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Alejandro Arbona Takes Us in To Tomorrow with Doctor Tomorrow

Doctor Tomorrow #1

Bart Simms is has met the Valiant, Universe’s greatest hero… himself! Doctor Tomorrow is Valiant‘s newest superhero and one aimed at a younger “all-ages” crowd.

Writer Alejandro Arbona and artist Jim Towe have crafted this time travel adventure.

We got a chance to talk to Arbona about writing Valiant’s all-ages comic and what it’s like writing “pretty much every” Valiant character in the miniseries.

Graphic Policy: How are you doing? 

Alejandro Arbona: Ehh! You know. I’m doing well, thanks; lucky enough to be healthy and employed, although the neverending anxiety and constant nightmares are getting a little old. But I’m excited for people to finish reading Doctor Tomorrow!

GP: With this being a spoiler-filled interview, let’s just dive in. How did you find writing three versions of the same character in the book? Did it require any particular planning or did you look at them as three distinct characters with the same name?

AA: It’s a little of both. Obviously the entire story is predicated on the multiple Barts being virtually the same person, at different ages, and the inevitability of each of them aging into becoming the next one in the cycle, or our Bart being the one to break that cycle. At the same time, it was fun to write them as if Bart was meeting his long-lost dad and his grandpa, and discovering their legacy that he’s going to inherit. And in that case, the idea of the cycle, and breaking the cycle, still applies. It’s a literal story about Bart becoming the hero that the story needs him to be, but it’s also just a metaphorical story about growing up.

GP: Whenever time travel is involved in a story, there’s always the chance of creating more plot holes and redos than you intend; how do you plan to avoid those while keeping the story engaging?

AA: Ah, but if you read carefully, there isn’t actually that much time travel in the story. The only significant bit of time travel is the warning from the future, courtesy of Neela’s computer in issue #1. Doctor Tomorrow and Hadrian are older than our Bart because they come from universes that got a head start on ours, and they just made a sideways hop across dimensions to get over here. But to really answer your question, we made it pretty clear in the story from page one that the stakes are real. There’s no reset button and no undo/redo and no control-Z. Even when you’re hopping around across parallel universes, you only get one shot at living your life.

Doctor Tomorrow #3

GP: Looking back at the earlier issues after the revelation in the third, you can see the groundwork being laid for Bart’s evil turn that I’m sure most of us missed the first time through. How much planning did you put into creating a comic that gives a different experience with each reading?

AA: We have the outline process to thank for that. By planning out the story with several drafts of outlines and beat sheets, I knew what all the payoffs would be, and how to set them up. But most importantly, the real trick was figuring out how to hint at Doctor Tomorrow’s true character, without telegraphing the reveal. Right from the beginning he’s brash and arrogant, and he jumps to conclusions but frequently gets those conclusions wrong. The reader doesn’t really notice anything off about him, because those qualities are so common in superhero characters, and he seems like just another textbook superhero type. And the fact that he’s so quick to anger, and so quick to jump into a fight, pays off when we find out he’s a bad guy, because we’ve already seen those qualities in the young Bart, and we’re afraid he’s doomed to turn out the same way.

GP: The growing up/training montage in Doctor Tomorrow #4 was brilliant. How much guidance did you need to give Jim Towe when writing those pages?

AA: I’m so happy that worked out! It was definitely an experiment, and it was entirely on Jim to pull it off. My hesitation about the montage, even though I was the one who wrote it, was that it wouldn’t work in comics because a montage is an audiovisual technique, with a strong emphasis on the “audio” of it. Montages work in movies and TV because you have music shepherding you through all the jumps in time, and that’s just impossible in comics, obviously. All I asked Jim to do was a tight six-panel grid, and I kept it all dialogue-free, hoping readers would get the vibe. One brilliant touch that Jim added was to break the grid with only the first and last panels of each page, so it feels a bit like a fade-in and a fade-out through time. Alternately, I think the complete opposite would also have worked, no panel borders at all, just everything in a splash page with only elements of the visual composition distinguishing one moment from another. But probably nothing in between would be as effective, I’m guessing.

GP: Did you ever think when you first joined Valiant you’d be writing their first in continuity all ages book?

AA: The all-ages of it was more about taking advantage of the opportunity, more than it was done by design. Valiant and I agreed that we wanted to tell a story about an aspirational superhero, a paragon of goodness. That’s a kind of story I wanted to write and a kind of story they wanted to publish. And then the specific idea that I happened to pitch them came with a teen protagonist. Then we kind of all arrived together at the all-ages approach because everything was already there in the mix. The approach for me was to write something that was truly all-ages, to be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, not all-ages as a code word meaning “only for kids.” This is all-ages the way that Spider-Man and Superman are supposed to be all-ages. The label’s just there to reassure you that you can share your copy with your kid and you can both read it.

GP: If the book wasn’t all-ages, would you have changed anything about it?

AA: Not at all. We did have a little push-and-pull with Valiant where I have more permissive standards about how much swearing is okay for kids…but I’m the first one to admit I swear too much! In terms of content, storytelling choices, etc., there were no disagreements and no compromises.

GP: You’ve written pretty much every Valiant character in this miniseries alone, but is there any you’d like to explore further?

AA: I could rattle off my wish list of Valiant characters, but that would be poor form. Though I will tell you this, people have asked me what Rex the Razer is doing in those battle scenes, when he’s supposed to live in the Deadside, and I do have the story that answers that question! I’d also love to tell a story about what happens next for Neela and her incredible time computer. And of course, Doctor Tomorrow II, the continuing adventures of Bart as a superhero in the Valiant Universe.

GP: With this being a book with time travel, I feel I should ask; if you could go back to any time, when would you go and why?

AA: Honestly, I wouldn’t. Even with COVID-19 and all the disasters we’re going through, right here and now is the best time to be. Any given moment in the past wouldn’t have the internet, or electricity, or indoor plumbing. If anything, I might like to visit the future, when hopefully things are better for all of us. But I’d like to believe I’ll see it anyway, just by living.

GP: Thanks for your time!

AA: Thank you for having me! I really appreciate it.