On Tuesday at Image Expo Rick Remender announced that he’s returning to Image Comics with a pair of very different titles. “Deadly Class” is an ’80s-set story about the students in a high school for future assassins and murderers. For the story, Remender mined his own experiences in the ’80s punk and hardcore scene adding an autobiographical element to the crazy genre tale. In his other title, “Black Science,” Remender returns to the far-reaches of space for a trippy sci-fi yarn in the mold of his fantastic “Fear Agent.”
I spoke with Remender at Image Expo about the real-life inspiration for “Deadly Class,” craziness of “Black Science,” and the challenges of writing creator-owned work vs. working for-hire for Marvel.
MTV Geek: So you just announced “Deadly Class” and “Black Science.” First off, why now to come back to Image after 10 years?
Rick Remender: Well it hasn’t been 10 years since I’ve been there. I think the last book I did at Image was in 2008. I did a book with Francesco Francavilla called “Sorrow.” And at that time, I’ll be frank, it was my sales. The books were selling well – well by indie standards – but not well to support your family. And the Marvel work became available to me and it was also another sandbox that I wanted to play in. You know, that itch I wanted to scratch from being a kid and reading all that stuff. And it was a tremendous amount of fun that enabled me to build my name and build my career and feed my family, which is super cool. Like, when they’re fed and they have a house, they’re way happier with me then when they don’t. So as I was building that stuff I’ve been developing creator-owned comic books and I’ve been developing a lot. And over the next couple years, you’re going to see sort of an explosion. In 2004 I developed six books. I developed “The End League,” “Last Days of American Crime,” “Sea of Red,” “Strange Girls,” “Fear Agent,” and “Gigantic.” Oh, and “Night Mary.” You know, it was a very creative period. And I – over the next five years – developed all these creator-owned books and they really all came from 2004. And after I finished “Fear Agent” in 2011, I had sort of a similar thing. I was dug in and doing a lot of Marvel work and that other itch needed to be scratched and so I developed a number of other creator-owned properties. And these two are the first two of them. So timeline-wise, it’s usually a matter of getting the right artist, waiting until they’re ready – and that can take a year and a half in most cases. For “Deadly Class,” I just hadn’t found somebody who could capture the sort of “Love and Rockets” and the spirit of what I wanted. That felt really grounded in the mid ’80s and legitimate to the time period. So it’s just a matter of when things come together and congeal and you know, Eric [Stephenson] and I have been talking for years about getting these things of the ground and I finally have the time and…you know, everything kind of worked out to do it.
Geek: And with “Deadly Class,” you said it’s set in the ’80s hardcore punk scene – which makes me very happy, by the way. I wasn’t in the ’80s, but ’90s punk scene.
RR: I worked in both. I was working at Fat Wreck back then.
Geek: Oh really?
RR: Yeah, I did a bunch of NOFX stuff, I did one of their album covers and things like that.
Geek: I didn’t know that. Which album cover did you do?
RR: “Never Trust a Hippie” — Jesus With a Gun.
Geek: Really? I had no idea you did that. That’s really cool! Why is it important to tell a story set in that time for you?
RR: That was when I cooked. That was what made me. And those years , from I think 12 years-old to 18 years-old – well, even 16, on some level – that stuff was the oven that baked me into who I am. Those days were filled with listening to Government Issue and Minor Threat and Exploited and DRI and skating with your buddies and high fives and sunny days and Slurpees and getting a pile of comic books and I never progressed past it. Never. So 1984, I found punk rock and skating and comic books and I was done. That was me. And nothing else ever interested me. You know, I have friends into sports, and I was like “I don’t care!” Like the unique philosophy and the personal messages of the kids that were making the punk music…it was such an inspirational thing to discover these kids that weren’t doing it for money. They weren’t trying to do like “baby I love you, wanna touch you, love you.” That’s it…and that stuff to me, I remember listening to it and it was like “yeah, f***kin’ a!” I mean it’s kids who are saying, like Ian MacKaye always says in Another State of Mind, like “I just don’t see what’s so important about drinking beer and racing fast cars and golfing and being a misogynist.” Which was such a norm of the culture and the rock and roll movement was like “f**k the girl and drink some whiskey!” And you’re like, yeah that’s cool, partying’s fun sometimes, but that’s not really what my soul wants in music. So that stuff, just mixed with comic books, just comics book, and guys like Robert Williams. You know, before I was an illustrator for years and before I wanted to do comic books all I wanted to do was be Robert Williams. ‘Cause you know he came out of the “Zap” scene which was so influential and did such big crazy things and then he did these series of paintings that I remember finding in the mid ’80s and were just explosions of ideas on psychedelic paper with his cartooning and his wonderful style which just progressed. And you know, you look at the scene that Robert Williams created – that’s a giant goddamn – the lowbrow art scene spoke to me like nothing else. So all that stuff cooked into a soup wherein by the time I’m a retailer in the ’90s, then I’m finding guys, like I’m reading “Optic Nerve” and I’m finding Daniel Clowes and I’m finding the indie stuff. And I kind of moved away from superheroes and so now that I’m doing comics again I think that like all that stuff tends to cook into a soufflé. And I want to tell stories. I realize my generation doesn’t have a “Big Chill” – not that I want a “Big Chill” exactly – but I’ve been told our generation in scope compared to the Baby Boomers is like 40% smaller. And so as a demographic we’re less catered to. And so there just hasn’t really been anything. There’s been plenty of documentaries about the punk scene. And that’s not really what this is, you know, this is more about the various types of kids that existed back then and what I remember as they legitimately were. And the root cause behind a lot of the scenes. More than just the cool s**t, the reasoning that a kid goes out, like a goth girl goes out and finds Dead Can Dance and all that stuff. So it’s stuff I know and it’s stuff I’ve always wanted to do but I always felt like, “well it’s not going to sell enough” . But I think that I’ve got an art team now that’s so amazing to handle this and I feel so comfortable and strong about the story that it’s gonna work out.
Geek: And is that why you added the genre element? You know, you could have just done this as “Love and Rockets,” you know?
Remender: I could have. But I found – and I won’t lie, there was an aspect of it that was a little bit because “Reagan Youth” was originally this and “Deadly Class” was originally this, two books that I was originally developing. And I recognized they’re both kids in the same era, they’re both what I wanted to do, and it was really, the thing that sold me was the metaphor. Was that, you steal that girl away from that guy and that’s not going to just maybe beat you up at a party, that guy’s not going to just maybe be a dick to you in the halls, that guy’s going to maybe kill you. And so I loved the idea. And when they’re talking behind your back, it’s not just metaphorical daggers, it’s real daggers. I mean, I liked the idea of mixing this wherein you can get that soup going, where you get that soap opera bubbling and all that fun stuff happening. You’re into the character. All of a sudden life and death is a whole new aspect of it. Which it keeps the stakes high and it keeps it a little more exciting than just the slice of life while enabling me to do the slice of life.
Geek: Flipping to “Black Science,” Who’s the main character?
Remender: He’s a very different character. He’s an intellectual. He’s flawed unlike [Fear Agent’s] Heath. He’s – the main character, Grant McKay – is somebody has become a workaholic. Something else that I can write. And in being a workaholic, he’s sacrificed so many aspects of his life. And this is really a journey of somebody recognizing that life is short and that he has been wasting it falling into his work and that he’s been corrupted by that obsession. But he doesn’t realize it until it’s too late and is lost spiraling through the “Black Science” machinations. And so it’s a character story about his trying to find his way home and trying to put things back together now that he realizes that his life was in shambles when he left it. And it’s also an excuse for me to do big, fun science fiction stuff, you know. I think as long as you establish a character whose goals are identifiable in a way where you’re like, oh I really want that guy to get that. I identify with that. You know, I became obsessive in school for four years and lost a great girlfriend or, like, you know, I think that as long as you get that identifiable and that humanity in there, then it’s the Frazetta van painting and a bong hit and some Black Sabbath playing and thinking about the frog kings and the ghost monkeys and the wonderful lizards that live under the ground and that eat your soul and s**t like that.
Geek: When you’re doing these…you know “Deadly Class” sounds like it’s a lot of autobiographical type of stuff. “Black Science” — you just said you can relate to this guy being a workaholic-type. When you’re doing creator-owned stuff and you’re creating the character yourself. Do you find it easier or more challenging to do that kind of stuff versus writing “Captain America,” which you are not? Or you know, one of the Uncanny Avengers who you are not, you know?
Remender: Those characters have a history that you have to understand and you have to pick and choose what works and what’s the core. And then you have to discard the rest and add yourself. None of these characters that you work on at Marvel are yours, and they’re not you, but you always have to find like…I could argue the position of any character I have to write. And that’s the work I put in going into the writing of it. How much of myself I can actually add to that, it shifts. It’s not a whole lot though. You know, and I don’t really want it to be. I think I can do the work and I think I can still get deep into the characters and still do them justice. Like, what makes Steve Rodgers tick? For me, it’s his mom. And we’ve never, ever discussed why I care about Steve Rodgers. He was a guy who went and fought in WWII — what a good guy! And you know, like I don’t care. I don’t know what the f**k the means, you know. Like where did he earn it, how did he earn it? And when I got to that, I was like, I want to tell that story. That’s not necessarily my story. But I can identify with somebody who’s tenacious after 15 years of…you know, I made creator-owned comic books for 11 years. And no matter what they sold, I just kept making it. And that tenacity and that drive came from a punk rock background, and so when I’m writing Steve, I can add that as an aspect of him. But he’s still a very different character than what I would create as a super solider and blah blah blah. When I’m creating whole cloth…it’s the same thing, you don’t want them to be too familiar, but you want to find out who the characters are as well. If the characters are all just you, that’s going to be flat at a certain level, and it’s not an exploration. So with somebody like Grant, I recognize I have tendencies to become a workaholic and to fall into my work. And the consequences can be that I put on weight, that I’m unhealthy, that my family don’t get enough time with me. That my real life is disappearing while I’m focusing on my obsessive need to create. And so when I can get fired up about a topic and plug it into a character, I make sure the rest of it is not stuff that’s me. This guy is having an affair with one of the people in the lab. He lives at the lab. So his life becomes the lab , while his wife is raising their kids and he’s not there for that. So I take things that I can identify with, twist them, make them much different. But I can still write them and get a perspective where readers can read a legitimacy to it, I think. And that legitimacy — you can tell when somebody has no idea what they’re writing about. There’s a depth of sort of honesty in writing about a topic. So I was trying to find that with characters that I own, or not, but ultimately ones you own tend to have a deeper immersion into your own psyche a little, I think.
Geek: Since we’re at Image Expo – what does Image Comics mean to you?
RR: Well Image Comics is the reason a lot of us have careers. I was shuffling around in comic books and working for a number of smaller companies and self-publishing for five years while I was working in animation and video games. And Eric Stephenson liked my work and believed in me and there was no longer a pitch process. There was no longer like a dance for somebody’s approval. It was: do what you want, put it together, we’ll put it out, and hopefully we can sell some. And it was a creative freedom which is then like, you know, you have to consider your own marketability versus your own artistic…You’re the one making those choices. How marketable and how artistic and how free thinking…Like on “Deadly Class,” I had a moment where I’m like, “well do I go PG-13 so this can be bought by everybody?” That wasn’t my experience. My experience growing up was not PG-13. My experience was people getting shot…you know, I’ve seen two people get shot. It was getting shot at, it was getting jumped by gangsters. It was a lot of people on a lot of drugs, there was a lot of violence, there was a lot of cursing. And I didn’t want to write something that didn’t seem true to that. In the punk scene that I grew up in and the people I grew up with. And Image is a completely blank canvas that allows you to do whatever you want on your own whims. And it’s complete creator ownership. It allows us to build a business and make sure that everybody’s invested. And I have my editor, Sebastian Gurner – who I worked with on “Frankencastle” at Marvel — is now a freelancer and he’s working on my Image books. And Sebastian is invested in the properties. Sebastian has a stake in what happens. Russ Lutton, my letterer, has a stake. The colorists have large stakes. Everybody is invested in these things and they’re everybody’s. And the business is then shared and we’re collaborative and everybody knows if this does well, the longer we stick to it, the better it gets, and the more we all make. As a collective, as a bunch of friends who are high fiving each other and excited creating whatever the f**k we want to create.
“Deadly Class” is out in Jauary 2014. “Black Science” is out in November.
Preview “Deadly Class” by clicking the image below: