An interview with Superman writer Jeph Loeb, conducted in the Spring of 2000
How did you get interested in writing comics?
I have always been a comic-book fan. When I was still a kid, I once moved from outside of New York City to Boston. I had a new stepfather who was Vice-President of Brandeis University. That's only important because one of the students who was there was Elliot Maggin. Elliot had written a story, which I still think is one of the best stories to have come out of that period, called "What Can One Man Do?" - and it was drawn by my hero, Neal Adams. So one day my stepdad came home and said, "Would you like to meet Elliot Maggin?" And I said, "You mean, go to a convention or something?" And he said, "No. We'll have him over for dinner."
Elliot was a junior in college and I was a freshman in high school. I was just totally gaga. He brought with him a copy of "What Can One Man Do?" signed by Neal Adams and - this is so Elliot - he wrote in it, "Jeph: Now you have Neal Adam's autograph. So what?!"
At that point I realized that not only was creating comic books something that one could do but that it was something I had an avenue into. So I wrote this story called "Why Must There Be a Superman?" in which Superman begins to doubt whether he is doing the right thing by saving lives which, maybe, should have been lost - as if he were playing God somehow. The Guardians of the Universe came to him and said, "Do you realize that by doing what you're doing you may be stunting human growth?" And Superman has a sort-of loss of confidence. The rest of the story veers off in a very strange direction, but it's similar enough that, when Elliot read this, he realized that I had stolen the end of Spider-Man #100. And so he wrote me this long letter back, which I still have, which basically says, "You can steal from movies, you can steal from plays, you can steal from television, but you can't steal from other comics." The fact that he'd responded was thrilling, and the fact that he'd caught my hand in the cookie jar made me stop and think - "Okay. I have to figure out what comics are all about."
Now the P.S. on this story is that - and I think that a lot of people know this now - 10 years later, I was working with Tim Sale on Challengers of the Unknown, Elliot was living in California, and we all went out to lunch together. There used to be a comic-book store right around the corner from my office, so we went to the comic-book store, and Elliot, flitting through the back-issue bins, pulled out "Must There Be a Superman?." He said, "This was always one of my favorite stories." And I said, "It was always one of mine, too, and I always wondered why you told the story that I sent to you." And he turned pale. I said, "Elliot, please. (A) It was so long ago, and (B) you were so helpful, and (C) if I get anywhere in the comic-book business it's because of your advice and friendship." But he was just absolutely flabbergasted - in utter shock. And as we went back to have lunch, every 5 minutes he would look at me and he would say, "I can't believe that I did that." And I would just say, "Elliot, I don't care. I was really flattered that I had come up with an idea that you might use."
Must There be a Superman?
And years later I learned that one of the things that inspired Mark Waid to write Kingdom Come was this story "Must There Be a Superman?" So he credited Elliot, and Elliot wrote the foreword to the collected edition, and in the foreword is this whole story, which was shocking to me, not only because Elliot wanted to discuss it but because Elliot put it into the most successful comic book of its day.
What was your reaction when you first saw his re-interpretation of the story in print, in Superman #247?
You have to remember, I was a kid in high school, so this wasn't a big deal to me. I remember sort-of saying to myself, "Huh. I guess that's how things work. You have a conversation with somebody and they decide that it's a cool idea." There was another situation where I remember Elliot coming to dinner, and he was talking about Superman, and my mother said, "I always thought that Clark Kent was more interesting. Why don't they do a Private Life of Clark Kent series?" And then there was this back-up series called The Private Life of Clark Kent - which I have to believe was a coincidence. I don't honestly believe that my mother came up with the title for The Private Life of Clark Kent.
Your first published comic book work was Challengers of the Unknown. How did that come about?
In the late 1980s, I was working as a screenwriter and as a television & motion-picture producer. A friend of mine, Stan Brooks, was working at Gubers-Peters, which produced the Batman movie. They had a good relationship with Jenette Kahn, who at the time was DC's publisher, and my friend Stan asked if I would come in and meet with them to talk about some other possible DC-related projects. So a couple of us went to go see them, and we pitched a Flash movie, which they loved.
The movie fell through, but Jenette Kahn came back to us and said, "If you're not going to write a movie for us, how would you like to write a comic book?" That's like Santa coming to you and saying, "Well, I can't deliver anything to you, son, but how would you like to go into FAO Schwartz and pick out anything that you want?" The next thing I new, I had gotten in touch with DC Executive editor Dick Giordano, who was one of my heroes because he inked Neal Adams.
I started talking to Dick about what character I wanted to do, and of course I immediately said, "I want to tell a Superman story." It never occurred to me that there was a regular team and that you couldn't just have a kid come in and write one issue. So after we finally got through all the major characters, he said, "Why don't I send you a list of characters that are available?"
The first one I saw on the list was the Creeper, and I got all excited and I called them up but they said, "No, someone else got that." And then I went down the list and I saw the Atom, and I said, "I like the Atom; he's very cool," and they said, "Eh, no, someone else got that." And so on this list of around fifteen, I think that the Challengers of the Unknown were the only ones actually available. And I didn't really know them, so I went out to my local comics shop and for something like $5 I bought the entire run and then wrote a proposal.
Now at the time I wrote this proposal, Grant Morrison's Animal Man was the rage. The approach basically seemed to be, "Take the original premise of the character, no matter how goofy it is, and make it kind-of-adult." So that was what I proposed to do with Challengers of the Unknown. Dick Giordano said, "It looks terrific. I'm gonna get you an editor, and the editor will go and find you an artist." So Barbara Randall, now Barbara Kesel, was assigned the project. She had just become an editor, so it was a nice fit. Neither one of us knew what we were doing.
It took us forever. It wasn't until a year later that we finally found an artist. Barbara sent me a copy of Thieve's World, which was Tim Sale's first work, with a note on it that said, "I think that is our guy." I looked through it, and what thrilled me was that he drew people who looked real, not the idealized versions that we usually see in comic books. This was very important to me.
Tim read through the 8-issue proposal, thought that it was an interesting idea, and agreed to do it.
When I wrote the first script, I thought that it would be like moviemaking, where you can re-shoot scenes that don't work out. Tim would send me artwork and I would say to him, "Turn the camera about 180 degrees." But you can't just turn the camera in comics, somebody has to draw the page again. He was incredibly patient with me. At this point, there were no faxes so everything was done through the mail. He was in Seattle, I was in Los Angeles, so this book was taking months to do, because I was continually saying to him, "This isn't what I wanted. This is drawn wrong."
By the time we had finished our first issue, Barbara had quit being an editor at DC. I got a call from Dick Giordano, who said to me, "We're gonna schedule this book now, and in scheduling the book you're gonna need an editor. Do you know a guy named Elliot Maggin?" I said, "Elliot Maggin is the only person I know who works in comics!" "Great. He's your editor."
How did his name get on Dick's desk?
He was an editor at DC and the book was an open assignment. Possibly he said, "I know Jeph," I don't remember, but all I knew was that we were together again and that he now had the opportunity to help me with my writing while I was actually writing a comic book.
Superman put in a cameo in one of the issues. He seems to be the exact same character in this appearance to the one that you're writing now.
When I sent the script in, Elliot wrote back and said, "One day someone will go back and read this book and realize that this is the definitive Superman. You've hit it dead-on, and I know; I've written the character for 10 years." I was blown away by the compliment, but that's how Elliot was as an editor - he liked to use hyperbole. It's funny, but that was the first time that I wrote Superman, and no-one has ever put it to me the way that you've put it to me, but I guess that it's just the way that I've always seen the character.
Here's a story: Elliot was supposed to get permission to use the Superman character. It's one of the unwritten rules of the DC Office. Mike Carlin at the time was running that area, and had some problems with the fact that Superman would go to court and would exonerate four characters that, according to Mike, he didn't know - because after Crisis he had no way of knowing the Challengers. So we came up with a lot of ways of doing it, and finally decided that the Challengers had built a Superman robot to testify on their behalf. That's why it's ironic when the attorney says, "How do we even know that this is the real Superman?" and Superman lifts up the jury box. Because on the next page in that revised version, which Tim drew, the Challengers all go into the bathroom and take "Superman" apart and put him in a briefcase and walk out. We sent it in to Elliot. He disagreed with it and ran the story without the robot explanation. But until the book was actually printed, I had thought - and certainly Carlin had thought - that the robot part was still in there. When it came out, Carlin was more than a little shocked. I called Elliot and said, "What happened to that page?" And he said, "There was no way that I was going to let that page in." I think it cost him his job.
You didn't write Superman yourself for quite a while after that.
After Tim Sale and I finished The Long Halloween, he wanted to do Superman. If he had said that we were going to do Aquaman, we would've done Aquaman. DC was very open and very encouraging about us doing something for Superman's 60th anniversary. And I just started thinking about this story that would dovetail out of The Man of Steel. It wasn't until the device of the holidays had clearly worked so will in The Long Halloween that I decided to try seasons.
I also knew that I didn't want to do the story from Superman's point of view. I didn't feel comfortable being inside the head of an icon. I couldn't even do it as Clark, separating the voice so that you would only know what the human side was thinking about, as opposed to the superhuman side.
Superman For All Seasons
When we started working on the story, the first thing that Tim said was that we were going to come out of the dark and go into the light, and what that meant to me was that we needed to do a lot of double-page spreads, to do a lot of big sky shots, because that is the grandeur that is Superman.
I wrote the script for the first book after Tim had drawn it. Now, I generally describe each panel on a page-by-page basis, and give little flecks of dialogue along the way so that whomever I'm working with knows whether or not an expression should be sad or happy or fun or whatever, based upon the dialogue.
I finished the script for the first issue, read it over, and was absolutely convinced that, aside from the fact that nothing happened during the story and that Superman didn't appear until the very end, the fact that it was such a light read needed to be dealt with. I went through many different ideas as to who ought to narrate it, and was pretty set on Clark. But when I thought of the scene where Martha is standing on the porch, I tried it with Pa talking about his memories of what Clark was like as a baby. These were memories that I had of what my son was like as a baby. I suddenly found a voice, and to this day I still think that it's some of the best stuff that I've written.
Once that happened, I was faced with a problem - I couldn't have Pa Kent narrate the second issue, because it all took place in Metropolis. Suddenly the idea of having Lois narrate the chapter came to mind, and then, at that point, I wrote the plots for the third and fourth issues with Luthor and Lana in mind. But it is sort-of curious to me when I go back and look at my original plots for the first and second issues, how the stories were not geared around having anything other than a third-person narrator, yet how easily Pa and Lois fit into those stories. It's one of those things that just happened along the way, and boy am I glad that I tried it.
And now you're one of the regular writers on the Superman books. When you first came onboard, did you want to change anything from the way the books had been?
In general, I feel that before we came onboard, the books had drifted - and I've heard a lot of different reasons as to why that happened - away from the core cast and into the subplots. So it wasn't all that difficult to come up with a take that sounded new, when it was really sort of old.
In your second issue, Superman #152, you have Superman training and expanding his powers.
One of my thoughts was that I found it odd that the greatest hero of all time had never practiced, and that from the day that he first started flying, he just flew. So we wanted to try to explain a few things - one of then being the idea that, being invulnerable, Superman has always held back, he never knew what it felt like to hit someone as hard as he possibly could.
What can't he use more than one power at a time? Why can't he use his X-ray vision at the same time as his heat vision, so that if he really wanted to send a thread of heat-vision into a building and hit something with it, he could? There are certain things, like the fact that he didn't need to breathe in space, that we all agreed we miss.
I also like super-ventriloquism, and all of those other powers that some people feel a need to try to explain. When I read these long, convoluted explanations of how Superman flies, all I want to do is say to people, "He comes from the planet Krypton. It had a red sun. Here he's under a yellow sun, so he can fly."
But there are certain things that we're not allowed to change. Clark and Lois are married, so I thought that we should just deal with it. Let's tell a terrific, fun story about what that's like, about what marriage is like, and how that can be fun, that it's not boring to a 13-year-old. My children are under the age of 12; they don't see me and my wife as not having fun, they don't see marriage as the death of all things. I think that there's a way to do it well - a little bit of The Thin Man, a little bit of Moonlighting, and a little bit of Lois & Clark, and that's sort-of something for every generation, as far as I'm concerned.
Excerpted from a much longer interview by Stefan Blitz and Brian Saner Lamken; originally appearing in Comicology #1, Spring 2000
The truth is that for me, while I really like earlier versions of Superman, the way that he is now is more interesting to me as a writer, simply because I've always found the mortal side more interesting than the superhuman side. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that Clark is just a farmboy with super-powers; I do think that his Kryptonian heritage weighs in, and that's something that I didn't address in For All Seasons. But we are certainly going to address it in the monthly series. Superman is about hope and a better tomorrow.
Must There be a Heritage?
Another Jeph Loeb Interview