Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Marvel Comics (1995-1998)

After I left Valiant I did some freelance writing for Marvel Comics. 

I have editor Kelly Corvese to thank for giving me my first job at Marvel. I did two issues of Professor Xavier and the X-Men as a try out for him, which he liked. Shortly afterwards he asked me to take over as the regular writer on the book. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Fanboy heaven! 

The Professor Xavier and the X-men book was in effect a re-telling of the original
Uncanny X-Men tales from the 1960’s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, only with a modern slant. A different character, usually an X-Man, narrated each issue—with few exceptions. Issue #15 was told from Magneto’s point of view, while #16 focused on anti-mutant terrorist Bolivar Trask.

Improving the original stories was of course impossible. They’re classics for a reason. The most I could do was try to add little character moments here and there to expand on what had already been established during the X-Men’s long history. I believe our page count was actually shorter than the original issues, adding to the challenge.

I scripted issues #6 and 8 from a plot by Fred Schiller—though to be honest it’s likely I never even saw his plots and was just handed a stack of finished artwork, using the original source material for guidance.

Issues #9 and 11 were my try-out books for Kelly.

Writing Professor and the X-Men turned out to be a lot of fun—and a great learning experience. Jack Kirby is King!

In addition to my steady monthly assignments at Marvel I also wrote a Sabretooth and Mystique mini-series and the Sabretooth: Back to Nature one-shot. Though both these books were plagued by all sorts of problems, I enjoyed working on them nonetheless. 

One of the biggest problems was the ever-changing set of restrictions on X-Men-related characters—conditions that were beyond my editor’s control. At the time Sabretooth was being kept under lock and key by the mutant team X-Factor at their compound. Originally these books were to have set up and actually show his escape from the group. But it didn’t work out that way. Scheduling and other factors made it impossible to coordinate our efforts in a satisfactory manner.

Weak writing on my part didn’t help matters any either. I was unsatisfied by the end results, which read like generic tales in which the status quo of the main characters remained unchanged from beginning to end.

X-Men Unlimited #13 was a doomed project from the start, even though I was psyched to script a plot that had been written by George Perez. (I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. His runs on The New Teen Titans and Wonder Woman back in the 1980’s are seminal works in the industry.) The catch was that there had been some disagreement between George and editorial regarding a story point involving the Silver Surfer—something about the destruction of the planet Zenn-La. It’s been so long now I can’t remember the specifics. Bottom line, the plot I’d been handed was no longer usable. Editorial decree had dictated story changes that resulted in huge chunks of plot being discarded. Artwork had been altered, characters removed from certain panels, entire pages of finished pencils/inks scrapped altogether. The whole thing was quite a mess. I was basically handed a stack of finished artwork and told to make some sense of it all and turn it into a cohesive story. To top it off, the deadline was hell—I had only a couple of days turnaround time. All in all, this book was a disaster.

What If #94 was a based on an interesting premise: What would have happened if Juggernaut had killed the original X-Men? Answer: With no X-Men around to stop them, the Sentinels run amok and wreak havoc on earth—leaving Cain Marko as the planet’s sole survivor. This issue was a lot of fun to work on, giving me the opportunity to once again team up with Jim Calafiore, who’d been the regular artist on Armorines back in the Valiant days.

The story in 1997’s Uncanny X-Men Annual stemmed from my desire to plug certain plot holes and pick up story threads that had been left dangling in the wake of the Storm mini-series and elsewhere by other writers. My love for these characters was such that I felt a need to reconcile some of the tangled continuity. Whether I was successful or not I’ll never know—I just hope readers enjoyed the story.

After Professor Xavier and the X-Men folded (as a result of Marvel’s entire 99 cents line being shelved) I was assigned the task of putting together a proposal for a monthly Black Knight series. The Black Knight was a longtime member of the Avengers.

At the eleventh hour the powers-that-be decided that they wanted an ongoing Maverick series instead. I literally had less than two weeks to research what had come before and put together an outline for the first twelve issues.

Maverick had been created during Jim Lee’s run on the X-Men books. He had a bit of a convoluted history involving Wolverine, Sabretooth, and the rest of Team X—yet the character himself had little or no backstory to speak of. This was actually a positive, since it allowed me to essentially play with a blank slate and build the character from the ground up.

But it soon became apparent that in order to do an ongoing monthly book with Maverick in the starring role some major hurdles would have to be overcome.

For one, his mutant powers had been portrayed so inconsistently that it was unclear exactly what those powers even were.

In addition, he was dying of the Legacy Virus, an AIDs-like terminal disease that had been sweeping the Marvel Universe at the time, killing mutants. The higher-ups in editorial had no clue how or when they were going to resolve the Legacy Virus storyline in the main X-books, so using that as a way to drive stories (such as a search for a cure) was not an option. Enter the contrived remission scenario.

Worst of all, Maverick was saddled with a kid sidekick (a teen by the name of Chris Bradley who was also dying of the Legacy Virus), whom I felt had no place in a book that was being promoted as a high-octane adventure book featuring spies and mercenaries. I suppose killing the Bradley boy off in the first issue would have been the easy way out. But again, that was not an option.

So I tried to turn Chris Bradley’s presence into a positive, with admittedly mixed results. The character resonated enough with readers that he went on to have a life after Maverick in some later incarnation of The New Warriors book. He was also featured in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine feature film, played by former Hobbit Dominic Monaghan. 

My outline approved, I quickly got to work on the plot/script for the first issue, which was to be double-sized.

Upon the book’s release we got some flak from fans claiming that Maverick’s character had been softened. In past guest appearances he’d been portrayed as having a more ruthless edge. And they were right.

Contrary to popular belief, this was not an editorial decree. The blame for it can be put squarely on my shoulders. A conscious decision was made on my part to differentiate him from characters such as Deadpool and the Punisher. At the time, the market was saturated with ultra-violent books. I had no interest whatsoever in promoting the use of guns and gratuitous violence. I thought it an irresponsible take for a book that would be aimed primarily at kids.

So how about exploring a conflicted character—a former cold-blooded killer who, due to life-altering circumstances, could no longer be so cavalier about the taking of someone’s life as he’d been in the past? A story about a man who’d done horribly cold-blooded deeds but was now seeking redemption was an interesting, compelling premise.

My take was that the Legacy Virus had forced Maverick to stare death in the face. For someone born with a mutant healing power, suddenly facing the stark reality of his own mortality would have profound consequences. Given a second chance at life, how would he choose to live it? Could he ever come to terms with his past and put those demons behind him? Was it even possible for someone like him to become a better person? His new responsibilities to Chris could play into that as well—especially in light of the fact that Maverick had been responsible for the death of his own unborn child.

Jim Cheung did an awesome job on the art chores on this book. At the time I felt his art was very much under-appreciated. It’s great to see how that’s changed. Today he’s considered one of Marvel’s top superstar artists—deservedly so. I love all the work he’s done on Young Avengers and the recent Children’s Crusade.

Issue #2 is my favorite issue of Maverick. The story was structured as a series of flashbacks that explored Maverick’s tragic past. I thought his German descent added a nice texture to the character. I’m happy to say that fifteen years later his origin remains intact—my tiny contribution to the overall tapestry of the Marvel Universe.

The flashback sequences also introduced a character called the Confessor into the mix. From the start, the Confessor was being groomed to be one of Maverick’s main nemeses.

Though the use of guest-stars so early in the run (Alpha Flight in issue #3, followed by the ever popular Wolverine in the next issue) may strike cynics as a cheap and obvious attempt to attract new readers to the fledgling book, in truth it was motivated more by my fondness for these characters as well as a desire to integrate Maverick into the larger Marvel Universe. Care was taken to assure that these guest appearances were woven organically into the story—particularly in the case of Wolverine, whose ties to Maverick had been established over the years in prior issues of the X-Men and Wolverine’s solo book. In fact, Wolverine’s interest in Chris Bradley’s welfare stemmed from a story in X-Men Unlimited #15. The story had marked Chris’ first appearance and set up the dynamic between Maverick and the dying teen.

Issue #5 was originally to have pitted Maverick against the Juggernaut, but for whatever reason the Juggernaut was unavailable, so the Blob was used instead. In the end, this issued proved to be a lot of fun to work on—and the story was better served by the Blob’s presence. 

Issue #7 was arguably the short-lived series’ highlight, bringing to head conflicts that had been building since the first issue—resulting in an inevitable clash between Maverick and Sabretooth.

It killed me when deadline troubles midway through the series forced us to do a three-issue back-up starring Chris Bradley. Though by this point I had warmed to the Bradley character, I really felt these back-up stories disrupted the flow of the main storyline and ate up pages that would have been better used to expand action sequences that ended up getting a short shrift.

Issue #9 was the first face-to-face meeting between Maverick and the Confessor in the present day. Literally. Though readers were unaware of it, the old acquaintance of Maverick’s named Jean Luc Vivant introduced in this issue was in fact the Confessor in his civilian guise. This revelation would have come in the series’ third year.

Future writers have since discarded this idea. I believe his real name was revealed to be Yuri Medvedev in an issue of Dark Reign: The Cabal published in 2009.

Other seeds that were planted this issue would similarly never bear fruit. During their battle the Confessor taunts Maverick by claiming that his parents had been loyal to the Nazis. This plot point was left unresolved due to the series’ premature cancellation.

By the time I started plotting issue #10 (I think issue #6 had just hit the stands) I had been informed that issue #12 would be the final issue. This necessitated some minor changes to my original plans for the last three issues, most notably in the final pages of issue #12 to give the series some sense of closure.

I’d grown pretty attached to Maverick (it’s amazing the emotional investment one can have on fictional characters), so I was disappointed when his book got canceled. The feedback we’d gotten from readers on those first six issues was mostly positive. It’s a shame our audience wasn’t large enough to sustain publication. I felt we had some cool stuff lined up for the book’s second year.

Among the storylines planned was a multi-issue story in which Maverick time-travelled to the distant past. Set in the final days of World War II, guest-stars would have included the Invaders (a childhood favorite of mine) and a young Max Eisenhardt in his pre-Magneto days.

During the course of the story Maverick would have encountered his parents. Before returning to the present he was to discover that they were only posing as Nazi sympathizers in order to secretly save what Jews they could from the death camps. This would fuel Maverick’s desire to help mutants and give him a greater sense of purpose.  

A final epilogue set some time in the past would have shown Magneto (unaware of their true nature) taking his revenge out on Maverick’s parents and causing their deaths—laying the groundwork for a present-day confrontation between Maverick and Magneto.  

The publication of Maverick #12 marked the close of my career in comics. It was an awesome ride while it lasted. I’ve loved comic books since I was little. I still do. It’s a wonderful medium, and I feel very fortunate that I got to play in the sandbox alongside creators for whom I had the deepest respect and admiration. My only regret is that I wish I had been better at writing dialogue—I cringe when I read most of my old stuff now. Writing natural-sounding dialogue is really tough to do. My failed attempts make me appreciate the talents of writers such as Garth Ennis and Brian K. Vaughan all the more. If you’ve not read Ennis’ Preacher or Vaughan’s Y the Last Man I can’t recommend them enough.

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