SUPERMAN 80 PAGE GIANT 2011 features a 10-page comic starring Jimmy Olsen and Superman that I wrote.
It was drawn by Andy MacDonald.
It was lettered by Sal Cipriano.
It was colored by Chris Beckett.
The whole experience was made possible by the hard work of editor Wil Moss.
THE SAVAGE CRITIC ESSAY
That covers about 90% of what there probably is to be said about it. It is probably more than needed to be said about it.
Here is me saying more about it anyways.
“One example:Thought bubbles—those puffy, dotted clouds that were a staple of early comics—have been phased out. “I got this kind of embarrassed call from the editors saying, ‘Ah, Steve, we don’t do that anymore.’ ‘You don’t do that anymore?’ I said. ‘No, when the characters speak, they speak. If they’re thinking, you try to put that across in the narration, in the little narration boxes.’” So King happily re-wrote to fit the new style—though he still laments the loss of the thought bubble. “I think it’s a shame to lose that arrow out of your quiver. One of the nice things about the written word as opposed to the spoken word in a movie is that you can go into a character’s thoughts. You do it in books all the time, right?”
They didn’t let Stephen King do thought balloons.
If they weren’t going to let Stephen King do thought balloons, I wanted to do them. I wanted thought balloons and a dozen things like it– all the things that had gone out of fashion, all the things that comics suddenly found embarrassing. I figured (pretty correctly!) that DC asking me to write a comic for them was a crazy fluke– it wasn’t a job I’d asked for or sought out; they were people in line for those jobs ahead of me who wanted them way, way more. Which meant: I’d only ever get once chance to write a comic like that.
I wrote an outrageously long script, as a result– it was “guaranteed to never work for anyone ever again” long. I had no career to protect — the job had landed in my lap! But everyone who works in comics is short on time and working long hours for little reward, so writing a way-too-long script for a 10-page comic was basically obnoxious and inconsiderate.
But shit, even Stephen King didn’t have it so good…
THE PROBLEM OF VOCABULARY
The problem wasn’t creative freedom– it was vocabulary.
There are things you’ve seen a million times in comics, but… what are they called? If you had to write a script for an artist, how would you ask for them? What terminology would you use that anyone reading the script could understand you want X instead of boring old Y?
You think, “All the people who’ve written scripts for industrial comics– surely, there must be a lingo that they use. Surely, after all these years, they must’ve developed their own language. How can there have been decades of mainstream comic writers without simple things being given names?”
If there’s a lingo, I couldn’t find it.
Nobody even seems to care.
REFERENCES, TERMS, ETC.
Here are the different things that found their way into the comic– references, homages, things I stole, things I tried to steal. Plus: what I call some things, in my head. Is this the official lingo? Nope– I can’t find the official lingo. But this is just what I call some of this stuff, in my head…
LENTICULAR FIGURES: That thing where you show multiple drawings of a figure in the same panel. Commonly seen in old Flash comics. I think Burne Hogarth took credit for inventing these in his Tarzan comics. Old X-Men comics– when Longshot showed up, they’d work these in pretty often…
SUPERIMPOSED FIGURES: Characters leaping out of panel borders. Commonly seen in early Image Comics.
SPLASH PAGE: This term has survived but its meaning has changed– a splash page used to be the first page of a comic, and it was used to get the reader excited to read the rest of the comic. Paul Gulacy’s splash pages from Master of Kung Fu are famous examples of the form. Now it just means anytime someone uses an entire page for a drawing– but that’s not the same thing. The advertorial functions of an opening splash are almost never utilized anymore. It’s a dead tradition, replaced by nothing, nothing that’s any good.
SUPERMAN IS A DICK: The top third of the first page of the comic is an homage to the “Superman is a Dick” tradition of Superman covers and splash pages, where Superman is featured doing something outrageously un-GOOD or un-DECENT, to stoke the reader’s interest as to what possibly could be happening, Superman being good and decent being sort of the point of everything.
I see these people– they… They want to write that character like he’s a REAL GUY. And come up with REAL GUY motivations for him. Superman wearing blue jeans, or whatever. I dont find any of that kind of thinking all that interesting myself, anytime I hear someone talk about “Well, blah blah blah CLARK this and blah blah blah CLARK that.”
I’m a DOCTOR WHO fan; I don’t like DOCTOR WHO because he’s a real guy whose motivations make perfect sense to me. I like DOCTOR WHO because he’s a fairy tale character, “sped up to punk rock velocity” as Stephen King once said of another thing altogether. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t make sense– that’s not the point; those are fairy tales about England done as fast and as clever as those stories can be told.
Silver Age Superman is a child’s fantasy of the Ultimate Suburban Dad, fighting a Lex Luthor who’s plainly his evil opposite, the Ultimate Scary Dad. How wonderful are those metaphors? Who needs realistic character motivations when you have metaphors that good underneath everything?
CAPPED PANELS: When text is on top of a panel of sequential art? Best seen in Eddie Campbell comics…
These turn up in comics so often, for so long, and have been used so well, that I have to think they have a name. They must have a name! They must! Here are examples from Dark Knight Returns and an early 1960′s British crime comic called MARKED FOR MURDER…
OTTO JURIS: OTTO JURIS appeared only once before, in 1961′s SUPERMAN #145. His gimmick was that he was a bad guy who looked JUST LIKE Superman.
The MacGuffin of my comic was Jimmy Olsen clones, so I thought it was funny if the bad guy responsible was a Superman look-alike. Superman’s history is so rich — there’s just decade upon decade of Superman history for a writer to put to use. Regular readers wouldn’t be able to pick up on those obscure references, normal people, but I think … I’d like to think they’d be able to pick up on the fact that I knew they were there…? Perhaps that’s magical thinking, but I’d suggest that maybe a little magical thinking is what’s called for when writing a Superman comic.
“I just wrote a line of dialogue for Superman, everybody! Whee!”: Actual line from my script… It’s hard not to experience some kind of feeling, getting to do that.
The only sad part is there’s a stain on those characters because their creators were mistreated, and my ability to participate in that character’s rich history was because others before me had been exploited and mistreated. I used to think this was a normal, non-controversial thing to say, a pretty obvious feature of comics history. I found it was unavoidable to think about, while making a Superman comic myself. But then, in 2012, comic creators all decided that respecting the people who came before you and honoring the things they built for you… That was too much trouble, I guess. Why respect the people who came before you when you could tell them to violently have sex with themselves instead? Comic creators literally did the latter.
David Simon, the creator of The Wire, talks a lot about how in capitalism, the individual matters less and less every day. In 2012, in mainstream comics, he sure seemed right. Comic creators cheered the destruction of the legacy they inherited. Gimmick covers, gimmick crossovers, gimmick deaths, gimmick #1′s, gimmick relaunches. Comic editors shrilly berated anyone who bothered to notice the marginalization of Comic Artists. And the history– if inconvenient continuity can be rewritten, why not rewrite the history?
The Parents were half-right– comics really do rot your brains; they just rot more than that, too, as it turns out.
It’s still a great character, though, one of the best there is. I just wish there weren’t an asterix to it.
BISECTED PANELS: I’d call these bisected panels– when text bisects the art. That feels different than a caption box, wouldn’t you say? To me, it inherently suggests that the art is a flashback. It gives a primacy to the text over the art — it says “Pay attention to these words more than the art behind it!” It’s an attention move. Examples from Jim Steranko’s The Block and Krigstein’s final comic for the 87th Precint…
ACTING FIGURE: When a character acts in front of a blank background. I love that more than anything– I try to do it as often as I can. Jules Feiffer’s comics feature these often. There’s a stretch of one of Will Eisner’s educational text where he does a Shakespeare monologue that I think about a lot. Modern French artists use the technique often, like Christophe Blain featured above. I just love the immediacy of it, the urgency.
THE HEAD ZOOM: At one point, in my Jimmy Olsen comic, the reader zooms into Jimmy Olsen’s head and sees a pictograph of what Jimmy Olsen is thinking superimposed over an outline of the head. This was also stolen from Krigstein’s 87TH PRECINT, the last comic Kirgstein ever did– Krigstein hated the script supposedly, but it’s still a heck of a comic.
HANDWRITTEN SOUND EFFECTS: Only handwritten sound effects are ever a good idea. Computer sound-effects are just lame to me. Anyways, the early scenes feature an uexplained clanging sound effect which reaches a dramatic crecendo on Page 3– this is mostly just because I’m a fan of Ken Bruzenak’s work on AMERICAN FLAGG. Me and about every comic fan my age, anyways. Bruzenak but also the DOOM sound effect of Walt Simonson (and later Todd McFarlane).
The Superman Who Accepts Death: One of the first notes I got from the editor Wil Moss was a spectacular one– it was essentially why would Superman let all those Jimmy Olsen clones die? Why wouldn’t he save them? He’s Superman. That’s a damn great note and it’s one I really had to sit and think about, for a while. He’s right– why would you ever read a Superman comic where Superman comic doesn’t save the day?
It lead to a little monologue I gave Superman to talk about death. What I realized is this: Superman’s attitude towards death changed at some point– the pre-Crisis Superman’s parents died. Ma and Pa Kent were dead, long dead. Because of that, Superman had learned about mortality and learned to accept that he couldn’t save everyone’s life. He could only do his best. Going back to old Superman comics, seeing that they’d done that, really changed how I saw those comics. I could see better how the Silver Age writers of Superman were constantly testing the character, testing him with questions and finding answers to questions that a kid would naturally pose. They were constantly testing Superman’s fences, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. There’s an entire Superman comic about why Superman doesn’t pay taxes!
I think a Superman who has accepted the finite nature of things is a better more Super Superman than one who hasn’t. I think that’s a better fantasy to present children– the world can be a sad place, but do your best. Of course, when this comic came out, Superman had gone another way: this came out around the time of a storyline called GROUNDED, which started with a woman yelling that Superman hadn’t saved her husband from, like, butt-surgery or something– and Superman gets so upset about it that he, like, walks around contemplating American life or… something. It was almost unreadable, except then they hired Chris Roberson after the super-lame writer who had this terrible idea quit to be a douchebag on other projects– Roberson briefly made it readable, but then his relationship with DC went hard south. So: I don’t know. Comics are really, really weird.
I got lucky, though: Nick Spencer and RB Silva’s JIMMY OLSEN comic came out while I was working on mine. Seeing someone else working that character for the first time in a long while, and how people reacted to it, was like shining a giant spotlight on how crappy my early drafts were, how far I’d missed the mark of what people probably wanted. Not everybody gets that luxury.
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: I have Jimmy Olsen say “Why me? Clone the redhead from Mad Men…” That was just a gag. But: the redhead from Mad Men is played by Christina Hendricks, who later turned out to be the voice of Lois Lane in the Superman cartoons. That was more good luck than anything, but I like that in a comic filled with doubles and clones and alternate versions of the self, Jimmy Olsen in a way wound up pining for an alternate universe version of Lois Lane. I listened to the Spin Doctors song a LOT while writing this comic, so I’m glad that worked out that way– otherwise, it’d have just been me randomly sexually harassing some poor woman…
THOUGHT BUBBLES: A thought bubble is like a word balloon but it’s shaped differently to signal to the reader that the text is what’s being THOUGHT instead of what’s being SAID. People claim that thought balloons are confusing to readers, and comics should never ever be confusing to anyone. But those readers are probably just straight-up idiots, cretins, maroons. I don’t care about being confusing to idiots– some people built pretty great bodies of work for themselves over the years while still betting on smart people, instead. Thought balloons were around for comics’ most successful decades and nobody minded much.
When I think narration, I tend to think of Alan Moore’s narration in SWAMP THING– “Downtown, elderly ladies cary their houseplants out to set them on the fire escapes, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings…”
Or Peter Milligan’s narrator of the ENIGMA– “Someone has broken into his house and completely rearranged the furniture. And as he looks at the room, now so grotesquely unfamiliar… It’s as though something breaks into John’s head and completely rearranges the furniture there…”
Narration that risks embarrassment.
But Guido Crepax, too… Plus, the “dirty” bit of AMERICAN FLAGG #3– which actually isn’t that dirty if you go back and look. You just think you see more than you do with small panels. The juxtaposition puts your mind to work, and once your mind is at work, a person’s imagination might fill in the blanks with some pretty dirty stuff, if they let it. I let it. I let it all night long, girl. Awwwwyeah.
THE “WHATEVER YOU WANT” PANEL: Sometimes, artists’ best pages are in sketchbooks, when they just get to draw Whatever without having some lame writer in their way. So I designed this page to just have a panel of Whatever the Artist Felt Like drawing. I made suggestions though, and Andy drew one of them, the gladiator panel featured in the comic…
I micro-managed this comic but I felt bad about micro-managing, so this part was to reduce my guilt there a little.
Except… You know: people in comics talk a good game about how important collaborating is. But have you seen the results? All the “collaborated” comics look the same! Four, maybe five panels a page, mostly widescreen, faux-cinematic tedium. Why? Because no one is having visual ideas. It’s comics- someone has to have visual ideas! You can talk about all the collaborating that’s going on behind the scenes all night long (awwwyeah, girl)(what?), but at some point, that collaborating is just bros passing the buck if someone in the mix isn’t making it a point to have visual ideas. But eh, I only did one whole comic so… take this with a grain of salt (whatever the heck that means). I’m talking more here as a bored reader than an experienced team player…
SIDE TEXT: Text in the gutter to the side of a panel. Examples of this– there’s examples in Alan Moore’s SWAMP THING but I tend to think of the the first SIN CITY book more, especially the bits where Marv is walking around in the rain, trying to figure out the mystery he’s stumbled into. Later SIN CITY books went harder at a cinematic mode, than that first one…
SPEED LINES: Everybody knows speed lines thanks to manga– but we worked those in here.
MARCO POLO: An old woman says “You kept yelling that you were Marco Polo.” That’s a reference to a stretch of Silver Age Jimmy Olsen stories where Jimmy Olsen was revealed to be the reincarnation of Marco Polo…? Your guess is as good as mine.
GUSTAV FLAUBERT: We jammed in some narration between panels, one of which was this florid thing where the narrator hopped around to talk about an emergency room nurse, a hairdresser and teenage girls. That was there because I got obsessed with a Gustav Flaubert quote I came across, a quote from Flaubert’s A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION (a book I hadn’t even read; I’m barely literate): “At the back of deserted cafes, women behind the bars yawned between their untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses’ workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts. Every now and then he stopped at a bookseller’s stall; an omnibus, coming down the street and grazing the pavement, made him turn round; and when he reached the Luxembourg he retraced his steps.”
I spent forever trying to cram in a rip-off of that sentence into the thing. I really wanted to rip-off Flaubert.
I wanted to be pretentious.
That used to be what you did with those comics, what you were supposed to do, if you weren’t some kind of square, way back when. Kids probably don’t even know: people with inappropriate literary ambitions writing superhero comics for a laugh, that used to be a thing. And then it went away, and those people got replaced by aspiring screenwriters.
THE BAND POSTER: This was a last minute addition. There’s a panel of a girl putting up a band flyer– we had the flyer be for “Krypton Crawl and Carrot-Top Cut-Ups.” That’s from Jimmy Olsen Issue #88, “The Swinging Superman”– “Jimmy Olsen starts a band, and Superman joins in by doing the “Krypton Crawl” (“Bouncier than the Beatles! More electrifying than Elvis!”), but he can’t stop and he starts dancing his way towards a military facility! Is this a criminal plan by a musical menace or just the latest dance craze?” The name of Jimmy’s band according to the Encylopedia of Superman is, of course, “Jimmy Olsen and the Carrot-Top Cut-Ups.”
Not a comic I ever read– but you don’t have to have read all the old comics to do this sort of reference. There are plenty of Superman Resources on the internet, fan-assembled, with all the information you need to find out just about anything.
HALLDORF HOTEL: As an example, I think the Halldorf Hotel came from Wikipedia’s entry on Metropolis. My early ideas for stories were all food-related for some reason, but I figured that wouldn’t work so what I did was I sat down and figured that I’d most want to see JImmy Olsen in one of the following 3 kinds of stories: Super-Crime, Urban-Fantasy, and Technology Run Amuck stories. I wrote down each category on its own page on a notebook, and I just came up with as many ideas as I could under those three categories until I could fill each page. (I think I stole this method from the Freaks & Geeks DVD commentaries). In that process, I came up with the one that became the story we did. I’m not a professional writer so I don’t know where their ideas come from, but that’s how this one happened…
FENCED SPLASHES: The one thing I kept trying to cram into the comic but could never get in there was a fenced splash. I stole this term from Joe McCulloch– it’s one of those panels where a splash page establishes a geographic space, but then the splash gets divided up so that you can see a character traversing that space…? I dig the hell out of a fenced splash but it was too hard to write (and it’s a LOT to ask from an artist) and I only had 10 pages…
Duncan the Coroner: Duncan the Coroner was another character who had only appeared once before, specifically in STARMAN #1 by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle. That was one of my favorite comics as a kid. (STARMAN wasn’t a clone but he was a character who could change his face to look like other people, if I remember right, so a STARMAN homage kind of fit in…?) Duncan watches STARMAN come back to life in a morgue and then faints from the shock. There’s a point where these kinds of references is going too far– that point was about a million miles before Duncan the Coroner showed up!
POLKA-DOT PANEL BORDERS: this was just a lift from a Guido Crepax comic. I don’t know what it is about the polka dots but I remember seeing that and thinking there was something fascinating about how those felt, that I wanted to steal… I don’t know why this appeals to me, though.
TRANSVESTITE OLSEN: Jimmy Olsen has wound up in women’s clothes in the past. I think Morrison’s ALL STAR SUPERMAN #4 (arguably the best Jimmy Olsen story) starts with an affectionate homage to Jimmy Olsen wearing women’s clothes, even. There’s something about transformations and fluidity at the heart of the character that makes those bits work…?
REVERSE SILHOUETTES: This is a thing I stole from Kyle Baker– a silhouette where the figures are the negative space, but the area surrounding them is the black. An inverted silhouette basically. It makes the character seem distant– turns them into icons in a way that I find interesting.
Plus, they announced that Scott Lobdell was going to write, like, 12 books. DC became a 90′s Comic Writer retirement home. I remember just laughing and laughing. Any thought of “Oh, I didn’t use that opportunity the right way” faded away after that. You can’t really feel THAT bad about burning a bridge when it gets blown to smithereens a month later. I remember feeling like I’d gotten away with a heist.
Lucky timing, all in all.
Anyways, then the comic came out. The comic coming out– that was … interesting. Just that feeling of, you know, “I just hope I don’t suck.” If you’ve read a lot of comics, you’ve read a lot of TERRIBLE ones, more terrible ones than good ones, and just… Not wanting to be one of those terrible ones. That was an interesting thing to get to feel: really, really not wanting to be one of those terrible ones.
Anywho, it came out– thanks to Andy, Sal, Chris and Wil, it looked a million times better than I ever hoped.
And then, that was that.