Thanks to the events of Marvel‘s currently unfolding “Secret Wars” event anchored by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Esad Ribic, Doctor Doom is now the god and savior of Battleworld, the last and only remaining locale of the Marvel Universe. He rules over the patchwork planet with an iron fist and brooks no challenges to his authority. So when the villainous Red Skull tried to topple Doom, the god of Battleworld took swift action. Doom’s course of action, though, may have made the Skull’s pernicious brand of evil more powerful than ever.
This July, in the three-issue “Secret Wars” miniseries “Red Skull” by “Nailbiter” writer Joshua Williamson and recent “Amazing Spider-Man Special” artist Luca Pizzari, a team of superpowered prisoners — including the Winter Soldier, Magneto and Moonstone — set out on a dangerous mission into the zombie-infested Deadlands to find, and possibly destroy, the titular character.
CBR News spoke with Williamson about the antiheroes and villains that serve as his protagonists, the conflicts they’ll encounter as they make their way on a “Heart of Darkness”-style journey through the Deadlands and the Red Skull’s growing — and possibly undying — legacy of evil. Along with the interview, CBR presents some exclusive interior pages by Pizzari, from “Red Skull” #1.
CBR News: Josh, let’s set the stage for “Red Skull,” now that “Secret Wars” #2 has come out and we can talk a little bit more about the shape and power structures of Battleworld. When things kick off in the series, your title character is missing and presumed dead. What can you tell us about the Battleworld history of Red Skull, and the sort of legacy he left behind?
Joshua Williamson: The Red Skull attempted to build an army to challenge Doom, but failed. When he was caught he was sent over the Shield, where he was believed to have been killed by the Zombies. He should be dead. People never come back from the Deadlands.
But over time he has gained a following in Battleworld. They still remember him as an evil bastard, but now he has become something more. His legacy is, he’s become a symbol for some of the younger inhabitants that want to rebel against Doom.
A big part of the opening is that he gained that power after he died. His new followers have started to believe that he will return for them. That he will rise again. And Doom can’t have that.
The Red Skull’s reign of terror, and what happened after, has many wanting to make sure the villain is indeed dead, which sets your story in motion and sends your protagonists on their mission into the zombie-infested Deadlands. What’s it like playing around in this particular “Marvel Zombies” inspired region of Battleworld? Seems like it would be a perfect setting for a story about evil that refuses to die.
Bingo. You hit it right on the head.
As soon as we started to talk about the Red Skull and what he’d be up to — the Marvel Zombie section — the “Deadlands” immediately came to mind. I mean, just look at Red Skull. He’s one of those bad guys where his outside clearly reflects his inside. He’s a monster. He fits right in with the hordes of undead. I think that the Deadlands changes you — no one survives, but even if you do, there is no way you could come out the same.
I’m a big fan of “Heart of Darkness”-type stories. Where characters are going deeper into something when they know they shouldn’t. They know they are surrounded by evil. That it cost them their souls, but they keep going anyway. They can’t help themselves, and that’s what the team Doom sends in does.
Let’s talk about the team that Doom sends. Collectively, who are these characters? Are they all prisoners? And how desperate a situation are they in at the beginning of the story to agree to a mission into the Deadlands?
Prisoners. Well, most of them are prisoners. Some of them have a score to settle with the Red Skull. They’re all rounded up by someone unexpected after having committed crimes against Doom. They are told they need to go over the Shield to find out if the Red Skull is still alive and, if he is, to kill him. They have no other choice. They can be in prison, or they can die in the Deadlands, but they are given a chance at freedom and they take it. Honestly, it’s not as if they are given a choice. They are told they will be going to the Deadlands no matter what, but if they want to come back, they’ll have to kill the evil Red Skull.
No one on the team are friends. They all come from different kingdoms in Battleworld. Getting along is going to be tough. And I doubt anything would stop them from stabbing each other in the back to survive.
Your cast member with perhaps the biggest personal connection to the Red Skull in the now destroyed Marvel Universe is Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. How big of a grudge does he have against the Skull on Battleworld? And what kind of role does Bucky play in your cast? Is he the Lee Marvin leader to this “Dirty Dozen”-style group?
Bucky starts off as the strong silent type but quickly becomes the leader of the group. He has the most experience in a war-torn area like the Deadlands, and believes they can all make it back alive. His grudge with the Red Skull is hinted at in issue #1. It goes beyond the expected reasons.
The Winter Soldier is one of mine and Luca’s favorite characters, so having him in the book was a real treat.
The alternate reality members of your cast include Magneto, Lady Deathstrike and Moonstone. What made you want to tap these characters for this story?
Magneto was because of his connections to Red Skull, Deathstrike is because of her skills and Moonstone — you can’t have a team of bad guys trying to do good without Moonstone. She’s the best. But then it became an issue of who was available from what worlds, and who worked with the story. I looked at all the worlds and sort of cherry picked the characters I wanted to use. Magneto especially. His world is gone. He’s a lost soul. Killing the Red Skull is all that he has.
Rounding out your cast are the Spider-Man foes Electro and Jack O’ Lantern. What’s your sense of these two characters? What do you think drives them?
In Battleworld, this version of Electro is actually a follower of Red Skull’s. He’s one of the believers and has been causing chaos in Battleworld in Red Skull’s name. He gets arrested and is excited at the idea of finding and meeting his idol. Jack O’Lantern was included for three reasons: He’s a crazy SOB, I wanted someone to act as a loose cannon, and he makes great visual. He’d be an awesome character for Luca to work with.
Let’s move from your cast to the obstacles and adversaries standing in their way. Chief among them of course is a horde of flesh hungry Marvel Zombies. How much fun are you having coming up with these Marvel Zombies? Can you talk about, hint, or tease some of the zombified Marvel characters we’ll see? And are these characters strictly shambling monsters? Or will we see some foes with sinister intellects?
Do they even run into the Zombies? I don’t know how much I want to give away. [Laughs] Of course they do. And it’s brutal. They travel a bit and meet other characters –issue #2 has one of my favorite villains — OK, I’ve said too much.
Their biggest opponent, really, is going to be each other. Can they get along long enough to endure? Let’s be honest — not every one is gonna make it out of there alive.
Luca did some amazing looking decayed zombies. So much fun. So twisted. I’ll just say the first issue has some awesome surprises.
You’ve touched upon Luca Pizzari’s art already, but let’s talk a little more. Luca did a wonderful job with some of the winged monstrosities that Spider-Man and the Inhumans tangled with in the recent “Amazing Spider-Man Special.” That was a tale of superhero action though. What’s it like telling a darker action horror tale with Luca? What does he bring to this type of story?
Luca brings excitement and creativity. He always has ideas for the book, page layouts, designs, and scenes. As soon as he read the first issue we started to talk on Skype about our ideas for the book. How dirty and gritty the world would be? We wanted it to be dark, and Luca was fully up to the challenge. Luca is always coming up with new ideas for the characters and scenes. We had talked about all three issues after he read the first and then discussed changes to issue one that could be done for ideas he had with issue #3. It’s been great working with him. I can’t wait for people to see his inks. They are so energetic!
I love writing sort of over the top drama mixed in with horror. And Luca totally brings the horror!
“Red Skull” is closer to a horror comic for me. It was an opportunity for me to play in the awesome sandbox that Marvel has built with Battleworld. Every time I thought I went too far with the darker themes — they gave me the OK. Expect something crazy.
Finally, you’re a pretty prolific writer especially of creator-owned books, but “Red Skull” is likely to be some readers’ first exposure to your work. If they like it or are intrigued by what they read here which of your titles do you recommend that they try?
Mostly my creator-owned [comics] “Ghosted,” “Birthright” and “Nailbiter” at Image. The last few years, they’ve really been my focus, and I’m glad that people have been digging them. “Nailbiter” was the one that got me this gig. It’s a book about a town where 16 of the world’s worst serial killers were all born and raised. The town is full of creepy and bad people. And Marvel liked how I wrote the darkness and black humor of that book. The kind of evil characters that fill that town.
Writing bad guys is my favorite thing to do. So I hope people are ready for the Red Skull. At no time is the Red Skull a sympathetic character in this story. He is a force of evil. And that kind of manipulative evil has a way of corrupting even the most pure of spirits…
“Red Skull” #1 is scheduled to debut from Marvel in July.
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