Bernardin Hits the Road with "The Highwaymen"

Marc Bernardin isn't exactly a new name in comics circles. In his position as a staffer at Entertainment Weekly, Bernardin led the charge to get comics the same sort of mainstream coverage afforded films, television, video games and music. Now, Bernardin is driving on the other side of the road, no longer reviewing and interviewing, he is writing comics.

I'm a veteran of the 'Secret Wars,' Bernardin told CBR News, talking about how he got on that road in the first place. Those were, literally, the first 12 comics I ever owned. I actually displayed them all on the top of my bedroom dresser, buffet-style. They were the perfect gateway drug, like a pu-pu platter of superheroey goodness. From there, I was a die-hard, until Marvel went sucktard schizo with X-Men 'event crossovers' in the mid '90s. It took me years to recover from that. Years, man.

The road to recovery has led Bernardin to WildStorm Productions where Bernardin will launch his first comic series this June, The Highwaymen.

In their heyday, back in the '90s, the Highwaymen were the anything, anywhere, anytime guys. Couriers. The best of the best, Bernardin said, describing the five-issue mini-series. Able Monroe was the driver, an African-American dude from the Deep South who all but grew up behind the wheel. Mr. McQueen was the shooter, a wealthy son of privilege from the UK. But there was a job that went bad, and the two friends parted ways. We pick up the action in the year 2021, a future that looks more like today than it does tomorrow. Both men are now in their sixties. And they get a message in the mail from a dead president asking them to do one last job, transport one last package - the deadly product of a government weaponeering program - to the CDC in Atlanta. And it's a package that some people in the government want very badly - bad enough to kill for.

I'm a sucker for 'one last job' stories and I loved the idea of these two men who are only good at one thing: driving and shooting and what happens to them as they get older.

To me, this is a book about obsolescence, Bernardin continued, about raging against the dying of the light. About guys in the sunset of their lives proving to themselves that they're still worth a damn. There's a moment in 1998s 'The Man in the Iron Mask' movie, where the Four Musketeers, now far older, greyer, and slower, have to hold a prison against an overwhelming number of soldiers. And when it's clear that there's no way out for them, they make one last stand. And the leader of the French soldiers - who just fired on the charging Musketeers - says something like 'Never have I seen such valor.' A little cheesy, I know, but I really liked the sentiment that these men are heroes in a world that has forgotten what heroes look like. So, for inspirations, that and 'Knight Rider.' Because if you don't have a car going up on two wheels in your car comic, then you've wasted your damned car.

The path from Secret Wars-displaying kid to professional comic writer was not short, nor was it direct. Bernardin's recovery from the mid-'90s was complete when he found himself working at Entertainment Weekly.

With the disposable income that comes from a 'real' job at a real Time Warner magazine, I got back into comics in '98 or so, Bernardin explained. I kept on bugging other editors at EW to let me get some comics stuff in there, which they were good about. Once the first 'Spider-Man' flick came out in '02, I had the leverage I needed to start up a full-blown comics review section: No one could argue that comics' subject matter wasn't mainstream.

From there, it ebbed and flowed a bit, Bernardin continued. Comics went from having its own section, to a part of our now-defunct music supplement, 'Listen 2 This,' and then, currently, as a monthly sidebar in the Books section. But all of that internal exposure allowed me to get some feature stories on comics creators in EW's pages; big stories on people and subjects we likely never would've done before: Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and an oral history of 'Watchmen.'

Bernardin's efforts to get comics better mainstream coverage had a side effect, though.

As with covering any subject matter as a journalist, you get to know the people involved, said Bernardin. And covering it for EW gets introductions to people you wouldn't ordinarily get. Since I went to my first San Diego Comic-Con in '02 to meet some editors and publicists and publishers for our inaugural comics coverage, I'd meet people who'd ask me, 'Hey, you're a pretty good writer, ever think about writing comics?' And every year I'd tell them, 'Since I was 12, but as long as I cover them, I can't write them. Not working where I work.' But as time went on, and I got more of those questions, I started giving it some real thought. I wasn't getting any younger. I've got the wife and two kids. The distance between me and the brass ring was getting larger. So, Bernardin gave it a shot.

That conflict of interest is no joke, Bernardin said in talking about making sure that comics would still get their due, as he would be trading in writing about comics for writing them. The appearance of impropriety is almost as bad as the impropriety itself, so it had to be a clean break. But the reason I wanted to cover comics was because I love them. I love them, to borrow from 50 Cent, the way a fat kid loves cake - unless they betray me and my finely honed sense of fairness, the way 'X-tinction Agenda' did. I wanted to make sure that love would still get spread. Luckily, one of my colleagues, Nisha Gopalan, stepped up and was willing to continue the love-spreading.

On the subject of colleagues, Bernardin does not travel the comics writing road alone. His co-writer on 'The Highwaymen' is Adam Freeman. Adam and I went to elementary school together, explained Bernardin. And junior high. And high school. Different colleges, though, but we still managed to form a pretty crappy rock band. Our wives went to high school together. In other words, we're all but joined at the hip. We both wanted to be screenwriters, and both ended up in careers right next to the movies: me, at EW, Adam at MTV.

After a while we decided to pool our resources and make a go of it, Bernardin continued.   For us, collaboration is like long-distance ping-pong. Since Adam's out in Los Angeles, we do most of the initial story work - building the characters, erecting the plot - over the phone or instant messaging. Once we're ready to get into the script proper, one of us will start writing and, after a few days, send the document to the other. Given the fact that our schedules can be a little extreme - for example, Adam disappeared for weeks to screw off to Europe with Gene Simmons for his A&E reality show, 'Family Jewels,' which Adam produces - there's always one of us around to pick up the first-draft slack. It all comes out in the rewrites.

Should The Highwaymen prove successful, Bernardin made it clear that they're ready to run with it. If Wildstorm told us they wanted an ongoing series, we could do this for years. I love these guys and would love to keep making them say funny things and blow things up, but good. And Lee Garbett, the 'ridonkulously' talented British artist making his US debut with us, would like nothing more.

We know what the first 12 issues would be, Bernardin explained, and how that first year would end. After the funeral - because there's always a funeral - we'd love to do a flashback arc, see these guys in their prime.

Bernardin continued Now, I kind of hated 'Star Wars: Episode I' for all the obvious reasons, but in that final lightsaber duel you got to see why Jedi Knights were feared throughout the galaxy - which we'd never seen before, because, let's face it, Vader was an asthmatic tin man and Luke was a talented amateur who got the 'Cliff's Notes' version of Jedi training. If the Highwaymen are bad-ass now, when they're a step slower, wait until you see them before they were collecting Social Security.

Regardless of how The Highwaymen perform, Bernardin and Freeman will be appearing all over the racks of the countries comic shops. The other big thing coming out for us this summer is 'Monster Attack Network,' Bernardin said, an original graphic novel from AiT/Planetlar out in July, about a South Pacific island lousy with giant Godzilla-esque monsters and the hardworking men and women of the FEMA-type agency that manage the frequent disasters and rebuild the island afterwards.

Then we're in a little anthology phase, continued Bernardin. We've got a story in the trade paperback for 'Grunts,' a WWII book written by Keith Giffen and Shannon Denton, which should be out in time for San Diego, as well as stories in two pretty high-profile anthologies that we can't talk about just yet, and the standard freelancer sheaf of proposals in at every publisher under the sun. But for now, we feel like the new kids in school, who are totally willing to put out so the cool kids will like us.

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