Bad Super Hero, Bad: Christensen talks "Black Summer"

This June, Avatar Press is jumping into the super hero game for the first time with the Warren Ellis penned mini-series Black Summer. The series is quite a departure for Avatar as they've never published a super hero comic before, but as fans of Ellis would expect, Black Summer won't be your typical super hero series. It begins with the assassination of the U.S. President and quickly picks up more steam from there.

CBR News spoke with Ellis earlier this month about the story and his plans he has for Black Summer. Today we sit down with Avatar President and Publisher William Christensen to learn more about how this project came about, what it means to Avatar and why they'll succeed where others have failed in trying to produce super hero comics.

Black Summer begins with a rather ugly bit of business - the killing of the President of the United States in the Oval Office at the White House.  What was your first reaction when Warren sent you this pitch?

My first thought was, Hell, I just lost another bet with Warren.  This is getting expensive.  See, the challenge was for him to come up with a fresh and exciting hero book.  One that would shake up the genre.  Needless to say, killing the President will do that!

Did you two end up having any discussions about this specific scene?

Honestly, there were no discussions.  I give Warren complete creative freedom -that means that I let him run as wild as he wants and I sit back and enjoy the work.

Talk about developing this story with Warren -- as I understand it, you kept pushing for more and were able to wrangle it out of Warren.

Originally the story was going to be a shorter series.  Once the first few chapters came in, I realized that this project was not only brilliant, but revolutionary.  I wanted more.  So after talking it through a bit, it turns out Warren had a lot of back-story that he was going to have to cut to make the original length, so adding it back in worked well for all of us.

William, what does Black Summer mean to Avatar?

It really is our first time dipping our toes into the hero market that dominates the industry.  It means we are ready to mix it up with the big boys. As I've said before, I wasn't going to do a superhero project until I could do it better than Marvel and DC.  I just did. And having accomplished that, it fits in well with something that we have been working on all along - to blur the boundary between mainstream and independent.  To erase the barrier between the front of Diamond's Previews and the back of it.

There's been a fair amount of interest in Black Summer thus far as a nice buzz has developed around the propert. Is it fair to call this your first event book?  Or is that an ugly word in the publishing game these days?

I think we've had lots of events, Alan Moore's The Courtyard, Frank Miller's Robocop, Garth Ennis' Chronicles of Wormwood, etc.  But creator-centric events have a different tone than typical universe or company-based events have.  A big event at Marvel or DC is typically an attempt to shake up the status quo for some existing characters.  That in itself is neither ugly or good, it's simply one way to try to reconnect with your readership.  I think events become ugly mostly when the marketing component overpowers the creative aspect of the project - and that's virtually impossible to do on a creator-owned book, at least the way we do them.  So this is an event book Avatar style.  It probably looks like a traditional event book superficially because it's a hero book.

Avatar's not known as a company who plays in the super hero genre.  So, why did you challenge Warren to create a super hero comic for Avatar?  Or more simply, why super heroes?

We never play in this sandbox.  I didn't want to until we had the right project.  Why now?  I think it came down to I wanted to push Warren as close to the brink of insanity as I could.  What could possibly be more maddening than being asked to bring something to fresh to heroes?  Of course, he shut me up by doing just that.  Really, Ellis is a huge pain in my ass.  He's so damn good, I can't challenge him to anything without him exceeding all expectations.  However, I have a little surprise planned for him live at San Diego Con this year, the next bet I make him is a doozy....

Is there much concern on your part that law enforcement or government officials might raise a stink about this book?  Is this something you're prepared for and have discussed with legal counsel before?

No, not really.  If it happens, we will be selling so many books that I'm sure I can afford the best counsel in the land.  In the end, this wonderful free country we live in gives tremendous amounts of freedom to the arts. To throw out another example, a recent fictional documentary about an assassination of the president called Death of a President has been shown throughout the country, I understand.

Talk about bringing the team together on Black Summer.  Obviously, it began with Warren.  Talk about putting together the rest of the team, starting with your artist, Juan Jose Ryp, and moving on down the line.  Why did you task this group with bringing this story to light?

It was really easy.  When Warren and I first started talking about it he mentioned Juan Jose Ryp and I instantly agreed.  He was our first choice, of any artist in the business, no question.  Of course Juan Jose is always excited to work with Warren. The colorist Mark Sweeney came about because I had been working with him for a while and was really looking forward to getting him to focus on a big project.  He brings a huge amount of enthusiasm to the project and his colors.

With your first super hero book ready to go in Black Summer, are super heroes and super hero universes something Avatar is interested in pursuing in the immediate future?

Bleah.  No, shared universes are not in our game plan.  Might we do something else in the genre after this?  Sure.  But by no means is that any sort of edict at Avatar.  We are here to publish great comics.  That is the only criteria, it needs to be a book I enjoy.

To me, the truly interesting question comes in when Black Summer becomes the success that I think it is going to be.  On the one hand, I'd be foolish not to consider other projects in the genre at that point, but on the other hand I don't want to do something forced or manufactured. No universes, and no lines. It'd have to be another creator-driven punch in the gut.  But spectacular hero concepts don't walk into my office every day, so right now, it's hard to say if we'll do more hero books or not.  Black Summer is going to be a very hard act to follow.

For the most part, super hero comics haven't fared well when not produced by Marvel or DC Comics.  Do you feel Avatar can succeed where others have failed?  If so, what sets you apart from the pack?

This is a really important point, because you're right that the history of the Direct Market is littered with failed superhero lines and universes.  We're not going to do it that way, because that takes you away from doing creator-driven projects.  It makes you start to put the marketing before the creator.  Black Summer is a single creator-owned and driven book.  Warren came up with a stupendously great idea first, and as a consequence we are trying to market the hell out of it and put out the best finished comics possible and on time.  Mark Millar's Wanted is another example of a creator-driven book that succeeded in this arena.  I believe Black Summer will succeed purely based on the quality of the talent attached.  When these guys are on fire, as the issues I've read of this series surely suggest they are, the books they produce are as good as the best books in the industry.

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