Baron Helmut Zemo was born into one of the Marvel Universe’s most tyrannical and evil dynasties. His ancestors were responsible for many acts of murder, terror, and oppression in Germany, and his father, Heinrich was one of Nazi Germany’s top super scientists. Heinrich Zemo also founded the Marvel U’s premier super villain team, the Masters of Evil; a team that Helmut took and made his own.
Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil have been responsible for a number of heinous and sinister acts like a secret siege on Avengers mansion and disguising themselves as the heroes known as the Thunderbolts, a team which he later used to try and save the world in his own unique and ruthless fashion. Zemo has an extremely complex and interesting relationship with the word evil and his latest incarnation of the team is perhaps its most successful iteration yet. They control their own sovereign nation, the city state of Bagalia, a place the emotionally scarred teen survivors of Murder World (whose ordeal was chronicled in “Avengers Arena”) recently visited and found strangely welcoming.
Following their deadly 30-day ordeal at the hands of the villainous Arcade, the teen survivors are hungry for revenge. Led by Cullen Bloodstone, they went to Bagalia to exact vengeance against Arcade, going undercover in a safe haven for superheroes and living up to “Avengers Undercover’s” moniker. In “Avengers Undercover” #4 by writer Dennis Hopeless and artist Kev Walker, Zemo welcomed the teens back to his villain nation, offering them a permanent home as well as a role in his organization. CBR News Spoke with Hopeless about Zemo, his offer, and the writer’s plans for the series which include a story that resurrects one of the original Runaways cast members.
CBR News: Dennis, let’s start with the man who makes your cast a big offer in “Avengers Undercover” #4, the ruler of Bagalia and the Masters of Evil, Baron Zemo. I believe “Avengers Undercover” #1 established those credentials for him and his past association with the Masters of Evil made him a good fit, but what made you want to bring Zemo into this story? As a writer what do you find most interesting about the character?
Dennis Hopeless: It was a combination of things. After spending 18 issues with a powered-up Arcade, we knew our next villain needed to be an imposing figure who represents a real threat. At the same time, our book would be taking a different approach to villainy. The characters inhabit a moral grey area and most of the conflict comes from the kids trying to decide between lightness and dark. We needed a villain who could make the dark side seem reasonable and even appealing. And with the word “Avengers” on our covers, it made sense to shoot for an old school Avengers villain. Zemo was one of the first names editor Bill Rosemann and I threw out. Fortunately, no one else was using him.
I love Zemo’s moral ambiguity. Helmut has never been evil for evil’s sake. Sure, his father was a Nazi and he sort of dresses like a Nazi, but this is a complicated man. He’s a self-interested pragmatist who’s capable of just about anything if properly motivated. But his is a practical brand of villainy that makes a certain amount of sense. It makes him relatable. Relatable villains are a lot more fun to write.
Zemo’s recruitment speech to the kids of course begs the question: Is his offer of to help the kids develop their potential genuine? Will he pressure them into doing anything they don’t want to do? I’m not sure if you can answer that question just yet, but what’s your sense of Zemo’s moral code? Is he an “honorable” villain? Are there things he won’t do like lie to the kids? And does he see himself as a world conqueror? A world savior? Or something else entirely?
In general, I’d say Helmut is more likely to omit information than straight up lie. Mainly because it’s cleaner. He isn’t lying to the kids outright, but it would be foolish to think Zemo is putting their best interests ahead of his own.
As we’ve seen, he’s absolutely willing to manipulate the kids. He pretty clearly has a long game in play. If the kids do their part, they’ll stay in his good graces and reap the rewards. If not, who can say what will happen?
I mean, I guess I can say — but I won’t.
As for how Zemo sees himself — I think he’d tell you he’s a reasonable man living in a world of romantics and fools. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea of good and evil. He also doesn’t think it’s his responsibility to save or conquer our world. And what he does with his world is nobody’s business.
Which kids take Zemo up on his offer of recruitment is something we’ll find out soon, but I wanted to talk about the character that seems least likely to accept, Cammi. Out of all the kids, Bagalia seems to have the least amount of seductive influence on her. Why do you think that is? And is Cammi as disgusted by the lifestyle of the Masters of Evil as she appears to be? Or is this a case of her protesting too much?
Cammi has the unique honor of being both the youngest and arguably the most street smart of all the survivors. She sees the others falling prey to Zemo’s machinations and wants to shake the stupid out of them. Some of that is Cammi being wise beyond her years. A lot of it is just age.
Our priorities shift as we grow up. A person isn’t seduced by the same things at 13 as she might be at 17.
I remember watching my older sister screw up constantly when she was in high school and thinking she’d gone idiot the day she turned 15. Of course 3 years later, I was making those same stupid mistakes myself.
Based on the way he’s reacted towards her in “Avengers Undercover” #3-4 I have to think that Anachronism’s decision about whether or not to join Zemo will be influenced by Hazmat’s choice. Can you talk about how Aiden is feeling toward her? He certainly seems infatuated.
Aiden is a compassionate guy. He sees a lot of his own pain in Hazmat. They both lost so much in Murder World. They’re both struggling with survivor’s guilt. Aiden understands Hazmat’s rage and what her outburst at the end off issue #3 must have done to her. He’s been there. He knows what that feels like. More than anything he’s worried about Jen and wants to make sure she’s dealing with things. I’m not saying that relationship won’t grow into more, but Aiden’s concern comes from a very genuine place.
Let’s move on to chatting about what’s coming up in the next few issues that have been solicited. Issue #5 brings this initial arc to a close correct? Then in “Avengers Undercover” #6 we’ve got a one-off that focuses on Death Locket and features art by Timothy Green. What can you tell us about this issue and what’s it like writing Rebecca in a situation like “Avengers Undercover?” Out of all the characters she seems the most naive, but is she?
Yeah, by the end of issue #5 everyone will have to some degree picked a side.
Issue #6 is the most “Arena”-like issue we’ve done so far. We’re inside Death Locket’s head and get an intimate look at how she’s dealing. Becca is unique amongst the survivors in that her old life was dead and gone after Arena. Observant readers may have noticed Death Locket was the one survivor who didn’t have visitors when they were in lockup. Her mom and brother were killed. Her mad scientist father has been institutionalized. S.H.I.E.L.D. treats her like a problem that needs solving.
This is a girl who grew up very sheltered. That home and that structure no longer exists. She’s adrift. She’s traumatized. She’s desperate to belong. Now she’s been dropped into Bagalia, a world with no rules where she’s told she can be anything she wants. It’s been a lot of fun playing around with all the ways that kind of environment shift can change a seemingly naÃ¯ve character like Death Locket.
Then in issue #7 you kick off an arc titled, “Gone Native.” In terms of plot and themes what is this story about?
The “Gone Native” arc is about what it feels like to break bad. The kids are in way over their heads and have decided to play the villain role. We’ll be dealing with how the villain lifestyle affects them. This part of the story is why I pitched this book. It’s the “Donnie Brasco” of the thing and I’m excited we’re about to dig in.
Issue #7 also appears to be Runaways-centric and features the resurrection of their deceased and traitorous teammate, Alex Wilder. What made you want to bring Alex back in this series? What can you tell us about his mental and physical state upon his return? And which elements of Alex do you think artist Kev Walker really nailed with his depiction of him?
Nico and the other Runaways have always fought so hard to avoid turning out like their evil parents. Now here Nico is living in Bagalia City surrounded by all of these supposed “villains” and it turns out some of them aren’t so bad. It’s all very confusing as she feels herself slipping toward that darkness from which she’s been running.
Alex’s return seemed like the perfect complication to throw at Nico. Alex was Nico’s rock in the early days with the Runaways. He was her boyfriend and their leader. Alex was the one with all the answers. When he betrayed them and sided with his parents, it broke Nico’s heart but she never stopped caring about him. She even tried bringing him back from the dead.
Now Nico is struggling with another “which side to take” decision. Alex is both the best and worst thing that could possibly happen to her in this moment. So, you know, of course we wanted to go there.
Kev’s ability to convey youth and character in his pages still amazes me after all these issues. And I think he’s taken it up a notch in these next few issues. The acting in these upcoming Nico/Alex scenes is just phenomenal. This is a complicated relationship and it’s all right there in the art. You’d get all of it without reading a word.
Finally, we’ve talked about what’s going on in Bagalia, so let’s take a second to talk about what’s going on in the outside world in “Avengers Undercover.” What can you tell us about S.H.I.E.L.D. and the other heroes’ response to the kids’ disappearance from their cells in “Avengers Undercover” #4? What do they believe happened? Are S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers currently searching for them?
All of this will be addressed in the upcoming arc. This isn’t “Avengers Arena.” The kids aren’t missing or hidden away in Murder World. S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers know where the kids are and what they’ve been up to. The problem is, Bagalia is a sovereign nation. There isn’t a whole lot the heroes can do to help that wouldn’t constitute an act of war.
“Avengers Undercover” #5 goes on sale June 11 from Marvel.