By Kiel Phegley
With the upcoming five-part "Character Assassination" story line kicking off in January 21's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #484, the status quo for the Wall Crawler's world gets a few new wrinkles.
Written by Spidey brain trustee Marc Guggenheim with art by the legendary John Romita, Jr., "Character Assassination" promises to pay off on the many long-running mysteries introduced nearly a year ago when Brand New Day kicked off, including the identities of new villain Menace and the Spider Tracer killer.
To assemble the clues before us and get word on how the story came together, we tapped Guggenheim to tell us who won't make it out of the story line alive, the clues his fellow writers already put in place and the unexpected history of the latest cast member to join YOUNG X-MEN.
Marvel.com: Marc, how did "Character Assassination" come to be your big story amongst all the other AMAZING SPIDER-MAN writers? Did you just play a game of craps at the last Spidey summit, and you came out on top?
You know, I don't really know how it happened. I think [editor] Steve Wacker said, "The next big story line, you should do." And I think because it trafficked in all the areas that I had assumed responsibility for like introducing Menace and advancing the Spider Tracer story line, I seemed like a logical choice. But as with most things, this is a Steve screw up, not mine. [Laughs
] I think he's the one you'd have to ask.
Marvel.com: The most interesting thing about the story to me is that even though there are five parts to it, one of the issues is a stand alone tale that breaks from the main plot and shows another side of what's happening with the supporting cast. How did that structure come to you?
This story actually went through a whole lot of evolution. Probably more evolution than anything I've worked on in comics before. I think it really improved the story. We set aside time in a Spidey summit to break out the story as a whole group, and when I took it home later I discovered that it was all very lean. There wasn't enough happening in each individual issue. It all seemed fine when we broke it down in outline form, but I felt like there wasn't enough happening in each issue to justify the widescreen action and tremendous story event that we were shooting for.
A lot of "Character Assassination" really came out of several summits. We always knew, for example, who Menace was. And we always had a very good idea of who was going to win the mayoral election, but we needed to commit to that. What I did was keep all the big reveals we'd agreed upon, but how those reveals came about and their story order, I re-broke and re-broke again
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John Romita Jr.
and re-broke again.
Basically, the idea for the interlude issue came about partially by dint of scheduling concerns for the artists, but also because while breaking out there was one reveal that really lived in an emotional plane. And if you were trying to play the end result of that emotional turn in the middle of a jam-packed, action-packed 22-page story, you were going to give the weight of that emotion short shrift. So Steve Wacker was the first person to suggest, "Why don't we cut away during the middle of an issue, and we'll have a different artist draw it so it has a different feel to it?" In the Spidey office, it's always about "What idea can you top?" so I said, "Well, why not fully commit to it? I can get a full 22 pages out of this dynamic we're talking about." It seemed to make the most sense to take what is a character moment, and give it its own issue. And it's something I think you can do when you're publishing three times a month because it's not like you're asking your readers to wait two months in between action-packed issues. It's an interesting experiment, but I think it was the thing that served the needs of the story best.
Marvel.com: Whenever you write a mystery story involving something like the identity of a character like Menace, you've got to "put your gun on the mantelpiece" and drop the right clues as you go. Do you feel like you guys have done a good job of threading in those clues and hints throughout the run without it being too obvious or obtuse? Have readers been picking up the right points and figuring things out?
I come from a school of thought that says, "If you have five suspects in your murder mystery, then one out of five of your readers is going to correctly predict it." So I never go into something expecting to surprise every single member of the audience. That having been said, it seems like things are playing pretty correctly. There's a certain degree of gamesmanship when you write a storyline like this. All the other writers have embraced that, and so we've been playing a game with the readership for a year. Now it's time to bring the game to a conclusion and see how many people we managed to fool.
Marvel.com: With any big conclusion arc, there's a big kick off to get the ball rolling quick. What's the inciting incident that makes now the time for the revelations to take place in "Character Assassination"?
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John Romita Jr.
I think there are three things that combine into a perfect storm for Spider-Man and kick off the plot. The first is the ticking clock of the upcoming election. The second is that there are political consequences for the campaign that spin out of "New Ways to Die." One could make the argument that "New Ways to Die" was the first in this long series of dominoes at least in terms of the political consequences of the Spider Tracer killings and how [they're] affecting the mayoral elections. But the third thing—and this is what came out of that summit—is that a character in the Brand New Day cast is killed by the Spider Tracer killer, and the problems that that entails for Spider-Man continue to ratchet up the heat.
Marvel.com: One of the fun things in Brand New Day is that all the supporting cast members get equal time and also interact a lot. So with the death of one of those characters, will we be feeling the impact across the board with the Osborns and the DB staff and the Coffee Bean crew and such?
Well, the idea is to have all the plots talking to each other and that one thing affects the other which affects the other which affects the other. So there's a whole network of not only characters but moments and events spinning out of the characters that you could kind of say is like a spider web that everyone is caught up in. All the strands link up together, so hopefully at the end of the arc, everyone will see how this all fits together. It's funny because I almost have too much story for the four-plus-one issues I'm doing. There [are] a lot of threads after a year that need tying up, and I keep going back and revising the scripts going, "Oh, I need to tell the readers what the reason for that plot moment is." There's a lot of heavy lifting to be done. It's certainly the most ambitious, complex comic project I've worked on.
Marvel.com: You get John Romita, Jr. drawing your arc just as he did for "New Ways to Die," and when I talked to him before that story, he said that he could draw Spider-Man in his sleep, but it took some getting used to in terms of the new supporting cast. Has he gotten even more into the grove of Brand New Day with this storyline from your perspective?
I think so. It's really funny looking back on both "New Ways to Die" and the pages he's drawn
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for "Character Assassination" with the idea that he ever felt uncomfortable, that he ever had trouble drawing Menace and the Brand New Day characters. That's just shocking to me. He makes it look so effortless. I have to believe that Johnny's idea of having difficulty with something is anyone else's idea of having an incredibly easy time with something.
Marvel.com: This week sees the release of a new issue of YOUNG X-MEN, and it seems you're getting to knock down the last bits of your own house of story cards. With issue #9 and we get a glimpse at who this new Cipher character is. How does that reveal lead into the next stand-alone issue?
Certainly issue #9 is the end of the Y-Men arc, and by the end of issue #8, I had left the team in some pretty dire straits. They're vastly outnumbered and having a lot of difficulty fighting off those guys. So there's a lot of cliffhangery stuff to deal with in #9. That issue basically ends with the question, "Who the hell is Cipher?" which is the title of issue #10. [Laughs
] And what's really great fun and different about issue #10 is that it's set in the present day, but there are flashbacks interspersed throughout the entire X-Men history where you go back particularly in stories prior to YOUNG X-MEN and see how Cipher has been involved and influencing the story at different moments you didn't realize. I'm a big fan of taking the story line and turning it so you have to look at it in a completely different way. That's something that issue #10 does pretty well.
Marvel.com: Is it hard to strike a balance between making this book a true legacy book to comics like NEW MUTANTS or NEW X-MEN by bringing in characters like Dani Moonstar or Sunspot while also making it a modern version of X-Men and synch up with the changes Matt Fraction is introducing in UNCANNY?
No. I love it. I actually think that the best thing you can do sometimes is do something very new that feels a little older or true to the spirit of everything that's gone before. The highest compliment I can pay Matt is that I think the move to San Francisco and the whole move of the team and mutants is incredibly true to the spirit of the X-Men books. It feels like something [writer Chris] Claremont would have done had [he] stayed on the book. While it's new, it's very much in keeping with that tone that I'm striving for. Matt and I both have the same philosophy in that we grew up with those same Claremont/[John] Byrne, Claremont/[Dave] Cockrum, Claremont/[Paul] Smith issues of [UNCANNY X-MEN], and we want to honor that while taking things forward. If anything, my regret is that I haven't had enough time yet to explore San Francisco. I've had so many story lines I introduced from issue #1 to tie up. The only thing that's hard is not having the page space in each issue to play with those new toys as much as I'd like.
Marvel.com: Is part of your plan from #11 on getting the team into the shape that you wanted from the start? Is this the definitive Young X-Men team that will play around in the X-Men world moving forward?
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I think probably the best way to describe my approach to the book is that there's no element to it that I can promise. It's always unexpected, and I'm constantly changing and reinventing the status quo. You either embrace that that in the book there's these hyperactive plot twists, or you just say, "That's not my cup of tea." The goal is to move forward but always with an eye towards changing the team and playing around with different character dynamics and never letting readers catch their breaths.
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