"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
Although I wrote quite a lot over the past year about DC’s weekly series Trinity, I kept coming up with questions that went outside the scope of my weekly notes. Fortunately, writer Kurt Busiek was nice enough to participate in the following e-mail interview, conducted after Trinity concluded (and after he returned from a well- deserved vacation).
We discussed the nuts and bolts of producing Trinity, its connections to a couple of Busiek’s other DC projects, a few nitpicky items, and what the year-long series leaves behind.
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TCB: How did the weekly format affect your approach? Did you feel obliged to pace the book so as to satisfy both the weekly audience and the “wait-for-traders?”
kdb: I always feel obligated to make a project satisfying in whatever formats it’s planned for. So yes, we wanted each individual issue to be an enjoyable read, and we wanted each trade paperback volume to be an enjoyable read. Which was a little tricky, since we didn’t know, going into it, whether it would be collected as 4 TPBs (meaning the volumes would end at #13, 26, 39, and 52) or 3 TPBs (meaning #17, #34 or 35, and #52).*
That said, we were aware that with a weekly schedule, it’s only 7 days to the next chapter, so if one week is light on action (or virtually all action), that would likely be balanced out by the next installment. Or maybe even by the story in the co-feature.
TCB: What sorts of decisions went into breaking the series into individual two-story issues? Were there any labor considerations, for example to give the artists time to rest up for the next crowd scene? Did you and Fabian Nicieza write particular second stories for particular art teams?
kdb: We did try to juggle things for the strengths of the various co-feature artists, yes. But we had flexibility there, because we had enough lead time so that we didn’t have to have them in strict rotation. If we needed two chapters in a row from Scott [McDaniel], for instance, we’d just have to make sure we were plotted far enough ahead that while he was working on chapter one of two, Tom [Derenick] and Mike [Norton] had their own chapters to work on. As a result, the co-feature chapters didn’t come in in order, but we had enough time that we didn’t need them to; we could juggle talent and material and match them up right.
As a rough rule of thumb, we started out giving Scott spooky stuff or crime stuff, Tom big superhero action and Mike “people” stories, but varied that around as we got more of a sense of what they could do. Tom turned out to be very good at space stuff, for instance, and Scott far better at “cosmic/trippy” stuff than anyone might have imagined, possibly even him. By the end of it, we were making sure he got the psychedelic stuff, because we knew he’d knock it out of the park, while at the start we were thinking of him for shadows and mood…
TCB: Especially considering the artists’ deadline pressures, I thought Trinity‘s art was consistently good. Among other things, I feel like I’ve been to Thayer’s Notch now that I’ve seen it drawn by Mark Bagley and Art Thibert; and I was very impressed by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens’ psychedelic Worldsoul/Krona story. Not that you had low expectations for the art, but were there any scenes or sequences which looked better than you’d written them?
kdb: I agree with you on the art being consistently good — credit the artists, of course, but also credit Mike Carlin, for lining up such a good squad of guys and making sure to manage their schedules right.
As for which scenes looked better than I imagined, I’m tempted to say “All of them.” Getting pages in was a treat, because everyone found ways to go a little further, make it a bit bigger, or funnier, or more affecting. From giant battles to big mystery to chapters like that great Norton/Kesel chapter about the Riddler, which was just perfectly paced, it was a pleasure all the way through.
TCB: Mike Carlin edited most of Countdown, and worked on the “weekly” Superman titles of the ’90s. Was he more helpful with regard to the logistics of the book or the creative aspects?
kdb: Mike weighed in on the big-picture stuff, going over the outlines, the big ideas and so on, but when it came to the chapter-by-chapter stuff, Fabian and I had a pretty good sense of how to play it out, and Mike rarely asked for changes. So I’d say that after the big story decisions had been made, he was very supportive creatively, and had to be the scheduling logistics taskmaster more often than anything else. And his experience juggling a large creative team helped out a lot.
TCB: What was it like collaborating with Fabian? How much input did he have into those scripts, and/or the book’s overall direction?
kdb: Fabian was insanely helpful. On the one hand, Fabian and I have worked together in a lot of different situations, going back to when he was a promotions manager at Marvel and I was a sales manager. We get along, we have a similar enough sensibility that we can pretty easily pull in the same direction, and he’s an inventive and professional writer. One of the reasons Mike didn’t need to involve himself all that much in the chapter-by-chapter plotting was that we pretty much had it covered — Fabian was kind of an extra story editor, where I could call him up and bounce ideas off him, and get feedback and suggestions from someone deeply involved in the story, who wasn’t pulled in a million directions at once by other emergencies.
At the same time, Fabian brought tons of creativity and no ego to the process — he knew going in that I’d be basically driving the bus, and his job was to help. I probably trampled all over his stuff dozens of times, replotting co-features, tweaking the dialogue so much that at points it amounted to rewriting rather than co-writing — but it was all in the service of keeping the two pieces of the issue together and working at speed; it’s simply easier, sometimes, to rewrite rather than talk all the details through.
So in the end, the credits are a bit misleading. Fabian’s name doesn’t appear on the lead chapters, but he was essentially a contributing writer on those, a sounding board, a suggestion guy and more. And my name is only listed as co-plotter on the co-features, but I had a lot more input than that. It was very organic — we were on the phone a lot and figured things out together. So I was driving the bus, but Fabian was co-pilot, or something. He had a number of very good suggestions, pushing me to think harder about Gangbuster and Enigma and others, and making sure I didn’t set something up and then let it fade away when it should play a larger role. He’s had a lot more experience with gang-written books than I do, so he saw pitfalls and structural issues sooner than I did, and kept us from falling prey to them.
And then I’d rewrite all his stuff; what an ingrate!
TCB: Appropriately enough, Trinity itself seems to be the third part of a trilogy, wrapping up storylines from JLA/Avengers and JLA‘s “Syndicate Rules.” How much of what became Trinity did you have in mind when you were writing the earlier stories?
kdb: Almost none of it. We put Krona in the Egg at the end of JLA/Avengers because it seemed like a good place to leave him, somewhere that could lead to something rich, but we hadn’t figured out what, yet. And then in “Syndicate Rules,” we didn’t do a lot with the Egg itself, but built up ideas like the Void Hound, or the CSA’s favor- bank rules, knowing that they’d be paid off later, but again, not precisely how. So it’s more a case of putting things into places that feel like a satisfying resolution for the moment, but have a built-in springboard for further explanation. It’s more about knowing that there’s stuff you can do that’ll work than knowing exactly what stuff that’ll be.
TCB: Apart from simply being shorter, do you think Trinity would have been significantly different as, say, an arc in Superman or JLA?
kdb: Oh, it’d have to be. Keep in mind that the JLA doesn’t turn up until #3, and then is erased from reality for the middle third of the story. If it was a JLA story, we’d have gotten tons of complaints from people who thought we were using JLA as a vehicle to ram the Trinity down everyone’s throats, at the expense of the rest of the League, and then that we weren’t even letting the League be part of their own book. So it’d have had to have been a much, much different story.
Same for if it was in Superman – it’s not a straight Superman story; it’s a story that has Superman as one of the main characters. So to build it more fully around him would change a lot. It doesn’t really fit any existing DC book — to properly describe it, it’s either a book about the Trinity, with a whole bunch of guest stars, or a book about the DCU Universe, with a special focus on the Trinity. So if you don’t call it Trinity, you need to call it DCU or DC Nation or something like that. (It was originally pitched, by the way, as “DC Superstars: Starring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman….and The DC Universe!” Which would have fit pretty well, as it worked out.)
TCB: It seemed to me that Trinity shared some of its story structure, at least superficially, with JLA/Avengers. Both stories begin with a quest to gather certain powerful items, which are then used to create an alternate timeline. Although the two stories have their differences, are the similarities just coincidental?
kdb: I think they’re coincidence. The quest-for-power-objects part of JLA/Avengers was there to help make it a travelogue/showcase of the two universes, an excuse to have a lot of fun locations for the fights. In Trinity, it was the villains going after power-objects, and that was to set up the building mystery of the Tarot connections and the personal items that were used in the Trinity spell.
TCB: Another JLA/Avengers question. In JLA/Avengers, I got the feeling you were lamenting the heroes’ various personal tragedies, and saying that no matter how appealing it looked, the combined DC/ Marvel timeline was just a pipe dream. Here, though, the experience of the deified Trinitarians suggests that the characters’ tragedies are inevitable, and perhaps even necessary. What do these stories say about the usefulness of these events?
kdb: In JLA/Avengers, the “tragedies” you’re referring to were things like the Scarlet Witch losing her children, or Hal and Barry being dead — I’d call that the kind of upheaval and calamity that happened to the heroes over the course of their careers, but which they had to accept as their burden to bear to restore the world to what they should be. In Trinity, you mean the legends, with the death of Robin and the Max Lord thing and such, right? I don’t know that we’re saying those are necessary, merely that they were big events that sent the heroes off into directions that isolated them, and they had to overcome those and reconnect with their true missions, rather than obsessing about personal failures.
TCB: Apart from those tragedies, how important generally was it to tell a story about these particular versions of the characters? Was it simply a case of using what had been established and/or what was current? Could you have gotten the same points across with more “timeless” versions?
kdb: I think they were reasonably timeless versions. We didn’t dwell all that hard on minor details — we used recent history in the legend stuff, but we used it in the process of illustrating who the characters are at their core. In another era, with different histories, those legends would have been different, but I’m sure we’d have found ways to say what we needed to say.
TCB: Were there any characters who, for whatever reason, didn’t make the final cut? (Personally, I was a little surprised not to see the “Sword of Atlantis” Aquaman.)
kdb: DC didn’t seem to know what they were going to do with Aquaman, so even though I created that version, I didn’t want to force him into the story. The big loss, to my mind, was Metron — we’d set up that Metron was interested in what would happen to the Cosmic Egg, and then couldn’t use him as we saw it play out because the New Gods were off-limits due to Final Crisis.
And we couldn’t use Madame Xanadu, because of her Vertigo series, but that meant that Charity got to play a role, which spun the story a bit differently, and that was fun.
Overall, though, we got to use most everyone we wanted to.
TCB: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are each inspired by their parents in very different ways. However, Trinity didn’t really concern itself with those differences. Why not?
kdb: It didn’t really come up. We could have made that another aspect of their trinitarianity, if that’s even a word — Superman was raised by loving parents, Batman’s an orphan, Wonder Woman had a single Mom; Superman’s adopted, Batman’s a natural son, Wonder Woman was created…but after a while adding more details starts to feel like you’re just piling them on, not going deeper into the characters.
There certainly stuff there to explore, and maybe someone will do a story about it. But we had enough going on that we didn’t need to add that in, too.
TCB: Here are a couple of really nit-picky questions about the altered timeline. First, why did Hal Jordan become Sky-Knight if John Stewart was still Green Lantern? I take it Hal quit because he couldn’t operate as GL on Earth, leaving John to be the GL of Sector 2814 everywhere but Earth. Also, why did Interceptor wear those goggles?
kdb: Interceptor’s visor has hi-tech sensors in it — it allowed her military bosses to observe what she saw; to see and hear what she did. Part of her being an agent of the government rather than a solo act. Hal Jordan quit being Green Lantern at some point and then built a new identity to keep being a hero, and John became our sector’s GL. Neither of these really came up, but like you say, it’s nit-picky. Given the way comics work, we could see either character again and learn more about them, I suppose. I really got to like Interceptor, and would love to see Supergirl meet her, in a compare/contrast story. Each one would think the other’s life was unbearable; it could be a lot of fun.
TCB: He only popped up briefly here, so where might we see Khyber again?
kdb: Anywhere! He’s out there, but he’s very secretive, so he could pop up anywhere, or stay under the radar for years. He could make a good JLA villain, or get involved with some espionage/intrigue characters, or whatever. We hinted at him in “Syndicate Rules,” by the way, when I was planning him as a JLA villain. But I don’t think anyone noticed.
TCB: The Tarot plays a pretty significant part in the story, especially early on. I imagine that is the kind of thing you want to get right, because you’ll probably have some readers who will know if you got it wrong. Did you have to do a lot of research before you felt comfortable with it? Did you consult any experts?
kdb: Fabian and I got a number of reference books, and used those — I sort of delegated much of that to him, because, well, I was juggling so much stuff I didn’t have the time to be more than cursory about it, and he was willing….
TCB: Trinity works in a lot of Clark’s co-workers from his pre-Crisis days as a TV anchorman. That seemed to me to indicate a fondness for the Cary Bates/Elliott Maggin/Curt Swan era of Superman. Apart from your own work on the Trinitarians, and the ways they’re being handled currently, to whom do you look for inspiration for each of these characters?
kdb: Everyone. I’m not looking to recreate any particular era, and my Superman, for instance, is informed by what Weisinger and his crew did, what Julie [Schwartz]’s creative staff did, what Byrne and Stern and Jurgens and Ordway and others did…. I like the Bronze Age Superman a lot, especially the Cary Bates issues, but when I write Superman it’s a synthesis of all the stuff I like about Superman over the years. I don’t try to hit particular notes, I simply have a sense of who the character is from reading all those comics, and that guy in my head is the guy I try to get on paper. Same for Batman and Wonder Woman … I’m a big fan of Englehart’s Batman, for instance, but I’m not specifically trying to capture that, it’s just one piece of the mosaic that makes up Batman to me. Wonder Woman’s history is a lot more fragmented, so I suppose I’m more guided by the stuff from what George [Perez] did to what Gail [Simone] is doing today, but there’s certainly parts of the Bronze and Silver Age Wonder Woman in there, stuff that resonates with me and feels appropriate to who she is today.
TCB: Any immediate plans for Trinity‘s supporting cast, including Konvikt, Tarot and Gangbuster, Enigma and Stephie/Void Hound, and Tomorrow Woman?
kdb: I can’t say, at present. I hope we’ll see a lot of them — including the Dreambound — but if there are plans I’m not at liberty to announce them, and if there aren’t I’m too sneaky to admit it.
TCB: Finally, can you share what’s next for the new Earth-Trinity? Should we call it “Earth One,” or was that just a wink to fans of the old Multiverse?
kdb: “Earth One” was a deliberate choice, and done in part at DC’s request. There’s definitely more than a wink going on there.
But again, I can’t say, at present, what it’s leading to…
* [It turned out to be 3 volumes, with vol. 2 covering issues #18-35 — TCB]