Forget It, Spidey! It's Chinatown: Van Lente on Mister Negative

He's both friend and foe to Spider-Man. He is a crime lord and a humanitarian and he has superhuman abilities that can be used to both hurt and heal. His name is Martin Li, also known as Mister Negative, and he's one of the most mysterious of the new crop of villains created during the Brand New Day era of "Amazing Spider-Man." In June, Martin Li will be thrust into the major happenings of the Marvel Universe in "Dark Reign: Mister Negative," a new four-issue miniseries by writer Fred Van Lente and artist Gianluca Gugliotta. CBR News spoke with Van Lente about the project.

Van Lente finds Mister Negative, who made his debut in "Amazing Spider-Man" #546, to be the most interesting villain created during in Bran New Day, and eagerly accepted editor Steve Wacker's offer to pen the "Mister Negative" miniseries. "He's a really clever character that Dan Slott came up with," Van Lente told CBR. "Like a lot of great super powered characters, he's got a cool visual motif and all his powers and concepts flow from this Yin-Yang duality between him and Martin Li."

That duality is demonstrated clearly in the roles Mister Negative plays in his two separate guises. As Martin Li, Negative is a wealthy philanthropist who runs the Food, Emergency Aid, Shelter and Training project, or F.E.A.ST., a series of well funded homeless shelters. As Mister Negative, Li is the top crime lord in Manhattan's Chinatown district. It's been revealed that Mister Negative transforms into Martin Li, but it's currently unclear how much his two guises know about each other.

Obviously, Van Lente agrees Li has much in common with another fictional character famous for transforming into an evil alter ego, Henry Jekyll. "Although it's not necessarily as literal," Van Lente said. "One of the major themes of the miniseries is in Taoist philosophy, where the Yin-Yang symbol comes from, you can only have goodness because you have badness. You can only have light because you have dark and it's the tension between those two things that makes up reality, as opposed to everyone having this dark side they have to suppress in order to be an upstanding Henry Jekyll style citizen."

The full extent of Mister Negative's powers as well as his origin are also shrouded in mystery. But by the time Van Lente's miniseries is over, readers will know a lot more about both. "One of the major subplots of the book is Betty Brant, who in the 'New Ways to Die' arc of 'Amazing Spider-Man' was assigned the job of digging up as much dirt as she possibly could on Martin Li because Dexter Bennett, the owner of 'The DB' [formerly 'The Daily Bugle'], doesn't particularly like him," Van Lente explained. "She's continuing that investigation in the 'Mister Negative' series and inadvertently digs closer and closer to his actual origin and her life will be put in jeopardy as a result."

While Van Lente is chronicling "Mister Negative" on his own, he did receive some help and inspiration from the character's creator, Dan Slott. "I had a very nice long conversation with Dan one day about the character. He told me a lot about the powers that Negative has which you haven't seen yet and we'll also see what he had in mind for how the character got his powers. Then I went and researched the history of New York's Chinatown area and the modern day smuggling of illegal Chinese immigrants into the United States, particularly around New York City. So a lot of Martin Li's background comes directly out of the research I did."

Indeed, the Chinatown area of Manhattan will figure prominently in the "Mister Negative" miniseries. It's the seat of Mister Negative's criminal power base, and the center of a bloody gang war. "In the world of **Dark Reign**, the Hood obviously controls all of the supervillain action in the five boroughs of New York City. Except for one spot -- and that would be Chinatown," Van Lente explained. "In the opening scene of the series, the Hood sends an emissary to Mister Negative to negotiate the terms of Chinatown's surrender. Then Mister Negative does something that, shall we say, really pisses off the Hood. So the Hood rains down on him the full might of his supervillain force, which in our miniseries is entirely composed of Spider-Man villains. We all know that the Hood has more people on his payroll than just Spider-Man villains, but here at the Spider-Office, that's how we roll! We don't need other people's villains!"

Van Lente finds the face-off between Mister Negative and the Hood to be an interesting way of examining a classic paradox. "The Hood is someone who is really being driven at least in part or in whole by Dormammu and you get a lot of that in 'Marvel Zombies 4,' in which they both appear. So in that sense he has a lust or hunger for power. That hunger, at least at present seems completely unquenchable. So I'd use the comparison of the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. If the unstoppable force is the Hood's hunger for power then Mister Negative's own agenda is the immovable object, which we know from 'Amazing Spider-Man' is that he despises for some reason and seeks to destroy the Maggia crime family. He's using his own criminal network within Chinatown to accomplish his goal so he's not going to be dissuaded from his objectives by the Hood's avarice and desire to take over his operation."

The ranks of the Hood's assault force are composed of a host of Spider-Man villains ranging from the familiar to the obscure. Van Lente explained, "The Spot is now working for the Hood and a lot of the guys you've already seen in the pages of 'New Avengers,' like the Answer. I love the Answer, so you're going to see a lot of Answer goodness. We've also got Speed Demon, Lightmaster, The Scorcher, The Squid, Bloodshed, the White Dragon, and White Rabbit. These are all Z-list villains I'm putting through my rehabilitation program. Of course, the Hood himself is also a significant player in the series as well."

The Hood shouldn't expect to score an easy victory against Mister Negative, because the Chinatown crime lord has a formidable army of his own. "Mister Negative has Hammerhead working for him and he has his agents called 'Inner Demons' which as we learned in a recent issue of 'Spider-Man: Extra' have a type of healing factor," Van Lente explained. "So you've got a bunch of unstoppable supervillains and a bunch of un-killable inner demons. This equals fun."

When readers last saw Hammerhead in "Amazing Spider-Man" #575-576, he soundly thrashed Spider-Man. In "Dark Reign: Mister Negative," he's back on the streets and more dangerous than ever. "He's got a very critical part to play in Mister Negative's plans," Van Lente confirmed. "But Negative has a very special plan for him that only becomes clear as the series goes along."

Mister Negative's army will be even stronger thanks to an unlikely new recruit. "In the course of the miniseries, Mister Negative acquires a new henchman and that would be **Spider-Man**, who plays a huge role in this series," Van Lente revealed. "How that happens and why we find Spider-Man fighting for Mister Negative, I will leave you to be surprised with."

For the tone of "Dark Reign: Mister Negative" Van Lente looked to the gritty, wild, and often weird world of '70s grindhouse cinema. "The movie going through my head while I was doing this was the original John Carpenter 'Assault on Precinct 13' because it was just so relentless and takes place over a short period of time," the writer explained. "You don't get too much more grindhouse than that."

Van Lente is delighted to have Italian artist Gianluca Gugliotta bringing to life all the intense action of his "Dark Reign: Mister Negative" scripts. "I've seen his character sketches and they're wonderful. And when I was in the Marvel offices recently and Steve Wacker showed me some of his pages from a science fiction book he was doing in Europe. So I have no doubt he's going to kick multiple forms of ass."

It may be a separate miniseries, but Van Lente hinted that regular readers of "Amazing Spider-Man" will be very interested in what happens in "Mister Negative." "There are very serious developments involving Betty Brant and 'The DB' that we discussed playing out in the recent Spider-Man summit," Van Lente said. "And Spider-Man himself has to confront some disturbing aspects about his own personality when he ends up being exposed to what he's exposed to in this series."

The recent "Amazing Spider-Man" #589 marked Van Lente's debut as a junior member of the "Web-Heads," the collective name for the "Amazing Spider-Man" creative team. "Dark Reign: Mister Negative" is his second project for the Spider-Office, and Van Lente already has his third story set to hit stores in August.

"The very first comic I remember owning is the pocket books reprint of the original Steve Ditko run on 'Amazing Spider-Man,' which my parents got me in the '70s. So really, the first issues of Spider-Man were my starter comics and as a jaded adult I'm like, 'Now I'm doing Spider-Man. I wrote 'Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man' a couple of years ago, so what's the big deal?' But it is a big deal! It's been completely fricking awesome!" Van Lente said. "Particularly since we recently did a couple days of intensive Spider-Madness with all the writers. It was a lot of fun. Especially now that we're bringing back all the main villains in the regular book. I love the Answers, Spots, and White Rabbits of the world and they're going to appear in this 'Mister Negative' miniseries, so that's very exciting. And I think folks are going to be impressed at what we came up with at the Spider-Summit for the remainder of '09. Not that I'm not biased, but I was impressed and I'm a huge Spider-man fan!"

"Dark Reign: Mister Negative" #1 on sale June 10 from Marvel Comics.

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