Rick Remender on ‘Captain America,’ ‘Devolution’ and the Desecration of Charles Xavier [Interview]
Of all the all the superhero comics restaffed and relaunched as part of the Marvel NOW initiative, I think Captain America is the one that most lives up to the bold promise of an all-new, all-different direction. Written by Rick Remender and illustrated by John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White, the series flies far afield of the super-espionage aesthetic of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's now-classic run, marooning Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's "Sentinel of Liberty" in a grim alternate dimension where he must fight for years and years to survive against warring tribes of monsters while defending -- and raising as a son -- the infant child of his insane, grotesque enemy, Arnim Zola. The book has more in common with the expansive, otherworldly adventure of European-style sci-fi like Brandon Graham and co.'s revival of Prophet than any Marvel comics of recent memory, and is a good indicator of where Remender's work is going thematically.
Similarly epic and yet bleak in scope is Remender's next creator-owned project, Devolution, a Dynamite Entertainment production with artist Paul Renaud that imagines a planet Earth that's been reverted to an earlier state and mutated into something horrible, with possible salvation in the hands of one woman with the duty to get evolution back on track. Things are likewise dire in Remender and John Cassaday's Uncanny Avengers, where the peaceful legacy of the late mutant leader Charles Xavier threatens to be overwritten by Onslaught, an apocalyptically dangerous evolution of the Nazi villain the Red Skull.
Earlier this month Remender and I sat down at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle to discuss his current body of work. The following contains no major spoilers for future events in any of Remender's work, but what you will find is a candid conversation with one of mainstream comics' most popular writers and a lot of artwork from Remender and Renaud's tantalizing Devolution.
ComicsAlliance: Last year at this show you announced the Fear Agent Library Editions. A big deal. So how's that been going in the last year? That's your pride and joy, isn't it?
Rick Remender: Yeah, it is. It's been crazy gratifying. We sold out of the first printings before they came out, and then we sold out of the second printings before they came out. The orders keep coming and we can't fill demand, so it's nice. [The original serialization] was a slow burn and the shipping was always sporadic on it -- it was far from perfect in regards to that. But the idea was that we would make each issue the best we could, with guys like Tony Moore and Jerome Opeña and Kieron Dwyer and Mike Hawthorne and John Lucas and Francesco Francavilla and all the guys who worked on it. I think the shipping hurt the book as we were doing it because we were really only putting out five, maybe six issues a year. That shipping schedule has never really been shown to do very well for anybody when it comes down to it.
[A fan stops by to praise Remender's new Captain America series. Remender remarked, "It's hard to go wrong with John Romita, Jr." and noted that the work is inspired by Jack Kirby's work in the mid-70s -- "It's peppered with homage to that stuff... such free imagination... big, ballsy storytelling." The fan emphasizes the differences between the new run and previous runs. Another fan says it's the first Captain America story he's read.]
CA: I like it, too. The only Captain America I'd read previously was the run written by Ed Brubaker. I thought I would avail myself of all the new #1's Marvel was doing and that one, Captain America, was very much not what I expected. I like it a lot, though, because I really enjoy that kind of immersive Euro-sci-fi. I don't have to know anything about the Avengers or any of that stuff to read it.
RR: It seemed important, with all those relaunches, to do that. If I did anything that resembled what Brubaker did, it kind of unraveled the point of the thing. I figured it was something where you had to introduce the character to a new audience -- and to yourself. When you're writing it, if you don't do that work... not to sound like somebody going on about the craft of it all, but if you don't get into the character and walk through their life for a while and understand them, you write them kind of flat.
CA: But going back to Fear Agent...
RR: It's nice to finally be at a point where we finished the series out, it's got a definitive ending and now we can put it in this great format. And people are buying it! It's been nice!
CA: I bought one. In fact, that weekend when you guys announced it last year, I had come to Emerald City with the intention of buying all the trades because the final volume had come out and it was all finished. But I'm sort of a fetishist for these deluxe books.
RR: Yeah, me too. The Absolute Editions? They just look so much better on a bookshelf. I do digital now and the rest is either a hardcover or a trade or I don't want it. I don't want piles of floppies collecting. It's just not convenient to have boxes of comics anymore. I shared a studio with Kieron Dwyer for a while and he would get the DC comps. I would try to get my wife -- my girlfriend at the time -- to check them out and you realize that to a normal human being it's like, "Hey, here is an episode of a television series that's been running for 30 years." It's like saying, "Catch Doctor Who, season 17, episode 6." It's a difficult entry point. There's been this backlash on the numbering systems [whereby long-running series are relaunched from #1 somewhat frequently]. Everyone's like, "Why are you renumbering them?" Because it helps people get into the books! That's a responsibility as a writer -- when I've got the #1 on there -- to do what I did on Cap or at least try and define the character for new readers. I think we should keep renumbering them every two years. Like seasons. Every 30 issues, we call it a season and drop it back down to #1.
CA: You've got to give a season a name, though, so you can find it when it's on the shelf. There are so many, like, "Captain America Volume One" books out there.
RR: Yeah, without knowing [any other information] you'd have to look at the years.
CA: Or know who the writer or artist is to find out which one you'd like.
RR: Dark Horse does it with Buffy [The Vampire Slayer: Season Nine]. It's clean. I like it. I understand it. And then you still give people the opportunity to hop back into the #1 and hopefully that's another opportunity for the writer to find a new way to make the character clear to people who are hopping in, or [refresh] some of the cast.
CA: Captain America is the Marvel book of yours that I follow. I haven't read Uncanny Avengers because I'm afraid. [The Avengers and X-Men franchises] have been very confusing and intimidating to me for many years.
RR: Well, again, I'm trying to keep a nice, clean high concept on that one. It's very simple: Charles Xavier's dead. There's a supervillain called the Red Skull who has unearthed Xavier's body and bio-welded his brain to his own, inside that red skull, and is beginning to learn how to use Xavier's powers. The idea of the team is, the Avengers have never helped the Mutants, and the Mutants are the minority in the Marvel Universe. This is simply a team of Avengers and X-Men working together to fulfill the dreams of Charles Xavier now that he's gone, [and that dream is] humans and mutants working together.
Any time I delve into continuity, I really try to define it as if it's for the first-time reader. If I show you Kang, you might not know who the hell Kang is. You might not know the history of Kang. My responsibility is to show you Kang is a cool character, whether you've read anything or not. Hopefully you get the same with Red Skull or any of those guys. Whether or not I'm successful at that every time remains to be debated, but we try to do that for people. I appreciate it because I was out of mainstream superhero comics for maybe 20 years before I started doing them as a living.
CA: So the Uncanny Avengers are trying to make everyone cool with the mutants now. That's their mission, right?
RR: There's never been a public team in the Marvel Universe that's dealt with it. It's always been, "The mutants are on their own. Life sucks for them." You've never had this big public Avengers team address the fact that these mutants are minorities, that there's a lot of hate and prejudice directed at them. The Avengers had never done much to combat that. Captain America realizes the mistake and he brings in some X-Men, he brings in Cyclops' brother Alex to lead the team and away we go.
CA: Do they encounter threats that are distinctly about stopping the Uncanny Avengers from realizing that goal of equality?
RR: Yeah. It's one of those things where once you've got the mission statement of the book, I'm going to try and make sure that all the threats deal with mutant relations in some way. The first threat is the Red Skull, who's now got Xavier's brain in his head. He's the most despicable, vile character in the Marvel Universe and you give him the powers of Charles Xavier. This is the Red Skull, taken out of World War II. He's a straight Nazi. He sees the mutants as a threat but he also sees them as a minority that he can use, that he can direct public hatred towards so he can build his army and take over the world through the same sorts of means that they were attempting to in World War II.
CA: And that he has Charles' brain is especially offensive to the mutants. Like he's corrupting the dream in a very profound way?
RR: That's the idea. It sort of takes a s*** on it. And then the other batch of characters we're dealing with on the other end of the spectrum is Apocalypse and that mythology. And the Apocalypse characters are Celestial-appointed guardians of evolution. Their job is to make sure that when the next stage of evolution happens, the humans don't kill off the mutants before there are enough mutants to protect themselves. So the Red Skull wants to wipe out the mutants for his own political gains, these Apocalypse characters want to protect the mutants from the humans. So they become at odds. And our team of Avengers end up in the middle of that.
CA: Marvel's teasing something having to do with Onsalught, another character I'm not familiar with. Can you tell me about that?
RR: So in the '90s they had a thing where this creature Onslaught was created when Xavier kills Magneto but stores a copy of his consciousness in a prison in his mind, and the two things merge to create ONSLAUGHT.
CA: Okay, got it.
RR: It's one of these things: at a point in time at Marvel, I started being handed these things that I'd identify as being from the '90s. And I was a big Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Slave Labor Graphics kid. I wasn't into the superhero stuff so much. But I recognize the strength of something like X-Force because it's iconic and we all know about it, but it might not meet the modern sensibility in things that we're looking for in our comic books. When I was assigned those books, I was doing a lot of pooh-poohing of the characters in my head. I just wasn't a fan. But I realized that's a challenge. If I'm going to sit around and pop my mouth off like, "Haha, f***in' '90s," well, if that's true and if I think I'm a good writer I should be able to take that stuff and do something good with it. And the challenge was a lot of fun. Characters like Deadpool and Venom who I don't really have a connection with, trying to do something where I could make myself connect and care about them... I found that almost more fun than Captain America. I really enjoy it. Taking things I already connect with like Captain America, it's easier. There's something nice about the uphill challenge of the other thing.
My editor Tom Brevoort and I were discussing escalations and Tom brought up Onslaught, who is this big ridiculous device from the '90s. But he also has a natural story fit for what we're doing. Coming out of what we're doing, it's a natural fit.
CA: Via the desecration of Xavier's memory?
RR: Right. Except in this case, instead of Magneto and Xavier it's Red Skull and Xavier. So then I started thinking, Onslaught is this incredible, all-powerful, godlike, omnipotent being in the Marvel Universe. But I don't see Xavier nor Magneto necessarily as evil. Whereas Red Skull is supposed to be evil incarnate; he's supposed to be this terrible, evil, awful guy. I like the idea of turning him into the Beyonder and seeing what he can do. That got me excited and we followed ideas and I think it turned into something that I think will be fun.
CA: Let's talk about your Dynamite Entertainment book, Devolution.
RR: I think we've landed on October for shipping that. That's a creator-owned book that I pitched to them in 2006. The artist, Paul Renaud is a brilliant, brilliant scientist. Paul and I couldn't get our schedules to line up for years. Then about a year ago it looked like he could.
I was reading an article about how the CIA was developing a chemical agent that would "turn down" religious fanaticism in the Middle East. They had located the part of the brain that was overactive in religious fanatics and they were trying to find a way to deter, devolve and revert it so that there would no longer be zealots that we'd have to go to war with. It's so creepy. It's like castrating someone's religious views.
This was apparently a real thing and it got me thinking and I started writing stories about the natural consequences of this. What if it worked at first? And then I just had this very simple idea, if you're reverting and devolving a part of the brain and shrinking it, what if the devolution process mutated itself and what if things started reverse-mutating into, maybe, various forms of what had happened in their evolution? What if humans become strange neanderthals -- which may not actually be linked to us in reality, but we devolve down that way because of the mutation. And that's just pulp science fiction, but the high concept is the government uses this. You've got a team of marines who are given an antidote and then they crop-dust some combatants and it works. They put down their guns, they're no longer screaming "Allah!" and everybody seems to have a peaceful resolution. But then of course the unintended consequence is the devolution agent mutates, it becomes airborne, and it spreads. So now everything on the planet -- plant life, humans, insects... everything begins to devolve and reverse-mutate and become whatever I want it to become -- mostly prehistoric, Jurassic Park versions. But the idea that was fascinating to me was 8 billion neanderthals and what that looks like. I started seeing San Francisco with giant plants around the buildings and neanderthals tribes riding around on wooly mammoths. Every window knocked out, every office becoming a cave.
RR: The main character is a woman who's the daughter of a Saudi Arabian scientist who worked on the devolution agent in a laboratory in San Francisco, and who was the only person aware that it could go sour, and was creating a re-evolution agent for when things began to break. She's been given the antidote because she was obviously the daughter of this guy. She's been making her way from Saudi Arabia to San Francisco over the past ten years.
CA: So it's become difficult to physically travel around?
RR: There's nothing. They had to use a sail boat. It's a world full of danger. There's a sabertooth tiger, there's giant ants. The cactuses have become skyscraper cactuses full of worms and mosquitos that eat you. Paralyzing ant bites. It's a big Land of the Lost play thing. This woman, Raja is on her way to San Francisco, to find the re-evolution agent. Along the way she discovers the marines who had the antidote, who dusted in the first place. They didn't devolve. They're still alive and they've taken a military base and turned it into a compound that she runs afoul of. She becomes sort of immeshed in their world. Some of the alpha males in this marine troop might not be so hip to the idea of fixing things because they've got seven wives and they rule the roost. And then you get to play the alpha males and the tribal aspects of humanity against the neanderthals outside.
I think I've got some interesting things to say about how that plays out. That's the basic story. There are some wrinkles along the way and there are some science fiction aspects that aren't immediately present in the high concept. Alex Ross and Jae Lee are doing covers for it.
[A fan interrupts to say "I would read the s*** out of that" before buying Remender's last copy of the Fear Agent omnibus.]
CA: It must feel good to make that $80 sale again and again.
RR: Yeah, dude. I had the table piled with them. There's a new atmosphere in comics where people are excited about creator-owned books. I did them, I fought that fight for 15 years, and it wasn't necessarily always that way. When I started doing creator-owned books in '97, nobody went from creator-owned to mainstream. You didn't do it to get rich. You did it because you wanted to make comic books. So it's nice that people are going back and finding the creator-owned work I did prior to the Marvel stuff.
All issues of Remender's Captain America and Uncanny Avengers are on sale now in comics shops and digitally from ComiXology. Fear Agent Library Edition vol 1 is available in comics shops and bookstores. The entire Fear Agent series is available now from Dark Horse Digital. Devolution premieres in October from Dynamite Enertainment, but you can check out seven unlettered pages below.