Recently, Charles Webb got the chance to pick the brain of writer Christos Gage about his newest title, Absolution. This interview provides a powerful look at the reflection of society in comic books along with the influence world events and moral queries have on the comic book medium.
Charles Webb: Let’s give our readers some background into who Christos Gage is. How’d all this begin for you?
Christos Gage: If you mean comics, I’ve been a fan all my life. I’d worked as a screenwriter since 1997, including on Law & Order: SVU. In 2003, when I was in New York for the shooting of an episode, Jimmy Palmiotti was kind enough to arrange for me to have lunch with Dan DiDio. I told him about an idea I had that we batted around, and we agreed it would make a good Deadshot story. He told me to send in a pitch, and it was accepted. Sounds pretty easy and I guess it was; there was plenty of luck involved too. My idea just happened to fit nicely with their plans for raising Deadshot’s profile in Identity Crisis and Villains United but at the time I was 32 years old and I’d sent my first pitch in to Marvel when I was 15, so it’s not like I hadn’t paid my dues!
If you’re referring to Absolution specifically, I was at a convention in L.A. and I stopped by the Avatar booth to get a sketch from Jacen Burrows. Avatar publisher William Christensen saw my name tag and said he’d been wanting to talk to me about doing a book for them…he was interested in an edgy take on superheroes. My wife and screenwriting partner Ruth, in one of her typical moments of genius, suggested a superhero serial killer, and things kind of fell into place from there.
CW: What differentiates John Dusk from other super-powered characters who decide to “cross the line” (i.e. the Punisher, Vigilante, etc.)?
CG: John Dusk is actually an agent of law enforcement. That gives him inside knowledge about which criminals especially need killing, because they’ve escaped the reach of the law somehow, and it gives him authority and access most people don’t have. On the flip side, it puts him in a very tricky position. He’s got a dark secret that weighs on him. His girlfriend, homicide detective Karen Leeves, is investigating some of the very murders he’s committed. John’s not stupid; he knows this can’t possibly end well. But as long as there are predators out there, he can’t stop.
CW: What’s the psychology behind John’s decision to eliminate the worst element of society? How much of his actions are proactive and how much of them are catharsis?
CG: That’s a good question, and I’m not even sure he knows the answer. John is focusing specifically on individuals who, for one reason or another, he couldn’t simply arrest and throw in jail. Maybe they’ve served their time, or beaten the rap, or just been too smart to get caught. So he rationalizes it by telling himself he’s taking predators off the streets who would otherwise commit violent crimes and who couldn’t be stopped any other way. But there’s definitely an element of catharsis to it.
One of the issues we’re exploring is how law enforcement officers who are confronted with horrible things daily can suffer from PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] and burnout. I’ve actually been in touch with some real life officers about this, and while they thankfully haven’t crossed any of the lines John Dusk crosses, they can certainly relate to the impulse, because they’ve seen our broken system firsthand, and seen the tragic results of repeat offenders getting chance after chance to prey on others. So it may be that John is just doing this because it stops the dreams and flashbacks and headaches. At the end of the day, though, what matters to him is that it’s getting done…the why of it is secondary.
CG: He’s still on the force — a respected, veteran officer. The conflict is internal. He’s having trouble sleeping, flashbacks, headaches…the signs of post-traumatic stress. And that’s not surprising given the horrors he’s witnessed in his career. Think about it, if a normal human mind went from the stress of the Civil War to Secret Invasion and then an arch-villain taking over as director of national security — not to mention the everyday horror of fighting demons, serial killers and aliens — they’d probably have a nervous breakdown! We see how John initially embarks on his campaign of killing criminals, and how he wrestles with the conflicts it raises. There’s definitely a huge risk of discovery in everything he does.
CW: With the increased scrutiny on so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” under the Bush administration, I find it interesting that the book is being released at this time. In what ways does the book address the question, “Do the ends justify the means?”?
CG: We will be exploring that…but not in a specifically political sense, more in terms of the age-old question of what a society can and should do with the violent predators in its midst. Do we have the right to execute them? If so, when? Suppose they’ve served their time but show every sign of wanting to do it again? What if you come across a person who you know is going to hurt or kill someone else, either because they’ve done it before or because they’re showing the classic signs such as animal cruelty, setting fires, consuming violent porn, etc.? Can you punish them for something they haven’t done yet? It could be argued that to deprive any of the above individuals of life or liberty is an unconscionable abuse of power. But if you know a predator is walking amongst a community and you don’t do anything about it, aren’t you complicit when he does hurt someone? These are questions that have been around for thousands of years, and I doubt there’ll ever be a decisive answer. That’s what makes it interesting to explore.
CW: Could you flesh out the cast a little more? Who should our reader’s look out for in the upcoming events?
CG: John’s girlfriend, as I mentioned, is a homicide detective who is investigating his crimes, though she doesn’t know he’s behind them. John has superhuman partners, such as The Servant and Alpha (a.k.a. Alpha Bitch), and there are super-villains in this world as well, including the Technocrat and Happy Kitty. It’s been a great deal of fun creating this world and its inhabitants. I consciously decided to keep the superhuman powers at a manageable level…don’t look for anyone who can tilt the Earth on its axis or shatter mountains. But one of the fun things about working at Avatar is being able to create characters you couldn’t get away with anywhere else, like Alpha Bitch and a fellow I came up with whose code name is Clusterf**k.
CW: Looking at some of your previous work, most notably Stormwatch PHD, Union Jack, Thunderbolts, and your upcoming run on Avengers: The Initiative, there appears to be an affinity for superheroes working within the system. Where does that come from? What is it about this ideal which appeals to you?
CG: I think it provides an interesting real world framework on which to hang a story. Whether it’s the military, police, or intelligence agencies, there’s a certain grounding in reality that comes with superheroes being associated with a familiar, existing organization. I’ve certainly written my share of cosmic space battles and traditional vigilante style characters as well, so it’s not as if I have a marked preference, but I have noticed that using real life agencies, even if you depart from reality in places in order to make it work in the superhero genre, provides a certain anchor in reality, and that was important to me for this story.
CW: John Dusk seems to be a reaction to the question of how far we’ll go to protect ourselves and here we have a new administration coming in saying that there are lines that we as a country will not cross. How do you feel the tone of titles dealing with super powers and their interaction with governments will be affected by the new political environment of the U.S.?
CG: I think what’s going on in the real world will always affect fiction to some degree. The continuing debates about what constitutes torture, how to go about closing Guantanamo (and whether it should be closed at all), and where you draw the line between open government and national security all show that these remain relevant issues. I know some people thought that the Obama administration would make these questions less prominent, but as I write this we have one ideological wing of the country that feels Obama is making the country less safe by removing some of the Bush administration’s policies, while the other side is angry because they feel he’s going back on his promises by not going far enough. Having said that, as I said earlier, I don’t consider Absolution to be exploring political issues so much as moral ones…the timeless question of how we as a society should protect ourselves, in a basic sense, from the violent predators among us. Can they be rehabilitated? Should we even try? Do we have the authority to kill them, and if so, what are the criteria? Those are questions humanity has been struggling with since it began, and that’s what’s compelling to me.
CW: What else can we expect from you in the coming months?
CG: My ongoing monthly books are Avengers: The Initiative and Wildcats. Miniseries include G.I. Joe: Cobra, which I’m co-writing with Mike Costa; House of M: Masters of Evil; a couple War of Kings one-shots at Marvel; and some other cool stuff that I can’t reveal yet, but that you should be hearing more about around San Diego Comic-Con!