When Rick Remender and Mat Broome debuted "The End League" at the beginning of 2007, their take on a desperate group of superheroes making a final stand in a world ruled by villains met with immediate critical success and an enthusiastic readership. The Dark Horse series enters its second arc this month with the publication of issue #5, arriving in stores this week. With the new storyline comes a new artist, a new monthly schedule, and, well, a few less surviving heroes than when the series began. CBR News spoke with Remender and incoming series artist Eric Canete about what's coming up in "The End League."
The first arc of "The End League" introduced readers to a world in which the bad guys had won in a big way, with Earth's few remaining heroes searching desperately for a way to turn the tide. The descent into chaos began more than forty years ago when Astonishman, Earth's original and foremost hero, was tricked by archnemesis Dead Lexington into destroying an alien ship, and the resulting radioactive "Green Event" led to one out of every thousand people on the planet developing super powers. Of the gifted, far more chose to use their powers for evil rather than good. When the hordes of villains joined together against the heroes on the "Day of Annihilation," Astonishman led the survivors to safety in his Citadel of Seclusion, where they remained sequestered from the world for 12 years, regrouping and searching for the one weapon that might turn the tide of war in the good guys' favor: Thor's hammer. But when the team finally emerged, they were greeted with defeat on multiple fronts, as their secret Citadel was destroyed and Astonishman died in battle against Thor himself. Also, there's an angry god called Nargor'ri on its way.
If that sounds like a lot of destruction for four issues, that's not even half of it. And Remender suggests that things only get worse from here.
"The first arc of the series was intended to serve as an introduction to this large cast while establishing that no one of our cast is in anyway safe. No one," Remender told CBR. "That’s why I wanted to open on Astonishman and let everyone get to know him and the world he created before watching him die. The book should never be predictable. Those are the kinds of stakes that make the book interesting I think, you have no idea who is next, but someone is next. These guys are at the end. There is no other way to walk away from the story in first four issues.
"When I started cooking this book up, a couple few years’ back, the thing that got me excited was the telling of the last days of the last super heroes on an Earth overrun by villains. That should feel desperate. That should feel hopeless. They are so badly outgunned if it looks at all simple for them I’ve failed. So, yeah, this truly is the final stand for these guys. This is it-- find the hammer of Thor or everything is lost."
With the universe of "End League" established in the first arc, the writer is now looking forward to the next phase, where "the story is just now able to really open up and take off." "You know the characters; the stage is set, now I can get to the meat of things,” Remender said. “The team has been broken apart and scattered across the world. There are only three remaining cities and our three small bands of heroes will have to go to each one of these places in hopes of finding the hammer, or a clue to it’s actual whereabouts.
"We’ve got one team trapped in the Smiling Man’s City of Lore, the island of Los Angeles. Another stuck in New York with a badly injured teammate, and something is happening in the Berlin Dome run by the ruthless Wolfsangel. I’m spending a good deal of time in this arc exploring Soldier American and Codename Black. We see some origin stuff that plays into their current missions. The Nargor'ri clock is ticking away as well."
Remender indicated that despite several heroes discussing the need to inspire hope amongst a downtrodden world population, "very little" hope actually remains. "It really is the end of the road for humanity. The environment is polluted, the food supply is very low and carefully controlled by Dead Lexington, and tribal super villains are everywhere warring and behaving generally barbaric," he said. "Mjolnir is only one power that could turn this tide and save Earth. Three villains all claim to hold the hammer, but none of our heroes has any idea where the hammer actually is. So this is the last mission, they have to go out into this terribly dangerous world, into the last places any of them should be-- the villain’s cities. If they get the hammer, if one of them has an altruistic heart and the hammer will work for them, and if they can then defeat the forces of Dead Lexington, Wolfsangel, and the Smiling Man before preparing for the coming of the galactic demon Nargor'ri -- then sure, there is some hope."
“The End League” #5, shipping this week, begins with a flashback to World War II, where the villain Wolfsangel trains his boy soldiers. One of these soldiers rebels. Remender suggested that there is more to this character, but would not reveal what role he might play or confirm whether this is someone readers have seen before. "There is a bit of deception happening with one or two of the characters," the writer revealed. "This origin sets up where Wolfsangel came from (the past) as well as giving us an intro to a new character we’ll be meeting soon. Is he a hero? I guess you’d have to define what that means. He is a good person who doesn’t want to hurt others, but he’s been the subject of years of experimentation at the hands of Wolfsangel and well, he emerges a bit changed."
The deception Remender mentioned has already begun to surface, or at least there have been hints that not all of the End League's heroes possess the "altruistic soul" necessary to wield Mjolnir. As revealed in issue #4, in a scene between Divinity and her kin in the Greek pantheon, there may be some dark secrets in the End League heroine's past. "We will get more clues" about Divinity's secrets, Remender said. "Her origin won’t come around till the third arc but she plays a big role in the story, as do the remaining Greek gods. Nargor’ri recently wiped out the Norse gods in Valhalla so they are off the table. With Nargor'ri on the way things don’t look good for the folks on Mount Olympus or Earth."
Remender also hinted that the third arc would "really get into the god stuff," with Odin playing a significant role.
The focus of "The End League" #5 shifts away from the grim events of issue #4 to follow our heroes' struggles against two of the three major villains, though Dead Lexington's presence is also felt. The Smiling Man and Wolfsangel both find it in their interests to boast ownership of Thor's hammer, but, being bad guys, it's very possible that one or both of them is lying. "Yeah, we now have three major lord/villains and each claims to have the hammer. Guess it would be too easy if there were just one clear objective," Remender said. "The Smiling Man is not what he appears to be, there is a big reveal coming up there. Codename Black works to infiltrate the Smiling Man’s carnival island city is the last bit of Los Angeles. The oceans have risen and LA is little more than a 4-mile by 1-mile strip of island surrounded by ocean. The entire island is an insane carnival world. Once I got Black and some of the other team in there I stuck around for a while. It was a very fun place to write. Neither villain’s objectives are entirely clear at this point, there are some reveals coming up in regards to what they’re up to."
Looking down the road for the rest of "End League's" second arc, Remender said the various stories he's set in motion will start to converge. "It’s all there for a reason," the writer said. "I set up a lot of history in issues #5 and #6 that pays off in issues #7 and #8. I think we have a nice solid hook with the new status quo we’re left with after issue #8. However, it is hard to give all the characters enough stage time. Team books are a real bitch to write. I have things I need to accomplish but I also allow my focus to be dictated based on how much fun I’m having writing the most. If I’m having a blast writing Black or Prairie Ghost in a scenario, I’ll go through the rest of the issue and shift or cut to give them more stage time. Black definitely becomes our focus hero in arc #2."
Joining "The End League" full time with issue #5 is artist Eric Canete, who illustrated the last few pages of #4 and takes over from original series artist Mat Broome. "Eric is my kind of artist. We both have animation background so clean and smooth storytelling is paramount to nerds like us," Remender said. "We talk on the phone for a few hours every week dissecting the best way to hit reveals and emotional beats. We’ve been working very closely on fine-tuning all the story stuff and it’s paid off in huge dividends. I back this issue with everything I’m worth. If you don’t like issue #5 of 'The End League,' then you don’t like my writing. I guess I’m trying to say I’m proud of what we’ve done, if I didn’t hit you over the head with that enough."
Canete seems equally enthusiastic about his new gig. "I wish I could encapsulate it all in one word so as to hit the perfect balance that Rick has put into each issue I've worked on thus far; the stories are fun, engaging, completely insane in their scope and splendor, and a pleasure to draw," Canete told CBR. "I haven't worked on too many comic book projects in my professional career, but I have to admit this has been one of the most rewarding both artistically and collaboratively."
The artist admitted to a level of inexperience in the comics field, but is enjoying the challenge of adapting his animation skills to the related but not quite equivalent tasks associated with the medium. "I feel like the guy who doesn't know that iTunes is the way to go - that vinyl is past tense," he said. "I'm still dealing with turntables, you know? Then guys like Joe Casey [writer of "Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin," Canete's previous series] and Rick Remender come along, give me some rousing speech that I can indeed do it for a living, and being the fool that I am, I agree to do these projects. In the end, they regret ever asking me and curse my name profusely. And then some hapless fool comes along and starts the process all over again. It's a vicious cycle. Haha!”
In seriousness, Canete loves comics. "I love storytelling in general and comics are the form of storytelling I grew up with, so that's naturally the thing that I thought I'd want to do for a living. And all kidding aside, I'm just so very lucky that the gentlemen I mentioned above ask me to come along and contribute to whatever they're working on. It has been a real pleasure and quite the privilege."
As to the challenge of adapting to a new art form, Canete noted that most of the differences between comics and animation have to do with pacing and the methods of progressing a story. "The one thing about animation, about moving pictures, is the timing. You're going to see the story exactly as I dictate it to you: one scene and one frame at a time," he said. "It may not make sense to some, but that's important to the pacing and overall delivery of a story. Drama, action, whatever. In comics, there's a page with five panels and the reader can see the whole thing as it happens - even before it happens! There's no way to isolate a reveal when the page has all five panels on the same page or to dictate the pace of a fight scene since it's all still images. It's a constant push and pull for me as a storyteller. But because of that, to be an illustrator in comics is a practice in precise and specific storytelling. You have to be very lean and very smart about your shot selection because you only have 22 pages to work with. Clear and concise images that communicate the idea to the reader; to me, that's what's great about comic books and that's the challenge that keeps bringing me back to panel to panel work."
Canete revealed that he has already had the opportunity to design some new characters, and may even tweak the look of some heroes and villains we've seen before. "I have a tendency to design with a high level of iconography in mind," the artist said. "In the case of these new heroes that Rick has created, I wanted to give them their distinct identities by giving them a specific silhouette. I need them to read in as basic shape as possible so that even they're shaded in complete black, the audience will know who that character is. That's my animation background sneaking in, I guess. But I genuinely think that's a legitimate rule of thumb when it comes to design; strong exterior shapes and outlines, then expanded upon with all the little details of interior shapes and lines."
The artist was also tasked with creating a twisted look and feel for the City of Lore, the ruined island formerly known as Los Angeles now ruled by the Smiling Man. "The City of Lore, or as I call it, 'Clown City,' was a challenge at first. But after I figured out the formula of how to make it read as this insane amalgamation of a cracked out Las Vegas mixed with psychedelic neon circus, design elements fell into place pretty easily," Canete said. "You'd have buildings shaped like those marquee big top circus tents and then you'd have rail/transport systems mimicking some ridiculous roller coaster arches - things like that. You infuse that with a color palette that sort of parallel the Smiling Man's personality and it somehow all works.
"These days, as far as environment designs go, to try and do something that looks absolutely perfect--something those that borderlines on schematic drawings of buildings--that would just be so boring for me. I looked at old Kirby comics recently--as a matter of fact, most of the comics that are collected in those 'Essentials' trade paperbacks--and I realized that he drew things that sort of looked like reality, but not exactly. [Kirby and his contemporaries] drew enough to spark some sort of familiarity from their audience. I liked that idea and I used some of that in [‘The End League’].'"
Asked about scenes in upcoming issues he particularly enjoyed drawing, Canete revealed a bit of the twisted creative process he and Remender share. "Well, I just got off the phone with Rick this past weekend and asked him if I could enhance one of the scenes he wrote to include a scenario where Black and Arachnakid fall out of the sky and then slam through a giant condom bus--that is, a bus that's manufactured out of Plexiglas in the shape of a giant, clear condom on wheels," the artist explained. "That's sort of ludicrous and kooky enough to work, right? Rick said, 'I dunno... but maybe if the bus was filled with a bunch of Sperm Cult passengers, that would work!'
"So, yeah. There's that scene."
Fans eager for the next installment of "The End League" now have a shorter wait between issues, as the series shifts from a bi-monthly to a monthly schedule with issue #5. Remender said the more regular schedule made him feel “great," and that he had been disappointed by the earlier decision to publish every other month. "It's fairy well established that bi-monthly is a slow road to ruin," the writer said. "Fortunately, the book's sales have held and are stellar so all this can do is help."
Remender continued, "Issue #5 is one of the best books I’ve ever been associated with. I couldn’t be more proud of a single issue I’ve written, Eric Canete is an art-god and we both killed ourselves on this. If you’re a fan of the series you’re in for a treat; if you haven’t tried the book then issue 5 is a perfect jumping on point."