Thursday, March 12, 2009

An interview with Ed Brubaker

Below is an interview I did with writer Ed Brubaker a few months ago when his new series Incognito debuted. Originally this was going to run as part of my column but, well, que sera sera. Here's the full interview:

Q: So tell me about Incognito.

A: Incognito is an idea I’ve been mulling over since we were wrapping up Sleeper. I often try to think of the inverse of an idea to see what would be interesting — if this idea is interesting to explore in one direction would it be interesting to explore it in the other? Look at a story like The Shield, where you’ve got a corrupt cop who’s trying to save his soul. What if you flip that to the other side where it’s a mobster instead of a cop? I think of things like that sometimes and try to see if there’s a story in there.

Sleeper’s about a good person who for his government goes undercover as a bad guy and slowly loses whatever moral compass he had and starts to realize that the bad guys and the good guys aren’t that different in the ways that they act. And maybe doing bad things for the right reason is just as bad as doing bad things for the wrong reason. There’s a lot of moral gray areas to explore there, so I was thinking "What if you did the opposite, what if there was a bad person somehow forced into a situation where they actually either had to or ended up doing good things, but they’re someone who has no moral compass, who looks down at humanity and ends up somehow through circumstance being forced to live among them and develop sympathy for them perhaps?"

That’s where Incognito grew out of, trying to figure out, is there a story in that character exploration? Then I started thinking of it in terms of a noir story and suddenly I was "Oh, what if it’s a super villain living in witness protection," and everything started to come together from there. All my love of old pulp characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow started to come out. The idea of trying to do a story that’s sort of a mixture between the modern superhero and a '50s noir story really started to appeal to me. I started thinking “What if the pulps had never stopped? What if instead of crime stories and noir, the crime pulp stuff was mashed in together with Doc Savage and the Shadow and Operator Number Five?” What if they made noir-esque stories with these characters? Everything started building from that.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the main character and how you see him. He comes across as not the most likable character, and that’s always a little tricky because you want the audience to have sympathy for him.

A: He’s definitely an anti-hero. That’s the story. It’s the journey of a bad guy. He’s an Eastwood type. It’s that kind of character, Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars or somebody who is clearly an outlaw. And yet we’ll start to see there’s something about this person. I think by the end of the first issue you get an idea that this guy isn’t just this anti-hero who looks down on everybody and feels trapped by this thing. You see some of the wounds this guy carries and how he became who he is. He becomes a more human character even by the end of the first issue, even though he does retain that hardened edge of a guy who was raised on the wrong side. I guess if you’re raised on it, it doesn’t feel like the wrong side.

Zach and his brother Xander were raised -- they’re twin brothers -- and they were taken from a state adoption home and have no memory of it. They’re earliest memories are of being experimented on by this mad scientist guy who was in this evil organization known as the Black Death. They were taking orphan kids and doing science experiments on them to try to turn them into super villains, basically. He was a twin and he and his twin brother were major enforcers for this evil organization and at some point about three or four years ago something happened to his brother and he ended up turning on the people he worked for. Now he’s living in witness protection, but everybody thinks he’s dead. And he’s on drugs that make him a normal person. They shut down all of the enhancements that he’s been given.

Q: That sounds a lot like some of the characters and themes you’ve been exploring in your other books like Criminal. Certainly the idea of family, like the Lawless brothers in Criminal and even the Cap/Bucky relationship in Captain America.

A: There’s some truth to that. We all have a few themes we explore over and over again as writers, whether you consciously know it or not.

One of the main things in this for me came out as an accident in that it occurred to me that the main character was a twin when I was thinking about the themes of the book, when I was fleshing out the ideas of the book early on. The word Incognito has so many different meanings. You’re doing a story about people who put on costumes and run around but doing it in a sort of noir way -- well, all good noir is at heart character studies with a plot taking place around them. You really build your whole story from the character.

So I thought “Who is this character” and it occurred to me that a lot of what the story is about is a guy who doesn’t exactly know what his identity is. He’s living a lie. The person that he truly is taking drugs and is living in this suburban Anytown, USA, kind of place working an office job and pretending to be someone he isn’t. He’s completely incognito and yet he puts on a mask and feels like this is who he is. Or maybe it isn’t. There’s so much about identity.

And it occurred to me “why does this guy go into witness protection” and then suddenly the whole twin thing came up. Identical twins have so much of their identity sometimes wrapped up in their twin. A lot of time they’re really close friends and have mental connections and things like that. So the idea of a twin separated from his brother and everyone thinks he’s dead and he’s living this new life for the first time on his own, but everything about it is a lie. So it really gets to the heart of what the story’s about in a lot of ways.

Q: It’s interesting because your description also fits Clark Kent.

A: Does it though? He was raised to be Clark Kent. Going into witness protection is a lot different. (laughter)

Q: That’s true, but —

A: "As a baby, Superman killed many, many people, but he was able to testify against Kryptonians and moved to witness protection in Kansas to be raised by an elderly family."

Q: That’s my recollection of the story.

A: That’s actually a pretty good story. If I ever get my hands on Superman ...

Q: One of those Elseworlds tales —

A: Even as a baby he had full adult intelligence. That’s a creepy story though. I like that.

Q: But it does sound like you’re playing off the kind of wish fulfillment that a lot of superheroes provide. Especially in that initial 2-page preview, where the lead is saying “I’m better than all the other people I’m surrounded by.”

A: Yeah, it is kind of the flip side of Superman/Clark Kent sitting there and thinking “nobody knows.” This is him sitting there and thinking “Nobody knows I could kill all of you and not care.”

Q: Are you consciously going to be playing off of the traditional superhero tropes in that aspect?

A: I don’t think so. I never consciously set out to do a parody of anything.

Q: I didn’t necessarily mean a parody —

A: No, I know what you meant. But I don’t think I’m consciously trying to reference any other superhero comics at least. There’s little nods here and there to the pulps because when you do a story like this and you’re creating the whole thing from the ground up, you have to do a little bit of world-building. My world-building was creating these pulp-hero characters from the '30s and '40s and they’re not really important to the story at all, they’re just background elements to the world. You may not ever see them in the same way there’s tons of elements in Criminal that nobody ever actually sees. We referenced Sebastian Hyde a number of times before anyone actually saw him.

With Sleeper we did that thing where the characters all told their secret origins in third person which was a little play on the origin stories of characters and a little play on the way origin stories used to be told. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. Who knows? It’s hard to tell when you’re in the midst of it. I’m deep into writing this project now. All I can think of is the character and the shit he’s getting into. Obviously the point of the thing is to explore the gray area between good and evil from the other point of view. We always see that side of it, the good person doing bad things and how that affects you; on some level this is approaching that.

Q: You talk about taking part of things from the pulps and noir and superhero comics. What things are you consciously taking? Are there any genre tropes you’re taking and how do you roll them up and keep them from bumping into each other, because they’re different genres, or at least perceived as such.

A: It’s kind of apocalyptic noir in this weird way. Noir isn’t really a genre — People think of it as a genre, but the people who think of it as that, when they start to tell you what movies that would fit into that don’t realize how elastic that actually is.

A noir story, if there are rules to it, the main rule seems to be whoever your main character is, nothing good is going to happen to him. (laughs) And at the end of the story he may be dead. If he’s narrating, he may be narrating on his deathbed. It’s more of the way a story is told as opposed to what the story is. Many things that a lot of people consider noir could also be considered straight crime stories. A lot of people consider the Parker novels to be noir, but I just think of them as heist novels. Parker tends to live through all of them and there isn’t a lot of tragedy involved in that process.

I think instinctively I’ve always brought that air of tragic noir element to whatever I'm doing. I’m trying to subvert some of the principles of that genre a little bit by doing this. It’s kind of an experiment to take pulp and make up sort of an evolution of where these pulp styled characters would have gone and how they would have affected a world of also try to tell it through this really character-driven noir story. So it is a little bit of an experiment, but I really like the elements of something like Doc Savage; I love these apocalyptic literature of pulp fiction with these characters who were just sort of weird, crazy, vicious characters who were planning to destroy the world, and you had a guy like Doc Savage who would take out whole organizations and whoever would survive they would take them back to their institute and carve out pieces of their brain so they wouldn’t be bad guys anymore.

There was weird stuff going on in those pulp stories that comics sort of evolved from. As comics started being more and more for kids a lot of that eccentric bizarre early atomic-age stuff just fell by the waste side. That’s the kind of stuff I’m tapping into a little bit with Incognito. Just using that hard, crazy science edge to some of this world. Not as if I’m the first person by any means to explore the pulp roots of what superhero comics grew out of. Alan Moore started a whole line of stuff. But they weren’t the first either. We wouldn’t even have Batman if not for the Shadow.

Q: I talked to you back when Criminal first came out and I remember you saying how with Sleeper, because it was aimed at more traditional comic book readers, you were able to be a lot more experimental in your layouts and design. And with Criminal you wanted it to be very basic so that anyone could pick it up. What about with Incognito?

A: I think it’s mostly pretty straightforward. With every project it seems like Sean starts to experiment a little bit with the way he tells a story or structures a page. With this one, my favorite art from him, maybe ever, is the stuff for Incognito because I love the way he’s doing these no-panel borders, using the gutter space as negative space and hard clean balloons for the word balloons. Everything’s very mechanical except for the stuff that’s hand drawn by him.

Sleeper — he’ll probably do a story like that again, with that kind of experimental storytelling, but I’ve seen what he’s doing now with these odd panels that have these full bleeds. He’s doing this thing where he’ll make certain panels pop so they’ll bleed to the edge of the page.
Q: Of course, Criminal has changed. Both of you have gotten a little more experimental.

A: Yeah, but we’re still basically sticking to a three-tier grid. I can’t remember who said it, but if you can’t tell a story on a three tier grid you can’t tell a story. The first advice I remember reading in a book about experimental layout when everybody was trying to do weird angle panels and imitate Neal Adams with all of his crazy storytelling stuff he did and somebody pointed out that before Neal Adams ever tried that he made sure he could tell a story in 6-9 panels per page. Learn the rules before you break them.

Q: Not to take away from any of the other artists you’ve collaborated with, but this is the third book you and Phillips have worked on and you seem to click together well. What do you think it is that allows you to work together so well?

A: I don’t know. We’re just on the same page about the kind of comics we want to do. I really feel like a lot of what I do pacing wise really fits most of my scripts if you look at any of them have as much description of facial expression and what the character is feeling as it does with "in the background there’s this and this." All my stuff wouldn’t wouldn’t work at all if I didn’t have artists that can really generate empathy from the readers for the characters. Sean just does that really well. We love a lot of the same comics and aspire to do things on the same levels as the books we really dug. A lot of times we’re playing to each other. I feel like I’m writing this stuff to some degree for Sean because he’s the first person that reads anything I write for anything I own.
Q: Is this going to be an open-ended story? Do you have a definitive end in mind? Or could this go on?

A: It’ll depend. I know the end of this story, I’ve got the last scene written already. It came to me early on. It’s definitely left in such a way that if someone were to want to, we could revisit this character or other characters in this world, depending on if I end up sticking with that scene.The plan right now is once we finish this to go back and do more Criminal. We’re having a lot of fun. With Criminal especially built up a pretty loyal, sizable audience of people who are clearly following us over to Incognito. And hopefully we’ll pick up some more from Incognito. As long as people keep buying comics by us in enough quantities that we can afford to keep doing it, Sean and I will put out as many of them a year as we can.

Q: I was going to ask you how Criminal was doing.

A: It’s doing really well actually. We’re one of the more stable books on the market apparently. We’ve been doing about 18,000 an issue. That’s advance orders. I think we’re doing close to 19,000 on final sales. That’s better than most books like that. I always want to reach more people and I feel like it’s still under-performing cause I still hear from people all the time whose stores buy three copies and sell out the first day so I always know they could be selling at least a few more. It’s better than almost everything Vertigo publishes.

Q: I was going to say.

A: Yeah, other than Fables. From my side, once we relaunched with the new format and I think after issue two, the orders for issue three actually went up and in issue four the orders were higher than one even. And we’ve just stayed at that level. One issue I think was 30 copies less. It’s insane to have a book where the numbers are the same every month.

Q: What about the trades?

A: They’re doing really well too. We’ve sent the first one back for a second printing and we’re pretty close to selling out the first print run of the second trade. I’m just waiting to get some statements. but we’re moving really good numbers, and mostly through comic stores. We’re not really doing huge bookstore push because I handle all that stuff myself. Also we’re in print in five or six other countries and our French publisher has gone back to print with the first book. We’re coming out all over the world with this stuff. The more books come out the more they seem to feed each other. Every day I hear from more and more people who are just getting turned onto it, so it just seems kind of crazy, for two years and only 17 issues.

Q: How many issues is Incognito?

A: Five issues and then we’re back to Criminal. We’re doing the next Lawless story after that. Incognito’s just five issues. We’ll probably do more of it. We’ll see how we like doing it the further in we get. So far I like it, which is surprising, because after Sleeper I thought "Let’s just do crime stories and not deal with any of the super-powered stuff at all." But it’s a lot of fun to be back doing something like this with Sean where we get to flex some different muscles and have some fun within that genre. I like working in comics you can do a story like that and a large part of your audience goes into it knowing what a super villain is.

Q: Working for someone like Marvel or DC you’re under these creative restrictions as far as what you can or can’t do with the character. In your case I”m not sure that’s true, because they always say they can’t kill the character and you did.

A: I’ve gotten really lucky with getting away with murder, literally, on books but also I haven’t slammed up against a lot of restrictions. Things you can or can’t say I get a lot, in terms of from month to month it seems to change. There’s never any hard or fast rule. You can say "damn" in a book but you can’t say "damn"19 times on a page. Weird things like that.

I don’t think I could do the work for hire stuff if I wasn’t also doing original work. I think they feed each other at this point for me. I went a few years only doing work for hire stuff when I first started out at Marvel before Criminal. It just seemed like I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t start doing some work that I actually had a stake in and felt like was important to me. I have a big stake in Captain America and Daredevil. They are important to me but it’s a whole different thing when you create all of it from start to finish. You own it and it’s your universe. It’s not everybody else’s too.

Q: You don’t have to worry about tying it into Civil War.

A: But even that stuff, if you take those jobs at Marvel, you can’t complain when somebody says "Oh we want you to tie into such and such." I’ve been really lucky. People think that happens more than it actually does. I have editors who say "Hey our book needs a boost, tie it into such and such a thing." I’ve been on that end at DC. I don’t think I’ve ever been on that end at Marvel but I’m sure there are people who have been.

You’re trying to tell the best story with someone else’s character and I lie to myself and make myself believe I own the Captain America part of the Marvel Universe other than Brian being able to use him in Avengers. But during Civil War Cap was in every third book and usually getting beaten up by the main characters. He probably got captured like nine times during Civil War. I’m the only one who didn’t have him get captured.

You lie to yourself and tell yourself it’s your character while you’re writing it. You have to otherwise you’re not going to do a good job and give the readers their money’s worth. which is what your job is to do. Make people want to keep reading these characters. That’s a great fucking job. It beats flipping burgers, which I’ve done. It beats any job I’ve ever had because it’s still creatively fulfilling. But doing your own stuff is even more fulfilling. (laughs)

I like both. I love Captain America. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve had these ideas that I would grow up and work on Captain America. I probably went a good decade or so without ever thinking about it, but the moment I got that phone call from Brian saying "Hey is there anything you want to do? I know you’re exclusive is ending soon," and Joe called me the next day to offer me Captain America. There was no way I was saying no. It’s pretty cool. It’s the same way I would work on Doc Savage or the Shadow if Marvel had them. I find if I go a full month without writing something that I’m doing — all the stuff is intended to be read and enjoyed by people but Incognito and Criminal, as long as I’m doing something that Sean wants to draw and that I’m really into. Bad Night is one of the best things I think I’ve ever written.

Q: I have to say, I thought that last issue was supurb.

A: Thanks. I was trying to do one of those James M. Cain style things. Jason Star did a book called Twisted City that has the best last scene in a crime story that totally changed everything about the main character in his last moment. I didn’t go for that.

It’s interesting. I do read the odd review and I noticed until issue four’s reviews, almost all people online reviewers were thinking that Jake was having conversations with the Frank Kafka character throughout the whole story. If you read it, you can see that’s not actually happening at all. In the first three parts of the story, up until the very last panel of part three, he never acknowledges Frank’s presence at all. As a reader you can think he’s just imagining what his comic book character would say or do because he doesn’t interact with him. It’s almost like it’s a voice inside of his head, which is what you’re supposed to think. And then you realize it is a real voice inside his head.

That was one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on and one of the hardest things to write too. There’s not a single scene in there that isn’t important to the big conclusion. Even the first line of narration about the house burning down across the street comes back around. Everything comes back around. I feel really lucky to have a platform to do stories like that. The minute that sales started feeling stable, that sense of “Oh this is going to go away someday,” went away. I started to feel like we have a fan base that is actually following what we’re doing. I was always worried during the first 10 issues cause sales would fluctuate where it would seem like we were doing really good and then the next issue orders would be down 2,000. I knew we were being underordered. I didn’t think it was a bunch of "trade waiters" cause I kept hearing from people who could find part five of a five part story. I think we stabilized 3,000 higher than we’d been selling on the last four issues of the previous run. I can’t believe the same stores are ordering the exact same number every time. But maybe.

Q: I suppose in these times retailers can’t afford to take chances on extra copies of anything.

A: That’s why I’m really thrilled Incognito did as well as it did. It didn’t do as well as I initially thought when we first announced it and everyone flipped out. But that was a week before the economy started to tank completely. Or at least publicly tank. Bad time to be launching a new book. I keep reminding people not to flip out too much about the whole economy thing because: a) that will just make it worse and b) even during the Great Depression 25 percent of the country was still working. Don’t automatically assume you’re going to be in the other 25 percent.

Q: Right. It’s just in the newspaper industry.

A: (laughs) Right. You guys need to get a bailout together. The problem is those stupid news media conglomerates that seem to think you’re supposed to make a profit on journalism. Journalism is supposed to be a break even thing at best.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Matt Fraction

So you go and see the “Iron Man” movie and want a taste of something more.

The prospect, however, of digging back through 40 years of Iron Man history doesn’t necessarily appeal to you.

Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca understand. They even have the answer.

Their newest ongoing series, “The Invincible Iron Man,” is set within the current Marvel continuity, but designed specifically for new readers as well as devoted fans.

I talked to Fraction recently about the book and the challenges it offered:

Q: Why Iron Man?

A: There’s a lot of reasons. I’ve always had a fondness for the character, which is a big part of why anybody in this line of work does what they do. I always liked him because he didn’t have superpowers. The attraction to me is that it’s evolution made manifest. He’s the ultimate self-improvement project. Man rejecting his own frail, fragile biology. I love that, the guy who refuses to be a sack of meat, powerless over what happens to him. The self-made superhero is pretty great.

And then, the challenges post-everything that’s been going on in the Marvel Universe lately, to call him damaged goods is perhaps even being kind. He’s so flawed, and there’s so much fun you can have right now and so much room to work. There’s so many cool stories to tell because he’s so despised and he’s in such a morally complicated space. As a writer, it’s delicious. It’s an all you can eat buffet of bathos and strife.

Q: What do you bring to the Iron Man table to separate this book from the other Iron Man title?

A: Well first off, my dance moves.

The other Iron Man book is sort of the “24” of the Marvel Universe. It’s sort of a down and dirty espionage book. It’s Iron Man by way of Bourne, which is great. It’s an underrated, terrific book.

But this is big superhero action. It’s big superhero thrills. It’s a jumping on point for those who’ve seen the movie, cause the movie is going to be awesome. It’s a place where people can come in and go “Oh, there’s Iron Man right here and right now.” The storyline is self-contained. You don’t even need to know what’s going on in the rest of the Marvel Universe necessarily. It’s Iron Man having big superhero adventures.

The first storyline is him facing Iron Man 2.0. And Tony Stark 2.0 at the same time. So we’re immediately getting to the business of grinding him to pieces.

Q: Can you give me a sense of the story arc and where you want to take the character?

A: I really feel that he’s on a redemption arc. The table he chose to sit at requires a lot of moral compromises and so I’m looking forward to have him scroll up. As a character, he is his own worst enemy. He’s his own Doctor Doom, his own Joker. Now it’s time for him to face that. The first two arcs and beyond are really breaking him down to his most basic components. He’s facing threats on a scale he can barely imagine and we’re just gong to see what’s left. When you take away all of the comforts and all of the confidence, what happens when you strip him down to his most basic humanity, and his most basic super-humanity, if that makes any sense. What happens when he’s backed into a corner. It’s very much sink or swim. And by sink I mean die and by swim I mean live.

Q: What do you think are the challenges in dealing with the character? Are there any traps you have to avoid?

A: Any time you get mired down in 40 years of continuity, that’s bad news. Especially with something like the movie coming out. I knew the movie was going to be huge the minute my dad saw the trailer and asked if he could see it again.

When you make it feel like “you have to know this, you have to know that.” You make the character feel old. To me, he exists as this intersection of Chuck Yeager and James Bond. No disrespect to the people who have put their creative lifeblood in the book, but when he’s just a dude in a suit punching other dudes in suits, it’s no different than any other book.

But what his heart and soul is to me is he’s a pioneer, he’s a futurist. He’s a test pilot. He’s an adrenaline junkie. Whatever the future is? He’s going to get there first. He’s the Chuck Yeager who designs the plane. He’s that guy. That personal spirit of adventure and discovery, and insatiable curiosity and intellect.

When you disconnect the character from his humanity and his real soul, and you just make it about a guy who looks like a robot punching other guys who look like robots, that’s pretty boring. The key is to always remind us this is a man who is on the absolute vanguard of human accomplishment and is trying to bring us all into a perfectly imagined future.

Q: It sounds like you’re going to be drawing on a lot on recent events in the Marvel Universe, the whole issue of Civil War? Are you going to be drawing on any of the plot threads from the Order or other books?

A: If you’ve been reading Marvel comics for the last little bit, you’ll definitely see where we’re coming from. But if you haven’t that’s fine too. It’s designed as an accessible jumping on point for people who have seen the movie. If you’ve never read an Iron Man comic in your life, this is designed to be a starting point. It’s not continuity rich, you don’t need to know 80 years of history.

I didn’t know Iron Man was coming when I was writing the Order, but I knew who the bad guy was. I always knew where I was going. Iron Man came about as I was getting toward the end of the Order, so it was this, “Oh, I can just tie this in.” If you’ve been reading the Order, you are getting a little prequel to the Iron Man series. It’s one of things where I’m thanking people for following the Order and jumping on the new Iron Man series.

Q: Can you talk about the importance of acclimating new readers? There is the common criticism, especially when a big movie comes out, that the big publishers don’t do enough to bring people into the comic shops.

A: What’s important is to not talk exclusively to the guys like me who pick up their comics on Wednesday morning. We’re here, we’re on the team. You don’t need to pander to us anymore. The direct market, that’s where you lose it when you talk to the guys who are already buying the book exclusively. Stan Lee used to say that every comic is somebody’s first comic. And so if you notice in Marvel comics, somebody always says someone’s name around the time they first show up in the issue. You might not know who Luke Cage or Tony Stark is. Make it rich for the guys like you who are going to pick it up Wednesday morning, but then make it something for someone like my dad who sees the Iron Man trailer and is like "Oh, I can’t wait to go see that." Write the comic for your dad too. They’re not mutually exclusive propositions, you just have to know what you’re doing.

The Ultimate Spider-Man book came out the same time the first Spider-Man film came out and that’s a perfect example of how to do it. There’s enough going on to satisfy the red meat comics crowd, but it’s a totally accessible jumping on point that celebrates all the parts of the myth but doesn’t require any foreknowledge of it. As a nerd I have to not write for my fellow nerds. That’s the challenge.

Q: Of course, that’s been the great criticism of superhero comics, that they’re too insular.

A: Exactly, and this is not that. Everything is explained. One of the finest superhero comics of the last few years is All Star Superman and he reduces Superman’s origin to eight words. It’s all possible. With a mind for clarity, it’s easy to do. Stop pandering to the people who are already on the team.

Q: Related to that then, and this is almost more of a marketing question, how do you get people aware so they do come into the comic shop? That’s sort of a question outside your realm but ...

A: Yeah. It’s hard to answer that question without insulting comic shops! I don’t mean to sound glib, but a $180 million blockbuster is pretty good step. It’s advertised everywhere.

But really you’re talking about how to get people into comic shops and that falls under the realm of shop and store owners not being The Android’s Dungeon from the Simpsons. There’s a reason why that’s funny. There’s a reason why that’s a cliche, because it’s true. As creators all we can do is remember that each comic is somebody’s first comic, especially when it’s this kind of media opportunity. All we can do is put all the tools out there and make sure when you go to 7-11 there’s an Iron Man slurpee cup. You go to Target, there’s Iron Man bedsheets.

The thing that’s interesting is you’re seeing the book trade really exploding for superhero comics right now too. Publishers are realizing when you have to rely on The Android’s Dungeon, you’re going to be let down. All I can do is write the best, most satisfying comic out there, especially when the cover price is going to be $3. That’s diminishing returns these days. Manga is 80 pages for $10-$15.

All I can do is write the best book I can and see that it’s being written for everybody that might read it. Whether they’ve been reading Iron Man since they were nine years old or not. Each step in the supply chain has its own responsibilities. There’s a store in my home town that has cut outs from the first Spider Man movie, and they were still in the window when the third spider man movie came out. Yellowed and nasty and curled. Who in their right mind would go into that store? Putting those places out of business is the first thing.

Q: Getting off of Iron Man for a minute, I saw where you and Ed Brubaker are leaving Iron Fist. Why?

A: It was time. I think we were at the top of our personal game. Both of us had gotten pretty busy. Rather than stick around past the point of being any good, why not go out on top? I had taken on a lot of work, Ed was busy to begin with which was why they wanted a co-writer in the first place, it was time to move on. There’s something about leaving after London Calling rather than Combat Rock that’s very appealing.

Q: When I talked to you last year, you were one of the rising stars at Marvel. Now, especially with Iron Fist, you’re one of a small handful of writers whose books hit that critically acclaimed list. One of the few superhero writers who’ve reached a certain amount of critical cache. What are you doing right?

A: Well again, I think it goes back to the dance moves.

That’s very kind of you to say. I’m just trying to write the kind of comics I’d want to read. I’ve been reading them my whole life and I’m just trying to write the kind of stuff that I’d like to read. That’s all you can do. There are guys who obsess over sales charts. I can’t handle that stuff. The only thing in my power is to write hard.

Q: Where do you see your career right now?

A: I’m feel like I’m on the rung of brand-new ladder. I feel like I’ve passed the establishing yourself phase. Now all I can do is try to deliver and earn the place at the table that I’ve weaseled into.

Q: Apart from Iron Man what else are you working on now?

A: Uncanny X-Men starting with No. 500 with Ed. Still doing Punisher War Journal with Rick Remender, which is a blast, pardon the pun. Casanova. There’s a Lincoln graphic novel I’m working on. Then there’s a Thor mini and some smaller work for hire stuff at Marvel. Mini-series and stuff like that.

I just came off a year and a half of doing three ongoing and when cool, little things would pop up, there’s a Silver Surfer mini-series I had to turn down that I still beat myself up over. I’m looking forward to committing to two real long-term things and having a little bit of wiggle room where I can take on shorter term fun projects. This Thor things is a perfect example, it’s just three issues. They’ll collect nicely into a book and then I can move onto something else.

Q: A point of comparison between you, Ed Brubaker and Brian Bendis is that you all keep a foot in creator-owned work. How important is it for you to be able to maintain that?

A: It’s crucial. It’s critical. The work-for-hire stuff pays for me to do the creator-owned stuff. I make no money on it. Not to reduce it to such vulgar matters as money but the difference between Brian, Ed and me is that Brian and Ed make money on their independent stuff and I don’t. They can afford to pay their artists and I can’t, relatively speaking. With Casanova everything has gone to the artist and the artist hasn’t even made a living page rate.

That’s another thing I hope being on this new tier at Marvel will bring some attention to the creator owned stuff that maybe store owners wouldn’t have paid attention to before. All the work for hire stuff pays for me to do that. That stuff is the bedrock of my personal audience, especially amongst editors. Maybe not every editor in the world reads Casanova, but almost every other editor does, which is huge.

Q: You’re a dad now. Congratulations.

A: I am totally a dad. You would not believe how much of a dad I am.

Q: How has being a father affected your perspective on your work?

A: I don’t know that I can address that, because I don’t know that it’s sunk in yet. It’s removed a lot of the luxury of preciousness. The closer we got to the baby’s arrival, my wife and I started hunter-gatherer mode and took on way too much work than we could handle. Suddenly it’s "The little man needs food! Must have food for baby!" It robs you of the luxury of being able to spend a day considering between camera one and camera two. Every 28 days the book’s gotta go. I’ve actually become more productive since he’s shown up and also I think being happy makes it a lot easier to work. Just being happy and the little man makes everything funnier that’s for sure. It takes away — I can’t spend a day choosing a panel transition anymore. I’ve got to do 3-4 pages a day every day or everything falls apart.

Q: I was wondering if lack of sleep might have been an issue.

A: You know, it’s funny. There’s actually an issue of Punisher I don’t remember writing, which is embarrassing to say. It was written the week after he came home. We were really lucky in terms of baby experiences, but that the most sleepless week I had. It was weird. Maybe that’s the secret. Sleep deprivation.

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 28, 2008

Graphic Lit: Superheroes

This week's column is a pretty good example of why I started this blog, in that I had to cut over half the content out in order to fit it on our ever-shrinking newspaper page. Our editorial space keeps being cut drastically. It's not anyone's fault, I'm just stuck in a dying business I guess. Either that or I write too damn long.

Anyway, here's the column as originally intended.

It’s tough to be a superhero comic these days.

As the core fan base grows older and more demanding for “serious” (i.e. excessively violent) stories, it can be difficult to attract new readers.

You see, the older the character or universe gets, the more complicated and esoteric its history becomes. Trying to placate fans who’ve spent time and effort investing in a hero’s lineage while also attempting to bring in new fans can put one in considerable hot water.

Take the recent debacle involving Spider-Man for example. Longing for the days when Peter Parker was a swinging (pardon the pun) single, the powers that be at Marvel decided to undo his marriage with Mary Jane — not through divorce or trial separation but by having him make a deal with the devil, erasing his marriage from existence in order to save his beloved Aunt May.

Reaction was swift and derisive, if not downright hostile. Many longtime fans threatened to stop reading Spidey’s adventures while newcomers may have found the premise too laughable to invest their cash.

Still, high-quality cape and cowl books do exist, if you know where to find them. Here are four titles currently being published by the big two — Marvel and DC — that you can walk right into your local comic shop, pick up and enjoy without having to have a master’s degree in Superherology:

“The Immortal Iron Fist”
by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja, Marvel, $2.99 per issue.

Brubaker, Fraction and Aja do the rather impressive feat of taking an up-till-now negligible C-list character — martial arts expert Daniel Rand — and suddenly making him relevant and interesting by positioning him as the latest in a long line of “Iron Fists.” The added back story gives the book some gravitas and weight while still managing to be a fun, gritty kung-fu homage. (Note: The first six issues have been collected into a $14.99 trade, “The Last Iron Fist Story.”)

“Omega the Unknown”
by Jonathan Lethem, Farel Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeier, Marvel, $2.99 per issue.

Originally created by Steve Gerber and Jim Mooney in the 1970s, Omega was an idiosyncratic comic about an overly intelligent teenage orphan and his mute, enigmatic superhero guardian that lasted just long enough (10 issues) to develop a cult following.

Acclaimed novelist Lethem (“Fortress of Solitude”) and indie artist Dalrymple’s 10-issue revamp tries to pay homage to the original’s offbeat tone while creating its own quiet, surreal feel. It takes a few issues to build up steam, but by the third you can sense it simultaneously creating an aura of mystery and dread that makes you eager to pick up the next issue.

“Booster Gold”
by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund, DC, $2.99 per issue.

Like “Iron Fist,” “Booster Gold” also focuses on a third-rate hero, in this case an attention-seeking showboater from the future. The catch here is that Booster finds himself becoming the savior of the DC universe by having to travel through time and fix anomalies so that, say, Superman doesn’t end up as Lex Luthor’s little brother.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the comic is that while it’s clearly focused on DC minutiae, it doesn’t become mired in it. It’s more than happy to explain itself to the unfamiliar reader who doesn’t know or care who Rip Hunter or Jonah Hex are. It sets up its rules, explains them concisely and then goes about its business, namely creating a fun adventure.

It’s also rather genuinely funny, which is not something you can say about a lot of superhero books these days.

“The Brave and the Bold”
by Mark Waid and George Perez, DC, $2.99 per issue.

Superhero fans love a good team-up, and “Brave and the Bold” attempts to scratch that itch in spades. In the first story arc (now collected into a hardcover $25 book, “The Lords of Luck”) Batman, Supergirl, Green Lantern and many others travel back and forth through time to retrieve an item of dire importance. The plot’s just an excuse to have these colorful characters bump up against each other, and it’s fun to see, for example, the uber-professional Batman rub shoulders with the nervous neophyte Blue Beetle.

It sounds like the sort of thing only hard-core DC nerds would appreciate, but Waid and Perez bring a light touch to the project — there were characters here I wasn’t aware of or familiar with, but I didn’t feel left out once. It’s a fun thrill ride of a book. 
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Matt Fraction

A truncated version of this interview originally ran in the Patriot-News way back on June 1 of this year. Don't ask me why it's taken so long to post the full thing here. I have no excuses.

One of the rising stars at Marvel Comics these days is writer Matt Fraction, who in such monthly titles as "Punisher War Journal" and "The Immortal Iron Fist" (written with "Captain America" scribe Ed Brubaker), has won over readers with his smart, pulpish, tongue-in-cheek sensibilities.

But Fraction's most personal and best project is easily the ongoing series "Casanova," a heady, absurdist take on the super-spy genre that also manages to reflect upon such themes as family, maturity and responsibility.

The title character is Casanova Quinn, the black sheep from a long line of renowned government operatives. Thanks to the machinations of the evil Newman Xeno, Quinn finds himself transported to an alternative timeline where he is actually the good son and his twin sister is the bad girl.

Forced to become a double agent for Xeno, Quinn must reconcile with his difficult father and figure out his place in this new world while going on some truly odd adventures.

The first six issues of the comic have just been lovingly collected into a hardcover entitled "Luxuria." It seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk to Fraction about the comic and his work in general.

Q: Give me a little bit of background on "Casanova." How did you get the idea to do the book?

A: It’s a story that I’ve always wanted to tell. The genre has always been a favorite of mine. I always knew that I wanted to tell a story in this field in this capacity so I was always kind of heading towards it.

It was kind of a conflagration of a few different events: What I was reading about at the time, what I was thinking about at the time and where I was just in my life. Warren Ellis is a friend of mine and was working on developing "Fell" in the streamline format. We were talking an awful lot and it all congealed as one idea. I had a day job at the time — this is all very unsexy and uninteresting — but I thought, “Well, surely I can write 16 pages a month. Surely that’s no problem, with my full time job I can write 16 pages a month.” Little did I know these were in fact the most difficult 16 pages I would ever write. This book takes me three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written. It routinely beats me up. It’s the most unforgiving, mericless and brutal book I’ve ever worked on. So, ha-ha.

My brain was in the right place in the right time. When I wanted to start writing a monthly book I sat down and this fell out.

Q: When you say it’s so hard to write, can you give me some examples?

A: It’s 16 pages, which is six pages short of your average monthly comic. It’s two bucks so it’s cheaper, but I feel obligated to not make anyone feel ripped off for that two dollars. I’m amazed that I have any kind of audience; that anybody thinks anything I have to say is worth reading, let alone paying money for the privilege. So I want to ensure that they get their money’s worth.

There’s such a move toward decompression and writing for the collection these days in comics that the satisfying monthly is kind of lost.

The second arc takes a different approach to this, but in the first arc any issue could have been five, six, seven issues of any of the top 10 selling comics in the country. It’s just the way those books are paced. I was trying to condense six issues of story into 16 pages.

If you’ve read the back patter, you know it’s always kind of a little more than just what’s going on the surface. I was trying to figure out how to articulate this stuff in the language of Casanova. My life and my experience and my ideas and whatever was fascinating me at the time.

Q: It’s definitely one of the densest comics I’ve read in many years.

A: I don’t know if you’ve ever read "American Flagg," but it was really one of the most formative books I read as a kid and it was a book that I had to read three times. I may as well have picked up "Gravity’s Rainbow." It refused to insult my intelligence.

I wanted to write a book that treated its audience like co-conspirators. I wanted the audience on our side. I wanted to invite people in and engage them. I think subtlety is a lost art. I hate exposition and I hate it when “Suddenly here we are explaining the plot for three pages.” I hate that stuff.

Q: Is that how you came up with the little asides where you or one of the editors pop up to explain things?

A: Yeah, but it’s always completely the opposite of anything that’s of actual value. It never has any use. It never explains what’s going on.

Q: You read a lot of serial comics these days and you’re done in ten minutes. But "Casanova" is something you definitely have to sit down and pay attention to. You can’t do your laundry while you’re reading it.

A: There are lots of laundry books out there. They’re really great, and they sell a billion copies and that’s awesome. I wanted our thing to be different, to give our readers a different experience.

Q: What got you interested in writing for comics in the first place? I don’t know much, I’m ashamed to say, about your work before "Casanova."

A: Well, I’ve always been in the words and pictures business. I started school going after a fine arts degree and then transferred into film ... going after a film degree from a couple of different schools. After I dropped out, some friends and I started a motion graphics design animation company, making films and music videos and commercials for a few years. I’ve always been really interested in telling stories with words and pictures. I’ve always read comics and it just occurred to me one day I was going to do it. I was maybe 18. I wrote hundreds of pages nobody ever, ever saw from the safety of my own house. Just quietly practicing. Trying to learn my craft.

Q: You strike me as someone who really has a good feel for the history of comics. I was thinking of your recent post about Arnold Drake when he passed away and you mentioned Alex Toth. It seems like you’re very aware and appreciative of American comics.

A: Yeah definitely. I worked retail for a long time and it was as much an educational opportunity as it was a chance to get a killer employee discount.

Q: You mentioned day job. What was your recent day job?

A: It was doing the motion graphics stuff. It was a great job, but it was the kind of job that on a moment’s notice would send me to Tokyo for two weeks. Or suddenly I’d have to go to New York and work out of Manhattan for a month.

The first two issues of "Casanova" is a perfect example. I was in New York directing the animation of six HP commercials. I actually finished the first issue of "Casanova" in New York City, working remotely.

Q: Are you an accomplished artist in your own right then?

A: No, I absolutely am not. I am a frustrated artist. There’s muscle atrophy. When I stopped painting and went to film school ... when I closed that toolbox, those muscles atrophied. It’s not like riding a bike. It’s best for everyone that I put down the paintbrush and picked up the camera.

Q: Tell me a bit more specifically about some of the inspiration for "Casanova." I was wondering what influenced you in making something that’s so layered and detailed.

A: Sure. Well, I’ve always loved the super-spy genre. I remember the first James Bond movie I ever saw. Bond movies were always on around the house, in the background. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only and my dad saying “Well, you know there’s a lot of James Bond movies” and I said “really?” There’s three guys that have played James Bond just blew my mind. I’ve always just loved that.

I love it when pens turn into missiles and surfboards turn into hang gliders. It’s all great. I got into this as a sales pitch but their superheroes always put on capes and mine always put on suits. It’s always been a thing for me and I wish there were more comics like "Casanova." That’s really where it came from was writing a comic that I would like to read.

The time-travel stuff. That came from wanting to do a book about identity and wanting to do one of those big, crazy science-fiction tropes but in a cavalier, eh fashion. I didn’t want to just do a super-spy book, I wanted to make a new wave film. I wanted to do Truffaut’s James Bond. Like "Day for Night." I wanted to make a comic book that celebrated comic books and you could play with all of these ridiculous, absurd ideas and just throw them away because it doesn’t matter.

Don’t worry how the casino floats. Don’t worry how a ship that big can fly. It just flies. I’m not a big Jerry Cornelius fan. I knew we would get killed if we didn’t acknowledge that we know of Jerry Cornelius. It’s sort of unconventional. I wanted to do a story about twins and identity and who you are and who you perceive yourself to be and who you present to the world. I can use all these ridiculous science-fiction ideas as a convenient in to that.

Q: You talked about how "Casanova" reflects your own life. Can you talk about the autobiographical aspects of "Casanova?"

A: Ultimately it’s a book about a disaffected young man trying to find his identity and learning as he grows up that his adult ass can’t cash the checks he used. It’s the kind of thing we all go through when we figure out what do we want to be when we grow up? Who are we really? What are we doing here? How beholden are we to our parents — or any kind of authority figure — no one has the right to define who we want to be. It’s about family and friendship and doing what you love versus what you have to do. And those kind of broad thoughts you have growing up.

Q: One of the things I like about the book is how you break the fourth wall. Can you talk for a little bit about why it’s important for you to break that fourth wall?

A: We’ve all read the same things, we all know the tropes. We’re doing a black, white and one color book that’s 16 pages. It’s about a spy who may or may not be having an incestuous relationship with his twin sister who may or may not really be his sister. The characters barely repeat themselves. It’s unforgiving, it takes no chances. It does not care if you follow along with us. If you’re with us, great.

People who love the book, loooove the book. I’ve received the most astonishing responses. And the people who hate the book, hate me. They don’t hate the book, they take it personally. As though I was coming over to their house and calling them morons. It’s a difficult ride if you’re not into it. And anything we can do to acknowledge that and celebrate that? Fuck it, let’s do it. Have the characters talk to the camera and not do it in that way that has contempt for the reader and the medium. let’s reclaim that tool. Let’s use it in a way that celebrates the form and celebrates the medium.

It’s a pretty uncompromising book so anything we can do to lighten the mood I think we should do.

Q: Is there a general complaint from people that hate the book?

A: It’s basically I don’t get it. Which is fine. Great. I appreciate that people try. But that’s fine. A comic writer of some renown once told me that comic readers are like Yankee fans. If you win they’re gonna complain, and if you lose, they’re gonna complain. The comics Internet is like sports radio. There’s always something to bitch about. There are people that love to complain.

Q: I would compare them more to Philadelphia Eagles fans, but ...

A: You can win the super bowl and there’s going to be some prick on Monday going, “you did wrong.”

People don’t get it, that tends to be the complaint. Which is fine. I appreciate that you tried. But people also tend to feel personally insulted that they don’t get it, because they maybe realize that they should. I think people have forgotten how to read intuitively. I think comics have beaten the intuition out of their audience. They’re so used to being spoon-fed and given everything that the minute you introduce subtlety or don’t say everything out loud, the minute you don’t open the box and show us Gwenyth Paltrow’s head inside, you lose people.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the $1.99 format. How important do you think it’s been to "Casanova’s" success?

A: I think it’s been sort of backhandedly successful. I think retailers ordered more because they were cheap or something. Some retailer think I could be selling a $6 book in this slot. It’s not worth the effort to lift the box because my profit margin is so low. I will allow you to evaluate that statement independently. I think it got it on more shelves. Retailers said “It’s only two bucks, we can order twice as many. Let's give it a shot” Every single cold sale, every single person that walked by my table at Heroes, when I say it’s only $2, they buy it. Every single one. And I’ve sold by hand more than 300 copies of the book at those two shows. I sold crazy amounts of those books.

If we were a $3 full-color book, and we made the numbers we made, everyone would be making really comfortable money off of it. I don’t know that we’d be selling in those numbers though. I would hazard to guess that we would be selling 2,500, maybe 3,000 copies if we were a $3.50 book. But we’re a one color book and we’re selling 9,000 copies. It’s not bad, but it’s two bucks.

Q: It seems like the $2 price is a great promotion. We’re talking about collecting for the trade, but it seems like a great way to drum up the press for it. Feel free to disagree, but I guess one of the tests for how successful it is will be how well the trade does.

A: The numbers of the trade were enough that Image thought we should release a hardcover. That’s pretty cool. It’s going to be a great package. It will be worth it to people who have been waiting for the trade. There’s a lot of value out there, for both the people who have been waiting and for the people who have followed.

Q: How did you get Gabriel Ba on the book?

A: I went after his brother Fabio. Fabio and Gabriel talked amongst themselves and Fabio decided Gabriel was the guy to draw it. I was like “OK, do I get a vote?” (laughs) It was their decision and god bless them. Gabriel is amazing. No regrets.

Q: He seems integral to the book. I can’t see another artist laying out the story as well as he does.

You mentioned Warren Ellis. I wondered who some of your other influences were.

A: I don’t even know that I would consider Warren an influence writing for comics. I certainly read many of his books it’s hard to say not, but my influences ... I love Jim Woodring. I can’t imagine there’s another creator out there as different as me, but Jim Woodring’s work never fails to inspire me to want to just go work. The early Stray Bullets stuff from Dave Lapham. Hugo Pratt, Daniel Clowes, the EC guys, David Mazzuchelli, Paul Pope is really huge. A chunk of the Will Eisner. Matsumoto. The Hernandez brothers. Grant Morrison. Now I’m just looking around my room.

Q: That’s a pretty eclectic line-up.

A: it’s not really apparant. You look at "Casanova" and go oh, he likes Gilbert Hernandez.

Q: Actually, I could see that, especially some of his more experimental comics.

Let’s talk about Marvel for a minute. How did you get to work there?

A: Axel Alonzo knew my work and was a fan of a graphic novel I did called Last of the Independents. It was a crime book and that got me into his office. And I started pitching things to him and his assistant Warren Simons. That kind of got me into the Marvel neck of the woods.

I pitched a lot. I think I wrote easily a couple hundred pages of pitches and scripts that nobody ever saw but Warrant or Axel. A wolverine short story was the only thing I had to show for two, two and a half years of pitching.

And I swear to god, he called me a year and a half ago “There’s a big thing, civil war going on, and we’re going to relaunch 'Punisher Civil War Journal' and I think you’re the guy to do it.” And that was it. I wrote the opening scene, with Stilt-Man being shot in the taint, just as like a practice run. I hadn’t written straight superheros and I wanted to find the tone. I knew I wanted to do this black funny thing. I wrote six pages as a sample and a one-sheet and that was how I got in at Marvel.

Q: How does the experience of writing for Marvel compare to something like Casanova?

A: With Casanova I can bend or break the rules. If you’re on Team Casanova, you know what to expect and we can play some games, I can take some chances and lose you and anger you and it’s OK. We’ll all be in good shape.

With Marvel you’re beholden to the property. you’re beholden to the shareholder, you’re beholden to editorial. There’s a degree of responsibility you have. It’s a different experience but I like it. It’s part of the reason I wanted to do it. It’s not just “Whoo hoo Marvel.” I grew up reading Marvel stuff but I’m not that guy. I had a really awesome day job that let me go make music videos for Feint and co-direct a video with Kanye West, so I never freelancer-hungry. I was never that guy, “you have to let me write my sub-mariner series and here’s why!” I was always kind of chill about it. If it didn’t work I would walk away and everyone was cool. I wanted to go after Punisher like I did because I wanted to work with Axel. Axel Alonso is one of those editors. If you look at his CV, it’s really impressive. I wanted to know what it was like not just to work with an editor, but to work with that editor. They let me in the candy store in this major, major crossover that’s actually going to change the status quo in this really profound, really big ways. Yes, do it, now’s the time.

Q: It’s a crossover that got mocked really hard though ...

A: Yeah, and Marvel cried all the way to the fucking bank. It sold like half a million copies. It’s Yankees fans.

Q: I was going to say though that your run on Punisher seemed to be the only instance where people were actually saying favorable things.

A: Is that true?

Q: That’s my impression. I wasn’t following any of the tie-ins, but I’d read the blogosphere reviews and they were all really negative, especially on the mini-series itself, but War Journal seemed to be one of the few that actually had positive reviews.

A: Wow. I actually went into ego quarantine when it came out. I haven’t read, I haven’t been looking, so I didn’t know. That’s awesome, that’s great. I didn’t want to turn into one of those crazy on the Internet guys. But that’s hilarious.

With this new thing that’s started up I wanted to look because ...

Q: Are you talking about this new series you’re starting?

A: The thing with Frank’s costume change. I looked a little bit because I knew that it was coming when they offered me the book. I wanted to be a part of one of those things where they release an image and there’d be 200 people screaming. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted a taste of that. I peeked a little bit and people were going apoplectic over a single , contextless image, and it was hysterical to me.

Q: So on the whole it sounds like you’ve had a pretty positive experience working at Marvel.

A: Yeah.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 12, 2007

So yeah, I covered the Captain America death too

Yup, I got roped into the whole mass media onslaught that was Captain America #25 last week. Actually, it ended up being kind of fun, as I got to go to the comic store early in the morning, and got to talk to folks like Tom Spurgeon, which is always nice. My thanks to Tom, Joe Quesada, and my local comic book shops for taking time out to chat with me. It's always appreciated.

So long, Steve Rogers, we hardly knew ye.

Steve Rogers, of course, is the civilian identity of Captain America, the flag-wearing, shield-throwing superhero who, in the latest issue of his monthly comic, was seemingly killed by a sniper’s bullet.

Captain America first appeared in comic books in 1941 when then-scrawny Rogers was injected with the “super-soldier serum” to help fight the Nazis. Stan Lee brought him back in the 1960s, explaining his longevity by saying he had been cryogenically frozen in ice. The Captain has been a mainstay of the Marvel Comics universe since he thawed.

The current issue is a continuation of the recent “Civil War” mega-event, where the Cap led a resistance movement against the Superhero Registration Act, a law that required heroes to become federal employees.

The final issue of that series saw Rogers turning himself in, devastated at the destruction the two opposing groups had wrought to New York City. In the new comic, he’s assassinated while heading to his arraignment.

The news of the Captain’s death caused a media frenzy last week, with many drawing allusions to the current political atmosphere.

“Making a political comment that blunt caught everyone’s attention,” said Tom Spurgeon of

Marvel was, in fact, taken a little bit aback by the coverage.

“We’re not surprised that we got coverage. We are surprised by the magnitude of the coverage,” said Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.

Local comic book stores, meanwhile, were flooded with phone calls and customers.

Bill Wahl, co-owner of the Comix Connection stores in York and Mechanicsburg, said hundreds of people had stopped by his York store on Wednesday to pick up a copy.

Ralph Watts of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra said he sold out of his copies early on Wednesday. And Bob Newbury of Cosmic Comics in Harrisburg reported he’d sold out in two hours.

“As a retailer, I love it,” Watts said. “As long as my regular customers are covered, everything else is a plus.”

Leaving aside the political metaphors for now (does the Red Skull represent al-Qaida?), the big question is whether he’s really dead and, if so, when will he come back to life? Superheroes, after all, are killed and revived with alarming regularity. Superman, Supergirl, even Captain America’s long lost partner Bucky have all journeyed back from the great beyond.

“[Death] needs to be a consequence or [fans are] not satisfied with the level of violence or realism involved,” Spurgeon said. “And yet you have to have a way out of that because killing characters weakens the portfolio.”

Of course, the death and resurrection of a character is not something that’s unique to comic books. Soap-opera characters die and come back all the time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer popped out of her grave. Even Sherlock Holmes fell off the Reichenbach Falls only to return when Victorian fans demanded it.

But in this age of mega-hyped, “everything changes” crossovers like “Infinite Crisis” and “Civil War,” it’s easy to see Cap’s death as a PR stunt; a cynical attempt to drive up sales.

“If we really wanted to make this a publicity stunt we would have leaked this to the media about a month ago,” Quesada said. “We wanted to do something where we surprised fans. We didn’t come into this saying ... ‘let’s kill somebody.’ ”

Spurgeon agreed that Cap’s death appears to have arisen organically out of the current storyline, which may make all the difference.

“It’s nice when a comic revolves around a plot point from a writer rather than a bunch of editors sitting in a room deciding how to pump the market for some cash,” he said.

Whether you really believe Cap is dead, it’s hard not to be impressed with Marvel’s stealth tactics. Prior to the comic’s release, many in the comic world were anticipating last Friday’s arrival of “300,” the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. No one’s talking about that movie now.

So R.I.P., Steve Rogers, at least until they decide to resurrect you a year or so from now. Or when they announce the inevitable Captain America movie. Whichever comes first.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Graphic Lit: "newuniversal" and "Nextwave"

Way back in 1986, Marvel Comics tried a little experiment.

In honor of the company’s 25th anniversary, then-editor Jim Shooter launched a series of books collectively known as “The New Universe.” This imprint would feature superhero stories, but in a more realistic setting — no mythological beings or magic powers — and the heroes’ actions would have realistic consequences.

Of course, the whole thing tanked miserably. It didn’t help that the books were by and large poorly written and drawn, and lacking in any real focus. Most of the comics were canceled after only a few issues, and the whole line limped along until it was discontinued in 1989, marking it as one of Marvel’s biggest failures.

Of course, memories are short and comics are riding high in the public sphere now, so why not revamp the whole thing for a new audience? That’s the thinking behind “newuniversal,” an ongoing, monthly series from Marvel.

This time, the talent behind the books is a little more accomplished, as acclaimed writer Warren Ellis and artist Salvador Larroca attempt to overhaul the imprint for a modern audience.

The basic premise stays the same: In an alternate world much like our own, a strange phenomenon known as the “White Event” gives a handful of people across the globe super powers, though Ellis changes characters’ motivations, identities and even genders around enough that the whole thing feels fresh.

And if that plot sounds a little like the new hit TV show “Heroes,” well, remember that it predates that show by a good 20 years.

Only two issues of “newuniversal” have come out so far, so it’s early to tell how good the series ultimately will be. It’s off to a good start, however, with some nice pacing and setup by Ellis and Larroca. My only gripe lies with Larroca’s need to model various characters after famous actors. (Why does the archaeologist look like Gene Hackman?)

Though it occasionally dabbles in cliche, “newuniversal” is strong enough for me to recommend it to those looking for a good monthly sci-fi series to chew on.


One of Ellis’ other ongoing series for Marvel will be winding down soon: “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.”

That’s a real shame, as in many ways it’s a lot more goofy and fun than I suspect “newuniversal” will ever be.

“Nextwave” follows the adventures of five third-banana superheroes who discover the anti-terrorist agency they’ve been working for is actually funded by terrorists and decide to go after them. Explosions ensue.

The series is loud, over the top and gloriously ridiculous. A capes-and-cowls comic pared down to its barest elements but with the volume turned up to 11.

Ellis’ writing crackles with smart-aleck dialogue and bizarre scenarios. He’s ably complemented by artist Stuart Immonen, whose clean, angular drawings show a real pop sensibility and add to the overall sense of absurdity.

There will be more “Nextwave” comics in the future, but the series as it currently stands will end after the 12th issue. Thankfully, back issues are relatively easy to find, and the recent, “Nextwave Vol. 1: This is What They Want,” ($14.99) collects the first six issues in one handy volume.

As the comic’s tagline says, “If you like anything, you’ll love Nextwave!”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Labels: , ,