FANTOMEX MAX Explores Identity, Consequence of Super Powers

Fantomex MAX #1 Cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

Andrew Hope isn’t exactly a household name in comics. Though he played in the comic book sandbox in the early 90s, he’s spent most of his writing career as a screenwriter, not on the printed page.

Fantomex, as far as mutant and X-Men characters go, isn’t exactly a household name either. The character, created by Grant Morrison about a decade ago, has a cult following, however, and rose to some prominence thanks to Rick Remender’s run on Uncanny X-Force, which has been continued by Sam Humphries.

Somehow, that makes these two unique characters a match made in heaven.

Announced by Marvel just ahead of next week’s Comic-Con International: San Diego, Fantomex MAX is a new four-issue mini-series that centers on the enigmatic character as he works to better define just who the heck he is. Hope is joined by Shawn Crystal on art for the story, and hopes it leads to much more for him at Marvel (and for Fantomex, too).

We talked with Hope over the phone to find out more about the series, and just how you can have a character-driven story featuring a character whose identity is a total mystery.

Newsarama: Andrew, you played around in the comic book medium for a while – I hate to date you but a couple of decades ago…

Andrew Hope: (laughs) A long time ago, yeah.

Nrama: What brought you back into comics now, specifically?

Hope: It was just good fortune on my part. The original story of the Fantomex mini-series I’m working on existed for a couple of months before my involvement. One of my old friends from Scotland, that I can’t name, wrote a four-page treatment, I guess you’d call it. That was given to Marvel, and they tried to work it out, but they couldn’t work out their creative differences.

The good fortune came then, because my agent John Campbell was the one who brokered the deal to bring Marvelman to Marvel Comics. He was very connected to the upper echelons of Marvel because of this, and we have been good friends since 1985. He knows that I’ve done quite a bit of writing over the last six, seven years, and he put my name forward to Dan Buckley [President of Publishing]. Axel Alonso [E-i-C] got involved and said, “sure, let’s see what he can do!”

So I took a look at the original treatment, and I was able to tell exactly what wasn’t working with it. I’m a more cinematic writer than the other writer was, and I’m more character driven. My concept of writing is all aobut how the story develops organically from characters. Unfortunately, the original treatment was very very light on characterization, very plot driven, almost felt as if the characters were shoehorned into the plot. Also, it started with the character of Fantomex being written a little like Mark [Millar]’s Nemesis. It just didn’t feel right to me. What I did was a complete overhaul of the story, sent completely on spec at the request of Axel. He liked it and thought it was really good immediately. It just took off from there! This was around mid-June of last year.

Nrama: It’s interesting that you bring up it needing to be character-driven. While Fantomex has been around for about ten years now, he has only been written by a select few writers. Rick Remender added a lot to his character in the last few years in Uncanny X-Force, but he’s still largely a mystery. What makes the core of Fantomex that is the starting point when you want to drive the character forward?

Hope: When I started looking at the original treatment, not really knowing a lot about Fantomex, I went to his original appearances from Grant [Morrison] in the New X-Men book and let that gestate a bit. It struck me that this is a character who is solo in pretty much all aspects. One of my big pet peeves in writing is the nature of identity, and how it’s influenced by various factors. One of those factors that’s been a focus of mine for a couple of years is the nature of super-humans: the psychology of super-humans, but also how it ties into the nature of the costume, the uniform, the mask, that kind of thing.

This is a guy who, only his eyes are visible. There has to be a reason for that. He could easily be wearing a domino mask but he chooses to wear almost a full facemask. And he’s very secluded from other people.

That was immediately interesting to me, and made me wonder, what makes this guy want to be apart from everyone else? That was kind of touched on in the original treatment, but in more of a blasé way, he’s a devil-may-care kind of guy; I wanted to show something different from that. I wanted to try to get the loneliness of the character. He’s denying himself, but certain other characters in the series can see that and use it against him. I feel that could be his only flaw. He doesn’t see any flaws, he feels that he’s perfect. I wanted to pierce that veil of perfection, and write a character that I could relate to him – not really in the loneliness, because I’m quite a happy guy actually. (laughs)

Nrama: You don’t wear a full face mask every time you go out?

Hope: Not all the time. (laughs). I’m gearing up to write a novel trilogy, and it’s based on super-human characters. It’s more about the effect the powers and the costumes and the masks have on these people. It seemed like this was a natural progression for me to explore this character who is basically covered up to the world, lives alone, in – I don’t want to give too much away – in some place.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: It’s interesting that you bring up, he tries to keep his identity secret, even though he doesn’t really have a secret identity – he doesn’t have that other half.

Hope: Exactly! That’s an awesome point. It’s almost as if he has no identity at all, he is simply Fantomex! And there’s a reason for that – I’m not saying that I provide the reason. I certainly hint at what those reasons could possibly be.

But yeah, you’re absolutely right. This is a guy who seems to have no identity.

Nrama: So, if you’re writing a character with no identity who wants to keep it secret, but you want things to be character-driven, then you have to be using some pretty intriguing people around him. Who are some of the people around him that will drive us forward and help us know more about Fantomex?

Hope: Well, we have the bad guys, and we have a couple of supporting characters.

The bad guys are a trio of – without giving too much away – special agents. They take it upon themselves to go rogue once they inadvertently receive superhuman abilities from a job they worked on. That again gets into the effect of powers on the human mind. These are people that behaved normally and professionally, but the powers they received – it’s not that the powers themselves have affected their minds, it’s that they have them. It’s like winning the lottery and becoming a huge dick, all right? That kind of nature of psychological change. Because of their connection, they’re invested in Fantomex, who is at this time at large, uncatchable from all his thieving activities.

They are the ones that actually uncover his one flaw, and then use it against him. Those are the bad guys.

Then there are two supporting characters. One is another special agent who is originally – ugh, I don’t want to give away too much, Axel will kill me! (laughs) She is working on the side of the law. She is a longtime pursuer of Fantomex, trying to bring him to justice, and has failed on numerous occasions. So she is motivated by her failure to participate in this scheme to catch Fantomex. That’s putting it very simplistically.

The other supporting character that actually has a large role is the character of EVA. My EVA is considerably different from the other versions of her that have come before. My version is a hyper intelligent AI character. She manifests herself as a femme fatale kind of character, but that changes about halfway through the book. Towards the end, she’ll encounter something that makes her question her whole life/motivation, which is simply to be Fantomex’s girl Friday. When she questions that, there’s a key change in her development, which I’m very proud of. She originally was not going to be in the story as much as she turned out to be. That extra depth, I stumbled on accidentally, and has given greater depth to the entire series, and to Fantomex by proxy.

Nrama: Absolutely. It’s interesting to me that you mention how the superpowers kind of take over and define the villains. How much would you say Fantomex’s powers define him, especially since he’s someone with such a small amount of identity?

Hope: I touch on that in the climactic sequence of issue #4. He then – in cinematic terms, the protagonist much change, must evolve. I didn’t want the series to start off with Fantomex as a cypher and end as a cypher. He must undergo some kind of change that is not just pointed out to him, he must feel that change, that understanding, within him. He is a guy that is defined by his powers. His powers make him the super successful super thief that he is. He’s not so much identified by his powers, but he’s identified by this role of being a master thief. But you know what? There’s a mind underneath that costume. He needs to stop believing that he’s just that, that there are other roles he can play if he truly wants to.

Nrama: Does his past with either the Weapon Plus program or even before that come into play at all? Or is that something you don’t feel people need to know or be focused on for this story?

Hope: No, no. All that stuff is super interesting and very entertaining, all the stuff that Grant and Rick did is very enjoyable. But my remit from Axel, I asked him how much of their stuff I should read. He wanted my Fantomex to be unfettered by continuity. So not having a lot of experience with Fantomex as a published character, I didn’t read too much into his history. There are a lot of hints in the series about his history – not specifically tied to things like Weapon Plus and the World; it’s very mysterious. Those hints could be expanded on if the series sells well enough to warrant a sequel for Marvel.

Nrama: You’ve talked both today and in prior interviews about the cinematic nature of your writing thanks to your screenwriting experience. When you’re looking at comics and seeking to tell a story, what makes the medium appeal to you as a cinematic-focused writer?

Hope: As a screenwriter, my interests are the structure of format. When I look at Fantomex, when I look at comics in general these days – When I was growing up, I loved John Byrne’s Fantastic Four – I loved that sh*t you know? Comics have really changed a lot since then. It used to be the single-issue story, or the two-parter or three-parter. Nowadays, comics are written for the ultimate goal of the collection. To me, that tells you right off, when a story is meant to be collected, it has a certain structure to it. That structure has a beginning, a middle, and an end, an act 1, act 2, act 3. So I don’t see comics these days the way that I saw them as a kid. I see them more in terms of a medium, which in order to survive, needs to be easily adaptable, whether it’s to movies or animation or anything like that. So you have to approach comic books these days in the same terms of a cinematic property. You need to have that kind of structure there.

Nrama: So when you’re writing for an artist, how much direction do you tend to give? Specifically with Shawn Crystal, are you trying to give him a very specific idea of what you’re seeing in your head when you’re writing?

Hope: That’s actually an excellent question. As someone who, the company I’m working for gave birth to the term “Marvel Style,” but I am not a Marvel Style writer. My discipline is screenwriting. I don’t feel comfortable giving someone a plot and giving them complete control of the storytelling. The storytelling to me is something the writer should be involved in. That’s not a criticism to anyone who writes for Marvel, because I’ve seen the work that Matt Fraction is doing on Hawkeye, and that is a f*cking phenomenal comic book, that is one of the best comic books of all time, in my opinion. And he writes Marvel Style. It definitely works at times. If I wrote that way it would also work because I have a fantastic artist who knows his stuff. But the nature of the way I’m trained, I write screenplay style, very much like Mark Millar. If you look at one of his pages and one of mine, they’d look very similar.

In terms of what kind of collaboration this is, I write full script with sparse enough panel descriptions that there’s a lot of room for interpretation. I’m basically giving Shawn “this should be in this panel here, but draw it however you want, frame it however you want, use whatever camera angles you want,” unless it’s a very specific thing I’m looking for, a close-up, up shot, down shot, that sort of thing.

I feel that the collaboration that Shawn and I have, right from the get go we have been totally in sync. He knows what I want as a writer and having seen his work has allowed me to expand what I’d normally write as a screenwriter. He’s given me everything I have asked for, and his design work is so good that it has actually inspired me to write scenes that I would not have normally written.

Nrama: You are clearly very excited about this project…

Hope: Oh, can you tell? (laughs) It’s awesome!

Nrama: You even went so far as to immediately change your twitter profile to say you’re a writer for Marvel Comics. Is that an indication that you’re having enough fun that this won’t just be a brief flirtation with comic book writing, but maybe a true love affair and this is something you’ll keep doing for awhile?

Hope: Well, I’m going to answer that by going all the way back to Scotland. When I was growing up, one of my earliest memories was reading the UK reprints of Marvel Comics. They were in black-and-white, or some of them only had one color, green, and that was in a Spider-Man comic, right? So that was one of my earliest memories, and it was Marvel Comics. I didn’t even read any DC Comics until I bought a collection from my friend for like 50 pounds. So comics have been in my blood forever. Even in the 90s when I thought the artwork was kind of poor, I still kept reading them. But specifically, it’s been Marvel Comics. I’ve always loved Marvel.

When I finally had access to buying American comics that would come into a bookshop, I loved Stan Lee, I loved the way he wrote, it taught me a good vocabulary! So that’s really been in my blood.

So you ask me if it’s something I want to continue? Absolutely! I’m a writer that loves comic books, so why wouldn’t I want to write them? And as a writer where my first high-profile comic writing credit is with the company I grew up loving, and still do, it’s fantastic! I can only say that this love affair with Marvel, the publishing relationship only goes so far as Fantomex. If that completely doesn’t sell at all, it will be seen as a failure on my part, and Marvel has no reason to put me on another book. I am getting quite a bit of praise from Axel, who actually is editing the book himself, and that’s extremely important to me. I feel that this guy wouldn’t be wasting his time on me if I was just some chump. Clearly I can write. But it’s up to the readers! If they like it, they’ll buy it. I want to entertain as many people as possible. Hopefully I can do that on Fantomex, and maybe it’ll push Marvel to go, “hey maybe this guy can write Squirrel Girl!”

Nrama: Squirrel Girl MAX, though?

Hope: (laughs) I don’t know if they’d go that far!

Nrama: Speaking of, why MAX for this particular title? Is that something that stemmed from the story, or is it something that you even think about when approaching the book?

Hope: To be honest, I didn’t know it was going to be a MAX book until maybe August or September last year. By then I had turned in my entire revised plot for the four issues.

But knowing that didn’t change the story I wanted to tell. When you have the MAX book there, you’re able to use some bad words, and put some situations in there that maybe make the story feel a bit more adult. I think I mentioned before in another interview, it would be like a Tarrantino movie. They have lots of violence, lots of swearing, but they also have very well-drawn characters.

Like in Django Unchained, the character played by DiCaprio was such a well-drawn character, and you wouldn’t get that kind of character if the movie was PG-13.

So when I was told it was a MAX book, I felt a little freer, maybe went a little further than what I thought I could. But because it’s a MAX book, it doesn’t rely on cheap swearing or cheap sex to tell the story, because it’s a character-driven story, I think. It did give me the ability to put those words and situations in there, and then explore the consequences of these things; if I hadn’t been able to put the situations in there in the first place, I wouldn’t be able to explore those things. It’s something that’s important to me in comics, when powers are used, there needs to be consequence.

A good example would be in Man of Steel; no spoilers there, but the powers being used had no real consequence, and that seemed to me a great opportunity wasted.

Nrama: Well, wrapping up here, Andrew, without spoiling anything, since you’re so excited, is there a particular scene or a take on Fantomex – something about the character that you’ve discovered while coming up with this that you’re particularly excited for fans to see?

Hope: Yes, I can tell you immediately, in the climactic scene of issue 4. It involves the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s all I’m going to say. That in itself should make somebody who is vaguely interested in this go to Wikipedia and look it up. It, to me, gets to the core of not just Fantomex, but also the main villain.

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