The last couple years have been rather intense for Superman. He’s been away in space. His young son, Jon Kent, is now all grown up and rocking the red and blue. Oh, and his greatest foe, Lex Luthor, is currently in the slammer. So, what is the Man of Steel to do? Perhaps join a book club?
We’ll find out the next phase of Clark Kent’s (newly secret [again]) career with the all-new Superman #1, from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Jamal Campbell. The book, which plays a key role in the Dawn of DC event, not only tackles those aforementioned questions, but also Supercorp, a “secret project…Lex [has] given to Superman.” Expect not only some interesting answers (and more questions), but a classic Superman tale, one where the heroes are big and brave, the baddies are nasty and sinister, and there’s plenty of heart and humanity to explore.
With issue #1 due out February 21, we caught up with Williamson and Campbell earlier this month via Zoom. There, we talked about the duo’s take on Big Blue, the best parts of Lex Luthor, their references and inspirations, and the larger motifs of this series, among other interesting tidbits.
Warning: minor spoilers below for issue #1 and even more minor details for issue #3.
AIPT: What was it like when you landed this gig? Was it more awe-inspiring or terrifying?
Jamal Campbell: Honestly, I’m not the type of person to get fazed by much. But I did have that one moment of like, ‘Oh, God, they give me the keys to Superman. What are they doing?’ But then it’s also like, I know, I can do this. And I know I’m going to have fun with it. So I’m just going to go with it. Also, for the last three years, I’ve been working on Naomi. And I’ve been working on Far Sector. They’re both new characters and new worlds, and I was pretty much designing a lot. Versus Superman now; I know what Superman looks like, and it’s a classic look that’s almost the standard for superheroes. So I didn’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, am I designing this? Is it going to look right among the rest of the DC Universe?’ I knew what everything was like, and I just got to go and have fun. So it’s less terrifying and more freeing compared to what I was doing before.
Joshua Williamson: I have way too much work to do to stress out like that. Like, I would end up chilling in my office just staring at the ceiling if I let myself go down that path. I have a lot of work on my plate all the time, and so I don’t have time to do that. But, I mean, I’m both ways of stressing out about it. And then sometimes taking a moment to enjoy it and appreciate where I’m at and the privilege every once in a while — I almost always don’t really get to enjoy that until projects are over. But even then it’s like a day of like, ‘Cool. I did it.’ Then I get back to work.
AIPT: Yeah, sorry, I have 1,000 things to do today.
JW: It was kind of what Jamal was saying it was like: We knew we were playing with something that was so iconic. How do we take all these iconic pieces and have fun with them.
Every comic I work on, I have to hear the voice of the characters. And once I start hearing the voice of the characters, it gets easier and easier and easier. And with this book — I actually worked on Superman before — but it’s different to be in his head. The first character that I started to hear was Lex Luthor. And once I started hearing Lex, then I heard Clark, and then I heard Lois, and then I heard Jimmy. And then I start hearing them bounce off each other, and it gets easier to write.
The only time I thought, ‘Oh, this is a big deal’ was when I was actually at the grocery store. I’m wearing a Superman shirt and somebody stopped me — someone that worked there — and she said, ‘I love Superman. That’s my favorite character.’ And I was like, ‘Cool.’ But then I stopped and said, ‘What do you love about it?’ And I think when she started talking about it, her whole thing was, ‘I really love seeing him fly and what that means and the idea that a man could fly above America.’ That really spoke to her. It’s about believing in the impossible. That’s one of things that Superman can help you do. I remember walking away, going into the produce section, and even though #1 was done by then, I still had this moment where the weight hits you, and you’ve got to get back to work. But I love the character and I love the character’s mythology. It’s just been really fun to play in it. That ends up being the focus — just having fun and not letting that stuff kind of get into your head a little bit.
AIPT: What’s it like to write Superman as he’s coming off a lot of big events and changes? Does that shift the character at all? Is he more attached or less attached to his own mythology?
JW: It’s a bit of both, right? Like, it’s a new chapter. But you know, I’m a continuity junkie; to me, all those stories happened. So this is the Clark after those stories happened — I never ignore anything and I try never to throw anything out. So I really try to keep all that in mind, and we do talk about this a little bit in the issue. But I also wanted to approach this Clark as one who is happy and is actually excited about his place in life right now. He sees the challenges, and he sees that life has changed a little bit — like Lois is editor-in-chief now and then, of course, stuff with his children.
And because of all that, I wanted to show him a version of Clark where none of that is bothering him. And he’s very happy with where he is in life. That was sort of where I was with him mentally. I definitely wanted to see it as a new chapter. But all that stuff has happened before, and I want to make sure that this issue is able to feel like a fresh start…and I’ve never been that kind of writer to say, ‘OK, we’re starting off fresh. We’re going out a new door, all that stuff didn’t happen.’ When I started on Flash, everything had happened.
AIPT: I want to pick up on what you said earlier about “finding” Lex’s voice first. What about this version, or your understanding of him, made that possible? What about him is maybe different this time around? Or what kind of spoke loudest about him in this context?
JW: There’s two answers to this. One of it is that I really like writing jerk characters; that’s a big piece of it. I like snarky characters. And that’s the reason why I wrote Damien as Robin. Whenever I’m working on something, I always make sure I have one character that’s a little cynical and egotistical. It’s just how I work.
And so with Les, that piece of it. But then also having a character to bounce Superman off of is very fun; it brings out a different side of Superman. Because Superman is a character I feel as unburdened and does not get frustrated with people, except for Lex Luthor. And so I wanted to show that dynamic.
I wrote Lex last year in Batman, and he was an antagonist in the Batman series. So I was going for a walk, and I wrote this scene about how Lex buys this $70 million bottle of wine. And then he pours a glass for him and Bruce, and he talks about this bottle of wine and the story behind it. And he basically explains…that when you’re buying this bottle of wine, you are not buying the wine, you’re buying its story. And then he proceeds to pour out the bottle of wine, which, of course, infuriates Bruce because he isn’t a billionaire anymore.
When I wrote that scene, I felt like Lex came alive in my head in that moment. It was like I understood this character more than I probably ever have. And it happens whenever you’re writing a character. You get into the head of a character and you’re writing them and the things that unlock for you as you’re working on them. Once I had that [finished], I actually got Superman not long after. From there I knew that a lot of the book was going to be about Clark and Lex. Lex has such an opinion of himself, but he’s very opinionated in general. And he has a lot of thoughts on Superman. I was able to use that as a POV on the world of Superman mythology.
AIPT: Jamal, this is for you. What were your inspirations coming into this book? It felt sort of like a masterclass for all things Superman.
JW: My start with Superman was the animated series. And I obviously love Alex Ross’ covers, and his work on Superman and the book he did with Paul Dini, Peace on Earth. That is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen. Like, that is the image of Superman I have in my head. So I’m sort of combining those two things — the nice, clean, light, super classic, and iconic look of the animated series plus the grandeur and the humanity Alex Ross brings to the character. And even the character he brings to Metropolis as well — he’s a master of painting that city as well. So I kind of wanted to take pieces of both and sort of make my amalgamation of those two, and then just bring it out as best as I could.
AIPT: I feel like in all the best Superman stories, Metropolis is its own character.
Moving on, where did the idea for Supercorp come from? Is this at all maybe another way of playing with how Superman and Lex always one up one another? Could we be looking at another “gotcha” moment from either of them?
JW: Well, that remains to be seen on some of your questions. I don’t want to give away too much, like the ultimate goals. But I was trying to think of what Lex would do. Like, Lex has this idea that he believes that he can fix Superman — he can make a better Superman. What does that look like? Lex always surrounded himself with LexCorp; he built this giant tower and that’s the way he interpreted his place in Metropolis. He always attributed his version of helping through LexCorp. And so if he’s going to help Clark, giving him LexCorp, and saying, ‘Well, now I’m giving you all these things.’ You’re not just getting [Lex] in terms of how he’s talking to Clark to help him and giving him advice and tips on how to be a better Superman. But Lex saying, ‘Here’s my toys; this is how they make you better.’ Some of that was actually about how I would hear these things all the time about how Batman is awesome and Superman sucks. And sometimes you hear that the reason why it’s just Batman has all the toys. And so I said, ‘If I’m Lex, and I’m gaming this out, I’m going to give Superman the toys.’
But also this is Clark doing something I hadn’t really seen before very much. There’s a Superman, Inc. book that came out, like, 20 years ago that plays around with these ideas a little bit. But I wanted to try something different with the character. and a major part of the book is about putting Superman in the settings, set pieces, location, stories, themes, and genres that we don’t normally see him in, particularly in the actual Superman book. We’ll see Elseworlds or little What-Ifs — these side stories that show him in these different lights. But I thought we should do that in the main book and put Clark through these stories. So having to see Clark, as you know, a kind of corporate overlord, that is a thing. Because Lex is playing a game, right? There’s a scene in issue #3 where Lois says, ‘There’s a game being played; if you want to know what’s actually going on, you’ll have to play the game.’ So, for lack of a better phrase, for Clark to win he has to go play the game.
AIPT: I love that Superman’s done it all and had giant monsters and planets thrown his way. And now the challenge is, ‘If you’re Superman, and you think you can do the job, here’s all the resources in the world.’
But I also love — and this may be a teeny spoiler — it’s sort of married to a new kind of job or challenge for Lois herself.
JW: Well, that’s it, too. That’s actually a part of the story — and it is partially a spoiler but we can talk about it a bit. They’re both getting new roles, in a way; there’s a lot of characters in the book that are going through the sort of changes. So Lex is in prison taking on this new, almost Oracle role. And then you have Clark who, because of the Supercorp aspect, he’s now the “boss.” But then Lois is boss at the same time in a very different place. So I did want to play with those dynamics and how that impacts their relationship. Because, as I was saying, it’s about taking these characters who you love, showing the iconic parts of it, but then also saying, ‘Alright, now let’s put them over here for a minute and see what happens.’
AIPT: I think I have time for one more question.. or two.
As much as I can avoid spoilers, what are some of the larger and grander themes and ideas that we can expect beyond issue #1? Is this about giving Superman what he wants? Are we going to have a truly happy Superman, or something a bit more complicated?
JW: Well, I think that showing happiness can be very complicated. Happiness is a complicated feeling. You know, there’s definitely a lot of nuance you could do with what a happy Superman looks like, and what that means and how it impacts everyone around him. I think the idea that a hero is only as good as their villain is something I want to play with in the book. That, and the idea that [Superman’s] greatest villain is now trying to say, ‘I can make you better.’
I said this before in a different interview, but I’ll say it again here. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase ‘If you look into the abyss, what happens is the abyss looks back.’ I’ve always been very fascinated about if the abyss looked back and saw Superman, what would happen? To see somebody who is the greatest of us — somebody who has such heart and such humanity and sees the best in everyone. If then it locks eyes with the abyss, what happens to the abyss? So I wanted to play around with some of those themes. But there’s lots here. We’re going to play around with a couple of themes. And we’re going have a lot of cool set pieces, and a lot of fun stuff — where you play around with genres with Superman.
And we’re going to be taking the classic iconic villains and shining a spotlight on them. But then also introducing a lot of new toys like new villains and a lot of new concepts. I want to definitely add to the mythology, and I want to showcase it, but then absolutely play with it.
AIPT: Jamal, super quickly: Is there anything to add from an artistic or visual standpoint? Anything that you were excited that you want people to see, or that you were really happy to play around with beyond issue #1?
JC: Yeah, it’s sort of building on what Josh just said: it’s putting Superman in different scenarios that you might not usually see. Like, what happens if you drop Superman in this scenario? And what does he do? How does he react? And it’s sort of having fun with different genre pieces. I want to showcase that Superman can be cool; he can be fun and you can enjoy him. This is what I vew Superman as. But also, on an expression level, is Superman’s humanity.
This is how he talks to people. This is how he interfaces with the world and how the world interfaces back with him. And this is why in Metropolis and in the DCU people look up to him and he’s a shining example. It’s not because he’s this big guy saving us but because he talks to us like we are people and we are human to him.
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