DC rising star Aaron Kuder makes writing debut with ‘Superman: Parasite’

(CBR) About 16 months ago, I spoke with then up-and-coming artist Aaron Kuder, as he was getting his first break in the superhero mainstream with some covers and fill-in issues. Now he’s the guy next in line to draw Superman regularly as the new regular artist on “Action Comics,” starting in November.

With his distinctive take on the Frank-Quitely-meets-Chris-Burnham style, Kuder seems poised to become an artist who can make the Superman of the New 52 look interesting for the first time…ever, maybe. And with his soon-to-be released “Parasite” one-shot, as part of the publisher’s Villains Month event, he’s also working behind the keyboard as a writer entrenched in the Superman universe.

I was able to snag an early look at “Superman #23.4: Parasite,” thanks to Kuder’s efforts to nudge the DC publicity department in my direction, and though I’m sworn to secrecy on any of its reveals or specific plot elements, I can say that it’s a very good single issue that redesigns the look and motivation of the classic Superman villain into a mold that’s at once familiar and disturbingly — different. If either of us had more time, I would have liked to have talked to Kuder with a little more in-depth conversation following up from last time, about how he’s navigating the superhero mainstream and carving out his career, and maybe the two of will revisit that topic someday, but at least we had a chance to bounce a few emails back and forth so I could get his thoughts about working on Superman comics and writing his own stories. And of course, we talked about the Parasite. Because that’s the comic coming out this week. I recommend paying attention to it. And paying attention to Kuder in general.

On with the interview!

Tim Callahan: Okay, you’re writing this Parasite one-shot. How did that come about and how much writing experience did you have prior to this project?

Aaron Kuder: Simply put, it came about because I asked. I had just wrapped up “Superman” #20, and my editor Eddie [Berganza] and I were talking about when I could start working on “Action.” He mentioned the Villains Month books and said that he wanted me to do the art for the Parasite one-shot. Then we talked about folks who could potentially write it. Some names were bounced around, and I meekly said, “What if I did it?” Eddie said we could give it a shot. He gave me some notes on general plot points that he wanted to hit on in the story and then almost before I realized it, the plot was approved and I was off and running. 

As for experience, I’ve always worked closely with whatever writer I’ve been paired up with and I think that played a big part in DC letting me do this. No one person makes a book. Eddie and Anthony [Marques] (editor and assistant editor) played a big role in brainstorming for this issue and Tomeu Morey did an astounding job on colors. Oh, and Rob Leigh’s letter played an important part too! There are parts where the letters are as interactive as the characters!

How do you approach writing? Is it a separate thing from the art, for you? Or do you write as you thumbnail so writing and the art develop together?

Well, I don’t think that the writing and the art should ever be separate. Even when the writer and artist don’t share the same body. Comics are this weird thing where there’s a conglomeration of brains being poured into a story. Artists shouldn’t consider themselves separate from the writing, nor should writers consider themselves separate from the art.

But that’s another conversation. After we had approval for the general plot, I went straight to laying out pages. I’m not sure if I would do that with an ongoing story, but the compact nature of a one-shot/introduction to a character, meant weaving a number of threads together, and not overwhelm the reader, all the while bringing Parasite into the fold with the rest of the DCU. Doing layouts before the dialog helped me take my time with it…play out ideas as they came. Stephen King has talked about letting the story tell itself, and I tried to adopt that idea. Let the characters develop themselves as the story unfolds.  All the while bringing the new Parasite into the DCU.

In a relatively short period of time, you’ve jumped from lesser-known properties to third tier corporate characters to, now, Superman, with this one-shot and your upcoming run on “Action Comics.” Is there a difference in the way you approach a character like Superman and the mythology, and history that comes along with it? How do you approach the world’s foremost costumed superhero?

I have a crazy story, right?!? There are many days where I’m just working and waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under me. Put hazmat signs on my studio and tell me, sorry buddy — we thought you were someone else. I’m humbled everyday by it.

Anyway, I approach drawing the superhero of superheroes, mostly, the same way I would approach drawing anything. Focus on the character, the story, and try to give people something that makes them go, “Oh, cool!” And then try to push it to its limits. With Superman in particular, it’s a little more difficult. Everyone has seen Superman fly or punch or save a cat, so it’s my job to try and make them “see it” for the first time again. Everyone thinks they already know this character, so I need to make them want to know him all over again. 

When you think “Superman,” what pops into your head? What are your Superman-specific influences and do those influences impact your work, or have you developed enough of your own style to keep those influences in the rearview mirror?

Ha! First thing? T-shirts. I’ve had one (not the same one) hanging around in my closet since I was a tween. It’s a symbol of the best that we, human bipeds, can be, right? As far as comic art that pops into my head: Neal Adams, George Perez and Jerry Orway are the top three that stand out when I think “Supes.” In that order, too. But no, their work isn’t influencing the way I draw. Well, no more than it already has in a much more general sense. I’m trying to make my own mark on this character. 

How about the Parasite? Is he a character that resonates with you in some way? Or did you find an angle worth exploring as you developed the story?

The thing that I fell in love with about this character is that he reflects the parasite in all of us. So sure, he’s this gross monster, but he’s also incredibly human. Most of us “use” something in society. Whether that thing is your morning coffee or the amount of time you spend on your phone. Or maybe that’s just me. The point being, we all have something. Parasite is the symbol of that need/want in all of us. I haven’t been keeping up with the New 52 Superman continuity. Has the Parasite appeared elsewhere yet, or is this the first New 52 Parasite? ?I believe that this is his first appearance. I wrote it without any knowledge of him having appeared anywhere before anyway.

Was the new character name and origin something specifically handed off to you from DC editorial, or did you have some freedom for coming up with that stuff yourself?

I was given extremely loose guidelines. For example, terms like “make him a real jerk” where thrown around — nothing terribly specific. The basic concept for his origin, that stuff I had worked out when pitching plot ideas. Without giving anything away, it was important to me that origin character, and the identity of who he becomes, were linked in a fundamental way. His disposition toward life must carry through into the purple-people-sucker he becomes. 

It seems like this Parasite is pretty closer in visual and conceptual identity to the pink monster we saw in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “All-Star Superman.” Is that the major influence on your redesign? What else was bouncing around as inspiration for who this new Parasite is and what drives him to consume?

I really liked the appearance of Parasite in “All-Star Superman.” Parasite growing and chasing Clark and Lex, all-the-while Clark trying to keep his identity a secret (spoiler alert for those of you years behind on your reading) — great scene. Great run. I can see how parallels could be made from that one to this one, but honestly, any direct lines of comparison would be, at best, unintentional if not completely subconscious. I thought about actual parasites in nature. What do they do? What would they say if they could walk and talk? Would they run for political office or just become a lobbyist? That sort of stuff. In the end, I kept coming back to this idea that hunger is a crazy powerful thing. Could you kill to eat, if you had to? If you were hungry enough. It’s completely weird to think that in two or three days or weeks or whatever, you could be a completely different person. All because you would become hungry enough to change. That’s Parasite’s world. 

Now that you’ve taken a shot at revamping a DC icon (and, yes, I consider Parasite iconic with his striking purple skin and energy-leeching power), what other DC heroes or villains would you like a shot at someday? Are there any characters that you’ve always felt a special connection to and…why?

I think I’ve revamped all of the DCU in my head about a hundred times over. I mean, that’s what we do as fans of this medium. We read the stories and think wouldn’t it be cool if… Though, I’d really love to play around with a team book down the road. Something like Teen Titans, or the Outsiders, or Justice Society. I really love the idea of putting the reader behind the eyes of random characters and then seeing how they interact with each other.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.