A Conversation with...
To date, fan-favorite Samuel Hawkins has written four Superboy stories. He recently took some time from his busy schedule to explain who he is, why he does what he does, and some of his thoughts about Superman.
What do you do for a living?
I have a Master's Degree in Psychology. I did some counseling work after getting my Bachelor's and while I was in grad school, but realized that I'm not nearly a good enough person to do that forever. I went into the engineering side of psychology (commonly called human factors or ergonomics). I do research into things like the way people make decisions, and design things like computer displays and crew stations for weapons systems like tanks and helicopters.
Any other personal info?
Wonderful wife and two wonderful daughters. I just moved back to Alabama after four years in Minnesota so that my kids could be closer to my parents. I had to become a government employee (a hard thing for a libertarian) instead of a contractor to do so, but I wanted my kids here.
What got you started writing these Superboy stories?
Not to seem flippant, but probably it was the fact that someone might post them. I've written a lot of different things over the years, but have never been published. The opportunity to be able to get my work where others could see it was good motivation for me.
The fact that it had to be Superman-related presented an interesting challenge. Much as I love comics, I've never sat down and written out a full text story. There didn't seem to be much point. Superboy holds a special place for me, and despite the volumes of Superboy stories that have been done, I've always felt there were more to tell. I thought about it for a while, and the one image that came to me was Clark and Lana sitting together under a tree, with Clark feeling like I did about a particular girl when I was 13. From there, it was a short step to wondering what would be the ramifications of being a nigh-omnipotent being and be in the throes of a crush so bad it makes you ache all over.
I should also credit a line from Elliot S! Maggin's story of Superboy's debut from "Last Son of Krypton." Pa Kent, mistaking Clark's despair over a dead dog, asks something like, "Him and Lana. Already?" That line has always intrigued me. It (like a Superboy story from my childhood in which Lana asked Clark to kiss her) hints that there was something more between these two, but it never came to fruition. It had never been explained (beyond the obvious "Superman grows up to marry Lois" necessity), so it seemed like fertile ground for exploration.
How do you respond to those readers who have criticized your approach to the Superman family of characters?
I thank them for reading and for their opinion. Criticism is fine. I'm a pretty inner-directed person, so criticism really gets to me only when I agree that I screwed up and made a technical writing error. I'll take the blame for 90% of any confusion anyone (well, anyone with an IQ above 115) experiences, and some of the criticism has been on target. Besides, I rarely pick up anything I've written and am unable to find something about it that I'd change, so I try to not get upset when someone else does the same thing.
But different views of the character don't bother me at all. They're a given when dealing with something like Superman. Any larger-than-life figure (be they religious, mythical, or merely celebrated) becomes something of a Rorshach test for the reader or follower or admirer. You begin to see what you want or need to see, so everyone's take is going to be at least a little different. I would never be offended that someone else interprets Supes differently than I. Different perspectives, different interpretations, different wishes, are all fun to contemplate.
I guess this is a good place as any to sincerely thank everyone who has dropped me a line to tell me that they enjoyed the stories, and to Mark for posting it in the first place. It really means a lot to me. While I've wanted to write comics for a long time, it's probably never going to happen, so the warm response and encouragement I've gotten for my efforts has been very rewarding, and I genuinely appreciate it. When you don't do this for money, the satisfaction of putting together something you like and the positive feedback of others is your compensation, and I've gotten plenty of both from my two little efforts. I take it as indicative of the common feelings we share about our hero. My deepest thanks to everyone.
You mentioned that it was Elliot S! Maggin's work on Superman that got you started writing Superboy. Elliot has, in turn, read your stories - what do you think of his reactions?
Big thrill. His positive reactions mean a lot. Elliot is the guy that started or brought emphasis to a lot of what I love about this stuff, so his opinion is very welcome. I was a kid when he was in his heyday, and even though I didn't pay attention to the writing credits then, I think I could tell which stories were his. (And he's also the person who taught me as a nine-year-old back in 1975 that the millennium started in 2001, not 2000. Check out Superman 300.) I'd communicated with him once before I'd written these stories, and, as before, he was very positive and classy. He's definitely one of the good guys, and I wish we could see more of his work.
Your first Superboy story, TAKING TIME: A TALE OF THE VERY NEW SUPERBOY, seems to take place in the pre-Crisis continuity, yet it also somehow has a post-Crisis flavor. In which continuity, if any, does the story actually take place, and what are your feelings on the pre- vs. post-Crisis debate.
Both stories I've written are pre-Crisis. Definitely pre-Crisis. From Superboy's powers (I don't think the current Superman has the type of brain I use in the story) to the obvious "Superman was never Superboy" law of post-Crisis DC, this was in every way pre-Crisis. If I actually let some post-Crisis continuity in there, it was unintentional. I think the post-Crisis flavor to my first story is all in taking a more psychological perspective to the character.
Besides, Byrne ruined any possibility of fitting Superboy into the current continuity. (He's since admitted that that was a mistake, and I think that his later regrets speak to the short-sightedness of his project.)
Are you one-hundred percent in the "pre-Crisis is better" school?
I come down squarely on the pre-Crisis side of things, but unlike some fans, I don't think that the post-Crisis stuff is all bad (though the past five years or so, including the current stuff, have stank to high heaven. I actually quit buying Superman for the first time in 30 years until the new creative team came on board, but I'll be dropping it again if it doesn't improve soon). If Mr. Mxyzxtyplk (and if I got that spelling right, it means I've given up way too many neurons to this stuff) appeared tomorrow and gave me Jeanette Kahn's job, I would be sorely tempted to waive the dictatorial wand and retcon everything back to pre-Crisis. What I wouldn't want to do, though, is lose all of the more mature approach.
Like everyone else over 30, nostalgia is a large part of why I continue to read comics, but the other part is the literary value, and what I most like is when those two things get combined (e.g., Astro City, Kingdom Come, Supreme). Superboy, I feel, is one of the richest potential sources of those two qualities. I would love to see new Superboy stories, but they'd quickly lose their appeal if they went back to the people of Smallville exiling him over a misunderstanding or Lana getting super-powers every other issue. For nostalgia, you just pick up the old issues. New stories need more. But the key will always be good story telling that plays on our identifications with the characters. You can have the full blown pre-Crisis "baggage" and tell bad stories, and as we've found with Byrne and most of his successors, you can get rid of all that and still tell bad stories.
So while I disagree with Byrne's "Clark is the real person" angle, I'm not so sure that I'm ready to return completely to the "Clark is just a disguise" paradigm. One of the most fascinating things to me about the Superman myth is the limitations he puts upon himself by being Clark (especially the pre-Crisis Clark). Living half your life as a charicature can't be natural. How did the Kents get him to do that? How was he able to put his normal drives and self-interests on the shelf? Why did he never heat vision the legs off some kid that was teasing him? I think the answer has to be more than, "well, he's Super," or "well, he had really good parents." I had really good parents too, but I wouldn't have put up with what Clark did if I could have done something about it. That type of restraint and maturity has to have a price, and I think that exploration of that theme is at least in the background of a lot of the better Superman stories of any era.
So you believe that it was the Kents, rather than Superman's Kryptonian heritage, that gave Clark his sterling nature? And that his timid behavior is a caricature? I'm not so sure that heat-visioning off someone's legs is a natural reaction, as you state - it's entirely possible that antagonism is learned behavior but that Superman is just too smart to fall for it.
The Kents have gotten more overt credit post-Crisis for Clark's sterling nature, but their importance was always implicit in the stories. While I am a big advocate of understanding the biological and genetic bases of behavior, I would hate to see Superman's goodness attributed solely to him being "genetically perfect" (as established by ES!M in Superman 257, I think) or even to being Kryptonian (what are the odds that the one kid who got shot off of Krypton was the one really good one?). The thing about Superman that speaks the most to me is his self-restraint. It's a very existential thing, and the kind of thing we all have to exercise on some level or another. He has the power to do pretty much any single act he would wish, but he doesn't, just like all of us have the power to do some really bad things, but most of us wouldn't even if we could get away with it.
But as both a parent and someone who's dealt with a lot of issues in human behavior, I don't think that antagonism or even violence is solely learned. I think that there are biological forces that are as least as important as learning. I still think heat visioning that leg off or something like it is something that over the course of a childhood that most kids would do. We are all too close to our instincts for that or something like it to never happen in a moment of weakness or self-pity or rage. What is remarkable about Clark is that he avoided those, perhaps self-indulgent, but still absolutely natural behaviors, and I think that begs the very interesting question of "why?" Was it parenting, was it "innate goodness," was it force of will, or was it, as some have suggested (see the "Superman" entry in Fleisher's Superman Encyclopedia for some really surprising speculation on his unresolved Oedipal complex), the result of a dysfunctional psychology that forced human frailty on this god-like being? As with most things, I would probably say a combination of all that and more, and, for me, that's why I find so much depth and continuing potential in a character about whom thousands of stories have already been written. I don't think it's really necessary to choose who's real, Clark or Superman. I think they both are, and I think that's very human, and I think that's why I'm still reading this stuff after 30 years.
In TAKING TIME, Pa Kent tells Superboy, "You just hesitated. It's only human." This line basically states, "It's OK for you to fail because you're only human." This belief could very well sum up everything that's wrong with the post-Crisis Superman. After all, the pre-Crisis Superman isn't human, he doesn't fail (at least, not as often as the post-Crisis Superman), and his stories teach that humans are not innate failures.
Hmm. This is an interesting perspective. I would say that the first part may be true, but perhaps not in his own (even pre-Crisis) mind. As to the second part, I don't want to just simply agree with some modernists that perfection becomes tiresome. I certainly deplore any diminution of the grandeur of this character. However, I think that you come across with a much better character when failure is a real possibility. Without that potential, there's no nobility. And I think that failures (e.g., Krypton, Kandor, resolution of the Clark-Superman-Lois triangle) have always been a big part of the Superman legend.
As to the third comment, I wouldn't say that humans are innate failures, but I would say that all humans certainly fail (and I'm not even talking about morality here). Not to sound aphoric (or even Pa Kent-like), but it's how much space you put between failures that matters.
Where I do think there would be some significant differences between a Superman and us mere mortals is in the advantages provided by that "super-brain" of his. That much computational power would enable him to run many more decision scenarios than we do, and might even allow him to employ the type of contemplative reflection that most of us think we use in making decisions. I tried to touch on this in the first story through Pa's emphasis on "taking your time." As much as anything, I think that would be the real source of Superman's being right most of the time.
But enough cognitive science. I guess I would sum up my perspective by saying that I think there is room in the legend for interpretations of the character that explore the subtle boundaries between Clark and Superman, and the more overt boundaries between human imperfection and inhuman, god-like, wish-fulfilling competence. I don't think you have to be completely on one side or the other of these different approaches, and I think that the most interesting approach in the long run is some synthesis of the two positions that doesn't overly dilute either original position. But even if you did come down on the "Superman is perfect" side, then I think (as even Byrne finally figured out) that Superboy becomes even more important to the legend. After all, you don't become perfect overnight. Finding out what that learning curve looks like is fun too.
Your second Superboy tale, MARTHA'S STORY, focuses more on the Kents.
Well, Ma Kent in particular. The fact that Clark's farewell to his mom has been pretty much ignored gave me the hole in continuity in which to drop my story, and I greatly enjoyed writing it, despite the fact of the Kents surviving into Superman's adulthood has been one of the few post-Crisis changes I've liked.
One of the things that nagged at me from my first story was the more prevalent role of Pa Kent in the advice-dispensing department. I try to not be sexist, but as much as my own attitudes were pushing me to even out the advice-giving between the two parents, I also didn't want to force that onto the established Superboy universe. I'm sure someone could cite examples in which Martha was the "wise" one, but the overwhelming preponderance of my memory has Pa doing that, most especially in the famous deathbed scene. I felt somewhat obligated to stick with those roles.
But the discomfort I felt with that made me want to take a closer look at Martha. What I saw is pretty close to what I saw from my own mother. I didn't want to lock Martha into some 1950s view of women, but as I do with my own mom, I respect what she is, gender-typing and all. That some older women aren't as comfortable with modern sentiments on gender roles certainly doesn't invalidate the genuiness of the person.
I hope that what I showed was how important Martha was to Clark. Irreplaceable, in fact. I certainly emphasize the importance of not getting in the way of women when they make their choices, but as someone who had a great mother and whose wife is a great mother, I have nothing but praise and admiration for someone who can do that job right. It's the toughest one there is. So basically I wanted to have Martha look back over life and tell her story, and I don't feel bad or sexist that when I was done it turned out that most of it involved her husband and son. They are what mattered most to her.
I really enjoyed seeing the young Lex Luthor in this story, but having him think "Just two less hicks in the world," strikes me as being remarkably cold-blooded and monstrous - very different from Elliot S! Maggin's interpretation of Lex as someone who has always had good-guy potential.
Well, Lex is one of my favorite aspects of the whole legend and I've felt that the character only really clicked when Elliot wrote him. I'd never thought before that a bad guy could be so interesting. Elliot certainly rounded out Lex like no one else has, so that was kinda what I was shooting for. Lex's rationalized decision to spend another night in prison was my attempt at portraying the streak of good in him.
And I'm not sure that the insult was totally out of character. In the 60s and 70s at least, Lex was typically portrayed as something of a monster, but with a few soft spots (e.g., his sister and wife and the folks on Lexor). He would utter overt praises for evil that even the modern day version wouldn't attempt. He wasn't as evil or irredeemable as the modern version, but came off as trying to be.
And I think that in Elliot's work you also see that Lex has this massive superiority complex. In a very Greek-drama sense, it's his fatal flaw. Imagine what he could do if not for this fatal obsession with the one being who challenges his superiority. For some reason, the scene in "Last Son" where Lex is motivated into action by the fact that his assistant tends to try to engage him in small talk has always stuck with me. We see some of Lex's true feelings on the rest of humanity there. I think they bug the hell out of him, because he feels (partially correctly) that they're so much dumber than he. But I think that speaks to the archetypal nature of so much of the Superman myth. We see in this portrayal of Lex feelings some of the feelings that most of us struggle with.
You also incorporate the classic Silver-Age origin for Lex's animosity - his baldness. But I seem to recall that that explanation wasn't in the original origin, it was later shoe-horned in.
I can't put my hands on the Luthor origin story at the moment, but my memory of it (perhaps mistaken, or perhaps of a different version) is that the hair thing, along with the lost artificial lifeform, was quite prominent. I remember as an eight- or nine-year-old thinking that he sure was going overboard about a silly thing like losing his hair. Of course, when mine started to fall out in high school, I began to understand his position. If I could have found out who was responsible, I'd have sworn eternal vengeance too. :) Unfortunately for Lex (and Earth 1), he wasn't able to come to terms with it like I was.
Any more stories coming our way?
At least one. Prior to the story about Martha I'd started a different one, and I had about 15 pages of it written before she sidetracked me. It's a Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes story set shortly after Superboy joins the Legion, and it enables me to do some things I wanted to take a shot at. One was telling a story with more action than the previous two. It's difficult to successfully portray comic book action in a text format, so I wanted to try that challenge. I also wanted to explore how Superboy reacts when he encounters a more powerful being for the first time. And though Superboy remains the focus, I wanted to do a Legion story.
After that though, that's probably it for a very long while. About the only time I get to write these days is at night in hotels when I'm on business trips. With two small kids and a career, my free time (and writing time) is depressingly scarce, and there are some other writing projects I need to pursue. Of course, there's one other Superboy story that's been percolating at the back of my brain, and I never seem to know when they're going to fall out, so we'll see.