Superheroes — whether they are born, made or chosen, all are imbued with a power and strength that goes beyond normal human capabilities. But what if that power and strength was thrust onto a reluctant host — like a surly teenager with no life plans beyond getting wasted at a punk show and hanging out with his friends? Additionally, what if those powers were more than anyone could handle? In writer Ed Brisson and artist Brian Level’s new Image Comics series, that very possibility is explored when unwitting slacker Robbie takes on “The Mantle.”
Series protagonist Robbie is the 38th host for these strange powers and his transition from average kid to superhero happens in a strike of lightening. He has been chosen and, although it’s not clear why, one thing is certain — danger isn’t waiting for him to catch his breath. To find out more about Image Comics’ unlikely new legacy hero, CBR News spoke to “The Mantle” creative team Ed Brisson and Brian Level.
CBR News: The powers of the Mantle transfer to a new host each time the previous one dies, having burned through 38 in recent years. Since we don’t tend to see a ton of actual death in superhero comics, how does mortality shape the holders of the Mantle?
Brian Level: It informs everyone’s expectations. The underdog is very genuine in “The Mantle.” It reveals the virtuous few much more clearly while contrasting them against more honest people damaged by the Mantle’s legacy of death. The book feels honest and dynamic because of that.
Ed Brisson: It ultimately helps expose each host’s true character. How do they react when faced with the notion that they most certainly will die — and die soon. How do they react?
From the first issue alone, you challenge some of the stereotypes of what type of person is an ideal superhero. How did you approach creating these characters, both from a narrative and design perspective?
Level: I suppose I might say, just because you have superpowers, doesn’t mean you’re a hero — or even a villain. Most people fit somewhere in between. Ed writes incredibly complicated characters so I just tried to reflect that in the acting. Design was more about squeezing personalities and physical requirements into a shape that made sense and was familiar while not looking like a rehash. I also wanted a visually diverse cast. I’m not trying to draw the same face with different hairstyles.
Brisson: Absolutely. I wanted to write characters who didn’t seem like your typical heroes and build them up to a level where you realize that they were the only people who could have. So, having this dude who rolls out of a pub, drunk and high, who all of sudden gets powers and you see that he’s a good dude at heart.
Some of the supporting characters came from other places. Shadow, a dude who can travel from any shadow/dark room to another, is actually a character that I created when I was 12 — although I did redesign him for this, which is the first time I’ve done the design on a character in a book I’ve written. He and Necra, who can literally visit people in purgatory, are not fighters. They’ve both got these unique things that they can do, but they just cannot fight — which is something I feel you don’t see in comics enough, people who have their skill set, something they specialize in and do only that. Every superhero/character in most comics seems to be super skilled in fighting. Again, with these two, they’re not always the most pleasant people. They do what they do out of a feeling of obligation and are not happy about it. Kabrah, the scientist/strong woman, is probably the most noble of the bunch, and her motives are more what readers might be used to — justice.
There is a twist in the first issue that isn’t hinted at or really advertised anywhere in the solicitations for “The Mantle” that could potentially draw an underrepresented readership. Drawing in an audience is incredibly important to creator-owned books, but you’ve chosen to keep this twist a surprise. How have you approached marketing this book while keeping this secret in mind?
Level: I’m really banking on that deep Brisson fandom to come out to the party regardless of what we do! [Laughs] No, It’s been tricky. Even as far as the solicits are concerned, we’ve had to play it pretty safe while still giving people an idea of where we are going. I’m hoping there is a bit of buzz after the book comes out and that people take a chance on it. Interviews like this help and we’ve got some friends responding well over social media. I’m trying to post a lot of process shots that don’t give away any story.
Brisson: Yeah, there’s been a lot of biting our tongues, which I feel like I should be used to at this point. I had the same problems with “Sheltered” and “The Field.” Both had twists in them that were crucial to where the story was going and what it was really about, but those things were not immediately apparent to new readers. In both cases, the twist was shocking enough that we didn’t want to spoil it and, here I am, dealing with it again. What this really shows is that I’m not in publicity and marketing.
That said, I think that the story holds and I don’t want to push a book just on the idea that it features characters who might be underrepresented in comics. It feels a little disingenuous to me. I don’t want to prey on a group of readers just because they’re thirsty for a type of story or more of a type of character. Maybe that’s to my own detriment, I don’t know. I just feel like it should be the norm and not something that we have to run around advertising.
What were some important things for you to capture from the superhero genre when creating “The Mantle”?
Level: The insanity. That shit gets completely crazy. Costumes, powers, stakes, odds, feelings. Everything is so much larger than life. Its great to work on a project showing scale, power, and destruction on levels previously not provided to me.
Brisson: What Brian said. Also, one of the things that really interests me is how the power effects people, people around them, etc. That’s something that we’re really going to try to explore in the series. If the series continues on for a long while, I’ve got a lot of plans for how the power really changes the host over time — since most Mantles, up until the start of the series, die pretty quickly, we never really get to see what happens to someone after a long period of exposure.
What about “The Mantle” appealed to you both?
Level: A big thing for me was Ed’s openness to asking my input. We did a phone call or two talking story and character ideas as well as the type of powers and all that. It was really collaborative from the start. He really wanted me to cut loose on the character designs too. That made it all super fun and immersive. Plus, I love superheroes.
Brisson: Brian and I already had a really good working relationship from doing the three short stories we’d already done and he was one of the few dudes who I thought might be into doing a superhero book. I don’t think that many people who’ve read the books I’ve done at Image or BOOM! would really look at my writing and think that I have any interest in superheroes, but I grew up reading this stuff and completely interested in doing that — it’s just that I want to do more than just superheroes. Brian I feel is the same. He has a really broad interest and can handle capes really well. I wanted to work with someone who had that sensibility — someone who has that broader range, but is still a fan of drawing people flying around, punching one another. Also, I think that the two of us are pretty in tune with one another. I think that we can trust the other to go off and do their thing and come back with something that both of us would really dig.
Brian is also the one who brought Jordan Boyd in to color. The two of them have done a lot of stuff in the past and work really well together. Jordan’s a colorist who I’ve admired from afar for a little while now — he colors a lot of Gabriel Hardman’s stuff, who is one of my favorite artists — so, it was really cool to have him come on board.
Brian, the costume design is very cool for all of the characters. Where does the aesthetic come from?
Level: Oh gosh. Thanks. I’m inclined to say “everywhere,” from Pinterest fashion stuff, to Ed sending me sketches, hardcore music, weird articles about body modification, action figures and decades of beautiful superhero costume designs from so many creators before me. Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin obviously when it comes to The Plague. Kabrah to me is the most heroic, so I really went pretty classic with her design. Robbie is just… well, Robbie. [Laughs] I also love the cleverness of repurposing a single symbol across a lot of characters, [like the] X-Men, Green Lantern Corps, Alpha Flight.
Now that “The Mantle” #1 is about to be released, is the finished project what you envisioned from the time you began developing it?
Brisson: Yeah, I would say so. From character design to story flow, it’s pretty much exactly what we’d started out to do. There’ve been some surprises along the way — especially with Brian’s character designs, which have been pretty phenomenal. But, yeah, going in we had a pretty good idea in our heads of how I’d hoped things would look and read, and I think we managed to do what we set out to.
Level: We wanted something pretty breakneck and dizzying. Ed and I chatted about pacing a bit beforehand and he just nailed it. Aesthetically I feel like it’s almost exactly as I imagined it from the beginning. There’s a lot of classic superhero-comic design work coupled with a bit of grimy streetness to it. Ed and I have been able to stick to some of our more grounded sensibilities while getting a full on super-powered slugfest when needed. It’s a nice balance.
How has it changed along the way?
Level: The book has a lot hairpin turns that have been there pretty early on, but how and when we’re are delivering them has shuffled a bit. Forgive the ambiguity.
Brisson: I think that, initially…and I’m talking very early on in the development of the project, that it was just going to be about the Mantle. The supporting cast — Kabrah, Necra and Shadow — were not part of those initial plans. They came after when we realized that we needed others to sort of birth each new Mantle into this super-hero world. Beyond that, there’ve been a few minor changes with motivations and what not, but nothing outside the norm when developing a new project.
Last question — if you were imbued with the powers of the Mantle for one day, what would you do?
Level: Probably have a super freakout and cause some calamitous chain of events in the first hour, then spend the next 23 cleaning up. I’d probably try to get a nap in there somewhere too.
“The Mantle” #1 hits stores on May 13
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