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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Sholly Fisch - 2010

When I first talked to DC Super Friends writer Sholly Fisch about doing an interview with The Aquaman Shrine, I didn't know that the series was heading for cancellation (as the last question will show).

I originally thought pairing it up with yesterday's interview with Stewart McKenny would just make for a nice one-two punch, but now in my mind its become a tribute to the great work done on the series. Here's Sholly:

Aquaman Shrine: What comics did you read growing up?

Sholly Fisch: Funny you should ask. When Editor Supreme Rachel Gluckstern first e-mailed to ask if I wanted to submit story ideas for Super Friends, I leaped for the phone and said, "Did I ever mention that, when I was five years old, the first comic book I ever bought was a copy of Justice League of America?"

I was a kid back in the '60s, so at that point, I was watching things like the Adam West Batman show and Filmation Superman/Aquaman cartoons on TV, and my favorite comics were JLA, Batman, Teen Titans, Spider-Man, and Marvel's parody comic book, Not Brand Echh. (In fact, the original art to a page from a Brand Echh Aquaman/Sub-Mariner parody hangs in my office today.) That's why, as an adult, I've been very grateful to have had the opportunity to write most of those titles myself...or, in some cases, more-or-less equivalents like Super Friends and What The--?! It all makes my inner five-year-old very happy.

AMS: How did you end up writing DC Super Friends?

SF: Well, I have these compromising photos of certain DC editors...

Actually, I'd been writing for a bunch of the DC kids' titles for several years: Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, the various Cartoon Network titles, as well as an issue of Justice League Unlimited. Plus, in my day job, I have a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, and I consult to various companies that create educational TV shows, Web sites, etc. for kids. Before I started my consulting business, I spent many, many years working for Sesame Workshop, a.k.a. Children's Television Workshop, where they make Sesame Street and other things.) So, when Super Friends came along, Rachel needed someone who understood young kids and could write super-heroes with a touch of humor...and I fit the bill.

AMS: I asked this same question of Stewart--are you a particular fan of any of the Super Friends? Are any of them more fun to write than others?

SF: Mmm...my personal favorite is probably Batman, but truthfully, I love them all. Come on, these are the big guys!

Somehow, though, I suspect you might possibly be interested in Aquaman. So let's take a minute to talk about our resident Sea King.
As you know, Aquaman hasn't always been treated with the respect he deserves. So, when I started on Super Friends, I was determined that he wouldn't just be a sixth wheel. That's why so many of the heroes' adventures seem to take place near water--even if it's a giant seltzer bottle or the whale tank at a zoo. And it's why, in the very first issue, Aquaman is the one who takes out Amazo. I figured that if beating a guy with the powers of the whole JLA doesn’t make the point, I don't know what would.

AMS: Many issues of DC Super Friends feature some sort of theme or educational/moral story line. Educational comics used to be prolific, but they're a lot rarer nowadays. What are your thoughts regarding using comics as educational tools?

SF: Given the rest of what I do for a living, it's no surprise that I'm a big believer in such things. Over the past couple of decades, lots of research studies (both my own and others') have shown over and over that kids learn from educational TV shows, computer games, and so on. Why wouldn't the same be true for comics?
When I was a kid, we had a running gag in my family: Whenever I knew something that my parents didn't realize I knew, I had probably learned it from a comic book. Whether it was things like random science or history facts (thank you, Gardner Fox), or spelling and vocabulary (thank you, Hank McCoy), I learned an awful lot from comics. And now, I'm happy to pass that along.

That's not to say, of course, that all comics have to be educational. There's nothing wrong with just plain fun. But one of the editorial mandates when we first started Super Friends was that every issue should carry some sort of prosocial message, and I've tried to live up to that.

AMS: DC Super Friends has an unusual set-up, in that it has three rotating regular artists. Do you ever tailor your stories to fit the specific strengths of the individual artist who will be doing an issue?

SF: Oh, sure. Or I just write a story, and Rachel assigns it to whichever artist is the best fit. That is, unless J. Bone reads a particular script and lobbies really hard to draw it. (J really, really likes Bizarros.)
Apart from the occasional guest artists, like Scott Shaw! and Mike Kazaleh on the super pets issue, our main artists are Dario Brizuela, Stewart McKenny (with Dan Davis), and J. Bone. They’re all great--and all very nice guys, to boot--but their styles lend themselves to somewhat different kinds of stories.

Dario's art is the closest to the look of the Super Friends style, and he does most of the straight-ahead adventure stories. Stewart's the wackiest--I love all the gags and things he manages to cram into the backgrounds--so he does most of the issues that are just completely over the top. J does all the covers, plus the special birthday issues that commemorate the 70th anniversaries of Superman, Batman, or the recent combined Flash/Green Lantern issue (since the original Flash and GL both debuted in 1940). Me, I just sit back, look at the artwork, and grin.

AMS: You regularly feature characters from the DC Universe, some of them very obscure, in your DCSF stories. Do you have certain process for how you work them in? Is there a list of favorite characters you want to get to?

SF: Basically, I just keep sneaking them in until someone slaps me and tells me to stop. I have a very deep affection for goofy old characters, and I've been blessed with an editor who, when I say something like "I want to put Bat-Mite in the next issue," generally replies, "Why don't you stick Mr. Mxyzptlk in there too?" Rachel very rarely says no.
AMS: One of things I've noticed regarding your take on Aquaman is that he always takes a moment to look out for his finny friends, or animals in general, when they are in danger--even when some supervillain or giant monster is attacking. I love this little detail and I've always thought its one of the character's best traits. Is this always on your mind when writing Aquaman?

SF: Ah, you've been paying attention! Yes, it's very intentional.

During our initial conversations about Super Friends, Rachel and I talked about ways in which we could make the heroes' personalities distinct. Some of them came straight from previous incarnations of the group, like the (Wally West) Flash being the joker of the team, or Wonder Woman being the most empathic and sympathetic. Other aspects were extensions of their individual personalities. For example, while Batman is the most knowledgeable and the best detective, we made Wonder Woman (with the wisdom of Athena) the most creative thinker--the one most likely to think outside the box to find a solution.

For Aquaman, we took his established role as the protector of the seas, and built from there to make him the one who's most concerned with ecology and saving the planet. That's why Aquaman is the one who explains global warming in the Starro issue, or thinks about impact of modern-day dinosaurs on the ecosystem...or puts fish back in a fish tank after they leap out to distract the bad guys.

AMS: We see a lot of famous DC villains in the series, but not too many guest heroes, like Robin, Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, etc. Is this because of limited space (you've already got six main characters, after all) or any other particular reason?

SF: Actually, there are some heroes I'd love to use. In particular, ever since Day One, I've been dying to do a Super Friends-Justice Society team-up. But the mandate from on high has been that, since Super Friends is many kids' first exposure to these characters, we should keep the focus on the six main heroes. I understand the logic of not wanting to dilute the focus by constantly introducing the guest hero of the month. But I'd still love to use the Justice Society...
With that said, though, I was also given free reign to use pretty much any DC super-villain I want. As you’ve seen, I've taken full advantage of that. (Mind-Grabber Kid, anyone?)

AMS: Do you have much, if any, interaction with Mattel?

SF: None whatsoever. When we were gearing up for Super Friends, Rachel and I met with Dan DiDio and Jann Jones to discuss the series. One of the pleasant surprises in the meeting was that, even though I assumed they'd at least want me to do some product placement of vehicles and stuff from the toy line, Dan specifically told me not to.

People often assume Super Friends is a "toy book" because the basic character designs are based on the toys. But that's never really been the point of the series. The real intent behind Super Friends is to get kids hooked on reading--especially reading comics--and to do what super heroes do best: inspire kids to do the right thing, just because it’s the right thing to do. That's why every issue features things like the Super Friend of the Month, a real-life kid who writes a letter to tell us something nice that he or she has done for someone.

AMS: Can you give us some hints as to what's coming up in future issues of DC Super Friends?

SF: Wish I could, but the sad truth is that the July issue is our last. There are still plans to publish a couple more trade paperbacks (beyond the two that are already available), which will collect the second half of the series. But there won't be any more monthly issues after #29.

At least we're going out with a bang, though. The final issue features the return of Bat-Mite, Mxyzptlk, Quisp, and the other imps at the Super Friends equivalent of a comic book convention. It's jam packed with sight gags, cameos, and at least one scene that should make Aquaman fans very happy.

Naturally, those of us who work on the book are all very sorry to see it come to an end. But, realistically, we had a good, healthy 2 ½-year run, which is much longer than I originally expected. We had a lot of fun, and got the opportunity to create something that's genuinely good for kids. None of which is anything to sneeze at.

I've often said that we won't really be able to assess Super Friends' success until about 20 years from now, when we see how many pros and fans say it was the first comic book they ever bought. Personally, I'm looking forward to finding out the answer.

As we already talked about over the weekend, I'm very, very, very disappointed that DC Super Friends is canceled. Obviously there's not much to say about it--the book must not have had sufficient sales to keep it going--but it makes me very sad that a "gateway" book like this will not be around anymore. I think simply having a book, any book, which features the pillars of the DCU made for little kids is a great thing for kids, the comics industry, as well as the long term viability of these great characters.

But to have that book be so good, so fun, so well-executed, it makes the cancellation of DC Super Friends seems just a little more bitter. I looked forward to reading it every month, and then subsequently giving it to the various little kids I buy comics for. And, as I've said numerous times before, while the "regular" Aquaman was nowhere to be seen in the regular DCU, DC Super Friends offered up Classic Aquaman month after month.

I think Sholly Fisch did a tremendous job on the series, and it was great of him to talk to the Shrine (special thanks to Stewart McKenny for putting us together). I am very sure that, as Sholly wonders about in his final answer, in the future there will be lots of kids who claim DC Super Friends as their first, wonderful introduction to the world of comics.

Thanks Sholly!


Tegan said...

Looking at the previews just released, it appears that everything DC Kids puts out that's related to the DCU line is canceled.

I'm really upset Super Friends was canceled. I loved the book.

Joe Slab said...

This is another great interview robster!!!

And I agree with Tegan and am very puzzled by this move...seems counterproductive to DC's goal of growing new fans.

rob! said...

Joe--I'm not puzzled by the move, per se--if DCSF was selling like gangbusters, DC wouldn't have canceled it.

But, as I have mentioned on the Shrine many times before, I'm frustrated by the marketing strategy--OF COURSE the DC Kids books don't sell well in comics stores, kids rarely go to those stores.

So, as hard as it may be, if you publish wee kids' comics, you have to find a way to get them into places where those kids are, not stamp your feet that they won't come to you.

Its akin to trying to sell Lady Gaga CDs at a death metal concert, and then concluding no one likes Lady Gaga, if you may follow my tortured metaphor.

Books like DCSF, Batman: Brave and the Bold, etc., need to be on sale at places like Target, Walmart, etc., where kids would see them. As long as DC keeps only marketing them to comics stores, they will continue to be moderate-to-low selling books, convincing DC that those books don't sell. Its a vicious cycle.

IADW said...

Great interviews Rob! I think there should always be a place for a 'Justice League' all ages book, as as Super Friends showed, these are the big guns, and the next generation need their adventures too.

It's like here, Dark Horse and Marvel comics are easier to find than DC in this country. But the number one seller that literally is everywhere - bookstores, petrol stations, supermarkets, and department stores - Bongo's Simpsons.

Sure Simpsons are a success story for the ages, but do they have more appeal to kids than Batman? Using my own childhood as an example, I think if there was a Flintstones comic vs the Super Friends, the choice would've been pretty darn easy.