Life is not simple. The world does not exist in black and white. The terms “good” and “evil” are not easily defined. Our values and beliefs are constantly tested when conflicting viewpoints barge their way into our lives, forcing us to reevaluate our own positions. What is right? What is wrong? Can something that seems so impure actually be the purest course of action?
These are the questions that Paul must ask himself in “The Mission,” a new miniseries from Image Comics and the second title from Marc Guggenheim’s recently launched Collider Entertainment, an imprint devoted to bringing Hollywood’s strongest voices into the comic book medium. In “The Mission,” the “RED” screenwriting duo of Jon and Erich Hoeber present a chilling dilemma when Paul, a typical working family man, is visited by the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel informs Paul that he’s been selected for a mission in the battle between good and evil, a mission requiring him to kill on behalf of the forces of Heaven. But is this truly a divine directive? Can Paul believe what he’s seeing? Is he losing touch with reality?
To answer some of those questions, CBR News reached out to the Hoeber brothers for an exclusive interview about “The Mission” and their experiences in transitioning from screenwriting to comic book writing.
CBR News: To start things off, guys, give us a taste of what “The Mission” is all about.
Erich Hoeber: In its simplest form, it’s a supernatural thriller, but it’s about a lot of things: it’s about a guy who is just a normal guy, not a superhero, who lives in a normal world. He’s not a cop. He has no ex-military background, no special skills. He’s kind of a schmuck who has a family and is trying to do all of the things we all try to do to survive in life. A guy approaches him and intimates that he’s an angel or some supernatural force, and he says, “You’ve been chosen for a mission in this war between good and evil.” This guy reacts like any of us would, but over the course of things, he starts believing that [the angel’s words] might actually be true.
Jon Hoeber: One of the things we’re trying to do in this is essentially have no supernatural elements in play. In a lot of ways, genre-wise, it’s sort of like these old spy thrillers where there’s a handler who gives these assignments and tells you to do things, but you don’t know which end is up. You see a lot of evidence that this is all true, but it’s very oblique evidence. Part and parcel of this concept is the idea of what is real, what is not, questions of epistemology, what do we know and how do we know it. It’s all bound up in this guy’s head.
EH: It’s very different than how a lot of these stories are traditionally told, which was one reason we were desperate to write this as a comic. It’s also just an idea we’ve had for a while. We wanted to do it totally on our own terms without having to explain anything or owing anything to anyone, and the comics medium was a great opportunity to do that. No one is looking over our shoulders. We can do whatever we want.
Tell us more about Paul, the main character. Who is this guy? What kind of man is he that he would buy into this mission?
JH: Part of the series is about that struggle. The series is really about him going back and forth and questioning and pushing back and the good and bad things that happen to him when he does that. He’s trying to ascertain the truth of this. Really, as much as this book is about the mission, it’s also about the struggle. We’re taking his normalcy head on. You and I go through our day trying to figure out how to make a little green, we put our clothes on, I’m walking around with my two young kids. You’re doing all of these things, then wham! Your priorities are shifted in this new, different way. All of a sudden, Paul is just trying to hold onto his life. It’s like how you never think about your health until it’s gone. All of a sudden, when you’re sick, it’s like the world changes. For him, it’s that.
EH: He’s lying to his wife about what he’s doing, he’s lying to his boss, he’s getting in trouble, and all of these things are catching up with him. He can’t tell anyone what he’s really going through – they would think he’s nuts. So now he’s suddenly gone from, “Hey man, gotta make the mortgage,” to, “My life is an insane pressure cooker spinning impossibly out of control.” It’s a wild thing to watch, and it’s wild to imagine: what the Hell would you do?
JH: Let’s just say this guy spends a lot of time getting nailed to the wall.
The two of you are traditionally thought of as screenwriters. When did you arrive at the idea of pursuing “The Mission” as a comic book?
EH: That’s an interesting question. We were kicking around the story and we started thinking, maybe this could be a TV show or something, but it didn’t really feel like that to us. We didn’t really want to do it. It had been an idea we loved for a couple of years that we had written some ideas about, but we never really did anything with it. Then, last year, we reconnected with Marc Guggenheim. I knew him socially for a long time as this big TV writer and now he’s this huge movie writer, so we knew his professional reputation. What we didn’t know is that he’s also this huge comic book writer. He was writing comics even before he had a career in TV and film. We always wanted to do a comic, but we never felt like we had the access into that world.
JH: Although we had written the prequel issues for the “RED” miniseries at Wildstorm.
EH: Which was just kind of getting our feet wet. When we did that, we’d already made the deal to make “The Mission,” so that was a quick lesson for us in this new world. But Marc made it possible for us to do this. He knows so many people in that world, he’s so connected, so he offered us the opportunity and we pitched him this idea.
JH: Plot-wise, I’ve always been nerve-wrackingly fascinated with people who believe in something in an unquestioning manner, no matter what their belief system is. It’s such a powerful thing for them. It seems crazy to me to not even have these cracks of doubt sometimes. We’re sitting there and I started thinking, well, what if they’re right? What if I’m the guy who’s heading straight to Hell because I’m not in church every Sunday? Once I started poking at it like that, this world started to develop. At the same time, I absolutely wanted to keep it not supernatural. That’s the drive for the supernatural thing. Then it’s permanent, then everyone knows. That’s where the drama comes from, you know? That’s why we’re taking a normal guy who is slowly forced into it.
EH: One thing we said to [artist Werther Dell’Edera] was, what if this angel looks like a mob hitman or a thug? What if he’s a scary guy, this kind of feral guy, this brutal character? The way he interacts with our character sort of twists the genre. He’s angelic but cold, brutal and demanding. If you say no to him, bad things are going to happen.
It’s interesting that you decided to shy away from the overt supernatural elements in “The Mission.” In comics, you don’t have the same budgetary concerns that you do in the movies world: what’s on the page is only as big as the writer and artist’s imagination. You can blow up the entire universe without spending $150 million to do that effect. Were you ever tempted to go all out in terms of big supernatural visuals, or does the story really necessitate this grounded approach?
JH: It’s an interesting thing you’re pointing to. For us, the freedom wasn’t in visual budget; the freedom was about being able to go to dark places and being able to not have to tell this classic commercial three-act story, you know? That’s what attracts me to graphic novels: it’s not about blowing up the universe. It’s about going on this dark journey with someone where you can go all the way up the river. There’s absolutely no compromise here. When you’re working on a movie, there’s always compromise, because there’s so much money involved. It’s a different kind of thing. But this is us in a room with Werther, who’s drawing it, going back and forth saying, “Wouldn’t this be cool?” We fucking love the collaboration in this book, being able to flip things back and forth with our artist, watching it take shape, pushing each other — it’s a stunning evolution, I think. The attraction of that for me is hard to understate.
As screenwriters, you’ve seen scenes that you’ve written play out on the big screen numerous times. As comic book writers, what are some of the thoughts and feelings you’ve experienced when a fully illustrated page comes back to you?
JH: As a screenwriter, one of the things I find most difficult is casting. You’ve created a character, and now this character gets assigned to an actor or movie star. All of a sudden, everyone who has ever seen that character that you’ve lived with for years and years is only going to be Bruce Willis or Helen Mirren or whoever it turns out to be. It’s a lucky thing that’s happening, but as a creator of people, it’s a very weird thing to see, giving your character away to an actor. This doesn’t happen to the general public; they see who they see, Milla Jovovich kicking ass as Alice in “Resident Evil” or whoever it is. But for me, we’re not going through that on the comic. The closest you come to it is when you throw out a character description and you start getting sketches back, going back and forth with that. That’s fascinating and fun because there’s never that baggage.
EH: It feels like what we do immediately becomes the book, instead of having eight other levels of transition. Plus, it’s fast! With a movie, we’ll write a movie and it comes out two or three or ten years later, which has happened. By the time it’s done, you’re so distanced from it. This is so immediate. We can write a script and Werther has pages back in a couple of days. It’s hilarious to me!
Do you think your experiences in writing for film helped you with the transition to writing for comic books?
JH: Absolutely. And I think the walls are starting to come down between the mediums. It’s funny how much distrust there is between game designers, comic book writers and screenwriters. But there have been people who have bridged that gap beautifully, and I think that’s becoming more and more common. For me, at the end of the day, telling stories is telling stories. There’s a bit of a learning curve for different mediums, but at its core, good storytelling and gripping characters and whacked situations that pull you in are what they are no matter what format they’re in. Having spent a decade writing stories and writing screenplays, I think it’s a great proving ground for trying to do “The Mission” in this form.
Closing out, now that you’ve dipped your toes into the comic book pond with “The Mission,” do you see yourselves writing more comics in the future? Is this a medium you’d like to explore further?
EH: There’s no question that we’re going to do more comic books, just because it’s so much fun and it’s so freeing. It’s a bit of a luxury to be able to do this right now, because we’ve been struggling in film for years, just to break in and make a living. In comics, at least for us at this stage, there’s no real money involved; it’s a labor of love. But it’s so much fun, just to be able to have a little bit of time to do it now. It’s such a blast. Just for pure personal enjoyment and life satisfaction, I can’t imagine we won’t keep doing this at least part time.
“The Mission” #1, written by Jon and Erich Hoeber and illustrated by Werther Dell’Edera, arrives in stores on February 23, 2011.