Williamson & Crystal Shed Light on Marvel's Evil "Illuminati"

The villains of Marvel Comics have a variety of motivations fueling their vile deeds, from simple greed to a disturbing love of death and destruction. However, there is one common trait many of them share: A desire for a better and bigger life. But can that desire be strong enough to convince a disparate group of villains to work together?

Former super-powered crime lord and Avengers foe The Hood (AKA Parker Robbins) thinks so. This fall, he'll put his money where his mouth is when he gathers together a team of ne'er do wells and offers them a chance to work together for a better life and, of course, a shot at the power they crave.

Writer Joshua Williamson and artist Shawn Crystal chronicle the adventures of this supervillain team -- whose lineup includes the Hood, Titania, the Mad Thinker, Thunderball, the Enchantress and the Black Ant -- in the new ongoing series "Illuminati." CBR News spoke with the writer and artist about co-opting the Illuminati name for villainous purposes, their cast of characters and the foes and lack of honor among thieves.

CBR News: The historical Illuminati was an Enlightenment Era secret society of academics, and in the Marvel Universe that name has been used to describe two different incarnations of a secret superhero think tank. The cast of your book appears to be primarily working class super villains, though. Can you talk about why the book is titled "Illuminati" and its significance for your cast of characters?

Joshua Williamson: The Hood has pretty much stolen the name for himself. In his mind you fake it until you make it, and when he felt the name was up for grabs he took it. The guy is a thief, y'know? He sees it as branding. If he wants to be big they need to act big.

The all-new, all-different Illuminati are going to work behind the scenes to better the lives of super-villains that just want to live in the Marvel Universe. Like a new Union of sorts. You look at a lot of the "Big Bads" of Marvel -- Red Skull, Thanos, Loki -- all agents of chaos that want to bring death and destruction. Most of our team just want to earn a buck.

It's not always about money -- like in the case of Enchantress and Mad Thinker -- but they have their own motives and they believe the Hood can help them attain them. Or at least the Hood has convinced them that they can believe him. But the whole team does want one thing in common and that is to level up. Most of the stories will center on the team trying to upgrade their status in the Marvel Universe. They will be the new "Big Bads."

Given your work on your creator owned crime/horror books like "Nailbiter" and "Ghosted," it seems like the Hood would be a character right in your wheelhouse. What do you find most interesting about the Hood? What kind of role will he play in this series? And how dangerous is he when we first meet up with him in issue #1?

Williamson: He's just a guy with an offer. The Hood has a plan and is reaching out to super-villains to see who will join him. He sees the mistakes of the Cabal and the Illuminati and wants to do better. He's not the boss. Everyone will have a place at the table and a say. The Hood is a character I've loved since way back in his first appearance. And I was super happy when [Brian Michael] Bendis brought him into his "New Avengers" run. I was crazy excited to get to work with him. Like you said with "Ghosted" and "Nailbiter," I like writing dubious characters. Jerks with a heart of gold.

Parker is a very real type of bad guy. He was very much in denial about his role in the world. He used to think he was just doing the right thing for his family, but in reality he was always out for himself. Always self-centered. Here is a guy who wanted everyone to like him. That wanted everyone to think he was something special when he was really just a good-for-nothing crook. But here he's embraced his identity and knows that he's the real bad guy of his own story.

The Hood has regained some of his powers -- and more. We'll eventually tell the story of how he got his powers back, but for now we're just diving into him building this new team.

Shawn, which of the Hood's traits do you really want to capture and bring forward in your work?

Shawn Crystal: I'm looking forward to playing with a mysterious character like the Hood. I don't think you'll ever know if you can trust this guy or not. I'll be playing with him moving in and out darkness, hiding behind a hood. I love the visual of a sadistic white smile crawling across an unseen face.

Two other members of your are Titania and her husband the Absorbing Man, two characters who have been together for a number of years now. Why do you think that is? What's their secret to a long lasting marriage in the super criminal life style?

Williamson: Absorbing Man actually only has a cameo in the title. At least in the first few issues. We'll get to him as we go. Titania is more our point-of-view character for the series. Really, not just the team but also what it's like to be a villain in a world where there are a ton of Avengers flying around. She and Absorbing Man have a sort of role reversal in that Titania is thinking about calling it quits while Absorbing Man wants to get back out there. Usually it's the other way around, but Titania is a smart woman. She can see the writing on the wall, things are only getting worse out there. They can only get their asses kicked and thrown in jail so many times before something worse happens. So at the opening of the story, she and Absorbing Man are at odds but still very much in love. They'd do anything for each other.

Let's talk about the other members of your "Illuminati." What made you want to bring these characters into the book?

Williamson: We picked them because of a mix of things. Honestly, some of it was who was available, but really we wanted a team dynamic that would play off each other. Characters who could keep up with the fast-talking Hood. And then characters that I liked and wanted to write.

Thunderball: Smartest man in the room. Even with the Mad Thinker there. He doesn't just have brains but he's also life smart. And he knows it. He wants respect. He was sick of losing with the Wrecking Crew and decided to trade up. Try something different. He's a fun character to write in that he's this giant brute but also crazy smart with as sharp a wit.

Mad Thinker: If you thought he was mad before be ready to see him snap. The Mad Thinker has always been a character who wanted respect from his peers, but he more or less just steals others ideas and builds on them. He's been feeling unmotivated lately and feels like he needs some inspiration. We knew we needed a more tech guy and the Mad Thinker fills that role. I just like writing him because he's this fun crazy person who is unpredictable.

Enchantress: She doesn't take shit from anyone. Always thinking, always planning a few steps ahead of everyone else. She's a God! At this point of the story, due to the events going on in "Thor," she's lost some of her powers but even without the powers she is not someone to mess with. She still sees everyone around her as tools to be used for her own personal gain. She's annoyed with everyone on the team because she knows she is better than everyone there. I wanted to bring her in because of her attitude and the presence she brings to the team. She represents the snarky-ness I felt like the team needed. She's great.

Black Ant: The devious and honestly most vicious member of the group. Loved the original Robert Kirkman and Phil Hester series -- and just like the Hood, he's a jerk. A bad dude who still sees himself as misunderstood. He took his own death and rebirth harder than you might expect and is still dealing with it. Trying to find his place in the world. But he's still off. He came back more mean than he was before. Seriously, one of the most violent moments in the comic is a result of the Black Ant and I'm so happy Marvel let me do it.

One of my favorite parts of writing the book is building the relationships of the team. Seeing who gets along and who doesn't. At one point in issue three, I realized that I was building a friendship between Enchantress and Thunderball that completely took me by surprise. They are very different and have different reasons for being there but start to become friends because they both want to be better.

Shawn, what's your sense of the rest of the book's cast? Are there any characters that you find especially visually intriguing? Any characters who are proving hard to get a handle on?

Crystal: Riley Rosmo did all of the initial design work. I'm adding some small touches to the re-designs. I like the team. A lot of fun stuff to play with, but I can't wait to get busy with Black Ant. I just came off an issue of "Guardians Team-Up" where I got to draw Ant-Man. I found that I really enjoyed drawing that character. I was able to find my voice within the design. Getting to draw a dark version of that character really gets my juices flowing.

Speaking of dark characters, you've done books like "Arkham Manor," "Fantomex MAX" and "Deadpool." And now you're doing a villain dominated book like "Illuminati." Coincidence? Or do you enjoy working on titles that examine warped, twisted and often darkly humorous aspects of super heroes, super villains and their worlds?

Crystal: It's probably a bit of both. I think my work suits books that are a little dark, gritty and sometimes funny. As I've been finding myself in my work, the art has become grittier, dirtier and chalky looking. On "Arkham Manor," it all fell into place. "Illuminati" seemed like a logical place for me to keep pushing my art. My editor, Jon Moisan, emailed me about drawing this book. I really liked the idea of drawing a team of villains. I like books that are a little different. I feel like I can add my touch a little more.

Josh and I started speaking very early on. That's what sold me. I like how Josh thinks and what he's trying to do. He is extremely collaborative. We talk a lot. He understands this medium and has a definite vision. This book seems to play to his and my strengths.

Williamson: Shawn brings energy to this book. He is a calculated artist. Very thoughtful. And honestly, I love his inks style. It's a nice clean line that is still gritty and detailed. Plus, all of my books always lean a bit into the black humor and Shawn was perfect for that. Adds a bit of levity to how dark things can get in my books.

I'd seen his Marvel work, but really it was "Arkham Manor" that called to me. Jon Moisan and I had been working on this book for months. Developing the ideas, the outline, the overall story and the scripts, but it really came to life once Shawn was brought on board. I had been a fan of "Arkham Manor" and was able to grab my back issues and look at what he had done in the past. Then Shawn and I talked for a bit about the things we both liked about comics, and our goals with the book. Then I wrote the scripts with him in mind.

Like the other all-new, all-different Marvel titles, "Illuminati" jumps eight months ahead in time. So will your cast of characters have been brought together in that time? Or is issue #1 sort of the origin story of your group?

Williamson: Some of them are already together while one joins in the first issue. Even what we've seen on the cover isn't the full group. The Hood spent those eight months building an army. This is just a small group of that. We'll explore more of the team as we go.

What types of obstacles and adversaries are you interested in pittingthe Illuminati against? Can you hint or tease some of the characters theymight cross paths with?

Williamson: Bad guys! Heroes! I'm not sure how much I want to give away. They do fight a few heroes early on and there are a few cameos, but for the most part it's villains. Maybe a few Gods. Maybe. There is a one-on-one fight that is going to be huge. One of my main goals was to put these characters in situations they might not normally be in. See how they react. Normally we get to see the heroes travel to unusual places. Let's get the villains in on that action. I'd love to get them to the Mojoverse, the Negative Zone and the Savage Land to fight Ka-Zar and Zabu since I love that damn tiger. Not saying those will happen but it would be nice. And we get to see the Illuminati in their own element. What they do when they are not in costume. Then see what they do when the chips are down. There will be a bit of villain vs. villain action, which is stuff I loved to do. This is the start of a very big story that I hope to tell one day in the Marvel Universe.

While we're on the topic of adversaries, a band of criminal's worstenemy is usually each other. Is that the case with the "Illuminati?" Andif so, is that part of the draw of writing the book? That sense of tensionand the back stabbing and duplicity?

Williamson: You bet! The constant threat and tension of the possible back stabbing is part of the fun of the book. But y'know, not all bad guys are like that. Some of them see this as an opportunity to be a part of something bigger. They know that in the past that has usually meant the end of a team or a plan, and here they are trying to be smarter than that. But let's see who is on the team after issue five...

Shawn, how would you describe the overall look of "Illuminati?" How does it compare to some of your recent work?

Crystal: We're just getting started, but I feel like I get to pick up where "Arkham Manor" left off. It's going to be dark. It's going to be mysterious. It's going to be action packed.

How much fun are you having with the scope and scale of the book? Is this a series primarily about New York's super criminal underworld or is the Marvel Universe's newest "Illuminati" operating on whole other level?

Williamson: This book is on a whole other level. The first few issues are mostly in New York City -- but they go to some crazy places. Some will be familiar to the team and some will be brand new. Prepare for an inside look into the lives of the villains of the Marvel Universe. I've always wanted to do a book like this. One that focus on the other side of the story. Showcasing the villain's perspective. It's not just a fight of the week for them. This is their lives. Shawn and I are super excited to share this with readers, and we hope you are ready for something all new and all different from the villains.

"Illuminati" arrives in stores this Fall from Marvel Comics.

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