Adolescence is one of the most critical times in a person’s life. Their experiences during that period often determine who they become an adult. For that reason, it’s important that a teenager have good teachers and role models during this period, especially if said teenager possesses super human abilities that could be used to protect or oppress and destroy their fellow man. When the heroes of Marvel Comics’ Avengers discovered six super powered teenagers who had been tortured by the villainous Norman Osborn they knew they had to do something to undo the damage Osborn had done and prevent the kids from becoming super villains.
Their answer was to create a place where a special faculty of current and former Avengers could train these at risk kids in the hopes that they become the heroes of tomorrow. That training began in 2010 when writer Christos Gage launched “Avengers Academy” at Marvel, and the curriculum has been nothing short of difficult. Over the course of 38 issues the students and their instructors have said goodbye to old friends and welcomed new ones while they’ve dealt with individual and larger Marvel Universe crises like “Fear Itself” and “Avengers Vs. X-Men.”
On November 7, graduation finally arrive as the series comes to a close with the release of “Avengers Academy” #39 by Gage and artist Tom Grummett, the final issue of the series. In honor of this bittersweet occasion Comic Book Resources spoke with Gage for a in-depth look back at the series.
CBR News: Christos, take us back to the early days of your “Avengers Academy” work when you were first offered this assignment. How fully fleshed out was the book’s core concept when Marvel offered it to you? And what made the book appealing to you?
Christos Gage: Well, it started out while I was writing “Avengers: The Initiative,” which was sort of the spiritual precursor to “Avengers Academy.” Dan Slott began that title, I came on board as co-writer with #8, I think, and then with #21 I started writing it solo as Dan moved on to “Mighty Avengers.” Even before Dan left, we knew that the Initiative, as a program in the Marvel Universe, was coming to an end, and had talked about what would come next. My memory’s a little fuzzy, but I think we agreed early on that since the Initiative was, in essence, a draft for super humans, a boot camp where they trained like an army, what made the most sense for a post-Initiative world was a school for the next generation of Avengers, where the students were there voluntarily. I think Dan may even have come up with the name “Avengers Academy.”
Dan moved on before the idea was really fleshed out, so it was up to me to come up with the hook for the series. I thought the most interesting approach would be that the student body, rather than being made up of the best, most heroic and upstanding kids with powers, should be superhuman “at-risk kids” who are at a point where they could become either heroes or villains. So at an Avengers summit where I was to pitch the idea of “Avengers Academy,” I put forth that idea, though it involved a pretty sci-fi oriented setup, sort of a “Days Of Future Past” approach involving time travel where the kids saw a tomorrow where they were these horrible people.
The folks at the summit, which included a pretty impressive brain trust including Ed Brubaker, Brian Bendis, and Matt Fraction, as well as Dan Buckley, Joe Quesada, Axel Alonso and the rest of editorial, suggested a simpler approach. I think it was Joe who suggested the kids just find out their psych profiles by hacking into the Avengers’ computers. That was one of those head-slap moments for me, where I was like, “Duh! That’s so much better!” Simpler, more elegant and more personal. That’s why I do all my screenwriting with my wife; she reins in my comic book sensibilities and grounds them in reality. But at this summit I realized that’s often the best way to go in comics as well. Having a story grounded in basic human, real-world roots makes for the most effective approach. And then Ed Brubaker suggested a Scared Straight crossover with the Thunderbolts, and I was all, “These summits are great!”
As for what made the book appealing to me, it was the idea that these kids are trying to rise above the limitations set upon them by their elders, by society, and by fate to become something better. That, to me, is true heroism. I also liked the fact that the setup had such a striking parallel to the teenage years for all of us — it’s a time when one good or bad choice can change the rest of your life forever. That’s always true, but it seems those moments just come fast and furious in adolescence.
One of the elements that made “Avengers Academy” so unique was it featured a cast of predominantly new characters. What was it like getting to add several new toys to the Marvel toy box? Had you ever created that many new character at one time for a book?
It was terrific, and even more so because I was doing it with artist Mike McKone. He had a huge impact on the characters, from Mettle’s skull-faced look — which gave me the idea that he wasn’t just a guy with metal skin, but he’d had his skin torn off — and Hazmat’s ethnicity, as well as Finesse looking like an “evil Audrey Hepburn” and Striker’s costume. I actually had created that many new characters at one time before, when inventing new Fifty State Initiative teams, but they were pretty much meant to be background flavor. This was my first time creating this many new characters to star in their own book.
Your new cast included Mettle, Hazmat, Striker, Veil, and Finesse. What led you to create these characters specifically? What inspired them?
The one common thread was that, for most of them, I wanted to give them powers that were as much a curse as a blessing. Aside from that, I keep a list of character names and descriptions that I write down as they occur to me, so I pulled from there. And as I mentioned, Mike had a big influence on their development as well.
You also included a relatively new character in the line-up, Reptil. Why did you want him to be part of the book? What do you feel he added to the initial cast?
Well, he was created for the “Super Hero Squad” cartoon, and I wrote the “Initiative” special that introduced him to the Marvel Comics universe, so it seemed like a natural. Plus, I love dinosaurs. Have since I was a tiny kid. No more complicated than that.
The other big aspect of “Avengers Academy” was the characters’ torture at the hands of Norman Osborn. Did you know that element was going to be part of your cast’s back story when you were coming up with them? And if so did it impact the creation of the characters at all?
To the best of my recollection that was always going to be part of the origin story of the characters. It gave them all a reason that they could “go bad” and also a shared experience, and of course it made story sense in terms of transitioning from “Dark Reign” to the “Heroic Age.” In terms of how they were visualized, however, I don’t think Norman Osborn had any impact. We knew we wanted several of them to have powers that were as much a curse as a blessing, but that was separate from Osborn — though he accentuated that side of things.
The initial faculty of “Avengers Academy” included characters that were part of “Avengers: The Initiative” which you wrote and “Mighty Avengers” which you co-wrote several issues of with Dan Slott. Coincidence? Or were these characters available and you knew they would be interesting in a teacher type role?
Part of it is that I knew many of them were available, but I also wanted to have the teachers be sort of the “broken Avengers” if you will; people who had experienced some of the same challenges as the students. Justice had killed his father (in self-defense), Speedball had the Stamford disaster, Tigra has gone feral several times, Quicksilver has battled mental illness, Jocasta is the Bride of Ultron, and Hank Pym is kind of notorious for all the mistakes he’s made. I thought it made for the best kind of character interaction between teachers and students. And really, it made sense because these are teachers who have been there — like when kids with drug problems are counseled by those who are themselves recovering addicts, or kids involved with gangs by ex-gang members.
How was your experience penning the initial issues of “Avengers Academy?” Had you written anything like this book before? And was there a bit of a learning curve or did these stories come easily to you?
The main thing with the early issues was that, working with so many new characters, there wasn’t source material to look to for guidance. I could kind of do with them whatever I wanted.
The way I approached it was more along the lines of having a general idea of where I wanted to go with them, but also letting the characters tell me who they were, if that makes any sense. I had each of the first six issues spotlight one of the students, as a way to introduce readers to them, and it ended up being a way for me to be introduced to them as well. As an example, even though he didn’t come out until #23, I had been playing with the idea that Striker might secretly be gay, but I didn’t commit to that until I wrote his spotlight issue, #5. If you look back on that story you’ll see a couple of hints in that direction.
At the end of the series’ first year you gave readers a glimpse of what your young cast might be like in the future, and you’ve returned to the students’ possible future incarnation several times now. Where did the idea for the future angle for this series come from? Will we see a resolution to that particular storyline before the series is done?
That’s something I originally had as part of the premise of the series — that the kids see themselves as adults — and when it was removed, I still thought it might be fun to do something with it. It ties into the whole “at-risk” element, but also creates something for the kids to either aspire to or avoid.
I think it’s been as resolved as it’s going to get any time soon. Much like, say, “Days of Future Past,” the very act of that time period interacting with our own has changed the future. But the kids have definitely seen a possible outcome for them, and reacted differently to it.
Shortly into the book’s second year you introduced readers to Jeremy Briggs AKA the Alchemist, a complex character who would go on to become the series’ biggest villain. Ultimately, what were you trying to say with Jeremy and what do you think motivated him? The character was a super powered teenager who had also been tortured by Norman Osborn, but didn’t bear any lasting physical scars. Did he have any lasting mental ones from the way Osborn treated him?
Jeremy, for me, was a way to undermine and then redeem the whole concept of super-heroes. A number of creators I really admire, like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, have written stories deconstructing the idea of superheroes, pointing out that there’s an inherent silliness to it, and that in reality, individuals with that kind of power, who use it in that way, would be more likely to be corrupted by it, if they weren’t severely damaged already. I’ve done my own examination of that sort of thing with my Avatar Press series “Absolution.” And let’s face it, there’s some truth to the notion that the model of superheroes, as we know them, has inherent flaws. Someone with Iceman’s powers, for example, would probably do a lot more good refreshing the polar icecaps or aiding drought-stricken areas than fighting Mr. Sinister. But y’know what? I love superheroes. I think they embody our desire to be better, to aspire to something great.
So in addition to making our characters question what they’re doing, Jeremy Briggs also gave me a chance to do things like Hank Pym’s “I believe in the Avengers” speech. And I also wanted to show with him that there are different kinds of power, like being rich and/or having the means and desire to control other peoples’ lives, that can corrupt just as much as laser beams from your eyes.
Was Jeremy scarred by Osborn? Possibly. Maybe he was already like that. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. My take on him is that he genuinely believed in what he was doing, and trying to help the world, but at the end of the day his prescription for helping the world was “do things my way,” and that’s always dangerous. (Though something I think we all feel: “If everyone would just listen to me things would be fine!”)
One thing I wanted to make sure of with Jeremy is that his arguments always made sense. I wanted readers to digest them and think, “Y’know what, he’s not wrong.” And he was far from all bad. I think it’s a positive thing to question the systems you operate under, because you may find flaws, and even if you just realize, “Yeah, that works fine,” you’ve made that decision for yourself. Our final issue does address these matters once again.
After Jeremy’s introduction the students and faculty of “Avengers Academy” became embroiled in “Fear Itself” in a major way. Why did you want to be part of the event? What do you feel it added to the book?
For me, that was the kids going to war. We have been sending teenagers to war since the dawn of time. I wanted to show the “Avengers Academy” students going through that, and being changed by it. Some scarred forever, some achieving great things they didn’t know they were capable of. The mental and physical tolls of being an Avenger were always a part of this book, and I felt that “Fear Itself” was a significant chapter in that.
After “Fear Itself” the book changed in a major way because “Avengers Academy” opened its doors to a large number of students. Why did you want to expand the book in this way?
It seemed a natural outgrowth of the title, a way to bring in some new faces and shake things up a bit after the major events of “Fear Itself.” Also, in our Prom issue, #13, we brought in a bunch of other teenage or college age Marvel characters, and the fans loved the interactions between them and the Academy kids, so it gave us a chance to do more of that. Just more story options, really.
By welcoming more students you got to focus on a few more younger characters. Some of them stayed in the background like the new Power Man, while others like the new White Tiger, X-23, Julie Power, and Juston Seyfert and his Sentinel became larger parts of the cast. What made you want to focus more on these characters? And if you had more time with the series would the spotlight have shifted to other teen heroes? Were there other characters you had stories planned for but you just didn’t get the chance to tell?
The core cast would have more or less remained the core cast, with the addition of X-23, Julie Power and White Tiger. But I might well have done stories that involved other students in some way. I just didn’t have any immediate plans.
As for why I wanted to focus on the new characters, I thought X-23 brought many of the same background issues as the original students but in a different series of experiences — she was a much more amped up version of what they went through — and I found that interesting. With Julie, I wanted a voice of experience in there, and also someone who was indisputably a hero — to provide both guidance and contrast. And with White Tiger, she had some similar issues to other characters, but she was also our first legacy character, which was intriguing to me.
It was around this same time that Striker came out. You mentioned knowing he was gay early on and even seeded in some clues in early issues. I’m curious though, when did you discover the character’s sexuality? Was it something that came up in the creation process? Or did it become clear after writing the character for a few issues?
As I mentioned before, I always had the possibility in the back of my mind, but really settled on it with issue #5. I know a lot of gay people who say they knew since they were three years-old or whatever, but I also know that there are kids who struggle with their sexuality for a variety of reasons, and I wanted that to be reflected in the book. I was kind of nervous about it because I’m straight, but the response from both gay and straight (and bisexual) readers was wonderful. Even those who questioned aspects of the story, such as Striker having been sexually abused as a child possibly reinforcing the false stereotype that such abuse can “make” someone gay, were courteous and supportive of what we were trying to do. I also have to thank “Mind the Gap” writer Jim McCann for vetting that issue before I sent it in to make sure I didn’t totally mess it up!
This was also around the time you relocated Avengers Academy to the West Coast Avengers’ old compound. It felt like you had a lot of fun telling stories set on those grounds. Is that true? How did it feel revive an old Avengers landmark? And do you know if the Academy grounds will go back to not being used once this series ends?
Oh, I loved it. I was a huge West Coast Avengers fan growing up, and having WCA veterans like Hank Pym and Tigra on the team made it a natural. The funny thing is, around the time I had the idea, Tom Brevoort suggested using the WCA compound. Which I figured was a nice nod to Avengers history, and probably as close as I’d ever get to writing a West Coast Avengers book, since Tom infuriatingly (and correctly) insists that such a team would need a reason for existing beyond, “They’re Avengers — but in CALIFORNIA!” And I can’t think of one. As for what happens to the campus after Issue #39, sorry, no idea.
The Academy grounds were the scenes of some pretty interesting events during your “Avengers Vs. X-Men” tie-ins which focused around what happens to teen super heroes when adult heres go to war with each other and whether or not being designed for killing could ever go on to become something more. What inspired these stories? It felt like the second story with Juston and his Sentinel was paying a small bit of homage to the great animated film, “The Iron Giant.” Was that intentional? Or just coincidence?
In both cases, you’re right, I wanted to examine how kids react when their elders start a war they get caught up in. As for the Sentinel storyline, yes, there was some “Iron Giant” inspiration, but really, I felt like Juston and his Sentinel embodied the Avengers Academy ideal that you can be more than your roots.
The parallel for me was always with pit bull dogs. Because they are used in dog fighting, there is a stereotype that they are vicious and violent by nature, and many communities are passing laws banning them, or having them put to death for doing things that might be excused if the dog were of another breed. When the truth is, they are wonderful dogs, and the fault for any who are vicious is with the human beings who trained them to be that way.
So you have the Sentinel, who was created to kill, but because of his relationship with Juston, has been given a chance to be something better, and you have Emma Frost saying it’s too dangerous to live. This was really a “boy and his dog” story for me, and one of the ones I’m most proud of. I loved what Timothy Green II and Jeff Huet did with the art.
Shortly after your “AvX” tie-ins Jeremy Briggs resurfaced for “Final Exam,” which ended up being a pretty horrific ordeal for some of the kids. So I’m wondering about the mental states of your characters and if they’re still considered at risk? Just because these kids are going to be “graduating” does that mean there’s no longer a chance for them to become villains?
There’s always a chance — some more than others. I’m about to venture into some spoilers, but I would say Finesse is definitely one of the ones to be concerned about, after what happened with Jeremy.
What can you tell us about events of Issue #39, the graduation issue of “Avengers Academy?” In terms of plot and themes what is this final issue about?
It’s less an action story than a character story, examining where the characters end up as we wrap the series. I’m not saying everything gets wrapped up in a neat little bow. But one thing that does get resolved is the kids confront the teachers with the truth about why they were recruited.
What’s it like saying goodbye to this series and its characters? Will you miss them? I imagine like a worried and excited parent you’ll be rooting for the “Avengers Academy” kids that appear in “Avengers Arena?”
It’s tough, like any time you have to say goodbye to someone or something you love. I’ll miss the characters, the book and our readers tremendously. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. And yes, of course, I will be rooting for my kids!
Not all of the “Avengers Academy” students are bound for “Avengers Arena.” Do you know where some of the other kids like Striker, Finesse, and the White Tiger are headed? Are there plans for these characters? And if so are you part of these plans?
No idea, on all counts. And no, I am not currently involved with any plans for the characters. But like I always said, I created them to be part of the Marvel Universe, so hopefully that’s what will come to pass.
No discussion of “Avengers Academy” would be complete without discussing your artistic collaborators on the book. Your most frequent ones were Mike McKone, Tom Raney, Sean Chen, and Tom Grummett. What do you feel each of these artists brought to their respective eras and runs on the book?
It sounds corny, but I think they all brought the same thing: their passion and love for the characters and the book. I’ve been doing this a while now, and never have I had so many of my artistic collaborators tell me how much they enjoyed working on the book and how much the characters meant to them. All these guys put a tremendous amount of love and care into their work and I think it showed through.
Mike, of course, is the co-creator and designer of the kids. He made them live, made them real, and designed what I think are some classic looks. Tom Raney brought his sense of epic scale, gave us a tremendous Giant-Man vs. Absorbing Man fight as Hank Pym returned to his classic identity, and in a personal highlight for me, made the old Rom villain Hybrid look creepier than I’ve ever seen. Sean had a special affinity for group scenes, always giving each individual person their own personality, activity, and life. He always went above and beyond. And Tom Grummett delivered both a classic superhero feel as well as portraying some of the most wrenching moments in these kids’ lives with incredible power and grace.
I have truly been blessed with the collaborators on this book, from pencilers to inkers to colorists to editor Bill Rosemann and the assistant editors and of course the legend, Joe Caramagna, lettering.
Finally, when the last issue hits “Avengers Academy” will have gone 39 issues, a pretty impressive feat in this market, especially for a book featuring so many new characters. Any last thoughts you’d like to share about the book?
More than anything, I want to thank my collaborators, Marvel, retailers and our readers for what is the most rewarding experience of my career to date. I say a more in-depth goodbye in the final issue’s letters page, so I won’t get too long winded here, but really: thank you.
“Avengers Academy” #39 by Christos Gage and Tom Grummet goes on sale November 7.