A lot has been said about the unique lives of foster children. Certainly, many kids in need of safe, loving homes do find them, but things are undeniably rough for a rather huge number of children. Even for those not subjected to abuse, neglect, violence and drugs, life tends to be a bit… weird. Well, life is going to get a whole lot weirder for one foster family in "Ward of the State," the new mini-series from Shadowline and Image Comics that sees a group of foster children put to work not as prostitutes, not as drug dealers and not as thieves, but as contract killers. CBR News sat down with writer Christopher E. Long to talk about crime, family and ultra-violence.
Dravis Trucker is a sixteen-year old boy living with Norma Balitzer, a stern foster mother with a particularly extreme sense of right and wrong. While Dravis dreams of a normal life, Ms. Balitzer fulfills her dream of taking in wayward children, training them to be efficient killers, and dispatching them to assassinate pedophiles, rapists and murderers.
"The genesis of the story comes from my love of 'Oliver Twist,'" Long told CBR News. "When I was nine years old, I watched the film version of 'Oliver Twist' that cast George C. Scott as Fagin. The portion of the story where Oliver and other street urchins are recruited and trained to be pickpockets fascinated me, even as a child. Ward of the State is my spin on this, except in my take, there is more death and blood."
Also informing the story of "Ward of the State" is Long's fascination with criminals' rationalizations of their behavior, a fascination that was fueled by events in his own life. "I heard about a man I briefly knew who helped me when I needed it," Long explained. "He graciously invited me to spend New Year's Eve 2002 with his family because I didn't have anywhere else to go. He welcomed me into his home with open arms. He was a great guy, very friendly and warm. But just a few weeks ago, I heard that he was arrested in June 2005 for robbing four banks in less than four hours, earning him the nickname 'Cuatro Bandit.' When asked why he did it, he said, 'I needed money for crack.' That was it. In his drug-addled mind, he was just doing what he needed to do, consequences be damned."
It is perhaps easier for people to comprehend such acts when committed by adults. Long believes that many adults become jaded and lose hope after they live through years and years of hardship and pain. Crimes – even heinous crimes – committed by children; those are another matter entirely. "This is harder for me to understand. I can't image children losing all hope and feeling like crime is their only option. I try to image what environment these children have been raised in to make them do what they do. 'Ward of the State' is my attempt to create this type of environment."
Living with Dravis in Ms. Balitzer's environment is Carrie Evans, a sixteen-year old girl whose life has not been easy. "She's been subjected to the worst that humanity has to offer," Long said. "While Dravis is idealistic, Carrie's a realist – she's acclimated rather well into her life as a contract killer. But she likes listening to Dravis' daydreams of the two of them running away together, leaving all the violence and misery far behind as they make their way in the world."
Violence and misery are of course palpable in the foster care system, and are usually approached by storytellers with liberal doses of tragedy and melodrama. While that's not the case with a high-concept project like "Ward of the State," Long still set out to tell a story that rang true. "I don't know how you'd tell a story about foster children or orphans without having an element of tragedy," Long said. "It's just one of those things were you know that a child who's in a foster home or an orphanage has had a less-than-ideal life. It paints a back-story without having to utter a word.
"In John Irving's 'Cider House Rules,' which is a touching story, the mood for the story is set when introducing the characters at the orphanage – hope is prevalent, but it is muted and subdued.
"While writing this story, I found myself rooting for the characters. I want them to find some semblance of peace and happiness because it has been absent from their short lives. However, drama is conflict, so whether or not the characters achieve this is a mystery."
Also among those characters is foster child Clifton Hernandez, who Long described as an awkward-looking twelve-year old with thick glasses. "Nobody would suspect [Clifton] is a trained killer, until it's too late." Rounding out the multi-cultural cast is Tonga native Harkin Lomu, whose weapon of choice is piano wire. Finally, there's Monroe, Ms. Balitzer's biological and mentally challenged son. "[Monroe] lacks even the most basic of social skills."
Illustrating "Ward of the State" is artist Chee, who fans will remember from IDW's "Wake The Dead." Long and Chee have been looking for a project to work on together for several years, and when Long sent Chee the script for issue #1, the artist agreed to work on the book. "Chee is an amazing artist," gushed Long. "I think what he's done on this project is some of his best work ever. The covers he's turning in are blowing my hair back, and that's saying something considering I have a shaved head."
Joel Seguin provides colors, Ed Dukeshire letters, and overseeing the project are editor Kristen Simon and Shadowline head Jim Valentino. Following "Ward of the State," Shadowline and Image will publish another four-issue mini-series written by Christopher E. Long. "Jim and Kristen have been very encouraging to work with," the writer said. "I've found that they've been rather protective of my projects, going above and beyond what is required to ensure these creator-owned projects are the best they can be. I'm sure they do this with all the Shadowline books, but I think to think it's just for me."
"Ward of the State" #1 ships May 2nd.
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