The 50-State Initiative was supposed to help insure the safety of civilians. Instead, the U.S. Government's program to put a team of trained superheroes in every state has actually made the Marvel Universe a more dangerous place. During Secret Invasion, the Initiative was riddled with shapeshifting Skrull infiltrators, and now that Norman Osborn's Dark Reign has begun, the program and all its resources are at his disposal. CBR News spoke with "Avengers: The Initiative" writer Christos Gage about what's next for his title now that Osborn is in charge of America's superhuman army.
Osborn made his first major appearance in "The Initiative" with issue #23, in stores now. He arrived at to proclaim that he was closing the Initiative training ground of Camp Hammond; an announcement that has left many of the book's cast shocked and surprised. "Everyone feels a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where to go from here," Gage told CBR News. "Is there a place for them in the new Initiative? If so, do they want it? If not, do they really have another choice? Like many of us, the heroes of Camp Hammond feel like they're on shaky ground right now. And when the questions they have about their future start to be answered in issue #25, those answers might just be worse than anyone imagined."
Shutting down Camp Hammond is just the first of many plans Osborn has for the Initiative. In fact, Norman will become a very important character as the series moves forward. "I've enjoyed writing Norman going back to my days working on 'Thunderbolts.' He's smart, media savvy, charismatic, sociopathic, unstable and obsessed all at once. He's part Simon Cowell, part Donald Trump and part Karl Rove," Gage said. "His presence shakes the book up. When he's around; you'd better believe it's to lay down the law. I see his role as being similar to what Iron Man's was in the former administration-the entire organization is shaped by him, but the man himself shows up infrequently, when there's something major to attend to."
Norman Osborn's control of the Initiative is especially significant for two members of the book's Camp Hammond cast; Drill instructor, the Gauntlet; and the camp's chief scientist, former Nazi supervillain, Baron Von Blitzschlag. "Gauntlet has always been a good soldier, following orders and doing his duty to the best of his ability," Gage said. "He knows you don't get to choose your commanding officer or whether to follow his orders. But that loyalty-that role he's defined himself by all his adult life-is going to be sorely tested.
"The Baron expects to have free reign to explore the kind of science he likes best-the dangerous kind. And he'll get it. But there's more in store for him. I hope to take a look at his past...and maybe even bring elements of it into the present."
It's not just the Camp Hammond cast of the "Initiative" that's been impacted by Osborn's rise in power. Osborn's dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D. has left the Shadow Initiative, the group's black-ops team, marooned in the field with no ride home. "Things are pretty bad for them," Gage confirmed. "They're stranded in Madripoor with the forces of Hydra-including Bloodscream, Roughhouse, Hardball and the Scorpion-after them. Komodo is de-powered and a prisoner. And Typhoid Mary is getting more unstable by the minute. It all comes to a head in #24."
The Shadow Initiative came to Madripoor to confront Komodo's ex-boyfriend and former teammate Hardball, who had assumed command of Madripoor's Hydra cell. When they got there, the Shadow Initiative found he was co-commanding Hydra forces with his new girlfriend, the Scorpion. Issue #24, on sale May 27, will shed some light on what the two former heroes are up to and what they're doing with Hydra.
"I enjoy writing them both," Gage said of Scorpion and Hardball. "I consulted with [creator] Fred Van Lente about the Scorpion because I wanted to make sure I got her right, and it's been a lot of fun having her around throwing a monkey wrench into things, as well as providing the third point in a very messed up love triangle."
Issues #25-26 of "Avengers: The Initiative" promises to be huge for the series. "In issue #25, we find out the fates of many of the established characters--what exactly will happen to them in Norman's New World Order," Gage explained. "Issue #26 introduces the new status quo, in which it seems as if up is down and black is white. Several states will get Initiative teams--though when residents see who it is, they may want to give them back! I'm leery of inadvertently committing spoiler fouls if I say too much, but I think I can honestly say that these are the most seismic changes we've seen in the book to date."
Osborn's shake-ups to the Initiative will split the book's core cast in two. Some members will stay with the program while others will go rogue to fight Osborn's agenda. Gage was unable to reveal who ends up what side, of course. "I did let slip that Tigra will be launching a campaign of revenge against the Hood's gang for the beating and humiliation she suffered at their hands. And we'll be following the exploits of the villains who join the Initiative (and the heroes who now have to coexist with them)," Gage offered. "Plus we will be seeing the return of one of my favorite creations, Butterball. And there may well be some brand new characters coming along down the road."
The huge cast of "Avengers: The Initiative" makes writing the book both difficult and fun for Christos Gage. "I love the fact that our cast conceivably includes every B-and-lower-grade character in the Marvel Universe (and I say that with the utmost love). The readers seem to like it too. But it's definitely tricky juggling all those people and making sure they get some screen time. And every one of those characters demands the spotlight! I never want to stop writing any of them, but I have to. I always worry about whether I'm giving this character enough attention, or that one too much--and there's probably no right answer, because for every Tigra fan who wants more of her, there's a New Warriors enthusiast who wants more Justice and Ultragirl. So I just do the best I can and try to tell good stories.
"One of the things [former co-writer] Dan [Slott] and I were proud of was how many characters went from 'A:TI' to their own books or prominent roles in other titles-the Skrull Kill Krew, War Machine, Hellcat, Ant-Man joining the Thunderbolts-and even though it's always bittersweet to say goodbye, I'd love to see that continue."
Gage loves his entire "Initiative" cast for a variety of reasons, but what ultimately makes them compelling character to write is the fact that they're all unique personalities and none of them are Marvel superstars, at least not yet. "They're not Captain America or Thor. They don't necessarily know who they are, they're in the process of trying to find out," the writer explained. "They're lunch-pail superhumans trying to make their way in the Marvel Universe, where the rules keep changing. And I think that provides me as a writer with an incredibly rich mine of story ideas."
The next few months will see two different artists bringing to life Gage's "Initiative" stories. Humberto Ramos began collaborating with Gage on issue #21, which kicked off the series' current "Disassembled" arc, and he'll finish his art duties when the storyline comes to a close in issue #25. "He's got a very distinctive, dynamic style that makes for awesome action scenes, but what I've really come to appreciate is how amazing he is with character work," Gage said. "Facial expressions, body language-they're always perfect, enhancing the story in so many ways. I just got a page from him of a very emotional scene and I loved the fact that even the characters that didn't have lines were reacting in exactly the way you'd expect. And, of course, the battle scenes rocked. I'll look back on this as a wonderful collaboration. I was lucky enough to meet Humberto at the Emerald City con, and he's a great guy to boot!"
With "Avengers: The Initiative" #26, Gage begins his collaboration with new regular series artist Rafa Sandoval. "I just saw his first page of art and it's absolutely gorgeous. His stuff is beautiful to look at, but also tells the story perfectly, in a high-impact way," Gage said. "I knew he was a great choice for the book based on his handling of the large and diverse cast of characters in the 'Sacred Invasion' storyline in 'Incredible Hercules,' but after seeing these latest pages I can honestly say my expectations have been surpassed. The level of detail is tremendous--he makes you feel like you're right in the middle of an earth-shaking superhuman battle. I can't wait for readers to get a look at it!"
Dark Reign is both a major change to the status quo of the Marvel Universe and an ongoing storyline unfolding in many different Marvel titles. Readers don't have to pick up any extra books to understand what's going on in their favorite titles, but those who want to experience the full tapestry of the Dark Reign saga will certainly want to pick up "Avengers: The Initiative." "This is how Norman and company are expanding their influence throughout America," Gage explained. "It's nothing less than an attempt to put a team of superhumans who will do Norman's bidding in every single state, and legitimize the Hood's army of villains as heroes--giving them the power and access to prey on citizens like never before. Those efforts are the realization of Norman's plans, and our renegade heroes' attempts to stop them are all that stand in his way.
"Somehow an internet rumor started that the book was being cancelled, which could not be further from the truth. I think it's because there's some doubt about whether the Initiative as a concept still exists in the Marvel Universe. It absolutely exists, but now it's under Norman Osborn's control! The fact is that our sales are quite healthy, and we aren't going anywhere--unless people stop buying the book because they think it's cancelled! So stick with us, folks...it only gets wilder from here!"