THE FOUR VIRTUES: Morrell Talks "Captain America: The Chosen"

In February of this year, one of the Marvel Comics' greatest heroes, Captain America was slain, but that doesn't mean there aren't more tales left to be told of the Sentinel of Liberty. Beginning this September, writer David Morrell and artist Mitch Breitweiser will give readers a brand new Captain America story with the six-issue "Captain America: The Chosen" miniseries.

Morrell, the author of 24 novels including the 1972 thriller "First Blood," which introduced the world to the iconic action hero John Rambo, has been a comic fan at various points in his life. "When I was a kid I used to go on roller skates to a store that was five blocks away. They sold new comics but most of their trade was in used ones," Morrell told CBR News. "I'm of an age that I was around when the EC Comics were coming out, like 'Tales From the Crypt.' I just loved those. After what happened with the government and comic books, things were all so tepid; so I sort of lost my interest.

"Time moved on, I think my interest got rekindled when 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' came out and I saw how you could have that realistic look and go for deep psychological themes. I can't say that I've been a constant reader because the nature of my life is that I always have deadlines so I can't keep up with everything."

Morrell has, however, kept up with the comic book work of some his friends and fellow novelists. "One of my friends is Max Allan Collins," Morrell said. "I've watched his career of course, with 'Dick Tracy' and particularly what he did with 'Road to Perdition.' I also know Joe Lansdale ["Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo"], who's worked in comics. So, a lot of my friends have worked in comics and I always thought it would be nice to be in that world but I didn't know how to make it happen. Also given that comics are illustrated stories, it seemed like a secret society in the sense of 'How the heck did these things get written?'"

Morrell's entrance to the world of comics came when former Marvel Editor Andy Schmidt contacted him. "I believe he found my website and e-mailed me through the site. I answer all the e-mails I get there," Morrell explained. "He said, 'Can we talk? I have a project you might be interested in.' So we got on the phone and he said he had been thinking about ways to add some new vitality to Captain America. One of the things that he thought was that it would be fun for the creator of Rambo to write a Captain America story."

Schmidt's offer intrigued Morrell, so he told the editor he was interested -- but they just had one big hurdle to clear first. "I needed to find out if I could write for comics. It's a different train track from novels," Morrell explained. "I like to do research so I immediately read books of theory about how comic books are created and written also Andy had sent me an awful lot of material about Captain America and some other heroes. I looked at some comic scripts and was sort of reminded of storyboards for films. I've written for films.

"I immediately thought this could kind of cool because, Will Eisner talks about this, the space between the panels is a main force in a comic book," Morrell continued. "You sort of only hit the highlights and as a consequence a close up of just a face staring has tremendous power. I went out and read most of what Will Eisner had to say about writing for comics."

Morrell was also intrigued by the unique way in which comic books can surprise the reader. "I've not seen this written down but I assume every comic writer understands this, and it was something I grasped a little slowly, is if say you're looking at page two of a comic you're also looking at page three. Your peripheral vision sort of does a gestalt of those two pages but whenever you turn the page the opportunity for surprise is very great. I tried to have some of the really big images of my story occur in that fashion. Like in one particular issue you turn the page and all these fighter jets are screaming at you almost in 3-D. When Mitch showed me those images I gasped and thought how exciting things can get when you turn the page like that."

Once Morrell felt comfortable with his ability to pen a great comic script he began discussing the details of his story with Marvel. "I told them what I wanted to do was a big story that would be set in Afghanistan and it would have the feel of a mini-novel," Morrell stated. It would deal with the very big theme of being a superhero in today's world, especially a superhero named after the United States."

After the story details were ironed out development seemed to stop on Morrell's Captain America project, so the writer took the initiative. "I wrote the first issue. I didn't have a contract yet. I just wrote it and sent it in," he explained. "This got some attention at Marvel because it showed my enthusiasm for the project. I guess they don't have that happen every day from somebody who is an established novelist.

"Then it hung fire for a little bit longer," Morrell continued. "I thought, 'I'm not going to let this stall.' So I wrote the second issue. I eventually got paid but this was essentially on spec to show them what it is that I wanted to do and to get the contract so I could write the remaining four issues. This really drew attention to the project at Marvel, so they said, 'Yes, let's do this.'"

There one was one other reason for some of the delay to "Captain America: The Chosen." "The more I learned, the more I wanted to rewrite," Morrell said. "I kept tinkering with it. I wanted to make it as good as I possibly could. When I got to issue #6 there was so much material that I got permission to do an extra four pages. In the sixth issue there are twenty six pages instead of twenty two."

Most of the changes Morrell made to his series were because he wanted to make the book better, but there was one change made to "Captain America: The Chosen" necessitated by developments in Cap's regular series. "Originally, it was called 'Captain America: The End,'" Morrell confirmed. "I was not informed about Marvel's plans for Steve Rogers to be shot on the courthouse steps in February. It came as a big shock to me. I knew I had to change the title because readers might think that my project was somehow a follow up or an explanation to something that happened earlier in the year. My story is totally self contained and could have happened at any time.

"I prefer the new title 'Captain America: The Chosen' anyhow," Morrell continued. "It just has a real epic ring to it. Apart from that, regardless of what happened in February, this story remains identical to what it was when we finally sent everything over to Mitch Breitweiser."

In Morrell's story, one of Captain America's lines of dialogue sums up what the writer feels are the Sentinel of Liberty's defining personality traits. "There is a mantra that Captain America keeps repeating to a Marine Corps corporal, whom he's kind of mentoring. The mantra is the four military virtues, which are courage, honor, loyalty and sacrifice. If you think about it, those should not be just military virtues. Those should be the code by which everyone conducts the way they live. That's why I felt so compatible with Captain America because courage, honor, loyalty and sacrifice are themes that I use a lot in my books.

"Talking about these matters give you an idea of how high I wanted to aim here. I wanted to analyze the way people behave," Morrell continued. "Captain America was frozen for a time and revived many years after. In this mini-series he thinks about how the world has changed during the period when he was frozen and how levels of civility that he was used to seeing back then are no longer enforced and how the culture seems to have changed in a bad way. It's a story with a lot of action but this kind of approach will distinguish the story."

Another unique element of Morrell's Captain America story is the story's setting. "My story could have happened anytime after 9-11 because there are a lot of references to 9-11," Morrell said. "There are pictures of the Cole after the hole was blown into it and pictures of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There's one of the Madrid train bombings and one of the London bus bombings so it's very contemporary. This story could have happened any time in the last couple of years and could be considered to predate what happened in 'Captain America' #25."

"Captain America: The Chosen" takes place in a country tied to those events, Afghanistan. "There's an initial big battle in a village but the bulk of the story takes place in a cave," Morrell stated. "The point here is that since this is a dark, psychological examination of Captain America the cave is very appropriate. We're getting into the darkness and the depths. That's the metaphor I was trying for."

Accompanying Captain America and the reader on their journey into the darkness and the depths is a new character, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps named James Newman. "He's in Afghanistan and he's been over there so long and has been in so much fighting. He has a wife and son who live in San Francisco and he's at the point now where all he wants to do is go home. You can't tell the good guys from the bad guys over there and he's just absolutely overwhelmed with the combat and the conditions. It's under there circumstances that he and Captain America cross paths."

Morrell couldn't reveal much about the plot of Captain America and Corporal Newman's adventure together except to reiterate that his intentions were to write a superhero story that's rooted firmly in reality. "Again if you go back to 'The Dark Knight Returns,' you believe Batman in that," Morrell said. "You say, 'Yes I can thoroughly understand and empathize with whatever is happening to that character.' That was something I really wanted to do. We take for granted that Captain America is a superhero. What does it feel like to be a superhero? He's been doing this since 1940 what goes on in this guy's head after all the stuff he's seen? There's a section in the story to do with the Nazis and the death camps. That's a really powerful image. Mitch did a great job on that. So the real world and Captain America coincide in this series."

Since the real world and Captain America coincide in "The Chosen," readers shouldn't expect appearances from other costumed characters in the mini-series. "There are no super nemeses. It's all real stuff," Morrell explained. "The kind of hostile forces that are over in Afghanistan is what they're up against. Except for a few allusions to his history there are no cross-over characters from other Captain America stories."

One of the events from Captain America's history that Morrell will reexamine in "The Chosen" is the circumstances that turned him into a super soldier. "The origin of Steve Rogers as Captain America is fairly well known but I was seeing things in the origin that had not been developed before," Morrell said. "For example after the ray machine and the elixir turned Steve into Captain America and the assassin killed the professor Steve went a little berserk. He threw the assassin at the ray machine and destroyed it. What was that about? Of all the places to throw the guy why did he do that?

"I'm going to have the readers of my novels coming to this project and most of them don't know Captain America from Batman, so naturally they need some help in order to understand the myth and the origin," Morrell continued. "At the same time I'm very aware of the sophisticated readers who would say, 'We already know that. That's old news.' So my goal in the section where Captain America explains to a character how he came to be who he is, was that the origin would remain the same but the interpretation of the events would be forty five degrees to the side so that everyone would be seeing things from a totally different perspective. So it was kind of fun to keep the same events but reinterpret them in a new fashion."

Morrell is aware that a realistic toned Captain America adventure that occurs after 9-11 may sound familiar to readers of John Ney Rieber's run on "Captain America" from a few years ago. "I know those stories and that's kind of the tone we're going for," Morrell said. "The one that really stuck in my mind was kind of a hymn to all the emergency responders and all the pain that was there and how Captain America was working trying to save people there. I had bought that issue about the World Trade Center as soon as it came out. I made a bee line to get it. That kind of realism is what I wanted. The difference is my story is intended to be a self contained plot. The kinds of arcs that I would use in a novel are what I use here."

Morrell has greatly enjoyed writing the scripts for "The Chosen" and derived even more pleasure from the way his collaborators Mitch Breitweiser and colorist Brian Reber brought his scripts to life. "Mitch Breitweiser's art is beyond anything that I hoped for. It has a gritty feel to it almost like watching a movie," Morrell stated. Brian has done a tremendous job as well. In the script I stipulated that we'd begin in a muted yellow-brownish pale blue sky as appropriate to Afghanistan and the first real vibrant color would be the red of blood in a battle sequence. Captain America's appearance is halfway through the book and after a number of pages of those muted colors that brilliant costume just blows you away. It's so striking. We were experimenting a lot with color. What Brian did with that just added to Mitch's art. They both really outdid themselves."

"Captain America: The Chosen" is Morrell's first comic book project and there's a good chance that it's not his last. "Marvel and I have talked about doing something else," Morrell said. "It's just a matter of if we can all make things come together the way we want."

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