From ‘Moloch’ To ‘Superman Earth One Vol. 2’: The J. Michael Straczynski Interview

JMS on villains like Moloch and Parasite: “I’m a big believer in the idea that while we are the sum of our tears we are also the product of our choices in how we deal with those tears.” 

Acclaimed writer J. Michael Straczynski has a couple of new projects recently hit the stores: the graphic novel “Superman Earth One Vol. 2” and “Before Watchmen: Moloch.” MTV Geek chatted with JMS about these two high-profile projects…and the interesting way that they both tell “The Villain’s Story.”

MTV Geek: Why Moloch? What intrigues you about this character?

JMS: He’s probably the one character we know least from the original “Watchmen,” but who plays a very pivotal role both in the history of the heroes and in the present. His life weaves in and out of the backgrounds of our other characters, but we never get to see much at all about who he is and how he got to where he is. I suppose it says something that I like plays like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, where we see a corner of the story we didn’t really see before.

Geek: Moloch was a supporting character in the original “Watchmen,” but was never completely defined. What stuff did you have to fill in, and how was that process?

JMS: Writing is the process of asking the next logical question. Moloch was in his 60s in the 1980s…so that puts his birth at a pretty rough time for a kid who looks like that. So right off the bat you know that he had a very hard childhood. We know that he got into magic…at that time, you had traveling carneys and circuses where a kid of that age could see a magician…and be entranced. Logically, he would be drawn to a world where he could become anything he might want to be, could even disappear entirely. Magic would also give him something to hide behind, a way to be popular. Again, as soon as you answer one question, make one decision, it leads to the next…and that was the process by which I began to define his background as really kind of a tragic character.

Geek: Magician-themed comics were quite a fad in the Golden Age of comic books. Did you derive any inspiration from that genre with this book?

JMS: No, I tried to stick with what I could get from research into the period: traveling circuses, vaudeville, sideshows and the like. I sometimes find reality far more fantastical and unlikely than what I could just make up.

Geek: Tell me about working with Eduardo Risso — he seems to really capture the pathos and menace of Moloch in his illustrations!

JMS: Yeah, he’s amazing. And he does something very subtle in the books that I don’t know if folks will notice. There are actually two looks to Moloch. When we’re in something resembling an omniscient or third person point of view, he looks like a guy with somewhat distorted ears and appearance…but when we go subjective, when we close in on his point of view, on how he sees himself, the image becomes far more distorted and twisted. It was a freaking brilliant choice on his part, and even if you don’t notice it overtly, subconsciously you’re aware of it and it adds to the texture of the story.

Geek: Do you have a favorite “Watchmen” character that you’ve written? Do you have a favorite “Watchmen” character that you’d like to write but haven’t done so yet?

JMS: I think they’re all fascinating characters. I’d love to write any of them. In an odd sort of way, with these three — Dr. Manhattan, the most powerful character in the Watchmen universe; Nite Owl, arguably its most vulnerable; and Moloch, really the only villainous foreground character we meet, it’s a nice triagulation on the Watchmen universe. So I’m good with that.

Geek: Where do you see things going beyond the “Before Watchmen” books? Would you have any interest in picking up the story “After Watchmen”?

JMS: I can’t speak from any speical knowledge, there have been no conversations between me and the DC hierarchy on this subject, but my sense from what I’ve picked up is that I don’t think they went into this to create a franchise that they can expand outward from here. Dan always just talked about doing this story-cycle and that was pretty much it. So I’d be very much surprised if there were any After-Watchmen stories, at least for the time being.

Geek: Let’s move over to “Superman Earth One Vol. 2”. The first volume was all about Clark discovering who he really is. Will this journey of self-discovery continue in Volume Two?

JMS: Definitely. V1 was about Clark figuring out Superman’s place in the world; now he has to focus in on his own part in that world. He’s always kind of hidden from the world, from life, now he has to actively engage it in ways far more extnesive than anything he might have previously imagined, and that’s going to be a real challenge for him.

Geek: Clark gets a love interest in this new graphic novel that’s not Lois Lane. Tell us about Lisa LaSalle — will we be seeing more of her? Is she the right girl for Clark at this time in his life?

JMS: She’s the first girl in his life, and that person always holds a very important position in anyone’s life. I know a lot of folks yelled about not having him get right with Lois, because he’s always been with her in the DC universe, but that misses the point that Clark just got here. He’s the new kid on the block, literally; Lois is an established reporter and she’s suspicious of this guy who came out of nowhere to get the scoop of the century. Eventually those two will be put on a trajectory for each other, but he has to earn that relationship and Lois’ respect.

Lisa LaSalle is, in many ways, the perfect person for Clark because she makes him massively uncomfortable. Where he has always held back, she is living life full measure, she’s effusive, exciting, in motion…she can draw him out where others might not be able to get through. Their friendship will continue to grow in the next volume, and they will come to count on each other in ways that I think will surprise a number of people.

Geek: In both “Before Watchmen: Moloch” and this volume of “Superman: Earth One” with Parasite, we really delve into the villain’s journey…about what made them be that way. How much culpability do you think both characters have for their actions, given their painful backgrounds? Where does the sympathy end…or can we retain both sympathy and condemnation for these characters?

JMS: I’m a big believer in the idea that while we are the sum of our tears we are also the product of our choices in how we deal with those tears. There are those who seem to feel they have no choice about being jerks in the present because they had a crappy childhood. Well, that’s the definition of childhood, nobody gets out alive. You either get stronger from what you experience, or you turn it into a crutch, an excuse, a dodge. Nite Owl and Clark Kent (as shown in SE1) both had very rough childhoods; they responded by turning that emotion into a desire to protect other people. The Parasite and Moloch went the other way. I think that’s a fascinating dynamic to explore.

Geek: What is it like writing for this “Earth One” universe, where you can sort of create your own version of the Superman mythos more or less “from scratch?” Does it feel much more liberating than functioning within pre-established “shared” universes?

JMS: It’s just a blast. The fun is in saying, okay, if this were to happen today, right now, how would it play out? What can you do with the character that couldn’t be done before? Not to shock, necessarily, I think that’s far too easy…but in the kind of storytelling we can do now that we couldn’t do 50 years ago, where can we find room to play? On a purely personal level, it’s very strange, because as a kid, Superman informed my personality. Now I’ve been given the job of forming Superman’s personality and, in some ways, drawing on my own background. Somehow I’ve been turned into the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail…either that or my head’s just way up my own ass.

Geek: How is the collaborative process with Shane Davis? He seems to put in many seemingly minor details (like the parallel eye scars on the dictator and Clark’s cat) that really give the story an added depth of meaning.

JMS: His work has definitely matured and grown more interesting and textured. I don’t know if the scar was meant to reflect back on the cat, because for me the story of the cat and his rescue thereof is meant to be thematic parallel to his rescue of Lisa later in the book…but what the heck, it’s great art any way you slice it. Not that I’m encouraging anyone to slice art. Just sayin’.

Geek: Do you have plans for a Volume Three? How far into Earth One Superman’s narrative have you figured out yet?

JMS: I’ve already begun writing volume three which I hope to finish over the holidays. Shane and I finished V2 months before it came out, but they held it back to let Batman Earth One have some room to breathe on its own. Now that that’s out, we can go to a better schedule. And yeah, I have this figured out way, way down the road. There are some real surprises coming along that I think will get fans very excited.

 

“Before Watchmen: Moloch” #1

and

“Superman Earth One Vol. 2”

are both in stores now!

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