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The Rebirth of Superman, Part 3

Jeph Loeb discusses writing the Man of Steel

By Edward Gross     June 21, 2000

Jeph Loeb, the writer behind Superman, has one rule when he commences an interview: he won't comment on the creative teams that came before the current regime because, as he puts it, 'I have a lot of respect for those guys.' Nonetheless, there must be something he can say about the difference in storytelling approach between then and now.

'I had finished Superman For All Seasons, which people seemed to like,' he offers in explanation. 'I got approached by Eddie Berganza, the Superman editor in chief, and he asked whether or not I would come on board on Superman, which in many people's minds is a lead title. I had to think about it. I wanted to make sure I could do both my best work and that we could do something different than what had been done before. Not because there was anything wrong with what had been done before, but because we wanted to be able to separate ourselves, and be able to succeed or fail on our own terms.'

But when you're dealing with an icon like Superman, that corridor can be very narrow in terms of what's possible to do. As a result, Loeb decided that there were two basic things that he wanted to bring to the title.

'The first was [artist] Ed McGuinness,' says Loeb, 'who I've worked with in the past, who I think is one of the brightest young stars in the comics industry and who had told me from the first day we'd ever worked together, that if there was ever a chance to do a Superman story, it would be his life's dream. In an odd way he was proving that in Mr. Majestic, which is Wildstorm's 'version' of Superman. Even though they were doing very different things, there were similarities in the characters that allowed you to see how Ed would handle the material. When DC liked that idea, which was a fairly radical approach to go from the way he had been drawn previously, that was very exciting to me.

'The second, and this is again not a criticism, is that my feeling was that in an effort to make Superman current or more interesting or hipper or for whatever reason, they'd come up with a lot of new characters and stories that didn't focus on the core group. What I like to tell people is that Superman, to me, is like an apple tree. It's solid, it's American and it's a beautiful thing to look at. Through the years, as each team came along, they sort of added little bells and trinkets and sparkles and all kinds of things until it didn't look like an apple tree anymore, it looked like a Christmas tree.

'I'm all in favor of Christmas trees! But when people said to me, 'Wow, your approach to the book is so different,' I think all I really did was just pare it down to what it had originally been, so people could see the apple tree once more. In an odd way, that became new again, because people hadn't seen it. It was certainly my experience on Superman For All Seasons that this is the Superman we know.'

So who exactly in the previously large cast made the final cut? To Loeb's way of thinking, only a chosen few. 'I was much more interested in the core cast, meaning that in Metropolis there was Lex Luthor, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Superman. Those are the people that live in Metropolis. Anybody else exists because any of those people are interacting with them. In Smallville there is Ma and Pa Kent, Pete Ross and Lana Lang. Those are the only people that live in Smallville.

'Look, I love Jimmy Olsen. I think he's a terrific character. But I don't care where Jimmy Olsen lives. The only reason I should know where Jimmy Olsen lives is if Clark Kent is standing in his apartment. That's the kind of thing where I approach each story from the point of view of how it affects Superman, because he is the star of the book. That seems to be, hopefully, working. It was the only way I saw how to tell stories.'

The words Superman and cool haven't gone together very often, but that seems to be what's happening now as the character enjoys a popularity he hasn't in years. What pique's Loeb's curiosity is the fact that the comic is now drawing a younger audience than it had before. 'They have no experience to be able to say, 'This is the Superman we know and love,'' says Loeb. 'They're simply reading the book because they think it's cool. On that level, I think that's a combination of all the teams working together--the improvements in color, production and lettering--that really bring the books up in quality.'

To achieve that desired level of quality and coolness, Loeb compares the Super-books' new direction with many of the strengths of Marvel Comics' popular, consistently top-selling X-Men franchise. 'I think when you strip the X-Men down, whether or not they have new flashier costumes, the team changes or someone has brand new powers or dies, all of that pales in comparison to the very simple thought that these characters each month are put through the emotional wringer. And that the soap opera element--which I say in the best sense, meaning that there is high drama, high adventure, high emotion, love, power, sex--is what brings people to those books. And those are the kind of things that Superman is brimming with, if we bring it out.'

Another avenue Loeb and crew targeted was Lois and Clark's marriage, which many people felt might be growing stale because there was no place to go with it. Loeb quickly refutes that perception. 'That was a very hard concept for us [Loeb and Joe Kelly, the new writer on Action Comics] to accept. What we wanted to build was more of a Thin Man meets Moonlighting meets West Wing situation, where you can mix humor and drama together and have situations where two people who love each other very much can also be very angry with each other, can behave badly and still at the end of the day work it out and care about each other. I don't know if that's cool, I just know that it's an attempt to make the book more real from an emotional point of view, which is how I approach material.'

It was Berganza's suggestion that Lois Lane narrate the book, which has gone a long way in separating Superman from the other titles devoted to the Man of Steel. 'More importantly,' points out Loeb, 'what it does is give us a window into how someone can see Superman. As soon as I said Lois was narrating the book, people wrote in and said, 'Is she going to narrate every issue?' What we found was that if it felt better having somebody else narrate the issue, then let's try that out and see where it goes. We've had Perry White, Green Lantern and the Atom each narrate an issue; people whose thoughts about Clark and Superman, particularly if they don't know that they're one and the same, get to express how that has an impact on their lives.

'That was something that came out of Superman For All Seasons, in that each chapter was narrated by a different person that was important to Clark. I've tried not to have Superman narrate it. People will notice that there are no thought balloons in my book. It's an attempt to try to get across what's happening from the reader's point of view, without actually being inside Superman's head. The only time we sort of tip-toed into that area was that Clark wrote a letter to his parents, but it was pure Clark. It was not Superman talking.'

Creatively, it would at first seem more fulfilling to keep all of the various Superman books separate from each other. Loeb refers to this as the 'linkage debate,' which asks whether or not the books should be read 'horizontally' (weekly) or 'vertically' (monthly).

'What we tried to do at the beginning,' says Loeb, 'was attempt to do both. There were little subplots that got resolved in other books. But if you read only one title, you'd have a pretty good idea as to what was going on in the same kind of way that if you watch a television series where you understand who the characters are, if you miss an episode or two, even if one of the characters died in the episode you missed, you're at least aware of it because of the way the characters are acting. So that was the first step. There were stories that we wound up coming up with that just seemed to work much better on a weekly basis because it enabled us to tell a bigger story over a shorter period of time.'

A recent example is the four-part story called 'Critical Condition,' in which the Atom shrunk down Superboy, Supergirl and Steel to go into Superman's body to save him from Kryptonite poisoning. 'I could've told that story for four consecutive months,' explains Loeb, 'but I think the readers would've grown very antsy about being in the body for that amount of time. Whereas, by doing it within one month and the next month having a brand new adventure, you get new stories plus a story that's a little bit longer.'

In an idea generated by Berganza, the creative teams are also taking a novel approach to the idea of interrelated stories by spinning off of shared themes. 'In February we did stories that all took place in Smallville,' explains Loeb. 'They didn't have anything to do with each other, but we all did Smallville stories. The ones coming out in June all have guest stars in them. Again, it's a theme that we work with, but it doesn't necessarily mean you have to read all four titles.

However, according to Loeb, sometimes there's simply no way to avoid weekly, multi-part stories, despite mixed fan reaction to them. The perfect example of this is the 'Superman: Arkham' storyline, and the story that spins out of that in August, cryptically titled 'Emperor????,' which he claims are just too big to be contained in a month-to-month format.

'We knew going in that this was going to be two five-part stories,' says Loeb, 'and we know there're going to be some readers who're going to groan and say, 'That's not what I want to do. I only want to read one title a month.' My answer to that is, 'Then you'll miss a terrific story.' The world isn't going to come to an end, and we're certainly doing everything we can to make the story worth that journey. My feeling is if you're enjoying the Superman books, then pick them up and pick up the ones that give you enjoyment.'

That ability to collaborate successfully with the other Superman writers, to generate a 'story worth that journey,' is what Loeb cites, at its simplest, as the thing of which he's most proud so far. 'The teams talk a lot, we e-mail each other, we're constantly riffing ideas off of each other. We really are a team, yet we all have very different approaches in how we deal with the characters. It's not an antagonistic thing by any stretch of the imagination.

'What's funny is that when we went to our first Superman summit, Eddie asked us to write down how we saw Superman and what we wanted to accomplish in our [individual] books. We all saw Superman exactly the same way. But none of us wanted to approach the book in the same way, and that was terrific. What it meant was there would be a different voice on every single book, but the character himself would be treated with the same respect, the same tone and the same tenor, just with different angles to it.

'My stories are more classic with a twist, while J.M. DeMatteis' stories in Adventures of Superman deal with the city of Metropolis and a lot of things from the villains' points of view. Mark Schultz likes to do a book [Superman: The Man of Steel,] that has a more science fiction tone and has Steel as part of its cast, and Joe Kelly wants to do something that's more light-hearted [in Action Comics], something that has a lot of action but also a lot of humor. Those are different flavors for different people.'

To old and new readers alike, it all sounds pretty exciting, which is a word Loeb believes should be used to describe Superman. 'Hopefully that's what we're accomplishing,' muses Loeb. 'We certainly do see it in the mail and from the people who talk to us. It's a very, very fun ride. To me, the most surprising thing out of all of it is that it's an incredible responsibility. Joe Kelly tells the story of how when he first started on the book, Eddie had said to him, 'I just want you to know, if Superman gets a haircut, it's in Time magazine.' That's what you're dealing with.'

For Loeb, that level of responsibility--and recognition--hits even closer to home. 'When I first got the title, I spoke to a friend of mine back East who doesn't read comics. I told him I was taking over the Superman title, and he said, 'Really? The guy on the stamp?' You start to realize how unbelievably recognizable Superman is. Again, my kids' friends--my son is 12 and my daughter is 8--just think it's the coolest job in the world. What makes me laugh is that my friends also think it's the coolest job in the world. It really is a wonderful opportunity. I began as a fan. I still am a fan. I still go the comic book store every Wednesday. Even though some of my books are comped, there are some books that I have to have. I don't want to wait until the comp books arrive. That, to me, is the biggest smile of it all, that I get to do what is my hobby. I liken it to being a stamp collector and you get to be on your own stamp. And I didn't have to die to make it happen.'

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