At Image Expo, Ed Brubaker was on hand to discuss his post-Marvel, creator-owned career by talking the future of his excellent horror/noir series “Fatale” as well as announcing his new, espionage, Cold War-centric series “Velvet.”
“Velvet” re-teams Brubaker with his “Captain America” collaborator Steve Epting and, according to Image Comics, “a dark and evocative twist on the spy genre featuring a female protagonist.”
I spoke with Brubaker about the real-world craziness that inspires the new arc of “Fatale,” creating strong female characters, and how “Game of Thrones” inspired him.
MTV Geek: So with “Fatale,” you changed up the format quite a bit with the third arc.
Ed Brubaker: Yeah.
Geek: Can we expect you to play around like that again as the story goes forward?
Brubaker: Not specifically like that, but there is a really weirdly experimental storyline in not this arc but the arc after that, there’s a really experimental issue and…You know, I probably won’t do another arc of short stories like that because I needed to sort of set the context for the idea a little deeper. And I also wanted to show two different moments from Josephine’s history that were really pivotal where she was sort of learning who she was and then learning that what she was was more dangerous than she even realized. Because you’ve seen who she is in the ’50s, you see who she is in the ’70s, and then I felt after that you want to see how, why she became that way. Because in the 1930s issue she’s a much stronger character than she is in the 1950s, where she’s a much more scared person, and in the ’70s she’s almost isolated because of everything that’s happened to her. And there’s some stuff that happened to her in the ’60s that we didn’t touch on that I’ll get to eventually. But I wanted to show her…I’d gotten to a point where the end of the first arc she’s almost captured and sacrificed. And then at the end of the second arc she’s been hiding for all these years, and another big, climactic thing happens, but you see her change, she takes control of the situation. And at the end she’s escaped and done lots of damage to the bad guys and she’s sitting at a diner and someone offers her a ride and she just steals his car. And I thought, you’re watching her go from weak to strong. And I wanted to show you first how she’d been strong initially even though she was freaked out. And then things had happened that made her realize her situation was even worse. And I also wanted to do a medieval story and a western, but those were just so hard to write. That took forever. I probably wouldn’t do those again, because trying to figure out how to put the whole story into 24 pages is really hard.
Geek: It seems like, especially once I got to the third arc, I was surprised to see that it was all these series of one-shots of…and it feels like you’re — and you’ve said the word “experimenting” a couple of times – but it feels like you’re kind of throwing things that you want to write, or things that you’re interested in, into the book and just going crazy with it.
Brubaker: Yeah, yeah, I don’t have any rules necessarily. I mean I use structural rules on things, and that was why I wanted to do this because it’s stuff outside my own structure, I just get caught on my own structure. The first two storylines begin in modern times, they go back to the past, and then they have an interlude in modern times, and then they go back to the past, and then they end with an epilogue in modern times and that’s just kind of my structure for these, and I wanted to get away from that for a little while. I felt like I was starting to get a little trapped by my own structure, and I felt like there’s nobody telling me I can’t do that. I mean, we’re the publishers, so I just did it. So a lot of it was that. And also, I want to experiment with it, I want to do different stuff. I don’t know if you read “Criminal,” but the last time I did “Criminal,” all the flashbacks were done like a kid’s comic style like Archie or Ritchie Rich or something. And I want to be more playful with the medium when I can just because it’s such a elastic medium and it’s got no budget.
Geek: And another thing that surprised me about the series was how Josaphine broke out as the main character. Is that something that intended to be sort of surprising for the reader?
Brubaker: Well I don’t know. I think of it as an ensemble piece, but she’s the only constant, other than the bad guy, but he’s barely ever in the book. And his name changes and you know…structurally, I wanted to do something that had a more sprawling story. My favorite comic probably of my childhood that I still love is “V for Vendetta.” And it’s so sprawling and I loved that there was a whole sequence where it just followed Evey as she was off on her own and…I just loved that there was so much going on. And there’s a chapter where the cop, it’s about the cop that’s hunting him. I just love how big that world was and wanted to do something that felt bigger and had a more expansive cast and when “Game of Thrones” started, I started reading the first book and I loved how he had each chapter by a different narrator and there was stuff happening between chapters that you would hear reference to but never see. And I said “that’s so brilliant!” and I thought, I want to do that in a comic. And then I stopped reading the book when I got to the point where Ned Stark died; I’m like “f**k this!” And then I realized I didn’t want to ruin the show for myself so I stopped reading. But that was a bit of an inspiration to the way to tell that story, and that was why the modern stuff is all in first person and the other stuff is in third person but it’s all subjective, it’s all getting into these character’s heads.
Geek: And the new story is set in the ’90s in Seattle. And you’re from Seattle, right, or you live in Seattle?
Brubaker: Yeah I lived in Seattle on and off since the early ’90s. I live in Burbank now but we have a house in Seattle.
Geek: And I heard you say on the panel today, and I actually read in another interview that you said that it’s based on a lot of really weird real stuff that happened in Seattle. Can you go into that a little bit?
Brubaker: Well, you know, there was a bizarre sex cult in the ’70s in Seattle that was still sort of minorly active in the ’90s outside of town. But in the ’70s they had had this cool sex club downtown where the high priestess taught kegel exercises, and, there’s a lot of weird stuff in Seattle. And I was there, I moved there from San Francisco, running away from a bad breakup, and moved into a crazy boarding house in the U district and met some of my best friends and lived with a lot of crazy people that we literally just spied on that we thought were just so hysterically weird that we wrote zines about them. But at the same time there were serial murders going on and one of my best friend’s friend got murdered and left in a field. They caught the guy years later, and it wasn’t one of the serials, he was just a taxi driver. A lot of just weird stuff happened. I had a friend who was in a one-hit wonder band and so, I was just taking a lot of bits and pieces of that. And I knew if I was going to do a ’90s storyline then it had to be Seattle because early ’90s, mid ’90s Seattle is America. That era to me. That was the pop culture Mecca back then. If it was the early ’80s, it would be New York City, Times Square, when Times Square was still dangerous but starting to become alive again. And it just felt like the right place to go and because of it and I’d lived through that stuff and lived there when it was all happening I felt a real connection to it and so I decided to call up my old friends and get as many pictures from there and put them in the comic. Their characters are totally different in the comic than they are in real life, but it was fun to have jumping off points like that. And awful things happen to all of them. Probably. I haven’t guaranteed them that they’re getting murdered, but I’ve told them it’s at least a likelihood, because not a lot of good things happen to people who come into Josephine’s circle.
Geek: Let’s talk about “Velvet.” What can you — other than we know it’s an espionage story — is it set in the ’50s and ’60s?
Brubaker: No. The main story takes place during the Cold War, so there’s flashbacks in it that go through the ’40s and the ’50s and the early days of the Cold War and stuff. But primarily it’s a story of a woman who has been the right hand to the guy running an agency for nearly 20 years who — because she’s the right hand to the guy running the agency, she has as much information about every mission as he does, and probably more, because she has to weed out the unimportant stuff. So I thought that was a really fascinating character to start a story from. And then I started figuring out “well who would she be and why would she be on a desk?” Because when you get that job, that’s one of the hardest jobs in the world to get. You have to probably be incredibly qualified and have to have an intelligence background. And my dad was really high up in Naval intelligence in the ’60s and ’70s and my uncle was in the CIA, so I’ve always had this Cold War fascination because of that. I don’t want to spoil too much about the comic, we have the teaser out there, but, the high concept was “what if His Girl Friday was actually an ex-field agent?” And it’s like, “well why isn’t she in the field anymore? What happened to her?” And also, when she’s framed for murder, what the hell does she do and how does she respond to it when she has in her head every single mission they’ve had for the last 20 years? So it’s a little bit of a tour through the blowback of these high thriller, high octane espionage stories that we see on these blockbuster screens every year. Because I say, “we never see what happens after ’Mission: Impossible’ leaves.” So I thought it’d be interesting to have someone be forced to retrace someone’s steps to find out what the hell is going on and why they were set up. And so that’s kind of where the story sprang from. And then I had all these years where I was thinking about it and I just kept fleshing out her character more and more and thinking of who she was. And she started to become one of my favorite characters, and I was just dying to get to the point where I could write it.
Geek: This is two books now where there’s a female main character. Well, this is a book all about a female character and then Josephine, you said she’s part of an ensemble but she’s right up front. What made you choose to write these strong female characters as opposed to men?
Brubaker: Probably I just have a lot of strong female friends. And I’ve written so many male-centric things that it was just kind of pushing myself to do something different. I mean, “Fatale” sprang from a friend of mine — who’s a great writer — who pointed out that the femme fatale is such a dumb character because she’s always just a plot device. She’s just a sexy girl who gets some man to do the wrong thing and the man is the victim. And I was thinking “well, what if the femme fatale was a more sympathetic character?” So it kind of came out of that. And then I started figuring out who she was and what her actual story would be and how to tell and then I realized “oh, okay, she’s going to be an amazing character.” And I dunno, I just try to get in the head of any character that I’m writing. And I did an issue of “Criminal” that was one of a three-issue thing — they were three interlinked stories — and the third one was from the point of view of a woman who you’d seen dead in the other two stories. And it took place before those but it was third in the sequence, so you had to fall in love with her, hopefully, after you already know she’s dead. And I thought that was just so much fun to do, and I really got a great response from people on that story. And I also wrote “Catwoman” for a long time and tried really hard to take her from that gross “T and A” category to a serious character that I would feel okay giving to women friends. And “Velvet” was really just — it’s not like we’ve never seen a spy story starring a woman, but I’ve never done one. What I’m doing with it I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do, so that was part of it. But also because it’s the Cold War and it’s the early ’70s, and that was a time where my parents were just starting to split up then and my mom was getting into Ms. magazine and women’s lib and all that stuff, and I just thought “that’s a really fascinating era to put a woman who was already way ahead of that game because she’s a spy.” And spies view the entire world completely different from everyone else. I mean, spies are referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, and prostitution is the first, so their views on what’s okay to do morally is totally different than what you or I would think, because they’re looking at a much bigger, crazier, scarier picture then we ever see. And I just thought it would be more interesting to tell that story from the point of view of a woman. It’s not like I’m abandoning writing about men. We still need a voice [laughs].
Geek: More male characters!
Brubaker: Yeah, more male characters! There’s plenty of male characters in this thing, believe me.
“Fatale” #16 is out July 24, 2013. “Velvet” #1 is out in October 2013.