Stories I Never Told

Stories I Never Told: The Return of Superman

So, now this is happening.

Superman is being replaced…by the Superman of another reality.

Well, damn! I was gonna do that years ago!

See, when John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986’s famous Man of Steel mini-series, I wasn’t a happy camper. I enjoyed Byrne’s seminal work on Fantastic Four, but I was also a big fan of what he referred to as “barnacles” on the legend of Superman — stuff like Krypto, the Bottle  City of Kandor, etc. To be sure, Byrne (and, of course, DC Comics) had good reasons for the revamp, but to a kid who loved those barnacles something fierce, 1986 was the year Superman went away and was replaced by someone who looked a lot like him.

Years later, I had a notion that if I got the chance, I would tell a story in which Byrne’s Superman is killed by a villain…and the original, pre-Crisis Superman returns from…somewhere to take up the mantle. Pretty simple on the face of it, I suppose.

With the news that DC is doing something similar (though in their case, replacing the New52 version with the Byrne version!), I dug up some old notes on that story idea. Here’s a bit of what I wrote up:

Outside Lois Lane’s apartment building, Clark Kent stood in a phone booth. “Lois? Just call me when you get in, okay?”

He hung up. Leaving the booth, he stood out on the street for a moment. Dressed in a blue double-breasted suit with a blue and red striped tie and horn-rimmed glasses, he was the very picture of the disinterested and uninteresting bystander. With a frown, he gazed up at the floor on which Lois lived. He watched for a moment or two, then, with a deeper frown, shook his head and walked away. He caught a bus on the corner and took it all the way to 344 Clinton Street.

The doorman blinked twice as he held the door open for Clark.

“Something wrong, Frank?” Kent asked. “Uh, no, Mister Kent.” The doorman scratched his head. “You feelin’ okay?”

“As well as I can, under the circumstances.” Kent cocked his head. “Why?”

Frank shrugged. “If you don’t mind my saying so… You look a little peaked. Like you haven’t been eating well.”

“Oh?” Clark thought for a moment. “Well, I haven’t really eaten since Superman died. We grew up together, you know.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

Clark grimaced. “Well, okay. Thanks, Frank. I’ll try to look out for myself.”

“Sure thing, Mister Kent.” Frank waved as Clark headed into the lobby. “Oh, and I like your new glasses!” the doorman called.

Clark hesitated, considered turning back, but then kept going to the elevator. Self-consciously, he raised one hand to his glasses. New?

Once back in the apartment, he took the time to do what he had been unable to do before due to time constraints — he searched. He examined the entire flat carefully, pulling open drawers, drawing back curtains, probing in closets. What he found disturbed and baffled him. He reclined in an easy chair in the living room, absently fiddling with his glasses. When he realized what he was doing, he removed them and put them on the end table. Then, feet propped up on the ottoman, tie loosened, fingers steepled at his lips, he settled into a reflective disposition.

Where had the football trophies come from? Surely he hadn’t been a football star in high school—that was impossible. And the clothing was far too flashy, trendy, and noticeable for a mild-mannered reporter. Furthermore, the press credentials listed only the Daily Planet, with no mention of WGBS and the broadcaster’s anchor position.

Most frightening of all, though, was the personal address book, which listed a “Pete and Lana Ross” in Smallville and “Ma and Pa.”

Pete married to Lana? His parents alive?

What was going on here?

Stories I Never Told: Watchmen

Given that this has happened, I guess it’s time to tell this never-to-be-told tale…

A long time ago, I had an idea for a story. The great thing about the idea was that it could fit into any DC comic at any time. Talk about versatile, eh?

Here goes: Whatever DC comic I was lucky enough to be writing, I would start having shadowy figures show up, saying cryptic things. Eventually, I would reveal that those figures were, in fact, the characters from Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Comedian… All of ’em.

And they would be acting totally like typical superheroes. Right down to insipid expository dialogue. Like, “Good thing Dr. Manhattan decided to resurrect the Comedian and Rorschach! We need the team at full strength!” And “This parallel earth is so different from our own!”

In short, I would pissing off a metric ton of Watchmen fans by repurposing the characters in this way.

Until…

Until it’s revealed that these “Watchmen” are actually just denizens of the DC Universe cosplaying as characters from their favorite graphic novel!1 So, yeah, it would basically just be me trolling the fans.

Told Paul Levitz this idea once. He laughed.



  1. Because it has been established that Watchmen exists in the DCU as a graphic novel.

Stories I Never Told: Archvillain

archvillain heads
So, as I indicated recently, the third Archvillain book, Yesterday Again, was never intended to be the finale of that series. I had always meant for the series to go on for quite a while, possibly as many as ten books.

Sadly, reality intruded on my fantasy. The books just didn’t sell well enough to justify further volumes, and the publisher pulled the plug (as is its right).

But I get a lot of people asking me if there will ever be more Archvillain books, and since the answer is “No,” I figure there’s no harm in relating what might have been, had sales warranted. Settle in — this is a long one… [Read more…]

Stories I Never Told: Startling Stories — Rogers

Around the Turn of the Millennium, Marvel experimented briefly with the idea of some slightly “off-brand” versions of certain characters under the banner (pardon the pun that will make itself clear soon) Startling Stories. The idea was, in a nutshell, to take some characters and let a very talented creative team go at them without the burdens of continuity. If the notions panned out, they could be folded into the “official” continuity. If not, well, at least we got a cool story, right?

The first of these was Startling Stories: Banner (see, here’s that pun I promised you). It was a very unvarnished look at the Hulk by Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben. Slightly off-kilter, not entirely bound by continuity, but familiar enough that the differences made the story more powerful.

I came up with two Startling Stories notions of my own. The first was Startling Stories: Rogers. Yes, it was my own weird take on Captain America.

I actually have the original springboard proposal I wrote, so rather than recap the idea, I’ll just present it to you as I originally wrote it back in 2001-ish. And then I’ll be back at the end to talk a little more about it.

Steve Rogers knows all there is to know about being a Captain.

Steve Rogers is about to learn what it means…

…to be America.

STARTLING STORIES: ROGERS

In a hidden government compound in the year 2002, the men in their black, off-the-rack suits once again wake up the Captain. They bring him into the briefing room, remembering the cautions pounded into their heads:

“Do not engage in idle conversation with the Captain.”

“Never answer questions not directly related to the mission at hand.”

“Most important of all, never forget that Captain Rogers thinks that it’s 1947…”

During World War II, Steve Rogers volunteered to be injected with the Super-Soldier Serum, a chemical formula that imbued him with fantastic powers and abilities, making him a one-man army for Uncle Sam.

Do you really think they were going to let that slip away?

Hitler, the men in black tell the Captain, has new allies. He has made an agreement with forces in Colombia to import a deadly drug into the United States. He’s feeding our children poison, Captain Rogers. Something called…cocaine.

Don’t pay attention to their strange clothes and their odd weapons. They may even try to use psychological warfare by telling you bizarre lies, like Hitler is dead, or it’s already past the year 2000.

Don’t listen to them, Captain Rogers. Just do your patriotic duty. Interdict these drug smugglers and come back to base…

So begins Startling Stories: Rogers, an intense, ultra-modern take on Captain America by way of conspiracy theories and the dark side of the American Dream.

In 1945, as it became obvious that the Allies would win World War II, the U.S. government realized that with the end of the war they would also lose one of their greatest assets: the only man to survive Operation: Super-Soldier, Steve Rogers. With hostilities at an end, Rogers would be free to return to civilian life, beyond the control of the military.

So they began a grand cover-up. Rogers was placed in cryogenic freeze (“To help maintain your altered metabolism,” the doctors assured him) in a secret military installation. When needed—by Military Intelligence, by the CIA, by the NSA—Rogers would be thawed, awakened, subjected to briefings that convinced him that it was still the 1940’s…

And then sent out on covert missions against “Hitler” and the “Nazi menace,” threats that had been eliminated years ago.

“Wet works” behind the Iron Curtain. Black ops in Soviet-controlled territories. Even ultra-classified missions in the U.S. itself, infiltrating left-wing groups in the sixties and taking out militias in the nineties. The brainwashed “Captain America” has done it all through the post-War era, the ultimate Cold Warrior, still fighting World War II after all these years.

But then comes a day in the year 2002, when Rogers is sent to combat a growing narco-terrorist cell in South America. On the way, his plane hits rough weather and crashes. Leaving Steve Rogers as the sole survivor…

Loose in an America he could never begin to imagine.

With a wink and nod towards traditional continuity (his code-name of Captain America, his CIA contact named Bucky, cryogenic suspension, and more), Startling Stories: Rogers re-imagines Captain America for the twenty-first century, recasting him as an icon for a nation that is troubled, solipsistic, and deeply cynical. The question at its core: Can the values of the so-called “Greatest Generation” still be brought to bear at the Turn of the Millennium? Or is Captain America’s only function in the modern world to hold a mirror up to what has become a society of extremists and thought-terrorists?

As Rogers attempts to make sense of the new world he finds himself in—as well as the true nature of the government that lied to him—we will learn the answers to these and other questions. By the end of the mini-series, we will have delved deeply into the meaning of America, how it has changed in the years since World War II, and what place a man like Steve Rogers—and the government that spawned him—can possibly have in such a world.

We will also tease the audience with a notion that would be utterly taboo in the Marvel Universe: Is it possible that Steve Rogers (a man born in the 1920s and raised in the 1930s) is a racist?

Startling Stories: Rogers—Hold onto your flags, and get ready for the ride of two centuries.

Whew!

So, let’s get that lingering question out of the way first: Nah, of course Cap isn’t a racist! But it occurred to me that he would be completely ignorant about the progress made in terms of race since World War II. So, I thought I would play around with this and have some fun by showing him being startled and shocked by, say, an interracial couple, or blacks and whites sharing a meal at a restaurant. He wouldn’t say anything, but it would be obvious that was stunned.

His eventual guide to the 21st century (an ex-CIA operative, natch) would notice his reactions, put two and two together…and assume the old man’s a racist. He would put Cap through a crash course in recent racial history, culminating in a video of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And Cap would turn from the screen with tears streaming down his face and shock his handler (and, if I’d done my job right, the reader) by saying, “This is wonderful. I always wanted the Negroes to have equality!”

The handler would say, “Well, the sentiment is right. Let’s work on the language.”

Most interesting to me from the remove of many years is that my approach here parallels that taken with the Winter Soldier, created years after I conjured this mess. (As with Mark Waid, apparently Ed Brubaker and I are on a similar psychic wavelength.)

Stories I Never Told: The Black Kid

In writing “How It Happened: Hero-Type,” I alluded to the fact that, after Boy Toy, I’d planned on writing a book about Fanboy’s best friend, Cal Willingham.

Cal, for those of you who haven’t read The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl1, is black.

Yes, I — a white dude — was planning on writing a book from the POV of a black kid. And not just “from the POV” of a black kid, but about what it was like to be a black kid in an overwhelmingly white town.

In Fanboy, there’s a casual aside where Fanboy comments that there are maybe ten black kids at his school. And he notices that Cal acts differently around him than he does around his (Cal’s) jock friends. This was going to be the fulcrum of the story, the notion of duality in black lives, the way culture and society forces Cal to be two different versions of himself.

So, not just about a black kid, but about the black experience.

I suppose the big question is: What in the world possessed me to think that I could or should write a book about the black experience?

I dunno, man. Looking back ten years, it’s tough to put myself in that same mind space. But I’ll take a stab at it.

I guess first we have to ask why Cal was black in Fanboy in the first place. Simple answer: The book was very autobiographical and when I was Fanboy’s age, my best friend in the world wasn’t white.2 He wasn’t black, but he was a person of color and rather than explain my best friend’s ethnic heritage, it just seemed more sensible at the time to make Cal black. Also because, y’know, fiction. Autobiographical, yes, but still make-believe.3

Someone once pointed out to me that my work generally tends to be about outcasts. From childhood through young adulthood, I felt excluded and ignored, and my greatest empathy developed towards those who were — for whatever reason — outcasts. And in a small-town like the one I grew up in, anyone who wasn’t white definitely qualified.

As a kid, I watched my best friend navigate the lily-white waters of our hometown and our high school. I didn’t understand it, but I saw it. Then, as an adult, I began to develop a sense of the toll this took on him…and on other people of color.

It was summed up quite nicely by Dave Chappelle on Inside the Actors Studio (coincidentally, airing right around the time I was finishing up Boy Toy and thinking about The Black Kid):

Every black American is bilingual, all of ’em. We speak street vernacular, and we speak job interview. There’s a certain way I gotta speak to have access.4

Preach, brother, I thought.

I wanted to write The Black Kid for my best friend, the boy he’d been and the man he’d become. For my black friends who didn’t feel like they could ever just be themselves. For young black readers just figuring it out. For white readers who didn’t get it.

And hell, now I wanted to write it for Dave Chappelle, too!

Someone out there is saying, “How dare he even contemplate writing that book! It’s presumptuous and racist even to consider it!”

And someone else is saying, “How could he not write that book! It’s an abrogation of his duty to diversify the medium!”

Yeah, OK. Given that, why didn’t I write the book?

In the end, I didn’t write it because… Well, because it just drifted away. I recounted recently why Hero-Type was my third book. What I didn’t mention there was this: Hero-Type was the first book in a two-book deal. And for reasons I won’t get into here and now (if ever), I feared this would actually be my last book deal. So I had one more book and I wanted to give the world Goth Girl Rising, the sequel everyone was waiting for.

Obviously, that deal wasn’t my last one, but… Colleen’s schedule made it necessary to do Mangaman next. And I also agreed to Archvillain. And when the idea for I Hunt Killers popped into my head, I knew I had to jump on it right away.

The next thing you know, it’s almost ten years later, and I’m no longer in the headspace to write some of the stuff I came up with back then. This happens sometimes with writers. It’s not that you get blocked. It’s just that you get distracted into something else. And every book we write, every story we tell, changes us as storytellers. And sometimes we come out on the other side of a story changed enough that a story we were once burning to tell no longer works for us.

Maybe I changed politically. Maybe I was afraid of the repercussions of a white dude telling Cal’s story. Or maybe it was just that what had once seemed like a really cool story no longer seemed as cool. I don’t know.

All I know is this: When the dust settled, I suddenly didn’t know what the story was about any longer. I mean, I still knew the theme, the central nugget of it all. But “the duality forced on African-Americans” isn’t a plot. It’s just an idea, and ideas only work when they’re fleshed out. At the end of the day, I’m not the guy to flesh this one out, and that’s probably a good thing — I doubt I ever was.



  1. Shame on you!!!
  2. In fact, I still have the same best friend. Awww!
  3. My buddy, BTW, instantly recognized “himself” as Cal, and to this day demands royalties for most of Cal’s dialogue, which I cheerfully ripped straight from his fifteen-year-old mouth.
  4. Quotation from Genius.com.