Cian Tormey: ‘When I was younger, it seemed like all comics were for me’

Dublin graphic artist on Superman and where to draw line with hero evolution

Cian Tormey enjoys his work. “It’s the best job in the world,” he tells me, “I’ve never been so happy”. He’s speaking to me over Skype from his home studio in Dalkey, festooned with comics and arty bits, and he does indeed look extremely content. His smiling face beams at me from his drawing desk, framed by an impressively professional-looking microphone suspended from the wall.

“It was one of those things at the beginning of the pandemic,” he comments, when I compliment it, “where everyone thought they’d be recording podcasts all the time.” Any such career in podcasting stalled, however, since Tormey was too busy having, like he said, the best job in the world.

For Tormey, that means drawing comics. For years, it was a part-time passion, until two years ago when he quit his job as a marketing art director to draw full time. “I was working on a lot of government jobs,” he tells me. He must have got quite good at drawing those little departmental harps, I suggest?

“No”, he replies with a laugh, “I didn’t get to draw the harp very often, but I did get to draw blood in the boardroom. Although, it definitely made me forgiving of any breakdowns in communication within the comics industry, because I definitely know what it’s like to be a project manager on creative stuff, so if I don’t get an email back here or there it’s fine.”

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Perhaps this email etiquette has stood him in good stead, as he’s since become one of the more in-demand artists in modern superhero books, tracing a meteoric rise through titles such as Nightwing and Injustice: Year Zero, to the summit we’re here to discuss today, the news that he is to take over the reins of Superman, becoming the first Irishman to draw an ongoing Superman book in the 84 years of the character’s existence. It’s a milestone not lost on the Dubliner, although he claims it wasn’t quite love at first sight between him and the Man of Steel.

‘Genuine pathos’

“Growing up I was obsessed with Marvel,” he tells me, “and Batman, obviously, because all kids love Batman. The thing that frustrated me about Superman was you need conflict in a character and he’s, y’know, flawless. In the cartoons, it’s frustrating to watch him get into fist fights because you think, ‘this is pointless, he’s just going to win every time!’ But once you strip that away from the character, he has genuine pathos.

“When I worked on Injustice: Year Zero, the first page I got was a Superman scene. Green Lantern’s been beaten to a pulp and he’s in a coma, so it’s a conversation between Superman and Green Lantern’s husband in the hospital, where they talk about what it’s like for humans to deal with these superheroes. Superman stands up and says ‘my name is Clark’, and the husband says he doesn’t have to tell him that, and Superman replies ‘I think Alan would want us to know each other’, and hugs him.

“That is the power of Superman,” Tormey tells me, with the zeal of a convert. “He’s super when he’s being a man.”

This will be the third collaboration between Tormey and Tom Taylor, a writer with whom he’s forged a fruitful partnership. “One of the things I love about Tom’s work is he seems to synthesise broad cultural memes of the moment, distilling them into something almost stupidly clear. In Injustice, Batman and Superman look down on the planet and have this conversation about how Superman can see it from above, but Batman can only see it from the ground. Two utterly different understandings of the potential of humans. Neither is better or worse, but Tom distils a complex and fundamentally American problem, and gets it just right.”

The longevity of the character suggests his appeal has not waned too much in the past nine decades, and Superman: Son of Kal-El follows a new holder of the super-mantle; Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s son, Jon. Jon is young and inexperienced, not to mention half-Earthling and half-Kryptonian. From this uncertain footing, he has to uphold his father’s example, while also attempting to discover his place in the world, and truths about his own identity. It is, perhaps, fitting that Tormey would be stepping in to draw a tale about a man with very big shoes to fill.

Bisexual characters

“Well,” he tells me, “this Superman has all the things he learned from his dad but with none of the lessons of having grown up yet – and Jon is also half-human, so there’s a whole extra strain here which Tom has been able to isolate and show as a new character.”

The series attracted controversy last year, when it was leaked that Jon Kent was being written as bisexual. Despite this being a different Superman to the Clark Kent iteration, not to mention it being the year of Our Lord 2021, this fact was pounced upon by furious op-eds from right-wing detractors and angry diatribes from talking heads on Fox News. It was a rare, and depressing, moment in the spotlight for contemporary comics, and I ask Tormey if the reaction surprised him at all.

“To be honest,” he replies, “the fact that this bisexual character has sparked off a culture war came as no surprise because these people aren’t arguing over policy any more. The only thing they have is the culture war, so the accusation that we’re ‘taking an American icon and making it gay’ becomes a thing. I mean, it’s not even Clark Kent, it’s a new character, so the outrage was entirely manufactured, but it became another way to feed red meat to the base.”

Aside from hot air in the media, all of this had real-life consequences for the creators involved.

“Tom stepped off social media for ages,” he says. “There was a TMZ article about Warner Bros asking the LAPD to monitor the houses of DC’s editors, and those things seem to be stock in trade for anyone on the internet now, just blast out death threats.” Was there ever a point when he felt afraid? “Well,” he says, “I’ll be worried when the LAPD are driving around outside my house in Dalkey, until then I think I’m okay.”

More broadly than questions of identity and sexuality, Tormey wonders if it’s as much to do with entitlement, and a reluctance among some readers to let some things pass you by.

Audience diversity

“I’ve realised,” he says, “and I feel like a lot of people don’t ever realise this – some comics just aren’t made for me. They’re not aimed at us. Before, when I was younger, it seemed like all comics were for me, and I read everything. Now, there’s such a greater level of diversity in the stories being told, even within these archetypal characters that we take for granted.

“So, Superman being gay or bisexual now, maybe it’s not for you. We had our Superman, and that Superman isn’t going to change, this is a new story for newer, younger readers and it needs to reflect the diversity of that audience. As an ideal, Superman is at his best when he’s learning the lessons of humanity, when his naivety gets him through stuff, and finding inspiration, and if that involves him figuring out his own identity, that’s unbelievably important to show. I also find it really funny that people give out like ‘why are they changing all these characters?’ but Harley Quinn is also bisexual now and they think that’s fine.”

I point out that Superman is, himself, one of the oddest characters you can complain about in this regard, since almost every aspect of his character has changed since his inception. Having made his debut in 1938, he wasn’t depicted flying in a comic until 1943, suggesting people used to be rather more amenable to changes in their costumed heroes.

“It’s always weird where people draw the line,” he says, “because, as always, the line being drawn has nothing to do with the character and everything to do with the reader. It’s a shame, because the people who won’t read it are exactly the people who need to.”

If Tormey seems undaunted by all this, it’s likely because he’s never been happier. He does, after all, have the best job in the world.

“People tweet things like ‘I really wanted Cian to draw Superman and I can’t believe that’s happening.’ People who identify with the characters and the idea of you drawing them seems to mean so much to them is wonderful, makes you think you’re doing something right! When we were growing up, I’d be copying panels from Jim Lee’s X-Men, to learn how to do it. The people who made the comics never would have known the impact it was having on us as children. It is wonderful to think there are potentially kids at home copying out my panels. That to me is one of the most exciting things, that it’s making an impact.”

Perhaps Tormey embodies more of Superman’s wholesome ideals than he lets on?

“Well,” he says, “I did have a zoom call with a class of 10 year olds last week and the first question they asked was ‘who pays more – Marvel or DC?’ So they’re laser-focused at least.”