In 1994, Milestone Media released a comic book radically different from the rest of its primarily African-American superhero lineup. Titled "Xombi," the series focused on the immortal Korean-American David Kim as he investigated the supernatural, the occult and the downright weird for 22 issues. In 2011, DC Comics released the first issue of a new "Xombi" ongoing series, written by original creator John Rozum with art by Frazer Irving, fresh off his run on "Batman and Robin" with Grant Morrison.
Prior to the first "Xombi" series, Rozum wrote several "What If" stories for Marvel and was pitching original comic book ideas to various companies, all of which were turned down for being, in Rozum's words, "too weird." The writer's big break with Milestone came when Dwayne McDuffie, an old friend and RA from college, contacted Rozum and brought him onboard. Their collaboration resulted in "Xombi," a series that quickly became a cult hit. Originally drawn by J.J. Birch (and Denys Cowan, for the inaugural issue #0), after Milestone folded into the DC universe David Kim all but disappeared for years, returning in an alternate reality during "Infinite Crisis"and appearing for the first time in the DC Universe proper in "Brave and the Bold" #26. Now, "Xombi" and Rozum are back, incorporating David Kim, nuns and all, into the DCU.
CBR News spoke with Rozum about the new series as well as the changing role of minorities in media since the '90s, the original superhero premise of the comic and the surprising similarities between "Doctor Who" and "Xombi."
CBR News: The last issue of the original "Xombi" series was released through Milestone and DC Comics in 1996. How did this new "Xombi" comic come about, 15 years later?
John Rozum: Dwayne McDuffie and I had been looking for a way to bring it back over the years, obviously unsuccessfuly for one reason or another. I had a long-range plan for what I wanted to do with the book and we both thought it was a shame that that never happened. When DC started to introduce the Milestone characters into the DC Universe, "Xombi" ended up being one of the first books picked. A lot of people thought it was a strange title to launch with because it wasn't one of their four primary characters from Milestone: Static, Icon, Hardware or the Blood Syndicate. This is actually an example of fans making their voice heard and getting their wishes. Over the years, I've gotten more mail and email about "Xombi" than any other project I've worked on. Apparently, people had also been writing into DC asking for them to bring it back, and that's what made them choose it. As well as the fact that the area "Xombi" covers is something that's not really being explored in the DC Universe right now.
"Rozum and Irving's "Xombi" #2 is in stores this week
Tonally, "Xombi" feels less like a standard superhero book and more like a Vertigo title. Was there ever talk about launching the book through Vertigo?
During the times we were thinking about bringing it back, Vertigo was one of the ways we thought about going. In fact, during the original series, one of the obstacles "Xombi" had was that people who liked the Vertigo books wouldn't touch it as they perceived it as a superhero comic, and people who liked superhero comics wouldn't touch it because they felt it was too Vertigoish. It was a bit of a struggle back then. With bringing it back now, I had suggested Vertigo because I thought it might have a better chance of finding its audience for those same reasons. But the feeling was Vertigo has "iZombie" and they didn't want the confusion, and again, they really wanted to use "Xombi" to exploit the supernatural aspect of the DC Universe, which wasn't getting much attention. So that's why it's in the DCU.
You said you had long-range plans for "Xombi." Does this mean the new series will pick up storylines where the '90s series left off?
In the new series, for the first storyline I didn't pick up where I left off so much as I wanted to create a storyline that could welcome readers who had no familiarity with the old series. So I came up with a whole new story that bridges the gap a little bit. It wasn't a story I had planned to write before, thought I actually had roughly outlined the whole thing to about issue #120! [Laughs] But I thought about what needed to get across to understand the character, where I wanted David Kim to start off and end up at the end of the storyline and what other characters from the old series I wanted to bring in.
So the answer is yes, I'm continuing with what I have done before, but you should be able to pick up any issue in this first storyline and feel like you can follow it without having to read what's gone on before.
For those unfamiliar with "Xombi," tell us a bit about David Kim.
David is a medical researcher for a company that does a lot of offbeat science-y health regeneration: looking for ways to grow transplant organs, etc. One aspect of the company researches nanotechnology, little tiny microscopic robots that take one substance and break it down into its molecular components to make something else. In the original storyline, a villain, Dr. Sugarman, looked into David's research and it resulted with David being mortally injured while his research was stolen. In a desperate attempt to save his life David's research assistant, who was a close friend, injected these nanomachines into his body to repair the damage -- and his body devoured hers as replacement material. Now, David can't die. His body is constantly repairing anything wrong with him, it keeps him at what it determines is his ideal physical condition. Which means he stays at a particular age and weight, though weight changes if conditions merit that. There's a Hanukkah issue that never saw print, with art by Guy Davis, where David was out in the cold and his body produced fat for him. But he can't get sick, drunk, any of those things.
One of the things David is learning to do is take those nanomachines in his body and break down and analyze external material and then have the nanomachines reproduce that. The first time we saw this ability was in that Hanukkah special, which nobody saw except for maybe five people! [Laughs] It was also supposed to happen in what was the last story of the original run, but since it was the last story, I thought it best not to introduce anything new. I left the series with the idea that, hopefully, the old stuff will all be gathered together in trade paperback at some point, including the Hanukkah special, so it'll seem like there is continuous flow to his abilities.
In issue one, we see David hanging out with Chet. Will David's attempts to reconnect to his non-super powered friends continue to be part of the character?
Yes, that's an ongoing storyline and is really the character focus of the first six issues. He recognizes that his place in the world has changed, but he's not ready to abandon his friends and move on. It's really important to him to have the reality grounding that his normal friends represent. Also, the supporting cast became, I felt, necessary to a comic where you never have to worry that something is going to happen to the main character. He can't die. So I needed to surround him with characters you cared about that you did have to worry about! I also think having him torn between these two worlds makes him a more interesting character.
To touch on that other world, where do Nun of the Above and Catholic Girl come from?
Don't forget the new one, Nun the Less, who shrinks! [Laughs] When I was putting together material for the original series, it occurred to me that if you had adventures going on in the supernatural world and assumed that the supernatural world is real, most likely various religions would also have their own agents investigating this stuff. So I came up with a few, Nun of the Above and Catholic Girl being two of them. There's Rabbi Sinnowitz, who travels around with a couple of golems and who will be in issue two. I had never seen that idea done anywhere else and it just seemed like such a natural thing to have in there. I wanted David to be a stand-in for the reader, where the readers are learning things just as David is. Since he doesn't know what is going on, I wanted to have more experienced characters who could tell him so the readers could pick up the information.
Since you have religious orders involved in the series, do the monsters they fight also derive from specific religions?
Not necessarily. I don't have any planned that are specifically religion-based. I try to treat them all fairly and not make any comments on any religious basis whatsoever. I feel if I start doing that, then I'm choosing which religion is right and which isn't; if I pick something specifically from Christianity or Islam, I'm saying that this world leans more towards that one being the "correct" religion. I want it to be equal opportunity! I don't want it to be specific to one religion or one mythological background, whatever you want to term it. That aspect can come into play, but it is not the driving force behind it.
Who is Roland Finch?
He's the main villain on this, and he comes in issue two. I try to avoid the usual villain thing of wanting to conquer the world. That just seems really impractical -- what do you do once you've done that? That's a management issue, and who would want to take that on? So I try to have them think up more reasonable things they want. In the original series, Dr. Sugarman felt like the world was going to come to an end and he was looking for a way to speed up human evolution, so he went after the nanomachine project. The monster characters weren't evil, they were hungry and people are really easy to catch and eat. The motivations are more real.
Roland Finch falls into that category. He is a guy who has superiority issues; if he sees something and he wants it, he thinks he's more deserving of having it than the person who actually does own it. He comes to take over something that's very important to the storyline, and another character comes to take it back. He's very manipulative and he's somebody who plans everything really far in advance. Some of the difficulty catching him is that he knows people are going to try and catch him, so he thinks of where people will got to find them and leaves a trap there. And if it takes 20 years to get sprung, that's OK, because somebody will eventually spring it.
Do you have any inclination to give David a more traditional arch-nemesis?
I think David's worst enemy is himself. He's sort of a tragic character. With his powers and his decisions he ends up doing some pretty horrible things along the way that he'll have to atone for. The potential for him to be a dangerous weapon or person is there. He has unlimited power, and we'll find out that these nanomachines, which can think enough to keep his body in perfect physical condition, how much thinking are they doing, and what's the ratio of his cells in his body to the machines. David's archenemy is his body and his powers. There will be villains -- Dr. Sugarman will be back at some point.
Because part of the idea of "Xombi" is to exploit the supernatural elements of the DCU, will we see Zatanna or other magical DC characters crossing over?
There's a couple of them that show up in issue two. Issue two will show how I plan to handle incorporating all of that into "Xombi" and vice versa into the DC universe.
Originally, David was supposed to be African-American superhero. How did he end up being the Korean-American nanotechnology guy?
In the original story, he was African-American. I think his name was David Saunders and he was a medical researcher who was looking into folkloric traditions of using plants, so he was a pharmaceutical guy. After his grandmother was gunned down in a drive-by shooting, he took an herbal remedy that gave him the same powers he has now, and it became revenge-driven. Sort of a Punisher story where the Punisher could get his arms chopped off and they grow back. I realized coming up with story ideas that after about issue six, we were going to get to this point where it would be, "Alright, how do we creatively kill him this time?" [Laughs] If I can't remain interested in him, there's no way the audience will keep reading it! I went to Dwayne with those concerns and he agreed with me. He said, "Do whatever you want with it; you've had all these great ideas that other publishers have said were too weird, so why don't you do some of those? The only other stipulation is that he's Korean-American now." That was fine with me, so I came up with what I wanted to do with it, and that's how it became "Xombi."
David Kim is one of the few Asian characters in comics to have headlined his own book. Since the first run of "Xombi" at Milestone, do you think mainstream comics have gotten better at including minorities, or are things the same?
I think that outside of Milestone and the industry as a whole, nothing changed during those years or after those years. I think we're seeing the same ratio there's always been. Characters who are not white still tend to show up as supporting characters or guest-starring characters or minor characters on a team, except for Mr. Terrific. It's something that is still not being addressed. I'm not Korean-American and I don't feel I have any difficulty writing a character who is, so I'm not sure why everybody is still writing and drawing white characters. The people who are Korean-American who have come up to me at conventions have all been very pleased with what I've been doing. The only negative comment I got was that they thought David should be lactose intolerant! [Laughs] I pointed out it wouldn't matter to him now, anyhow. But everybody has been happy that he doesn't know martial arts! He's good at math, that's about the only stereotype he has.
We live in a world and a country that's very culturally diverse. I lived in Anne Arbor Michigan for a while, and my kids were going to a school where 38 languages were represented. I think there's an audience that can be found, though it's not being found. I know Dwayne McDuffie and the Milestone guys started [Milestone] because they loved reading comics and they got really excited when there was a character that looks like them. I definitely think the comics aren't any more diverse than they were twenty years ago.
You've compared "Xombi" to "Doctor Who" before -- can you explain that?
I grew up watching "Doctor Who." I remember, when I was really small, it gave me this feeling of power because my babysitter hated it because she thought it was really scary. I didn't think it was scary, I thought it was really cool. I realized, watching the new show while I was working on the new "Xombi" series, that there are similarities, like the tone. "Xombi" is not completely serious at all. There's a lot of self-deprecating humor in the comic where it pokes fun at what's going on. "Doctor Who" crosses all sorts of boundaries of genre. In many ways, it's the ideal storytelling medium because it has a time machine that can go back in time or to any planet, so there isn't any sort of story you can't do. I liked that about it, so I think a lot of that carried over. As well as the idea that nothing was too crazy or far-out or ridiculous to tackle.
Do similarities to "Doctor Who" translate over to the structure of the ongoing series? Will each story arc see David take on a "monster of the week?"
I'm more character oriented than plot-oriented, though this first "Xombi" story is definitely on the plot end of things. Usually I approach storylines by looking at where David Kim is at the end of the previous storyline and thinking about where, developmentally, I want to get him by the end of the next one. If you start with the old series and read through it, his character really does go through a lot of changes. So far it's been how he's accepted the fact he's not a normal person anymore, and like we were talking about earlier, the story is figuring out how he can still stay in his normal life. As this first six-issue arc goes on, you'll see stuff in there that supports this idea of figuring out where your home is, even with some of the supporting characters. The monster of the week thing is me going, "Well, what can I bring into this issue to help him get there?" My goal overall is to do five or six issue arcs and then break it up with one or two issue stories that might focus on Catholic Girl or some of the other characters.
Because your work is so character-oriented, do you think the cast has fundamentally changed between the first "Xombi" series and now?
I tried not to let that happen. That was the thing I was most worried about in coming back to it. I'm not the same person; my writing has changed in the sixteen years since I did that. I was worried I would not be able to go back and make it feel like the sixteen years hadn't happened in-between. Because I had a clear idea of how I wanted David to develop all the way to the very last story, that part of it is easy to go back to. The thing that was most interesting is, in the first issue, they're in Chet's apartment watching a Blu-ray player on a huge flat screen TV. Well, if you go back with something that was supposed to take place a week earlier in the original series, you get his VCR and tiny television! [Laughs] I was worried about how jarring those things would be, but it ended up working out pretty well.
Touching on the story once again, so far we've got David and the Nuns investigating the release of a supernatural convict. What can you tell us about where the story goes next?
I'm interested to see what the reaction is going to be between the first two issues. In the first issue there was a lot of stuff thrown in there, lots of new ideas. Issue two is more of a linear narrative than the first issue. It moves the story forward. We find out what the motivation really was with this prison break and why Julian was so concerned about the prisoner in the Green House escaping. David's off on his own for a while, and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing will remain to be seen. It does bring in Rabbi Sinnowitz, and he and the Nuns will hook up and go find David and help him out. It's more of an action issue than we've had so far.
It's kind of weird; I'm not big on writing fight scenes! [Laughs] I'm more interested in the characters and what moves the characters forward. Having a lot of hitting and so forth isn't what I like to do, though there's a lot of that in issue two and three. It takes away a little bit from getting to know the characters, but I felt having the fight scenes in there shows physically what David's abilities are. So all those people who complained in the first issue that the only real action was David swinging the lamp at a creature made of negative space, they'll get more action!
Not to mention Nuns with guns!
It made a great cover! [Laughs] I had fun coming up with cool things for the Nuns to do. I wanted them to be characters people latched onto, not just because they were Nuns with bad puns for names, but because they were cool characters.
Frazer Irving is the book's artist, and he's doing an amazing job. How did this collaboration come about?
When I started thinking about what I wanted to do, a variety of artists came to mind. As I got more specific with the story, Frazer's artwork came to mind more than anyone else, and I said, this is the guy I want. I didn't think I was going to get him. It turns out Rachel Gluckstern, who is editing the series, also had him as number one on her list, so we just asked him. He was really intrigued by the concepts and he said yes. It's been a really wonderful collaboration and his work looks fantastic. I get really excited when I see an email from him with art attached to it!
Finally, since they were instrumental in keeping interest in the series alive, what would you like to say to your fans?
Besides "thank you?" [Laughs] I'd like to say it's a lesson they should hold onto. Any books they are interested in or like they should support them, pass them off to friends. People should absolutely not wait for trade paperbacks for anything, because if the month-to-month book does not sell well enough, they are not going to get a trade paperback. I recognize trades are the preferable way of reading things, and I fall into that category as well, but I think it's important to keep supporting the comics that they love.
Make sure to spread the word and let the comic book companies know these are the series they like. Really write in to them! If you take the time to mail in a letter through the US Post Office, it shows you care enough to let them know this is a book you want. It has an impact. I was suspicious of that until I was affected by it with "Xombi." Be supportive, you don't want something to go away just because you didn't take the time to let the powers that be know you liked it!