Talk Over Balloons: artist Shane Davis

In a medium that was (and in some ways, still is) so dominated in America by stories of men in skin-tight leotards there is still a perception that comics aren't capable of emotional storytelling. And yes, there is still a slight shortage of human connections between human characters in mainstream comics. That is changing as the mainstream comics world changes and that change is coming with professionals both from comics and from outside comics. But left behind in some ways in this process are the old company flagships that once loomed so large on the comics reading populace: Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Superman. DC is once again attempting to make Superman relevant by 'rebooting' him in another universe, but doing so with the new-er format of the full-length graphic novel. With a treatment from long-time uber-fan and scripting genius J. Michael Straczynski (who started his career in film and television), all that was needed was a penciler. The man chosen for the job is Shane Davis. As he said in an interview with CBR, "I wanted it to look classy and not flashy". In his interview with Davis' statements reflected my thoughts about the project: "If you care about comics and you care about the property of the character of Superman, you realize how important something like this is." Now, here at The Long and Shortbox Of It, Shane Davis gives us the very human story of drawing something so huge and important as the first graphic novel to tell Superman's story anew, attempting to make a human figure out of the Last Son of Krypton.

Jon Gorga: Hello readers, this is Jon Gorga for The Long and Shortbox Of It. I'm here today at the New York Comic-Con (@NY_Comic_Con) in the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. I'm interviewing Shane Davis, who is the artist of the upcoming graphic novel "Superman: Earth One", a really exciting new initiative from DC Comics (@DC_NATION). So Shane, my first question is: Mike Cotton (@MichaelCotton) interviewed you for Wizard Magazine recently and one of the things he said was: "Earth One" is "a huge, possibly paradigm-shifting project in terms of format and storytelling" for the medium and for the industry. So I'm wondering whether you agree and your thoughts on that in general?

Shane Davis: You know, I would love for "Earth One" to be a game changer as far as superhero comics go. But that's a very bold risk, I think. I still like the floppies.

JG: I love 'em too.

SD: But where "Earth One" allows advancements (as in any original graphic novel) is not having to rush what people want, like a money shot of Superman. You don't have to jump the gun in the first 22 pages to show that big dynamic shot of the character. And I think that's the advancement and the game-changing part. It's more of an advanced storytelling in that you're kind of knocking the shackles off. It gets a lot of the luxuries of a movie, in that sense.

JG: Cool, that's actually almost exactly what I've been thinking and what I'm hoping for it.

SD: I think that's what a lot of people are going to come out of Earth One with. More of a: 'Wow, I feel like I maybe watched a Superman 'movie' and I can't wait for the next Superman 'movie'! Because [monthly] comics is great but if you took a two-hour movie and you have a character like Batman and you have to open up with a money shot of Batman and then, you know, another couple minutes you have to do another shot of Batman and next thirty minutes you have to have this other big shot of Batman, that can limit you in the actual storytelling in the movie itself.

JG: So you would say that the format has definitely allowed you to stretch your legs as a storyteller, pencil on paper?

SD: Well, "stretching my legs"? I wouldn't use that term. I was more-- It did, but it also allowed me to advance as a storyteller, I think. It allowed me to tackle situations in the fashion that was best for that scene, not what was the quickest way to show a nice big open shot of the character.

JG: Sounds good! What was it like working with J. Michael Straczynski as a writer?

SD: Joe's a great guy, he's a great collaborator. Working with Joe we talked a lot back and forth, working on stuff. It seemed like at least designing stuff, everything I designed was good off the bat. I think we talked a little bit back and forth about Clark's [space] pod a little bit. But that was the only thing that was like: 'Well how do I handle this? How do you see it?' Pretty much from every robot, spaceship, or bad guy to Clark and Superman. Everything I pretty much knocked off the bat. There was never any question. I don't know what everybody else's working situations were. I'm sure not everybody had great working situations with me, but I had a great working situation with Joe.

JG: Good. That's the thing that's hardest to control at the end of the day, right? In any business.

SD: Yeah, but we got along great so it was a great ride. The challenge for me now is: What do I do next?

JG: The next thing on the horizon is always the scariest and most challenging element of anything.

SD: Yeah. Yeah, it is

JG: So I'd like to ask you a question that's a little different from the others. Because the format that some people think of under the term 'graphic novel' is different from what other people think of and there's been a lot of argument about whether people like it, whether people don't like it, what it means, I want to ask you what 'graphic novel' as a term means to you, and what you think of it?

SD: After working on and producing what I just produced, I know and I see a really distinct difference between a graphic novel and a trade[paperback collection]. With that, I think what might shake-up people a little bit on this is maybe people have read a graphic novel, but how many have they ever read with a superhero that was just straight up done like this? Even things like "Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" were done in sections.

JG: Absolutely. And a lot of people don't know that.

SD: No, they don't... well they forget it. They're like: 'Oh, here's this awesome splash page of Batman in every chapter' and there's a reason for that. It was broken up into sections.

JG: You gotta sell the product.

SD: You know, you did. I don't know those circumstances with the editors, but they were selling the book. Kids were buying Batman or adults who wanted their Batman, you know? "Watchmen" is a different one I think. I think everybody kinda looks at "Watchmen" as its own thing. I don't want to go there.

[muffled question]

SD: ... It's $25, and you get either a free print or a comic.

[muffled statement]

JG: Pause for Con stuff.

SD: ... Thanks, thanks. Do you want the book or do you want the print?

JG: Speaking of selling stuff.

SD: Sorry.

JG: No! No, it's cool. It's reality, someone's buying a comic right now from Shane Davis. He's signing a sketchbook and a comic. I love comic conventions. I really do. I've been going to cons since I was like 8 years old.

[muffled question]

SD: ... That's not for sale yet. It's a story I'm working on now. I actually wrote that story and I'm drawing it right now.

guy: Really? Because this is absolutely amazing. When do you think it's going to be coming out?

SD: Don't know, I'll be going into the second half of it this month.

guy: Because that is one of the coolest Clayfaces I've ever seen.

SD: Yeah, everybody says that, everybody loves my Clayface. I just had this idea for a cool Clayface story. It was a twist on Clayface and they liked it.

guy: That's really cool.

SD: Thanks a lot man.

JG: That is cool!

SD: Thanks, thanks.

JG: Actually, my next question was going to be: ' "Superman: Earth One" comes out on the 27th of this month, October, but what's next?' You were saying that's the scarier thing, but it sounds like you've got a really cool new project where you're both the writer and the art storyteller?

SD: Dan [DiDio] was nice enough to let me write an issue of Batman that has a story on Clayface I wrote with a writer. He's writing some stuff for Marvel right now with, I think, the "Chaos War"?

JG: Greg Pak and [Fred] Van Lente? They're the two writers on that, I believe.

SD: Yeah, but he's dong a one-shot with [Michael William] Kaluta: Brandon Montclare. He's co-writing with me on this. It's a nice fun ride. It has a good angle and idea on Clayface and it was a one-shot story, it wasn't anything too long. I was like: 'Dan, what do you think of this story?' and he was game and so I'm drawing it up now. Don't know when that's going to release, but hopefully sooner than later.

JG: That must be a nice change of pace after doing a full 136-page graphic novel.

SD: It is. It's a short ride and it's got an ending that once you get to page 20, 21, 22 you flip back to the beginning and you're like: 'ohh...!' So it really couldn't have been more than one issue. It was just a quick idea: Well, if Clayface can do all this can Clayface do that?

JG: That's the fun of playing with the sandbox of a universe of shared characters.

SD: It's weird, I picked probably a character that's hardest to write a story with-- and what I mean by 'write a story with' is I didn't just use Clayface for something, I actually wrote a 'Clayface story'.

JG: Yeah, I got you.

SD: He's one of those characters that just kind of get used to get in and out of a tough situation, you know? A lot of writers have used him to get out of corners. 'I just need some guy to impersonate this and do this and who can do that' and that's Clayface. And you don't even know why he's doing it! Why's he doing it? Somehow Clayface hopped into a graveyard and is Jason Todd?! You know? WHY? What if I just had to pick this character that nobody seems to write a good story with and said 'hey what if I wanted to do the character justice for a minute.' I felt bad for Clayface. He's always used. I wanted to do a good Clayface story.

JG: I've had the same thought about certain Spider-Man villains. They just never got a serious treatment from their point of view.

SD: It's like: I don't think he's going to rob a bank today... what's he going to do, you know?

JG: No that's great. Pushing the medium and the format forward on lots of different fronts. That's great.

SD: Thanks, thanks. You had a question we were interrupted in, about the 'graphic novel'.

JG: Oh, the 'graphic novel', what the term means to you?

SD: When I went into it, I really did go in with a bold determination on it. Because it was a hell of job.

JG: I'd imagine.

SD: Yeah and when Dan told me, I never believed it. I was really trying to wiggle off the hook and go somewhere else and I ended up with the script in my lap and I was, like: 'I can't believe you guys did this to me,' you know? Somebody says: 'Hey, you're going to have to do this, Shane!' You know, I have more percentages of failing at this than I'll ever have to succeed. So why am I doing it?

JG: But more to gain in the long run, right? It could be a whole turning point for the genre?

SD: Yeah, I hope so, I hope so. I really have no idea what it's really going to do for me and my career, I have no idea what it's going to do for the genre. I hope people at least look at the character in a different, exotic, high-brow light. Maybe with more sensibility, more heart to the character. I mean, some of the quotes on the book... I'm just going to read some of these quotes off the back. ["Superman: The Movie" director] Richard Donner: " 'Superman: Earth One' balances the character, the mythos, the action that defines a great Superman story. I believe every moment. I know Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would have thought it was awesome." I think David Goyer's was most important: "humanistic." HUMANistic.

JG: Interesting that it's Hollywood guys.

SD: A lot of them were Hollywood guys, yeah. But I think this is who it appealed to the most.

JG: I find that exciting.

SD: [Harlan Ellison:] "this is an absolute imperial piece of work". You know, the trick with this for me was: I did go in and I said: 'Okay I have to do it, here it is in my lap.'

JG: That's about 6 months-- 8 months of your life on one story? 136 pages.

SD: It was about 9 months. 9 months. But there were some delays in the middle with script. JMS had some other commitments he had to tie up. I set out to draw the All-American graphic novel and that's how I treated it since day one. I didn't really worry about trying to draw a very iconic, commercial Clark Kent. I kinda tried to do the character justice, you know. I drew every scene TO the character, in light of what was best FOR the character. And talking about what makes this different, what I hope made it different, I really hope people will come away feeling like the character was done justice... Not so much justice but they felt like he was real. You know, like Clark Kent was real.

JG: That he was a human being.

SD: Yeah, that we treated him like it. What I felt-- and this wrapped into what I had to do on the graphic novel-- I felt like Superman became a very cardboard-cut-out character, you know?

JG: The Big Blue Boy scout. Yeah.

SD: He was very iconic. So iconic that he was so not realistic. I was thinking about this the other day. What did we do here? I always get on these things and I try not to look down. That's my motto: 'Whatever I do, don't look down.'

JG: A good philosophy.

SD: Yeah, I try to remember and learn from the past. I'm looking back at it now after it's done and it's printed and I start noticing things like: Okay, I drew a guy walking down the street carrying his groceries and he drops tomatoes out of the bag as a fire truck rushes by him and he notices his place is on fire. Real-life stuff, you know? A guy dropping some of his groceries. A guy dressing like a guy. Trying to get a girl's attention. Having a conversation with his dad which was really heart-breaking. In those scenes, if it was a sad scene, I tried to really make it as sad as possible and draw it in a composition and make you feel sad, you know? And somehow with all these human moments with Clark, in the end we end up with him in a costume with primary colors fighting a bad guy and I think that was the magic of the book and where a lot of people are giving the great response who have read the book. You really take a normal dude and we built up and made you care about a normal dude and then slapped him in a costume and he had to save the Earth. And at the end it's believable.

JG: Awesome.

SD: Where Richard Donner made you believe a man could fly, I think what we set out to do and ultimately did accomplish is that we made you believe Superman can be real. And I think that's something that means a lot to people. And I think it might be something that people have forgotten. I think me or you or a lot of people, we were born, we grew up and we were introduced to Superman. We never saw Superman come onto the scene.

JG: He was here before us and he'll be here after us, as some people have said.

SD: I think he becomes like a Santa Claus icon.

JG: Yeah I follow you. God, that's a really good way of putting it because it feels equally empty the way he's often portrayed: No personality.

SD: Yeah. And I think where we're at now with "Earth One"... I think we took him for granted in the average Superman book. We always remember where Batman came from, you KINDA remember Superman's origin story. And that's where people who are like: 'How many times are we going to re-tell these origin stories?' I told somebody we really didn't retell his origin story because this isn't about him rocketing to Earth as a baby, it's about him deciding to be...

JG: It's an untold chapter.

SD: It is. It's the in-between chapter. But it's weird, it's one of those most important chapters of anybody's life is that moment when you decide who you're going to be the rest of your life. People are like: 'Oh we've seen this story' and no, you haven't. I haven't. Maybe he did reflect on it but you didn't feel it, you didn't live it, you didn't actually read it. He contemplates it. He doesn't just jump in the costume. He's like: 'Why would I do this?' Who would? Because once you do it once, you're going to do it the rest of your life.

JG: Yeah. Of course! That's great.

SD: It's expected of you, you're going to expect it of yourself. And that's what drew me to the script and why I'm HAPPY I did it. I'm really happy I did it.

JG: Good.

SD: I don't know if I could ever do it again! I'll be honest, I went into this project weighing 269 pounds and I came out weighing 196.


SD: I don't know if I could do it again. I hope to one day. I'm going to pack away some cheeseburgers first. I'll try to get back on it. I put a lot into it and I was really stressed the whole time I was working on it and I was really concerned about the quality of the book and despite that I'm sure I'll have negative criticism and I'm sure I'll have great criticism. I've only been met with great criticism so far. But for all the negative? I really did try and at the end of the day I can tell myself that. That's enough for me, you know?

JG: It sounds like art, Shane.

SD: It's art!

JG: No, it sounds like serious art, it sounds like serious storytelling. It just happens to have a guy in a blue suit and that's what a lot of people are waiting for, Shane, I think.

SD: Honestly, I came out a different person than the person I went in. It's something I'm always going to remember, this book. It's something you're not going to forget, you know?

JG: Cool. Clark comes out changed, you came out changed, and hopefully the readers will come out changed! And it will be something that people will remember for the rest of their lives.

SD: Earth One is the best diet plan out there, man.

JG: Yeah, apparently!

SD: Everybody needs to do one. Forget Jenny Craig, man.

JG: Draw a 136 page graphic novel and you WILL lose weight?

SD: Go work an Earth One project, you'll be alright.

JG: I've been joking for the past year that the metaphor of the starving artist? It's not a metaphor.

SD: No, no.

JG: It's not a joke. It's for real.

SD: It's a losing your appetite artist, that's what it is!

JG: Well I should let you get back to your fans, Shane. But thank you so much for making the time for this!

SD: Thank you, and it's been a pleasure.

JG: This is Jon Gorga for the The Long and Shortbox Of It.

I wish Shane Davis, DC Comics and Joe Michael Straczynski (and Clark Kent as well) all the luck possible in this new chapter of their lives. This massive undertaking of making the Man of Steel feel like a man of flesh and bone while attempting to jump-start superhero serial graphic novels will arrive on shelves next week: October 27th, 2o1o.

I'll be buying a copy of "Superman: Earth One" for myself and reviewing it here on The Long and Shortbox Of It, come by for the continuation of this story!

Shane has just recently begun maintaining a website called simply! Not much there yet, but check it out!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview, Jon. Makes me want to pick up Superman: Earth One again. A lot of Shane's answers made me rethink the book and remember he and JMS were doing with it. Hopefully, other comic creators take notice