Families are powerful concepts. They produce offspring that change the world through feats of heroism or villainy – or in the case of Baron Helmut Zemo, both. Beginning this February, “Zemo: Born Better,” a four issue mini-series from Marvel Comics by writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Tom Grummett, examines the legacy of the Zemo family and it’s impact on Helmut the 13th Baron of Zemo, who has lead both the villainous Masters of Evil and the heroic Thunderbolts. CBR News spoke with Nicieza about the series.
When “Born Better” begins not much time has passed between issue one of the series and “Thunderbolts” #109,” the last issue in Nicieza’s run. “Only a few weeks and several hundred years,” Nicieza told CBR News.
The huge gap in time is because “Born Better” is set in both the past and present. “It’s mostly set in Germany, but where the story is set is not as integral as when it is set.”
With a title like “Zemo: Born Better” and a setting in both the past and present, some readers might be wondering which Baron Zemo will appear in the series. “This series stars Helmut Zemo, but it’s also about the entire Zemo lineage, their history, the evolution of their superiority complex, their family’s inner workings, triumphs and failures,” Nicieza said. “It is a very natural progression from the journey I’ve been taking Zemo on since I started digging into him years ago. I think he has evolved into a very interesting, flawed, complex character and this limited series will allow him to put a mirror to his own soul by looking at the words and deeds of his family – not what he was taught, but what they really did.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that Helmut Zemo finds himself in a position he’s not used to – very much not in control of his surroundings,” Nicieza continued. “So in order to try and gain control, he does what he does best – he starts manipulating those events to suit his needs. But, what if those manipulations alter or create the very family history he was raised to believe in?”
The plot of “Born Better” will follow Helmut Zemo’s machinations in the past and the actions of another character in the present. “The plot is simple: Helmut Zemo is trying to find his way home and the journey teaches him a lot about his life and himself.
Meanwhile, we introduce a new character who has a strong vested interest in learning as much about the Zemo family line as he can,” Nicieza explained. “What he learns, what he does with that knowledge and how it affects Helmut pays off in the finale.”
Helmut Zemo’s actions as Baron Zemo, both villainous and heroic, have been motivated by the firm belief that he is the best and perhaps only candidate for the tasks that he sets out do. This belief explains the significance of the title of the mini-series, “Zemo: Born Better.” “After everything I’ve done with Zemo, the progressions I’ve taken with the character, I wanted to dig into him without the need on his part to ‘play a part,'” Nicieza stated. “What makes someone ‘better’ than someone else? And more, what makes someone think they’re better than someone else? I wanted to explore who Helmut is without the burden of expectations he’s been saddled with, but ironically enough, to do that exploration within the very context of those burdens, namely his family’s long legacy of superiority.
“In ‘Thunderbolts,’ so many of Helmut’s actions were trapped between what he thought others expected of him vs. what he expected of himself vs. what he really wanted,” Nicieza continued. “This series lets us explore all of that – though the thought of Helmut Zemo admitting and acting out on what he really wants might be kind of scary.”
To get what he really wants, Zemo will have to overcome many obstacles in “Born Better.” “Zemo meets Quantum Leap, that’s an obstacle,” Nicieza said. “An unknown adversary mapping out every last drop of Zemo blood in the present day, that’s an obstacle. The truth about your family vs. what you were told about them, that’s an obstacle. A face like a rotten, collapsed pumpkin in an age of plague and leprosy, that’s an obstacle. Being expected to be the best in the world and failing time and time again – and being expected to try again – that’s certainly the biggest obstacle. I might be delusional, but that all sounds interesting as hell to me.”
Readers of “Born Better” will meet a variety of interesting supporting characters and many of them will have the same last name as the star of the series. “Helmut Zemo is the 13th in his family line and we’re going to finally name all of them,” Nicieza explained. “How many German names can we find that start with the letter H? Plenty! We won’t meet all of the Zemos (sounds like a fun movie: ‘Meet the Zemos’), but we will meet many of them.”
While the extended Zemo family may make appearances in “Born Better,” readers shouldn’t expect appearances by any members of the Thunderbolts, although Nicieza did note that could change for the last issue pending how the story breaks down. “I believe any good comic can always find a place for the Fixer. If I could have put him into the ‘Barbie’ comics I used to edit, I would have. He could’ve fixed Ken right up.”
The tone of “Zemo: Born Better” will be different than the milieu of Nicieza’s “Thunderbolts” stories, with a far more introspective story for the character of Helmut Zemo. “It’s a story about human frailty, failure and the allure of greatness in contrast to the illusion of greatness.
“This series will be nothing like my approach to T-Bolts,” Nicieza continued. “But that being said, it’s also not different in that we’re planning to tell an interesting story about people in physical and emotional conflict that will be smoothly paced, provide self-contained stories while carrying an overall storyline through the four issues and also balance an important subplot that enlightens issue by issue while building towards a climax in the last chapter. I’m crazy that way.”
Another way that “Born Better will be similar to Nicieza’s “T-Bolts” work is that it will be brought to life by his “Thunderbolts” collaborator, artist Tom Grummett. “I am very thankful that Tom Grummett will slide directly from ‘Thunderbolts’ to draw the limited series,” Nicieza stated. “His version of Zemo is great and now that I’m not making the poor guy draw sixty characters per issue, he’ll really get a chance to draw some interesting, different material. Tom will draw the living crap out of it because he draws the living crap out of everything. And it will come out on time, which our very loyal readers have come to expect (and new readers should try out, it’s refreshing and quite rewarding.)”
“Zemo: Born Better” is a story that Nicieza has wanted to write for awhile and he’s very grateful for his chance to finally tell the tale. “[This story has] been percolating in my head for a few years now and the grind of having to do lots of research on a tight deadline notwithstanding, I’m really looking forward to it,” Nicieza said. “As always, I thank Marvel for maintaining their charitable tax-exemptions by continuing to hire me, I thank Tom Grummett for continuing to endure me and I thank the readers for taking a peek at one of the most interesting characters in comics.”