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The boy who would be Superman
Smallville breathes new life into a classic comic book hero
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Superman fans were still reeling over the smarmy cuteness of Lois & Clark when the WB announced its teenage Superman drama Smallville, reportedly about young Clark Kent’s days in high school and his slow discovery of his super powers. The WB’s reputation as purveyors of teen angst had some die-hard fans worried, but a few elements of the show’s premise suggested that Smallville might revitalize the whole Superman mythos: the creators promised that Clark Kent would discover one super power per season, the show’s tagline was “No Flights, No Tights,” and Clark would be friends with a young Lex Luthor who hadn’t yet found his calling as a criminal mastermind.
The show turned out to be better than most cynics expected and has caught on with an audience far wider than typical WB watchers and hard-core comic book fans. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show is the references it makes to other incarnations of Superman: Christopher Reeves guest stars in one episode; a visiting Perry White utters the line “don’t call me chief” from the George Reeves TV show; Annette O’Tool, who was Lana Lang in Superman III, plays Clark’s mother. . .
FWR had a chance to talk to Alfred Gough, who is one of the creators of the show along with his writing partner Miles Millar. The two have recently worked on the script to Spiderman 2 and the big screen adaptation of another comic book hero, Iron Man. He wasn’t able to reveal any Spiderman spoilers, but he did talk to us about what makes Smallville fly.
FWR: How would you describe Smallville to someone who had never seen it?
AG: It’s the coming-of-age of the boy who would be Superman. It’s a teenager sort of figuring out who he’s going to be and where he’s going, and in this case he grows up to be Superman.
FWR: Where did the idea come from?
AG: Peter Roth, president of Warner Brothers Television, approached Miles Millar and myself with the idea of doing Superboy, and we said “Errr, well. . .” That’s where we came up with the “No Flights, No Tights” idea. If we were going to do this, we sort of needed to re-imagine Superman’s origins for a modern audience. That’s where we got the idea of the meteor shower, and Lex and Clark growing up together in Smallville, and Lionel Luther who didn’t exist in the comics, because we also saw it as a story of fathers and sons. Superman is the man he is because of who raised him; if he had landed in a different cornfield, he’d be a totally different person. Superman is all about the inclusion of parents, and Batman is all about the exclusion of parents, which makes sense when you think about it, but we had never really thought about Superman that way. The family is a really important part of the show. We always saw it as a wish-fulfillment for teenagers who want to have a good relationship with their parents. Some people think that’s corny, but I don’t think it is. Superman isn’t cynical, and neither is the show.
FWR: Did you ever think “Oh, no, not Superman again.” Were you ever worried that the idea of Superman was played out by now?
AG: Kind of. When we started, we thought that if we could figure out how to tell a modern version of this story, we thought it could really work. Even if we screwed it up, no Superman property has ever failed on television. But we spent a lot of time re-imagining the story and thinking of how to re-introduce it, so we didn’t repeat what had been done before.
FWR: What kind of reaction have you gotten from the hard-core Superman fans?
AG: Initially, we were vilified online, but once the show started, the reaction was very positive from the fans and from DC comics. We treat the material with respect, and I think what raises a red flag with any comics fan is when someone takes a cherished property and treats it like trash.
FWR: One thing we’ve noticed is that you seem to reference previous incarnations of Superman, and previous incarnations of some of the actors. You have one scene where John Schneider (John Kent) is shown driving with the Dukes of Hazzard theme playing on the radio.
AG: It’s great when you can have sort of wink at the comic fan or TV fan in general, or give a nod to the actor. John Schneider, for example, brought a lot of good baggage to the show. You can look at him as Jonathan Kent and you can imagine that he had kind of a wild youth because of the associations you have with John Schneider.
FWR: Do you and Miles Millar have a story arc for the show?
AG: We have an arc for the season, meaning we have key points throughout the season. For example, this season we have four key points. We know where the season is going, but you want to keep yourself open to things, because you might find a certain story line is really popping, so you can’t totally lock yourself into things.
FWR: So, when is Clark going to learn to fly?
AG: Well, if super powers are a metaphor for adolescence, then that will be the absolute last thing he’s able to do. Maybe the last minute of the last show (laughs). The questions I always get asked the most: when is Clark going to fly, and when is Lex going to turn evil.
FWR: Actually, that was my next question…
AG: I think this season you’ve seen Lex take a few bigger steps towards that, and I think that evil side of his personality will start winning battles over his better angels. It’s definitely a journey he’s on. Basically, he’s a guy trying to fight his destiny, and eventually he’s going to succumb to it.
FWR: You and Miles have worked on the script for Spiderman 2 and Iron Man. Were you big comic book fans?
AG: Not in the least. We’ve become more involved in comics since we’ve started doing these projects. You have to be respectful of the comics without being slavish to them. And in an odd way, by not having an intensive comic background, you don’t geek out on the script. You come at it from an entirely different approach, asking how do you humanize this character and how do you make these characters who work great in panels in a comic book come alive on the screen?
Smallville can be seen on Wednesday nights on the WB.