Backseat driver: Matt Wagner talks "The Hire"

He's a mysterious drive-for-pay expert that prefers BMW over everything. And the action screeches to comic shops this summer when "The Hire" #1 by Matt Wagner hits stores July 14.

The Hire, a professional driver played by Clive Owen, is the star of short films at BMW's Web site www.BMWfilms.com. The film industry's top talent, such as directors John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, David Fincher, John Woo, Tony Scott and actors Gary Oldman, Don Cheadle, and even the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, have helped to make the Hire a special franchise. Now Dark Horse Comics gets to take the character for a spin. The first person handed the keys is comic industry veteran Matt Wagner, who handles story and art.

"The ad agency that handles BMW is Fallon, out of Milwaukee, Wisc. When Dark Horse sealed this deal, what Fallon found attractive (was that they) got access to various comic book auteurs," Wagner says. "So Fallon put in who they thought would be interesting -- X, Y, and Z. And I just happened to be 'X'."

Wagner, creator of such characters as Grendel and Mage and a cover artist extraordinaire, wasn't familiar with the Hire when the project first was broached with him.

"I had seen maybe one or two of these films, only snippets, so they gave me the DVD" Wagner says. "The character is such a blank slate for every creator to bring his own outlook and attitude -- that really appealed to me."

There are some dos and don'ts when handling the Hire -- but nothing too strenuous.

"He doesn't directly cause death. No one dies screaming in a car accident -- that'd be bad for the product, obviously. If somebody, through their own evil scheming dies, that's different," Wagner says. "Other things, they point to the films and say, 'See, this shows this aspect, his moral fiber, his slight sense of humor.' I've tried to weave a little bit of that into my story. And don't define him too much -- leave him ambiguous.

"(The ambiguity) is great for comics. Batman, Wolverine, the Shadow -- they all used to be more mysterious, but then they start nailing down parts of their story, and the character loses some of the appeal, some of the luster."

Wagner figures the first issue of the 6-issue series should start off with a bang, so he's added together some key elements: a sexy chick, car chases, and plenty of action. In the first issue, titled "Scandal," The Hire is asked to sneak a rich man's spoiled, scandalous daughter out of a luxury hotel. With the paparazzi eager to catch a glimpse of the notorious heiress, things go awry when she is apparently abducted.

"One of the things about doing this, you have to distinguish him from James Bond. He's not a secret agent, he's not a hired killer. His main skill is that he's a top-notch driver. He has a steely resolve and certain moral lines he won't cross. That's not so with Bond," Wagner says. "It's kind of a challenge to separate him from a secret agent, but still not nail him down too much. I don't think there's a character comparable to him. As soon as he's there, he's in his car, and that's all you need."

Ah, the car. Don't expect the car, or the character, to look too familiar. The car is a special custom job just for this issue, and the character has a new likeness, not that of Owen's.

"They designed me a brand new car, it's a larger style convertible," Wagner says. "I don't think he ever drives the same car twice. In every film, there's a variety."

And the title character?

"That was kind of fun (creating a new look for the Hire). He's in the same realm, but doesn't look exactly like Clive Owen. He's a little bit craggier," Wagner says. "He has slightly longer, darker hair. Clive is fairly svelte. This character is more rough hewn, with a 5 o'clock shadow."

Even though Wagner says he would have rather drawn Owen, the end product of "The Hire" #1 is something he's quite proud of.

"I'm really happy with the pace and the brevity of the story. Never in my career have I done a single stand-alone issue. Wait, I take that back, there was one issue of "Demon" I once did. But otherwise I've never done stand-alone," Wagner says. "It calls to your skills as a short storyteller. I really like that about this project."

Don't, however, expect to see Wagner pulling up in a new BMW Z3 at his next convention.

"You know, that question started with my wife, and has since been asked by everyone, but no, they didn't offer me a deal on a new BMW," laughs Wagner. "Additionally I have no interest in paying the insurance on a BMW. I'm not so much of a car guy. There are other things I'd rather spend my money on. I'm a family man, so you'll see me in an SUV, more concerned about paying for my daughters' trips to the dentist."

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