Exclusive Interview: Chris Roberson Talks Stan Lee’s Starborn, Superman, and More

Chris Roberson is an overnight success… Which means, like most overnight successes, it took years of hard work. Still, the veteran SciFi writer seems to have popped out of nowhere, writing multiple comics over the past year, including BOOM’s new Starborn series working with Stan Lee, taking over the reigns on Superman, and getting Bill Willingham to let him write Fables solo.

With three new comics out this past Wednesday, we checked in with Roberson on how success feels, why his alien soap opera is true to life, and what’s coming up in all of his books:

Geek: Catch us up to speed on Starborn… What’s happened up to, and including issue #3?

Chris Roberson: Starborn is the story of Benjamin Warner, a guy with a mind-numbing day job who dreams of being a successful science fiction novelist. But when aliens from his stories show up in the real world things get a little confusing, even more so when the aliens turn out to be gunning for him. Benjamin is saved at the last minute by the timely arrival of the girl of his dreams, his childhood next door neighbor, who is revealed to be an alien shapeshifter. By the third issue, Benjamin and his shapeshifting protector are on the run, trying to get off the planet Earth before any of the alien hunters catch up with them.

Oh, and things explode a lot.

Geek: This last issue, you introduced what I’m for the moment going to call “The Power Glove.” What makes this different from, say, The Witchblade, or… The Power Glove?

CR: There’s a whole science-fictional rationale behind the Gauntlet, which we’ll be getting into as the story unfolds. But before it’s use as a weapon, the Gauntlet itself is a pretty powerful symbol in the alien civilization to which Benjamin is fleeing—but it isn’t a symbol that anyone, alien or human, is happy to see.

Geek: There’s a couple of different layers of stories going on here, paralleling the “real” world with modern SciFi novels, and some older ones… Can you talk about this a bit?

CR: The conceit that Benjamin writes science fiction stories about an alien civilization that actually exists was in the original story notes that were handed to me when I signed on to write Starborn, back when the idea was being first fleshed out between Stan Lee and Mark Waid, and to be honest it was one of the things that excited me most about the project. There are hints dropped here and there about this mysterious writer who did stories about this same place long before Benjamin was born, a novelist named Kirk Allen, and as the third story arc of Starborn unfolds in issues 8 through 12, we’ll be learning a LOT more about what’s really going on there.

Geek: And I’m guessing you’re drawing on your experience here, a bit, as a seasoned SciFi writer yourself. Are there any other authors you’re using as a reference point?

CR: I am indeed drawing on my own experiences, but perhaps more from the early days of abject failure than from my years as a science fiction novelist. I’m always amused when people point out that Benjamin’s naivety about the publishing process is just so unbelievable in Starborn #1, since of course no aspiring writer in reality could EVER be so naïve. Speaking for myself and for dozens of my friends who went through the same experiences, I can say, “Yep, they sure COULD be that naïve, and frequently ARE.”

There is one other author in particular that has inspired bit parts of Starborn, but I won’t say just who it is yet, for fear of spoiling upcoming surprises.

Geek: Be honest: have you ever thought maybe you were a space alien?

CR: Sure, who hasn’t?

Geek: Not me… Okay fine, you’re right. So what’s coming up in the series?

CR: When the second arc of Starborn starts up in issue 5, Benjamin travels to space, and learns more about his father than he ever wanted to know—and NONE of it is good.

Geek: This may be me being terrible at research, but other than giving his name to the project, what has Stan Lee’s contribution been? Is he watching you like a hawk?

CR: I’ve actually been really surprised at the level of involvement that Stan Lee has had, since day one. When the project was first explained to me last year, I suspected that Stan would be fairly hands off, and that maybe it would just be someone in his office rubber-stamping things. But in actual fact, Stan has been VERY involved from the very beginning. It was at the point that Mark Waid was calling me at home to give me Stan’s notes on the first issue of Starborn (Mark Waid, calling ME, to tell me what STAN LEE thought about my story) that I knew there weren’t going to be any rubber stamps here.

Geek: Let’s talk about your other projects… Actually, before we do, what’s it like to go from almost giving up writing, to having three books come out on the same day?

CR: It feels AWESOME. But I also feel really, REALLY grateful for my good fortune.

But I should clarify, as I think I’ve given people the wrong impression about that “long dark night of the soul” I went through right before breaking into comics. I had published 13 novels and 36 short stories in the span of about five years, and wasn’t making a dime. And so, as I’ve said, I was looking at having to go back to the day job. But I never had any intention of giving up writing. I don’t know that I COULD.

I would have just had to go back to writing in the evenings and on weekends like I used to do, and probably writing just for pleasure again, instead of writing for publication. But thanks to my friend Bill Willingham putting in a good word with his editor Shelly Bond, I managed to break into comics and now I get to keep on writing full time. Which, as I say, feels AWESOME.

Geek: Let’s start with Superman… In our interview with JMS, he said you’re picking up right where he left off, and going in the direction he laid out. How accurate is that? Is there a point when you are allowed, Editorially, to branch off?

CR: The analogy that I’ve used to describe it is that of a cross-country road trip. The outline that I was handed was like a travel itinerary, specifying particular stops along the way, and spelled out where and when Superman was to wrap up his story. But there is a lot of room for side-trips and improvisation along the way.

For example, JMS’s outline for issue 708 called for a meeting with Wonder Woman, but there was room for me to add in new elements (the Superman Squad and the Fortress of Solidarity, for example) that helped put Superman’s emotional crisis is context. And in other instances things that had been planned had to be changed because of developments in other books. For example, losing a planned guest star meant I could instead bring Batman onstage and flashback to an early Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne team-up, as will be seen in issue 710. I think more than anything, though, are the brief cameos and new characters that I’ve been able to work into the storyline, beginning with the Sensational Character Find of 2011 on page 1 of Superman 709!

Geek: There’s a clear tonal difference between your writing and his – it feels like you’re channeling the Silver Age Superman comics. Why is that?

CR: Well, I’ve always felt that style is a VERY idiosyncratic thing, and the same plot elements, beat-by-beat, written by two different writers would produce two very different stories. As for the Silver Age feel, I can only say that I am a HUGE fan of Silver Age Superman stories, and have been forever (and am almost as much a fan of BRONZE Age Superman, stories I feel are too often overlooked). I have consumed so many Weisinger-era Superman comics that they ooze back out through my pores!

Geek: Slight digression, but as a professed Silver Age fan, thoughts on the Silver Age set X-Men First Class trailer?

CR: I’ve only seen it one, but I am cautiously optimistic. I’ve been burned before, but I’m willing to give it a chance.

Geek: Okay, back to Superman – in this last issue, we had a Wonder Woman cameo… I think this is the first time we’ve seen her interact with any other superheroes since her continuity change – is that correct? And if so, what was important to do with her appearance in this book?

CR: This is indeed the first appearance of the “JMS Wonder Woman” outside of her own title, and her appearance in Superman 708 was part of the outline that I was handed when I signed on. My impression was that JMS wanted to the two characters he was writing at the time to meet.

Geek: There’s a mystery villain torturing Supes right now; is she all new, or does she tie back to someone we already know?

CR: The villain is actually Lisa Jennings, the schoolteacher who was introduced in 703. As for WHY she’s following Superman around and making his life miserable, you’ll have to wait and see.

Geek: And next issue, does he get back to walking?

CR: Superman does indeed spend part of every issue with his feet on the ground. He also takes to the skies, as needed!

Geek: Last thing, how much will we see all the Supermen in the Fortress of Solidarity again? A lot? Or a whole lot?

CR: We haven’t seen the last of the Superman Squad and their Fortress of Solidarity in Grounded. As for whether we’ll be seeing them again after that? I sure hope so! Those guys are LOADS of fun to write. A big part of the fun of working on Superman has been coming up with new characters and concepts to toss in, helping to design their costumes, things like that. And I spent AGES coming up with the name “Fortress of Solidarity,” so I want to get as much use out of it as I can!

Geek: Let’s move on, talk about Cinderella… Clearly, you’ve proven apt at the Fables Universe by now, but its still Willingham’s baby. Even Matt Sturges has only co-written with Willingham, not gone it solo. Do you ever feel like he’s going to say, “Wait, I made a mistake. Give me my Fables back!”

CR: I think that every time I sit down to write a new Cinderella script!

Geek: This series starts off pretty current in Fables continuity… Are we going to keep up with things, or is this its own pocket story?

CR: We’re trying to keep the new Cinderella mini tied pretty closely to the main title, but different stories move at different paces. Rest assured, though, that the events of Cinderella: Fables Are Forever will feed back into Fables itself, sooner or later.

Geek: Now that it’s out there, can we talk about the villain? When you normally think of her, she’s sweet and nice; are we going to see how she got the way she is, or is that a mystery for another series?

CR: We are DEFINITELY going to be seeing how the villain got from the sweet, good-natured country girl that we all remember to the hard-bitten killer-for-hire that we see in Cinderella: FAF #1. By the time we get to the end of this miniseries, all of the questions about her will be answered (but we might ask some MORE questions about her before we’re through!).

Geek: What’s your prime inspiration for Cinderella? The titles are clearly Bond influenced, but are you pulling on anything else?

CR: Really just “spy-fi” stories in general. I grew up on all of the great spy movies and TV series of the sixties—not just Bond, but Derek Flint, and the Avengers, and Modesty Blaise, and the Man from UNCLE, and on and on. Every time I sit down to work on Cinderella, I’m writing a love letter to ALL of those characters.

Geek: Okay, last but not least, iZombie – what’s coming up in the series?

CR: I’ve sometimes seen comments to the effect that iZombie is good, but seems like too much setup and not enough payoff. Starting in issue 13, we’ll be delivering payoff by the BUCKETFUL.  We’ll learn that there are a whole lot MORE zombies than Gwen, and that the rest of them are not nearly so charming and well behaved as she is.

And while the rest of the characters are dealing with the zombie invasion (oops, have I said too much…?), a new group of monster types appears in town–a team of undead secret agents known only as… the Dead Presidents.

Geek: And what else is coming up for you in general?

CR: It’s recently been announced that I’ll be writing a twelve issue miniseries for BOOM! Studios featuring characters from the novels of Michael Moorcock. The series is titled ELRIC: THE BALANCE LOST, and a special prequel story will be one of BOOM!’s offerings on Free Comic Book Day this year.

Other than that, it’s just more Superman, iZombie, Cinderella, and Starborn!

Stan Lee’s Starborn #3, Superman #708, Cinderella: Fables Are Forever #1,and iZombie #10 are all on stands now!

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