The Mystique Of Mutants: Sean McKeever on writing "Mystique"

You may have heard that Marvel comics is "ReLoading" their X-Men franchise in May. You may have also heard that "Mystique" has been one of the critically acclaimed and low selling X-titles, despite universally positive reaction. So when it came time to take the series to the next level, Marvel went with a man who has built his career on critical acclaim: Sean McKeever. CBR News spoke to the scribe about the series and McKeever provided a brief introduction.

"Mystique's a shape-shifting mutant who's over a hundred years old," explains the "Waiting Place" author. "She's militantly pro-mutant, so much so that she's currently wanted by several world governments for acts of terrorism. Enter the X-Men's head honcho, Professor Charles Xavier, who makes Mystique an offer she can't refuse: perform covert acts as a secret agent of Xavier's and he'll keep the authorities off her heels.

"So, yeah, it's a spy comic with a superhuman protagonist. How cool is that? So far in the series, under the clever pen of Brian Vaughan, Mystique has stopped Cuba from launching its own mutant-hunting Sentinel program and has saved mankind from a mutant smallpox strain. But she's also been contacted by a man named Shepard, who is in the employ of a mysterious person known only as The Quiet Man. These two want Mystique to undertake counter missions against Xavier as a double agent, with the promise they'll get her out from under Xavier's thumb if she does what they ask."

While a superhuman spy is a unique hook for superhero readers, there's something even more complex going on inside the heads of the characters: McKeever wants to continue to make "Mystique" more than a simple espionage book. "Well, you have Mystique, who over the years has been many things. She's been a terrorist, an unwilling government agent...she's been pretty unstable, mentally...she's bisexual...she's a very complex and layered person. You never really know which way she'll lean or whose side she's on.

"Then you've got Shortpack, Mystique's field handler. I really dig this guy; he's telepathic and also the size of an action figure, so it's fun to write bits that factor in his unique perspective. If Mystique were James Bond, Xavier would be her 'M' and Forge would be her 'Q'. Forge is a mutant who can create any mechanical device he can think up, and he can tinker with existing technology as well. He and Mystique used to be an item, so it makes for some interesting tension between the two."

Complicating matters further, and providing interesting drama, is the fact that Mystique is a wanted terrorist. In the current "Axis Of Evil" climate, some might find the decision to give the mutant her own series a bit surprising, but McKeever argues it's all about understanding the layers of the character. "I think she's a heroine in a way, yeah. You know, most terrorists don't think of themselves as bad guys; they're crusaders. Mystique is no different. For more than a century, she's been witness to a world that hates and fears her kind, so she's grown really calloused toward humans. Couple that with her, um...flexible morality and you have an interesting character that one moment you're rooting for, and then the next you're horrified by what a monster she can be."

Those familiar with McKeever's writing might notice something- there are no angst ridden or robot riding teenagers in "Mystique" and the writer couldn't be happier. "Haha! No kidding, right? I was starting to think no one would let me write an adult!

"Late last year, Cory Sedlmeier got in touch with me about pitching 'Mystique,' which really caught me off guard. For one, I was surprised Vaughan was leaving the title, and second, I was really shocked that an editor would consider me for a series like this, you know? It's easy to get pigeonholed in whatever you excel in, and you start to worry that no one will ever give you a shot to write in another style or genre.

"Initially, what attracted me to the book was that I had just gotten laid off 'Sentinel' and 'Inhumans.' I needed the work! Heh! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this would be a great way to write the kinds of fast-paced, plot-based stories I've been wanting to tell for a while, where it's an action book but it's also a nice character showcase, like I tend to be known for. So I came up with what I thought was a cool science-based story, figured a way for it to be more than 'another mission' for Mystique and pitched it.

"And now, while I'm writing this first arc, 'Unnatural,' I'm coming up with all these great story germs and bits I want to use to evolve the series over the next year or two."

Considering that Brian Vaughan, one of the hottest writers in the comic book industry thanks to "Y- The Last Man," was garnering loads of kudos for his work on the book, you'd expect McKeever to be a bit intimidated by following up. But then again, you have to know McKeever to know that he's not your typical writer. "You know, I'm kind-of surprised--I actually feel less pressure going into this than I do starting a new series. To me, Vaughan's done the hard stuff, laying the groundwork and making the series a great read. So I get to reap the rewards of that. I'm pretty confident that I have good stories in mind, so while I am nervous about how I'll stand up to the fans' expectations for the book, I'm not really letting it affect my writing.

"As far as how it'll be different, I think you'll see a bit of a change in tone for Mystique herself. Like I said before, I'm adding a personal stake for Mystique in this first arc, and it has a measurable effect on her psyche (plus Vaughan still has a bomb or two to drop on her before he's done) so she's going to be a bit less quippy. She's still cracking wise, but there's just as much time, if not more, where she's maybe despondent or angry or frustrated. I plan on putting her through a lot of emotions, but that won't hinder the action. It'll actually make the action that much more meaningful and cool."

So what is this first arc about anyway? "In 'Unnatural,' Xavier hears rumors that DermaFree, a major dermatology R&D corporation, is using mutants to test a new "miracle cure" for skin conditions like psoriasis and acne," McKeever reveals. "He fears that mutants are the new lab rats, the new guinea pigs. So he sends Mystique and Shortpack to Sweden to investigate, and the trail leads them to Mystique's homeland of Austria and a messed-up revelation for Mystique.

"With the characters, I'm still kinda feeling out where they're headed. I don't want to plan that out too far ahead, because I usually find in writing the actual scripts that developments occur that hadn't occurred in the plotting process. For example, right now, in the midst of writing "Unnatural", I've just laid down a new wrinkle between Mystique and Shortpack that will not only give this arc far more juice, character-wise, but it'll have lasting effects as well."

With McKeever's last two efforts at Marvel quickly cancelled, there's definitely a lot to be learned and while that isn't to say his past work was weak, the writer feels he's gained a lot in the last year. "I think it's a writer's imperative to always be improving, and to always be pushing. It's interesting; I haven't been freelancing full time for much more than a year and already I can look back and see an evolution in my work. I'm working faster, more efficiently than I ever thought I could, and I'm feeling better about the finished product when I e-mail it off to my editors. For the first time, I can see the evolution yet to come in my work as well, particularly in regards to 'Mystique,' and I'm very excited about it."

Also arriving on "Mystique" is penciller Manuel Garcia and McKeever is happy with his new partner in mutant crime. "Manuel Garcia is a wonderful talent. He has a great eye for layouts and choosing shot angles, he draws kick-ass action sequences and his art is real easy on the eyes, to boot. If you pick up Mystique #11, which is on the stands now, you'll see what I'm talking about. He's drawing 11 and 12, then Michael Ryan's back for #13 to close it out with Vaughan.

"I couldn't tell you the whys and wherefores regarding Michael Ryan [leaving the book], but I can tell you I'll definitely pick up whatever he does next."

The future of "Mystique" looks bright and with the "ReLoad" excitement at an all time high, Sean McKeever hopes to take the series to even higher heights. But in case the May event isn't enough, he offers some teasers for the future of "Mystique." "Well, understanding that the most I've done so far beyond this arc is send quick notes to Cory, to which he may reply 'cool' or 'I'll look into whether or not that's something we can do'...

"Swedish mutant twins. Double crosses. Further exploration of Mystique as a complex personality. An old, familiar face or two. An evolution of the status quo.

"And, by year's end, you'll all know who the Quiet Man is."

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