A few months ago, an Austin writer named Chris Roberson received a phone call for which, in some ways, he had been waiting his entire life.
An editor from DC Comics asked him to write the comic book "Superman," the one that has been published continuously (monthly, these days) since June 1939, about a year after the game-changing character's first appearance in Action Comics No. 1.
The current story line by big-name writer J. Michael Straczynski, "Grounded," in which our hero is, uh, walking across the United States, was proving unpopular.
This gig is huge for Roberson, a lifelong fan of the Man of Steel.
Sitting in the backyard of the North Austin home he shares with his wife, Allison Baker, and 6-year-old daughter, Georgia, the 40-year-old Roberson dispenses his worldview with the clarity of his hero's iconic red, yellow and blue outfit.
"I believe in Superman the way some people believe in Jesus," Roberson says. "I believe that he is real and that he matters. The fact that he's fictional doesn't really enter into it."
Roberson's house is geek-culture paradise, shelf after shelf jammed with comics, graphic novels and pulpy genre paperbacks. Framed, original comic book art lines the walls. This is part of how one comes to write Superman.
"His handle on Superman and deep love for the character made him, in my eyes, the ideal choice to come aboard `Grounded."'Superman" editor Matt Idelson says. "Superman's an incredibly challenging character for most writers, and the need to write Superman in a continuing story which is largely non-action oriented made Chris the only real option."
Roberson has been preparing for this moment for most his life.
"Superman was my first love, followed by (30th-century teen heroes) the Legion of Superheroes and Green Lantern," says Roberson, who grew up a sci-fi/fantasy and DC Comics kid in the 1970s in Duncanville, southwest of Dallas. "I knew words in Kryptonese."
As part of orientation for the Plan 2 honors program at the University of Texas, he met a guy who would become a lifelong friend and fellow Austin genre writer, Matt Sturges, who had given up D&D and "Doctor Who" fandom for a music-based reinvention in college. Roberson pulled him into comics.
"It's in Chris' blood," Sturges says. "I once asked him to explain the DC Universe to me. He went from prehistory to the 30th century and took 2 1/2 hours."
For seven years, Roberson had a day job at Dell Inc., which allowed him and his wife to spend upward of $100 a week at the comic store. "I bought everything, just to see what was out there," Roberson said, which is a good way to figure out what works in a story, and a great way to find out what doesn't.
Roberson quit Dell in 2003 to write and work on MonkeyBrain, his small press that publishes science-fiction and fantasy books from an international array of authors.
Plenty of kudos go to wife Alison Baker, whose day job is director of production for Joe Slade White & Co., a political media firm.
She didn't have much exposure to comics before she met Roberson, but it's easy to catch up when your home is a comics library. Baker runs the business side of MonkeyBrain and sees their marriage as a true partnership.
"I have done everything in my power to ensure that Chris was able to achieve his goals, because they are really our goals together," she says.
Roberson's first novel, a time-travel/alternate history romp called "Here, There & Everywhere" (Pyr) appeared in 2005; sequels followed. Generating ideas was never a problem. He cranked out novel after story after novel, a franchise novel here ("Shark Boy and Lava Girl Adventures: Book 1"), a clever space opera there ("The Dragon's Nine Sons").
But he wasn't making enough money and was looking at going back to a day job in 2008. Salvation came in the form of Bill Willingham, a veteran comics writer who used to live in Austin and was known for his groundbreaking 1980s series "Elementals."
Roberson had met Willingham 10 years earlier through writer Mark Finn, and the three plus Sturges started a writers group/self-publishing collective that met once a week for four years.
Now back in comics with the smash hit Vertigo/DC series "Fables," Willingham asked Roberson to write a fill-in issue of the spinoff "Jack of Fables," which was written by Willingham and Sturges. The issue ("Jack of Fables" No. 37) worked, and Roberson was asked to write more for DC.
His "Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love" (Vertigo/DC, 2009) was well-regarded, and "iZombie," Roberson's first ongoing series, launched in May. He's also writing several comics for Boom Studios , including one starring Bastrop-based fantasy writer Michael Moorcock's epic anti-hero Elric. Roberson was officially a known quantity.
DC Comics bought the character Superman from creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for $130 in 1938. Superman has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for DC and its parent company Warner Bros. Entertainment, and its copyright has been debated on and off ever since.
Dozens of writers have had their hand in the character over the years, in "Superman" or "Action Comics" or other DC titles, as well as cartoons and various TV shows and movies.
There are a lot of ways to write Superman, and everyone has a favorite.
In the 1930s and `40s, he was the ultimate immigrant made good, a two-fisted New Dealer battling crooks and Nazis and Mr. Mxyzptlk in equal measure.
In the `50s and `60s, his adventures became cosmic and faintly insane, with bottled cities and superbreath and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen getting superpowers right and left.
In the `70s, he became something of a self-questioning demigod.
In 1986, he got a reboot and suddenly looked like a linebacker.
In the `90s he died, got a mullet and became blue lightning (don't ask). Some writers think he's their dad; some think he's a space messiah.
"What's fascinating to me is the way in which what we see as the core qualities of Superman are not the work of any one person or any one team," Roberson said.
(Most superhero comics, especially those published by DC and Marvel Publishing, are assembly-line affairs. Writers work up stories with editors, write a script and send it to an artist, who draws it. Inkers, letterers and colorists add their part. Roberson sometimes won't see the finished product before it is in stores.)
For example, the notion of "Truth, Justice and the American Way" comes from the radio show. Siegel and Shuster might have created the guy, but so much has been added and taken away and added back that the decisions about what works and what doesn't work almost approach collective unconsciousness.
It is an odd time for the Man of Steel.
Starting with "Superman No. 701" last year, television and comics writer J. Michael Straczynski, best known for the TV show "Babylon 5," took over the title and sent our hero on a walking tour of the United States, a journey of self-discovery. Fan reaction was poor, mostly because it was Superman a) walking around and b) being a little grumpy.
This fall, DC announced that Straczynski was leaving the "Superman" monthly to concentrate on original graphic novels for DC and that Roberson would take it over, using Straczynski's notes to finish out the story line starting with No. 707, which should hit stores Jan. 12.
Even if he is unlikely to stay on the title past the end of "Grounded" in August, Roberson was, naturally, ecstatic at the offer. He got to write the character Superman in an issue of "Superman/Batman" No. 79, but the ongoing series, the one that had been around since the Depression, was very different.
"I don't think I ever thought Superman was boring," says Roberson, who says he makes about $2,000 an issue (which works out to $100 a page), what he calls a standard rate for professionals of his level. "There are enough insane ideas in a 12-page Superman story from the 1960s to sustain a current comic for a year."
Roberson's idea of Superman gravitates more toward, as legendary comics writer Alan Moore put it, "a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good."
"The standard knock on Superman is that he is so powerful, what can you give him to do that is interesting?" Roberson said. "Well, that's the writer's job, give him something to do. If he's having to stop muggers, it's going to get old fast. If he's having to travel outside of space and time and sing a certain note to restart the universe, that is really cool to me."