CCI: Steve Niles re-imagines the superhero with "The Sinner"

Acclaimed horror book writer Steve Niles is re-inventing superheroes one title at a time.

One needs look no further than the October solicitation for his forthcoming DC series "Simon Dark" to get a glimpse into how Niles views guardians of justice.

And Thursday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the envelope was pushed even further as Image Comics announced Niles' latest project, "The Sinner."

Niles, whose "30 Days of Night" is currently being made into a film by Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man") and David Slade ("Hard Candy") as a starring vehicle for Josh Hartnett ("Sin City"), told CBR News, "The Sinner is a reflection of how the world views our hero and that there are certain things that we will never tolerate in our society and no matter what people do we will always look at them as sinners."

This ain't no Dudley Do-Right always get his man song and dance.

Legendary artist Bill Sienkiewicz is re-teaming with Niles on the project, and like Niles, the Eisner award winner also paints heroes with a wide brush.

"This is really what we've been leading up to the whole time," explained Niles. "When I ran into Bill and he said he really wanted to come back to comics in a big way, the first thing we did a commercial product, "30 Days: Beyond Barrow." It was just perfect timing, him coming along when he did. I needed a great painter to do my new "30 Days" series and here walks up Bill Sienkiewicz. It was pretty much a no-brainer. We did that and we have a story in this "I Am Legend" anthology that's coming out, which is a book that features stories leading up to the movie."

"But with 'The Sinner,' this is what Bill and I really want to do," continued Niles. "Bill has so much experience in comics. 'Moon Knight,' 'Fantastic Four,' 'New Mutants.' He has done mainstream superheroes for so long and was a big part of the big new wave of change in the industry, which unfortunately led to nowhere as we now have to read comics featuring super heroes renewing their drivers licenses," he laughed.

According to Niles, Sienkiewicz was the driving force of the project and wanted to see first-hand how the master of macabre would re-imagine Mister Fantastic.

"When we sat down to talk he said he was interested in doing something with superheroes," recalled Niles. "I was really shocked when Bill said to me, 'I'd love to see what you'd do with a super hero.' I asked him if he was sure because it ain't going to be pretty! I think superheroes should be more than just going back and beating up the guy who took your lunch money in high school. I wanted to do a story about real and true redemption."

And while this is hardly the first time a superhero has searched for salvation in the pages of a comic book, Niles' take will most certainly be more Bruce Wayne than Clark Kent as he draws comparisons to Captain America to further illustrate his direction.

"We came up with this concept where we're taking this person at the lowest point of his life," revealed Niles. "It's not a Steve Rogers-type of story where he's the skinny guy and maybe girls don't like him. No, this guy has been shunned by his family, he's lost every job he's ever had, his girlfriend's dead. This is a very ugly picture of a person trying to pull himself out of a nightmare and stumbling into a situation where he's offered a new life as a hero, basically.

"What winds up happening is it just becomes a big, murderous cluster fuck. As much as we like to fantasize about superheroes, the real world would not tolerate them and that's just a fact. Nothing different survives in this world. And that's the approach that I'm taking. So come on down for all the fun [laughs]!"

The Sinner, named Erik in the book, has a pretty awful past but Niles doesn't want to give too much away other than that the choice to become a superhero was not his and his alone.

"There's a lot I can't say because if I spill it, it might not be worth the wait," teased Niles. "It's not like Steve Rogers in that he walked into an experiment willingly. I'll give you this little bit, if you look in the back of L.A. alternative weeklies and they're looking for drug addicts to take tests and be part of studies, he thinks he's doing one of those studies for the cash."

Niles explained further, "He needs the money for his next fix and of course, it turns out to be something much bigger and much worse."

Much worse in a Dr. Jekyll meets Charles Darwin kind of way, apparently.

"It's going to be a lot of fun and what I like about the superhero aspects is that they're based in science," said Niles. "[My girlfriend] Sarah turned me on to turtles and I know this sounds very odd, but that got me fascinated with the Galapagos Islands, which are the most fascinating study of evolution you'll ever find. You could go to each of the different five islands and each turtle will have adapted to its environment differently. Same species, different island, they all come from the same place, but they all end up differently. This is where Darwin found three species of finches and saw how they all adapted. All the same species, but they had different traits because they had each adapted to their environments, which started him thinking about the idea of evolution.

"With 'The Sinner,' it's not just somebody trying to develop a super serum, it's somebody trying to understand and capture how we as a species evolve."

To bring "The Sinner" to life, Niles and Sienkiewicz developed a method all their own that would allow both creators the flexibility they each required to evolve themselves.

"I had to ask myself, how do I do it? Bill's worked with Frank Miller, he's done 'Fantastic Four,' 'Elektra,' 'Daredevil' and he wants to do something different? I thought, 'Oh, crap,'" joked Niles. "But when I sat down and honestly, I know this sounds like Hollywood talk, but I think I came up with a horror version of 'Unbreakable.' And the horror part, unfortunately in this case, is adding reality. I'm just thrilled. I've got the first few issues outlined, I've already started scripting. I've sent the intro to Bill. And I'm scripting in an entirely new way for Bill, I'm scripting without formatting meaning I write 15 pages of description. Description, dialogue, captions, everything is still the same, except I don't say what's a splash or what's a panel. That's Bill's job.

"But that only happens with Bill. The rest of you sit back right back down," laughed Niles. "With Bill, I want to push the collaboration to that extreme. And you know what, Bill doesn't need to be told what a splash is or a panel or a close-up is. I think he's paid his dues. I've done three scripts this way. Once I got my head around it, it became very liberating. It's not Marvel-style by any stretch because I'm writing little prose pieces to inspire him with dialogue in it. Now, in my work with Bernie Wrightson on 'City of Others,' my adjustment to him is I do 22 pages of comics and he does 26 pages of script. Then when I work with a guy like Nick Stakal, he gets 22 pages of script. Different guys you work with different ways. Nick loves every detail I can give him."

CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland Contributed to this story.

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