Text by Pierre de Villiers
When Superman: Man of Steel screens in cinemas this month, a pair of Danes will likely be paying particular attention. One is Teddy Kristiansen, who initially drew the superhero for Danish graphic novel Superman og Fredsbomben (Superman and the Peace Bomb), the first-ever Superman adventure to be created outside North America. Released in 1990, the comic was born because DC Comics wanted to do something special to celebrate their favourite son’s birthday.
“It was Superman’s 50th anniversary in 1988, and for the first time DC allowed overseas publishers to do their own interpretation of the character,” recalls Kristiansen. “A Swedish publisher [Interpresse] asked me if I was interested. I panicked because I was this amateur artist in Copenhagen working with this famous character.”
The book’s writer, Niels Søndergaard, was also concerned about his lack of experience, but he had an idea for a plot. “I came up with an activist called Theodore who travels to Scandinavia and Holland to promote a new invention called the Peace Monger, which turns radioactive material into lead,” he says. “Lois Lane and Clark Kent are covering the tour and it turns out Theodore is actually a robot controlled by Lex Luthor.”
While Kristiansen was given a free rein as long as he drew the S on Superman’s chest precisely – “Now I can draw it in my sleep” – Søndergaard clashed with DC over Clark Kent’s choice of changing room. “DC was annoyed I used toilets instead of phone booths,” he recalls. “I thought it would be a logical choice because phone booths are open. At the end they allowed me to use toilets, but they did complain.”
Another sticking point was the destruction caused by Superman during his Scandinavian sojourn. “A lot of things get smashed during his fights, including Frogner Park in Oslo and the Sibelius Monument in Helsinki,” says Søndergaard. “DC said, ‘Superman has to rebuild this. Why does he smash everything?’ I told » them it is because kids think it’s funny, but in the end you have Lois Lane saying, ‘Superman is not here because he is rebuilding everything that was smashed.’”
Superman og Fredsbomben turned out to be a refreshingly different take on the superhero that’s now a valuable collector’s item. It also helped to change the way DC and rivals Marvel looked at the content of their comic books. “I feel proud to be part of the Superman story,” Kristiansen says. “He is a mythological figure; Americans don’t have gods so they had to create Superman. He is so iconic and can be interpreted in so many different ways. It is fantastic that we were able to show people a Danish version of a great superhero.”
The collaboration certainly boosted the pair’s careers. Søndergaard went on to win the Ping Award for sci-fi series Dimensionsdetektiven, to and translate the likes of Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes into Danish. Kristiansen, meanwhile, has blossomed into one of the greatest illustrators in the business, illustrating Batman and Sandman comics for DC. He even had a chance to revisit Superman in 2005, on the groundbreaking It’s a Bird, with writer Steven T Seagle. A hugely personal work, the book tackles Seagle’s family history while analysing the Superman myth.
“Returning to Superman was so fanstastic,” say Kristiansen. “Steve was visiting me in Copenhagen; it was time for bed, he went to the toilet and when he came out he said, ‘Teddy, I have this idea!’ There are all these myths about Superman and Steve felt these had to be interpreted totally straight.” Kristiansen won a prestigious Eisner Award for his work on the book: “It is always nice to get some sort of recognition and be told, you are on the right track.”
Kristiansen’s latest, Genius, is one of the most anticipated graphic novels of 2013. Again written with Seagle, the book imagines that Albert Einstein has left behind a devsastating secret – inspired once more by Seagle’s family. “Steve’s wife has a similar story about her grandfather who knew a very big secret.”
Kristiansen and Seagle have been working together for 20 years and continue to surprise each other. “When Steve writes, he has an idea of what I will draw. My plan is to do what he doesn’t expect.” It’s a collaboration Superman paved the way for 25 years ago. “Superman og Fredsbomben was so different to anything else, it opened doors and put the spotlight on what writers and artists were doing outside the States.”
Niels Søndergaard and Teddy Kristiansen will attend the Copenhagen Comics festival on 1 & 2 June