Talking Comics with Tim | Joshua Williamson on 'Captain Midnight'

Dark Horse has been making a concerted effort over the past year to develop its superhero line, with titles like Ghost, X and The Victories. On Wednesday, the lineup expands further with the launch of the Captain Midnight ongoing series, written by Joshua Williamson and illustrated by Fernando Dagnino.

I can't help but be excited by the potential appeal for this new series, which throws the World War II scientist-hero into the present day -- particularly after Williamson praised James Robinson's Starman: "It's one of the few books that -- it made me cry." My cautious optimism for the series was cemented in the midst of my interview with the writer, when he said of the Dark Horse superhero approach: "There is a subtle way to handle the superhero universe, and that’s what Dark Horse is doing."

Once you've read the interview, be sure to enjoy the preview the publisher offered for Captain Midnight #1, on sale Wednesday.

Tim O'Shea: You leap right into the action with Issue 0, in which Captain Midnight lands in the present day, after just having been in the midst of World War II. What does it say about the character that he wasn't thrown by being flung into the future?

Joshua Williamson: We knew that we wanted to separate Captain Midnight from other time-lost characters and set up two aspects: 1) He was disappointed by the future; 2) He was not surprised by time travel. Midnight was a genius first and a superhero second.

Midnight is a very interesting character in that he is no-nonsense and has such a black-and-white outlook on the world -- very matter-of-fact. We wanted to get that across to our readers quickly in the zero issue and found that was the best way to do it.

One of the series taglines is "They stole his perfect vision of the future. He's here to take it back." Care to elaborate on that gem?

That was all [Dark Horse Associate Editor Jim Gibbons], but really nailed what we had been talking about. During WWII, Midnight was developing technology to help our world. He was fighting for a better tomorrow. But when he arrives today he sees that better tomorrow never happened. It was stolen while he was gone. Who stole it and why is a large driving force in the series.

This series is launching as part of a larger new Dark Horse superhero universe. How enthused are you to have Midnight as part of that foundation?

Super-excited! I like large-universe stuff, especially done right. There is a subtle way to handle the superhero universe and that’s what Dark Horse is doing. When I was a kid my favorite comics were always crossovers. Every time Batman met Superman or Spider-Man hung out with Daredevil I would lose my mind. So being a part of something like that now is a blast.

How important was it for you to work in moments of Midnight criticizing modern technology (the fact we are still using combustion engines) in the scene? Am I right in thinking that moment, combined with how quickly he was able to improve upon present day tech, reveals that Midnight is disappointed at how little man has advanced in the years since he was last inventing tech for the good guys?

One of the things I joked around about in the beginning was “Where is my jetpack?” If you look at a lot of the books, movies or art that was being produced in the '30s and '40s, they had a very interesting advanced idea of the future. Midnight was a part of all that. When he arrives in present day, he looks around and sees that not as much had changed as he hoped. Its part of why he guesses it’s the '70s and not the 2010s. Midnight assumed with what he was working on in the past we’d be much further along in our technology. The hardware he was developing during WWII was extremely superior for the time, but then you look at today and have to wonder… “Where did it all go?” That is part of our mystery. What happened to all that tech? Where did the future go? Frankly Midnight is PISSED to see his that not only was his technology never taken advantage of by the good guys but it was corrupted.

I love this Francesco Francavilla piece you recently linked to on Tumblr. Any chance he will do a flashback or present-day mini-story at some point in the series -- maybe a Black Beetle cameo?

There are quite a few flashbacks in the Captain Midnight issues that help us build the backstory and overall world. Francesco and I are buddies and I’ve made no secret of wanting to work with him. Originally he was the artist on the Uncharted series I did with DC a few years ago, but it didn’t work out. Personally I know Francesco is a fan of Captain Midnight, and I love Black Beetle. So keep your fingers crossed because a crossover would be rad!

Speaking of art, in Issue 1, it was striking how artist Fernando Dagnino sets the Secret Squadron in the stark iconic landscapes of Nevada. Was that at your suggestion, or how did he come to set it there? Also, who can I thank for the London offices of Sharkbyte Tech sporting a fin on the building's top?

For the Nevada landscape that was a mix of [Dark Horse President] Mike Richardson and myself. From before I was even brought into the project Mike had a vision of the Secret Squadron headquarters being in ruins in the Nevada desert. This once great place abandoned and destroyed.

So I knew that how we presented and revealed that would be important. I wanted a bit of a calm before the storm. In Issue 1 we come right out of this WWII flashback that sets up a lot of the themes of the series and I wanted that to sink in for a page or two, and felt doing a page where the art spoke for itself allowed that to happen. It’s like in Star Trek V with Kirk climbing the mountain. It says a lot about the character of Joyce Ryan, that she’d go to impossible means to make the end, to get what she wanted.

The Sharkbyte Tech building having a giant fin is all Fernando. It’s rad to see this evil building hunting other buildings in a sea of skyscrapers.

Editorially, how beneficial is it to team with Spencer Cushing and Jim Gibbons on this series?

Jim and I have been working on this from the very beginning. Sometimes I can get lost in the big moments and the fun stuff so Jim makes sure that it all makes sense. He likes the fun and action-packed scenes but knows that it all needs to add up. Bouncing ideas, concepts and scenes off of Jim has been invaluable.

Spencer is a bit new to our team and has been working with us closer on the later issues and somewhat once a lot of the overall plan was mapped out. BUT that was a good thing because Jim and I are so deep in this world that it was great to have a fresh pair of eyes look at it and catch things were might have been missing

Is it possible to capitalize upon the pulp roots of the character without making the tale read like a retro romp?

We kept Midnight true to his retro-pulp roots but made sure to fill the world around him with modern characters. His interactions with them helps us have fun with the way he is but also keep it contemporary. We just really wanted to tell a pulpy hero story where the god guys were good and the bad guys were bad.

Is it too early to talk about the supporting cast on this series? In particular I hope you can tell me Rick Marshall will be around for the long run?

It makes me so happy that you asked about Rick Marshall. I love that guy. He is our Xander, y’know? Marshall is an important part of the plot moving forward in that he represents the innocent view that Midnight has on the world. Marshall is our “fun” character who brings an earnest lightheartedness to their adventures. His banter with Agent Jones is one of my favorite things to write.

I love how fast-paced the series is, seventy-two hours pass since his trip into the present by the time the second issue starts, how hard is it to cover that much ground so quickly?

I wouldn’t say it’s hard, just takes a bit more thought. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with pacing, making sure that a reader gets their money’s worth -- that the story has room to breathe but doesn’t also waste time. It’s easy to move things along when you know what cool stuff is coming up and want to share it with our readers. I think a lot about how issues start and stop. What makes our reader want to continue? Making sure that they feel like things are actually happening in the book is crucial to us. We didn’t want it to be a book with a two-page spread every five pages that takes two seconds to look at and then you move on. We wanted content and moments that had meaning and felt earned. That allowed us to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

Do you think fans of your Masks and Mobsters will be equally entertained by Captain Midnight?

Without a doubt. They will enjoy the pulp-hero sensibilities, and action we bring with Captain Midnight. With Masks and Mobsters being all from the Mob’s side of things we tried that a bit with Captain Midnight in that a lot of this new world is seen by the supporting characters in Marshall, Agent Jones, and Joyce Ryan. Captain Midnight is just a tad bit more heroic an outlook on pulp heroes than Masks and Mobsters, but still a entertaining ride.

Can I just say I appreciate that you worked in a mature, strong female cast member with Joyce Ryan (as well as her granddaughter Charlotte). What is the key to you for writing strong characters, be they male or female?

One thing that was important to our team and to Mike Richardson was how the women were portrayed in Captain Midnight. During the original novels and serials, Charlotte Ryan’s grandmother Joyce Ryan was one of the first women characters seen to not be a damsel in distress but a strong women who could excel past her male counter parts. In fact it, was well known that she was the best shot in the bunch.

Mike presented us with that information early on, and that it was important to him … it felt like a no-brainer to us. And it’s the same with our main villain in Fury Shark. We wanted all our characters to stand out as strong and well developed. George R.R. Martin said it a lot more eloquently than I ever could. “You know … I’ve always considered women to be people.”

For me when writing a strong character, I look at a character’s motivations. What do they want? And what are they willingly to do to get it? For Captain Midnight, he wants to make the world a better place. And he has this black-and-white way of thinking and he assumes that his old methods will still work today. That he knows what’s best for the world.

Part of his journey will learn that he might need to comprise those beliefs and go through the gray area to win. But at what cost is that lesson?

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