STAS 10th: Understanding Superman Adventures with Scott McCloud
To commemorate the impending 10th anniversary of Superman the Animated Series, Toon Zone News and the World’s Finest Online have teamed up for an interview series with an assortment of people associated with the show or the tie-in Superman Adventures comic book series.
Scott McCloud has been involved in writing and drawing comics for more than 20 years, beginning with his series Zot! published by Eclipse Comics from 1984-1991. He is best known to comic book fans as the author of Understanding Comics, a seminal work published in 1993 that uses comics to explain the inner workings of the medium and general concepts in visual communication. In between Understanding Comics and its 2000 sequel Reinventing Comics, McCloud wrote 12 issues of the Superman Adventures comic book series. We caught up with McCloud for a quick phone interview to talk about his run on the title.
WF/TZN: How did you get the job to write the Superman Adventures?
SCOTT MCCLOUD: I’d been a fan of the Batman cartoons that Paul Dini and Bruce Timm had overseen, and I had heard that there was a Superman cartoon coming up at about the time that I got a call from Mike McAvennie at DC Comics asking me if I’d be interested in writing a comic based on the Superman cartoon.
Usually, I don’t work on work-for-hire characters – usually I write and draw my own stuff – but it was as if I’d been given an invitation to write a brand new character because I think Paul and Bruce had done such a great job in rebooting the character. It’s so hard to write a character that’s mired in decades of continuity. With one that’s just newly minted and newly reconceived — and so well conceived, as I thought was the case with their ideas — it was pretty hard to resist, so I signed on and did 12 issues of the series. I had a lot of fun writing it.
WF/TZN: What would you say was the biggest surprise you had in writing the series?
SM: I don’t know… I pretty much knew what I was getting in to from the beginning. When I’m done with the script, I just sort of let it loose. I feel like my part of it is done, and whatever comes back from the art…I’m very detached, and just sort of have fun as a reader, so I couldn’t really surprise myself because I was the one doing the writing (laughs). It was almost exactly what I expected it to be – it was fun, and it was a chance for me to practice my craft as a writer.
I would be surprised when the cartoons were coming out by some of the wonderful things they had come up with, but I’m afraid surprise was not the primary appeal of this particular assignment (laughs). In a lot of ways it was exactly what I hoped it would be, which was just a fun opportunity to work on a character who, at his core, is just a lot of fun to write. I hope my stories managed to surprise other people. It’s just that when I was the one coming up with the ideas, I couldn’t really surprise myself.
SM: Yes, I was. In fact, I also did little thumbnails that I would suggest to the artists. Just fairly small visual layouts along with the scripts. They were just suggestions. We didn’t necessarily expect them to be taken, but sometimes some of the layout ideas I had were picked up on.
WF/TZN: But that was really the limit of your interaction with the artists?
SM: Yeah, yeah. I like full script because it lets you have a lot of control over your part of the process, but once you let go of that script, you hope that the artist will also have that sense of ownership and make it their own, just as you made it your own during the script phase. If I tried to become too micro-managing on the art end, it would have been a lot harder and a lot more emotionally draining.
WF/TZN: Did DC ever tell you “No” for anything you wanted to do in the comic?
SM: They were very supportive. They have been, throughout the process of writing Superman Adventures and a couple of other things I’ve done for them. I’ve worked with great editors and I’ve never felt stifled in any way. Of course, there are things I like to do in comics that I would not choose to do at DC (laughs), because I know what I’m doing as I’m getting into it. It’s not that there aren’t restrictions at DC, but it’s just that I knew exactly what they were when I got in there. They were looking for something fairly specific, and at that point in time and in my career, that was something I felt that I could give them.
SM: Yeah, I do. I think it was #6, which was a story in which time was running backwards (“Seonimod” – ed). Superman witnesses the destruction of Metropolis, only to see all the rubble from the buildings rising up into the air and re-assembling itself into the city, and he realizes that time is running backwards. He has to figure out why the city was destroyed before time begins running forwards again.
WF/TZN: That’s one of my favorite stories in your run also. I know writers hate this question, but how did you come up with that as a concept? Is there a story behind that?
SM: That’s a good question, I don’t know. With a series like this, I like high-concept ideas – you know, one’s that can be described in a few short sentences, like “Superman gets really heavy” (laughs), which was the concept behind issue #4. I just thought that would be really fun, you know – he’s just getting really heavy. The time running backwards story may have just come down the gumball chute as one of those parameters you can play with: time. It was about time for a Mxyzptlk story…and incidentally, I thank Kurt Busiek for teaching me to pronounce “Mxyzptlk” when we were both in high school (laughs). (“Mixy-yus-spit-a-lick” – ed)
I don’t recall the exact way that it came to mind, just that idea of time. I think in a lot of ways, it presented itself as just a fairly obvious possibility that I could play with time in that way.
WF/TZN: One of the reasons why I ask is because one of the things you talk about in Understanding Comics is how comics translate time in a spatial manner. I was wondering if that was the impetus behind it, because it’s a different way to play with time in a comic book.
SM: You know, that wasn’t the catalyst, although it is true that really the story is about Superman’s attempt to map time, and the idea of time as a map is something that I’m very interested in. I think all of comics are a kind of temporal map, and what Superman is trying to do draw a mental map of how all this could have happened. You know – what the sequence of events were and get a sense of the landscape so he could somehow go back and change it. It became a kind of detective story, which is something that Superman isn’t really associated with as much as Batman, of course. As I said, that was a very satisfying story and a lot of fun to write.
WF/TZN: Along those lines, was there anything else in your then-recent Understanding Comics that was connected to your Superman Adventures work at all?
SM: Only in the sense that one of the ideas in Understanding Comics is that comics is capable of anything. You know, I come from the superhero culture. I read superhero comic when I was young and I’ve worked in superheroes off and on over the years, but one of my primary ideas about comics, that a lot of people share nowadays, is that comics are capable of much much more. But, I like to be as inclusive as possible, and the idea that comics can be about more than just superheroes doesn’t mean that writing a good superhero story isn’t something worth aspiring to. And every once in a while, it’s fun to just try and do that. But, of course, I’m always thinking about the aspects about the transitions between panels and what we see and don’t see in the story, and sparking reader’s imaginations – all those things come into play all the time.
WF/TZN: Knowing what you know now, if you were going to pick up the same assignment, what do you think you would do differently?
SM: For Superman Adventures, I don’t know that I would do anything differently because it was what it was, full throttle. There’s other things I’ve done since that I would do differently, but I don’t know. At the time, what came to mind seemed to be what was appropriate. There’s always room for improvement of course. I don’t think they’re perfect stories by any means, but I think that they served their purpose both in terms of the readership and in terms of my own desires as a writer at the time. They served their purpose about as well as could be expected, and they still make me smile. I like that there were 12 of them. It’s a nice round number (laughs). It just kind of worked.
SM: I just finished up a brand new book called Making Comics, which will be published in September. I’ve finally written a how-to book about the art of putting one picture after another to tell a story. I cover a pretty broad range of topics, from the craft to writing with pictures, facial expressions, body language, world building, there’s a chapter on tools and technology. It pretty much runs the gamut of all the different issues associated with making comics. It will come out in September, and in September my family and I are putting everything in storage and we’re going to go on tour for a year and visit all 50 states.
WF/TZN: That sounds really exciting…are you looking forward to that? It also sounds kind of daunting.
SM: Yup! (laughs) Both. I’m looking forward to it and it’s daunting, yeah. It’ll be a road trip, we’ll be taking up various speaking engagement and teaching seminars . I’ll also be talking to people about making comics all over the country. I’ll be doing audio interviews and maybe even video interviews with different people who are drawing comics all around the country. We’ll be posting the results to a website. The tour map is up on my website now. We’re starting in the northeast, so if anyone wants me to come up and speak in that region, that’ll be the September to December leg.
The World’s Finest Online and Toon Zone News would like to thank Scott McCloud for taking the time to talk with us. More details about McCloud’s upcoming new book Making Comics are available at McCloud’s website, and information about his 50-state tour is available at http://www.scottmccloud.com/makingcomics/tour.html.
This interview co-published with the World’s Finest Online. Scans from Superman Adventures #6 courtesy of the World’s Finest On-line.