Talking Comics with Tim | Christos Gage

A few weeks back, while I was in the midst of finalizing this email interview with Marvel exclusive writer Christos Gage, Marvel was kind enough to share preview pages from Gage's Avengers Academy 7 (set for release this Wednesday, December 15). I contacted Gage to discuss the appeal of going exclusive with Marvel, his work on Avengers Academy;  his collaborations with Mario Alberti; the Invaders Now miniseries; and his love of letters columns--as well as juggling myriad assignments along with his video game writing.

Tim O'Shea: In terms of the life of a freelancer, how less stressful is it when you gain an exclusive contract as you currently have with Marvel?

Christos Gage: Well, as any freelancer will tell you, a big part of your job is lining up future work. So knowing that I am guaranteed work from Marvel is a load off my mind, allowing me to focus less on nailing down that next job and more on making the stories I'm writing the best they can be.

O'Shea: With Avengers Academy--while the students are the core of the series, it's the instructors that offer almost as much interest for me. For example, I love your use of Quicksilver. Was it your idea to have him in the cast, or how did he get added? Are there certain eras of Quicksilver history that appeal to you and fuel your approach to the character?

Gage: I asked for Quicksilver because I thought he fit in perfectly with the theme of the instructors being Avengers who have flawed, checkered pasts. Avengers Academy is meant to be a place of redemption for student and teacher alike. Just as the best counselors for people trying to stay off drugs are recovered addicts, the Avengers Academy teachers are people who've been down some tough roads and come back. Quicksilver was a teen villain, then a teen hero. He was raised to be a terrorist and grew to be an Avenger. My favorite point in Quicksilver history is when he first joined the Avengers…he did this incredibly heroic thing in terms of breaking from Magneto, and putting himself out there in front of a world that hates and fears mutants…but the whole time he was constantly backseat driving and second-guessing Captain America, of all people! Now that's what I call cojones. Quicksilver is so much fun to write because he gets to say all the snarky things I want to say to people who irritate me, but don't want to get smacked in the mouth for.

O'Shea: Hank Pym is one of the most dissected characters in the Marvel universe. From your perspective, who is Pym at his core?

Gage: He's a man who is always asking questions. That's both his greatest strength and greatest flaw. It's what led him to discover Pym Particles and create his Ant-Man/Giant-Man identity, but also what let him to create Ultron and second-guess himself to the point where he had a mental breakdown. He's the kind of guy who has to take things apart to see how they work even if they might blow up in his face. I can relate to Hank a lot more than I can relate to, say, Tony Stark…I've never been a billionaire playboy, but I've put a Star Wars figure in the microwave a time or two. Hank has also made some serious mistakes in his life and faced the consequences, and come out the other side, so for him redemption is a big deal. He feels very lucky that he got a second chance, and wants to give others that same opportunity…but again, this often leads him to take significant risks.

O'Shea: As much as I enjoyed Fred Van Lente's Taskmaster miniseries, I was intrigued to read (in the letters column of Avengers Academy 4) that Taskmaster will be showing up in the book at some point. Care to share any teasers or if not, care to discuss how much you clearly have enjoyed putting hints about certain new characters' relations to existing Marvel characters?

Gage: Taskmaster is coming in issue #9, when he finally meets Finesse and we explore the question that's been teased since issue #2: whether he may be her father. And we're definitely following up on Fred's miniseries. I really do enjoy teasing potential relationships between the students and Marvel characters…while I don't want them all to be “so and so's kid” there are other ways to do it, such as Reptil's mysterious connection to the world of Devil Dinosaur, and Hazmat's parents' secretive job at Roxxon. Marvel has a rich history and I love to use it to my advantage whenever possible, though hopefully not in a way that confuses or alienates new readers.

O'Shea: It's a tough market to have a new series, so I agree with this tweet: "Working on Avengers Academy #12. In this market, a book (largely) about new characters going strong after a year is great news...thanks all!" How much is social media (Facebook, Twitter and the like) important to staying in contact with the fans and helping bolster sales. On an old school social media note, how much do you enjoy working on the letters column for Avengers Academy?

Gage: I adore the letters column - I don't get paid any extra to do it, it's there completely because, as a fan, I always enjoyed seeing the creators interact with the readers and finding out what other people thought of the stories. That said, we live in a wired world, and I think it's important to maintain a connection via social media as well. I mean, I enjoy it…it's not a marketing thing for me, as my frequent tweets about subjects like cat vomit and my copious body hair will attest. But from a writer's standpoint it is nice to be able to communicate directly with the people reading the book, as well as other creators. And it's certainly not a bad thing if people who follow me because they liked, say, AREA 10 (my Vertigo graphic novel with Chris Samnee) are moved to check out Avengers Academy too. But I'm nowhere near clever enough to market myself the way a Mark Millar is. I just put myself out there and talk with folks. If it helps sales, so much the better, but if it doesn't, I'm gonna do it anyway.

O'Shea: Your Fantastic Four/Spider-Man miniseries recently wrapped, the second miniseries collaboration with Mario Alberti of that kind. Given how the series are woven around the complicated histories of two books (in this case, FF and Spidey; in the first mini, Spidey & X-Men), how often did you find yourself almost ripping your hair out in terms of constructing your story around and capitalizing upon past continuity? Also, what are the odds you and Alberti would consider another miniseries of this type down the road?

Gage: No, you've got it all wrong…it's not hair-ripping, it's like a treasure hunt, going through old comics and figuring out where new material could fit! As far as doing another one, both Mario and I would love to…let's see how the Spidey/FF collection sells and if Marvel wants us to do more. If the readers want to see more, please pre-order the collected edition and let Marvel know!

O'Shea: The miniseries Invaders Now allows you to do some fun writing (both Steve Rogers and James Barnes together) as well as your old friend from a certain 2006 miniseries, Joseph Chapman/Union Jack. But was there a certain aspect of the assignment that really got you interested in tackling the story?

Gage: Honestly, they had me at “Invaders.” I loved that book. I still have a coverless copy of Invaders #5 that I bought when I was four years old. There's something about the Golden Age characters - the sense of history, the wartime setting - that I find incredibly cool. And the way Roy Thomas and Frank Robbins handled them, keeping the awesome aspects of their Golden Age incarnations while presenting them with somewhat more formidable villains than the gangsters and saboteurs they tended to face back in the Timely stories,, I think added wonderfully to their mythology. Also, they let me use Shuma-Gorath! And Alex Ross was calling me to ask my opinion on cover ideas! And Bill Rosemann got legends like John Romita, Sal Buscema, Ramona Fradon and Howard Chaykin to do variant covers! What's not to love?

O'Shea: How hard was it to find the right "modern" voice for the Golden Age Vision, who has a prominent role in the Invaders mini?

Gage: Not that hard. I looked at what Alex and his collaborators had done with him in the Avengers/Invaders and Torch miniseries and tried to be consistent with that. He's a little more formal than most folks, but less robotic than the Vision from the Avengers.

O'Shea: A recent tweet of yours: "Didn't know how I was gonna end this issue, then it came to me. & I love the scene. Will probably hate it tomorrow, but right now I love it." I'm particularly struck by that last part, when you put a story down for a day and then come back to it, how much do you try to revise it further versus saying to yourself: "I'm being too hyper-critical, leave it as is."

Gage: I'm not nearly the perfectionist some writers are…I know Dan Slott will agonize over a line for days! For me, it's about how it feels. Sometimes I think a scene works, but with a little distance I realize it's too melodramatic, or forced, or should be put earlier or later in the story. I definitely believe in rewriting, but I also believe there comes a time when you have to let go. And when you have good editors like I do, they often have excellent ideas, as well as being nice safety nets so nothing too cringe-worthy gets through. So after a couple of rewrites I usually turn it in, because I get to a point of diminishing returns.

O'Shea: Writing a few miniseries, an ongoing monthly and a video game, I'm curious how you break down your work day, do you spend a part of each day on each project? Or do you do comics on certain days, video game writing on others?

Gage: I generally try to write five comic pages a day, sometimes getting more than that in, and finish an issue a week. Often that leaves me a day or two in the week that I can devote entirely to video games. And video games tend to be written in smaller chunks…i.e. cut scenes, or blocks of dialogue for a given situation, that lend themselves to being worked on after I've put in my day of comic writing.

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