There’s no doubt that writer Joshua Hale Fialkov is one of the busier writers in comics. Not only is he helping usher in “Cataclysm” for Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, he also recently went digital-first with his creator-owned “The Bunker.” Fialkov’s schedule is about to get even busier as Dark Horse Comics just announced his upcoming “Skyman” 4-issue miniseries that spins out of the events of “Captain Midnight” and begins in January 2014. Joined by artist Manuel Garcia, Fialkov’s miniseries introduces Eric Reid, an ex-pilot injured during a mission in Kandahar, now recruited to be the newest incarnation of Skyman. Fialkov’s story hopes to turn the Golden Age superhero expectation on its head as he ushers the hero into a new era.
Fialkov spoke with CBR News about the upcoming miniseries, including how he got drawn in to the Dark Horse superhero universe, exploring superhero tropes through superhero comics, the recently-revealed “Skyman” Obama variant cover (and why it’s not a gimmick), and more. Plus, the writer discusses his work on Marvel’s “Cataclysm” #0.1 and shares his opinion on going digital-first for creator-owned.
Josh, it’s still early days with details on “Skyman,” but how did you get involved with the project?
Joshua Hale Fialkov: Josh Williamson is one of my best friends and he’s obviously writing “Captain Midnight.” I’ve also known the guys at Dark Horse for years and years, and I think when the time came to find somebody to do the book that spins out of “Captain Midnight,” [Josh Williamson] thought of his old buddy Josh — which makes it weird because we’re both named Josh. It’s very weird. It’s a very complicated relationship. He frequently refers to himself as “The Good Josh,” which I don’t know what that implies about me. Maybe I’m the bad Josh. I don’t know why I’m the bad Josh.
I guess I am slightly more sinister than he is. That would explain it.
But yeah, it was a chance for me to work on — I love Golden Age comics. I’m crazy about them. To have the opportunity to bring one of these classic Golden Age characters back to the forefront and at the same time work near Josh was too good an opportunity to pass up.
You don’t want to talk too much about spoilers, but discuss some of the challenges that your version of Skyman is going to have to face. From the recent press release, it seems like it’s going to be a new Skyman in this universe. What kinds of challenges will he have to take on in this new role?
Yeah, the idea is once Captain Midnight reappears, it establishes this whole idea of the mystery men, these classic pulp heroes reinvented in the modern world. On top of that, essentially they’ve been operating the entire time, but as a black ops unit, so nobody knew there’s been a Skyman since the ’40s. Since Captain Midnight disappeared, there’s been a guy using his technology and doing missions for the U.S. Government. That program has been developed to be a very specific thing and draws from a very specific candidate pool. When the previous Skyman finds himself in a lot of trouble and they go to replace him, they realize, “Oh. All of these guys look the same. All we’re doing is we have a big PR problem with the fact that all these guys are white, blond-haired, blue-eyed midwestern guy. If we put another one out there, all it looks like is that we’re covering it up. It looks like we’re hiding something or we’re exactly what they think we are.”
The opportunity comes where they need to get someone as different as possible. That different person is Eric Reid. Eric is an ex-pilot who was in a battle over Kandahar, lost most of his squadron and was grievously injured. He’s given this responsibility of taking over Skyman and in exchange, the Skyman belt helps to fix his legs, fix his back injury so he can start to feel human again, start to feel like a man again. Eric is African-American, which is not lost on the people who choose him, because he’s such a different face and in their mind, it’s that time. Then, it becomes a question of him realizing that he’s been picked to be the token hero. What does that mean? In his mind, he’s wondering whether he was chosen because he’s the right guy or was he chosen because he’s the right color.
What attracted me to it and what excited me about it was I get to tell this complex story about how superheroes are built, about the race relations of superheroes, about how race shakes out across superheroes. The fact is, when Cap and Hawkeye and Hank Pym all take off their masks, that’s one guy. Underneath, they’re three men who look identical. When Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are hanging out — one guy wears glasses, that’s the difference. Otherwise, they’re all the same guy. That’s something that’s across the industry and it’s something I’ve devoted a lot of my energy to try and diversify and have a more diverse cast. To get an opportunity to comment on that is really fun. It’s a fun story to tell and it’s a fun angle to take.
One of the coolest and most exciting aspects of you coming on to “Skyman” is taking the expectations of superhero comics and turning them on their heads. You did it in “The Last of the Greats” and to a certain extent, you’ve been doing it in “Ultimate Comics Ultimates.” “Skyman” seems like it comes from a much more classic era of comics — with that in mind, how do you approach tackling the character?
Part of it, again, really comes from how much I love the source material. Not just Skyman in particular, I love Golden Age comics across the board. What I love about them is what’s wrong with them. I love the weird, short-sightedness and the weird racism that popped into these things that were produced in the millions. More copies of these books were given out and sold than we could ever hope to sell in comics today. They’re being passed to our children as these inoffensive things when in fact, a lot of them are pretty racist. They were racist and misogynistic. It wasn’t just in the ’40s. Some of my favorite comics of all-time are the imaginary stories of Superman. A lot of these stories are about what would happen if Superman and Lois got married — because it was unthinkable they would get married — but if they did, Lois becomes this emasculating nightmare! It’s such a weird thing to tell kids! They’re clearly made for 8-12 year old boys and the people making them are just like, “That’s what they like! I don’t know!”
We’re lucky in that Jim [Gibbons] and Scott [Allie] and Mike [Richardson] at Dark Horse understand that part of it as well, and they’re giving me the opportunity to do the meta commentary through the book. That being said, I try to write them as a real guy dealing with this extraordinary situation, which is something that I like to think is my strong suit and something I focus on in all my work. How does what he’s going through relate? With him, he’s kind of thrust into the spotlight, and even though he’s the right guy for it, he doesn’t necessarily believe that.
Look, getting put on some of the books I’ve been put on the last year or two, I totally understand that feeling. I understand the pressure of, “Now you have to fly. Now you have to perform.” Whether you’re ready or not. Beyond comics, that’s something that everyone copes with and everyone deals with.
How does working on something like “Skyman” stretch different creative muscles for you than some of your other current projects?
Part of it is I’m not writing a solo book right now, so that was an attraction. Writing team books is exhausting. Doing a book like “Ultimates” is amazingly rewarding and so much fun, but it’s a bit like doing math homework in that you have to spend a lot of time moving pieces and making sure every character gets their due and gets really showcased appropriately in every book. It’s something I’m sure people reading my “Ultimates” will complain about, but the end of my “Ultimates” is really just — “We’ve got to get all the stuff in! Get it done now! We’ve got to get all the stuff in there.” Doing “Skyman” where I essentially have no continuity to worry about, I have no — it spins out of Josh’s book, but it’s still very independent, so I don’t have to worry about tie-ins. I don’t have to worry about the events that we’re building to. I can just develop and build this character from scratch. It’s really the best job you can have and get paid for. It’s really, really fun and it’s satisfying because I know at the end of this, you’re going to have a new character that’s going to go into the world and he’s mine. He’s someone who I created into the world that Dark Horse is building.
While you’re certainly no stranger to working in a shared universe, the Dark Horse superhero universe is very much in the beginning stages. What’s the challenge and exciting aspects for you in helping to develop this universe in its nascent state?
I don’t even know that it’s a challenge. The fun part is I talk to Williamson every day; we talk constantly. We’re into what each other is doing in a way that makes it easier. I’m friends with Fred Van Lente who is doing “Brain Boy.” I know what’s going on in a pretty concrete way. Mike and company are open to what we want to tell and how we want to tell our stories, but at the same time has a very clear vision of what these books are and where they’re going and what they’re going to be. It’s nice and being at the beginning of something like this is a lot of fun. It’s a fun place to be.
A “Skyman” Obama variant has also hit online, which was somewhat surprising. Didn’t comics do this already?
No! It’s actually story-related! It’s not exploitative, I swear! It’s not just a random thing, it’s a beat in the story that Mike Richardson really, really liked and thought it would be a good cover. Clearly, it works because people are talking about it!
I didn’t actually think that was going to happen. It wasn’t planned. There’s this illusion that because Obama is president that racism is gone and things are all fair and equal — and it’s just not true. The book actually has a lot to do with that idea of “If we do this and that, then we’re not racist, and that’s what’s important.” No, no. What’s actually important is that we’re equal. If we weren’t racist, it’d be better. That would actually be the better solution to racism would be to not be racist.
The book deals with that and the fact that it’s hard for a black soldier to advance, that it’s hard for a black character to get a hold in the market — all this stuff, both the reality and the fictional and the market — all that stuff ties into what we’re doing in the book. It’s a lot of fun and I think at the same time, there’s a lot of flying around and punching stuff and shooting, so it’s a good balance.
Manuel Garcia is handling art for the miniseries. What do you think makes him a good fit both for your story and for the classic-style character at its core?
I think part of what works is that it’s the opposite of Golden Age. It has a very gritty, almost a Todd McFarlane quality to it. It takes this character and it takes the design — because we’re using a variation on the classic design — and manipulates it and makes it feel more modern just by the very nature of it. Again, because I like it just from the standpoint of the subtext of the book. I think the subtext makes it really neat that you have this — the world is no longer black and white, so subsequently, you have this grizzled look as opposed to the clean lines of a classic Golden Age-style artist.
As you continue to write the series and you continue to see the pages come in, what excites you the most about getting this story out there?
What I like about these books and what excites me about these books — not just what Dark Horse is doing, but what Valiant is doing and what Archie is doing with Red Circle — both Marvel and DC are so ingrained in the stories they’ve been telling that I think superhero stories have a tendency towards the continuity stuff and towards the thickness of modern comics. With Dark Horse and Valiant and Red Circle, you get a fresher, easier take just in that you don’t have to read as many books. You can experience the books and the writers — because everyone is restarting their universes in this clean way — it gives you the opportunity to tell stories minus the handcuffs.
Those handcuffs are golden handcuffs. “Ultimates” is so much fun because I get to pull up all the stuff that I love. For these books, for “Skyman,” getting to tell original stories without barriers is a big attraction.
Before wrapping up — you’re writing “Cataclysm” #0.1 for Marvel later on this year and it features Ultimate Vision! How excited were you to get your hands on Ultimate Vision?
Oh, man. People are going to be mad. [Laughs]
Maybe it’s the right method or maybe it’s the wrong method, but I like the idea that I’m the housekeeper, that I’m going through and I’m like, “Here are leads we haven’t followed up on! Let’s follow up on that!” Leading up to “Cataclysm,” leading up to what is the end of an era, I want to make sure that all these dangling pieces that have been explored but then fallen off to the side — as many of them, especially the ones that I love, brought back to the foreground and really explored. Ultimate Vision is one of those. I love how different Ultimate Vision is. Actually, it kind of bums me out that she’s called Ultimate Vision just because she’s so not the Vision. She’s such a different character. It’s so much fun and Ultimate Vision meeting 616 Galactus is such as fun scene to write. That book’s super cool. It’s one of those things where it’s like a prelude but it’s still outside anything, so you worry about making it feel important, feel like it matters. That’s something that Mark [Paniccia] and Emily [Shaw] and [Tom] Brevoort, that was one of the biggest notes from them: we need to make this feel important to itself. It’s fine for it to be important to the event, but what really matters is how do we make this something that matters that people will talk about on its own just as a piece of “Cataclysm.” I pray that we’ve succeeded with that.
You see yourself as a housekeeper, but do you ever feel as though you are the current showrunner of the final season for a television series?
No, that’s Bendis. [Laughs]
I’m here to support what Brian does. Brian and Mark [Millar] built this thing together and Mark drifted off, but Brian stuck around and Brian stuck it out. Everything that people love about this universe to some degree, Brian had a part of. When it is long gone and buried, it will be a tribute to that guy’s talent and that guy’s hard work and that guy’s dedication. It’s not just me trying to suck up, I genuinely feel that way. When those books first came out, I had just moved to L.A. and I was trying to make it as a screenwriter. I was frustrated and burned out and I just wanted to tell a very specific kind of story, and it was something that people weren’t interested in on the Hollywood side. I read this Spider-Man book, and there was other stuff — “Y: The Last Man” was coming out and “Fables” was coming out — all that stuff played a part in it, but reading “Ultimate Spider-Man” was the moment when I said, “Oh, I can write one of the biggest characters in the world and tell really personal, super small stories that are weird and get paid to do it? That’s something you can do?” And it really propelled me down the road I’m going on, so to do it now just means the world to me.
That’s why me murdering the entire Ultimate Universe, as I soon will do, is just so satisfying. It makes me forget the dark days. [Laughs]
In addition to all of these projects, you’re also writing the creator-owned digital title “The Bunker.” Is going a digital-first route something you’re looking into for future creator-owned work?
The thing about doing the book digital-first is that [Joe Infurnari and I] had absolute control from top to bottom from the business side to the creative side. Everything was all us. That’s something that is not necessarily the most lucrative method of doing things, but it is one of the most satisfying. I think when people see what we have coming up over the next few months and some of the announcements that will pour out of it, you’ll see why despite not making a lot of money now, I would absolutely do direct digital again. I think as the market grows, it’s going to look a lot more lucrative. It’s just part of the thing of being a part of a movement early on is that you suffer financially, but the suffering financially is more than made up for by the pleasure of the creative process.