Montclare Crowns the "Chaos King"

One being in the Marvel Universe knows what absolute nothingness feels like, and to him it feels like home. His name is Amatsu-Mikaboshi, the Japanese god of Chaos and Darkness and before there was a universe, the entirety of existence was composed of Mikaboshi floating in a formless void. Ever since then, he's been attempting to return things back to that state.

Writer Michael Avon Oeming and artist Scott Kollins introduced readers to Mikaboshi in their 2005 "Thor: Blood Oath" miniseries, where Thor and the Warriors Three battled the dark god for possession of a powerful magic sword. Mikaboshi next reared his head in the 2006 "Ares" miniseries by Oeming and artist Travel Foreman where he began his quest to purge all of existence by trying to annihilate the Olympian Gods. The scheme was unsuccessful and led to Mikaboshi's imprisonment by the other Japanese gods. In the 2008 "Incredible Hercules" storyline, "Sacred Invasion," the Japanese Gods released Mikaboshi so he could serve on the God Squad, a group comprised of deities from the various Earth pantheons tasked with destroying the gods of the invading Skrull Empire.

The God Squad's mission was successful, but had the unfortunate side effect of placing Mikaboshi in position to achieve his ultimate goal. Once the Skrull gods were destroyed, Mikaboshi was left in their reality to take control of their army of slave gods, crowning himself the "Chaos King" and immediately setting out to make himself stronger by expanding his army and enslaving gods from pantheons across the Marvel Universe. In October, the Chaos King arrives on Earth to kick off the "Chaos War" in an attempt to wipe out all of reality. But how did he become so powerful and why does he feel the way he does? Those questions and more will be answered in November's "Chaos War: Chaos King" one-shot from writer Brandon Montclare and legendary artists Michael William Kaluta. CBR News spoke with Montclare and his editor Mark Paniccia about the project.

CBR News: Brandon, You're probably best known to comic fans as an editor on DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, but you're also a writer, having published a graphic novel through TokyoPop a few years back. How does it feel to have landed your first Marvel writing assignment?

Brandon Montclare: It's an amazing thrill to work on a Marvel book. Everyone in this business is a fan of comics; everyone in this business can point to someone else in this business who went out of their way or took a risk to give them a shot. The faith Marvel has shown in me with "Chaos King" is hugely appreciated. My editor on the book, Mark Paniccia, was supportive of some general pitches I was throwing his way. "Chaos King" was his idea - he wanted to provide readers with a spotlight on the big bad in "Chaos War." It started as a short-feature, in fact something for Marvel's online comics. I gave him a few angles on what I thought could make cool little tales. He liked one so much, it expanded quickly to a 22-pager and now it was going to be printed. But I guess Mark was missing some of those earlier pitches, too, because it expanded again to an oversized issue, this time with three distinct chapters hitting most of my original ideas. And then the book exploded even bigger - not with more pages but with the addition of Michael - fucking - Kaluta (whose actual middle name is William).

As you'd expect, it's enormously validating for me after switching gears from editing to writing and the support has not just come from Marvel, Mark and Michael. John Denning has been an enthusiastic and quick-minded assistant editor. "Chaos War" writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have been uncannily gracious and beyond essential.

And you are correct! I wrote "Private School" for TokyoPop in 2005 and maybe a half-dozen back-ups for artists that the publisher was interested in breaking in. I was an editor there as well. At the time, I was leaving the company but unsure where life was going to take me. My wife and I landed back home in NYC, where I was hired by Bob Schreck. When Bob left DC, I worked for a bit directly under Karen Berger. I love editing - I hope to do more of it in the future. Leaving DC was incredibly hard, but life intervenes again. My wife had a child (our first) last summer, and the flexibility of freelance writing was a chance to spend more time with the family. So - here I am!

It sounds as though you're delving into the mind of Amatsu Mikaboshi himself with the one-shot. What did you find most interesting in your explorations of what makes the Chaos King tick?

First it's best to mention the challenges: Mikaboshi's pretty much an unknown quantity for a lot of fans; his powers are not very defined; he's got a solid carved mask, so communicating with facial expressions is mostly out; he only speaks in haiku, so dialogue is handicapped. So what makes him interesting - and I'm totally stealing this philosophy from Paul Levitz: he's an unknown quantity; unknown powers; a masked man; speaks only in haiku. I try to use these weird ticks as the foundation for a compelling character. He's a mystery. An entity that was here before anyone - or anything - else and some of his attitudes and motives will always be alien to us. While we see him as a villain, he doesn't see himself as such. Without giving too much away, he is a kind of sentient entropy - to the Chaos King, creation is completely out of control. He prefers peaceful oblivion to the hard struggles of existence as well as the constant fear of death faced by gods and mortals alike. I pulled from a lot of media influences: he's part Dr. Manhattan from "Watchmen," part Thomas Ligotti anti-hero and even parts of the three nihilists from "The Big Lebowski"!

We've only seen Mikaboshi now and then since the "Sacred Invasion" arc of "Incredible Hercules." Will we find out what he's been doing during all that time in this one-shot, or does this story unfold over a shorter amount time? Also, how important is the setting to this story?

The one-shot covers the time from right before and then up into the action of the "Chaos War" miniseries. It's linear and doesn't go all the way back to Mikaboshi's origin - and that shit's all the way back, to before the big bang. Fans of Hulk and Hercules know that Mikaboshi has been out in space, conquering alien deities, enslaving them to build his Earth invasion force. The first chapter of "Chaos King" shows us in detail the last of these battles, as Mikaboshi takes down the gods of Zenn-La. (Who once before would have encountered a destroyer of worlds, wouldn't they have?) Chapter Two is an interlude above Times Square the night before Mikaboshi attacks earth. That spot nicely represents everything he hates: unbridled variety, life and existence. It's where he violently encounters probably the most powerful - and definitely the oddest - of the Fantastic Four's adversaries. The last chapter takes place in Hell and ties directly into the "Chaos War" miniseries. By the infernal glow, we glimpse that maybe Mikaboshi has a point: is it compassionate to put the eternally suffering out of their misery? Of course, Mikaboshi thinks everyone, everywhere is eternally suffering.

To me. as a writer. the setting is, of course, extremely important. I'm very conscious about crafting a tale that can only take place in a specific setting. If you can easily swap out these things like they're uninspired 2-D theater backdrops, you're squandering a terrific storytelling tool. Going deeper into my specific motivations, I also wanted locales that would excite Kaluta. He got to create the Cosmic Plane of Zenn-La. That's a little bit like Dr. Strange's Astral Plane, but retro-futuristic sci-fi a la "Metropolis." Both Michael and I are New Yorkers, so while Times Square is a well-know intersection, I think you'll see an amazing authenticity he brings to it. And as much as Michael loves sci-fi, he's loved for his fantasy work - the demons and flames of Hell are going to be so hot that you'll think he sold his soul to the devil in order to draw so well.

In terms of plot and theme, what is the one-shot about and who's perspective did you choose to tell it from?

In simplest terms, "Chaos War" is a classic Marvel mythological adventure: Thor, Hercules and other gods are the focus. As these things often are, the story is about the end of the universe. The "Chaos King" - the villain in this event - is Mikaboshi. He's had mixed allegiances over the last few years in the Marvel Universe. He was on the side of the heroes in "Secret Invasion" - perhaps reluctantly - but since then, he's been preparing for galactic conquest. His goal is to end it all - to return creation to the void state of preexistence. Creation stories - where the universe is brought to order from the original Chaos - are common in a lot of cultures. Mikaboshi wants to go back to before all the "In the beginning" stuff. In doing so, the sacrifice is identity, anything that defines and separates us all into individuals. He doesn't see this as particularly megalomaniacal or even suicidal: in the Marvel Universe, he was the first self-aware being, living in the void before anything was created. He thinks chaos is the natural state, as opposed to the strife and noise and constant struggle it takes to make it anywhere in the world. But the question is: can the Chaos King go home?

"Chaos King" is told from Mikaboshi's perspective - but he's a tricky character with which to communicate. He thinks weird - it's established he talks only in Haiku meter - so in the writing, I set him against a very different character in each of the three chapters. Three characters that are quite strange (and powerful) in their own right. In opposing these three foils, and especially in their reaction to him, the reader will pick up everything that winds up the Chaos King and makes him go.

It's a dark story. Some people complain about there being too many dark comics out there - I don't agree with that evaluation, but I see where it's coming from. But the focus of "Chaos King" is a villain; it deals with the undoing of creation and horrific dark powers. Heavy issues - but not ones that call for an abundance of viciousness or brutality in the storytelling. What is necessary to the story, however, is to show Mikaboshi as a bona fide existential threat. The title character - from the reader's perspective and the perspective of everyone in the Marvel Universe whether they are friends or foes - is a force that will test the limits of what we know as Heroism. But I'll also add as a personal philosophy: there's no story worth telling unless it has a dose of humor.

It sounds like your story features some established Marvel Universe characters, but I assume that it also features quite a few new faces as well.

Again, I don't want to give too much away. But if the Chaos King wants to destroy everything, that's going to get the attention of a lot of people! We've got a very large cast in the one-shot. There's quite a few established characters making appearances, some Easter eggs and a handful of new characters - one in particular - a God of Zenn-La - plays a major role.

It's a challenge to write, but even more of a challenge to draw. Michael has tremendous experience in so many different areas and genres - sometimes it's difficult to rein in being a fan. So when the script calls for a new god to be designed, or when I'm thinking about what obscure character fits the tale, it pops into my mind in big letters: Kaluta is drawing this.

Speaking of Michael Kaluta, what's it been like working with an artist of his stature?

Working with Michael is a dream come true. Not just my dream, it's anyone's dream! When I suggested we hire Michael for "Madame Xanadu" last year, Matt Wagner - a guy that's done it all in comics - nearly shit his pants in excitement. Michael's just such a force. Those five issues of "MX" got him an Eisner Award nomination for best artist. At that same award ceremony, Michael is inducted into the comics Hall of Fame! He's Superman; a living legend.

He's bringing his best stuff to the Chaos King. Every page is a work of art - I really mean that. It's very thoughtful and very thorough. The book has all the strengths of illustration - the masterful beauty that's always been Michael's hallmark - while working pitch perfect as sequential art. It's a unique flow and you can tell he really cares about the story. And again, it all plays to his strengths. Interesting characters and very fertile settings and no shortage of action. There's hand-to-hand combat between gods and there's sweeping battles. In all, it's a showcase for one of the greatest artists to have graced comics and he's at the top of his game.

Michael is the type of artist who enjoys a dedicated fan base. So we'll have a few readers check out the book who wouldn't normally go for a Marvel event, and there's sure to be some fans of Hulk, Hercules and Marvel in general picking up the book that might have heard of Kaluta, but never really experienced his artwork. All I can say is that everyone is in for a visual feast. As an editor, I've worked with some top creators on books that weren't just popular, but also, I hope, worth remembering. Of course I'm biased, but Michael's stuff in this issue is so searing, it's sure to leave a mark.

Any final thoughts you would like to share about Chaos War: Chaos King?

Only that I hope it pleases the fans. All of the creators and the people at Marvel have been really enthusiastic about bringing them this tale. These are some dark times in the real world - even if it's only that a lot of us wish we had some more scratch in the pocket book. Before I ever worked in editorial I was a retailer at a comics shop. While I don't have to pay for a lot of my comics anymore, I never forget that the fans do. I also know firsthand that you can't buy everything - and if you're paying for a one-shot spinoff, you expect it to deliver. We jam-packed this issue with a lot of great stuff and it gives you some looks into hitherto unknown corners of the Marvel Universe. It's a really fun ride, so I hope to see a lot of people get on board!

And now a quick word from editor Mark Paniccia:

After Brandon left Vertigo he had pitched me some shorts and they were all very good, but as with anything, timing is a big factor. There are periods that come along, like con season or end-of-quarter publishing, where it's just impossible to set aside time to develop new talent. But when we started discussing the "Chaos War" publishing plan and we decided to do an 8-page intro to our villain, our conversations with Brandon just kept leading to more awesome ideas, from a battle with the gods of Zenn-La on the cosmic plane to Times Square and then to the fiery pits of Hell. These were all things too cool not to be told and I was super impressed with Brandon's script and creativity. And Michael Kaluta's involvement was key. He's taken these insane concepts and articulated them in such a brilliant and imaginative way, it's easy to see why he's one of the industry's greats.

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