Interview: Christos Gage On Avengers Academy

Norman Osborn's Dark Reign is finally coming to an end, and one of the first jobs that the heroes have in cleaning up his mess is to train the next generation to prevent the rise of such villainy in the future. Avengers: The Initiative writer Christos Gage takes on that responsibility in his new series, Avengers Academy, debuting in June. I spoke with Christos to find out just how the Academy differs from the Initiative, and where the next generation of Avengers will come from.


Matt Adler: This book seems to be something of a progression from the Initiative for you; that series started off written solely by Dan Slott, then you joined as co-writer, before eventually taking over the book by yourself, and now you get to launch your own brand-new series. Can you talk about how that progression has felt and how those phases differed for you as a writer?

Christos Gage: Well, first off I want to be clear that Avengers Academy, while it may in some ways be a spiritual successor to Initiative and star some of the same characters, is its own book.  Readers who never read an issue of Initiative can get in on the ground floor here.  That's not a dis to Initiative, which I love and miss, but I want to be clear that Academy is new reader friendly. 

That said, the journey has been a really nice progression for me.  At first I was asked just to write a fill-in issue of Initiative to give Dan a breather.  That was the Butterball issue, #13.  Dan liked it so much he asked me to come aboard as co-writer starting with #8.  I learned a lot from that, getting a feel for handling a large cast and just from the different ways Dan and I work…for example, I write full script while he writes plot first, adding the dialogue after the art is done, and while I still write full script, I'm now more open to revising the dialogue later in the process to better fit the art; I see it as much less “set in stone” than I used to thanks to our collaboration.  That's just one example. 

When I took over the book solo, it coincided with the start of Dark Reign, so I was lucky not to feel like I was carrying on someone else's story…Dan and everyone else, including the readers, were very encouraging about me going in whatever direction I wanted.  So I felt the freedom to do things like the Johnny Guitar story, which I knew was a big risk but that people still tell me is their favorite issue. 

Now that Academy is launching, I feel a great deal of encouragement and support, both from Marvel and the readers.  So I'm co-creating (with Mike) some new characters and adding them to the Marvel Universe.  If the readers give me the same chance they did with Initiative, that's all I can ask for.  Ideally, these characters will catch on.  If not, they'll end up cannon fodder in the next big event.  But I get the chance to try something cool, to work with Mike McKone and to launch a new Avengers book featuring a founding Avenger and some of my favorite Avengers of the past.  Who could ask for more?

MA: In terms of the concept and make-up of this book, what's the major way this book differs from The Initiative? What can you do here that you couldn't do there?

CG: That's something I can't fully answer without giving away some surprises in the first issue that I think readers will really find interesting.  But just in terms of the basic premise, the Initiative had a more military feel, like a boot camp for superhumans.  This is more of a training situation, like the original New Mutants.  And there are things we're doing that require new, inexperienced characters as well as the weight of the Avengers legacy.  One thing I can say is that this book is much more Avengers-specific…while the Initiative existed to train super-hero teams for the entire country, the Academy is training tomorrow's Avengers.  And the history of the Avengers is very much a part of this.  I'm sorry to be so cryptic, but when you read issue #1, I think it'll all make sense.  I can tell you that we are all very focused on making sure this is not just another teen hero book.  There's something that sets it apart from anything else out there, and you'll find out in issue #1.

MA: A month back, we got our first glimpses of the new characters that make up the student body, and the names attached to them; Fortress, Hazmat, Striker, Reptil, Finesse, and Veil. Obviously, it's still early at this point, but is there anything you can share with us about these newcomers? Do they have any connections with established Marvel characters?

CG: I'd like for the readers to meet the characters naturally over the course of the stories, so I can't say too much.  Maybe that's silly of me, but I want folks to get to know the kids the same way I got to know the New Warriors or New Teen Titans back in the day…as characters, not brief descriptions.  But as for connections to established characters, we will be teasing that at least one of them might indeed have such ties…we'll get into that pretty quickly.  And that's not to say that more than one won't have some tie to Marvel history.  I know way too much of it, I need to use that knowledge somewhere to justify my decades of reading comics!

MA: Will the class be limited to just those characters for now, or can we expect more to be revealed?

CG: For now, those six are the entire class.  That's not to say more won't be coming in time, but I'd like for readers to get to know these characters before bringing in more.  While I enjoyed the huge cast of the Initiative, we're trying to keep it a bit more manageable this time around.

MA: What about the newer characters introduced during the Initiative? Any plans for them? And how often do you plan to make use of guest-stars?

CG: I know Dan Slott has plans for Cloud 9, Gauntlet and others, notably in the Heroic Age anthology. And I can't imagine staying away from Butterball for too long.  I intend to use guest stars whenever it makes sense for the story…you'll see the first of them in issue #3!  The cool thing about this book is that anyone who has ever been an Avenger is a potential teacher, and I intend to take full advantage of that.  Imagine learning military history from Steve Rogers, or engineering from Tony Stark!

MA: If this new program is not compulsory, what reason would young characters have for entering the program, rather than just going out and having fun with their powers on their own? Is the registration act still being enforced?

CG: Again, I can't get into the students' motivations without giving too much away, but there are as many different reasons for wanting to be a part of Avengers Academy as there are characters.   Some may want to be heroes, some may want fame, some might want help controlling their powers, and some may just not have anywhere else to turn.

MA: The teaching staff was recently revealed to consist of Hank Pym, Tigra, Quicksilver, Justice, and Speedball (the character people seem the most excited about). What can you tell us about their motivations for signing on to this program?

CG: They're many and varied.  Some teachers want to prevent the students from making the mistakes they made-for instance, Justice accidentally killed his abusive father because he didn't have enough control over his powers, and went to jail for it; he'd like to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else.  For Speedball, turn that up to eleven and add the fact that he's trying to reclaim who he was before the Stamford disaster.  Hank, as a founding Avenger whose made mistakes of his own, feels a responsibility for training the next generation of Avengers.  Tigra wants to make the world safe for young superhumans like her infant son…and do something positive with her life after spending the last few months on a hunt for vengeance against The Hood.  Quicksilver is continuing the “image rehab” he started with the Mighty Avengers.  But I think you'll find that there are numerous reasons all tied together, some of which the characters themselves might not realize…and which will make for very interesting stories.

MA: Obviously these characters all come with a lot of baggage, and it strikes me that in the case of a lot of them, that baggage specifically relates to identity issues; Hank Pym most notably with all the various costumed personas and personalities he's displayed; Quicksilver has gone back-and-forth between hero and villain; Tigra has frequently wrestled with her feral side; Justice has been part-time gushing fanboy, part-time reluctant leader; and we're all aware of the hell Speedball's gone through as Penance.

With that said, how do you balance all of these disparate portrayals, particular with Speedball, where so many fans have been so vocal about wanting a return to the lighter character of the Steve Ditko and Fabian Nicieza days?

CG: I've never seen it as an either/or situation.  Our experiences make us who we are.  Rarely does something happen to us and we become a completely different person; usually a new facet is added to our personality.  Speedball especially is going to find out that you can't just change clothes and be someone else.  Not to say that he'll be Penance in a Speedball costume, and the fans who want the wisecracking, carefree adventurer back will see that part of him, but the guy who went through the Satmford tragedy and everything after that is still here.  It's about Robbie figuring out how all these different aspects of him fit together.  And to one degree or another, that'll be true for all the characters.  Hank Pym doesn't deny his mistakes, he wants to learn from them and become better as a result.  Everyone forgave him a long time ago, and he's finally forgiven himself; now he's ready, even eager to step into the role of founding Avenger and Scientist Supreme.  What I love about Hank is that he's back to being the guy who dares big and dreams big, and 90% of the time amazing things result.  But when he fails, he fails HUGE.  Ultron huge.  And the truth is you can't have the successes without the occasional failures.  I think we'll get some good stories out of both.  For me, the rich histories of all these characters (just look at Quicksilver, who was both a teen hero and a teen villain) are the very reasons I wanted them.  Sure, they come with a lot of baggage…but that just means I've got a lot to work with!

MA: The series will be introduced next month in an 8-page story in the "Enter the Heroic Age" one-shot; can you tell us anything about that story?

CG: It sort of bridges the gap between Dark Reign and the Heroic Age in the sense that we see what happens to Norman's goons during the finale of Siege, and what happens to those in his custody, notably Reptil.

MA: Your artist here is Mike McKone; what's your collaboration with him like? I hear he's using some new artistic techniques; can you tell us anything about that?

CG: I love working with Mike.  His storytelling instincts are great, his art is dynamic, and his characters live and breathe.  The personalities of the students owe so much to Mike's designs-he brought them to life for me.  Mike drew my first Marvel work, a short story in Spider-Man Unlimited, and has done amazing work on everything from Teen Titans to the Fantastic Four…it's a real thrill to work with someone I'm such a huge fan of!  As for the new tools he's employing, I know Mike is using computer techniques in his art, but I'm too ignorant to understand or explain them; I just know the results look fantastic!

MA: Stan Lee famously came up with the X-Men because he got tired of trying to come up with new ways of superheroes getting powers. More recently, we got the "no more mutants" edict because mutants were overpopulating the Marvel Universe due to the ease of creating their origins. Given that, is it difficult to come up with compelling and original superhero origins for all these new superheroes?

CG: I don't think it's as big a concern as it may once have been, back when every first issue had to be an origin story as well.  I think there are enough sources of powers in the Marvel Universe that readers today don't get hung up so much on how someone obtained their abilities.  In fact, it can be fun to keep it a mystery.  In many cases the kids don't know themselves.  It could lead to interesting stories or connections to existing characters!

MA: You've mentioned that this book was developed at last fall's Avengers Retreat (which I must say I like the name of; sort of the opposite of "Avengers Assemble!"). Can you tell us a bit about your experience at the retreat (without giving away any spoilers, of course)?

CG: It was my first retreat, so I was nervous…I went into it feeling a little like Taskmaster at his first Cabal meeting, out of my depth and expecting to get zapped at any moment…but my fears were groundless, as it was a wonderfully productive and supportive environment.  You have the best writers and editors in the business contributing ideas, and all the books come out better for it.  Avengers Academy may have benefited most of all.  I had a basic idea for the book, but was taking a very “comic-booky” approach to it…a convoluted, contrived, sci-fi way into what I wanted to do with the characters and their motivations.  But the guys at the retreat-I think it started with Joe, if I remember correctly-suggested an alternative way to achieve the goal that was much more rooted in character and a million times better.  The other Avengers writers-Ed Brubaker, Brian Bendis and Matt Fraction-all chipped in terrific ideas, and were very generous as far as encouraging me to use characters from their books as guest stars whenever it's needed.  It was like having the best think tank in the world.  And then there were cupcakes with little edible Captain America shields on them, which were very cool and tasty and made me feel a bit like Godzilla.

MA: How much of a challenge is it in convincing fans to pick up a book with a new concept and new characters like this, where you don't want to spoil it, but want to say enough to get people to pay attention to it out of the hundreds of other books out there?

CG: It's tough, definitely, now more than ever.  But we have a lot going for us.  We have the amazing art of Mike McKone.  We have the Avengers brand.  Marvel has certainly promoted it well.  I'm not sure what else we could do without giving away all the details of the story, and maybe it's an old school way of thinking, but I don't want to do that.  I remember what it was like to pick up a comic not knowing what was going to happen and being surprised and thrilled by how things unfolded.  I think that if readers try the first issue, they'll like what they see and come back for more.  I hope so, anyway.  If I do my job right, they will.  I would just ask anyone who has liked my work, or Mike's, or wants to support new characters, or just thinks this sounds cool, to pre-order Avengers Academy with your retailer.  We can't do it without you!


 

Matt Adler cried over his rejection letter from Avengers Academy. He still has Massachusetts Academy as a back-up school. Fingers crossed.

Comments

  1. Great interview. Thanks, Matt!

  2. Awesome interview Matt, keep them coming! My anticipation for this book is right up there with the main Avengers title.  I have a feeling Academy will be just as good if not better than the Initiative.  I just wish I knew where Taskmaster will end up after the Avengers reboot.

  3. I love love love that guys like Bendis, Brubaker, Fraction and Gage are running the show as far as the avengers are concerned. Awesome

  4. Anyone know about the cutover?  The Initiative is currently at #34.  I’m thinking I’m going to jump on at the Academy, how many issues of the Initiative are left?

  5. @barrow: I would only think there are only one or two issue left. Isn’t the reboot happening in May?

  6. @barrow: #35 is the last issue.

  7. Gage is one of the nicest writers in the industry from the few times I’ve met and talked to him, and his work at Wildstorm, Marvel, Avatar and Dynamite has all been fantastic.  The characters he created for Stormwatch PHD and Avengers: The Initiative have all been worthy additions to their universes.  I can’t wait to see what he comes up with for this book.

  8. Hmm, I dropped Initiative a while ago but I may be looking at trying this one out.

  9. The Initiative has consistently been one of the best books out there, and it led to my being willing and eager to pick up anything with Gage’s name on it.  (Area 10, for instance, recently rocked my socks off.)  The only reason I won’t say yet that I can’t wait for the first issue of Avengers Academy is that I am still in the phase of can’t wait for the next issue of Initiative!

  10. i’m still iffy, but it does make me feel a little better, will still definitely give this book a chance