JMS Talks Timely about "The Twelve"

J. Michael Straczynski has done it all. The legendary writer has garnered an Eisner ("Amazing Spider-Man"), an Inkpot, a Saturn, two Hugos and three Emmys ("Babylon 5") and at a very young 53, JMS has multiple comic, TV, radio and film projects in the works. He's even had an asteroid named in his honor.

Straczynski's re-launch of "Thor" has been a critical and commercial success for Marvel Comics, and the writer's next major sequential art project for 2008 is the 12-issue maxiseries "The Twelve," featuring a roster of do-gooders who haven't saved the world – let alone the good, ol' U.S. of A. – since the Golden Age of comics. "The Twelve" is illustrated by famed British artist Chris Weston ("Swamp Thing," "The Filth," "Fantastic Four: First Family") and debuts in January.

But who are The Twelve?   JMS recently shared his thoughts on his team of re-worked Timely Comics heroes with CBR News and started with a simple response on the book's title.

"Twelve characters, twelve issues, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," J. Michael Straczynski told CBR News.

In selecting his roster, Straczynski asked Marvel for a laundry list of unused characters that hadn't been seen or heard from in more than half a century, and simply picked his favorites. "[Editor] Tom Brevoort, knower of all things Marvel, gave me a list of, I think, 20 or 25 characters," Straczynski explained. "I went through them carefully, researching each one individually, looking for characteristics that might make for good combinations and good conflict.

"I eventually opted for splitting them into three groups: the typical super-hero/scientifically created hero like Captain Wonder, Dynamic Man and Electro; those with a touch of the supernatural such as Black Widow and Master Mind Excello' and those I classified as 'tourists,' heroes with no powers, just a cool costume and a .45 caliber such as The Phantom Reporter and Laughing Mask.

"This gave me a really good cross-section of the kind of heroes you had back then."

Rounding out the roster are Blue Blade, Fiery Mask, Mister E, Rockman and Witness.

While JMS didn't acknowledge any correlation, it should be noted Captain Wonder, who appeared in only "Kid Komics" #1-2 in 1943, boasted super strength and possessed "the strength of 12 men."

The Twelve will not be depicted as a team, per se, but as heroes who were captured as a group during the final days of World War II in Berlin, Germany. "It was strictly luck of the draw in terms of who got picked up," confirmed Straczynski.

The Twelve were put in cryonic suspended animation until the present-day, when a construction project in Berlin inadvertently revived them. JMS said he chose cryonics instead of a time machine or a wormhole because, "I wanted something that at least looked like reasonable technology for the period. People have been talking about the possibility of cryonics for ages, the first known mention being in a letter by Benjamin Franklin wherein he wondered if it might be able to suspend human life in this fashion.

"Time travel is so unique and so specific and so in advance of technology at the time that it would take some serious rubber science and coincidence to explain it happening once, let alone twelve times. This way it felt more realistic."

In terms of the story and its raison d'être, JMS revealed, "After the first issue, a murder mystery is in place, at which point a lot of folks will be saying, 'Oh, he's just doing "Watchmen,"' which could not be farther from the truth. I use that crime as a means of looking more closely at the comparison between the 1940s and today, to see what we've gained and what we've lost as a people. There was much to commend about the 1940s: a booming economy, national optimism, unity of purpose and a lot that was not commendable about it, as well: sexism, racism, ethnocentrism.

"There is also much to be commended about 2007: fair strides in civil equality, new technologies, a better sense of the world stage. And again, a lot not to be commended: terrorism, the erosion of civil liberties, the loss of national optimism in the face of systemic cynicism, and the devaluation of the human being singular.

"Bringing these characters forward allows me to look both ways at those periods of time."

Straczynski says the beauty of 12 issues and 12 characters gives him plenty of pages to explore these classic figures and construct or in some cases, deconstruct their origins.   "I also wanted to re-imagine their origins in ways that are absolutely true to what was created back then, but cast in just a slightly different way that would be more acceptable to a contemporary audience," explained Straczynski. "Nearly everyone has a secret, something he or she is running toward or from. One character, to maintain his public identity of a socialite, had to conceal his Jewish heritage and pretend to be gentile to fit in with and be admitted into the 1940s country club set, a decision that 50 years later still haunts his family.

"We do roughly one origin per issue."

Picking a favorite character is like picking a favorite child, but when pressed JMS said a few did rise to the top. "The Blue Blade is just an outrageous character, but there's also something very sad and wistful about him at times," remarked Straczynski. "I love writing Captain Wonder and Black Widow, but probably the favorite is our point of view character, the Phantom Reporter, since I get to spend a lot of time in his head."

And while Dynamic Man keeps trying to establish himself as the team leader throughout the run, JMS says Captain Wonder comes closest to being the heart of the team in many ways.

"They're really just trying to figure out where they fit in this new world, and who to fight, why, and where," said Straczynski.

And once The Twelve have figured out where they fit in this "new world," the creators at Marvel will have a whole cast of new characters to spin-off into their own titles. "I can easily see most of these guys being viable candidates for their own books.   But not everyone will survive," teased Straczynski.

As for Straczynski's other project at Marvel, a little ongoing title you may have heard of called "Thor," the book is dominating the sales charts like only an Asgardian should. "It's been astonishing and gratifying," said JMS of the book's success. "The total I saw the other day for #1 is now over 200,000 sold and that's quite amazing," said JMS. "The second and third issues have remained in the top ten, much to everyone's astonishment, given that these are the quiet issues that set up the action to come."

When asked to confirm if there was big action to come for Oklahoma's new favorite son in 2008, Straczynski simply answered, "Yes."

JMS also told CBR News, he plans to bring back "Dream Police," which is on the cusp of being optioned by a major studio, as well as getting back into "The Book of Lost Souls."  

"Beyond that, it's mainly a matter of continuing on with 'Thor' and doing the occasional special project for Marvel," said Straczynski. "I don't know if I want to take on any other monthly books for a while, I'd rather find something limited I want to write, write them all, get them drawn, à la 'Bullet Points' and have them come out systematically that way."

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