At New York Comic Con this past weekend, I got to interview popular all-ages cartoonists Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, often known as Art and Franco. DC staples for over a decade, they’ve been responsible for popular series Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures, a crossover with Lil’ Archie, Dark Horse books like Itty Bitty Hellboy, and original works like the superhero comedy Powers in Action (out now from Action Lab). They just made their graphic novel debut with the DC Kids OGN Superman of Smallville (review here) and have the upcoming Arkhamaniacs coming in 2020. They’re also owners of a comic book store in Skokie, Illinois.
They were kind enough to take ten minutes out of their busy day to share their thoughts on Superman of Smallville with me, and give some insight on what might be next for this version of Clark Kent and for their DC work.
Ray: So, it’s great to meet you. Superman of Smallville is the original graphic novel out for DC Kids now, and my first question is – honestly, I’d be very intimidated to retell Superman’s origin at this point because it’s one of these stories that’s timeless and there have been so many great takes on it – Frank Miller’s doing one right now with John Romita Jr. But I really did feel like Superman of Smallville stood out and had its own feel. So my question is – what did the two of you want to emphasize in this all-ages take that sets it apart?
Art: I think what works is that the character is discovering Clark’s origin at the same time he is, so you’re on his journey with him. On page two or three, he already says he’s Superman, so he’s Superman from the beginning of the book. But as he’s going, he learns about his spaceship, about the mysterious dog in the woods, all kinds of things like that. What we always thought was that what’s cool about the Kents is – how would they ever know about Krypton? They would know less than Clark does. So that was our approach – you find out about Clark’s origin as he does.
Franco: Yeah, we’ve basically taken his origin down to its basic elements and put him in middle school, so any kid can look up to him and go “If he can be Superman (at that age), I can be Superman.” It’s a new beginning for him.
Ray: So you’ve been doing DC books for a long time – I’ve been following your work together since Tiny Titans – but this is the first long-form project. Some of those books, like Superman Family Adventures, had ongoing plots but they were also very episodic. So I’m wondering, how was it different writing a long-form graphic novel compared to these one issue stories?
Art: That was the biggest challenge, I think, because we’re so used to our “long stories” being twenty pages. We’re so used to writing that way for monthly comics and short cartoony gags. Now we had to plan it out and outline it – we knew we wanted something to happen, but we had to set it up and save it for chapter three, for instance. So that was the biggest challenge we face. It wasn’t difficult, we just had to adjust the way we write the stories a little bit.
Franco: Yeah, basically, it’s just adapting it to the form – instead of wrapping it up every twenty pages, we had to organize all the beats in each chapter to make sure we got there.
Art: It’s cool, because sometimes we can stretch out different scenes and we don’t have to end with a gag. Maybe a two-page story can now turn into a five or six-page scene. It’s easier to do that – there were a lot of panels where we could slow down a scene or speed it up. The scenes are longer. Like in the scene where Clark goes home and talks to his parents – we had a lot more room to breathe. As long as the words flow through your story, it seems to work okay.
Ray: I noticed that. There were scenes where the story was allowed to breathe more, particularly the scenes in the woods, with the alien-hunting gang. And that brings me to my next question, which is – I noticed that this story didn’t really have any villains in it. Lex Luthor was there, but he wasn’t really a bad guy yet – just a kid who was a little too smart for his own good.
Art: He’s very suspicious!
Ray: I thought we were getting Brainiac, but it turned out to just be Krypto’s ship looking for him! So I was wondering how you came to the decision to not have any famous Superman villains in the story.
Franco: We actually did the opposite of that! When we found out we were going to do this book, we threw everything and the kitchen sink in there. We had everything in there, and when we talked to them a little more about what they wanted to do with these books, we kind of stretched it out – again, this longer narrative, and that applied to the story too. So those other things we wanted to do are being saved possibly for book two or three.
Art: Yeah, we said “Let’s concentrate on one thing, like Krypto.” When doing a 120-page book, it’s really like writing a six-issue miniseries, so that’s how we approached it originally. At first he fought a different villain in every chapter, and DC told us “That’s too much, guys!”
Ray: And that sort of answers my next question, which was – I was wondering if we could look forward to a volume two?
Art: I hope so, man.
Franco: I mean, that’s really up to you guys out there who are reading it out there – if you like it, let them know.
Ray: I know particularly my co-reviewer, Corrina Lawson, is particularly hoping to see a certain teen reporter come to Smallville to investigate.
Art: Oh, yeah, we have plans for her! We have plans for Lois, Brainiac, Bizarro – we’ve got plans for all these characters, and hopefully it’ll come. We already know what’s going to happen in the second book, and we have enough story for at least four volumes. If they want to go past that, I’m sure we can do it.
Ray: The only original character I saw in this book – that I didn’t think had a comic book counterpart – was Brad, the school bully. Was he an original?
Art: Brad was in the Christopher Reeve movie! In that one scene – Brad is the football kid who tells Clark to clean up his mess, and Clark later says to his dad, “That Brad, I want to tear him apart.” That’s Brad. He’s also in Superman 3 – the guy who married Lana, and Clark sneezes and knocks over his pins while bowling. So that’s where we got Brad.
Ray: That was a deep cut!
Art: Yeah, we’re into that stuff. And did you see Richard Donner was in the pet store? John Byrne is in there as a professor. I also put a bunch of my friends in there in crowd scenes – like when the robot is throwing people around. We have fun with it, and if you know me and Franco well, you’ll get all the references but they’re not essential to read the story.
Ray: I had completely forgotten about Brad from the movies. I just thought we all have a Brad in our lives.
Art: And Pete Ross has been in a lot of the lore too – we used the Pete Ross from Smallville.
Ray: Yeah, I’ve been following the comics since the 1990s, and there Pete Ross is the tall blond guy who was Clark’s friend, but I remember the African-American version from Smallville.
Art: Yeah, I like that character. And here we get to see them meet for the first time early in the comic.
Ray: So speaking of future projects, do you think there’s other DC characters that this style of ground zero, all-ages origins could work for?
Art: I think all of them, man. I know Franco likes characters like Hawkman and Blue Devil – all the weird guys. We’re currently working on a book called Arkhamaniacs with Joker, Harley, Killer Croc, and Bruce Wayne. So we’re trying to get that one going next.
Ray: I think I saw some preview art of that – it looks a little more influenced by your Tiny Titans work.
Art: Yeah, it’s Tiny Titans style sort of – but it’s also long-form like Superman of Smallville. They’re all small with no noses like I did with Tiny Titans – you’ll see. It’s going to be good, man.
Ray: So my final question is about something you did a few years back – I remember there were these miniseries for Dark Horse, with properties you wouldn’t expect to see get the Tiny Titans style treatment, like Hellboy and The Mask, with titles like Itty Bitty Hellboy. So I was wondering, are there any properties in pop culture – DC or WB properties, or really anything – that you’d like to see done in that style – where it shouldn’t work because of the content, but somehow it does?
Franco: I would love to do a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story in this style.
Art: I’d love to do “Little Etrigan”. Everything I draw comes out that way, but I love to draw superhero-style action, like my new book Powers in Action (from Action Lab). They’re superheroes, but they’re in the middle between that and my more cartoony style. I’d also love to do more Hellboy. I think anything can be adapted if you do it the right way. I’m always a fan of the big, giant guys – the big monsters, sasquatches, Darkseid.
Ray: I think kids really like those monsters with a heart of gold characters – DC Kids just put out Secret Spiral of Swamp Thing by Kirk Scroggs. Thanks for your time, guys – I look forward to seeing what you have cooking next for DC.