Jerry Ordway & Steve Rude’s ‘Adventures of Superman’ Is Like ‘A Lost Fleischer Cartoon’ [Interview]
The best Superman comic book currently published is about to get even better this coming Monday with the addition of Steve Rude, arguably one of today’s best living American comic book artists, and Jerry Ordway, one of the key Superman storytellers of the ’80s and ’90s, and a brilliant and influential artist in his own right. The pair have collaborated on a Superman story starring OMAC, a cult favorite creation of Rude’s own hero, Jack Kirby, for an Adventures of Superman digital short that they describe as “ a lost Max Fleischer Superman cartoon.”
ComicsAlliance spoke with Ordway and Rude to learn more about the 10-page adventure, their impressions of Superman in this day and age, the digital comics revolution, and how these accomplished but very distinctive creators worked together on the story.
The co-creator of ’80s indie sci-fi sensation Nexus, Rude is a hugely talented but relatively elusive force in the comic book business. A master of creating distinct figures, faces and even whole species; fantastic and delicately detailed locales; dynamic superhero action; and quite sexy, intimate moments, Rude is active in the collectors market, where he continues to create one beautiful commission after another for us to enjoy. The artist’s Facebook timeline is an all but endless stream of some of the best superhero and good-girl pin-up art you’ll ever see.
A few years ago Rude temporarily retired from making comics altogether, pursuing a new career in the fine arts while supplementing his income with commissions and eBay auctions of his vast archive of Nexus artwork. He returned to comics with new Nexus stories for Dark Horse Presents before concluding his and writer Mike Baron’s 30-year run with the character. Most recently, the artist drew Dollar Bill, a one-shot that was part of DC’s controversial but eminently well drawn Before Watchmen line. Rude’s work on Adventures of Superman marks his return to the character for the first time since 1999, when he collaborated with Roger Stern on The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman (which is out of print, but the wonderful Superman/Batman: World’s Finest, which Rude drew in collaboration with Dave Gibbons and Karl Kesel, is not).
Longtime Superman readers will recall that Jerry Ordway previously wrote and drew the previous iteration of Adventures of Superman in the 1980s and ’90s, where he collaborated with colorist Glenn Whitmore on some of the best looking Superman stories of the modern era. Whitmore is also a longtime associate of Rude, coloring both Nexus and The Moth. The unification of Ordway, Rude and Whitmore makes the next chapter of Adventures of Superman, number 51, something of an all-star game of Superman comicbookery, and as a dedicated follower of their work from that era (and beyond), I was pleased to be able to ask them some questions via email about their new project.
ComicsAlliance: As veteran creators who’ve seen the American comics industry go through many changes, I’m curious to hear your estimation of the digital space we find ourselves in today. We’re distributing comics digitally, of course, but as is the case with your Adventures of Superman story, creating content for the digital experience specifically. What’s your take on this new paradigm?
Jerry Ordway: I’m very excited by the way new technology has impacted the comic reading experience. While I prefer reading a printed comic, for comfort’s sake, the use of effects on the Batman ’66 project has finally tapped some of the potential that tablet screens offer. If the reading experience is the same as with a physical comic, you’re limiting the many features an electronic reader has to offer. I’m not advocating turning comics into animations, but having sound effects pop up into the experience is the way to go. Doing a “reaction” panel in continuity by having a character turn their head with an insert is an added storytelling tool as well.
In my collaboration with Steve, we didn’t attempt any effects panels, because that’s not the format for this particular project, but I would’ve been game for it. The appealing thing here, with Adventures of Superman, is that it’s a digital anthology. It’s a great venue for creators like Steve and me, to drop in and play to 10 pages.
Steve Rude: Hold on. Let me look up “paradigm”. Ahhh!! Sorry — I still don’t get it.
CA: In the time since both of you last worked on your own Superman stories, the character has been sort of deployed in all manner of media and in many different modes. He’s been rebooted in comics as a younger, perhaps more brash character; he’s been rebooted in film as a very science fiction-type character; there are alternate universe stories in games and toys where he’s quite a dystopian character; and of course ten years on Smallville, where he was a reluctant, introspective hero. I’m wondering what your take is on the modern interpretations of Superman, if they have or have not informed your understanding of the character. How do you see Superman?
JO: With all the incarnations of the character, I think the key is his humanity. I always felt that a character so very powerful would need an innate likability, and humanity, or people in his world would fear him. So for me, my touchstone has been the performances on TV and film by both George Reeves and Christopher Reeve. The work I did on the Superman comics aimed to make Clark Kent a person you’d like to hang out with. I think the latest movie did well in casting Henry Cavill, who projects the right qualities, regardless of how the big story is framed. In drawing Superman, I always went back to the Joe Shuster model for his look.
SR: My take is specific. The Superman I most admire and believe in is the original Shuster interpretation. That and the Paramount cartoons of the Fleischer Bros. cartoons. What I’ve offered to DC, in fact, is for them to produce two separate lines of comics; The New 52 and the Classic 52. The biggest selling division gets to skip lines in airports and receives a month’s supply of chocolate truffles.
CA: Without giving everything away — which I know is tough considering the length of the piece — what’s going on in this Superman story and how does Jack Kirby’s OMAC come into it?
JO: The best answer is to imagine this as a lost Max Fleischer Superman cartoon. Action propels the narrative, and it’s a tight 10-page story!
CA: You’re known for your unmatched perfectionism and thoughtfulness when crafting a page. What kind of things do you think about when preparing for a project like this? Did you set any kind of ground rules or creative goals for yourself, or do you actually work more fluidly than people might believe?
SR: My rule as an artist is to “maintain your standards”. When people you admire begin to let their work standards slide, it can be hugely distressing to their fans. Comic readers don’t need one more person letting them down. My personal hero, Jack Kirby, delivered top work for four decades. It’s the least I can do for myself, and those who count on me to deliver it.
CA: Jerry is the credited writer on this short story, but you’re both writers and you’re both artists, and you’re both well known for your distinctive styles and voices. How did this collaboration work on the day to day? What kind of back-and-forth did you have while creating this story?
JO: Well, I got the call to write a 10-page Superman story, came up with a concise pitch with the idea that Steve might be willing to draw it. Once things got rolling, Steve and I talked over each stage, from the initial script through our fine-tuning, and even after pencils were drawn. I always respect the artist’s input when collaborating, though Steve was more involved than most creative partners, constantly coming up with ideas. We easily could have created a miniseries if space was not limited to ten pages!
SR: Well, I can tell you that “texting” never came within a million miles of our process, Andy. Jerry and I got on the phone, which, barring me flying 2,000 miles to Connecticut to meet in person over coffee, there’s little substitute for. The more direct the communication, the surer the results of a mutually satisfying story for both parties.
CA: Steve, unless I’m mistaken this is only your second DC project in the last couple of years, following the Dollar Bill one-shot for the Before Watchmen project. Your affection for the DC icons is well known and your fans love to see you work with characters like Superman and the Kirby heroes and so forth. For art fans in particular, your World’s Finest and Superman Vs. Hulk books are considered to be some of the best looking Superman stories to be found in any era. But your sequential work remains mainly limited to your own creation, Nexus, which is of course iconic in its own right. Do you have plans to draw more for DC? Perhaps another full length graphic novel story to compliment Worlds Finest, something that would live in bookstores forever and ever?
SR: Since I recently ended my 30-year run on Nexus, the book I’m most known for, I’d simply require but a mere phone call and an solidly inviting offer from the excellent people at DC. That and maybe flying first class for a year.
CA: Jerry, as one of the principal creators of the Superman revamp of the ’80s and ’90s, it’s cool to see you back with the character, and working with Glenn Whitmore makes it something of a class reunion for fans of that era. What do you think when you look back on that time in your career and working with your former collaborators? Did working on this story send you back, scratch a long suffering creative itch, or was it all in a day’s work for the veteran cartoonist?
JO: I have great memories of my time on Superman, and made many lifelong friends in the process. Having Glenn involved was great. As to scratching a creative itch, I still think of Superman story ideas from time to time, with no place to use them! This story is tailored for Steve, and was a great chance to share the page with him. I love the character of Superman, both to write and draw, and would always welcome the chance to create more adventures.