By Kiel Phegley
When it comes to the map of the Marvel Universe, Christos Gage plants pins in nearly every location imaginable.
From exploring the sinister side of things in his recent run on THUNDERBOLTS to loading up War Machine in IRON MAN: DIRECTOR OF S.H.I.E.L.D., Gage's recent output covers all the bases, but his biggest stories have yet to come.
In the wake of Secret Invasion, Gage steps into the driver's seat on AVENGERS: THE INITATIVE as his co-writer and series originator Dan Slott jumps over to MIGHTY AVENGERS. Extending his writing gig to include a Camp Hammond torn apart and the return of Thor's crazed clone from Civil War would be a Herculean task on its own, but when you mix in a universe-defining prequel series in the form of the current CIVIL WAR: HOUSE OF M and an old school team-up book with the forthcoming X-MEN/SPIDER-MAN, Gage's output starts to stagger the mind.
The writer opens up about all of the above in a chat that covers the future of AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE, the classic tales that bring Spidey and the X-Men together, and more.
Marvel.com: You are moving into being the sole writer on AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE. Looking at the upcoming issues, it looks as though you and Dan were chugging along solid through this big Secret Invasion arc. Did he always plan on breaking off after that, or did this move come more suddenly?
Actually, we didn't know. When I first came on the book, there was no thought of Dan leaving at all. He did not know that there was going to be an opportunity on MIGHTY AVENGERS, but when talks started to begin about that opportunity we talked about what would be a good time for him to leave. Initially we talked about doing it through #25 together, and I am still going to be following the plots we worked out through #25, but then I guess the schedule got accelerated. We ended up feeling, like you said, [we should finish] up the big Secret Invasion crossover which runs through #19, and [then] issue #20 is Dan's last issue which is an epilogue to Secret Invasion where we see the ramifications of how this has affected the various characters. Some characters will leave. We'll wrap up some plotlines and such.
Starting with issue #21, that's my first solo issue, and like I said, I'm following our plots. And Dan even said, "You can throw out everything we talked about and do your own thing." And I was like, "I liked what we talked about!" [Laughs
] "I'm going to stick with that!"
Marvel.com: In terms of the nuts and bolts of the collaboration, Dan plotted and you scripted dialogue, but after talking to him some about the book, he said that the collaboration had a lot of back and forth in it, which was almost surprising to you guys…
Well, it's funny because Dan and I work differently because he works in the old school Marvel style, which is where you write a plot, the artist draws it, and then you put in the dialogue afterwards. Usually in Dan's plots, he gives an idea of what the characters are saying, but he likes to see the art first because it gives him ideas on what dialogue he might use, and it also allows him to stay current with what's going on in the Marvel Universe. I work full script where I write out the whole thing including the dialogue, and at first we weren't sure what would be the best way to work. Dan was still working out pretty detailed plots where he breaks it down by panel on each page and gives a general idea for dialogue, but then we realized that we evolved into a style where Dan would do looser plots where he would still break it
down by page, but he wouldn't break it down by panel. I would do the panel breakdowns, and that would help me do more natural dialogue because I could use transitions and things like that.
For example, there was a bit in issue #17 where Ant-Man's hiding out in the Skrull base and thinking, "I can do this. I was taught camouflage by the best of S.H.I.E.L.D.—Clay Quartermain, Val de Fontaine, Dum Dum Dugan..." And then the Skrull Dum Dum Dugan comes out of the sky, and he's like, "Oh crap!" That's the kind of thing where breaking it down by panels myself enabled me to write it more naturally. And what it ended up doing was making it a more natural combination of both our styles because even after that, Dan would always do a final polish where he would put in his bits and character moments. So I think what we ended up with seemed like a great merger of our styles. And I can't speak for Dan, but it's made me a better writer on my solo work too.
Marvel.com: On any book he works on, Dan introduces about 85 running mystery plotlines that take years to fully come to fruition. Obviously you're still working off things created with him through #25, but what's your plan in terms of carrying on some of the bigger mysteries and such that have been part of THE INITIATIVE?
Dan has got certain plotlines like "The Reckoning War." In everything he's written, there's been seeding of this thing called "The Reckoning War" which who knows if it'll ever come to fruition, but if ever it does, it won't be in a book I'm writing. It'll be in a book Dan's writing because it's something he's literally never stopped thinking about, and I think it's going to be really cool when it finally comes along. But then there are certain character things, like, in the INITIATIVE special [coming up] you're going to learn where Trauma got his powers, which is a connection to a long running Marvel character. So that'll be revealed, but it's something I'll pick up on down the road.
So there are some plotlines Dan's going to be taking with him, and there are some plotlines that I'm going to stick to, and then there are some where we discussed vaguely where this character might go or when this event might happen, and those I'm keeping in the back of my mind. I might use it, I might not use it, but I have to say, after issue #25, we're not really in a position where things were explicitly worked out. We had a general idea, but THE INITIATIVE is going to be really tied into Dark Reign. Part of this was that we were taking a wait and see attitude to where [Brian] Bendis and other creators were going because we think it's fun to build on that stuff.
I think we're in good shape. Issues #21-25 is called "Avengers: The Initiative Disassembled" which is going to see a big change in the status quo of the Initiative, and we'll see that reflected in future issues. It's going to be exciting for people, and in issue #21 we'll be seeing the return of the Thor clone. He's been in a suspended animation tank on Camp Hammond in Baron Von Blitzschlag's lab, but he will be getting out and raising hell.
Marvel.com: One of the fun things about THE INITIATIVE has been that it's a look at the younger face of the Marvel U. With Dark Reign promising to be a turn down a more dangerous path for the Universe, how do you plan on keeping that young spirit strong in the book?
Well, what the book really is about young heroes in the sense that they're young in their careers and in the phase of their training, but it's never really been like POWER PACK, which even in the 80's was always about kids and a youthful flavored book in all the best ways. This is a book about a boot camp, and we saw characters like Cloud 9 go from being a wide-eyed rookie innocent to being pretty deadly in a fight as we saw in the "K.I.A." storyline. It's not that different from the actual military where you've got 18-year-old kids who may have never left their home town going to boot camp and then within a pretty short time over in Iraq getting shot at and shooting back. So the ominous overtones of Dark Reign kind of fit, but the book will always be a look at the next generation of heroes and the larger Marvel Universe in the sense that with the 50 State Initiative, we're looking at the whole picture.
Marvel.com: Speaking of playing around in universes, you're writing your second House of M limited series right now with CIVIL WAR: HOUSE OF M. Unlike your HOUSE OF M: AVENGERS series in this world which moved things forward, here you're looking back to the origins of Magneto's reign. Did you have to go back and re-read the original HOUSE OF M to say, "What are the rules I can't break? What are the situations I have to acknowledge?"
It was actually kind of fun because I got to go through and look at the references to the history which gave me a skeleton for my story and not just in the original HOUSE OF M series but in the SECRETS OF THE HOUSE OF M handbook. For instance, in the real Marvel Universe, the real Magneto was a teenager when he went into Auschwitz, and the reason he's not 90 years old now is because at some point in his career he was de-aged to a baby and then re-aged to adulthood but
HOUSE OF M #3
not as old. That's why he's not ancient. But in the House of M world, that never happened. There were things like that and mentions of Magneto liberating the island of Genosha where mutants were kept as slaves. So there were signposts as it were—almost like seeing a map, and along the route there were little pins stuck in. "There's this landmark and that landmark," but what happens in between those is what I got to fill in. It was fun both in the sense of having that framework and then fleshing it out. For instance, in terms of what exactly the relationship was between Magneto and Professor X—were they close friends or opponents? Did their philosophies jive or conflict? What was it like for Magneto's kids who at the time didn't know he was their father to be fighting alongside him? Did they suspect or not suspect? All of that stuff is meaty and interesting. So I felt there was a framework, but I didn't feel constrained by it.
Marvel.com: In the first issue, you go to play with the idea of a fallen partnership between Magneto and Apocalypse. Issue two brought Professor X into the mix. As we go along, what is the biggest roadblock to Magneto's eventual takeover?
His biggest obstacle externally is just the fact that the world and primarily the American government which even in the House of M world was still run by Richard Nixon but the power behind the throne was Bolivar Trask who created the Sentinels—that's the major opponent. In the House of M world, Magneto and Professor X—even though they had different ideas on how to protect mutants—the urgency was such that they didn't have the luxury of being on opposite sides. That flips what people know as the normal dynamic of the X-Men universe, so that was interesting to me. Also, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Magneto will be "Can he achieve his goal of liberating mutantkind without becoming the very thing he was fighting against?" You look at various insurgencies in the past like in Cuba where you had rebels led by Castro overthrowing a dictator and then becoming a dictator. That's the tough journey for Magneto. The character arc is, "Can he keep that from happening, and if so, how?"
Marvel.com: Your next new launch is the X-MEN/SPIDER-MAN limited series, and you know, back in the day when these series were less common, they seemed to impact the characters a lot more. Chris Claremont's FANTASTIC FOUR VS THE X-MEN comes to mind. By setting this new series in the past, were you hoping to tell stories that held a little more significance and weight for the history of the characters?
I would say "yes" to an extent. The interesting thing about the X-Men and Spider-Man is that they haven't really crossed over that many times when you consider how long the characters have been around and their popularity. We definitely wanted the series to count, but I myself did not want to go back and do one of these retcons where we go, "Oh! Uncle Ben is actually Cyclops' father!" I didn't want to rewrite Marvel history as it were. I can't say too much without spoiling it, but the through line for the story—even though each issue takes place in a different era—is something that will have a bearing on the current Marvel Universe. But we're not going back and changing things.
As a matter of fact, I took great pains to figure out where each story is set. The first issue for example takes place after X-MEN v1 #66, which is the last new Silver Age issue of the original series. It takes place shortly after Professor X was sick with this disease he had which the X-Men had to go out and fight the Hulk to get the cure from Bruce Banner. And it's set at a time where Peter Parker was dating Gwen Stacy, and Harry Osborn was dating Mary Jane. The second issue takes place after "Kraven's Last Hunt" and "Mutant Massacre." And the third issue takes place in our world in the 90's when Ben Reilly was Spider-Man and Wolverine had the bone claws. So I've taken care to make sure that nothing contradicts anything that's out there. So yes, it will count, but don't worry about retcons. I didn't feel like playing that game.
Marvel.com: The setup of the series really hits the nail on the head in noting that it's Marvel's biggest outsider team and their biggest outsider hero. When you think about it like that, why haven't the X-Men and Spider-Man teamed up more? They seem like a pretty natural fit.
It definitely is about exploring the similarities and differences. In the first issue, which I've titled "The Strangest Teens of All," which was the subtitle to the first X-MEN comic, we're exploring the fact that they're teenagers. They're young people going through the things we all go through as teenagers—figuring out who you are, where you fit into the world, dating and everything like that. It does play on the fact that they're outsiders. It's never like, "The President's on the line! An alien fleet's invading, and Spider-Man and the X-Men are the only ones who can stop it!" They operate on the fringes of society. They operate in the shadows. And especially in the third issue where Ben Reilly is Spider-Man, he's never met Wolverine or Storm. His memories include Cyclops and Angel, but he hasn't met some of the X-Men, but they've met Spider-Man so it starts with him trying to pretend he's the same guy.
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I looked for times where not just in their storylines could you fit something into the outline, but where their character journeys coincided. In the first issue, it's when they're teenagers. In the second, they're both at dark points in their careers. And in the third issue there are drastic changes. I was trying to thematically tie it in as well, and it plays into the fact that they're all outsiders. It's not like where you team up Captain America and Iron Man where there's a menace to the United States and S.H.I.E.L.D. teams them up to take it on.
To read work by Christos Gage, check out Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited.
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