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10 Questions with Jonathan Maberry

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Jonathan Maberry author photo with books 2010Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer.  His books have been sold to more than a dozen countries.

His novels include Pine Deep Trilogy: Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Risisng, Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory, The King of Plagues, The Others, Visitors, The Wolfman, Rot & Ruin, Dust & Decay and Dead of Night.

His nonfiction works include Vampire Universe, The Cryptopedia, Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living, They Bite!, Wanted Undead or Alive, and The Vampire Slayers.

For Marvel, he’s worked on a variety of projects including Black Panther, DoomWar, Wolverine, Deadpool, Captain AmericaThe X-Men and The Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher.

He’s also written numerous short stories, he’s a prolific blogger and has television shows in development.  On top of all that he’s pretty into martial arts.

He’s a busy man, but he found time to sit down with Graphic Policy for Ten Questions.

Graphic Policy:  You’re a very accomplished author, how did you go from that to writing comic books?

Jonathan Maberry:  I was scouted.  Axel Alonso, my first editor at Marvel and now a Vice President, received a copy of my novel, Patient Zero, from a friend who was a book editor.  He read it, liked it, and called me to ask if I’d be interested in taking a swing at writing comics.  Silly damn question.  I’ve been reading comics since 1966 and I used to dream of writing for Marvel.

He started me off with some one-shots: a Punisher MAX story (Naked Kill) and an 8-page Wolverine short (Ghosts) which was a back-up in Wolverine: The Anniversary. Then they offered me Black Panther.  I jumped in on issue #7 and I was off and running.

GP:  What was the genesis of DoomWar?  Where did the idea come from?

JM: I originally plotted it out as the second arc on my Black Panther run, following Power (issues #7-12).  But two things happened.  First, the story grew in the telling and pretty soon we realized that this was not a Black Panther story.  It was a Doctor Doom story in which the Black Panther and a number of other Marvel characters would play crucial roles.

And, the sales of Black Panther were declining.  That’s a hard book to keep flying, and it’s died under a lot of good writers.  There are some challenges with it in terms of marketing: the character is street-level, meaning he doesn’t have much in the way of super powers.  He’s not African-American (which plays moderately well with the predominantly white comic audience), T’Challa is African.  It’s hard to keep any book running with a character who isn’t American.  Ask Captain Britain and Alpha Flight.  Wolverine is an exception because he’s been largely based in the USA.  Also, the Panther is black.  There has always been resistance to black leading characters.  Not on the part of the comic companies…hell, Marvel would LOVE to have every race represented with a unique book.  But the readers don’t buy it in numbers that keep the product viable.

So, with the Panther book slipping toward being shelved and a concept that was outgrowing its source, Marvel decided to break DoomWar out and make it a standalone project.

The story at the core of DoomWar is taken from the headlines of every newspaper in the world.  These are key issues, common issues.  And I was so thankful that Marvel allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom of action in writing that book.

GP:  There’s a great mix of fairly lengthy verbal debate and action in DoomWar, did you find yourself having any trouble balancing the two?

JM:   Nah.  I write long novels that are a balance of deep character development, complex social, ethical and political themes, and plenty of action.  I was primed for that.

Of course, in a novel I have four hundred-plus pages to do all that in.  In DoomWar we had six 22-page issues, so I had to rely on the artist to use visuals to tell at least as much of the story as the words were telling.  Scot Eaton was the perfect artist for that project.  His realistic and highly detailed style is exactly the kind I dig.  Once I saw his initial pencils I knew that he and I could take the story in all sorts of directions and still stay within the confines of six standard issues.

GPDoomWar has a lot of political context in it, with mentions of the global impact of events in a political sense, the legality of the coup-de-tat, and most recently the right of Wakanda to invade Latveria.  Those are all pretty adult concepts for an “action” comic.  What type of challenges did you have in fitting those concepts in?

JM:  The story was always about international politics and the ethics of war, so Marvel knew where I was going from the jump, and as I said, they were completely supportive.  My editor, Axel Alonso, has been a valuable advisor, making very intelligent suggestions for where to dial up the action or plug in a recap.  But they let me tell the story I wanted to tell.

They also did not interfere with my characterization. I told them up front that I was going to deconstruct the motives and methods of Doctor Doom and T’Challa.   I do not belief in pure untainted good anymore than I believe in absolute evil.  Doom has sometimes been portrayed as ‘Evil’, with not dimension to it; and too often T’Challa has been the spotless hero.  I wanted to build the story around their flaws, explore their worldview, and watch as they re-assemble themselves into new shapes.

GP:  With one issue to go, what type of long term impact does this event have going forward?

JM:  Wow.  Some of it I can’t talk about for reasons that will become apparent in the last five pages of DoomWar.  However, as far as Wakanda is concerned, the world has changed.  Just as America has had a few wake-up calls that have made us doubt our belief in a heaven-ordained invulnerability, so too with Wakanda.  For ten thousand years they were the unconquered nation, and the problem with being the champ too long is that you get cocky and lose perspective.  Just ask Apollo Creed.

What happens in Wakanda will be like a shot heard round the Marvel Universe.

GP:  Did you have an interest in politics before writing this series?

JM:  Always.  My novels are very political, though they’re packaged as action thrillers.

I’m liberal but not a total pacifist.  I’ve been an active practitioner of Japanese jujutsu for over 45 years and I’ve worked as a martial arts teacher, rape counselor, bodyguard and bouncer.  I’m a liberal who knows that there are times you have to make a stand and even pull a trigger.

I’m also more a realist than anything.  Not a cynic, which is a kind of closed-mindedness.  Nor am I the type who believes that change will happen just because we say so.  I believe in social responsibility and the need to work together.  I despise partisan politics and politic infighting.

I live in the world and I have son just entering the world as an adult.  To be ignorant of politics would be a disservice to my family and myself.

GP:  I’ve always felt that comic books are rooted in politics.  The earliest strips often looked at class and social differences even before the great depression.  Thoughts on this history?  Agree/Disagree?

JM:  Sure, though not always.  Sometimes there is no metaphor.  Sometimes it’s just about sex or violence or drugs or superheroes, but usually there’s subtext in comics, and often that subtext makes some kind of statement.  Comics have ranged from subversive (Pogo) to propaganda (anything published during World War II by anyone!).

Graphic novels are taking that and running even farther with it.  Maus by Art Spiegelman is one of the most powerful, eloquent and unflinching political statements ever written.  And then there’s Jason Lute’s Berlin, Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles, Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai Vietnam 1965, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, J.P. Stassen’s Deogratias Tale Of Rwandaand so many others.  And even in the mainstream, Marvel’s The NAM was fiercely antiwar.  Politics abound in the funnybooks.

GP:  There’s been some recent backlash about comic books dipping their toes into the political waters.  Did you find yourself thinking about that at all while writing DoomWar?  Are there any issues you wish you could of dove into more, but the comic form limited it?

JM: I resist any urges to preach.  I’m a storyteller, and I’m not interested in shock tactics in my writing. I have no objection to anyone else doing it, but it’s not my style.  I also don’t try to tell my readers which what I think they should jump on a political issue.

That said, some of the potshots taken at comic book creators who are doing what comic creators have been doing for a hundred years are just plain silly.  Giving those small minds media attention feeds them.  So I don’t.

GP:  Do you think that the comic industry should be speaking out on issues more and there’s an obligation to push boundaries?

JM:  Comics have always done that, and Marvel more so than most.  Marvel gave us the first anti-war comics.  It gave us our first gay character.  Our first black superhero.  It went in defiance to the Comics Authority Code to tell a harsh story about drugs in a Spider-Man comic–and they were absolutely fried by DC for doing so; and then DC spins around and copies the story in a Green Lantern/Green Arrow arc.

Hell, in the sixties I was a kid in a very racist white neighborhood.  Where’d I learn about Apartheid? Fantastic Four #119.

Comics, like most forms of fantastical storytelling, have always been about telling the truth, but instead of using comics as a forum for unfiltered political diatribes, they wrap it in metaphor.  The less subtle right and left wing comics don’t do that and as a result they tend to preach to the choir.  Mainstream comics often do that –with politics, social commentary, etc.—and the metaphor makes the message far more appealing to the mainstream.  It’s the mainstream audience that has the potential for change, but they hate like hell to be yelled at.  If you whisper, if you invite them over to sit down and listen to a good yarn well told –whether that’s a polished anecdote, one of Aesop’s fables, Shakespeare’s layered comedies, the subversive lyrics of a rock song, or a comic book about super heroes—the audience may linger long enough to hear the story and consider the value of its message.

But to answer the core of the question, as to whether comic creators have an obligation to push boundaries?  No.  It’s a choice.  Either a creative or editorial decision, but it’s choice.  When it becomes an obligation it goes against the freedom inherent in comics.

GP:  I noticed Marvel Infected listed on your website and it was supposed to come out in May.  Did I miss it?  Any details on that?  What other comic related projects do you have coming up?

JM:  That’s a story that has evolved in the telling, and at each step along the way it’s undergone a name change.  I originally pitched it as ‘Punisher: Last Gun on Earth’, and Marvel snapped it up nearly on the title alone.  Then shortly into the development we changed the title to one that encompassed a less specific audience, Marvel: Infected.

After reading the scripts, the guys at Marvel got so jazzed about the project that they wanted to amp it up, so they renamed it Marvel Universe vs The Punisher and are promoting it as Marvel’s ‘Next Big Thing’.  It’ll be a four issue limited series, with two issues dropping in August and two in September.

Here’s the skinny: We enter into the Marvel Universe (or one possible dystopian future) five years after a plague turned everyone into savage cannibals.  By the time we join the story most of the human race is dead.  There are a few tribes who have staked out territories in New York.  Because of their strength, most of the surviving cannibals are former super heroes and villains.  The one uninfected person is the Punisher.  Why he’s uninfected is explained in the first issue.

For years the Punisher has been hunting and killing the cannibals, and for him this is nearly paradise because life has reached perfect simplicity.  No more having to figure out who’s a good guy and who’s a crook: it’s Frank Castle vs everyone else.

Until he discovers that there are other survivors.  Uninfected survivors.

This isn’t a standard Marvel Universe story, and it’s not Marvel Zombies.  This is a brooding existential story that plays out on a couple of different levels.  There’s some humor, of course, but it’s a dark story of what happens when shades of gray are introduced into a black and white world.

General Marvel