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SXSW: Bendis, Lee & More Talk Superman’s Lasting Legacy & Bright Future

DC and Warner Brothers Television have partnered to create a traveling DC pop shop that landed this week in Austin, Texas for SXSW. I stopped by the shop to catch up with some of DC and Warner Brothers’ best and brightest, for a panel called “Superman: 80 Years of Truth, Hope and Justice” and to check out so very many Batmobiles.

With Action Comics reaching issue #1000 next month and Krypton set to premiere this week at the conference, DC has legacy on the mind. The issue marks a turning point for the character, with longtime Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis taking over for Dan Jurgens. Krypton, the new not-Superman show from Warner Brothers TV, promises to explore the meaning of the character in a new way: through his absence.

DC talent Dan Jurgens, Jim Lee, Brian Michael Bendis and Frank Miller were joined by Krypton producer Cameron Welsh and two of the show’s writers: Lina Patel and Nadria Tucker. What might seem like an ill fit — jamming comics and TV talent into one event — was intentional, so that they (and we) would reflect on Superman sweeping legacy. Tucker and Patel, both of whom were raised on DC media but not on DC Comics, had childhood memories of the character that are as treasured and valid as those of the most hardcore DC Comics fan.

That Superman is character owned by all of us, collectively, is something that was on my mind throughout the discussion. While the panelists dug into Superman’s history, the various adaptations and which interpretations of the character meant the most to them, fans queued up outside of the pop up shop, waiting to get in. Their Superman isn’t quite the same as Jurgens’ or Miller’s or even Welsh’s, but Superman means something to them too.

What struck me most about the group is how much respect they have for each other’s work. Bendis and Lee seemed excited to just exist in the same space. Everyone took at least one moment to fawn over Jurgens’ Death of Superman. Bendis pointed out that, while we recognize the impact Chris Claremont had on the X-Men, the property wouldn’t be anything like what we know today without him: “What Dan [Jurgens] has done with Superman is equally [important]. Decades of storytelling” have defined the character for readers and influenced countless stories and adaptations. Krypton producer Cameron Welsh agreed, saying, “I was at school when [Death of Superman] came out and it was all anyone could talk about.” Death of Superman was a foundational story in his understanding of the character and directly influenced the development of Krypton.

Jurgens himself described the experience of working on Death of Superman as singular, something that probably couldn’t be replicated. It’s not that writers don’t get to do long runs, or do big, crossover events anymore; Nick Spencer’s Captain America run proves that the big two are not averse to making big changes to flagship characters. However, Death of Superman was big, even influencing the direction of Lois and Clark, which premiered as the story was coming to a close. “A lot of things had to come together for it,” he said, appearing amazed that he got to tell the story.

Death of Superman aside, it’s clear that Jurgens values his more recent work on the character just as much. According to him, he wouldn’t be able to write the stories he’s telling now in 1988: “What we have today is a more patient audience.” The decompression of comics storytelling and the evolution of what a superhero story can look like have allowed him to tell slower and deeper stories, in a way that the readers of the ’80s wouldn’t have had patience for. Comics readers today, he implied, are acculturated to a more varied superhero comics experience. As the end of his current run on Superman comes to a close, he’s preparing to give the character a “fond farewell” and place him into Bendis’ hands for safekeeping.

Krypton isn’t a Death of Superman story — it’s a “there never was a Superman” story — but Welsh said that the development of the show was very influenced by it. Like Jurgens, the Krypton team is interested in exploring the meaning of Superman through his absence; that it’s only in missing him that we can see how much we need him.

That’s something Bendis echoed, saying that “now more than ever we need Superman” — but not just any Superman. For Bendis, what we need is a Superman (and a Clark Kent) who’s burdened by a sense by public responsibility but who can rise to the challenge. Superman, he said, can be a powerful symbol for hope (and truth and justice) but only if we allow him to be.

Even Frank Miller agreed, saying that what he loves most about the character is his inherent goodness and purity. Miller, who’s writing the upcoming Superman: Year One with artist John Romita Jr., says that his take on the character will recapture “the essence” of him. He wants to get away from the gloom that’s dogged the DC Extended Universe’s version of Superman and get back to “the hero of the sun,” who is the “quintessential American.” In addition to his moral strength, Miller emphasized Superman’s sheer power and invincibility. Although he wouldn’t reveal any new details about Year One, he did say that working with Romita Jr. was like “going to heaven without dying.”

Like Jurgens’ Death of Superman, Miller’s take on the character in Batman: Dark Knight Returns had a tremendous impact on all of the panelists. Lee said that it helped him understand the character in a new way and figure out who his Superman is. Bendis echoed Lee, saying that Dark Knight “rattled him.” For all the influence of the story, it felt to most of the panelists that Dark Knight is something they’ve put on the shelf. It’s not that Superman that Bendis Welsh, and the others say we need so badly today.

“The biggest decision Clark made for himself was to become a reporter. He chose that for himself. Why? Truth! There’s parts of truth that Clark can’t [punch his way to].” For Bendis, Clark being a reporter is a crucial aspect of the character; it’s how he solves the problems that he can’t when he’s in the suit. It shows the depth of his character and his commitment to making the world better. Miller agreed, saying that being a reporter shows his moral courage. “And that’s what I love about Lois Lane,” Bendis said. “She may be the bravest character in the DC Universe.” Miller agreed, saying, “She was always charging into combat, far ahead of Clark.”

One of the nicer surprises of the panel was how excited Bendis and Lee seem to be about each others’ work and for the chance to work together. They have a 10-page story together in the upcoming Action Comics #1000 that Bendis wrote “as big as I possibly could,” with Lee’s style in mind — less talky, more splashy — but that’s all he would reveal about the story. Instead, Lee told us that he and Bendis met for the first time at a con bar. A long day for Lee become a longer night once he met Bendis, as they spent hours talking about each other’s work and what they had in mind to work on together. Lee, the only one drinking during all those hours, woke up the next morning wondering what exactly he’d agreed to collaborate on. Bendis joked that they’d be working on WildCAT Avengers.

When pressed on whether or not DC would finally give us another Lois Lane comic, Jim Lee hinted that there may be plans for the character: “Bendis is a prolific writers with a lot of ideas.” However, he couldn’t confirm anything; after doing his best to deflect, he just gave up and laughed, saying, “This is what publicity tells me to say when the tough questions came up.”

The SXSW DC Pop Up Shop is located at the corner of Red River and 8th Street. While the panel is over, the shop — packed full of Funkos, t-shirts, three batmobiles, a batbike, and a whole bunch of other DC merch — will be open through to the end of the conference. SXSW runs Friday, March 9 through Tuesday, March 13.

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