Rick Remender on his break from Marvel, creator-owned comics, and his latest, Tokyo Ghost

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Sep 16, 2015, 4:44 PM EDT

Rick Remender is one of the few comic-book writers whose work I will pull regardless of the description. With Fear Agent, Black Science, Uncanny X-Force and my latest favorite, Deadly Class, under his belt, Remender has risen to hero status in the comic-book world and continues to release issues at a rate that is to be admired. He’s the writer I recommend to friends looking for adrenaline-filled comic that doesn’t let off the gas and just goes.

So when news of his break from Marvel to focus on creator-owned comics was announced, the news felt a little bittersweet. I was first introduced to Remender through Marvel’s Uncanny X-Force, which is still one of my favorite Marvel stories of all time, but quickly fell into a much deeper love with his creator-owned series, especially Black Science and Deadly Class.

His latest, Tokyo Ghost, takes place in the technology-ridden isles of Los Angeles (the city has turned into a host of islands after the water levels have risen) as mayhem rules the streets and people are only concerned with entertainment and drugs, in the form of Nanotech that gets injected in their blood, changing their emotions. His artist and collaborator, Sean Murphy (The Wake, The Fade Out), crafts a bleak world that screams in its intensity as the protagonists, a couple of constables bound by love as well as co-dependency, try to contain a madman named Davey, who lost touch with reality through his videogame obsession.

I spoke with Remender about his break from Marvel and decision to focus on creator-owned comics and his latest, Tokyo Ghost, which comes out today.

Let’s talk about the Marvel announcement you made; that you’ll be taking a break from working at Marvel focus on creator-owned comics.

I’ve walked away from full-time jobs in animation, videogames, Warner Bros, Fox, Electronic Arts, as well as teaching and a number of careers that started out as promising, but ultimately, they’re not creating my own comic books, and that’s what I really love to do. Going back to 1997, when I first started doing self-published indie books with my friends, I caught a terrible disease, which is I want to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, and I want to do it exactly how I want to do it. It’s satisfying on a level that nothing else is. To work with an artist, to pitch them ideas, to cook something up, to put together a story, to create the characters, to infuse them with aspects of you and people you know and philosophical bits, to build in something personal, to leave behind a representation of who you are and what you think, that’s the kind of book that I want to make. So, while it’s definitely been a lot of fun to work on the Marvel properties, I needed to focus on the more personal projects again. For as far as employers go, they were very nice, and they offered me their biggest books, and at one point in the last year, I was going to do one or the other, but I realized I’m just not in a place where what I’d do would be my best work. I’m dealing with health issues in my family and find life more manageable doing creator-owned comic books.

Is the process of working on characters on Marvel properties different than working on your own characters? Do you find yourself automatically liking your characters more, or do you have an affinity for licensed characters you grew up with?

For me, at a certain point you say to yourself, how many Wolverine stories do I have left in me? You do it the one or the two times and it scratches that itch. Wolverine is not mine and so, by definition, not a character I could invest myself in as deeply as I character I create whole cloth. I work hard on any job I am ever given and do my very best to infuse that character with as much passion and pathos as I can, but Heath Huston, Grant McKay or Saya, the characters that I create, are obviously going to be 100 percent me and the artist and what we wanted to do. No one will take them next and do something with them that I don’t like. I will never have anyone tell me how the story has to be, or what character I can use. It’s liberating to do our own sh-t exactly the way we want to do it. For me, right now, that is needed. Marvel supported me, helped train me and helped me provide for my family, and I had a good time doing that work. It’s just not where my heart is right now.

There was once a letter written to you in an issue of Black Science about how you construct your comics. You said the best thing to do when creating any story is to start with the characters and write about them, who they are, who they love and hate, where they came from and anything you can think about from them. Write pages and pages' worth. Get to know them and the story will just sort itself out. Can you do that the same with licensed characters, or does that only work on creator-owned characters?

No, you can’t. Let’s go back to Wolverine. Wolverine has been in a million comic books. Now, I’m a purist. I’m a Chris Claremont, Frank Miller kind of Wolverine fan, with a little Larry Hama in there. But, to me, that’s the era that the character really clicks, maybe because it’s when I was a kid. Once you’ve got bone claws and his origin has changed, then he’s stopped being the same character for me, relative to when I read the character. For other people, that could be completely different. But you have all of this history that other people have written, and if you tried to make perfectly logical sense of all of it, any character is a jumbled mess. Chronologically, he’s been a thousand things. So, what you have to do in those situations is, you really have to take the things you like best, and for me it was Claremont, Miller and Grant Morrison. You try to acknowledge everything else if you can, but to acknowledge all of that continuity and history leaves you shackled, and in many ways with little else to be discovered about that character. There’s no way to go back and read the million comics with Wolverine and make sure that you’ve fallen in line with every single version that’s ever been written of the character. It’s insane to think every line written ever is a part of the character. So inevitably you’re going to have somebody who’s a fan of Scott Lobdel’s story angry with you because on a comic 23 years ago Wolverine said he doesn’t eat steak and beans on Tuesdays, he eats eggs, and that pedantic joylessness makes the job less fun. Whereas in creating my own character, I’m filling in those gaps. I’m creating the character’s backstory, taking them to the next step in their lives. What I want to say is pure in its intention.  

Do you spend all that time writing the backstory on all your characters, or just the main ones?

Any character that is going to have any role in your story should have an established desire, traits and a backstory. And you might not ever tell those backstories. You might not have time to divulge any of these histories you’ve cooked up, but it will come across in their character in little bits where they will feel living and breathing and real. They will want something and have a reason for existing in your story, or you cut them. And ultimately, for me, when a character hasn’t had that kind of work done, I can tell reading it as well as writing it. I’m guilty of it at times. There was a couple characters where I say, “Ahhh, I’ll figure them out later,” and then you get six or seven issues in and you realize they end up becoming voiceless because you don’t know them. Whereas characters you do know are making decisions based on their history, preferences and desires, which leads to a richer experience. And as you’re writing the story, the characters you haven’t done the background work will fall to the wayside or they will be there to facilitate a plot role, which is pretty unsatisfying as well.

Do the characters then map out their own destiny, or do you have a destiny in place for them? Or do you just start out and interact with them, and they craft their own story?

A little of both. The great thing about creating these books whole cloth is, I work really hard to make sure there’s an outline, trajectory, character reveals and a plan in place. And I’ll work for weeks and weeks and weeks just on outline. So, for most of these stories, I’ll have an outline far beyond where we’re at with the current issues. The beauty is, as I’m writing, the characters will make different decisions as I’m scripting, sometimes. I’ll have it plotted that this person will pull the trigger on that person or that these people are going to break up and their love is going to disappear, but when I get to those moments, I’ll realize that these characters, as the narrative has flowed to this point, won’t feel right doing these things that I have plotted out. So, when you immerse yourself more and more in the story so your narrative can change, you still want to try to stick to most of your narrative points, and with most of my outlines, like Fear Agent, I’ll go back and see that I stuck to a good portion of the outline. Heath himself develops in a few distinctive ways, and there’s a couple of zigs and zags that went in there, but ultimately it has the same basic structure. I always try to make sure that there’s a tight outline with tracks to follow but also allow myself to have the characters make different decisions that will alter those a little bit and keep me excited as well.

Let’s look at your latest comic, Tokyo Ghost. This is a world that has a lot of skin, violence and mayhem, especially in the first issue. What made you want to explore that environment?

Any time you’re envisioning one of these futures, it’s always kind of fun to look at current trends and problems we’re facing. One of the current trends and problems is the world is crumbling around us and we’re obsessed with the shoes Beyonce is wearing, or arguing with each other on the Internet over pedantic details that have very little to do with the actual realities of life. It’s insipid, and I think it’s a problem that’s just going to get worse. I think we’re going to see people with a sense of entitlement because they’re used to clicking and getting things immediately. There’s going to be people that won’t be able to immerse themselves in a novel anymore because their attention spans are shot. And that’s me too. I wake up in the morning and check Twitter. Why am I doing this? Because it’s an endorphin hit that’s the same as pulling an arm on a slot machine ... because it’s an addiction. My brain is now used to having so much information dumped into it every day that if I reduce that information I feel itchy and twitchy. Tokyo Ghost starts out in a world that has decayed around us. The oceans have risen and the isles of Los Angeles are a putrid squalor, but nobody gives a sh-t 'cause everybody is watching 25 shows and they have Nanotech in their blood releasing drugs to keep them emotionally stable. So there’s no reason to really pay attention to what is around you. And I think that’s a natural exploration of a problem that I am seeing around us in current society.

There’s also a separate world from the Los Angeles that’s depicted in the world. Can you talk about that?

Well, I don’t want to give that much away, but we wanted to show that there’s a counterweight to the ugliness of the isles of Los Angeles in the story, and that’s the tech free nation of Tokyo. It’s a love story, so we get into how the characters met and who they are.

Can you talk about the villain in the first issue, Davey, and his role in the Los Angeles you described?

Well, Davey is the millennial nostalgiast who sees reality as a videogame. Only this is a character in a world in 60 years from now, so for him, the millennial attitude and culture is pure nostalgia, like rockabilly dudes who are immersed in the 1950s today. It’s one of those kind of things. Davey sees no distinction between the Internet and the real world. To him, if he was playing Grand Theft Auto and mowing people down as a game or doing it in real life, there’s no difference. His mind has become so immersed in the Internet and in fabricated reality that everything’s a videogame to him. The isles of Los Angeles is just a game level that he’s trying to beat, and he wants to get to take out the big boss, who just happens to be Mr. Flack, the man who runs the entertainment conglomerate that runs the city. Flack sends out his constables, Len and Debbie, to stop Davey. So it’s taking things that we see that are problematic and just magnifying them to the nth degree to have some fun with. The commentary is there, but at the same time, you’re having a lot of fun watching this insane Inspector Gadget/Joker-like character that views the Internet and reality as the same thing.

In many of your comics, drugs have a major role in the plot and development of the characters. Can you talk about how drugs impact the characters in Tokyo Ghost?

Well, in Tokyo Ghost, the drug is the iPhone or Internet, and it has been magnified to a point where that is projected constantly in front of you. Also, your blood is full of Nanotech, which, if you read on futurism sites, they say we’re not far off from being able to inject nanos into your blood that will release chemicals to change your mood. I think it’s another step towards our desire to remove all bad feeling or things that are uncomfortable from life. It’s an examination in terms of how far we will take that. And so the drug in Tokyo Ghost is really technology, and I also like examining the idea of the co-dependent who is stuck with someone who is addicted to technology the same way that most alcoholics or drug addicts are being propped up by a co-dependent in their relationship, someone who is enabling them to continue their destructive behavior by paying their bills or raising their kids. I wanted to examine that with Len and Debbie, where you have Debbie, who’s a straight edge that doesn’t have any tech, propping up Len, who has completely fallen into the Internet, and he’s no longer there. And she recognizes that if she quits propping him up he’d die, so that’s an interesting dynamic to examine.

How did you meet Sean and decide to do this project with him, and what style were you aiming at in the creation?

I’ve been trying to work with Sean, and we finally got to hang out at some conventions in 2012 with a mutual friend of ours and really hit it off. We’re very like-minded people. We start talking about work, and the next thing you know, we’ve been on the phone for two hours just talking. So Sean is someone that I not only respect but like a lot as a human being, and that leads to multiple long conversations about the story. So we spend hours on the phone every week, digging and examining about what gets us excited about drawing, and ultimately this story was born out of a year of these conversations. And I think that there’s a richness to it because of the wealth of ideas that we had.  There’s a dichotomy between Tokyo and the isles of Los Angeles, and I think it works nicely in how you have one that’s putrid and decrepit and one that’s a beatific, utopian society that you get to bounce off of each other. Also you get to play with aesthetics from Judge Dredd and the old Lobo comics, RoboCop and samurai movies. It becomes a very strange soup that hopeful people thinks taste good, because Sean and I think it tastes great, and we’re having an incredible amount of fun making it. And that’s always the biggest test for me, because if I’m excited to write it and to see what’s Sean’s doing in creating this world, usually it’ll find its audience.

Other than Judge Dredd and the comics you described for the look of Los Angeles, did you have any novels that inspired you in making Tokyo Ghost?

I was reading a sh-tload of James Ellroy at the time, The Cold Six Thousand and White Jazz, especially. So there’s a good bit of the ol’ complex character trapped between the various forces around them. White Jazz was the one I was reading when I was initially cooking this up with Sean, so there’s a good bit of '50s crime noir thrown in there for sure. And then there’s some Philip K. Dick, where there’s a dystopic ugly future and a Huxley-style Brave New World, but inverted a bit.

There have been a lot of comics being made as television shows. I was wondering if you have anything in development?

 We have a few fires in the oven. The only thing announced is Night Mary, currently in development by NBC/Universal, and it turns out it’s a lot of fun. Comics are going to help make a lot of unique television, and it will only help comics if more and more of these things get made. It ultimately makes for a more vibrant and diverse entertainment options when television comes for some unique book like The Wicked + The Divine or Southern Bastards. Fingers crossed that all these things get made.