A New Standard: An Interview With John Lees

John Lees likes superheroes.  The previous sentence, despite sounding like the name of some niche indie rock band, is invariably true.  The Standard is a story about superheroes that deftly balances nostalgia for the old and dismay for the new without ever buckling to either.  Lees, Rector, and their cohort of colorists (and an editor!) shove us eyeballs-first into the world in which the original standard for superheroing is set, contrasting it with a dark, brooding, Miller-esque world full of cross-promotion and cynicism.  The reader is forced to ask the question: “isn’t the old, not-so-dreary stuff just… better?” But what makes The Standard great is not what you might perceive as its own meta-cynicism about the transition from the cheerful simplicity of saving lives to the gloomy apocalyptic porn of the present: The Standard poses a question for which it has a ready answer.  Maybe we’re in a world of fads and maybe the old stuff really was more enduring for important reasons; but, we can’t go back and we shouldn’t want to.  The old standards that made superheroes great will always be a touchstone for any great superhero story going forward.  And yet every generation will inevitably need a New Standard: an emotional point of entry, a way to connect with a hero who exists as part of society’s modern condition in addition to her or his embodiment of the timeless reasons for which we look to these super-powered saviors.

All of this attention comes on the heels of the announcement that The Standard is going to have a Kickstarter so that it can be collected in a hardcover edition for the first time.  Speaking for myself (and the many others who enjoyed this work), this is an exciting prospect: The Standard is one of those stories that is carefully crafted in such a way that reading from issue to issue maintains a satisfying pace-- it’s also a story that’s good enough that I want to be able to read the damn thing in one sitting.  Below, John took some time to answer a handful of both general and weirdly specific questions from yours truly.  

The Standard #1AUSTIN: How did you get into reading comics?  What made you want to write them?

JOHN LEES: Like many people, I first got into reading comics at a young age.  I'm sure I read issues of UK comics periodicals like The Beano, The Dandy and Sonic the Comic when I was a little kid, but in terms of the American comic market as we might think of it, superheroes were definitely my gateway drug.  I've loved Batman for as long as I can remember, with my earliest exposure being the movies, the Animated Series, the old Adam West TV show, and so discovering comics was like this light-bulb moment of, "Now there are all these OTHER stories with my favourite superhero!"  Then, similarly, my love of the 90s X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons and buying all the related toys got me into checking out the comics, which in turn prompted my mum to buy me this massive hardcover book for Christmas one year called, Marvel Universe, which was this huge picture book telling the histories of various characters and corners of the Marvel Universe, highlighting each hero's origins, supporting cast and villains, discussing iconic storylines and creator runs... it was likely my first real exposure to the idea of superheroes existing in a shared universe or having a long history brought to life by various creators.  It's a book that, at least 20 years after getting it, I still keep sitting on my bookshelf for inspiration!

As for what made me want to write comics... I've always wanted to write, like back when I was a toddler the only three jobs I wanted were to be an actor, a toy-maker and a writer... the other two fell by the wayside!  But after graduating university, I wasn't quite sure where I wanted to go with that writing ambition - prose?  screenplays? - until a friend of mine asked if I wanted to write a comic script for him to draw, which was like a lightbulb moment.  And the more I researched and studied the craft of comics writing, the more I was fascinated by the process behind it, and I started to think this was maybe something I could do.

AUSTIN: The Standard is about a lot more than just superheroes, but as a superhero story, I recently described it to somebody as being Watchmen if all of the original superheroes weren't complete pricks.  Would you say that this story turns the genre on its head simply by getting back to basics?

JOHN: Yeah, it's funny, because superheroes have almost become like Westerns in that revisionism has become the standard.  Like, they've been making revisionist Westerns which challenged and upended the accepted conventions of the genre since like the 1950s, and similarly, it seems like since Watchmen, we've now reached a point where when you're pitching a superhero comic, people are waiting for the catch, the clever reversal.  And there have been great comics which have upended the superhero genre and challenged the concept, but there's only so many fresh twists you can have.  With The Standard, it's almost a twist that there is no twist, that this is in a lot of ways an earnest, traditional superhero story.  It's interesting you bring up Watchmen, which quite a few people have done due to the ostensive plot similarities.  But for me, there are three other superhero stories which were much bigger influences in terms of touchstones of influence: All Star Superman, The New Frontier, and Zot!  While Watchmen was all about deconstructing the superhero myth and bringing these characters down low, those stories were about reassembling that myth and elevating the idea of the superhero into something rousing and hopeful and quite moving.  And that was what I wanted to achieve with The Standard.  ­

aTheStandard03_00fcAUSTIN: You call The Standard your love letter to the superhero genre. Did you have lapsed fans of the genre in mind as well?

JOHN: I suppose I do.  Since, really, the world of the story is essentially filled with lapsed superhero fans.  Sky City used to be inspired by superheroes, but in the modern-day, they've been swallowed up by the pop culture machine, monetised, and turned into just another brand or product.  And so The Standard returns to a much more cynical world than the one he was used to, and he has to show them through his actions that superheroes still have that power to inspire and make the world a better place.  In a real-world context, I know that superheroes have become a highly lucrative brand, and navel-gazing op-eds about how they're destroying pop culture grow ever more ubiquitous.  And I know that there are folks who maybe got into comics through superheroes, but have grown tired or frustrated with the direction taken by titles they followed and have fallen away from the genre.  But hopefully, in this story not beholden by any canon or continuity, I've been able to tap into some of the universal qualities that made those readers love superheroes in the first place.

AUSTIN: Children play a central role in your work.  Are they especially important to telling a good superhero story?

JOHN: Yeah, kids do keep on popping up in my stuff, don't they?  So, maybe it's not so much they're essential in telling a good superhero story as it is I keep finding them to be compelling characters to explore in my comics, across a variety of genres.  But I do think there is something very powerful in seeing superheroes through the eyes of children, with some of the most emotional moments I've experienced in superhero comics involve children: Superman stopping the teenage girl from jumping off the building in All Star Superman, my all-time favourite Spider-Man story "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man," or for a recent example, Daredevil leading the blind kids through a snowstorm early in the Mark Waid run.  Perhaps scenes like this are so emotionally resonant because they tap into when we first connected with these characters.

AUSTIN: Do you think The Standard lost any charm going from black and white to color?  (I can't imagine all that blood in black and white.)

JOHN: No, I absolutely think The Standard made nothing but gains with the addition of color.  I do still have a few copies of my original small black-and-white print run, but looking back at it now, it just feels incomplete.  I do think it's possible to do great comics in black-and-white, of course, but in a story like this, the colors are an essential component of the comic.  Much credit is due to colorist Mike Gagnon for his stellar work, as well as the other colorists from the early issues, Ray Dillon, Mo James, Gulliver Vianei.

AUSTIN: Easy question: how awesome is Jonathan Rector?

JOHN: VERY awesome!  We had gone through a couple of artists before finally settling on Jonathan Rector, and yet it wasn't until he stepped onboard that the project came truly alive.  I can still remember the pure, visceral joy of those first pages from him hitting my inbox.  He just nailed it, taking the world that was in my head and on the script and perfectly capturing it in comics form... and quite often making it BETTER than it was in my head!  One of the highlights of my comics career is still getting to meet Jon at New York Comic Con 2012 and hang out with him for a few days.

The Standard HC (2)AUSTIN: Did you have anything or anyone specific in mind when giving Gilbert his voice or did you channel your inner grandpa?

JOHN: Gilbert's characterisation mainly came from a desire to have an old hero who wasn't this grizzled, bitter, hardened old guy.  That's what is typically expected in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, it seems.  But I wanted to present someone who still seemed young at heart, someone who wasn't a grim and tortured anti-hero.  He has his difficulties and has had his share of heartbreak, to be sure, but Gilbert's optimism is perhaps his greatest superpower.  As for particular influences, maybe there's a bit of Marge Gunderson from Fargo in there!

AUSTIN: A lot of independent creators don't opt to deal with an editor and Steven in particular really rolls up his sleeves.  How has working directly with him on a published project changed your writing process?

JOHN: Working with Steven Forbes had a massive impact on my writing.  Really, at the time I wrote The Standard, Steven wasn't just my editor, he was my comics mentor.  Back in an earlier question, I talked about researching how comics are written.  The first research I actually did was a series of columns written by Steve called Bolts & Nuts.  It was from Steve that I learned the craft and technique of comics writing, as well as much of the formatting that I still employ today.  And given that The Standard was my first comics project, it was invaluable having Steven on hand to guide and advise me at every step of the process, teaching me lessons about making comics that I've carried over onto everything I've worked on ever since.

AUSTIN: When am I getting a Corpse solo book?

JOHN: Ha!  No plans at the moment.  You are, however, not the first person to ask about that.  It seems he was a rather popular character.  If requests keep coming in I might just have to look into it!