If you were a kid, whats kind of questions would you ask your favorite superhero? Like do they ever mess up? Do you ever play practical jokes? Why do you smell? YA author Michael Northrop (Tombquest, Polaris) imagines how some of America’s most iconic heroes tackles these questions and many more in Dear Justice League, his new collaboration with artist Gustavo Duarte. And snark aside, some of his responses might very well surprise adults!
The Beat caught up with Northrop to talk about Dear Justice League, the questions included, and some of his personal favorites as they relate to comic books.
Nancy Powell: Dear Justice League is a really funny, offbeat take on how the Justice League team members handle their fan mail. How did the idea of putting the letters on paper come about?
Michael Northrop: Thanks! I got the idea from my old job at Sports Illustrated Kids magazine. I interviewed a lot of pro athletes, and it could be a challenge. Athletes are asked the same questions over and over, and they mostly give the same answers. You get a lot of mumbled responses about “working hard” and “taking it one game at a time.” But because it was SI Kids, I sometimes asked questions that had been sent in by kids, and the difference was really eye-opening. Even the biggest stars would think about those more and answer them more openly. They might feel like they had to be careful talking to a reporter, but they could let their guard down a little answering a question from a 10-year-old. I think maybe it reminded them of what sports was like before it was a job. It really stuck with me, and it was a major inspiration for this book. Athletes and superheroes are both larger than life figures who can be guarded and private, but behind those defenses, they’re people just like the rest of us.
Powell: Who had the easier job? You as writer or Gustavo Duarte as the guy who had to make all the crazy situations come to life?
Northrop: Oh, me. Totally. First of all, there’s that old joke. I just have to write “100 alien spaceships commence their attack on Washington”—one sentence—and there goes the artist’s whole day! And as I started getting the early pages in, I began putting less and less detail in the descriptions in my script. I loved what Gustavo was doing and wanted to give him more freedom to interpret the scenes. So early on, I was writing detailed descriptions of the heroes’ postures and expressions, but by the end it was more like “Superman, flying” or “Aquaman seems confused.”
Powell: What was the process you and Gustavo used to plot out the different letters included in Dear Justice League?
Northrop: I actually came up with the messages fairly early on. There was a lot of brainstorming. Many pages of yellow legal pad died for the cause. I was looking for questions that would get at something essential about the heroes, as well as a good mix of serious and silly.
Powell: Which letter was your favorite in Dear Justice League?
Northrop: The one to Superman, asking if he ever messes up. It’s the first message and goes straight to the heart of the book. Right from the start it establishes one of the main themes: Superheroes are people too.
NP: If you could write a letter to a Justice League member, who would that be?
Northrop: Superman. I’d ask him if he could blurb the book! ☺ Seriously, though, it would be Green Lantern. His power—turning thoughts into reality—has always fascinated me. It’s very similar to writing, in a way.
Powell: In one of the letters, a couple of boys decide to prank Flash. How much fun did you have plotting that story? And were you ever one of those characters?
Northrop: So much fun! I was more of a rule follower as a kid, so I identified with the other characters in the story, the ones the bad kids sort of pushed around. A lot of the joy for me was just knowing that these two knuckleheads wouldn’t get away with it. That you never prank a prankster—especially one as fast as Flash!
Powell: Before this book, you primarily wrote fiction for a middle grade audience. How was this experience different from novel writing? Was this more difficult or easier than novel writing?
Northrop: The best way to sum up the difference is that when I’m writing a prose novel, I spend the day hunched over my keyboard typing. I’ve got to create that whole world just from words: what the characters are seeing and thinking and doing. When I’m scripting a graphic novel, I know that the artist is going to do a lot of the heavy lifting of creating that world. So I spend the day staring at the wall and visualizing things. Every once in a while, I write a few sentences of careful description. It’s not the finished product, more like the recipe. The artist does the cooking. Then I throw in about 10 words of dialogue and some fun sound effects and move on to the next page. It’s a very different process from writing prose, and honestly, it’s a blast.
Powell: Could you envision doing a similar kind of book with the Marvel superheroes like Dear Avengers?
Northrop: There might be some, you know, corporate issues there. But even apart from that I don’t think it would be fair to do the same thing for them. The Avengers are a very different team, and they should get a different angle. There are definitely other fun ways to tell the stories of the real people behind these iconic uniforms.
Powell: Do you have any other comics-related projects lined up?
Northrop: Gustavo and I just started working on Dear Super-Villains! The lineup is basically the Legion of Doom, kind of the mirror image of the Justice League, so this is a case where a similar kind of book makes perfect sense. In fact, I think the similarities between the good guys in Dear Justice League and the bad guys in Dear Super-Villains will be just as interesting as the differences. It’s obviously going to be very kid-friendly, with some gentle lessons along the way, but I really want to explore that fascination we all have sometimes for the villains. Why do we get that little thrill when they enter the frame?
Powell: So I’d like to do a quiz show round of Q&A, now that you’ve officially completed your first superhero comic offshoot. Favorite superhero of all time?
Northrop: Superman. Such an icon. I saw the Richard Donner movie when I was a little kid, and I just latched onto that idea of what a hero is. A guy that powerful who does the right thing not because he has to but because he chooses to. A guy who is only vulnerable because he cares about those weaker than him—but who keeps caring anyway.
NP: Favorite villain…excluding the Insectoids?
Northrop: I have always loved Gorilla Grodd. He is obviously big and strong, but his actual superpowers are mental. The threat of violence is always there, but his approach is often very cerebral. He’s a real renaissance ape—though obviously more Machiavelli than da Vinci!
Powell: Favorite superpower?
Northrop: Telekinesis—literal willpower! Plus, I could use it to make myself fly. (I’m just another object to move in that scenario.) So it comes with a free bonus power.
Powell: Favorite comic book of all time?
Northrop: Brutal question! When I was growing up it was probably The Legion of Superheroes. Lightning Lad, Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Ultra Boy, Mon-El… I was enthralled by the sheer variety and possibility of it all. Plus, you know, it was in the future—in space! In terms of a single issue it’s The Uncanny X-Men #173. Wolverine and Rogue in Japan with kind of a Mulder and Scully thing going on. The epic throw-down with Silver Samurai. The perfect ending. Claremont signed my copy at NY Comic Con last year. #humblebrag
NP: Favorite fiction novel?
Northrop: Watership Down. Sure, it’s a book about talking rabbits. (I clearly have a weakness for anthropomorphism.) But it’s also full of big ideas and very inspiring. And I think Bigwig counts as a superhero. There’s a little Superman in that rabbit.
Dear Justice League hits stores everywhere books are sold on Tuesday, August 6. Check out a preview below.
Dear Justice League debuts August 6 from DC Zoom.