OFF TO WAR: Slott & Gage on “Avengers: The Initiative”

Final exams can be tough, but for the cast of Marvel’s “Avengers: The Initiative,” they can be downright lethal. In the series’ current storyline, “Killed In Action,” the latest crop of Initiative cadets are about to graduate from Camp Hammond, the Initiative’s headquarters and training ground, and become full fledged heroes. But in order to do so, the cadets must face the murderous onslaught of a former member armed with one of the most dangerous weapons in the universe.

And as a graduation present, those heroes who do survive will have their mettle tested even further by the invading Skrulls.

CBR News spoke with co-writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage about their Initiative cadets and their plans for the series.

“Killed in Action” kicked off in last year’s issue #8, when a clone of the late Initiative cadet MVP was fitted with the Tactigon, a mysterious alien weapon formerly wielded by another cadet, Armory. The MVP clone dubbed himself Killed in Action -- or KIA -- and set out to murder anyone it believed had a hand in the original MVP’s death. Previous issues had established the Tactigon only seemed to work for the heroic Armory, but now with the vicious KIA using the device to cut a bloody swath through the Initiative cadets and staff, many readers are wondering about the true nature of the device.

“For a person with the right mindset, the Tactigon will give them whatever they need to get the job done,” Dan Slott told CBR News. “Of course, the person wielding that tool still has to use it in the right way. Just because someone has the best weapon doesn't mean they're going to win the fight. As far as that person's motivations go, who says KIA is immoral? Who says he isn't justified in his actions? Just throwing that out there.”

In “The Initiative Annual” #1 and issues #9-10, readers learned the Tactigon was connected to the mysterious weapon wielded by original Initiative drill instructor The Gauntlet. When “Killed In Action” wraps with issue #11, readers will have more answers about both devices, but their true nature will remain an ongoing mystery. “It's an ongoing mystery all right, but not for just this book. For the entire Marvel Universe,” Slott remarked. You can read almost any book or mini I've written for Marvel in the past four years and find hints and clues.”

“Killed in Action” comes to a conclusion in “Avengers: The Initiative” #11, on sale April 16, a big issue that guest-stars The Mighty Avengers. The book may also feature some fatalities. “No one in the Initiative is safe!” Slott warned.

“And it'll have a lasting impact on a number of characters -- one way or another,” said co-writer Christos Gage.

Assuming they survive their encounter with KIA, Justice’s team of AWOL Initiative cadets -- who, like their leade,r are also former New Warriors -- will continue to be a presence in “The Initiative” and possibly other Marvel titles as well. “I have been having a lot of late night gab sessions and e-mails with another Marvel writer about their title,” Slott teased.

When “The Initiative” began, Dan Slott was the sole writer of the series. A few months in, Slott found himself busy wrapping up his celebrated run on Marvel’s “She-Hulk” and preparing to begin his work on the revamped “Amazing Spider-Man,” so editor Tom Brevoort asked Christos Gage (“The Authority”) if he’d be up for writing a fill-in issue of “The Initiative.”

“It was a really good script! [Gage] nailed the feeling the team's been going for on 'The Initiative’ perfectly,” Dan Slott told CBR News. After reading it, we decided to try Chris out scripting over my plots on ['Avengers: The Initiative Annual’ #1]. I liked working with Chris so much; I asked Tom Brevoort if we could bring Chris on full-time.”

“I had a lot of fun working on the annual, so I said I'd love to, and our first true co-production was #8,” Gage said. “My solo issue will run as #13, and it'll be the exception, not the rule. Henceforth it'll be both of us writing every issue, unless one of us gets sick or something.”

It was the unique cocktail of plot threads, characters, and character dynamics that made “The Initiative” such an irresistible assignment for Gage. “It's like one of my all-time favorite comics, the 1980s 'Suicide Squad,’ in that it takes characters that otherwise might be shoved to the background and lets us put them in the spotlight,” Gage explained. “We have a wonderful mix of characters with cult followings, like Ant-Man; villains, like Taskmaster; and brand new characters being introduced at a time when new characters are a hard sell in their own solo books. The bonus is that we also get to use big name characters, like War Machine, Yellowjacket, and the Mighty Avengers, who show up in #11.”

In Gage, Slott found not only a co-writer to help him with the heavy lifting of the book, but a kindred spirit as well. “He totally geeks out on all the same Marvel-ish stuff that I love,” Slott said. “We can gab for hours about the all the wacky minutia of the Marvel U. Sure, we each have our favorite corners to explore -- he's WAY more into Moonboy and I'm WAY too into Moon Knight. But across the board, we're pretty much on the same wavelength.

“And, personally, I love the speed we're working at. I have a fun time leaping into an issue and plotting -- but I agonize over the script. Chris, on the other hand, can tear into a script like nobody's business! If you know your nursery rhymes, it's a very 'Jack Sprat’-like situation going on here.”

The first year of “Avengers: The Initiative” comes to a conclusion on April 30, as issue #12 hits stores and sees Initiative architect Iron Man furiously confronting Camp Hammond personnel for answers. “There has been a lot of, shall we say, questionable activity at Camp Hammond, from cloning to cover-ups to having an ex-Nazi on staff. Tony wants to know exactly what's been going on and why,” Gage explained. “It would be hard to say more without getting into spoilers.”

Issue #12 also marks the surviving cadets’ graduation into other super teams around the country. Slott revealed future issues will check in with the survivors and their various teams but Camp Hammond and its residents would also continue to be an important element in the series.

Gage’s solo “Initiative” issue, May’s #13, focuses on what happens to current Initiative drill instructor, Taskmaster, when word gets out to his fellow villains about his latest job. “There are some villains who think he's a sellout and want to make an example of him,” Gage said. “To his own mind, Taskmaster is doing what he's always done -- using his skills to make money and looking out for Number One. His feeling about the Initiative is that it beats jail. But if a better offer comes along, who knows what could happen? “

In the climax of “Secret Invasion” #1, the Skrull agent impersonating “Initiative” cast member Henry Pym (aka Yellowjacket) revealed himself when he shot Reed Richards. The event has sent some fans to their “Avengers: The Initiative” back-issues and trade paperbacks looking for clues as to how long the shape shifter has been in place.

It would seem that one definite clue came in an early issue, when Initiative cadet Trauma used his powers to create an image of Henry Pym’s greatest fear: that Pym would somehow lose control and physically batter his ex-wife Janet van Dyne, The Wasp. But Gage cautions readers to not make too much of this scene just yet. “Given their ability to avoid detection by telepaths, it's possible some of the Skrull agents actually possess the thoughts and memories of those they imitate,” he said. “But for definitive answers, you'll have to wait a little while!”

Readers won’t have to wait too long. June’s “Avengers: The Initiative” #14 begins a six-issue storyline which ties into “Secret Invasion.” “Skrullowjacket is a major force in the 'Secret Invasion’,” Slott confirmed. “If you want to see everything he's up to, you better keep an eye on 'Avengers: The Initiative.’”

“Skrullowjacket” isn’t the only Skrull within the ranks of the Initiative. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, new recruit Aubrey Thompson aka The Crusader is also a Skrull, but his feelings about the Invasion are more conflicted. “'Conflicted’ is an understatement,” Gage remarked.. “We've already seen that he's lying to the Initiative, who assume he's just a super-powered human with shape-changing abilities. But where do his true loyalties lie? Does he even know?”

“In his original appearance in the Marvel U, we've seen that Crusader really likes Earth,” added Slott. “He likes our TV shows, our junk food, you name it. .Much of 'Secret Invasion’ is about a war on culture. In the case of Crusader, it's a case of American/Earth culture already winning one of them over. But is that enough to make him turn his back on his own people?”

“The Initiative’s” tie-in to “Secret Invasion” will include many characters but the only major players Slott and Gage could reveal were Crusader, Skrullowjacket, and the new 3-D Man, who some Avengers fans might remember from when he operated as the hero Triathlon. “For now, that's all we're saying. But whooooo boy, have we got some good stuff in store for you!” Slott remarked. “We've got some characters showing up that Marvelites have been clamoring for! And the return of a classic cover-worthy Avenger! An Avenger's Avenger! It's going to be sweet!”

Telling a six part tie-in to a major crossover is no easy task, which is why Gage and Slott are thankful for the hard work of their other collaborators. “[Artist] Stefano Caselli and [colorist] Daniele Rudoni as well as the ever-patient [letterer] Joe Caramagna -- rock,” Gage proclaimed.

Slott agreed, “Oh God, yes! We've got the best bunch of guys on this title!”

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