EXCLUSIVE: "New Crusaders" Shifts Style Towards "Dark Tomorrow"

[SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for this week's "New Crusaders" #6.]

In the pages of Archie Comics' Red Circle series "New Crusaders," the teen superhero team at the heart of the story have been through some drastic changes over the six-issue "Rise of the Heroes" arc. Starting with this week's issue #6, the book takes its own step toward a brand new form.

At the end of the New Crusaders' first mission, one of their own -- the hothead hero called Fireball -- is killed during a prison riot by one of the classic Crusaders' deadliest villains: The Eraser. The shocking turn of events is a more serious story beat than many would expect from an all-ages title, but according to Red Circle editor Paul Kaminski, the move was calculated to amp up the drama and realism of the series as it moves towards "New Crusaders: Dark Tomorrow" -- the May continuation of the story as a traditional print comic book series.

But alongside the dramatic shift in writer Ian Flynn's story, Kaminski and artist Alitha Martinez told CBR News that the look of "New Crusaders" will be getting a facelift as well. Below, the pair explain why Fireball's death is literally the moment the series takes an artistic step towards "Dark Tomorrow," how the shift in style is meant to take "New Crusaders" where fans have asked for it to go, what a more sophisticated story means for the teens on the team and other insight's into May's next volume. Plus, Kaminski shares an exclusive first look at Martinez' "Dark Tomorrow" art while announcing a brand new graphic novel called "Legacy of the Crusaders" which will bring together modern day stories with some classic Red Circle shorts by acclaimed artists.

CBR News: Guys, let's start out with what I think is the turning point moment in the book's journey toward the "Dark Tomorrow" volume: the death of Fireball at the hands of Eraser in this week's issue #6. Longtime fans know that Eraser is a villain known for killing Crusaders, but at what point did you know history would repeat itself with these new teen characters?

Paul Kaminski: We took a little while to get the kids into costume, so once we finally did, we knew it was time to put them in the line of fire. Ian, [Archie President] Mike Pellerito and I were talking and thinking that they can't come out of this unscathed. If you're looking at this from some sort of realistic point of view, these kids are totally inexperienced with their powers, they have no concept of how to be superheroes, this is their first outing, and it just happens to be in the middle of a riot full of superpowered murderers. There was absolutely no way this could end with, "Hey! We saved the day! Haha!" We wanted a happy ending in some way. We needed the payoff to be there to end "Rise of the Heroes," but we also needed them to feel loss.

I forget who exactly said it first. I think Mike and I discussed it and then we called Ian later, and we decided that Fireball made the most sense to be that loss because he was the one who was questioning everything. He was grounding everyone in reality anyway because he was second guessing and saying, "Who's this crazy, creepy guy keeping us in his basement?" So we felt that it would hit the kids close to home if their remaining base in reality was suddenly ripped away from them. And since he's one of their peers, it has that heartbreak attached to it as well. And it just turned out to be great setup for "Dark Tomorrow." And Alitha just drew that scene incredibly! I loved the way it turned out.

The whole world does drop away in that moment. Alitha, what was your goal in selling that moment for the characters and the series?

Alitha Martinez: Well, I thought it would be a very lonely moment. In the middle of all this riot, Fireball has to face this guy. They've gotten rid of the Shield. His poor girlfriend for five minutes is off to the side, and he's trying to protect her. And so that's just an intimate, lonely moment between those two characters. Nobody can rush in and save him. It's just the end. And as I was looking at it in print, I thought, "Wow, that turned out particularly isolated from everything else, and things seem to start right back up after that. I guess that's what I was going for!"

Tell me about how this moment and the ending of this series leads into "Dark Tomorrow." The end of the new issue is really a down beat. We don't see the kid the next day or the next week recovering. The events are still very raw. How does that set the tone for where we pick things up?

Kaminski: Funny you say that. The death of Fireball was really the tone changer for the book -- stylistically as well as in terms of the story. Alitha and I had spoken at New York Comic Con about a good place to take the style we had been setting up with "New Crusaders" and have it evolve into what the readership was demanding it become. It's still a superhero comic for everyone, but it's a superhero comic that's more aged up than what we had been doing. And that death seemed like a great moment to say that not only is the world changing for these kids, but in a meta sort of way the world is also actually changing in the comic book because the style shifts right at that moment. Characters who looked one way look a little different after it happens. And Alitha did a wonderful job trying to make that transition noticeable and yet coherent. It was no easy feat.

Martinez: Yes, I wanted to put something out there in a way I'd never done before. So from the end of #6 and moving into "Dark Tomorrow" I started pushing that transitional boundary. You see the shift in #6, and by the time we get to the new series it's a whole new world. It's a dark world and one that looks more real.

Kaminski: It's still superheroes for everyone, but we've been listening to the reader feedback, and we want to make sure we're addressing their demands. They've said, "This is awesome, but give us more action. Give us more realism in there." That's what we're doing.

The new style seems to have two major components -- a more detailed take on drawing the characters themselves and also an overall edge added to the book in terms of shadows and deeper colors. Was there one particular element that synched everything up to help you establish this style?

Martinez: Actually, yes. It's that moment on Kelly's face when she pulls off her cowl. That expression on her face when she rushes towards Fireball's body. I really wanted to get that moment exactly right. That's what came to my mind when I was thinking about doing the style switch. I wanted to nail it because it would take it more to a place where you can really feel what she's going through. She touches his body and thinks, "Oh, maybe he's not dead!" And then she just breaks down. That was very much my moment.

Where will we step back into the story with "Dark Tomorrow" #1? It seems as though the first issue of the new run is more of a stand-alone issue to establish the new status quo.

Kaminski: That's exactly it. In Ian's original setup for these issues, we had jumped right into high school with the first issue. And what we felt was that we didn't see a lot of the kids being superheroes in the first arc. And it's a superhero book. It's a book about kids picking up the legacy of their superhero forbearers. So we needed to see them adventuring a little bit. What you get in "Dark Tomorrow" #1 is a look at what, in this post Zip Riot world, life is like for these kids in their superhero alter egos. From there, we transition to how life has evolved for these kids in their normal teenage lives. That can be way more dramatic than any fight scene ever -- as anyone who's ever been a teenager knows -- but it's important to show both and to show the duality.

Martinez: Ah, the high school years! [Laughter]

That is a major new element that will be coming in "Dark Tomorrow" #2 -- the idea of these teen superheroes in school again. What does that add to the series that we haven't seen yet from "New Crusaders?"

Martinez: You know, I've done books before that have had kids and teenagers going through their angst. But this is different angst. They're heroes hiding in plain sight. How do you keep that balance when there's a bully in school, and you want to break his neck -- but you actually have the power to do it! How do you hold yourself back. Thinking about how to approach characters who are so powerful but have to hide it is a new challenge for me.

In the first series, we met a lot of the classic Red Circle characters, most noticeably the legions of villains Brain Emperor broke out of prison, but also guys like the Black Hood and his crew. As we come into this new status quo, will we be seeing more of these guys throughout the world?

Kaminski: We will be seeing some new characters, and we'll be seeing some returns from the classic pantheon of the 70-year Red Circle history. It'll be pretty quick into "Dark Tomorrow" when that happens. As far as Black Hood, Hangman and the guys in the Riot Squad -- which are my personal favorites -- we're going to play around with them in the "Lost Crusades" minis which will continue as backups in "Dark Tomorrow." We're getting a variety of artists and writers in to show a little bit about what happened after the riot with those guys who were in jail. There's a LOT of universe here, and I think one of the challenging thing for us to figure out is where we want to point that lens. It's a key thing, and I think you want to keep it pointed at the kids because they're the heart of the whole thing. So the expanded universe is fun, and we want to show those characters, but how they relate to the kids is the important thing. And if they don't relate yet, we'll hold off a little bit for now.

Speaking of the kids, there are a lot of relationships that have been hinted at for the core team moving forward from how Fly-Girl will deal with Fireball's death to the relationship growing between Jaguar and the Web. Who are you most excited to see take the next step forward in "Dark Tomorrow?"

Martinez: For me, it's always the Shield. I'm curious to see how he's going to handle this. I enjoyed him in the first arc, and I think I'll enjoy him more now because we can get more inside him. What happened to him to turn him into that grouchy old man? I'm excited to see that.

Kaminski: Yeah, the Shield is so cool. I've said this before in other interviews, but he's basically Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino." He's this crotchety old man stuck in his ways, and yet he's in this position where he's got to look after these kids. And he's really failed the kids to some degree with "Rise of the Heroes." In his own weird naivete, he goes to Dusty during the prison riot and says, "No worries, old chum! We'll persevere!" like he was storming Normandy. It was just such a weird choice for Shield to make, and that part of his character is really interesting.

And speaking of his failures, what happens to Kelly, Fly-Girl, in "Dark Tomorrow" is going to be the interesting thing. I think I can say that she's going to go through some changes. She's just been through the wringer already. First it was her parents. Then it was her would-be boyfriend. Now she's feeling particularly alone, so it'll be interesting to explore her character.

To wrap up, the big question for a lot of people will be about this title of "Dark Tomorrow." We know the Brain Emperor and company are on the loose. What is the piece of this story that really justifies that title?

Kaminski: "Follow the Blue Ribbon" is what I can say to that. Without being spoilery, I think that "Dark Tomorrow" refers to the team's state of mind after the events of "Rise of the Heroes," but it also refers to some bigger themes we're going to be playing with with the character of Mr. Justice. The idea of the Blue Ribbon is something readers should keep an eye out for because it's going to play quite a role. I can't say too much more than that.

What I can also tease is that in regards to the time between "Rise of the Heroes" and "Dark Tomorrow," we're going to be releasing a special graphic novel called "Legacy of the Crusaders." That will come out in July, and it will take place in between our two series. It will include a new story that will wrap around some reprints of classic "Mighty Crusaders" comics to give readers a clearer picture of the history and legacy of these characters. It'll give us more info on where the kids came from to see where they're going and why this tomorrow will be so dark -- and why it could also prove to be very hopeful in the end. These stories are from creators like Steve Ditko, Gray Morrow, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino and more. There's a ton of really, really legendary creators from the Red Circle pantheon over the years who are featured in "Legacy of the Crusaders."

Martinez: For me, it's all about reinventing their world. It was set one way and was so solid. Now we're going back in as if it were all brand new. There are little things that were simplistic before that we can flesh out. Paul said it's an all-ages book, and it still is. But we can now add more richness and more to it. That's what I've enjoyed about the process so far.

"New Crusaders: Dark Tomorrow" #1 ships May 1 from Red Circle/Archie Comics.

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