How Wonder Twins Became the Funniest DC Superhero Book

Mark Russell and Stephen Byrne have made the Wonder Twins the most unlikely superhero reboot success story of our time.

Wonder Twins from DC Comics

For all of the high profile storm clouds gathering on the horizon of the DC Universe between Year of the Villain, some decidedly Crisis-y vibes in Justice League, and the fact that the Batman Who Laughs gets his jollies by turning the heroes of the DC Universe into evil versions of themselves, you might think that it’s all bad vibes in the DCU. Ah, but you would be wrong. Each month, Wonder Twins (yes, those Wonder Twins) delivers a blast of hilarity and social commentary, all set right under the noses of the Justice League at the Hall of Justice. Imagine a DC superhero comic as steeped in deep superhero and animation knowledge as a show like Venture Bros., packed with the same irreverent and manic energy, and with a similarly sympathetic eye towards the failings of its heroes and villains. That’s Wonder Twins.

And really, it shouldn’t work. The titular Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, were alien sidekicks from the planet Exxor who hung around on episodes of the Super Friends in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Both are shape shifters, although their respective power sets are somewhat limited in this regard. Jan can take on the “form of” anything related to water, while Jan takes on the “shape of” various animals. Of course they can only activate these powers when they’re together, and really, there’s only so many times a giant purple eagle can carry a bucket of water with a face on it to put out a fire or whatever, so their powers aren’t exactly their most compelling aspect. Nor are there purple uniforms, snazzy as they are, or weirdly uncool-cool-for-like-5-minutes-in-the-late-90s-then-uncool-again haircuts really the thing that makes Wonder Twins such a great book.

No, that would be the jokes. So many of them. All of the jokes allowed by the Comics Code were that still a thing (which it thankfully is not). Jokes from the minds, pens, and brushes of Mark Russell (of the similarly hilarious and shockingly poignant The Flintstones and The Snagglepuss Chronicles) and Stephen Byrne (lots of cool things but especially a bunch of gorgeously animated genre-fan friendly viral videos that you have almost certainly seen…and if you haven’t you should fix that right now). Jokes that are packed into the backgrounds of panels and arrive at such a pace you sometimes have moved on to another page before they’ve all fully landed. Hell, even jokes at the expense of Superman and that notorious buzzkill Batman

But threaded through the humor is a genuine understanding of the human condition, a sympathetic eye given to all who deserve it (even the book’s villains), and a genuine understanding of and even respect for how the DC Universe should work, even when we’re all laughing with (or at) the sheer ridiculousness of it all. It’s that balance that probably helped Wonder Twins, originally planned as a six part mini-series get expanded to 12. And with the first volume out now collecting those initial six issues, there’s no better time to get to know Zan and Jayna…or the creators behind them. So…activate! 

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Den of Geek: The thing that really strikes me about this book is how animated it feels even on the page. What’s your process is like working together? Are you acting these scripts out? Are you hearing the script in your head when you start doing it? 

Mark Russell: Well it starts with the process of trying to think of what I would tell myself if I had the ability to go back in time and talk to myself as a 16 or 17-year-old kid and think about what that means in the modern context. If I can tell them one thing today, what would it be? I try to tell it in as visual way as possible. I know that Stephen’s going to take the ball and run with that in ways I can’t even foresee. Our process is mainly me just telling him what I have to say and just waiting for him to come up with visual ways to make that happen.

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Stephen Byrne: I guess from an art perspective, I have a background in animation and the main place where people know the characters from originally was the Super Friends cartoon. So I’m sort of trying to bring a little touch of that vibe into it with the bright colors and the simple line work, but then to inject it with more darkness and deepness and emotion. You can be more creative with the types of compositions and shots you’re doing that they wouldn’t have had the budget for in the old Wonder Twins cartoon. I want it to feel artistically familiar to how people know the characters, but also make it a much more emotional and meaningful.

Mark: I feel like Wonder Twins is ultimately sort of a dystopian book, but I feel like a dystopian America will be colorful. 

Stephen: Doesn’t dystopia imply futuristic? Isn’t it just present day dystopia?

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Mark: Right. It’s a dystopia that will take place in the next 18 months. I feel like dystopias you see in literature are all gray and dark like George Orwell’s 1984. They all kind of look like East Germany in 1976. I feel like in dystopian America, we might not even recognize the dystopia because it will look like a Taco Bell. It’ll be like, purple and orange and stuff. That’s why Steven is so good because he represents these dystopian topics, but in a way that’s very sort of colorful and almost attractive.

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Stephen: I like that because I think of the book as dealing with some of the unresolvable tragedies of our time. That’s overall in the themes, but then moment to moment on every single page, there’s something that’ll make you laugh or some funny joke. I try and keep it light and brief in the moment to moment because the story carries that extra satirical social commentary.

Mark: I think the central theme of the story is that the world is terrible, but we find things worth saving in it, that our lives are still good despite the fact the world is terrible.

Stephen: Sometimes.

Mark: We find ways to make life worth living and I think that’s what the Wonder Twins do. They make the life they have worth living, even though they’re exiled on a planet they know nothing about, living in a sort of screwed up culture that they had no role in creating, but they find a way to make it work for them.

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There’s so many background gags in there … are these all written by Mark or is Stephen sneaking stuff in the background too?

Mark: I think it’s both..

Stephen: But I’d say it’s mostly you and you started doing it and then once in a while I will take the lead and put it in something because I know that’s kind of the tone of what you’re going for.

Mark: That’s kind of how I get to know an artist. I say, “Here’s some background gags I want you to sneak in at some point.” Then I think that they get me after that point. They get the sensibility and they feel more comfortable including their own thing. I think the worst thing you can do is just have every scene in what looks like a CSI set. There needs to be things that give you your character and your perspective in the background that set it apart from other sorts of things. I’m very adamant about writing in background gags or details that will give it this air of not being like the set of a primetime TV show.

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Stephen: That’s funny because I used to do satirical newspaper cartoons and I would do the main joke or whatever in the strip, but if possible, I would always sneak a little something in the background for people. I think people like that if they notice something that they know not everyone noticed. You get a little extra satisfaction out of it.

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Mark: It makes the world feel more fully populated. Oh, this isn’t just somebody making it up as they go along. They’ve created this whole world for me to live in.

Any of those jokes not make it into the final book?

Stephen: I probably didn’t know about it. By the time it got to me, they were already gone.

Mark: There’s some that were just a little too dark to make it into the Wonder Twins comic. It’s like ‘we don’t really need these jokes in a comic about a guy who turns into water’ was one of the comments I got from one of the editors.

Anything that you’re allowed to talk about or not?

Mark: I’ll leave it there.

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Okay, that’s fair. Stephen, have there ever been any that you had to get on Skype and say, “Mark, I’m not doing this. I’m not drawing this.”

Stephen: No, I don’t think so. I think by the time…

Mark: The editors get to do that. Then by the time Steven sees it, it’s a little sanitized.

Stephen: When it gets to me, it’s all very above board.

What kind of voices do you envision for these characters because obviously we all remember the Super Friends voices, but possibly my favorite panel in this whole series is still from the date story when Zan is like, “I’ll have the scared tuna,” with this look on his face. The only voice I can ever hear when I read that panel is Hank Venture’s. How do you guys envision their voices?

Mark: Well I kind of approached the Wonder Twins like they’re one really well adjusted person tragically split in half. Jayna’s the one with the deeper intelligence and the wittiness and Zan’s the guy who’s optimistic and ready for any adventure, but he’s kind of dopey and clueless about the world at the same time. That’s the way I tried to have that. He’s ultimately just optimistic and ready to venture opinions about things he knows nothing about. Jayna’s more shy and sort of a quiet genius, but not ready to talk about the things that she knows very well.

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Stephen: I hadn’t specifically thought about their voices, but I think their characters come through in the words really strongly. When I’m drawing Zan, he’s always over-excited and making a fool of himself and being sort of zany and weird, living in the moment. He’s like a puppy. Whatever’s going on, he’s just excited about. Then I think of Jayna as much more introspective, contemplative, thoughtful…

Mark: She sees the deeper tragedy in everything around her.

Stephen: Yeah, very self serious. Zan is usually bouncing off the walls and smiling and she’s usually sitting, thinking about everything that’s terrible all the time. I have thought about it in the way that I do their body language and stuff like that, but not specifically their voices.

Mark: Jayna’s probably more of the person I am and Zan’s probably more of the person I wish I was.

Stephen: Yeah, I’m a Jayna for sure.

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How much of this book is an actual critique of superheroes and how much of this is you trying to relate to superheroes in terms of this world?

Mark: Well, I think a lot of it is my critique of society in general, which is that our institutions no longer serve us. The institutions were created to serve us, but then at some point it changes. And so we then begin serving the institutions, and we forget why they exist except for that we know that we must serve them. And I feel at some point the superheroes themselves become an institution, and they forget why they’re superheroes. They forget why they’re doing this. They just know that this is what they’ve always done. And so I try to question that. I try to force them into these circumstances where they have to wonder why am I doing this or is this the best way to serve society, five superheroes converging on a purse snatcher? Is this really what society needs more than anything? I couldn’t be doing anything else more valuable with my powers than this? I try to ask these questions in my scripts.

Stephen: I think of it as a commentary on superheroes but also a celebration at the same time. Like the best self-referential work, it can poke fun at the thing it’s about also being a great version of what it’s about.

What about body language? The body language that you give Superman is not the body language you often associate with the character.

Stephen: We’re seeing him in a different context than we usually would. And so he’s dealing with interns which isn’t his usual thing. And so you’re just getting to see a slightly different side of him.

Mark: He’s more of a father figure in this one because he’s got these two foundlings that he brought over from Exxor to Earth. He’s their father figure now. It’s his super power not being so much his speed or his strength, but his wisdom, and it’s a side of Superman you don’t see a lot, but just him understanding what it is as an outsider the human race needs. And then explaining that to Zan and Jayna I think sort of defined Superman for this series in a different way than he is sometimes presented in other series.

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You’re often writing characters who are the smartest people in the room. You have a Filo Math and Polly Math and you just did that great Riddler special as well. That’s not the easiest thing to do, especially in the superhero world. So how do you put yourself in that head space and then how do you distinguish them from the characters that are less visible?

Mark: I just think smart people are more interesting. I also think that we are all sort of the geniuses of ourselves. We all understand our own perspective better than anybody else. So what I try to do is just give the character room to explore right or wrong. This is why I feel the way I do and make a stand for why they are the way they are. And I feel like that’s what allows people to connect with these characters to make them feel relevant. It’s like we all have that moment where the world does not understand us, but if we only had this moment where we could talk to somebody through the pages of a comic book and explain ourselves, then we would be the heroes of our own story.

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Stephen: My answer is much less sophisticated. I draw the intelligent people wearing suits and ties and glasses. There’s some body language and expression stuff too, but that’s definitely part of it is just sort of the way they present themselves. They’re smart people.

Since that was way too straightforward and serious an answer, let’s go back to the funny stuff. And what do you feel is the most ridiculous thing you’ve gotten to draw in the book so far? Whether it was the funniest or whether it was a thing that you were just like, how the hell am I going to make this work in this comic?

Stephen: First thing that came to mind, although there’s so many, right? It’s like there’s something every issue that’s insane. But the first thing that comes to mind was a giant gorilla punching an alcoholic vampire through the air, which I was just like, this is so weird and funny and comedic in tone and yet in like three pages time, you’re going to get an emotional punch in the gut for the conclusion of that story, which was so tragic. So I love drawing the funny stuff and I love drawing the emotional stuff and I love that you can kind of oscillate between them in such a short space of time. I think a lot of that is down to Mr. Russell.

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Mark: And I think one of the things I try to bring out in the scripts is that these are two dimensional, funny comic book characters where there’s always a third dimension lurking somewhere in the background. There is a backstory or a tragic shadow to this person that makes what they’re doing makes sense and Stephen does a very good job of bringing that out in the artwork.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.