In an exclusive announcement, CBR News is proud to announce writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are bringing new life to an old Freedom Fighter in “Human Bomb,” the latest four-part DC Comics miniseries from the longtime writing duo. We also have the exclusive debut of the cover to “Human Bomb” #1.
The Human Bomb began life as a Quality Comics character in 1941, created by writer/artist Paul Gustavson. As the name suggests he was indeed a human bomb, a hazardous hero able to cause anything he came in contact with to explode. Acquired by DC in the ’50s, the Human Bomb and his Quality compatriots were given a second life in the ’70s as the Freedom Fighters, heroes from an alternate world where the Nazis won World War II. Palmiotti and Gray reinvented the character in 2006 as the explosive Andy Franklin and made him part of their “Uncle Sam And The Freedom Fighters” ongoing comic book series.
Much like their other two recent miniseries “The Ray” and “Phantom Lady,” “Human Bomb” establishes the ex-Quality character in the New 52, giving him a new identity and new set of problems. Speaking one on one with CBR News, Palmiotti and Gray dove into the details of their four-part series, discussing the thrills of working with artist Jerry Ordway and the pitfalls of reimagining legacy characters.
CBR News: With “Human Bomb,” you guys introduce yet another Freedom Fighters character in their own miniseries into the New 52.
Justin Gray: Yep!
Jimmy Palmiotti: Yeah, they keep coming back for more, we don’t understand it! [Laughs]
Obviously, you’ve written a version of Human Bomb before, but in this miniseries you’re dealing with a brand new character, ex-Marine and war veteran Michael Taylor. Who is Michael, and is he vastly different than Andy Franklin or the original Human Bomb, Roy Lincoln?
Gray: Yes, definitely, it’s very different — it’s a very different origin, it’s a very different kind of character. In a way because we had covered the old school vibe of how a character gets his powers in the modern sense with Doll Man we decided to do something completely different with Human Bomb.
Palmiotti: This version definitely is brand-spankin’ new. The actual power he has and some of that stuff we keep to the traditional sense of the character. But we’re looking at this for a brand new audience as well as the people who have been following our work and have been following the Freedom Fighters. It’s an interesting departure and yet, in a lot of ways, it’s a respectful kind of retelling. Again, with the New 52 we’re having fun with it and we’re going to take everybody along for a pretty cool ride in these four issues.
You mentioned his origin is completely different. What are these four issues about? Is this an origin story for Human Bomb or are we thrown into the middle of his story?
Gray: We’re sort of plunked down in the middle of what’s happening to him as he unravels the mystery of who he is, why he has certain abilities and how that came about. It’s tied deeply to the story itself in moving him forward; it’s part mystery, it’s part science fiction, and there’s a lot of humanity in the character as he’s struggling to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and understand what’s real and what’s not.
Palmiotti: The important thing for us was to make these books approachable to people who have no idea who the Human Bomb is. If you start at Issue #1, by the time you’re done with the miniseries you’ll know all you need to know. And again, we’re keep the people who have been fans for a while in mind — they’re going to get what we’re doing and the people who are new to the book, I think, are going to enjoy our take on it. But we definitely made the book approachable for new fans because we realize that even though the character has a long history there’s a lot of people who don’t really know who he is.
Gray: And we definitely wanted to take the concept of a human bomb and branch out further from what you’ve seen before of a guy in the radioactive suit, having to keep himself contained out of fear of doing harm to others, and we looked at the idea of making a bigger mythology to what the Human Bomb is and what it means.
Palmiotti: Yeah, I mean the idea of somebody who can just explode, it’s a really abstract concept! So for us it was, “How do we make sense of this? How do we make the reader care about who he is and what his powers are and then pull you in to a wild story?” We definitely looked at it from a lot of different angles and came up with what you see in front of you — and we think it’ll make a lot of people happy, hopefully!
Like you said, a character who is a bomb is a bit of a hard sell especially in a world where superheroes are only five years old. It’s interesting that you bring up the PTSD — did you feel that putting a military background with him would help get people and new readers accustomed to him and his powers?
Gray: I think it makes him sympathetic, in a sense. I think there’s an understanding that you’re dealing with a person who’s gone through something. It happened to him personally and we’re not entirely sure what it was or how deeply he’s been impacted by it, so that’s part of discovering his character and what kind of man he is in dealing with having been in service and having certain issues popping up in his life and certain baggage that he’s trying to deal with in his day to day life. And presenting him with the idea that he’s a military hero but he’s very reluctant to be a military hero. He sort of feels like he did his service but he can’t do enough for America, so he tries to find ways, we see in the first issue, to make his life mean something beyond his own service.
Are these four issues going to really concentrate on Michael, or will we see glimpses of Phantom Lady and the Ray and the other characters from your miniseries?
Palmiotti: Well we’ve been looking at this like a big master plan in some respects. In “The Ray” we see a tease of what will be the future for the character and with the last issue of “Phantom Lady” we had the Ray appearing there as well as the government coming in. So we definitely do have a bigger vision of where things are going, but it’s also up to us in the four issues to tell a complete story — not to leave a cliffhanger and not to leave anything where the reader goes, “Oh, what’s next?” Our thing is to tell a complete story and tease that we have more to come. Everything basically comes down to the reaction of the fans and how much they get behind what we’re doing. The reception on “The Ray” has been really good, and so far with Phantom Lady and Doll Man people seem to like it. We’re taking it day by day but with each of these projects we’re looking at them as miniseries that tell pretty cool, exciting stories.
Gray: Certainly they’re not exactly mainstream characters, so we have a certain amount of flexibility to do things that are a bit different. The nature of “The Ray” was a lot lighter, more character driven. It was more about the guy in the costume than the costume itself and the powers. And then with Phantom Lady and Doll Man, they have their own dynamic and that’s a very personal story there. The same thing translates to “Human Bomb,” that in each one of these there’s a complete story that puts this character on stage and says, “Here’s who it is, this is what it’s all about,” and then there’s always a little teaser that there’s a brighter future for them — should that future materialize.
In each of these miniseries you’ve taken different approaches, different tones, and they’re all basically new characters that that work independently of the older versions. Was making them brand new something you did to give yourselves a new direction to take them in, away from what you’ve done before?
Palmiotti: I think on some level DC felt we’ve spent some time with these characters and if we’re going to reintroduce them they thought our odd takes on how to do it would be closer to the core of the character, yet completely different. If you look at what we’ve been doing lately between “All-Star Western” and “Unknown Soldier” in “G.I. Combat”, we’ve been taking what’s familiar and bringing it up to date a little bit. These characters have a long history in the DC Universe so reworking them and going in and doing this kind of work is really exciting for us. I think they just thought we knew these characters and would respect what came before — yet be able to do a new take on them. And then putting us together with somebody like Jerry Ordway, it’s just a win-win for us.
That dovetails right into my next question, which was going to be who the artist is on “Human Bomb.” You guys are working with Jerry Ordway?
Palmiotti: Yeah, Jerry is the artist on it and we could not be happier. I’ve been a fan of Jerry Ordway forever. I mean, Jerry won’t like to hear that because he’s going to think he’s a billion years old! [Laughs] But I’ve been a fan of his work when he was doing “Superman” and “[The Power Of] Shazam!” Honestly he’s one of my favorite storytellers, he understands and researches and his storytelling is so strong we just feel so lucky to have Jerry involved with the project. I can’t gush enough about him! Actually in my studio I have a “Superman” cover with a giant brick Jimmy Olsen head coming out of the ground that was an original piece of art by Jerry. I’ve been a fan for a long time, so the best part of comics is you can work with your heroes and we’re getting to work with one of mine.
Gray: And mine too.
Getting back the character, for you as writers what is the appeal of the Human Bomb?
Palmiotti: His name! I mean, it’s a wonderful and ridiculous name at the same time. The Human Bomb! It’s fun to say to people when they don’t follow comics. You go to them and they say, “What are you working on?” You say, “A new book called the ‘Human Bomb,'” and they’re like, “What? What is that about!” We say, “It’s about a guy and pretty much he’s a human bomb!” [Laughs] It’s so out there and yet at the same time it’s so much fun. We’re having a ball with it, but the tone of the book is very serious.
Gray: Yeah, it’s fun but we always try to approach a book from multiple angles, so at one point it is ridiculous and fun and over the top, but on the other hand it’s not something you’d really want to be, so how would you approach being a human bomb from a personal standpoint? It’s not an easy thing to be.
Palmiotti: No, I mean, honestly, anybody with some anger problems might not make a very good human bomb! And I know we’ve all been bombed before, but that’s a whole different character!
Along the lines of making this a more serious character, tonally is this going to be similar to what you were doing with “Unknown Soldier?” Is this a darker tale?
Gray: It definitely has a different tone. I’d say “Unknown Soldier” is darker and considerably more violent. But there are themes — we’re still appreciating the fact that there’s a sort of whimsical silly side to this without it being silly, the emphasis being that what the Human Bomb is dealing with and how his origins come about are just as crazy to him as having the power. He finds the reality he’s living in, and the person he is, and the job he has, and what he’s all about suddenly overturned when he finds out he has this ability. Then when he finds out what this ability is from he kind of is overwhelmed by the whole thing and has to take a deep breath and move forward because he doesn’t have a choice. He has to assimilate all this information as quickly as possible, even if he can’t believe half of it himself.
Palmiotti: This isn’t the case of him saying, “I have this power, let me make this suit and let me get a cape and giant boots and run around! Now I’m the Human Bomb and I’m going to go stop crime!” It’s not anything like that. We’re dealing with the experience this person has been through and the discovery of the powers, a little bit more in tone with what Phantom Lady and Doll Man are dealing with: the fact that we have these powers, but we don’t sit around and go, “Let’s fight crime!” We’re saying, “What do we do with ourselves? This is what happened to me — how do I move forward from this?”
Gray: It’s really trying to find out what happened, why he is what he is. When he finds out why, he’s motivated to do something.
Even in the original Quality Comics the characters weren’t just crime-fighters, they were fighting Nazis and the Axis forces. For all these characters is the silliness of their origins and powers but seriousness of their intent something that really speaks to you?
Gray: Yeah. It’s the opportunity to say let’s take this character, let’s take the core of who this character is and make subtle changes or big changes or try to find ways to streamline it for a mainstream audience and still make it fun and still have the charm of those characters. It’s a challenge, and I think the challenge is the thing that always drives us. We did the Human Bomb, we did Phantom Lady — what can we do different? What can we do that’s hopefully better and find the right tone and the right way to present these characters in a way that makes them stand out more than they have in the past?
Palmiotti: There’s definitely easier gigs to be had, that’s for sure! [Laughter] But we tend to think of ourselves as lucky that we have the opportunity to take these things that are really not your well-known characters and try to make them into something where people will care, people will know these characters. The whole thing for us is that we need the reader to care, to go in there and say, “Not only can I relate, or at least understand what the character’s going through, I also want to root for them and see where they’re going to take it.” We want them to care about these characters to the point where, when all four issues are done, they’ll go, “What’s next? I want more.” We want to create a constant craving for these characters past what we’re doing. That’s hopefully what we set up with the Ray and Phantom Lady, as well the Human Bomb. It’s the unexpected thing; it’s the people who say, “Why would I care about Human Bomb?” and they give it a shot and all of a sudden they’re like, “Now I want to know everything about the Human Bomb!” It’s a big job on so many levels to do this. Again, when you’re dealing with a title called the “Human Bomb” there’s certain expectations. I’m sure lots of people think there’ll be eight full pin-up pages of things exploding — not that we don’t do that! But we also have to make people care. It’s not a summer blockbuster movie where it’s all noise and no heart. There’s a lot of heart in these characters and that makes them tick and makes the audience react.
Gray: It’s tough too because we always walk into this. No matter what character you’re dealing with, you walk into preconceptions. You walk into, if it’s ongoing, “Oh, it’ll be cancelled by Issue #8! No one cares, no one is going to read this.” They automatically shut down and they say, “I’m not going to read that.” Or if it’s a miniseries they say, “Why should I bother, it’s just four issues, it’s not four thousand issues long.” So we’re constantly battling that, but embracing that too because it’s a challenge. When it does work and if we do get an extended life — a lot of people got on us about “Jonah Hex” and we’d have pros who’d send emails and say, “Don’t screw this up! This is my dream job!” [Laughs] There is already so much pressure we were putting on each other and ourselves we just have to block out all the noise and say, “We’re going to do the best job we can with what we’re given to work with,” and hope in the end it’s something people walk away satisfied with, whether it’s four issues or four thousand.
Palmiotti: Yeah, I mean if you look at what else we’re doing, if you look at “Ame-Comi [Girls]” the expectations on that were insane!
Gray: Oh god, yeah! [Laughs]
Palmiotti: Because people kept telling us, “Oh, so it’s going to be this and it’s going to be that,” and we said, “No, it’s going to be fun storytelling with every female superhero in the DC Universe.” Now we’re in the third month and we have people who are diehards that love those characters and love the take. Again, we had expectations from people going in that it was going to be this or that; at the core of it with all the characters we have to find out what makes them tick, what makes them interesting to people and what keeps them interested. It’s always on our mind with every project we do.
Then to wrap up, devoid of any actual future plans is there a Quality character or World War II era character that you would absolutely love to take and do a miniseries or series with and make people care about them?
Gray: [Laughs] Plastic Man?
Palmiotti: That’s a good question! Plastic Man is fun!
Gray: The Face! [Laughs]
Palmiotti: I’d have to really think about that one, I’d have to go back in the books. When those characters were created, like we do today, they were created around what was going on in the world at the time and they definitely were a reflection of the times. I think we’d have to look at what was there and how would it apply to now, because that’s what we’ve been doing with all the characters so far, and what we did with “Uncle Sam And The Freedom Fighters” series before that. I still love Uncle Sam! I know he’s got a big top hat and red, white and blue jacket — it’s awesome!
And it’s an election year too — perfect time to bring him back!
Palmiotti: Exactly! He’s everybody’s Uncle, that’s what I like to say! [Laughter]
“Human Bomb” #1 hits stores in December.
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