James Robinson has already made quite a name for himself in rejuvenating classic Golden Age heroes for a modern age. From the appropriately named The Golden Age, to Starman and ultimately Earth 2, Robinson has recrafted DC Comics’ earliest heroes into stories that speak brilliantly to a modern audience. Now, it’s Marvel’s turn at bat, as the writer launches this week’s All New Marvel Now series, the All-New Invaders. Featuring the original characters of Marvel’s earliest Timely days — Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the original Human Torch, and the Winter Soldier formerly known as Bucky — All-New Invaders takes what’s old and repositions it once again in the center of today’s comic universe. In an extensive conversation, Robinson shared what drew him to these characters from early on, what place the group will have in the current Marvel Universe, and how we can expect the series to grow as time goes on.
Matt Santori: James, thanks again for taking the time to chat! It’s been over 15 years since you wrote for Marvel Comics, most famously for your work on Heroes Reborn. How does it feel to be back in the House of Ideas?
James D. Robinson: Well, it feels surprisingly familiar and very easy. One of the things that surprised Mark Pannicia, Tom Brevoort, Steve Wacker was that, because comics have always been something I’ve enjoyed reading as well as working in, I’ve been reading all these Marvel books while I’ve been working at DC. So, I’ve been following Bendis — from Alias and Daredevil to Secret Invasion and Avengers — Brubaker, Fraction, Remender, and Aaron. I’ve been following their work and storylines that have been going on from Civil War all the way through to the present.
The first thing I was approached to do was the Spider-Man: Family Business graphic novel that I co-wrote with Mark Waid that’s due out in April, and then was offered All-New Invaders. And I was able to tell Mark what was going on with Jim Hammond (the original Human Torch) and other things more than even he was aware. Long story short, my familiarity with Marvel meant that coming on board was a much smoother transition than it might have been if you were not familiar with the universe that you were writing.
MSG: All-New Invaders seems like a no-brainer project for you, given your longstanding love for Golden Age heroes. How did the assignment come about and what was your experience with the characters growing up like?
JDR: When I realized my time at DC was reaching an end, I called up Mark Paniccia, who was an editor I’d known from when I’d worked on the Ultraverse. He’s generally one of those guys who, when we’ve met in the past, will pick up a conversation like it were the day before, even if five years had gone by. I asked him if there was any interest in my working at Marvel, and pretty much immediately he came back and asked if I’d be interested in the Invaders, for the reasons you pretty much listed. It’s really the obvious thing.
And obviously I was interested, but at the same time, I don’t want to become typecast as a guy who just does that kind of material. And also, quite frankly, I looked at the fact that there had been a couple of attempts to relaunch the Invaders relatively recently and they hadn’t been commercially successful. And there had been a lot of potential reasons for that, but the one trap I saw that I was determined not to fall into was the fact that they always go back to the same thing — the Invaders fighting Zemo or Strucker or sleeper robots that people don’t know about. All those tropes that we’ve seen over and over again with the Invaders. Now with those characters there will always be resonant strains of narrative that will come from the past, I was determined to do an Invaders in the present day dealing with situations and threats that are true to what’s going on in the mainstream Marvel Universe, so this isn’t a book that will be off on the sidelines.
But to go back to your question about whether I was a fan, I was very much a fan of the original Roy Thomas Invaders. Prior to that, even though there was a vague acknowledgement that they were around — because Captain America was around, and Namor, and Human Torch had appeared in that one Fantastic Four Annual — all of the other Golden Age characters hadn’t really been referenced at all — maybe the Whizzer and Ms. America, who had been in the All-Winners Squad. When Rick Jones brings back those Golden Age characters at the end of the Kree-Skrull War, he doesn’t say these are heroes I remember hearing about from World War II. He says, these are characters I remember from the comic books. Those old characters were never really incorporated, even as past history, into the Marvel Universe until Roy Thomas did so in the Invaders.
I was always a huge fan of Thomas’s Invaders and I always thought it was very smart of him how he chose to depict them, which conversely I feel is where he fell foul of his own love of the DC characters by not doing the same thing with the All-Star Squadron — in that with the All-Star Squadron, he tried to make every single piece of sometimes banal continuity, sometimes conflicting continuity, make sense. The writers and artists, back when they were doing All-Star Comics and other DC books, weren’t in sync with each other because there wasn’t that huge sense of a shared universe. Things would contradict or not make sense, and I felt that trying to make sense of it became the main focus of Thomas’ All-Star Squadron at times instead of telling a big compelling, exciting story. Obviously, he did do that to great success at times, but at other times, it became this myopic look at Golden Age continuity.
With the Invaders, on the other hand, what he did very early was make it clear that the Golden Age Timely stories were actually comic books being published by a comic book company in the Marvel Universe, so they were sort of idolized and more naïve than real stories. That allowed him freedom to have a different guy be the Destroyer, or an Asian-American Golden Girl, or a Black Human Top. It freed him to do those things that he couldn’t do at DC, and I always thought that was very smart. Invaders was a much more fun book.
I was actually looking at a message board for five seconds last night, and it was people commenting on artist Frank Robbins. It was interesting how polarizing he is as an artist. He took over from Sal Buscema on Captain America, which was shocking, especially if you recall that his style was very much of the newspaper strips and an older time. Some of these message board fans were pretty hostile toward his style and going on about how much they hated it. And then there were other people, with a bit more maturity and a sense of where he was coming from and the kind of artist he was — coupled with his work on the Invaders — were much more in love with him. And I grew up with it too and had to make the adjustment when he took over from Kaluta on the Shadow.
But very quickly, I realized that he knew the time period — what the streets looked like, the cars, the clothing, the feel of it — and that really translated across to the Invaders as well. Especially after Vinnie Coletta left — who inked the first few — because god bless him, but other than his Kirby Thors and New Gods, he never really helped an artist look his best. But once Frank Springer came on inking, that was a different, fantastic team and you could see the cars and the tanks and the clothes, and the feel of London and the feel of Europe and everything else was fantastic. And yes, his figurework was always singular, but once you got to like Frank Robbins, you got to like that too — the way he’d do those bendy legs, bent sideways in a way that didn’t really make sense, and things like that.
So, yes, I loved the Invaders growing up, particularly Union Jack, obviously being English myself. His costume and his back-story and everything else was fantastic. It’s stuff that I loved and inspired me, and it is definitely things that you’ll see me referencing elements of as the series unfolds.
MSG: Like you say, many previous runs of the Invaders were set in the past, but you seem to be taking the “All New” banner quite seriously. And unlike Earth 2, the Invaders all have rich histories intact. How do you negotiate characters and relationships that have 70 plus years of history and keep it feeling fresh?
JDR: One of the ways I’m going to do it is by giving Jim Hammond focus. He’s basically this guy who’s run away from the reality of the present day. He put himself into suspended animation. He hasn’t really been around. I remember reading in reprint form when Captain America gets revived in the Avengers and he goes out into New York. He sees the UN building and everything that’s changed. And then obviously we saw that in the Captain America movie, where Chris Evans leapt out into Times Square and all of that in the present day. I’m sort of going to bring that element to Jim Hammond, that he’s looking at the world somewhat through new eyes.
But, at the same time, you won’t see so much of these past stories being referenced. I haven’t forgotten them, and I certainly intend to use them, but I’m just trying to use them in the right way. So, the first arc deals with the Invaders fighting the Kree, but the root of it stems from an adventure that you’ll see unfold where I even show a very obscure Golden Age hero called Major Liberty. I’m still bringing those things up. The War of the Worlds arc, which will be our next bigger arc where the Invaders take on the H.G. Wells Martians and we meet Killraven and the Freemen and all that. That begins with an issue that takes place in 1917 London with Union Jack and Freedom’s Five. You’re going to see those moments in the past, but I feel that if I just go complete Golden Age fanboy, and all I’m doing is referencing all this stuff, I will A) fall on my face, and B) the book will feel so referential and stop feeling modern and immediate — something that a new reader who has no interest in the Golden Age stories will not be interested in.
MSG: And you’re right, out of the four original characters, Jim Hammond is specifically an often-ignored character. What are your thoughts on his place in the Marvel Universe in the past and going forward?
JDR: I think the way Marvel looks at its history has changed. Back when they brought Captain America back, I don’t think Stan Lee and Larry Lieber gave the Golden Age stories any thought at all. It was just something they had published in the forties, until sales on super-hero stuff had waned, so they stopped doing them. When they brought back Captain America, Stan Lee remembered the Human Torch and created a new one and put him into the Fantastic Four, and brought back Namor in Fantastic Four as well. That was it. As a result, they referenced the original Human Torch, but put him immediately into suspended animation in the desert after that Fantastic Four Annual where he first appeared.
It’s only in the last fifteen years or twenty years that I believe Marvel’s perception of its own history has changed from it starting with Fantastic Four #1 (1961) to now accepting that it did begin with Marvel Mystery Comics #1 in 1939. The cover and the first hero that appears is the original Human Torch. So, I think there is legacy in his presence that is more accepted and acknowledged than it used to be. But then at the same time, it’s quite frankly why Toro isn’t around. If Toro had different powers, I might have worked out a way to involve him in the first arc, but we have Johnny Storm. We have Jim Hammond. Having a third flying guy on fire is tricky. So, I’ve worked out a way to make it all work. I just need to wait until it’s the right time.
I don’t personally believe Jim Hammond has had a lot of personality given to him. He always feels a little bit boring, like a like bit of a cipher. His costume is just a red onesie, which wasn’t very interesting. And that’s great for me, because it’s something I like doing — giving characters that haven’t had any personality a great one. I was able to pick up on elements of things that happened to him the last time he appeared, which was in Rick Remender’s final Secret Avengers arc, and springboard from that. He has a snazzy new costume and I hope this time around we get it right and readers respond to him.
At the same time, I haven’t forgotten that the book also featuring Cap, Winter Soldier, and Namor, and obviously other heroes I’ll be introducing down the line. I notice a lot of readers are watching already as to how I handle Namor and that he gets enough face time, so I already have a big “Namor-centric” arc planned.
MSG: While the roster is not technically all human, for the most part they appear to the public as four white men. Your commitment to diversity in casting is very well known (and appreciated), so it’s a curious cast to be limited to. Can we expect an expansion to the ranks of the team any time soon, with perhaps women or persons of color making appearances?
JDR: The first legacy character will be female and you’ll see her in issue #6, which ties into something big that month. The second character, who will actually join the team, is also a legacy character and you will not guess who this character is in a million years. It will tie into Inhumanity. Both of them are not white; they are of different races. I don’t want to say too much, but I realized that that was a problem. It’s just something you have to accept and try and subtly amend.
MSG: War has traditionally brought this quartet together, and while it’s clearly not Nazis this time around, there does seem to be a major threat on the horizon in terms of the Kree. What can you tell us about why it’s this team to be the one necessary to face off against this particular threat?
JDR: It’s that this team had an adventure in World War II that they didn’t realize tied into the Kree. So, it’s the Kree’s actions that bring these characters together and draws Jim Hammond out of his self-imposed exile. When we first meet Jim Hammond, he’s a mechanic in a small Southern Illinois town, when he gets drawn back into everything. Obviously, the rest are in their lives as we’ve seen with the rest of the Marvel Universe. Winter Soldier is still presumed dead and cannot reveal he’s alive for fear of the war crimes he’s been judged guilty of. Cap is Cap. Namor is Namor. But the events of what the Kree needs from these guys ultimately brings them all together and forces them to reform.
And although it’s always going to be these guys, I’m going to try to never have them call themselves the Invaders, so that it’s still that they never officially become a team. They just realize that they are this band of brothers and they just shared this incredible moment in history that will never not be part of their lives — which is their time together in World War II. It’s a bond that they can’t break, and they realize that there will always be times when they have to face these things together. I’ll just be throwing things at them that make it so they have to stay together.
One of the things I like about the book, and the name “The Invaders,” is who are the Invaders? In the first arc, the Invaders are the Kree. In another big arc coming down the line, it will be H.G. Wells’ Martians. But the Marvel Universe have always had invaders. The Mole Man invades from the depths of the Earth. The Atlanteans invade the land. Creatures invade from other dimensions, too. The Marvel Universe is constantly a world under siege. With that in mind, it’s loose enough that I think I can make it always surprising as to who they’ll be meeting next.
MSG: The last time we spoke, you had a lot to say about the work artist Steve Pugh would be doing on the title. How has that been progressing as you get further along?
JDR: It’s going swimmingly! He constantly delights myself and Mark Paniccia and Emily Shaw, the two editors. As I said before, I wanted somebody that you didn’t expect. I didn’t want the kind of artist that you always imagine when you say, “We’re doing an Invaders comic.” There are certain artists — and often they are excellent artists who’d I’d be proud and happy to work with on a different project — that are that sort of clean style that I didn’t want for this book. I wanted it to have a different interpretation. So when Steve’s name came up as someone who was interested in working with me and was interested in the book, I was like, that’s our guy!
And to be fair to Steve, even I misjudged him. We’ve all seen his work on Animal Man with Jeff Lemire, which was wonderful work, but it had this sort of very organic and wild feel that was the kind of work you imagined being done twenty years ago by Steve Bissette and John Totleben. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I thought at least that was something we hadn’t seen with the Invaders. But Steve has more than one style. While it’s still his fantastic style with his faces and expressions and all that, he’s brought this sort of majestic Kirby feel to a lot of it, turning the Pursuers into more like Spartan warriors from the past. He’s brought this whole level of thinking to everything that constantly surprises and delights us. You won’t see any art from him for a week or so, and then, as opposed to a page coming, you’ll get six pages at once. Not only do you get this beautiful art, but you get this flow of the story with a lot of pages at once.
We worked on developing a look for the Human Torch when he’s flying and on fire. Quite frankly, even though I’m also writing Fantastic Four, I don’t have a moment in my head where you’ll see Jim Hammond and Johnny Storm flying together, but if we do, I wanted to make sure you could tell them apart. He’s worked that out. He’s just a real joy to work with.
MSG: Any final thoughts or special teases for the Comicosity audience?
JDR: Well, what can I say? The first arc (where they take on the Kree) will involve more than the Kree and will lead into an even bigger epic Marvel Universe spanning adventure in the future that we’re putting together and I think everyone will be excited about.
Female ethnic characters are coming, but it won’t feel like me just ramming minorities down people’s throats for the sake of it. I’m very happy with how organic these characters feel.
And then we have a tie-in to bigger Marvel Universe events like Inhumanity and we have them fighting H.G. Wells’ Martians, where we reencounter Union Jack, Spitfire and some surprise characters you’d wouldn’t necessarily expect.
Hitting comic shops this Wednesday, All-New Invaders is the first launch book of Marvel Comics’ All New Marvel Now initiative for 2014. James Robinson is also launching Fantastic Four for Marvel in February, and is the writer on Image Comics’ creator-owned series, The Saviors.