Interview: Hugh Sterbakov on ‘Freshmen’ and the ‘Summer Vacation Special’
When Freshmen was first solicited by its publisher Top Cow, the series was promoted as "The adventures of college freshmen with extraordinary powers."
And while many writers might respond by rolling their eyes, smirking and claiming that their characters were a bit more serious and tackled deeper social issues, Freshmen creators Seth Green and Hugh Sterbakov embrace that tagline for their popular series. When the series kicked off, their heroes were naive college freshmen making the same mistakes any other freshmen might, but on a much larger, action-packed scale.
Majoring in outrageous situations with a minor in young adult drama, the original Freshmen: Introduction to Superpowers miniseries passed its first semester with honors. The second volume, Freshmen II: Fundamental of Fear, is currently wrapping up — soon to be followed by a Freshmen: Summer Vacation Special in July.
While actor, writer and producer Seth Green gets a lot of the spotlight because of his involvement with movies, the Family Guy TV series and co-creating Robot Chicken, co-writer Hugh Sterbakov is very much the heart and soul of the series.
COMICMIX: For new readers who haven’t studied the Freshmen curriculum, what do they need to know for the test? Let’s hear the CliffsNotes version of the series…
HUGH STERBAKOV: It’s a whole dramatic and comedic saga with a crapload of characters and relationships, but if we’re cramming, I’d say that a bunch of college freshmen have been given superpowers by the explosion of a special machine, and the powers are based on whatever they were thinking at that moment.
So one guy can burp at anyone and make them drunk, one girl can make everyone fall in love with her, another guy is totally sticky, that dude can talk to plants, this girl can jump into people’s minds… and they’re (sort of) led by a comic book geek who didn’t get any powers and a talking beaver obsessed with building dams.
CMix: Speaking of Norrin, after the story "Norrin’s Last Captain’s Log," he changed his codename to the Scarlet Knight. Are you a Rutgers college football fan?
HS: No, actually, that came as a suggestion from one of the fans on our messageboards. We run contests all the time, and one of them was to name Norrin, the comic geek guy, since he was only referred to as "Wannabe" in the first series. I’m ashamed to say I don’t even get the Rutgers reference. I went to Ithaca College and UCLA, and, sadly, I can tell you more about the geography of World of Warcraft than I could about real-world universities.
CMix: Besides the superpowers, are the ideas and situations based off ones you had in college? Some of the situations sound like ones regular kids have. People finding out that their goals change, missed opportunities, surprising couples, parents taking kids out of a college, etc.
HS: Yes, 100 percent. College was a gigantic transformation for me, and there’s no time in your life quite like those four years of living in a dormitory. It’s an incredibly fertile setting for storytelling, because everyone’s experiences are unique, incredibly personal and extremely memorable. Take a dozen or so kids, thrust them into that first enormous life change and then toss super powers into the mix, and, quite frankly, you can’t keep up with all of the story possibilities.
CMix: What parts made you laugh out loud as you were writing them?
HS: Oh, man, I smile every time the Beaver opens his mouth. I often have to use a thesaurus to get his point across, because I’m a simple boy from Philadelphia trying to write a world-class mind, but luckily I always know he’s thinking about building dams. And the foul-mouthed plants who complain to Charles, the Green Thumb, are always a blast. It’s fun to write the plants’ personalities like their shapes or origins. We had a bonsai plant that spoke Japanese, and a spunky shrub that was mad at a tree for blocking her light. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me in trouble with our letterer. Too many jokes on a page.
CMix: With volume one showing the first semester and volume two the second, did you cover everthing you wanted to in their freshmen year?
HS: No, you can never get everything out of a story, or you’re probably not working hard enough — especially when you’ve got this many characters. Everybody wants to be heard, everyone is a cool enough character deserving to be heard, and I’m trying to service all of them and a plot. That having been said, I’m really proud of Freshmen I and II, and I’m glad to have them represent me. I think they’re good reads. They could each use a dozen ore so more pages scattered throughout, but them’s the breaks.
CMix: Like real college students, it’s time for summer vacation. What’s the story about in the Freshmen: Summer Vacation Special?
HS: Susie, Charles’ psychotic plant, returns for revenge. And obviously, she’s not in quite the same state she was when last we saw her. Don’t forget, miss thang also got hit by the Ax-Cell-Erator’s explosion, which gave the kids their powers.
CMix: Top Cow teased that we would learn the secret of the universe in this comic. Is this one of those times a college kid has a mind-blowing experience they get when high?
HS: You have to buy it to see, good sir. I don’t work for free here.
CMix: Well, what is free is all the bonus content you guys put in the books, right? What’s been your favorite?
HS: I really like how the first trade paperback’s back-up story turned out. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s always trying to cram too much into everything. That hurt the second back-up story. But the first one, a clean two-hander between the Beaver and Norrin, two of our funniest voices, really came pure and clear. I want to do more of that. There’s a back-up story in the Summer Special too, but it’s very brief.
CMix: While we’re looking back, Freshmen has had some gorgeous and funny covers. Which were your favorites?
HS: I love, love, love the cover Rodolfo Migliari did for Freshmen I #5, of the Puppeteer. Mila Kunis [the popular actress who was the model for the character] has it on her wall, and I admire it every time I see it. I also love his cover for the Summer Vacation Special. Either Rodolfo really likes our kids or he’s just that talented, but he always captures their emotions and makes them look their age, and I love him for it. Randy Green also did a phenomenal cover for Freshmen II #3 that really hit the romantic angle of that whole series. They made a shirt out of it. I want to order one for myself.
CMix: What are you going to do when they come back next year? They won’t be "Freshmen" anymore. They’ll be sophomores.
HS: I’m gonna make them sophomores! I say let them age in real time, let them react to what’s gone on and what’s ahead, and let’s all enjoy it and watch it happen. I have a vague idea of what will happen next and, actually, a stronger idea about how their senior year will end, but the beauty of these characters is that they often write themselves. My only real task is to come up with plot. I’m as excited about it as anyone. Let’s face it, I’m probably more excited than anyone.
CMix: Okay, tease time: What can we expect for the Volume Three?
HS: Norrin has gotten himself into a world of trouble. Liam [the Quaker with the power to cause Earthquakes] is going to get more story, and Renee [the Puller of the Drama Twins] is going to surprise you. Plus, Paula [the Seductress, the big girl who can make anyone fall in love with her] is going to continue to evolve as her self-esteem asserts itself. I can’t wait.
CMix: You’ll be making the convention circuit this year at the Top Cow booth. Readers can come out and meet you. What’s the feedback been like?
HS: Mind-blowing. They pick me up off the metaphorical ground every time. I’m one of those chronic self-loathing writers. Which really just means I’m a writer.
Hugh Sterbakov and Seth Green’s Freshmen: Summer Vacation Special is scheduled for a July 2 release from Top Cow.