Mark Russell and Stephen Byrne open up about their successful run with Zan and Jayna…
When I picked up DC’s Wonder Twins for the first time earlier this year, I was unprepared for two things:
1. That it’d be laugh-out-loud, side-splittingly funny.
2. That’s it’d have a darkly subversive political heart that belies the series’ sunny trappings.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The writer is Mark Russell, who has a way of taking obvious characters and doing not-so-obvious things with them. Like Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss. And Jesus.
In Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna are the same purple-clad extraterrestrial junior superheroes you remember from Super Friends. Only Zan is more innocent and Jayna is more jaded.
Together, they navigate the world of high school while battling their own nefarious nemeses – and confronting some dark truths about life on 21st century Earth.
Wonder Twins started out as a 6-issue mini and was expanded to 12. Issue #9 is out Wednesday, Nov. 6, so it seemed like a good time to check in with Russell and his artistic collaborator Stephen Byrne, whom I talked to at New York Comic Con:
Dan Greenfield: Wonder Twins is easily the funniest mainstream comic I’ve read this year. But you’ve managed to strike this balance with some actual pathos. What was the inspiration on how you wanted to approach this book, specifically given the history of the characters?
Mark Russell: (Writer) George Saunders says something which I kind of use as my guiding light when I’m writing humor. He said, “Humor is just the truth quicker than you expected it.” That’s really what I try to do, I try to be as blunt as possible. I try to write about the things in the world I want to write about, but in just such a blunt and over the top way that they’re impossible to — I think that automatically makes it funny, even if what you’re writing about is sort of dark.
Dan: You’ve introduced some pretty adult and complex themes, have you gotten any kind of push back?
Mark: Not really, at least not from anybody who knows what they’re talking about. I just feel like teens know when they’re being talked down to, they know when they’re being talked over, so the worst thing you can do is patronize them — “Oh, you’re not ready for this,” or “Here’s something for you kids,” like some creepy adult thinking he knows what the kids these days really want.
I just talk about the things I want to talk about. I talk about the things that I feel are relevant. I feel like the thing that makes them relevant to teens is the fact that they’re populated in the lives of these two people who are going through high school, who have, like the people who are reading it, just shown up on this planet, and are now expected to save it.
Stephen Byrne: I think that the stories are really serious, or the themes are serious, and the unsolvable tragedies of modern times and inequality are all tackled throughout the book. But I think that the humor comes through in the moment to moment interactions and events within those bigger, sadder, stories. Like you say, I’ve laughed out loud reading the scripts. Every few pages there’s some sort of visual joke. So, I think the humor comes through these weird quirky unique characters dealing with really intense, serious problems.
Dan: I never expected to read about the industrialization of the penal system in a Wonder Twins comic – but it was brilliant. (In one issue, the Twins have an eye-opening experience visiting a prison.) In cultivating these stories, when you were laying all of this out, what were some of the inspirations to introduce some of these particular issues that you wanted to address?
Mark: In addressing the example you brought up, the story of the prison industrial complex, I used to work for a university. I had this experience where they sent me to this prison where they had a furniture workshop, to see if it would be a good idea to buy all of our furniture from this prison workshop.
I was taking a tour of this facility and they made great furniture and the people seemed to enjoy making the furniture, but the guy was sort of selling me on this “and the best thing is, of all the people we give this training to, 90 percent of them don’t recommit crimes, they don’t come back to prison!”
And my first thought was: “So, what you’re telling me is like, 90% of these guys shouldn’t have been in prison to begin with! All they needed was to know how to make furniture!” And this is how society has failed them. We put them in prison for like 10 years, and then taught them how to make furniture while they were here. So a lot of it is just the absurdities I’ve come across in my adult life, recast as the reality that now these teens are having to confront as newcomers to our planet.
Stephen: And, as I was saying, that’s an incredibly serious topic as told through the story of an alcoholic vampire, which is how you get the serious with the funny.
Dan: The League of Annoyance, where did that come about?
Mark: Initially, when the Wonder Twins was announced, we were like, “Well, what are the Wonder Twins gonna do against Doomsday? What are they gonna do against Lex Luthor?” I thought well yeah, it’s kind of unfair: These people have just come to our planet, one of them’s only power is that he can change into water. … It would be like if you had a 12-year-old baseball player and said, “Well, OK, now try to strike out Derek Jeter.” No, you wouldn’t do that! You would start him off with lower competition. You would train them up. So naturally you set him up against sort of a B-team of supervillains.
Supervillains is even too nice a term. I think that there’s so many comics written about characters in their prime, like people at the top of their powers, whereas most of us spend our lives either as potential, like coming in to our abilities, or in decline where we are no longer the people we used to be, no longer as good at anything as we used to be. There needs to be more stories about people on the way up and on the way down.
I felt like this was an interesting opportunity to tell a story about the Wonder Twins who are realizing their potential, and kind of on the way up and learning. And people who are on the way down, the League of Annoyance, people who are kind of past their prime and never gonna make it. They’re like, 40-year-old minor league baseball players who are never gonna make the big time, that are still hacking away at it. There’s a sort of inherent tragedy in that. But it’s a tragedy that confronts us all, because we’re all mostly potential and in decline.
Stephen: I was thinking, over the course of the book, the Wonder Twins have become more cool and more proficient with their powers and there’s a moment coming up in Issue #10 where Zan does like, the coolest thing ever with his water powers. So, it’s interesting to see the evolution from “Form of a bucket of water!” to the sorts of things that are coming up.
Dan: Were you both Super Friends kids?
Mark: I was — I grew up on them. I grew up in the ’70s, so my Saturday morning viewing regimen was Super Friends. It was my favorite cartoon.
Stephen: I was definitely aware of them, but I wasn’t a religious viewer and I was younger, but they’re really iconic. To me, the Wonder Twins are almost as recognizable as like, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. At least to people of a certain age, they almost exist in the same category. So, I was like, yes, the opportunity to work on something that everybody knows about, but nobody has had the chance to tackle in such a long time, was a really exciting prospect.
— THE WORLD’S GREATEST SUPER FRIENDS PODCAST: Episode 1. Click here.
— DC to Publish Classic SUPER FRIENDS Comics Hardcover Collection. Click here.