to Superman’s development and Lois Lanes’ development and the characters they needed to become. So I focused on the nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union and the assassination of JFK and the Civil Rights Movement — just to see how these characters would interact with a world in that was changing so rapidly and a world that was in constant peril.
AIPT: Maybe it’s my own reading, but there’s a thread between these events beyond their historical significance. Namely, they’re all a shift in how we thought about the world before and after.
MR: Yeah, I think that the ’60s was, in a lot of ways, the most perilous time in American history. Because not only did we have a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, but it required of us a great leap of imagination in how we approach the world.
Because most of the people making decisions were people who had come of age in World War Two and the ’40s, and that sort of thinking was, ‘Well, we could go to win this war and everyone’s happy and united as Americans.’ And that would have been suicidal to approach the 1960s that way. It took things like the Civil Rights Movement, and it took things like realizing that the nuclear peril from the Soviet Union was inherently different than the conventional warfare threat from Nazi Germany in the ’40s. It took us making this leap in evolution to understand the world and how we understood people’s roles in it in order for us to survive that decade. I feel like we’re at another such place now, where we’ll either expand our understanding of the world and our extended understanding of who qualifies as human beings worthy of rights, or we will sort of drown in our own obsolescence.
AIPT: I know where my money is, sadly.
But, switching gears, I was definitely thinking about New Frontier while reading because I think that there’s a lot of similarities to both of these. Where there any specific moments or stories or creator runs that informed how you wrote this particular Superman?
MR: Well, I wanted this to be its own distinct thing as much as possible, but you never completely work in a vacuum. And so I’d say the two Superman stories that had the most impact on on this were obviously Crisis on Infinite Earths and, yeah, New Frontier, which I thought was fantastic both in the way it worked real history into its story and also how it felt fresh. It liberated itself from continuity and just tries to tell a story on its own terms.
AIPT: What about Crisis appeals to you?
MR: Well, I think that the fact that everyone is facing the end, whether they understand it or not, and yet they still manage to hold it together and become the people they need to become to me is incredibly hopeful, even though the backdrop of that hope is is doom.
AIPT: Is it difficult to write this character as kind of a conveyor or purveyor some kind of political message just given how beloved he is? I think of Captain American and how he “transcends” the political because people struggle with his perception as a character with real messages.
MR: Well, I don’t see Superman as inherently political. I just see him as someone committed to basic decency, which, unfortunately, has itself become political.
AIPT: Then does it become your job to maybe show people that? Do you have to engage with that idea, no matter how sort of ridiculous or silly, that basic human rights and decency are somehow a political issue? Or, is that for the reader to grapple with?
MR: Well, I think it’s worth the reader to grapple with to what extent they find these issues political. What I wanted to do with Superman is he’s this guy who does not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. He has too much power. Or there’s too much trouble in the world. He’s got to make decisions, and as long errs on the side protecting those who need protections, and in respecting people’s humanity, then I think that is what lies at the base of his character. And if anyone finds that political or controversial, I really think that’s on them.
AIPT: This is, again maybe just for me, the first time I get something about Superman that maybe others have: he absolutely is trying to figure things out. Is it easy to sort of tell that side of Superman?
MR: I definitely wanted the first volume especially to be about our Superman does not come out fully formed as Superman, but how he’s very much the product of the people in his lives, the implementers like his father, Jonathan, and his mother, Martha, and perhaps most significantly, Lois. The thing that ultimately allowed him to become Superman is his ability to understand that other people had viewpoints that were more informed than his own. That’s probably his most important superpower.
AIPT: Michael, were you referencing anything particular in terms of how you wanted Superman to look and maybe the overall look and feel of it all?
Michael Allred: First off, he’s the guy; he is the first superhero, period. So it’s daunting and exciting at the same time. I very much wanted to do something classic and timeless and and definitive. And I really feel like that’s what Mark is doing here, but with with a completely unique fresh spin. So that other opportunity was completely there to do everything that I was hoping to be a part of.
But then I had to figure out exactly how to approach him, even though is look has been fairly consistent. There have been different tweaks to the costume here and there, but also very specific looks depending on who the artist is. So it took me a while to shake it and get the exact feel that I wanted.
Variant Covers from Allred (L) and Steve Rude (R).
AIPT: There’s a thread of spoofing or satire across both your careers. Do you feel that still exists in this book? Or is this more of a direct love letter to Superman and everything that he represents? Or? Or can you have both?
MR: Well, I think one has to be subservient to the other. And in this one, I really wanted to write a serious Superman story about how meaningful the character is and about how much we need people willing to be their best selves in the face of immediate peril. But there’s satire involved. I mean, it was just more of a flavoring agent. It’s something that rears its head here and there as opposed to the main tone of the book.
MA: Yeah. If there’s any satire in it, it’s very subtle. I find this very sincere, and there’s something very pure and it’s just so iconic. There’s a lot of ways you can trip on on Superman, but I’ve been really impressed. The scripts from Mark have just been, and I think you called it, a love letter. What’s fun about it is how Mark’s approach has been able to be very definitive yet unique. It’s really impressive how it feels timeless and classic yet fresh. I’ve just really been blown away how this has all come together.
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