Earthquakes & Gladiators: Bermejo Rocks the West Coast in Vertigo's "Suiciders"

Superstar artist Lee Bermejo has made a living by pushing the limits of what can and can't be done in superhero comics, most oft with his long-time collaborator, best-selling writer Brian Azzarello.

Delivering killer stories with Batman and Superman in original graphic novels like "Joker" and "Luthor," Bermejo is arguably making his biggest push ever next month as the writer and artist on a new series for Vertigo Comics titled, "Suiciders."

Vertigo Defies Expectations with Fall Lineup

Set in the post-apocalyptic city of New Angeles, Bermejo explores the cataclysmic events that follow the death and destruction of a massive earthquake that crushed the West Coast 30 years earlier, leaving Los Angeles in ruins.

Cut off from society -- literally -- a new bloodsport has become the lifeblood for the people of New Angeles and smack dab in the epicenter of the crumbling world is a technologically enhanced, drug-fueled gladiator known as The Saint. A horrific mashup of "The Hunger Games," "American Idol" and Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bermejo promises that "Suiciders" will have its softer moments too, but they will be jammed face first between the ferociously illustrated, bone-breaking panels.

Bermejo also told CBR News about how important this story is to him as an immigrant to America, the long gestation of "Suiciders" since the project was announced last year and the influence of Frank Miller's neo-noir "Sin City" series from the early 1990s.

CBR News: This series was originally announced more than a year ago. Pardon the very poor pun but has the wait been killing you?

Lee Bermejo: [Laughs] The reality of every project that I do is that it takes a long time. That's just something that I have learned to accept over the years. That's part of the gig. I wish it were different. I wish I was able to work faster but part of the luxury of having lead-time is that by the time interviews like this happen, I actually know what I am talking about. [Laughs] I have enough work done to have a very good idea of the product people are going to be getting their hands on.

And what is that product?

The book has a few different types of stories in it. Yes, it's a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi book but it's also a very noir book. The second and certainly the third issues, you really start to get that feeling. There's a more intimate side to the story too, which isn't a typical part of a pitch when you are a pitching a big action story, but it does have some more delicate, character-driven storylines.

The backdrop is Los Angeles recovering from a massive earthquake and "Suiciders" is set 30 years after the event. Half of the population has moved on and progressed while another half of the population certainly hasn't.

C2E2: Snyder, Bermejo & More Bring Vertigo to Chicago

Who or what are the Suiciders?

The Suicide Games are almost gladiatorial. And they're definitely a sport. It gets filmed and broadcasted. The main characters in this initial story arc are essentially these athletes.

I am very interested in this notion of civilization reverting to this medieval mentality. The more bloodier things are and the more extreme things are tends to be of more interest to people. Some people may argue that has always been the case but our access to those types of things are so much more immediate and broad now. We can watch a beheading video on mainstream media websites. There is a thirst for this kind of brutality. It feels very medieval, very Roman. There is an element of the type of entertainment that was enjoyed in the Coliseum. I find that really interesting but at the same time, we are also living in a world that is broader than the world experienced in medieval times.

That's a huge understatement but we also have other issues to deal with in "Suiciders," including this concept of borders and immigration. Being an immigrant myself, it was pretty important to me to inject that experience into this book so one of the main characters is also an immigrant. That's something that I find extremely interesting as we live in a world that is becoming more and more multicultural.

Here in Italy, there is a huge influx of immigrants coming into the country from northern Africa. That's a huge problem for the government. It was also an issue very close to home growing up in southern California with a father of Mexican descent. Those are definitely social themes that interest me.

The Suicide Games also give me a chance to introduce a spectacle with characters that possess almost superheroic qualities. They wear armor and the armor is personally modified for each one of them. They are biologically and medically enhanced. The more sci-fi elements of the story come into play there.

I also like this idea of Los Angeles being a place where people can reinvent themselves. That's something that everyone knows about L.A., especially people that live there. Not only can you reinvent yourself mentally, but physically too.

Who is The Saint?

The Saint is the best of the best. He's basically the Michael Jordan of this sport. He is a character that comes into the story already at the top of his game. And he very much has everything at his fingertips but things very quickly start to crumble for him.

There is another character that is introduced in the second issue that is an immigrant that wants to be the best of the best. He wants to be The Saint. You end up with two sides of the same coin with these two characters. Through the course of the story, you get to see how much of your soul that you are willing to give up to get what you want -- from people that already have it to people that have nothing. That's where you get to see the character-driven elements of the story.

I feel like if I have done my job, by the time you read the last issue of the first arc, you will want to go back and re-read the whole thing as there are so many layers.

Are we that far way from athletes being super-heroically modified?

I think we are getting close. And in terms of gladiatorial games, just look at the rising popularity of mixed martial arts. Another integral part of the story is answering the question of how the Suicide Games came into play. What do they mean for society? Is it just a game? Or is it something more? I can tell you it's truly rooted in the experience of surviving an earthquake.

Essentially, what you are going to see in "Suiciders" is a number of different characters that are all being forced to live within a set of rules in New Angeles. The closest comic book I can think of to "Suiciders," and I am by no means comparing myself to it, but in terms of how it is structured, is "Sin City." It's about a place and these characters. But the rock is this place, New Angeles.

Do we get to peek behind the curtain and see the Vince McMahon running the Suicide Games?

Sure, that's certainly part of it. And you are also going to get an idea of why the city of New Angeles became a walled city. And what lies on the other side, which is essentially a wide, sprawling ghetto. New Angeles is more affluent and is more reconstructed. The people have closed themselves off from this other world, which is basically West Hollywood to the beaches. And we learn why they closed themselves off.

With a title like "Suiciders," do these characters have an inherent death wish?

Yeah. You willingly walk into the coliseum knowing that you will probably die. That's the gist of it. These guys are resigned to the fact that they will die in there. Again, like the Roman gladiators, they live in this shadow of death and they embrace it.

THE BAT SIGNAL: Lee Bermejo On "Batman: Noel"

You've worked with a number of awesome writers over the years, most notably Brian Azzarello, and you have also worn multiple hats in the past with projects like "Batman: Noël." What freedoms does a solo project allow?

This book goes back as far as 2002 when I was working at WildStorm. I remember talking to Scott Dunbier about this story and telling him a version of it way back then. It's been evolving in my head for a number of years and because of that time, it's gone through a couple of different iterations, as well. But it has always maintained a certain core.

It's the first time I have ever done anything original and creator-owned. In that respect, it's really been the most creatively satisfying project that I've ever done, simply because when I wake up in the morning with an idea, I can apply that idea. Not that I haven't had a certain amount of freedom in the past, but there is a safety net. And that's part of the fun of working on characters like Batman or Superman. There are rules and certainly in the work that I have done, you see how far you can push and bend those rules. Certainly the work that I have done with Brian [Laughs] is all about pushing that line. That's the common theme of everything that we have done together. But you know the rules. And you know what you can and can't do. It's completely different here because you are dealing with something no one knows about. And there is part of me that really hesitates talking too much about it because I feel like with anything new, you want people to walk into it and read and experience for the first time cold -- knowing as little as possible. You never have that experience with Superman or Batman. You know Batman isn't going to kill somebody. With "Suiciders," the restraints are off. Every crazy idea that I have had made its way into the book. And that's something new for me.

In this book, there is some of the most hardcore stuff that I have ever done and there are also some very delicate, sensitive moments. I can't wait for you to read it.

"Suiciders" #1, written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, arrives February 4 from Vertigo.

Krakoa: The X-Men's Living Island Base May Be Plotting a Horrific Takeover

More in Comics