REFLECTIONS: "Stormwatch" and "Union Jack" with Gage

Reflections, Volume 3, Number 6

"I'm old school..." - Christos Gage

Christos Gage is a writer who is slowly but surely carving his way onto the comic scene, and very soon he'll be a superstar. He first came to my attention with the excellent, but woefully under-read, "Deadshot" mini-series from DC Comics.

"Deadshot" impressed me, but his recent work on two books: "Union Jack" (the first two issues are in stores now!) and the relaunched "Stormwatch: PHD" (which premiered on Wednesday) have affixed Gage as a writer whose work I cannot miss. Gage has revitalized the characters and concepts immensely, and the excellent art from Mike Perkins and Doug Mahnke, respectively, have taken the books to a whole different level.

Gage sat down to talk about his attempts to kill Mike Perkins, the transition between being a screenwriter and comic writer, and more.

"Union Jack" #3, Page 1

Robert Taylor: How's everything?

Christos Gage: Everything is good. I can't complain.

RT: So you are pretty much a newbie to the comic scene, right?

CG: Yeah. But I've been reading comics all my life.

RT: Would you consider yourself more of a Marvel, DC or Indie guy?

CG: At this point it's equally Marvel and DC. When I was a kid I lived in Greece for a few years and DC didn't have distribution there, at least not where I lived, so I just read Marvel books for a while. For the past 20 years though, I've been reading both.

RT: Let's talk about how you broke into the comic industry.

CG: I had been a screenwriter since 1997. It was in 2003 that I met Jimmy Palmiotti at a convention and we became friends. I was in New York for a taping of an episode of "Law & Order: SVU" that my wife and I had written and Jimmy encouraged me to have lunch with Dan DiDio. This was just at the beginning of when Marvel and DC were looking at people from other fields, like screenwriting and novels, to potentially write comics. I told Dan an idea I had, and he shared several of his, and they ended up coming together and becoming the "Deadshot" miniseries.

RT: Looking back at that miniseries, are you satisfied with the final product?

CG: I'm never completely satisfied with anything, but I am very happy with it.

RT: Let's talk about writing comics as opposed to writing screenplays. How are they alike and how are they different?

CG: There was an adjustment, but it wasn't that tough, since I was used to comics because I had read them all my life. You just have to understand the differences between the media you're working in. One of the things I had to struggle with was, and this goes for most screenwriters entering comics, is that you are used to constant motion, so you call for too many things to happen in a single panel. More than the artist can draw. I'm still getting used to that. Also, you don't want to put too much verbiage in your panel. Screenwriting is pretty economic with dialogue, but in comics it's even more so. You also have to be aware of the page as a unit rather than the scene, which is how you break down a screenplay. There should be a mini-cliffhanger at the end of each page, for example.

RT: How do you feel the industry has reacted to you on the whole? All of a sudden you are writing a major miniseries for Marvel and helping to relaunch the Wildstorm universe.

CG: If you are talking about the reading public, everyone has been really nice, for the most part. Everyone is always warning me of the Internet people, and I'm not saying every person online has loved everything I've done, but by and large they've been great. But if someone expresses dislike for something I've done, I acknowledge it because their feelings are legitimate. I don't argue with them, I just explain why I made the choices I did. Hopefully when you do something people don't agree with at least they will understand why you did it. So, knock on wood, I haven't had any major problems so far.

RT: How did the "Union Jack" miniseries originate?

CG: My first job at Marvel was a story in "Spider-Man Unlimited" #12, which was edited by Tom Brevoort. While I was writing the story he handed the editorial reins to Andy Schmidt. Andy and I enjoyed working together and met up at San Diego to talk about what we were going to do next. I was a fan of "Captain America," and we talked about doing a Crossbones book, because it went with the whole theme of doing a miniseries with a villain as the lead, like "Deadshot." But Ed Brubaker had plans for Crossbones, so he kindly suggested Union Jack instead. He knew he'd be doing a story where Cap was going to England and he was going to use Union Jack, so why not spin a miniseries out of that? It would help the character get back in the spotlight and hopefully highlight the international side of the Marvel Universe. I'm a big fan of the "Captain America" run that introduced the current Union Jack, so I got very excited about the idea.

Mike Perkins told me that he approached Andy at the Chicago Comic Convention, not knowing Andy and I were even talking, and on his own suggested doing a "Union Jack" miniseries because he is British and a huge fan of the character. He was so eager to do it he drew a sample cover to turn in with the written pitch with no assurance that he would get paid for it.

Fortunately, it got accepted. Mike had to change the costume because he'd used the costume from "New Invaders" and we decided to go back to the old costume, but other than that it was perfect - it ended up being the cover to issue #1.

RT: Now Union Jack often comes off as a poor man's Captain America, but in this miniseries you really give the character a story that only that character could tell. How did you do that?

CG: That came from Andy, who said that it couldn't be a story in which you could plug in any other hero in Union Jack's place. It had to be a story that could only be about Union Jack. So I went back to his early appearances and tried to figure out what makes this guy tick. What I found was that he had been set up as a blue collar guy, which was a big contrast to the earlier Union Jack, who was a lord and very wealthy. The new Union Jack was a commoner, and I found that very interesting and it hadn't really been delved into.

This was also around the time of Hurricane Katrina, where you saw that the people who got hit worst were the people who were more disadvantaged economically. Those themes coalesced into a story that was, in essence, an action movie that is supposed to be entertaining, but also contains themes that are an exploration of how people of different economic classes are affected differently in a disaster. For example, it came out that there had been a rumor of an impending terrorist attack on the New York Subways. Certain government-connected people called their families and friends and told them not to ride the subway on a specific day, but this was never announced to the general public, so basically you had a few privileged people getting the chance to escape a potential attack while most knew nothing about it. That ended up being an issue in "Union Jack," albeit in an altered form.

RT: Now, a lot of Marvel and DC comics are using more elongated storytelling to tell arcs of books where not much happens from issue to issue. However, in a single issue of "Union Jack" you get bridges blowing up, airports taken hostage, subways flooded and more.

CG: I'm old school. I grew up on George Perez's "Avengers" where nine-panel-to-a-page fight scenes were common. I read certain books today and think that the entire issue would have been three pages 20 years ago. I wanted to go the other way and give the readers a lot of bang for their buck. Hopefully not to the point where it feels cramped, though.

If you are asking someone to spend three bucks on a comic book, you should give them their money's worth. I try to do that.

For instance, not to get off topic, but for "Stormwatch" #1, my attitude is that you have to hook the reader with the first issue. In that issue you'll find out how the team came together, you'll find out a lot about each character, there'll be plenty of action, and by the end you will know if you want to pick up issue 2. Hopefully you will.

I don't like books where you read the whole thing and aren't even sure whether you like it or not because you aren't given enough information.

RT: And what you just said pretty much sold me on "Stormwatch." Now, back to "Union Jack." Are you also trying to kill Mike Perkins? (I asked Mike Perkins this question and he responded, "The pain! The pain! My eyes are bleeding! My arse is numb! I haven't stood up straight for 5 months! I can't feel my fingers anymore...and you know what...chances are Christos and I could be teaming up again for another project soon. I'm such a masochist...but I love it!")

CG: The funny thing about Mike is that he wanted to do a lot of action. He had been doing a lot more character-oriented stories recently, and he wanted to get the chance to stretch his action muscles. His action scenes are great.

(Mike said, "It's true - my action muscles have been stretched. My actual normal muscles have atrophied ...but my action ones have Scwarzeneggered.")

But it has been strenuous on him. Mike is fast, and can do at least a page a day. As a result, the release date of the first issue of "Union Jack" was moved up a month so it would begin the month after the "Cap in Britain" storyline ended. So originally Mike was supposed to do "Union Jack" in between arcs of "Captain America," but he ended up doing them at the same time! He's handled it brilliantly; he's done an outstanding job and I can't say enough about him.

RT: Would you like to work with him again?

CG: Absolutely. I would work with Mike on anything, and I know that he would love to do more with Union Jack. But then some fans are talking about wanting a new "Invaders" book or some type of book that focuses on Marvel's international characters with Union Jack as the leader, or something like that. I would do any of those.

RT: How are sales?

CG: I think they were between 25,000 and 26,000 for the first issue, which is profitable, but I don't know that it's enough for an ongoing book. I think the threshold for profit in a Marvel or DC book is about 20,000 copies. Most books tend to slowly decline in readership over time, so I'm not sure that this is enough for them to go ahead with an ongoing. The good news is that the first issue is completely sold out at Diamond, which is a sign of very strong reorders.

Also, the reader response and the critical response has been terrific. So if sales hold steady or even go up on the last few issues, and reorders remain strong, there is definitely the chance for us to do another miniseries. Let's face it: we are in the middle of "Civil War," which is taking up a lot of retailer's dollars, and no one knew who I was when this was announced, and Mike was the guy who was drawing "Captain America" when Steve Epting wasn't. Quite honestly, if I was a retailer, I would have ordered conservatively, too. What I'd like to be able to do is another miniseries in a similar vein, now that people have seen the first one, and see if sales go up enough to make an ongoing a no-brainer.

RT: Also, by the time the trade comes out hopefully Mike won't be known as "the other guy" on "Captain America," and you'll have done "Stormwatch," which will have sold billions of copies.

CG: Right. Plus, I'm doing the "Captain America/Iron Man: Casualties of War" special in December which should expose a lot of readers to my work.

RT: Okay, let's talk about that now. How'd you climb onboard?

CG: I was almost done with "Union Jack," and Andy liked my work on that, plus he knew I was fast and they needed it done quickly because the lead time was short. One of the things readers had been asking was, if Captain America and Iron Man were friends for all these years, why didn't they ever try to work it out man-to-man? Marvel felt that was a good point and a question that should be addressed. I know a lot about the characters' history and Andy told me to write up a proposal, and they greenlit it very fast and seemed very happy with what I did.

I'm hoping people like it. The premise of the special is that Captain America and Iron Man have a secret meeting in the ruins of Avengers Mansion to try, one last time, to work things out before more violence occurs. The book happens after the death of Goliath. It's not all flashbacks, but we do examine their shared past, and hopefully the people who wonder why such an intense conflict between them could occur will get some of their questions answered.

RT: How are you liking "Civil War?"

CG: I like it. I'm really enjoying the story, but the Marvel fan in me is really sad because it's like seeing your parents fight. I want Captain America and Iron Man to be friends. I want to see the Fantastic Four be a family. The fan in you is thinking it shouldn't be happening, but as a story it is absolutely riveting. You can't look away and need to know what happens next.

RT: Ready for "Stormwatch?"

CG: Sure.

RT: So the entire Wildstorm universe gets relaunched. We get Grant Morrison, Jim Lee, Gene Ha, Gail Simone…and you. How'd you get involved?

CG: I had met the guys at Wildstorm a couple of years ago and had pitched them an idea about a unit of the police whose job would be to find ways for normal human authorities to take out superhuman threats.

In writing police dramas for television, I've talked to a lot of real police officers, and I always ask them how real the shows are. They all praise the actors, but tell me that they don't have all those resources that you see on TV. The technology might exist, but they can't afford it. A lot of police officers still file their reports on typewriters rather than word processors, because the budgets tend to be pretty tight. That was intriguing to me, and I wanted to approach it from a superhuman standpoint. What is the most cost-effective way of taking down a person who can shoot lightning from their fingers? Or an alien? You can't afford Iron Man's armor or a laser from space, so what do you do?

Ben Abernathy told me that they were relaunching the Wildstorm universe and he felt it would make a cool idea for "Stormwatch," and I jumped at the opportunity. I'm really proud of the results. And Doug Mahnke is drawing, and he is just amazing. I hope people check it out because I'm having a lot of fun writing it and hope to keep on doing it.

RT: How long do you hope to keep doing it, anyway?

CG: I'm doing it until they pry it from my cold dead hands. I'm not even close to running out of stories. I'm old school and used to writers staying on books for a long time.

RT: How refreshing! (laughs) Are there any mainstream DC books you'd like to write or anything you'd like to tease here before it gets announced?

CG: I wrote the final issue of "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight," #214, which is a Batman/Deadshot story, drawn by Phil Winslade. The funny thing about Phil is that you write a four-panel page and he turns it into a 12-panel page. I love it. This has never happened to me, but I've heard that when you give some artists six-panel pages they call and ask to turn it into a four-panel page. Phil's the opposite - he puts in reaction shots and detail that are astonishing.

As far as any DC books I'd like to write, I'd love to do a "Suicide Squad" book if I got the chance.

RT: Ready for the lightning round?

CG: Shoot.

RT: What was your first comic book?

CG: I don't remember but the first one that I remember that I still have is "Amazing Spider-Man" #161. It was Spider-Man versus Nightcrawler.

RT: What is your favorite comic book of all time?

CG: "Days of Future Past." It's classic and I happened to read it at a time when I was just the right age. It made me a lifer. It still holds up, but if it were done today it would take 15 issues to tell the same story.

RT: If you could only write one book for the rest of your career, what would it be and why?

CG: At this point it would be "Stormwatch" because I am having so much fun and can't imagine running out of ideas, but I'd also have to say "Suicide Squad."

RT: Who would be your art partner on "Suicide Squad?"

CG: 1982-era Frank Miller, from when he was doing "Daredevil." Maybe Alex Toth or someone else who has a nice gritty style, but is a good storyteller.

RT: If you were only remembered for one thing in your career, what would it be?

CG: I want to be remembered as someone who told a lot of good stories. I'd love to be a writer whose career people can look back on and see a good, diverse and entertaining body of work.

Next week: Andy Kubert!

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