In 1997, DC Comics introduced readers to “Resurrection Man,” a brand new ongoing comic book series by British writing duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and American artist Butch Guice. The series starred amnesiac Mitch Shelley, an unwilling test subject in a nanotechnology experiment seeking to regain his memories. But just as Mitch began to unravel the mystery surrounding his life, he died.
And then came back to life. And then died again. And then came back once more.
Thus began the adventures of one of DC’s strangest characters, Mitch Shelley the Resurrection Man. Though the original series ended in 1999, the title ill, appropriately, get a second chance at life as one the 52 titles relaunched by DC in September. Written by original creators Abnett and Lanning, the new series also features artist Fernando Dagnino (“Justice League: Generation Lost”) replacing Guice on the title.
In light of the series’ return, CBR News reached out to Abnett and Lanning, who revealed DC Comics plans to publish a collection of the first series. The two scribes then went on to wax poetic about death, 19th century Scottish body snatchers, Mr. Immortal and how they all relate to the origin of “Resurrection Man.”
CBR News: From reading “Flashpoint: Wonder Woman and the Furies” we know you love destroying countries and landmarks, but not everyone is aware you also love killing one guy over and over again. For those who didn’t have a chance to read the original “Resurrection Man” series, who is Mitch Shelley?
Dan Abnett: That’s actually the point of the [new] comic, exploring him as a character. He is a character we created in the late ’90s in the DCU, and he’s subsequently appeared in different aspects of the DCU. I’ve noticed that one of the things that has come out of the announcement is the number of people who don’t realize that it’s a character we brought to the DCU in the first place. Yes, he is a character who can come back from the dead — hence his name, Resurrection Man. When he comes back from the dead each time he comes back with a different superpower. He is a character who is a mystery, and part of the point of the comic is that it’s a mystery about who he is — even he doesn’t know. I think its safe to say he has existed on the edge of the DC Universe; he’s not a major superhero like Superman for instance. He’s an everyman character who helps people out really; he did not set out to be a hero in the first place.
The original comic was never a traditional, standard superhero story either. With re-introducing Mitch to the DCU are you trying to take him in the tights-wearing superhero direction or will the comic remain primarily a dark, sci-fi horror story?
Andy Lanning: Actually, if anything its even more horror/dark/sci-fi! [Laughs] And a lot less superhero, because [that’s] one of the things we spoke long and hard about with Eddie Berganza — who is going to be editing this as he did the original series, which I believe was one of his first all out and out editorial gigs at his time. So we’ve all come full circle! One thing we did in that original series was take Mitch and explore the direction we took him in to the fullest extent, which really meshed him into the DCU, brought out all sorts of ties with him and existing DC continuity going back to Vandal Savage and a character called Immortal Man, and we had great fun doing that. So this is kind of like our chance to spring it off in a different direction and take it down a slightly darker route, if anything. Like I said, it was very, very interesting for us because it’s almost like having two bites of the cherry.
On your end as the original creators, how did you approach bringing back this character you originally wrote in the ’90s for a modern audience?
Abnett: One of the things Eddie always said at the time is that he felt that “Resurrection Man” was, as it were, ahead of its time. It was a comic that got a lot of good critical review but was never a huge hit back then, and he always felt it was because it was a post-human character operating in ways different than were common at the time. So maybe this is a more appropriate way of doing it because he’s not a conventional, as you put it, tights-wearing, spandex superhero. People are slightly more used to that now. In fact, it’s a matter of an audience sort of catching up with the idea of having a superhero in that way and allowing us to, as Andy said, re-present the character and try to find fun, new things to do with him.
Lanning: I think in that initial incarnation we were really going out of our way to write the comic as if it were a TV series. I think the comic buying public is now so used to great runs of TV series, boxed sets of great sci-fi, crime, and adventure TV stuff, that there’s a different sensibility out there about the acceptance of that style of storytelling. It was something we were definitely trying at the time. For the most part, like I said, it was very successful critically but I don’t think it caught across the mainstream because at that time it was the height of the iron-jawed heroes with cybernetic arms standing with their legs five miles apart in comics! [Laughs] So we were really bucking the trend at that time.
Along those lines, how did you come up with the initial premise for “Resurrection Man?” Did you start with a list of superpowers you decided you really wanted to use in a comic?
Abnett: It was kind of the other way around actually, wasn’t it, Andy? We had the idea of a character who would get a different power in turn — he would have almost unlimited superpowers but he got them one at a time. And then we thought of the idea of making the change between powers his death, which is quite a shocking thing, and then we had to worry about coming up with powers we wanted to use! It was really a case of working out this mechanism of this guy who works like that and then thinking of ways of actually portraying it in the most dynamic form. We still have great fun devising how the powers are going to be and how it might appropriately be used. There is a slight — although its not perfect — there is a slight sense that however he dies determines, to a certain extent, what power he comes back with. It’s not exact, but quite often he’ll come back with, ironically, a power that would have protected him from whatever killed him the last time. But we have had sessions where we’ve just had to brainstorm new ideas for powers because we know how he works, we just need to find an interesting thing to do with it.
Lanning: And I’ve got an extra bit of information about that. I don’t know if you remember, Dan, but going back through all of the “Resurrection Man” stuff, I have folders of written ideas, including the original photocopy of the character — where Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil and Mike Carlin would look at a new project and sign off on it, a new character project proposal that DC used to do at the time. It prompted memories in me because, funny enough, Dan and I were coming off writing a book called “Force Works” for Marvel, which was a kind of cybernetic arm, spandex-y, big shoulder-pad hero standing with their legs ten feet apart type book — a reinvention of the “West Coast Avengers.” If you remember, Dan, we were knocking around the idea of reintroducing the “Great Lakes Avengers.” That had a character called Mr. Immortal who basically couldn’t die. Because we were thinking about bringing those characters back and dusting them off and maybe tweaking them a bit, we were saying that with Mr. Immortal, all he could do was not die. That was his only power! At that time I remember making a little note, like a throwaway note we never got to do anything with because we never got to do that “Great Lakes Avengers” book, but we said, “What if when Mr. Immortal died, he came back and he had a different superpower?” And we thought, oh, that would be cool. That, I think, lay there for about two years or so in the back of our minds, and I think from that little germ, “Resurrection Man” grew.
How did “Resurrection Man” get resurrected for September? Did DC approach you about the comic or vice versa?
Abnett: It was definitely a case of them coming to us. Obviously Andy and I have been working on “Flashpoint,” we’ve been working alongside Eddie, and he essentially asked us one day if we would be interested in bringing “Resurrection Man” back, which of course seemed terribly like poetic justice because that’s what he literally does. It was really Eddie’s desire to see it back as an ongoing book, and this was before we realized what “Resurrection Man” would be part of, what line-up it would be featuring in. So yeah, it was DC’s invitation that got us to do that, which was very nice indeed. And it’s lovely to be working on it again with Eddie.
Since we’re talking about others who were involved with the original comic, while artist Butch Guice drew the first series, Fernando Dagnino is drawing this new one. How did you guys get hooked up with Fernando on the series?
Lanning: We had a stipulation that anyone who works on “Resurrection Man” on the art side has to have an unpronounceable last name. [Laughs]
Abnett: We would have loved to worked with Butch on this, he’s obviously very, very highly in demand at the moment and working on many other projects, and the artist that we are now working with is again DC’s suggestion. I think Eddie very carefully looked for somebody who certainly has bags of talent all on his own, but also [came] close to the style in which “Resurrection Man” was done the first time ’round. There’s a sense of realism which I think he’s really terrific at in the pages we’ve seen so far, so it’s a very good, very wise editorial choice.
DC is also making a push to get new readers and appeal to a casual reader audience with the relaunch. Will this comic pick up the characters and threads left over from the ’90s comic, or are you going blank slate and creating a new world?
Abnett: The first most important thing to say is that we can’t tell you too much about it yet because it is very early in the day and DC wants to keep certain things under wraps. The safest and most politic thing we can say is that if you never read “Resurrection Man” before, this is a great place to start and you won’t be lacking anything. However, if you are familiar with the original run there are additional layers of connection and stuff that will probably please you and delight you. Its not some sort of crass reboot. There is connective tissue between the two series that is clearly for the benefit of people who read it the first time around, but will make some sense, or at least ring certain bells and acknowledge certain things. But generally speaking, this is a great place to start reading about the character.
Lanning: if anything, this is the remake of “Resurrection Man.” It’s like when Hollywood gets to do a really good remake of a movie you’ve known and loved. It’s true to the original series but it takes it in different directions and adds something different to the whole thing, but you will be familiar with it if you are familiar with it. Things will crop up that you will be aware of. But equally, this is absolutely the first issue of a book introducing a character to a new audience as well. So its sort of like come-all.
In that same vein, DC is featuring their supernatural, dark and magical creations (including some previously part of Vertigo and the Wildstorm Universe) with the relaunch as part of what they’re calling “DC Dark.” Your comic was announced with “Justice League Dark” and a lot of the other titles in that vein. What sets Mitch Shelley apart from the other dark or supernatural characters in the DCU?
Abnett: Again, at the risk of repeating myself there are certain things we can’t tell you yet, but in a very cautious way Mitch Shelley definitely exists in that twilight realm at the edge of the DC Universe, which is most particularly associated with the supernatural stories and what we’ve described as Vertigo-esque characters and that kind of stuff. So he’s very much in the right company in the way they announced him. Of course, he is entirely scientific. It is a science fiction premise, his powers don’t derive from something entirely supernatural, or as far as we can tell they don’t. So it’s almost like he is the direct opposite of everything around him. He is a shadowy figure standing in that supernatural twilight but he is not supernatural himself. That gives him his really original spin. I think you’ll see that he uses science in engaging with the supernatural rather than a supernatural character doing it.
Lanning: In fact, when we did the initial series there was some discussion about it being a Vertigo book, but at that time DC was separating the Vertigo Universe from the DC Universe. So you weren’t having the cross-pollination that they are now having between the two imprints. Again, that’s more, I think, to do with the time being right for this type of book where readers are a lot more accepting. They don’t need to be told, this is a Vertigo book, prepare yourself for a Vertigo book type story. I think people can read a DC book and have it tackle darker, slightly edgier, slightly more adult material within the DCU. You don’t need to hold readers’ hands and point them in the right direction. I think the readership now is a lot more sophisticated.
You probably can’t talk about the new series, but from the old series did you have any favorite powers or favorite deaths you put Mitch through?
Abnett: There are, there are a couple of brutal issues where he gets killed a number of times — on one occasion I believe he gets killed in the original series about four or five times in the same issue because people don’t believe he won’t die. And on another occasion Hitman killed him repeatedly until he came up with a power that was useful! [Laughs] He would kill him, and if it wasn’t the power he wanted he’d kill him again, and it was quite gratuitous and very funny! I always think about it quite fondly.
Lanning: The Hitman sequence came up with one of my favorite lines actually, when he came up with basically the power to produce beautifully colored butterflies from thin air. Hitman’s partner looks at it and wipes his eye and says, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And then they shoot him in the head again! [Laughs]
I’ve personally always liked the issue when he turned into a woman.
Abnett: I don’t see that as a superpower so much as equal opportunity! [Laughs]
Lanning: In fact, we explain that as well. That was a reaction to what had killed him before, because he was being tortured before that and experiencing extreme pain. So he became a woman because women can tolerate pain more than men! [Laughs] It was kind of like our little nod to feminism there!
I feel like there are also shades of “Doctor Who” in here due to the regeneration aspect. Can you guys in the UK spontaneously resurrect and you’ve just been holding out on the rest of us this entire time?
Abnett: [Laughs] It is a very, very common trait over here for people to come back from the dead, often looking like somebody completely different as if you are being played by a different actor. I know I’m always falling out of my blue telephone box and killing myself and coming back in a completely different form. It’s a British thing. It’s like tea and Cricket. We do it all the time, don’t we?
Lanning: It’s a long tradition, going back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, bringing the dead back to life, and Burke and Hare the body snatchers. As Dan said, it’s a long, long tradition.
Abnett: In fact, Andy mentions Burke and Hare, the famous Scottish body snatchers who dug up bodies to sell to anatomists in the 1800s and ended up murdering people because they couldn’t get a fresh enough supply of bodies. But one of the names they used for them was “Resurrection Men.” That was the nickname of this macabre habit of reusing bodies for anatomical study. And that’s where our title comes from. Resurrection Man goes back to that macabre tradition.
Lanning: Yeah, we’re knee-deep in cadavers over here! [Laughs]
This is probably another question you may not be able to talk too much about, but will old characters like the Body Doubles or Vandal Savage be involved in upcoming issues?
Abnett: We can’t really confirm or deny that sort of thing, except that characters like the Body Doubles — who are characters we invented alongside “Resurrection Man” for the series and had their own miniseries, the two female hit ladies who were also stunt doubles for the movie industry — we are very fond of them. If there is an opportunity to put them in something like this we should not want to sit out on it because as far as we’re concerned they are part of the tradition of the series. So we hope there will be every opportunity to bring them back as well.
Going back to making the comic a jumping on point for new readers, since Mitch is a character that, by his very premise, undergoes massive change every issue, does that make it easier to make the character accessible for brand new readers?
Dan Abnett: It did to a certain extent. One of the great things it gave us the opportunity to do was to refine ideas that we already tried once. There were things we thought worked really, really well and things that in hindsight we wished we tweaked slightly. This does give us an opportunity to polish some of those. There are certain things we are making more of, certain directions that we are taking and certain things we are downplaying because, having tried them, we can think of better and more efficient ways of doing it. As an ongoing series, it’s quite a good comic to be able to jump onto at any point, simply because of the very fact, as you say, he’s always restarting. So I think it is a reader-friendly comic not just from issue one, but on a regular basis after that. The real trick this time was to find the best place to start, the best place to connect and take him from and I think that’s what we managed to do.
Andy Lanning: The trick with this incarnation, excuse the pun, of “Resurrection Man” was to come up with that different angle to take on the whole thing, because we don’t want to slavishly repeat ourselves. That is the challenge. We’re kind of second-guessing our earlier selves. Its like we’re moving things in a different direction that we would have done if we had that chance ten years ago when we did it initially.
Overall, what do you want new readers to take away from the new “Resurrection Man?”
Abnett: I hope they take away just a really entertaining story. I think because of the dramatic twist that has to happen due to the nature of his power this is a great series full of major turns, where suddenly everything you knew will change and restart and twist and surprise. I think we’ve layered the story in a really interesting way to introduce all sorts of strands that will intrigue the reader. There will be a lot of dynamic adventures, and during those adventures people will want to find out more about the mystery surrounding both Mitch himself and the other characters who are relating to him. I hope it’ll be a satisfying read; it’ll be a good adventure but it will also have a lot of things that will keep you coming back for more to find out about the next bit.
Lanning: The one thing we were most proud of on the original “Resurrection Man” was that we constantly kept reinventing the comic. Just when, as a reader you got things nailed, you knew what was happening, we were constantly trying to pull the rug out from under the reader, almost willfully and deliberately switching things up and having big reveals at the end of an issue. Like, for example, at the end of an issue suddenly he’s a woman! I think if we want to achieve anything with this series it’s to keep that element of unexpected surprise about the book.
Looking back on what we did, which we can do because its almost fifteen years old, we can look back on that and we’re quite proud of that element of it. We think we succeeded quite well in keeping readers on their toes all the time. More than anything we have a lot of fun doing that because it makes for some very great idea crunching sessions. Nothing is outrageous. If you have the most wild, outlandish idea we never second-guess ourselves. Everything is on the table to be looked at and to give it a try because if we come up with something we would not have necessarily thought to put in there then we know for sure the readers won’t have. That’s a great source of fun for us in the creative process too. And I believe they are going to do collection of the “Resurrection Man” issues as well, the last series… which is a nice way to end this!
“Resurrection Man” hits stores September 14, 2011.
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