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Shipping Out: Slott Talks “Avengers: The Initiative”

by  in Comic News Comment
Shipping Out: Slott Talks “Avengers: The Initiative”
Avengers: The Initiative
“Avengers: The Initiative” #20, in stores January 2nd.

At the end of Marvel Comics’ landmark “Civil War” series, the United States government found itself with an army of superhuman soldiers. Writer Dan Slott and artist Stefano Caselli were tasked with chronicling the adventures of the newly formed super powered army in the pages of “Avengers: The Initiative.” 20 issues later, Slott has written his final issue of the series and is leaving it in the capable hands of his co-writer Christos Gage. CBR News spoke with Slott about his final issue as well as some of his favorite moments from issues’ past.

“Issue #20 is just non-stop, virtual-water-cooler moments. There’s so much going on. You’ll read this issue and once you put it down you’re going to be on the Internet talking back and forth with everybody, going, ‘Oh can you believe Hank Pym did that?'” Slott told CBR News. “Or, ‘Oh my god they revealed Mutant Zero’s identity! Can you believe that Mutant Zero is this character?’ We finally unmask Mutant Zero.”

Slott knows that now that Mutant Zero’s identity is out, “Initiative” readers are going to go back and re-examine the clues to the character’s identity that he offered up in various interviews. “You can follow my cryptic clues to the letter of the law and go, ‘Wait a minute! He lied to us!’ Nope, the exact wording of the things I said was correct, but it may have led you down the wrong path. It’s like when we had three Scarlet Spiders running around in the series and I told people that we would reveal the identity of at least one of them in issue #7. We revealed all three,” Slott explained. “So, there’s been a lot of word play, some misdirection here or there, but I’ve played completely fair. I’ve seen the way some people have taken the hints and clues I’ve given and extrapolated them, gone down wrong avenues, and misquoted me. Everything I’ve said though in my original comments is bang on. To the letter.”

Now that “Secret Invasion” is over, the way the alien Skrulls used Camp Hammond, the Initiative’s training grounds and headquarters, as a beachhead for their invasion force is causing many Marvel Universe residents to reevaluate and reexamine what’s been said about The Initiative program. “Not only was Camp Hammond the beachhead but people are going to find out that the Initiative program was a pivotal part of the Skrulls’ master plan,” Slott remarked. “So what’s that going to mean for the future of the Initiative? Chris Gage is going to answer that question by taking the story in some pretty cool places.”

Issue #20 of “The Initiative” also finds the command structure of the program practically decimated. Iron Man has been dismissed from the program, War Machine has gone off to pursue his own agenda in his own series and Hank Pym was revealed to be a Skrull.

Post “Secret Invasion,” the real Pym’s back. And he’s discovered a number of horrible things have happened in his absence – number one being the death of his ex-wife Janet Van Dyne AKA the Wasp. “In ‘Initiative’ #20, Pym’s grief over her death causes him to do something that some might find shocking.” Slott stated. “Jan should be dead but yet in this story Hank is having dinner with her. So it’s like, what has he done now? Has he lost it? Has he cloned her?

Pages from “Avengers: The Initiative” #20.

“This is a story I’ve wanted to do ever since Brian [Bendis] laid out ‘Secret Invasion’ and we knew Hank was going to be a Skrull,” Slott continued. “I said to Brian, ‘Here’s a story I’d love to do once the invasion is over. It’s this and this.’ And he went ‘That’s really good.’ So I’ve had this in my pocket for some time. Before the first issue of ‘Initiative’ ever came out.'”

“Avengers: The Initiative” #20 isn’t Slott’s first story involving the real Hank Pym – the writer penned an eight page framing sequence with the character in “Secret Invasion: Requiem.” Nor is it the last time Slott will be writing Pym. The character is a major player in his upcoming “Mighty Avengers” run, which begins with issue #21 of that series. “The chronological reading order for Hank’s story is ‘Mighty Avengers’ #20 [a story written by Brian Bendis which had Pym attending the Wasp’s funeral], ‘Initiative’ #20 and then ‘Requiem’ which leads into ‘Mighty Avengers,'” Slott explained. “You’re not going to lose anything from reading them in a different order though.

For readers looking to enjoy the entire tapestry of what Slott has planned for Hank Pym, “The Initiative” and “Requiem” are nice primers but they’re not mandatory reading material. “If you want to see a richer, big picture, all three will give you a deeper look,” Slott said. “But each one can stand on its own. And, yes, you can jump right into ‘Mighty Avengers’ #21 raw and still be in for a great ride.”

Hank Pym isn’t the only character leaving “The Initiative” with issue #20. The issue also finds a number of characters shipping out to other series. “You’ll get a couple of members of the new Skrull Kill Krew heading out for the upcoming ‘Kill Krew’ mini-series. And one of our characters goes over to the new Thunderbolts team,” Slott remarked. “We also have just enough time to mention that War Machine has left the team as well.”

“Initiative #20” isn’t just about characters leaving. It’s a story about how the rest of the characters in the series cope with – and wig out over – their experiences in combating the Skrull invasion. “We’ve got a sequence which artist Steve Kurth told me is the second most messed up thing he’s ever had to draw. I’m really pleased with that sequence,” Slott laughed. “You’re also going to see workshop sessions where people are dealing with Post Skrull War Traumatic Syndrome. There’s all kinds of goodies and freakout moments.”

One of the bigger freakout moments in Slott’s “Initiative” run came in issue #6 when Slott revealed that the comically seeming Slapstick was responsible for a vicious surprise assault on The Gauntlet, the Initiative’s drill instructor. “It came out of left field. We had to generate a story to keep on schedule and I really wanted to tell a story where The Gauntlet is beaten down by one of his recruits and the question is who did it?” Slott explained. “I remember running the story by [my editor Tom] Brevoort. He was liking it and then I hit him with ‘It’s Slapstick!’ and that was the moment I got him. You don’t often get Tom. He was like, ‘Okay we’re doing this.’ I was really happy with the way that issue turned out.”

Pages from “Avengers: The Initiative” #20.

Slapstick was a big presence in issue #6, but most of Slott’s “Initiative” run has focused on new characters, many of whom he’s come to love. “There were certain characters that I knew right away were going to be my favorites, like Cloud 9. I always knew her story was going to start with her as the girl who loves to fly and by the time I was going to be finished with her story she was going to be the girl hiding in a cloud with the barrel of a sniper rifle protruding from it,” Slott revealed. “The minute we hit that visual in the ‘Secret Invasion’ issues I was like ‘Okay here we go!’ I was so happy. So I kind knew her journey and it was fun getting her there. I can’t wait to see where Chris takes her next.”

Slott wasn’t able to predict the paths of all his new creations, though. “The character who surprised me the most was Trauma and it was when he decided to use his power as a healer. I didn’t see that coming. That just organically happened,” the writer explained. “I always knew he was Nightmare’s son, which we finally revealed in the latest ‘Avengers: The Initiative’ Special, but I didn’t know he was going to go that way. It’s always neat when a character goes in a different direction than you thought.”

The writer was also surprised by how much fun it was to write some of the new characters, like one of the Initiative’s chief scientists, the former Nazi supervillain known as Baron Von Blitzschlag. “He was a substitution. In my heart of hearts I wanted Arnim Zola, the crazy Nazi scientist to be working with Hank Pym down in the labs and being the Werner Von Braun of the Marvel Universe. I couldn’t get him [Ed Brubaker was using the character over in ‘Captain America’] so I had to create a Nazi scientist, and in getting to make up his background, we started having lots of fun with him,” Slott said. “One of the gags I always wanted to do, but couldn’t because we had so many characters, was a done in one Blitzschlag story with a flashback to one of his WWII era adventures when he was in his prime as a Nazi supervillain.

“The whole framing sequence was going to be that even though Arnim Zola is over there working for the Red Skull and Baron Von Blitzschlag is over here working for the Army, they had a secret channel where they could talk to each other in private for their monthly chess game,” Slott continued. “It’s like, ‘So you’re vorking for the Red Skull, Ja? How iz that going?’ and Arnim Zola is, ‘Vunderbar. How iz it vith the U.S. Government?’ To which the Baron replies, ‘Ve’re building super soldiers! Queen to Bishop five.’ That would have been so much fun [Laughs].”

Some of the lesser known or more “cult” established characters that popped up in “The Initiative” surprised Slott with how fun they were to write. “I originally took the new Ant-Man, Eric O’Grady, into the book as a favor to [Robert] Kirkman. He was afraid that if his character was laying around with no one to look after him, someone would ‘Bill-Foster’ him. If some kill-happy-creator needed a death in their book they might pop off Eric O’Grady. So he asked me to take him in like a lifeboat and I said, ‘Sure but you do realize that we’re a book that keeps killing people all the time?'” Slott explained. “I promised to keep him safe though and the minute I started playing with him I was like what a fun character! I loved every scene that we put Eric O’Grady in. He was so great.”

Pages from “Avengers: The Initiative” #20.

Slott is finished writing the characters and concepts of “Avengers: The Initiative,” their fate now in the hands of Slott’s co-writer Christos Gage. He does hope to tackle the Gauntlet again some day though, since as fans of his work know, that character is a key player in an event called “The Reckoning War.” “nyone who’s been following my career since I came back to Marvel in 2004 can see that I’ve been laying the seeds for ‘The Reckoning War’ storyline in almost every single project I’ve worked on; ‘She-Hulk’ volumes one and two, the ‘Thing,’ ‘GLA,’ ‘The Initiative and even a tiny moment in ‘Spider-Man/Human Torch.’ Down the road I would like to do ‘The Reckoning War.’

“The clues are all over the place and one of the big things is that we’ve actually seen a flash forward to ‘The Reckoning War.’ It was a three-page sequence in ‘She-Hulk’ #100 and that was the first time you saw the Gauntlet. So he’s going to be there,” Slott continued. “I’m not sure whether that means he works his way over to ‘Mighty Avengers’ or that Chris and I do a cross-over. The one thing I want to be mindful of was that I wasn’t raiding Chris’s toy box on the way out, because that would really stink. I want ‘The Initiative’ to do well and prosper and I know Chris is going to make it shine.”

Slott knows “Avengers: The Initiative” is in good hands because he feels that Gage has succeeded time and time again since he started co-writing the book with Slott as of issue #8. “I started writing ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ and that book has the craziest and most demanding schedule. I knew I needed help and Chris did an inventory issue, the one with Butterball, and I read it and thought it was fantastic. Chris really got what we were doing with ‘The Initiative.’ I’m the one who asked if we could bring him on as a co-writer, with Chris scripting over my plots” Slott explained. “That was one of the smartest decisions I ever made because I got to go to the Chris Gage school of writing and see how a pro does his scripts. That was such an education for me.”

The Slott-Gage partnership comes to a close with “Avengers: Initiative” #20, featuring art by Steve Kurth. but only for now. Readers shouldn’t be surprised to see the two creators reunite in the future. “I totally want to work with Chris again because we had such a nice rhythm going and I learned a lot from him. He’s a consummate professional. Seeing how he’d generate a script and the different versions of it was like, ‘Oh that’s how you do it!’ If it wasn’t for that experience of working with Chris I don’t think I’d be secure enough to be ready to do both ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ and ‘Mighty Avengers’ by myself. I would not be in this better spot if it weren’t for Christos Gage.”

Looking back at his entire experience on “Avengers: The Initiative,” Slott feels nothing but happiness and gratitude to everyone helped him make the book into something he could be proud of. “It was a great experience. Working with Stefano! Wow! And Steve Uy, Harvey Tolibao, Steve Kurth. Everybody. And the opportunity itself. It really opened up the mainstream Marvel Universe to me. Before that I was working on ‘Cult books’ like ‘She-Hulk’ and ‘Thing’ and it was really just a case of, ‘Here’s an idea for a post ‘Civil War’ book. What do you think?’ And Editorial’s reaction was, ‘Great! Do it!'” Slott stated. “One of the biggest helps of all at the start was Brian Michael Bendis. He approached this and said. ‘Why don’t we call the book ‘Avengers: The Initiative’ ?’ and I was like, ‘Thank you! There’s an extra 20 K right there!’ He didn’t have to do that. That was him being a mensch. Brian’s a very supportive guy!”

“Avengers: The Initiative” #20 is in stores now from Marvel Comics.

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