Back in the day, when I was a little punk growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I absolutely loved comic books. From Flash to Superman, Robin to the Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman to Green Arrow, I could have happily wasted away my days absorbed in the heroic feats of fictional heroes in (oddly, in hindsight) X-rated Studio 54 Spandex leotards.
As I aged, however, some of the magic vanished. Instead of being wowed by Batman, I began to wonder, “Why would any of the genuine superheroes have any use for a guy in a bat suit?” Instead of rooting for the Hulk to kick ass, I delved into the science of his condition—and realized it was thoroughly impossible. In short, I grew up. Damn.
Some of us, however, are fortunate enough to stay young. To dream. To imagine. To believe. Among our blessed few is Jake Black—cancer survivor, Mormon, Gleek fan … and one of America’s top comic book writers. Jake’s resume is as thick as it is impressive, what with his work on Smallville, Batman, Supergirl, TMNT, Ben 10 … on and on and on.
Here, he discusses all things comics, as well as what it’s like to face death and what it’s like to be the world’s No. 1 Supergirl fan (Writer’s note: Is there a No. 2?). He’s a wonderful man; a credit to his profession and a guy who’d (inexplicably) take Pat Benatar over Miles Davis.
Justice League of Quaz—enter Jake Black …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So you’ve had an awfully impressive writing career–comics, television, all points in between. How did this happen? I mean, literally, what led you down this path? Was there a moment when you said, “This is what I want to do?”
JAKE BLACK: As a kid, I loved writing stories. They were always based on my favorite TV show, or a book I’d read, etc. I remember I was home sick from school one day when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and wrote a sequel to Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I had been in an elementary school version of that play, and loved the characters. It’s pretty embarrassing now, thinking about it, that as a 9-year-old I wanted to rewrite Shakespeare. At least no one found that original story. Look at how well “Hamlet 2” was received!
Around that same time, I wrote a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” story that I thought was awesome. I was so confident that I sent it to editors at DC Comics, who were publishing “Star Trek” comics at the time. I wasn’t intending it to be a formal submission for publication or anything, but asked for feedback from the editors. Knowing what I know now, that was pretty ambitious for a kid my age. Again, knowing what I know now, I’m shocked that the editor, Bob Greenberger, actually read the story and wrote me back with feedback. It was on DC Comics letterhead, basically said “This story needs to be more than just dialog and characterization needs to be better. If you truly want to write, write every day.” I took that advice and from then on made an increased effort to write every day. I mostly wrote stories, still based on my favorite TV shows, because I wanted to read. I rarely cared if anyone else did. This was in the pre-internet era, before “fan fiction” was really a thing.
As I grew older, and realized that publishers actually paid people for stories, I thought, “That’s way better than asking ‘Do you want fries with that?’”
J.P.: You were a writers intern on Smallville in the production office—an experience you’ve credited for starting your TV path. I have no idea what being a writers intern entails—but I’m imagining lots of cups of coffee being delivered to people. What was the experience like? Working on Smallville, being that young and all.
J.B.: There was a fair amount of making copies (said in my best Rob Schneider voice—you know you thought it), getting coffee, etc. but my experience at “Smallville” was actually pretty unique. The first day I arrived at the show (I started part-way through the first season), the executive producers invited all the writers’ assistants into their office (me included) and said they were open to receiving some pitches for the rest of the first season. There were about seven episodes left to be written at that point, and invited ideas from the staff.
I went home to the room I was renting from a friend and typed up a dozen or so story ideas. I don’t know if they were any good, but I showed up to work the next day and submitted them. None of them were ever used, but showing up with a bunch of ideas got me noticed and the staff started giving me some great assignments. The show had some promotional tie-in websites. We’d probably call them viral marketing now, but in 2001 such marketing wasn’t as common. I wrote content for the sites, and continued to do so after my internship ended—through the show’s fourth season.
The writing staff also brought me in to story meetings, where they would break stories for episodes. They included me during the actual writing process, too. I observed a lot, and learned a lot through some of these more hands-on processes.
Plus, I got to live in So Cal, which I loved and would do now if it weren’t so expensive! My internship was a phenomenal experience.
J.P.: You’re a self-anointed fan of Supergirl. This leaves me stunned, because—not being an especially big comic guy, but having suffered through the film—I didn’t know there were any fans of Supergirl. Please explain …
J.B.: What? You didn’t like the Supergirl movie? It’s classic! (laughs). The comic book version of the character is very different than the movie interpretation, and that’s closer to the version I like. Superman is the most powerful hero in the universe, and he is uncompromising in his ethics and morals. I love the idea of Supergirl, which is “What if you take all of Superman’s powers, and put them into a volatile, inexperienced, even immature in some ways, person?” Supergirl has incredible power but lacks the discipline Superman has. Makes for a very interesting character story in my eyes.
Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in the aforementioned movie, and I co-wrote a story for the Supergirl comics in 2010. Helen really wanted to analyze Supergirl’s character in a Joseph Campbell-ian light, as a hero of myth. Supergirl is very much on the “Hero’s Journey” of mythology.
All of this, again, makes up a fascinating character to me. When they added her to “Smallville” in season seven, I couldn’t have been more excited. I wrote a history of Supergirl as a documentary special feature for the DVD set. That feature was released on Superman/Batman/Supergirl animated movie DVD last year. I’m really proud of that one, in large part because I love the character.
J.P.: The first comic you ever did was a Smallville one. What was it like, seeing your work actually become a comic for the first time? Do you remember holding it in your hands for the initial feel? Did you call someone? Scream? Cry?
J.B.: It was definitely a memory! I have that first copy that DC Comics sent me framed in my office. I read it over and over again. I bought and signed copies for all of my friends for Christmas that year. I sent copies to every publisher I could find. I think at some point, every single printed copy of that issue has crossed my path. I really bought tons of them and gave them away as writing samples, gifts, or whatever. As I’ve done a lot more since, I laugh at that. It was only a 10-page story in the back of a single issue, which I co-wrote with one of the staff writers at the TV show! But it was a start, a launching pad. I was proud of it. I still am. (It was so cool, that I photocopied my paycheck for it, and still have that framed—though it doesn’t hang on a wall, but is boxed up in storage. But c’mon! It had Superman on it!)
J.P.: In 2008 you were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphomia. I want to get into the battle itself, but I was curious: How did you find out you had cancer? Were there symptoms? Suspicions? And what was it like, when you learned, factually: I have cancer?
J.B.: 2008 actually began as one of the best years of my life. My son was born in January, we bought a house in June, I had the most freelance writing work I’d had to the point and since, and my wife graduated from college in August. With my wife’s graduation, we were taken off the university-sponsored health insurance plan. Wanting to take care of my family, I applied for a private health plan. We were young, healthy, and didn’t necessarily “need” it. But, in case something happened. I chose a plan with a super high deductible, and low monthly premium, again, in case something happened. We were approved for the plan on September 1. On September 11, I found a lump just above my left collarbone. It was a little smaller than a ping pong ball.
My wife and I visited a couple of doctors, and they were a little concerned, but not overly so. We were scared it would be cancer, but my blood work showed up okay. Not perfect, but not with certain signs of cancer. The first doctor we went to gave us a creepy vibe. He’s actually in jail now for patient voyeurism. This creepy vibe made us seek a second opinion. The second opinion doc thought it could possibly be cancer, but wanted us to see a surgeon for a consult. The surgeon said he was 99 percent sure it wasn’t cancer, and didn’t need to remove it or biopsy it. The second opinion doctor said to ignore it, and it should get better. If it got bigger, then come back and see him.
I didn’t notice it get bigger, but it didn’t go away. The following March, I felt two more smaller lumps, about pea-sized, in my chest. One afternoon a couple weeks later, we took our then one-year-old into see a family doctor because he had a gravely cough. While we were there, I asked the doctor to check out the first big lump and the two in my chest. After looking at my lumps he said “Your son’s fine. It’ll run its course. But we need to get you into a chest X-ray immediately. Also an MRI. This isn’t good.”
So, I had the chest X-ray at about 4:00 in the afternoon. My wife and I were sure it was cancer, and were in a state of shock. We sat in the doctor’s waiting room, and eventually went home. By 5:30, I was on the phone with my oncologist-to-be. He looked at the chest x-ray and said he was 100% convinced that it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—cancer of the lymphatic system.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind of biopsies, surgery, education, and beginning chemotherapy. The shock of it all hadn’t quite set in, yet.
We recently saw Seth Rogen’s “50/50.” The main character’s reaction in the doctor’s office to his cancer diagnosis was intimately familiar. Actually, a lot of that movie reflected how I felt during my cancer experience. His, “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I recycle,” response was perfect. There was so much shock, so much disbelief, and a lot of wondering “How did this happen?” We didn’t, however, spend much time wondering “Why did this happen?” Once we got over the initial shock and disbelief, my wife and I decided to roll up our sleeves and go to work. We had to beat this thing!
J.P.: You battled the disease for two years. There’s a very jarring photograph of you, presumably mid-treatment, no hair, gaunt, etc. What was the fight like for you? What do people who’ve never had cancer misunderstand about the struggle? Also, you held a pretty public fundraiser to help pay your medical bills. How much did you need to gross? And was it difficult asking for help in what is, in many ways, a private, personal battle?
J.B.: It may be cliché, but the truth is, it was the toughest thing I ever experienced. Fighting the disease it’s own thing. From a clinical perspective, you determine the right combination of chemotherapy drugs, pump them into the patient, and the cancer is fought; sometimes defeated, sometimes not. But cancer is so much more than that. It’s an assault on everything about you. It was difficult, if not devastating, physically (as you saw in that photo), but also psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and economically.
Physically, the chemotherapy attacks your whole body, not just the cancer cells. It would be nice if it could just go after the cancer, but it can’t. It has to kill all fast-growing cells. That’s why you lose hair, weight, coloring, and can even affect fertility, breathing, and more. But it is, at this point in medical history, the most effective way to beat the disease. It also can cause memory loss, depression, and even PTSD for years afterwards. I’m still dealing with a lot of those issues, which is extremely frustrating. But, part of treatment is handling those other issues, and that has gone really well.
What I think a lot of people don’t immediately understand about cancer is that it isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Treatment is brutal, to be sure, and of course it isn’t always successful. But the word “cancer” is so loaded, and symbolic of death that it is scary to people. Part of why I made (and continue to make) my struggles with cancer and its after-effects so public is an effort to raise awareness of the realities of cancer—both pro and con. I also knew I needed a strong and broad-based support structure if I was going to beat cancer.
I believe in people. I think at our core, society is good. Moral. We disagree on how to accomplish goodness, and perhaps its definition, but I truly believe in humanity and that people want to do good in the world. We’re so often stifled in our desires to do good because we don’t know where we can help someone. But by asking for help, we can receive it. And we allow others to act on their best intentions.
I still, in my Gmail inbox, have notes from family, friends, and professional colleagues (even several strangers) who learned about my cancer fight and wanted to offer notes of encouragement, love, and support. Even now, almost two years removed from completing treatment, I read them and feel bolstered.
Since finishing treatment, as we have tackled the emotional and psychological consequences, the burden of debt has hung over us. I mentioned that we had insurance, which I view as a blessing from heaven since I got it ten days before discovering the lump. But the deductible was really, really high. And it started over on January 1 each year—2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. And, of course, not everything was covered by the insurance company. Total treatment for my cancer has already totaled well over a quarter million dollars. We have only had to pay for about $40,000 of that. But it’s still $40,000. In a recession. As a freelancer. Initially, we paid as much as we could with our credit card. In hindsight, that was a stupid move. Healthcare companies, I’ve learned, are a LOT more willing to work with you on payment plans, installments, minimum payments, etc. than American Express. In addition to the medical expenses, we had to pay for everyday things like food and home.
Earlier this year, as it became more and more obvious that cancer was further and further behind us, I started selling stuff on eBay in an effort to try to pay down my debts. We were invited by http://giveforward.com to use their service as a fundraiser. I was desperate. The payments we were making weren’t much more than the minimum. Seeing, truthfully, no other options, I set up a fundraiser. We hoped to reach a goal of $25,000 through that site. Thanks to that genuine goodness of family, friends, colleagues, and strangers, we were able to offer prizes (like signed comic books and Disney princess dresses) to people who donated. Many, many people spread the word about the fundraiser through social media. Ultimately, we got just over $14,000 from the fundraiser, which was a HUGE blessing to our family. Bankruptcy was taken off the table, and a light at the end of the tunnel was still visible. We’re still looking for ways to pay off the last $11,000 or so that we owe both American Express and a couple healthcare companies for follow up MRIs, daily expenses, and stuff.
It was difficult for me to admit that I needed the help that I did—particularly the financial help. I had been determined to win that money fight, and had done all I could, but it wasn’t enough, and wouldn’t be without help. The emotional, psychological, and spiritual help, that wasn’t as hard to ask for. I knew I needed it from the get go, and am forever grateful for it.
J.P.: You are a Mormon. I recently saw the Book of Mormon and laughed my ass off. Am curious about a few things: A. Did you see it, and what was your take (and, if you didn’t see it, are you bothered it exists?); B. In that context—Jesus coming to America; the move to Utah; etc—it all seems sort of silly (admittedly, as would all religions through that prism). What are people missing about the Mormon faith?
J.B.: I am indeed a Mormon. In my career prior to becoming a writer, I was a stage manager for professional theatres including the summer theatre in the mountains at Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort. So, as a proud Mormon with a bit of a live theatre background, my interest was piqued when The Book of Mormon was announced. I have a fondness for Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s affection for the Mormon people (if not necessarily the doctrines) on “South Park.” I’ve not seen the musical yet, as I’ve not been able to make it to NYC since finishing treatment (a fact that I find heartbreaking…see about financial issues). But, I watched with great interest the performance of “I Believe” on the Tony Awards.
It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that it exists. Much has been made of there being a “Mormon Moment” these days. With Mormons being featured in many, many fields, including the obvious presidential candidates, the senate majority leader, Olympic athletes, the lead singer of the Killers, as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being discussed seemingly daily on the news networks, and lampooned on Broadway in the Book of Mormon musical, this “Moment” seems almost like a Mormon zeitgeist. It’s all representative of Mormonism and the LDS Church moving closer to full, mainstream recognition. Mainstream acceptance may be a ways off, still, but the exposure the faith is getting positive. Like Barnum (maybe, but probably didn’t, but maybe) said, “All publicity is good publicity.”
I think this “Mormon Moment” is serving to cause exactly what you did here in this interview: asking questions such as “What is this all about?” “What are people missing about Mormonism?”
Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in the episode of “South Park” titled “All About the Mormons” took opportunity to mock some of the stories and beliefs in Mormondom. But by the end of the episode, they summed up their belief that Mormons are, themselves, good, happy, loving people. The Mormon character, after acknowledging some of the uniqueness of the belief system, says, “I have a great life, and a great family. I have the Book of Mormon to thank for all that … what the Church teaches now is loving your family, being nice, and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it.”
I love that statement, because it encapsulates the positive results of my belief system. We Latter-day Saints believe with great fervor and commitment that this niceness, helping people, and happiness all comes from a foundational belief that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820, instructing him to restore the organized church Christ Himself had organized. Joseph would later be called to translate the Book of Mormon, which details Christ visit to the Americas as you mentioned.
To us, these ideas and beliefs represent the personal involvement God has in our lives individually and collectively as a species. Because of this, we try to live lives in accordance with God’s will—the being nice, helping people, and loving our families.
Are the beliefs silly? I certainly understand how they can be viewed as such. “I Believe” makes every effort to point out the silliness, and the worldly naivety that Mormon missionaries are perhaps known for. But, what it comes down to is how does that belief system affect the individual? If it means that I have a great family, and a wonderfully fulfilling life, can that be something that can reasonably be argued with?
Like the character in “South Park” I believe that I owe all I have to God. I have a firm, even unshakable, belief in and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This commitment brought me through my cancer. It continues to bless my life and fill me with happiness even through the hardest challenges I encounter.
There is a Mormon hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” which was sung by those pioneers who moved to Utah. Throughout the song, lyrics contain a bold declaration: “All is well, all is well,” because we know that we can rely on God and His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s a source of strength both in our present day-to-day circumstances and in the life to come.
We live in a pretty miserable world. Finding hope, strength, and inner peace, can be tough. But I have found it by accepting and celebrating what my faith offers.
Perhaps that’s what people are missing about Mormonism.
J.P.: Not all that long ago you wrote an episode of Batman: Brave and the Bold. I don’t fully understand Batman. I mean, I obviously enjoy the films and all. But why would any of the other superheroes have any remote use for him? Zero real powers and all. Plus, like an athlete, wouldn’t his prime only last for, oh, five years—max?
J.B.: He’s a genius. Seriously. He’s one of the smartest super-heroes ever. And he’s tough. Plus the car. Chicks dig the car. Plus Batman’s kinda the Navy SEAL of the super-hero world. He goes on the more covert, top secret, Osama-killing missions that Superman and Green Lantern can’t really do. Superman can’t really get his hands dirty. Batman? His are rarely ever totally clean.
Plus, no one ages in comics, so his five years are pretty much … infinite?
J.P.: So here’s something that fascinates me, and I’m excited to ask you about it. Whenever a new superhero film comes out—Green Lantern, Thor, Spiderman, etc—everyone gets excited. The merchandising kicks in—cups, happy meals, T-shirts, etc. The buzz is everywhere. And I can’t help but think, “People, this isn’t even real! There is no Green Lantern! He’s a wuss actor in a green suit!” Why do we, as a people, place such emphasis on the fictional?
J.B.: I think, in principle, it’s the same answer as your question about religion. The world sucks today. We as a society are desperate to find hope in something. In a symbol. We need something to instigate belief in power beyond our own. President Obama tapped into this in his 2008 campaign, and rode that need for hope and change into the White House. Americans from across socio-economic classes, political, racial, and cultural backgrounds voted for him because we sought something—someone—to believe in.
Super-heroes are another example of this type of symbol. “Smallville” premiered on October 16, 2001—five weeks to the day after September 11. Superman was and is the iconic American symbol of hope. I have long thought that the show was successful only because it came on the heels of an attack on American symbolism. He was a symbol rising from the ashes.
In the midst of such a sucky world, we need figures of hope and inspiration, but we also need escapism. We need to experience the heroic in a realm where the day-to-day problems aren’t distracting us from the message of hope and promise. Thus the fictional becomes inspiring. A wuss actor can fly through the universe and save the world! Maybe a wuss like me can conquer my personal villains in real life.
J.P.: I miss the monkey from Wonder Twins. Any chance we can bring him back big time?
J.B.: Ha! Actually, at San Diego Comic Con a couple years ago, the hottest toy was a Wonder Twins action figure set, including exclusive Space Monkey Gleek! Also a couple years ago on “Smallville,” the Wonder Twins made an appearance in all their pixie glory. The monkey wasn’t with them, but on the backs of their cell phones was a bedazzled image of the blue monkey. (Though, I think “Avatar” did blue monkeys better!)
The wheels are in motion, my friend! Your evil plan coming to fruition! The resurgence of Gleek! Mwwwhahahahahaha!
• If Krypton is a gazillion miles away from earth, and exploded forever ago, why does it seem there’s an endless supply of Kryptonite around?: Ummmm….plot device?
• Shazam and Mr. T, boxing ring, 12 rounds. Who wins, and how?: Mr T, easy. He’s got the A-Team! I mean, c’mon! Not even a fair fight. The power of seven gods, Shazam? Really? He’s got Hannibal, Murdock, and Face in his corner!
• Would you rather write the Celine Dion: Voice of the Gods series of comic books or move to Afghanistan for a year?: Could I get 4G service in Afghanistan?
• Have you ever thought you were about to die on an airplane. If yes, please tell …: Airplane, no. In a hospital bed during a very “ER”-like scene when I was undergoing cancer treatment? Yes. Chemo had damaged my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. Called the nurse. A flurry of doctors and nurses running around to get me breathing better. It worked.
• Your half-sister, Marie Te Hapuku, is an opera singer. How do you explain the unique family career choices?: We come from very ambitious blood. In my family you don’t wait for life to happen, you make it happen. And, we’re a passionate family.
• Rank in preferred listening order: Eminem, Pat Benatar, Miles Davis, Kid n’ Play, Tanya Tucker, Phish: 1. Pat Benatar 2. Eminem 3. Phish 4. Kid n’ Play 5. Miles Davis 6. Tanya Tucker
• Is it just me, or in 2011 doesn’t Wonder Woman deserve an outfit that wouldn’t land her the Hustler cover?: DC Comics seems to agree with you. They recently redesigned her look. Maybe People Magazine, now?
• Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Adam West, Christian Bale. Please rank your Batman preferences: 1. Adam West 2. Christian Bale 3. Michael Keaton 4. Val Kilmer 5. George Clooney; Honorable Mention: Diedrich Bader, who voiced Batman in the episode of the Batman animated show I wrote.