On September 19, 2005, I had a phone interview with Mark Waid, writer of various comics such as Empire and the famous Kingdom Come mini-series with Alex Ross. He has worked on Marvel titles such as Captain America, DC Comics titles such as JLA and The Flash, and created the character Bart Allen, the hero originally called Impulse. Much of this interview concerns comic book film adaptations and Superman: Birthright, a 12-issue series in which Mark Waid revised the origin and early days of the Man of Steel. We also discuss his complete relaunching/re-imagining of Legion of Super-Heroes, a comic series about teenage heroes in the 31st century.
ALAN KISTLER: “In the past few years, there’s been a surge in comic book movies, roughly three or four a year now. Why the sudden interest from Hollywood? Is it just because of better special effects now or what?”
MARK WAID: “Sure, with the advent of special effects, it’s just become easier to shoot stuff. We could do stuff in comics you could never do in movies with budgets. The moment P2 technology came out, everyone I know in comics got an uneasy feeling. This is the future and there’s going to be a point where there’s nothing they can’t do. [Fantasy novelist and comic writer] Neil Gaiman just told me the other day how he was talking to [Back to the Future screenwriter and Batman: No Man's Land comic writer] Bob Gale about the Beowulf movie he’s working on. It was originally envisioned as live-action, but now it’s going to be motion-capture or some sort of weird hybrid. And the quote from Gale was, ‘There’s nothing I can’t shoot for a million dollars a minute.’ If you figure, a 90 minute movie, 90 million dollars . . . not a huge a budget for an action film.
“So that’s part of it. Another thing is Watchmen was ’86, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was ’86. It’s now twenty years later and what happened is that a lot of the guys who grew up reading that stuff are now studio executives. So they’re still jazzed about stuff that they read, they’re not working off the assumption that their predecessors were, that comics were all Pow!/Zap!/Wham! kids stuff.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had out here as a writer with studio heads and execs who want to meet me, partly to talk about things I can do for them, but they also just want to meet me because I wrote Kingdom Come or I created Impulse or whatever, and they’re like, ‘I wanna meet that guy, I’m a fan of his work.’ Which is very flattering, don’t get me wrong, but it seems like a weird Twilight Zone moment when I go to these meetings and they’re talking about how much they enjoy my work and I’m like, ‘Dude, you make 100 million dollar movies.’ It’s a long answer to your question, but I think it’s a fair answer.”
AK: “So what’s essential to making the translation a good one? What did Batman Begins do right that Daredevil and Hulk didn’t seem to grasp?”
MW: “It seems to me like it’s just real simple. You better have guys in there who love the material. If you look at the X-Men movies, they were faithful in parts, they weren’t as faithful in parts, but there’s no question when you look at those movies that Bryan Singer and his crew love the comics and that love translates. That seems to be the elusive x-factor. I mean, David Goyer [screenwriter for Blade and Batman Begins] is a huge comics fan.
“Whereas, and this is my favorite example to your question, take Catwoman, which is the worst movie I’ve ever paid to see in my life. The first few early drafts of that script were written by a good friend of mine named John Rogers [screenwriter for American Outlaws and The Core, who is an accomplished screenwriter and very good, and I’m here to tell you those drafts are great. These were great scripts. And John stayed on the project way past the point where he should have because he knew the movie was being made by morons (my words, not his). And his position suddenly became, ‘I’m the only guy here who cares about Catwoman, I’m the only guy here who loves comics and I’m not giving up that fight.’
“So he stayed and fought the good fight as long as he could and then realized he was surrounded by chimpanzees, guys who didn’t give a rat’s ass about the comics, and he finally threw up his hands and walked away. And his scripts went through like 85 revisions by monkeys and became crap. So as John could tell you from being on ground zero of one of those projects, if you’re surrounded by people who don’t get it, then there’s just no hope.”
AK: “For yourself, what is your favorite comic book movie and which one do you think was the best adaptation?”
MW: “Yeah, two different answers. My favorite is still the first Superman movie. Because I still think that – at least the Christopher Reeve parts, not so much the campy parts and the Gene Hackman chewing scenery parts that don’t hold up as well upon repeated viewings, but the early stuff up through Superman’s first night out – that was certainly the most successful translation of comics in any medium up to that point, because of the sense of wonder and verisimilitude which was so strong there. You just couldn’t help but buy into it and there was no laughing at Superman, you really did believe a man could fly. And that still to this day is my favorite because I was at exactly the right age to be hit by that.
“The most faithful . . . I’m torn. I think I wanna say Sin City probably. You don’t get much closer than having [Frank Miller] who created it also co-directing it. Spider-Man 2 also I think is very faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the law.”
AK: “Have you or any writers you know of been asked to consult on the new Superman movie or the script being written for the Flash movie?”
MW: “A little bit here and there, not that official. We’re called in every once in a while to talk to Cartoon Network about what they’re doing. Keith Giffen for instance, who worked on Legion of Super-Heroes for years, may be helping them out with a pitch for a Legion cartoon series. I don’t know if that will go anywhere. They’re not averse to picking our brains and we’re not averse to talking with them, because we all love these characters.”
AK: “What do you think about what you’ve heard of Superman Returns so far?”
MW: “I think it’s going to be amazing. From what I’ve seen of the raw footage, they just get it. I mean, I really had goosebumps.”
AK: “You recently did Superman: Birthright as an updated look on Superman’s origin and early days. How did you approach it in terms of what had to be different from the last such story, John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series?”
MW: “DC Comics has become like Batman comics. ‘What do we publish? We publish Batman and, oh, yeah, what else?’ So what do you do to get people’s attention [back on Superman]? You take the best of every element of the Superman mythos and you put it together and really give it some drive and some verve. It’s not about cleaning up continuity, it’s just there was no book to really put in the hands of general audience members and say, ‘okay, here’s the origin of Superman, here’s the supporting cast, here’s why he does what he does.’
“Yes, John’s Man of Steel is still in print after 20 years, but it feels a little dated. Let’s spit-polish it and bring in Luthor’s [motivation and origins] too and there you go. The idea was to write it as Superman: the TV mini-series.”
AK: “One major change was how Superman debuts to the public. Instead of saving a space-plane, he now saves Lois from a helicopter attacked by terrorists, somewhat similar to the Christopher Reeve movie.”
MW: “I sat down with [DC Comics editor] Dan Didio and said, you know, with all due respect to what’s come before, I don’t think a space-shuttle is the way to go for Superman’s big debut, because nothing says 80’s to me like a space-shuttle. It was very cool in 1986 because it was timely, unfortunately too timely as you’ll recall, with Challenger . . . to me it read as dated as the George Reeves show where his first big mission is he saves a guy from a dirigible. And that’s not to slam. Twenty years from now, someone’s going to do an origin that’s different than what I gave them.
“One thing I will swear up and down and I will take this to my grave . . . I don’t care what medium you’re in, I don’t care what kind of story you’re telling, I don’t care what the circumstances are, he has got to make his first appearance flying. He has got to appear to people for the first time in mid-air, because that is his coolest power and he is an angel come from above to save us. That led me to attack helicopters, to terrorist attacks from the sky.
MW: “The decision was made earlier but announced later because, and I’ve been apologized by DC over and over again, we were just the victims of timing and nothing else. Because the big story that year was [popular artist] Jim Lee on the Superman title and had we tied into that somehow, had we come out the same month, had we been a direct prologue, it would have been okay. Instead, we were thrown out there and people weren’t sure what to make of us. Were we the new origin of Superman? Were we not?
“I’m very proud of that story. It kills me that I feel like I played Carnegie Hall and no one showed up. [laughter] I mean, for years and years, this is the story I’ve been wanting to tell since I was 9-years-old and I feel like nobody paid attention, but it sold reasonably well and it will certainly last. It’s out in hardcover and the trade is coming out in a few weeks and that’ll be in print forever so great. And Grant Morrison and some other Superman writers are picking up elements of it, so terrific!”
AK: “I personally thought it was fantastic.”
MW: “Well, thanks. And I mean, it’s not about ego, it’s not about ‘Geez, I hope MY Superman is the one that people pay attention to,’ don’t get me wrong. I don’t care about that, it’s just that I love these characters and I want to show you [the readers] why I think they’re cool.”
AK: “You also emphasized that Clark, at least when he’s grown up, was the disguise and not “Superman,” which is a different view than what’s been done for the past few years.”
MW: “The moment you make Clark so completely the real guy and make Superman so completely the disguise, then you’ve taken away one of the things that makes Superman unique . . . He was always created by Siegel and Shuster as an alien among us . . . Zeus and the gods coming down to live among the common folk, to get a sense of what their real problems were and to get in touch with humanity. And once you lose that, once you make him just like every other super-hero who grows up and decides to put on a cape, you’ve lost something essential. And I think we got that back.”
AK: “A while ago, I did an article about the old movie and specifically Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. And reading Birthright, there was a similar thing where, in my mind, Clark was a disguise but at the same time very honest. Meek but not cowardly, which I found refreshing because at first when I heard about the emphasis on the disguise, I was afraid for a moment, thinking, uh-oh, are we going back to stories I’ve seen in the ’50s where he’s so inept and cowardly I have to wonder, why are Lois and Jimmy even friends with him?”
MW: “Sure, and why’s he a reporter for that matter? No, I agree, I think that’s an important thing to think of. And when we meet him as the ‘Metropolis version’ of Clark Kent in that series, he’s only been doing this disguise in front of people for like 8 minutes. So, he’s kind of all over the map, he can be at any given moment a little ballsy and then in the next second a little over-apologetic, and he’s still trying to get a handle on it. But yeah, mild-mannered doesn’t mean completely cowardly.”
MW: “Right. And also, ‘mild-mannered’ does not mean ‘weak-willed.’ And another thing is, and this is probably because I’m too young to have watched George Reeves’s show, but that never resonated with me because he [acted and spoke the same way] in both identities. He’s exactly the same guy and that makes my head hurt. These are reporters, how stupid are these people? It needs to be a disguise. But it doesn’t mean he has to be the mealy-mouthed, ‘gee, my stomach hurts, I can’t stand violence’ type either. He’s a reporter, he’ll get in there.”
AK: “So what do you think is the central theme of Birthright and, as an aside, what do you think the central theme of Superman as a character is?”
MW: “Wow . . . that’s a great question . . . You know what, I’m gonna put it back on you. You tell me and then we’ll debate.”
AK: [laughter] “Okay, um . . . I think Superman is altruism, essentially what the human spirit is supposed to achieve, the fact that you can help others and that can be its own reward. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior motive, there doesn’t have to be a revenge theme. Much as I love Batman, and I do, there doesn’t have to be a tragedy to spur the action [of Superman]. It’s ‘I can help. Let me.’ ”
MW: “Yeah, Batman’s about fear and anger and I understand those are very primal and important emotions. But Superman’s about hope and about nobility and [in Birthright] it’s about that you do not serve humanity by hiding your light under a bushel, you serve humanity by doing everything you can to the best of your abilities. If that means you’re Einstein, you do what Einstein does. If you’re Superman, you do what Superman does.”
AK: “Part of what I picked up from Birthright is he’s sort of trying to become okay with that attitude, which I found very relevant. Being a guy in my twenties in this world, people are so cynical that you become a little self-conscious about helping someone and not asking for reward. I thought it went so well with his theme of coming to grips with his identity, that it was a double identity but didn’t mean he had to deny either heritage and he was trying to get a grip with the fact that it’s okay to want to help people.”
MW: “I’m totally with you on that. And there’s the question of how do you reconcile the healthy self-interest of wanting your own life and wanting to be who you are but at the same time helping other people? A lot of people took the wrong message when I kept saying this was the story of why Superman does what he does. I got a lot of flack from people who quoted my own words back to me mockingly, ‘Well, you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and you don’t need to go further than that.’ Well, that’s still true, I believe that, but the unexamined life is not worth living and is not relevant in this world.”
MW: “Exactly. Luthor doesn’t ‘get’ presents. Thank you. I like that scene and you’re the first person who’s actually picked up on that, no one else has pointed that out to me.”
AK: “Aw, great! Now, in Birthright, you mentioned Lana Lang hadn’t been seen in years but you never resolved that. And in your story Silver Age from a couple years before, you basically brought back the Pre-Crisis Brainiac. So I was wondering, are you planning at any point to do other stories that take place during Superman’s early days? Will there be a sequel to Birthright where Brainiac shows up?”
MW: “I would love for there to be, but there’s just no chance right now because they’re full up with that kind of stuff. Also, I want to be careful, I don’t just wanna be ‘the Silver Age guy’ or ‘the retro guy.’ And besides, [writer Grant Morrison] is taking care of that territory so beautifully in his All-Star Superman story that is so jaw-droppingly good. Oh my God, I can’t even explain. Anything I can do, he can do better, so go Grant!”
MW: “Yeah, that was the biggest part of it. And it’s in no way meant to be a criticism of any of the fine people who worked on the series. It’s just that there was no audience anymore, we tried everything we could and it didn’t seem to make a difference. When Abnett and Lanning relaunched the book as Legion, Wizard Magazine did a big feature on it. There was a lot of press on it, lot of advertising, and it still didn’t do anything big in sales or readership. Which is a crime, because it was a great read. So if that much doesn’t help, you need to do something drastic to get people’s attention.”
AK: “It might be a little early in the game for this, but is there any plan for the new Legion’s eventual meeting with the rest of the DCU? Is Impulse [or Kid Flash II as he's now known] going to find out about this new future and wonder what the Hell happened to his cousin XS?”
MW: “We’re still ironing this stuff out and figuring out how to honor the cast of characters and keep things consistent without undoing anything that’s coming out of the new Infinite Crisis series and without creating more questions. So I don’t know. We are trying to figure out how the LSH will meet the DCU, because when it happens it should be big. It’s just not the right time yet. We’re still focusing on setting up the status quo. There’s been no pressure for it, which is nice, and if it happens it’ll probably happen in the upcoming The Brave and the Bold. We’ll figure it out.”
AK: “You, Geoff Johns, Jeph Loeb, Grant Morrison, you’ve all been bringing back Pre-Crisis elements, updating them and letting readers know you can have fun without being lame.”
MW: Let me interrupt you for a second and go on my rant about this. Not that you think like this, but speaking of people who do think this way. People who complain ‘aw, they’re bringing that back! They’re bringing this back!’ It makes me nuts when that’s said with such disdain. We’re not just old fanboys! Bringing back the Bottle City of Kandor and complaining about it is, to me, like saying ‘You’re using the Batcave? Again?!’
“This is not an unfailing litmus test, but I think if it’s an element from the series that some people who don’t read comics know, like Commissioner Gordon, don’t really screw that up. Am I making any sense?”
AK: “Yeah. Basically, if there are things that are so part of cannon, don’t mess with the core of it. Jim Gordon shouldn’t become a cyborg suddenly.”
MW: “Exactly. Don’t feel like anything created before you started reading comics, the generic ‘you,’ is nostalgic fanboy wank stuff. You’re gonna get yours in twenty years when younger fans ask you why you’re into ‘old stuff.’ It comes around.”
AK: “Right. Well, my question was, with writers like you and those I’ve mentioned and your emphasis on fun and wonder, is there any fear that we’re going back to the grim and gritty 80’s with stories like Identity Crisis where a super-hero’s wife was raped, War Games where [Batman's surrogate mother] Leslie Thompkins is a killer, and where half of Infinite Crisis looks like it’s about Batman being betrayed? What do you think of that?”
MW: “The good new is, and I garauntee you this, when we’re on the other side of the Crisis, those days are gone. Just gone. We’re sick to death of heroes who are not heroes, we’re sick to death of darkness. Not that there’s no room, not that Batman should act like Adam West, but that won’t be the overall feeling. After all this stuff, after everything shakes down, we’re done with heroes being dicks. No more ‘we screwed each other and now we must pay the consequences.’ No, we’re super-heroes and that’s what we do.
“Batman’s broken. Through no one person’s fault, but he’s a dick now. And we’ve been told we can fix that.”
AK: “Well thanks for this interview, I really appreciate it.”
MW: “No problem. Take care!”
Thanks to Mark Waid for agreeing to this interview and for his help on my History of Superman essay.