Earlier this year, the curtains pulled back on the “Freakshow,” a new three-issue creator-owned miniseries from Ape Entertainment by writers David Server and Jackson Lanzing.
The giant-sized first installment introduced a world with one superhero — the super-strong, super-powerful Vanguard whose death caused a major metropolitan disaster that polluted the ground, air and water. It also killed 99 percent of the city’s populace and mutated that remaining one percent of people into monstrous, ugly, lethal creatures. Those few survivors, scarred both physically and mentally, now protect each other and their decimated home as they hunt for the man they believe is responsible for their mutation: a man named Doctor Gaghen, who not only first granted Vanguard his powers to begin with, but who wants the Freakshow members for his own sick purposes.
After an initial skirmish with the military, the five members of the Freakshow crew — the hulking Stronghold, the ghostly Fog, the mysterious Psychosis, the corrosive Rot and the young lead of the series Critter — retreated to their hideout, only to be ambushed by the sole survivor of the original attack, Captain First Class Jacquelin Murphy.
CBR News spoke with writing duo Server and Lanzing about the first issue of the series, the creepy characters of the title and the surprises still ahead as the “Freakshow” continues.
CBR News: Gentlemen, where did the idea of “Freakshow” originally come from? Were you guys inspired by anything in particular?
David Server: “Freakshow” was an idea I’d originally started forming when I was living in Boston before I moved to Los Angeles for USC Film School, where I met Jackson and we started collaborating on the project together. I’ve alwaysÂ been obsessed withÂ the monster or freak characters in comics because they get to be the most fantastical but also the most relatable. We’ve all felt like outsiders before. In that regard, X-Men was definitely a cornerstone in terms of inspiration. Then, as film andÂ television became a bigger part of my life during college, certain filmmakers’ workÂ made a huge impact on the story as well. Guillermo del ToroÂ was and continues to be a tremendous source ofÂ inspiration. Same with Joss Whedon. They both have an uncanny ability to deconstruct larger than life supernatural figures while also humanizing and grounding them. That’s a huge part of what we’re trying to do with the lead characters of “Freakshow.”
Jackson Lanzing: When I came aboard the book, a lot of basic elements were in place — the team, particularly their names and powers, had already been mostly thought out. I’d say my first contribution, which was the Gaghen/Murphy dynamic, was certainly inspired by the anti-authoritarian works of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore. That said, I think it was equally drawn out of the history that we see around us every day. The truth that you hear from official sources is rarely the whole truth — I was interested in exploring how that impacted someone who wasn’t a target, but rather a collaborator. How does someone who has been told that monsters are at the gate react when they see their own humanity reflected in the “inhuman” enemy? I think that’s something our culture has been forced to examine in the past decade, and it clearly influenced both the “heroes” and “villains” of our story.
The first issue of the series is out, so we kind of got a taste of the characters already. But what can you say about how you put together this cast?
Lanzing: Without getting too analytical about it, putting together the team was a little like math: Superhero + Monster + Stage of Grief. Each of our characters combines a monster and superhero archetype to bring us a new kind of alchemy in terms of action and interaction. And since the book is, in large part, about dealing with grief, each character’s individual combination of attributes inspired where they would fall on that scale of coping.
Server: We wanted to hybridize those two genres, horror and superheroes, and try to find ways to meld the most iconic elements of both. Take the designs, for example — we wanted them to have distinct looks and vibes and silhouettes like superheroes, but we also wanted them to represent the tragedy of what they’ve been through to get their “powers.” We’ve seen Fog’s superpower in comics before, but Fog is also a ghost, both visually and thematically. It’s a statement about loss and longing. We wanted to create characters that paid tribute to both genres simultaneously in an immediately identifiable way.
It definitely seems that Critter is the lens through which this story will be viewed. What’s his drive and motivation through this? How does he relate to the other characters?
Server: While the entire team has lost a tremendous amount in all this, in a way Critter may have lost the most because he’s just a young man. In addition to the death of his family, he’s potentially lost his entire future because of the Smoke. His role is crucial because even through his own fear and self-doubt, his innocence and desire to find and connect to something in the rest of the group other than the rage and frustration that’s driving them means he might end up being their savior.
Lanzing: It’s important to note that Critter grew up in a world where Vanguard, a real-life superhero, actually existed for a while. He had a pillar of righteousness to look up, to idolize, to teach him right-from-wrong in the same way that comics did for both of us growing up. Then that was snatched away by the Smoke, along with his life and his family. But he hasn’t forgotten that example, despite Vanguard’s ultimate failure. His motivation is colored by that example, and it allows him to see his powers a little differently than the rest of the freaks.
Server: He can see something in the rest of the team that they themselves think they lost when they changed — their humanity. But the question remains whether they actually want to be saved or not.
What can you say about the antagonists of the series? Captain Murphy, at first doesn’t appear to be placed in that role, but the ending certainly leads you to believe she definitely seems to be on the “against the Freakshow crew” side.
Server: As Jackson mentioned, Murphy was one of the major elements he introduced to the series when he joined the project, and I’m so thrilled he did because I love what she brings to the overall story. One of the major themes of the book is taking ownership of your own fate. That’s certainly true of the freak characters — are they heroes or monsters? Murphy represents that same issue, but on the opposite side. She’s a tough well-trained soldier, but she isn’t just some stupid grunt — she’s intelligent, tactical and observant. Which means she’ll have some difficult decisions ahead of her as she learns more about her situation.
Lanzing: Don’t think that just because Murphy’s hunting the Freakshow crew at the end of issue #1, she’ll be free of responsibility or reaction to what’s coming down the pipe. In the same way that we’re seeing Stronghold from Critter’s lens, we’re seeing Gaghen from Murphy’s — and both characters will be faced with realizations that will shape those perspectives.
Looking at the Freakshow crew themselves, in the end, do you think that their thirst for revenge stems from the disfigurement that came with their powers? Or do you think if they still looked normal they would still be a little upset?
Lanzing: That’s really a great question because it gets at the heart of the matter. Their disfigurement is the immediate hurt, the scar they can point at and say, “This is why I need revenge.” But what they’re really revenging isn’t the loss of their good looks — it’s the loss of their lives. The scars are just a reminder of the real pain, and in the case of our characters, those scars have also enabled them to achieve a kind of violent pushback that would be otherwise unavailable. They’ve replaced that gaping hole that was their hope for the future with a different kind of motivation: the hope for catharsis.
Server: This is another one of those places where we wanted to cut our superhero storytelling with a horror twist. Most superheroes have secret identities. Superman can go back to being Clark Kent. Even Batman has the freedom to elect to make Bruce Wayne a faÃ§ade. But these characters had no say in it. They’re forced into be monsters permanently. Fog has no body anymore. Rot has no memories. Critter has no future. So the question becomes, does that mean they’re justified in acting like monsters? Their first response is to lash out, and Stronghold is encouraging that. He’s specifically leading them by telling them, “You died, this is what you have left — take your revenge.” They feel justified because they feel wronged. But Critter is the first voice that’s appealing to who they used to be rather than what they appear to have become.
I definitely wanted to hit on the art, which is amazing. How did Joe Suitor get involved? What about his style lends itself to this story?
Server: Joe was the perfect fit for this book and we’re so glad we found him when we did. We spent months scouring the internet looking for the right match, particularly since tone is so crucial to the series. We combed through all the online portfolio sites and found some really tremendous talent, but it wasn’t until we started looking at some of our favorite comic artists’ personal blogs that we found a link to Joe’s page. He was working on a fantasy book called “Monoluminant” for Ape Entertainment at the time but hadn’t done much else in the comics world. When we saw his amazingly detailed figure work, particularly the worn, lanky, sinewy character designs for his series, we knew he’d be a perfect match for the damaged world and characters we had been cooking up.
Lanzing: He’s also an incredibly creative and independent artist — he straddles a great line in being able to match the occasionally crazy, and certainly crowded, paneling challenges that we throw at him with an excellent eye for how the scene can be paced. He does mood better than almost anyone I’ve seen. Does his own colors, finishes digitally. He gives the book a cinematic quality — and cinematic was a big buzzword in the “Freakshow” writing room, for obvious reasons.
As a last question, what can readers expect to come in the final two issues?
Server: Issue #2 immediately ratchets up the intensity on every front. The fights get nastier, the stakes get more personal and the situation gets increasingly dire for everybody involved. But more than that, we want to keep peeling away the layers of these characters to find out what really motivates them. As they’re forced to answer more difficult questions, they have to make some hard choices about what kind of people they are underneath their personal frustrations.
Lanzing: Meanwhile, you’ll notice that not all the stories being told about the Smoke add up quite right. The deeper Critter and the team are pulled into this fight, the more they begin to piece together the truth behind the event that caused all this. Expect more action, more character, and a ton of surprises as we get ready for the big finish.