1994. Brilliant scientist David Kim lies dying in the arms of his assistant and friend Kelly Sanborne. A man has tried to rob them of Kim's groundbreaking nanite virus, a strain of microscopic machines engineered to aid in biological tissue regeneration. That violent struggle culminates in this moment, with Kelly injecting a dose of the nanite serum into Kim's bloodstream. In doing so, she saves his life and ends her own. In order to restore Kim to health, the machines must repurpose nearby matter. They devour the woman and utilize her as raw material. In the end, Kim is a new man, a xombi. No longer graying at the temples. No longer capable of aging and dying. The nanites, cunning and uncaring, have taken a life to make him immortal.
That's how it all began for the Korean-American Milestone character David Kim in the original Xombi ongoing by John Rozum and Denys Cowan. That series has since ended, and while the character appeared in an alternate form during Infinite Crisis and teamed with the Spectre in an issue of The Brave in the Bold a couple years back, this week marks his major return to comics. This is a new Xombi #1 from writer Rozum and artist Frazer Irving, and it's not to be missed.
I was fortunate to read this first issue early and talk to Rozum about the new series. The writer was extremely gracious with his response, which follows. We talk about Xombi's place in the larger DCU, the time that may or may not have passed since the first volume, Rozum's creative process with series artist Frazer Irving, the passing of Milestone creator Dwayne McDuffie and a lost Hannukah special we hope sees the light of day very, very soon.
Paul Montgomery: I will be completely up front with you. As someone who only got back into reading comics five years ago, I wasn't really familiar with Xombi. But I was sold on the premise of this new ongoing, and the first issue has me hooked. How much of a gap are we looking at between the first Milestone volume of Xombi and the world David's living in now? Is it a realtime shift or is it more like a few months later?
John Rozum: There’s actually less of a gap than that. This story actually is sandwiched in before the last two pages of issue #21 of the original series, which was the last issue. Having said that, my goal was really to make this new series completely accessible to readers, such as yourself, who had never read the previous series. Everything you need to know will be revealed as you need it in this series, and there isn’t any reason for you to go back and pick up the older material. Of course, for those who have read the original series there should be a richer reading experience with the new series.
PM: For anyone not familiar with David's power set, let's break it down. He's infested with nanomachines capable of replicating matter. Including his own flesh. So in a way he's kind of a reverse zombie, his vitals constantly refreshed rather than decaying. What else is he capable of? Have we seen the full extent of his abilities?
JR: David Kim is a man who can never die. He can’t get sick. He can’t starve. He won’t ever age, or get fat (unless there’s a reason for it), or lose his hair, teeth, or eyesight. He can heal any wound no matter how severe. The nanomachines that are integrated into his cells are constantly keeping him in ideal physical condition. They are also constantly converting outside matter into energy, and replacement cells in David’s body. Whether it’s carbon from car emissions, or dust in the air and on surfaces, they’ll use it. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s sort of like enormous whales whose diet consists of plankton. They can do the same thing with larger material too, like newspapers and soil. Essentially David doesn’t have to eat if he doesn’t want to, but it helps, and he enjoys food. The nanomachines are so through though that he never has to go the bathroom, or even brush his teeth, or shower.
He’s also learning how to use those nanomachines to sample external objects, such as the popcorn in the first issue, and to replicate it using other matter as source material to convert into the desired object. This is something that readers of the original series haven’t seen before. It was developed for a Xombi Hanukkah Special which was completed with art by Guy Davis, but which never saw print. Hopefully it will be collected into a trade paperback. By the end of issue #1 you’ll know what all of his abilities are even if you haven’t seen them in action.
PM: Can you tell us anything more about that Guy Davis Hannukah special? Because that all sounds…awesome!
JR: Back in the Milestone days, there were plans to do an annual,each of which would be drawn by an artist other than regular series artist, J.J. Birch. The first one wound up being something of a Hanukkah Special in which David Kim and Rabbi Sinnowitz, one of the regular cast members, are trapped in a car during a blizzard with hungry creatures out in the woods surrounding them. Guy Davis did the interior artwork with some beautiful color work by Noelle Giddings, and Guy did the cover with Vince Locke. The issue was completely finished, yet never published. This issue was the first time we see David experimenting with replicating other objects using the nano machines in his body, and was also something of a tease towards what was going to be a spinoff series from Xombi centered around paranormal investigators, Adam and Julia Kadmon. This spinoff series never saw the light of day at Milestone but later became my creator owned project, Midnight, Mass., which was published by Vertigo.
PM: With these nanomachines comes what seems to be eternal youth. How old is David really? Can we expect tension in relationships with mortal friends like Chet Flynn in stories to come? Is there jealousy there?
JR: David is about thirty-two years old. When his character was introduced, his hair was graying at the temples and he wore glasses. His relationship with his mortal friends from before his transformation, including Chet, and particularly his fiancé, who has been in Europe, is pretty central to the series as a whole and plays a big role in this new initial storyline. David does not view his immortal state as something beneficial. He wants to be rid of it and go back to his normal life. I think Chet even views it as something undesirable. There won’t be a lot of jealousy, but there will certainly be consequences which will play out later on.
PM: Let's talk about the larger world of Xombi. David mentions in passing that there are other Xombis out there, though not so many that they could be considered their own ethnic group. But in this first issue we meet or are reintroduced to some super-powered nuns. What's the story behind Catholic Girl and Nun of the Above?
JR: When I first started thinking about how I wanted to write Xombi, I decided that if I was going to include a lot of supernatural and occult elements as real, then various religious organizations would be likely to have their own agents who investigated these phenomena. Among the various characters that I developed from this notion were Nun of the Above and Catholic Girl.
Superheroes who work as soldiers for various military organizations and governments is a familiar concept in superhero comics, so why not for the Catholic Church and other religious groups? I actually developed a number of characters who work for the church, including a super team operating from the Vatican.
Nun of the Above and Catholic Girl were the first characters we met in the original run of Xombi and became pretty popular. I knew before I began the new series that I wanted them to be a part of the first storyline, and it also gave me a chance to introduce Nun the Less, a character I’d been wanting to get to for a long time. This is her first appearance.
PM: A title like Xombi might suggest "Horror" to readers, but a lot of this story is based in fringe science. Would you classify it as science fiction?
JR: Xombi is a bit of a bunch of things; horror, dark fantasy, science fiction, strange adventure, and also includes some humor. When choosing the initial storyline for the new series, I wanted to pick something that best served as an introduction to David Kim so that new readers would get a good sense of him as a person as well as what his abilities were. I also wanted to pick something that got across the general tone of the series as a whole, and while this storyline certainly has elements of horror in it, they are not the most prominent elements. in other stories they will be.
Xombi the series, and xombi as David Kim, both began as a melding of science and the supernatural, and that interaction is something I’ve tried to keep going. I’m less concerned with the science being real than I am with taking real concepts and extrapolating on them in ways that serve the stories. Having said that, I do try and make sure the scientific elements, as far fetched as the may seem, consistent and plausible in the series.
I grew up watching a lot of horror and science fiction movies as well as a lot of Doctor Who, and would say that a comparison between Xombi and Doctor Who in terms of similarity in tone would probably be accurate. This only really occurred to me shortly after writing the third issue of the new series and then catching up with the current Doctor Who series during a marathon on BBC America in December.
PM: David has had dealings within the larger DCU universe in the past. He's even worn a green lantern ring if I'm not mistaken. Now that the series is up and running again under the DC banner, can we expect any crossover with other DC or Milestone characters? Or do you see Xombi as existing in it own little corner far from the capes and tights?
JR: By the end of the second issue you should have a better sense of how far I plan to go with incorporating Xombi into the larger DC Universe. David Kim appeared in an issue of Hardware during the Milestone years and other Milestone superheroes appeared in a pair of issues of Xombi, but it always seemed a bit jarring to me. Even at Milestone, Xombi was sort of its own thing operating on the fringes where superheroes don’t usually venture, and that seems like a good place for it.
It will definitely be clear that Xombi exists in the same universe as Batman and Superman, but the chances of heroes such as those making guest appearances, or Xombi joining a team are pretty unlikely. Other DCU characters like Zatanna and the Phantom Stranger or even S.T.A.R. Labs have a better chance of making an appearance, but it would have to really be because I think their presence would be advantageous to the story taking place in Xombi in a way that wouldn’t work without them. I wouldn’t do it simply as a stunt.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a big universe and some of the characters are able to exist and have their adventures without crossing paths with spandex and cape superheroes in the same way that I’m able to go about my life without intersecting with professional basketball players on a regular basis.
There’s a nod to the alternate earth Green Lantern David Kim in Xombi #2. Other than that version of David Kim, the only other interaction he’s had with the greater DCU so far has been when he met the Spectre in Brave and the Bold #26 a couple years ago.
PM: This is an exceptionally gorgeous book. Talk about working with Frazer Irving to establish the look for this new series. Did you know he'd be the artist when you fist sat down to script? Do you envision scenes in his trademark pinks and blues?
JR: I don’t know how far along I was before I knew with certainty that Frazer was on board. I usually start thinking about artists when I know what kind of story I’m going to be telling and what elements of that story will be most important visually. As I worked out what the first storyline in Xombi was going to be, certain artists work came to mind, and at some point this shift happened and Frazer’s work blotted out everyone else’s and I knew he was who I wanted. It turned out he was also who editor, Rachel Gluckstern wanted, and amazingly he agreed to participate.
He and I have only communicated via emails, but I knew right away that it was going to be, for me anyway, a perfect match. For me, character has always come before plot. All my stories are chosen as a means to highlight an aspect of a character, or to take a character developmentally from point A to point B. The first thing Frazer did was ask me about all of the characters so that he could get a better sense of them and really figure out how they would perform as individual people. I knew right then that I’d made the right choice.
Once I started seeing Frazer’s color layouts for the first issue, I knew this comic was going to be beautiful. His sense of storytelling, and particularly his use of color is extraordinary. He also did some tremendous things with opening up scenes, such as in the first issue the sequences of David and Chet moving through Chet’s apartment where instead of breaking the scene up into panels, as I’d scripted it, he’d chosen to use one large panel of the environment and then depict the characters standing at different places in that environment. I loved that so much I asked him to feel free and do that sort of thing more.
Because of the nature of things, I was pretty far ahead before I saw his first pages for issue #1, but that changed how I scripted for him. I’ve been told by some colorists I’ve worked with that I’m one of the few writers who actually uses color in their scripts as a storytelling element. With Frazer, I’ve stopped including color notes for the most part, because his use of color is so strong, I don’t need to. It’s really something else. My scripts also tend to be a little dense, and usually when I work with an artist for the first time, I have some concern that pages will end up looking cramped. Once I saw how Frazer was able to open up what I’d given him so that this was not a concern, I relaxed about how much information I was including.
PM: Any hints as to what's next for David?
JR: Something really bad.
PM: This first issue is dedicated to the memory of Dwayne McDuffie, one of the founding fathers of Milestone comics. Had he had the chance to see this script before his passing last month? How do you remember him, and what can we do to honor his legacy going forward?
JR: I’ve known Dwayne for about 25 years, since before he began working as an assistant editor at Marvel. so I’ve had a long personal relationship with him outside of comics and he was one of my closest friends. He was not a very open or demonstrative kind of guy, but what he gave he gave completely. He was always a great person to go to for advice of any sort because he was always honest, often brutally honest, which is usually what you needed anyway. He was also one of the smartest people I ever knew, and probably the only person I knew who had more books than me. He had an educated opinion on pretty much anything, except maybe sports. This could often be annoying. Even when I wasn’t working directly for him, he was always my sounding board for anything I was working on, and had been there at the dimmest beginnings of many ideas and projects I’d had, so his feedback was important to me.
Dwayne had complete confidence with me on Xombi, and I think for him there was a lot of pleasure in seeing where I’d take it. He’s well aware of the larger scope of where I’ve wanted the series to go and even how I want it to come to an end. I know he saw the completed first issue and the last contact I had from him was an email saying that he thought Xombi #1 was glorious. He wanted me to call him to talk about it which meant that he was really excited about and wanted to talk about the details that he liked. I was in the process of moving the weekend before he died and never had a chance to call him to talk about it like he wanted to, but I knew him well enough to know what he would have latched on to and what he would have said. Not a day goes by where I don’t see something I want to tell him about, or ask him something, and I doubt that will ever change. It still doesn't seem real that he’s gone.
I think the best thing that can be done to honor his legacy is to make sure that it’s a living one and not something that moves into the past. The idea of diversity in, not simply comics, but in all entertainment, seems like such a no-brainer. Without even thinking on a global scale, the population of this country is incredibly diverse, but not if you go to the movies, watch tv, or pick up a magazine or comic book. I think, as it was for Dwayne, it’s important for kids, and even adults, to see someone like them represented positively in entertainment. I also think that Dwayne’s general policy in storytelling should be something that everyone involved in storytelling should strive for which is to deliver great stories told well.
Pick up Xombi #1 this week. It's a good 'un.