By Kiel Phegley
Nothing can turn a book on its head quite like moving its main hero off stage in light of a new renegade element. In the case of Howard Chaykin's run as writer of SQUADRON SUPREME, that lesson hit 10 times as hard when the scribe sent Hyperion and company across the cosmos for an initial six-issue arc that saw the Squadron replaced on Earth with some strikingly familiar characters including four mutated astronauts and a distraught teen with spider powers.
However, recent events have brought about the return of the original Squadron and February 18's issue #8 promises to kick start a war between that team and Nick Fury's new cabal of characters, with the villainous Emil Burbank sitting on the sidelines with a plan.
With the story heating up, we called Chaykin for a behind the scenes look on how he crafted the tale as well as word on the two new Marvel series he plans to unleash in 2009 as well as his long-brewing artistic collaboration with writer Brian Michael Bendis.
Marvel.com: How's it going, Howard?
Pretty good. I'm just getting back to the drawing board today after a few weeks of being lazy and just writing.
Marvel.com: I'd actually wanted to ask you about that. How do you divide up your time between the two tasks? Do you draw in the mornings and write in the afternoons?
I do what I'm supposed to be doing when I'm doing it. For example, I have to write this [limited] series that I'm doing for Marvel, and in that regard I just earmarked the time. It all works out generally speaking that things play out when they have to play out.
Marvel.com: Well, in dividing up story time on SQUADRON SUPREME, it seems we've gotten past the opening salvo where you expanded an already heavy cast with a new run of let's say "Marvelous" characters. But the new story that just started in #7 feels more like the main event you've been planning from day one.
I think you had to get those first six to set up these new guys. I think it's fairly clear who we're "avataring" here—I'm hoping. I mean, it's pretty obvious even though we're being oblique in some ways and with some guys. And I'm having a great time doing that stuff. And by the way, I've written up to issue #12. I've been traveling so much the last quarter of 2008 that I ended up spending a great amount of time on 10 to 14-hour flights. That's what I do on planes is write, and it worked out very nicely.
Marvel.com: When you write a longer story like this, do you like to be able to get to the end before you turn it in so you can go back and revise your opening?
Absolutely. I just wrote a four-issue series where I delivered the scripts to issues 2, 3 and 4 last Thursday, and it definitely had an impact on the tweakage I'll go through on the script and the artwork for #1, which I'm literally starting today. Because they are of a piece, and everything folds together nicely. Doing that, you can go back to the first issue and lay pipe in that will pay off later.
Marvel.com: The SQUADRON book seems to work against that model to a certain extent because you've dropped in Hyperion and some of the other well-known characters starting in this arc that you haven't been working with up to this point. How did that change the writing of the book?
I don't think it changes it at all because ultimately, this is where I've been going. Our primary choice we had to make from word one was "When are we bringing back the original Squadron?" That was the single most important structural choice we had to make, and it was agreed through consensus that we would do the first six and bring them back at the bottom of that, and then the second six would be the story of the clash of these two sets of characters. That was always the plan from before I started writing the first issue. I should explain that I did an issue-by-issue breakdown of the entire series before I went to work.
Marvel.com: And that hasn't changed in a major way so far?
No. Well, maybe a little emphasis here and there, but not really. For example, I'm writing another series that's six issues, and one of the things I did was spend last week breaking out the second three, #4 through 6. I'm really glad I did because it gave me some ideas on how to handle #4 because I'd finished #6. And at this stage, it's in page breakdown form. I haven't even gone on to panel breakdowns yet. I don't know how anybody else works, but my procedure is that I work on index cards. For a 22-page comic book, I take a deck of 22 index cards and indicate in a general way what happens on each page with each card representing a page. I transcribe that information, keying it up a little bit, until I have 22 paragraphs. I then take each paragraph and break it into panels. It's very modular, and that way I can control the pacing and control the structure, but I can also move things around modularly.
What you've got to remember is that no matter what kind of story you're doing, there are certain obligatory scenes you need—there's bridging scenes and transitional material, and frequently you have to move things around, which is why I never number the cards until I put them into the order and sequence they're supposed to be in. I leave myself the wiggle room I need to move them around. You can be a little more plastic with that
stuff, and that plasticity is really valuable. This is a technique that I learned in television and have polished in comics. Being able to move a scene from one place to the other allows you to change the entire emphasis of the story, and you have to be able to do that.
Marvel.com: In a specific story sense, your bringing in Hyperion, Doctor Spectrum and the rest has allowed Emil Burbank and his crew to step off into the background a little bit more, which can't be good. Are they going to be off in the shadows for most of the upcoming war?
Um...yes and no. [Laughs
] I can't be any more clever than that. The answer is simply more complex, but we'll see those guys and Emil, and we'll have some fun with the way Burbank interacts with the front characters. I've always thought that Burbank is one of the most fun characters in the whole pack to write, and there's a lot to be done with that character. I really wanted to stretch it out and torture the character more than any other aspect.
Marvel.com: People know the Squadron characters from before the MAX relaunch a few years ago, and Emil was quite different then, acting as a fully costumed character. Is part of your goal in this to play with people's expectations based on what they know of the previous version?
Right. I should explain that I'm having a great time writing Emil in particular. He's a real pisser. He's so bitchy. Stay with me, you'll see where we're going.
Marvel.com: The other character I wanted to ask about was Arcanna. With her having spent five years off-panel allied with Nick Fury, her allegiances between him and Hyperion must be pretty torn. Does she try and play a bridge between the two, or does she have more of a crisis on where to go?
I think you're right in the first place. I think she's trying to be a peace maker, and it's problematic for her because she has torn loyalties. But as you said, she's spent five years hanging with Fury, and there's nothing romantic there, but there's a lot respect. Her life has been complicated by what has happened with these newcomers, if that makes any sense. And that complexity plays out in her questioning her own loyalties.
Marvel.com: This is probably the hardest question to answer, but in terms of having one team that's come out to say "We won't work under the shadow of the government!" and another returning team who has always worked that way, can you tell the story of this war and this ideological conflict and not make a proclamation as to which side is ultimately right?
You're asking me to basically tell you what happens in the last three issues. [Laughs
] And I'm not going to do that! The answer to your question is "yes." [Laughs
] I can't answer that without blowing all the plot points I've set up. I'm being precious and cautious, and I suspect you might have known that going in.
Marvel.com: I had to try. Well, in terms of your upcoming work, how do you go about picking the projects you'll just script or just draw or do both on? Is there a personal preference for what kinds of stories you spend your time doing what on, or is it a matter of what editors bring what assignments to you when?
The answer is a bit of both. With the series I've just written and am about to start drawing, it sounded like an absolute gas, and I just dove into it. In other cases, I pitched stuff, and in others it seemed most appropriate to write rather than write and draw, like with the SQUADRON stuff, where as the PHANTOM EAGLE stuff was a perfect opportunity to draw and work with a writer I've always wanted to work with [in Garth Ennis.] Things like that. It's a case by case basis.
Marvel.com: I know when you came back to work at Marvel, you teamed up with Brian Michael Bendis on NEW AVENGERS because he really wanted you to draw Captain America, and he's been talking a lot lately about another new series you two will be working on. What's the story behind that project?
We had been talking for a number of years about one particular character at the company. We danced around what to do with it for a number of years. "Where do we go with it? What do we do? Blah blah blah." I happened to be in New York last September a couple of days and I pitched an idea that had been rolling around in my brain to [Executive Editor] Axel [Alonso], and he sparked to it. And then I bumped into Brian in Baltimore and realized, "Hey, this idea dovetails perfectly into what we'd been discussing." It hadn't even occurred to me until I saw him. I saw him and—you know that look that a dog gets when it hears a whistle? [Laughs
] So I talked to Brian, and asked if he'd like to work on it and for his input, and we re-pitched it and that's where it stands. We're waiting for the trigger to be pulled, but it sounds like it's going to happen, and I'm pretty damned excited about it. I'll tell you that right now. It's a character we've wanted to work on for some time, and it's a subject matter and theme close to both of our hearts.
Marvel.com: How do you plan on going about a series like that in terms of writing? Do you beg off and let him do it all, or are you going to be more involved?
We'll probably co-plot. In this particular case, we'll go back and forth. That was his suggestion, and I'm cool with that.
SQUADRON SUPREME #8 hits stands on February 25. For more work by Howard Chaykin, check out Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited.
Check out the official Marvel Shop for the best mighty Marvel merchandise!