In the wake of Superman's first appearance in 1938, comics began overflowing with four-colored superheroes. In May of 1940, Skyman made his first appearance in Big Shot Comics #1 published by now-defunct Columbia Comics. Like many of his peers, Skyman was a strapping, Caucasian male who would eventually fade into obscurity following the end of World War II and readers' decreased interest in nationalistic superheroes. Despite a number of failed restarts in 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, Skyman failed to gain traction with contemporary comic readers.
Now, Dark Horse Comics thinks they've found the right creative team to bring the sort of change necessary to lift Skyman to new heights. With pencils by Manuel Garcia, inks from Javier Bergantiño Menor, and the story developed by Joshua Hale Fialkov, Dark Horse continues to not only expand its own superhero stable but the diversity in the heroes readers have to choose from every Wednesday.
Newsarama had the chance to sit down and talk with the busy writer, Joshua Hale Fialkov (fresh off the announcement that he’s helping relaunch the Ultimate Universe at Marvel writing Ultimate FF ) about his new take on an old property and why he thinks current readers will respond to this hero.
Newsarama: Josh, it seems like you are starting to broaden your range within the superhero genre of comics between your work at Marvel with the Ultimates and now Skyman at Dark Horse. How does this brand of superhero differ from the sort you're presently writing at Marvel and previously DC Comics? How do you see it offering something unique that readers won't normally get from the "Big Two"?
Fialkov: I think the idea of doing classic, fun, light superheroes and then infusing them with a kind of modern sensibility is still something that's outside the box of the Big Two. We've been spiraling down the rabbit hole of Watchmen and The Dark Knight for so long that I think the fact superhero comics are supposed to be fun has been missed. And it's something I've been personally obsessed with in everything I've worked on. I mean all of my creator-owned stuff is plenty dark and all that, but when I look at superheroes, I want to give the same kind of thrill to readers that those books gave me when I was a kid. I think that's one of the hallmarks of what Dark Horse is trying to do. They want books that are just fun. It's such a strange thing to say, that there's a vacuum of it, but a lot of superhero comics are dark and miserable. You don't see a lot of fun. There's also what's going on in the Ultimate Universe. Those books are dark, but I'd like to think I'm bringing a lighter tone – a sense of fun, a sense of humor, and a sense wonder to it.
Nrama: How did you come on board with this particular series? Did you pitch to Dark Horse, or did they call you up?
Fialkov: I've known the guys at Dark Horse for years, and Josh Williamson, who writes Captain Midnight, is one of my best friends. I think it's one of those things where they were trying to figure out who could do the book, and Josh suggested me. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. It's all nepotism! Ha! Ha!
Nrama: What sort of things can readers expect from this mini-series? Is it one you are planning to keep self-contained or will your storylines intertwine with those of other series', i.e. Joshua Williamson's Captain Midnight and other titles within Dark Horse's expanding superhero universe?
Fialkov: We definitely spin out from what happened in Captain Midnight, but again having worked at the Big Two and having seen how books can spend so much time with their heads up their own asses with crossing over and tying in [Newsarama Note: Check out Fialkov’s event crossover tie-in Cataclysm: Ultimates on stands now!], it was really important to me to do a book that stood on its own. Everything you need to know about the book is contained within the book. If you're also reading Captain Midnight or Brain Boy and all of the other books, you're going to see things that are planted in this book that are going to pay off on those books, like the "Black Sky" stuff. So it is very much its own self-contained story.
One of the first things we talked about – one of the very first things I wanted to do was make a new character, a new Skyman that comments on the tropes behind the character and the publishing history behind the character. They were kind enough to allow me to do just that, and by page five, you get just that –what I hope is a good balance between the fun, classic superhero stuff and a slightly more postmodern take on it.
Nrama: Skyman #1 is billed as a story about a hero "looking for a new lease on life" after returning home wounded from the war in Afghanistan and a superhero in need of a new person behind the mask. Looking at the original character from Columbia Comics during the 1940s, this is obviously going to be a big departure. What prompted this shift in the character's core?
Fialkov: Number one: I'm obsessed with diversity in comics. How many times have we seen the blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy? There's the joke about Marvel characters where if you take off the mask of half the Avengers, they're all the same guy, and if you take off the costumes of the Justice League, you can't tell them apart. The Avengers are all blonde and the Justice League all have brown hair. That's a trope you see. I love a Batman / Superman costume swap for courtroom purposes. It's one of my favorite things ever.
Nrama: Right, because you can't really tell them apart without their distinctive costumes. I think there was even a WB Justice League animated cartoon episode where Superman stood in for Batman (while confronting Bane) that makes that point about their interchangeability.
Fialkov: So I wanted to play with that idea of what happens when a superhero brand gets tarnished by the guy wearing the mask? You have to go as different as possible when that guy gets tarnished like he does in Skyman by not only killing a guy but doing so while being super racist while doing it. The question becomes how do you fix that? They take the obvious approach of saying "There are plenty of African American heroes who can step in there." So they go and recruit our main character to go in there and fill the shoes. And he knows that's why he's there. They're underestimating him by putting him in that role only because of the color of his skin. But the story becomes about him realizing "No, wait. I am a hero. The fact that I'm wearing this costume is only secondary to that." The rest of the series goes on to show him proving that to be the case.
Nrama: So would you say this mini-series is serving as a type of commentary on the genre as well?
Fialkov: Yeah, look, here's the thing: I love superhero comics – particularly Golden Age superheroes. Part of what I love about them is when they were making them in the 1940s, they were completely unaware they were building tropes that would last 70 years. And all of the subtle forms of racism and fascist underpinnings of these pro-American characters are so interesting and it's something I obsess over. You've seen it explored with Captain America, and that's the beginning and the end of it. So to get the chance to do it in a new universe and have a lot more freedom to do that with people who get that stuff, who understand that there's something to constructing characters who aren't perfect and then go on to rebuild them. That, for me, is the best thing they're doing. They're building a modern universe without having the burden of what's come before.
To some degree, DC tried to do that, but at the end of the day, there's been six Robins, and so far, it just doesn't make sense given that Batman's only been Batman for five years no matter how good the stories have been. Snyder is writing the best Bat book in the past twenty years, and people are still saying, "How can there have been six Robins? That's crazy." So it's ingrained in us as fans what these characters are and how they work to the point where they can become like handcuffs. Working with characters that are a little bit more of a blank slate, however, you get a lot more freedom to tell these stories and do some more interesting things with them.
Nrama: On to the last question – what have been the most challenging and most exciting aspects of writing Skyman?
Fialkov: The most fun part is getting to work kind of close to buddies. I'm friends with Fred Van Lente, and I'm friends with Williamson, so getting to talk to those guys and make decisions about the characters and what's going to happen to them is fun. I get to do that to some degree at Marvel and to some degree when I was at DC, but to get to do it on these books where we really do have the freedom to tell the kind of stories we're excited to tell in the way we want to tell them is really gratifying and a lot of fun.
The challenging stuff, ironically, is writing the race stuff and having it not feel pandering or feel forced but an actual and legitimate part of the story. On top of having to deal with the race stuff, he's also handicapped. You're dealing with a lot of really sensitive issues that are really close to a lot of people, and you have to find a way. I hope we did deal with them in an honest and forthright way so it's not about him being just a guy who is African American and handicapped. He's a person and the things that have happened to have him shaped him and formed him into the person that hopefully you care about over the course of the story. They're not challenges that are part of him, but they are a part of him. They're a part of who he is rather than things he has to overcome to fit into the mold of being a superhero. When you look at the story as a whole in this mini-series, that's really what the story is about. It's about him realizing he doesn't have to change who he is - just accept who he is. SPOILER! I've ruined everything!
Skyman #1 is available on newsstands January 15th everywhere or through Dark Horse Digital here.