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It’s Sword-and-Sorcery Infused with The Terminator. David Pepose Talks Savage Avengers

Savage Avengers #1

Announced in February, Savage Avengers returns this May with a whole new lineup and a whole new creative team.

Writer David Pepose guides Conan the Barbarian, Daredevil (Elektra), Anti-Venom, Black Knight, Cloak & Dagger, and Weapon H along with Carlos Magno in a whole new adventure. They’ll fight their way through the Hyborian Age with an evil Deathlok hot on their trail!

We got to talk to David about what we can expect from his Marvel ongoing series debut as well as his upcoming take on Moon Knight.

Graphic Policy: David, for the people out there that haven’t met you yet, please introduce yourself and tell them about your various minis and Ringo Award-winning exploits.

DP: Sure thing! I’m David Pepose, and I’m the writer of books like Scout’s Honor at AfterShock Comics, Spencer & Locke and Going to the Chapel at Action Lab, and my Ringo Award-winning Kickstarter series The O.Z. I’ve been reading comics my entire life, and it’s been a real honor to work in the independent comics scene — and a tremendous privilege to now be making my Big Two debut at Marvel.

GP: And now you’re on Savage Avengers. You’ve commented before that a few particular team books were favorites and influential in your approach. Let’s talk about when you first encountered those books and the particular elements that affect how you yourself write a team.

DP: For sure — some of the big influences behind Savage Avengers were Al Ewing’s work in Mighty Avengers, Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, and of course Grant Morrison’s seminal JLAJLA was probably the earliest book I’d encountered, and I really enjoyed the way Grant found creative ways to utilize their cast’s powers, but while still distilling their voices and establishing really fun character dynamics amongst their roster. 

I think Al Ewing did a similar thing in Mighty Avengers, which was a book that I nearly passed over — but I’m so glad I gave it a shot, because he did such an incredible job at taking characters I didn’t have any knowledge or affection for (especially newer legacy heroes like White Tiger and Power Man) and made them into a cohesive unit that you really cared about. Al’s work is probably the biggest influence on Savage Avengers, and it’s always a comfort to know you’re being inspired by the best.

Rick Remender’s work in Uncanny X-Force, meanwhile, has always influenced me in terms of rhythm — his voice is so singular because of the pacing and intensity of his writing, and that’s something I’ve tried to incorporate into Savage Avengers as well. But there’s also that throughline in his Marvel work of dysfunctional groups having to hash it out and learn to cooperate, and that plays a big role here, too.

GP: You had a hand in picking most of the team members you’re using in Savage Avengers. Can you describe how you approached that process, and what kind of give-and-take goes into (forgive me) assembling a team for Marvel?

DP: When my editor Tom Brevoort first reached out to me about potential ideas for Savage Avengers, my first instinct was to see if we could establish a permanent roster for the book, since Gerry Duggan’s spectacular run had more of a rotating cast of characters that would cross paths with Conan during his wild adventures in the Marvel Universe. So I approached this roster with two directives: how do I speak to Gerry’s iconic original roster of Conan, Punisher, Elektra, Wolverine, Venom and Doctor Voodoo, but how do I do that in a way that lets me put my own stamp on the book?

With that in mind, I figured I could have my cake and eat it, too — on the one hand, we’ve got legacies of the core original Savage Avengers, with Conan, Elektra, Anti-Venom, and Weapon H. On the other hand, we’re building up this really cool sword-and-sorcery element to the team with Black Knight, Cloak and Dagger. But ultimately, they all share a similar throughline — these are all characters struggling with their dark side, and they’re going to wind up having to help each other navigate through that darkness.

Back-and-forth is a great way to describe how a roster like this comes together. Especially when you’re a new writer taking a swing this big, you’ve got to be flexible — that doesn’t mean you need to settle, but it means you need to come up with backup plans that have just as much love and affection as the number-one thing you’re pitching. There are very, very few characters that I’d consider “bad” — there’s always a way to make someone everyone else is overlooking and polish them into a show-stopping, A-list-quality character. And maybe that’s the real throughline for this entire roster, y’know?

But the thing is, there’s a ton of other books going on, and when you’re just starting out like I was, you’re never going to be privy to everything — so you wind up putting together a massive list of characters that you think could be a potential fit, and you work your way down. Is Flash Thompson busy? What about Elektra as Daredevil — is there a way to fit her in that doesn’t mess with Chip Zdarsky’s plans? There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes coordination, but I was honestly pretty fortunate in getting just about everything I wanted on the first pass. The only characters I told Tom that I’d go to the mat begging for were Cloak and Dagger, and thankfully I didn’t get any pushback on them. (Laughs)

Savage Avengers

GP: You’ve developed a reputation for both being really good with a pastiche, weaving in satire, and punctuating things with dark humor. In what way does the “Pepose brand” manifest itself in the book?

DP: The “Pepose Brand” for Savage Avengers is really in the high concept, since this series feels almost like a sword-and-sorcery-infused version of The Terminator. As a warrior hailing from the Hyborian Age, Conan the Barbarian is now a man out of time in the modern Marvel Universe… and that puts him head-to-head with Deathlok, who has charged Conan with crimes against the timestream.

So we’re able to take elements that you might be familiar with, but subvert them in some really cool and exciting ways — Conan is a natural-born warrior, but he’s going to find himself pushed to his limits against this soldier from the future. Meanwhile, the rest of the Savage Avengers are going to find themselves way out of their depths as the Deathlok’s rampage takes some surprising turns. Mashups are something that really interests me as a writer, as it lets me cover a pretty wide spread narratively and can make some really unexpected and fun sparks start to fly.

GP: Conan the Barbarian has a mammoth cultural history. Was it intimidating to take on that character? What are the elements that you believe must be in a Conan story, and what are the challenges and/or exciting parts of bumping him against the members of your cast?

DP: Hugely intimidating. (Laughs) But I think having Conan in the mix is part of the reason why I was so excited to tackle this book in the first place — it’s the mashup ethos, it’s having a team of scrappy Marvel superheroes alongside one of the biggest icons in sword-and-sorcery! But my favorite Conan stories are both dramatic and just purely fun escapism — like, living in the Hyborian Age is hard… but it’s also kind of fun to vicariously live through Conan’s adventures as a sword-swinging badass, y’know? So figuring out Conan’s unique voice was a really cool experience for me — sometimes he’s got this amazing bravado in the heat of combat, other times he can be hostile and even selfish. He’s complex, but he’s also larger-than-life, and that makes him a perfect leading man for this series.

That quality also makes him the perfect foil for the rest of our roster. Conan’s closest with Elektra, having interacted with her throughout Gerry Duggan’s run on the series, and he’s also teamed up with Black Knight briefly in the tail end of that run — but Conan is unapologetically himself, and as the target for Deathlok, the rest of the cast is going to be inherently curious as to what kind of man is worth all this hassle. Conan’s also very good at cutting through B.S., and his bluntness is a great way to either strip our Savage Avengers of their self-deceptions, or to make them rise to the challenge and defend their beliefs.

GP: The villain, at least initially according to advance information, is a version of Deathlok. Why Deathlok, and what makes him different than other versions of the character that have played a villain’s role?

DP: Deathlok, in a lot of ways, is the elemental opposite of Conan as a character — whereas Conan is this mountain of muscle from the distant past, Deathlok is this hard-edged metal machine from the far future. They’re both men out of time, and Deathlok has this laser-focused mad-on for Conan that is going to put every bit of the Cimmerian’s strength and strategy to the test. But since this is also a team book, I needed to find ways to stack the deck, to make sure this Deathlok could conceivably take down a whole roster of superheroes — and I’m really happy with the various ways we’ve done it.

But I’ve always appreciated the inner duality of Deathlok as a character — I thought Dwayne McDuffie did such an amazing job with the Michael Collins incarnation of Deathlok, which was the version of the character that I grew up with. So to me, there’s always been this question of morality at the heart of Deathlok as a concept — he’s ultimately someone committed to doing the right thing, but what does that look like? How do his circumstances as a cyborg zombie dictate what the right thing even is? And what about the vaguely sinister implications of conscripting corpses as a multiversal peacekeeping force? Without spoilers, Deathlok’s mission in Savage Avengers is perhaps more complicated than even he knows, and his growth as an antagonist is one of my favorite elements of the entire series.

GP: Your partner in savagery is Carlos Magno, who has done KangAvengers Forever, and Fantastic Four, among others. The preview art looks fantastic; what does Carlos bring to the book, and how does his art affect the way that you write?

DP: I couldn’t be more fortunate or grateful to be working with somebody as incredible as Carlos Magno. He is as gracious as he is talented, and the thing I like most about working with him is he’s clearly as hungry for this book to succeed as I am. He’s a diehard Conan fan, and it’s been a real treat watching him crush every page that our legendary Cimmerian is on — but boy, seeing the way he’s translated the rest of our cast has been so inspiring. In particular, the way he draws Cloak is an absolute show-stopper, and I downright adore the way that he draws Anti-Venom, especially in Flash’s feral state. It’s a really fun way to take John Romita, Jr.’s unique visual iconography, but in a way that makes it his own, y’know?

But Carlos’ work evokes bits of Phil Jimenez and Bryan Hitch, which honestly has just inspired me to keep thinking of more larger-than-life scenarios to really play to Carlos’ style. The craziest part of all this, though? He keeps raising the bar for himself — like, seeing the jump just from Issue #1 to Issue #2 blew my mind. So I hope that readers recognize just how much effort Carlos is putting into these pages, and I really hope to keep working with Carlos as long as he’ll have me. He’s absolutely the Real Deal.

Savage Avengers

GP: I know that you interned at the Distinguished Competition years ago, but this is your first time working for Marvel and your first time writing for the Big Two. Your work for smaller companies and Kickstarted books have all been creator-owned. What’s the adjustment of being the captain and commander of the story to being the custodian of major players like Conan and Elektra? And what’s it like working with an editor like Tom Brevoort, who knows a thing or two-hundred about the process?

DP: The thing is, I’m approaching this series as not just a fan of Marvel, but as a fan of these particular characters — I’d hand-picked this entire roster, because I want the comics-reading populace to love them as much as I do. There’s so much potential to this roster, and because I know these characters and their voices, Savage Avengers as a whole has been this really fun dance between reclaiming cool personality traits and dynamics, while simultaneously finding new angles to build on all these characters in some really additive ways. Sometimes that’s figuring out new ways to exercise their powers, sometimes it’s finding surprising commonalities or massive conflicts in their personalities — but it’s been a fairly straightforward process for me because I know in my heart of hearts, none of these characters are broken. There’s just pure potential, and I’m excited to be part of the team showing it off.

Beyond that, really the biggest learning curve is figuring out the traffic grid of it all — especially when you’re starting out like I am, you have to really trust your editors to be able to tell you if something works within everything else going on in the general Marvel constellation, or if you need to think of a different angle because it’s bumping up against something else that’s already in the works. 

But that’s where I’ve been really fortunate to be working with my editors Tom Brevoort, Martin Biro and Annalise Bissa, who have honestly made this as painless of an experience as I could have imagined. Tom in particular is… honestly, the best way I can describe Tom is he’s an editorial Jedi master. (Laughs) And that’s a good thing! I tend to overthink a lot of my story elements, and while that’s led to what I think is a career of pretty good writing, that means I tend to have a lot of questions, backup plans, alternate options to agonize over… and he gives me such well-considered responses to all of it. It’s been such a great experience working with someone who’s given me an immense amount of latitude, while also nudging me in the right direction if the story isn’t adding up. So yeah, I’m very grateful — there’s a lot of moving parts to navigate working at Marvel, so I’m really lucky that I’m in good hands with all of it.

GP: I’d be remiss if I didn’t also ask about your forthcoming Moon Knight story.

DP: Our Moon Knight story is so much fun. I’m teaming up with Leonardo Romero on a story that’s a day in the life of Marc Spector — as well as his other personalities, which makes it a little bit of a mystery as well. With a 10-page real estate, you either get into a short and punchy adventure, or you dive deep into a character study — but with a character as rich and layered as Moon Knight as well as an artist as insanely talented as Leo, I got to do both. That story will in Moon Knight: Black, White & Blood #2, which is currently scheduled to hit stores the same day as Savage Avengers #1!

GP: What separates Savage Avengers from every other book on the stands, and why, in your estimation, is it something that readers shouldn’t miss?

DP: There’s a sense of scale to our adventure that I think is really engaging, and I think one that’s accessible for anyone, whether or not they’ve read any previous Conan adventures or even any adventures with the rest of our cast. And there’s a real intensity to it all that I hope stands out amongst the pack, tempered with a real sense of heart that I think people might not expect from a book called Savage Avengers. But ultimately, I think the big draw for this series has to be the unexpected dynamics that we’re building amongst our roster, and Carlos Magno’s exceptional artwork — I think we’re really firing on all cylinders for this series, and if you want a superhero adventure that tackles both sci-fi and fantasy, and you’re definitely going to want to check out the genre-crossing jam band that is Savage Avengers

GP: Last thing: tell the good people what else is coming up and where they can find you and your work online.

DP: For sure — I’m working on a lot of different stuff right now that I can’t talk about quite yet, including my ongoing work on Savage Avengers, a few more hush-hush projects, as well as a brand-new original series that’s scheduled for later this year, as well as the return of The O.Z. to Kickstarter closer to the end of 2022. I’ve also got my new short story The Master of Kung Fthulhu in Russell Nohelty’s Cthulhu Is Hard To Spell: Battle Royale Kickstarter, which you can order today at cthulhuishardtospell.com. As for me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at @Peposed, as well as on Facebook at @DavidPeposeComics, on my personal website at davidpepose.com, and you can subscribe to my newsletter PEP TALKS. But no matter what, I’m just so grateful for this opportunity, and I’m excited for people to see what else we’ve got coming down the pike in 2022!