While the recent Skrull "Secret Invasion" of Earth terrified many residents of the Marvel Universe, they would be even more frightened if they knew that their planet was almost in constant danger from many of the Marvel U's space faring cultures and empires. It's the job of the Sentient World Observation and Response Department, or S.W.O.R.D., to stop those invasions and deal with any interstellar matters that might affect Earth. On November 11, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Steven Sanders will take readers inside the mysterious organization when Marvel Comics' new "S.W.O.R.D." series kicks off. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the book, which begins with a fast paced multi-part arc that unfolds over the course of 24 hours. "Roughly," stresses Gillen.
The central character of "S.W.O.R.D." is it's former sole leader and now co-commander Agent Abigail Brand. Creators Joss Whedon and John Cassaday introduced the half-human, half-alien Brand in issue #3 of "Astonishing X-Men." She was something of enigma then, and even though she played a central role in "Secret Invasion," Agent Brand is still a character shrouded in mystery.
"I love Brand. We actually haven't gotten her whole history yet, and we don't really know what makes her operate the way that she does. That's part of the core of the series. The more the book goes on, the more you'll get to know Agent Brand, and you'll find out why she's so angry," Gillen told CBR News. "Basically, at one point in her life something went wrong for Brand and she wants to make sure it never happens again. That core lesson showed her how the world works, and by operating a certain way she can stop the world from being like that. You might guess from what she does and her half alien heritage that what happened to her involves aliens and organizations. That's why it's incredibly hard for her to give up control of things. She doesn't trust people to not make mistakes. She's got a core lack of trust in people.
"We see that in how she deals with almost everyone she meets. On one level, that makes her incredibly monomaniacal," Gillen continued. "It also makes her quite lonely. Beneath her bravado there's a loneliness. That's why I think she and Beast are in an interesting relationship. Beast has no problem being open. His problem is almost the complete opposite of that."
Beast and Brand's romantic and professional relationship began in the pages of "Astonishing X-Men" when she both offered him a position as her adviser and sexually propositioned him. When "S.W.O.R.D." begins, the two have been a couple for a short while, and he's just accepted her offer to come work with her. "So, in addition to his duties with the X-Men, Beast will also be part of S.W.O.R.D. Part of that is because Beast looks for new challenges. He's one of the X-Men who have gone off and done a lot of different things," Gillen explained. "There's also a sense that S.W.O.R.D. is simpler than the X-Men at the moment. It's a little weird to think that Beast's life is so complicated right now that the idea of working for a secret interplanetary organization and dealing with thousands of aliens races on a daily basis is simple, but that's the case."
The romance between Beast and Brand will be a big part of "S.W.O.R.D." "When I and my editor Nick Lowe first talked about this book, we definitely saw the idea of an adventuring couple as being significant. For me the heart of this series is Beast and Brand's relationship," Gillen remarked. "They could, of course, split up sometime, but right now the way I'm writing this series is that it's about the two of them discovering each other. They're a fledgling couple and they don't really know each other yet. How much can they trust each other?
"That's a lot of the emotional juice of the series because Brand is prickly. It's far easier to get together with her than it is staying together with her. 'I need you,' are not words that easily fall off her tongue," Gillen continued. "I think there's plenty of soap opera and human elements in 'S.W.O.R.D.,' and they're present in a very natural way because fundamentally we're orbiting around a couple."
Another one of the major characters in "S.W.O.R.D." will be also be very familiar to X-Men fans. During the course of their "Astonishing X-Men" run, Joss Whedon and John Cassaday established that Kitty Pryde's pet dragon was far more intelligent than any of the X-Men ever realized. Lockheed was, in fact, a member of an advanced race of extraterrestrials and had been working with S.W.O.R.D. for some time. When the series, begins Lockheed is now a full-blown agent of S.W.O.R.D., but he's dealing with the effects of what happened to Kitty Pryde at the end of Whedon and Cassaday's run on "Astonishing." "The most important person in his life has been taken away. Kitty is trapped in this enormous bullet flying through space, and no one is going to get her back," Gillen stated. "I did a back up story in issue #1 with my collaborator from 'Phonogram,' artist Jamie McKelvie. It's Brand filling Lockheed in on what's happened and why they haven't gotten Kitty back yet. The story sets up why he's so furious.
"So he's fallen into an incredibly bad mood, and when you first meet him in issue #1, he's downing whiskey. The line I use with him, which is both tongue in cheek and completely serious, is that he's our Wolverine. He's an incredibly bad tempered creature who will do whatever it takes to get a job done. He's showy, snarky, and rude almost all the time," Gillen continued. "I don't play things completely straight though. It's also quite funny. There's something intrinsically interesting for the team's hard case to be a tiny, fluffy dragon who would sear your head off because he's in a really bad mood."
Another established Marvel character that will play a huge role in "S.W.O.R.D." is Henry Peter Gyrich. Gyrich first appeared in a 1978 issue of Avengers where his ill temper and rigid attitudes about national security made him the team's most unpopular government liaison. Since then, he's popped up in numerous Marvel comics throughout the years, usually in some sort of governmental - and not entirely ethical - role. His most recent appearances were in "Avengers: The Initiative," where he headed up the Shadow Initiative, the U.S. Government's superhuman black-ops team. When "S.W.O.R.D." begins, Gyrich has a new jobas co-commander of "S.W.O.R.D." He brings with him a number of ideas that could impact lots of lives in negative ways, yet Gillen doesn't see Gyrich as evil.
"Evil is a big word. Gyrich's not evil, but what he might be is overly simplistic and under-prepared. You can't say his heart is in the right place, either, because he's awkward and slightly vindictive. Really, though, his aims are the exact same as Brand's. He just wants to go about things in a way that cuts straight to the chase. He's brought into this organization he doesn't really know much about," Gillen remarked. "That's a running theme, that Gyrich doesn't really understand S.W.O.R.D. as well as Brand does, but he believes in 'big stick' solutions to problems. He lacks a certain empathy. He doesn't think about what happens to the aliens that his plans affect. All that matters is that the Earth is safe."
Another prominent character in "S.W.O.R.D" is Agent Brand's reptilian adviser, Sydren, who first appeared in "Astonishing X-Men" #10. "He's a telepath, and he's one of Brand's supporters. And S.W.O.R.D. isn't the world's biggest organization, but it is pretty sizable. I haven't got enough space to show all of Brand's adjuncts and helpers, so Sydren kind of embodies almost everyone else at S.W.O.R.D.," Gillen said. "He's put upon, but he's also resilient and competent. Also, the way I'm writing Sydren, he's quite... sappy, might be the word. He worries about the other characters. In the first issue, he's reaching out to Lockheed, who is downing a bottle of Jack Daniels at the time. He's an alien, but in some ways he's one of the most human members of our cast."
Rounding out the cast of "S.W.O.R.D." is a character that Gillen created, an enigmatic robotic life form named Unit. "I describe him as a cross between C-3PO and Hannibal Lecter. He's a robot that has to be kept in isolation. He's very friendly and charming. He's interested in what you're up to, but if he had his way he'd probably skin you and wear you as a hat," Gillen explained. "He's quite dangerous to have around, but the fact that he knows so much stuff makes him useful. So they keep him locked in a cell.
"He's meant to be mysterious. How did he get into this situation? What's he up to? How come he knows all this stuff even though no one is allowed to talk to him?" Gillen continued. "Issue #3 will feature Unit's origin sequence as told by him, and we're setting up some antagonistic stuff with him down the line, because he's clearly not a good guy."
The first storyline of "S.W.O.R.D." is called "No Room to Breathe" and unfolds over the course of a single fast-paced and drama-filled day. "The big concept is that Gyrich decides to push for a plan that forces all of the aliens living on Earth to go home. You'd think Brand would be trying to stop this, but since she's a complete micro-manager, she's run off to deal with another situation that's arisen. That allows Gyrich to get a head start on his program. That's the heart of the story. They're forcing aliens off Earth, and what is Brand going to do about it? Especially since she's half-alien!
"In addition to that, there are all these little plots that Brand has to deal with before she becomes embroiled in Gyrich's scheme. This arc is called 'No Time to Breathe' because the idea is that, in space, no one has time to breathe, the vacuum doesn't matter," Gillen continued. "I wanted to convey the idea that when things go bad for Agent Brand and S.W.O.R.D., they happen very quickly. The whole arc goes from crisis to crisis. Some of them are diplomatic, some of them involve beings trying to unscrew Brand's head from her body."
Gyrich's plan to evict all extraterrestrials from the Earth means that the initial arc of "S.W.O.R.D" will be jam packed with guest stars. "This is a global scale story about all the aliens on Earth being forced home. So we got almost any alien we could find, and even though most of them are just making what amounts to a cameo appearance, I wanted those scenes to be meaningful," Gillen said. "In the second issue, there's one sequence where there's eight different arrests which we show in one spread. So you can extrapolate how these aliens were taken down. I think you need to do that to show the global scale. I can't just say that they're arresting aliens. I've got to show to show a variety of arrests in different forms so it pulls at your emotions and is meaningful.
"There's a larger scene with Marvel Boy which I really like. He's fun to write and he's a very interesting character," Gillen continued. "I've got this scene with Warlock of the New Mutants in issue #3 that quite hefty and challenging to write as well."
Gillen also worked in an appearance by a character that should be quite familiar to fans of the Marvel UK line of comics from the late '80s and early '90s. "In the initial arc, Agent Brand's half brother shows up, and he's being chased by a bounty hunter. I'm quite into the new, so initially the bounty hunter was going to be a new character. Then I thought, 'There's already a perfectly good established Marvel character that I can use. Whenever you give any writer a series, it's almost a guarantee they're going to bring back some character in a minor role. And me being a British guy of a certain age, it was fun to bring back Death's Head I. He's involved in a splendid fight scene in the second issue," Gillen explained. "I brought back Death's Head I rather than any other Death's Head, because he's a time traveling, dimension skipping robot, so there's no reason not to. I did mention it to Simon Furman, the creator of Death's Head, that I was bringing the character back. To be polite, I asked him, 'Would you mind if I do this?' And he was very amused."
Gillen is extremely pleased with the way that his "S.W.O.R.D." collaborator artist Steven Sanders has brought to life Death's Head and the other technological elements of the series. "Steve impresses me. The first major book he did was 'Five Fists of Science' with Matt Fraction, a series that featured Nikola Tesla. And in many ways Steve is like Tesla. He's this obsessive scientific genius who draws incredible technology. He gives me all these cool techno gadgets, and I'll run off and do something with them," Gillen stated. "And he's always asking, 'Can I do this?' and I'm like, 'Yes.' There was a scene in a prison corridor, and he asked if he could draw it like the prisons in 'Tron', where people are walking above them. I thought that was great. Steve is not afraid to give us a feast of visuals.
"His style is also very interesting," Gillen continued. "It's a mix of cartoony and realism. He's done some expressive scenes which I just adore. So I have a book with great emotions, and Steve does great robots."
Gillen also wants to examine the role "S.W.O.R.D" plays in the larger cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe, and eventually hopes to have his cast interact with characters from "Nova" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." "This is a book about what happens when space hits Earth. Conceptually, "S.W.O.R.D." is about stuff that people on Earth never really deal with. All these invasions are actually happening, and before the Avengers are called in, S.W.O.R.D. is out there seeing if they can deal with them first. They have this responsibility, and I'd love to do something with the cosmic books, because they're great books," Gillen said. "'S.W.O.R.D.' can touch on stuff that's tangential to those epics... like, for example, what's happened to the refugees from some of these major space wars? So, there's room for S.W.O.R.D to do all these different stories, because it's a book that takes place on the border between space and Earth. It joins these two big parts of the Marvel Universe together. You can gain energy from both."