It's all about world-building. Just like Keith Giffen had the task of taking Marvel's most obscure cosmic characters and reviving them through the mini-series Annihilation, this time he's doing the same thing for the magical characters of the DCU in Reign in Hell, an eight-issue mini-series starting in July.
Last time we talked to Giffen about the series back in February, the writer said the story of Reign in Hell was about the war over control of Hell, but would focus upon the characters caught up in the midst of the war.
Now that he's a few issues into the series and has seen some of the art from penciler Tom Derenick, Giffen talked to us about why Black Alice is becoming one of his favorite characters, what the back-up stories in every issue will concentrate on, and what he thinks of all the attention Ambush Bug is getting lately.
Newsarama: Now that we're closer to Reign in Hell, what can you tell us about what's going on in the story you're writing? How does this war on hell take place?
Keith Giffen: Satanus and his sister Blaze basically compromise or rally purgatory by injecting a message of hope that they will wage war on hell - that they will overthrow hell and Neron. And that they will make Hell if not a better place, then a fairer place -- that the pickpockets won't suffer the same torments as the murderers.
NRAMA: Are they recruiting the damned?
KG: Well, when you're marching into areas of Hell that you've conquered and you're talking about a new regime and a lessening of torment, if not an elimination of it, the damned souls will rally around you like saviors. So they're not recruiting as much as they're being -- well, here's a term from the Iraq War -- they're being greeted as liberators.
NRAMA: You've said before that the DC magical characters get involved. Why?
KG: DC's mystics fully understand what a war in Hell can do to the cosmic balance, so yes, they do all get involved, each for their own reasons, and not all for good.
NRAMA: Now that you're well into writing the series, what characters can you tell us that are involved in the story?
KG: All of the DC mystics are going to show up in one way or another: Dr. Fate, Zatanna, Blue Devil and all the Shadowpact characters, Ibis, Black Alice, Sargon, Zauriel -- you name 'em. Etrigan of course will play a major role. So yeah, most of the DC mystics will definitely play a role. And I say “most” because I'm sure there's going to be one or two that I've forgotten.
NRAMA: But you have a few characters who are going to show up that you don't want to tell us about, don't you? A few surprises?
KG: Yeah. A lot of surprises. Characters you haven't seen in awhile are going to show up. Characters you may have forgotten about are going to show up. But I think the big surprises are going to come with characters we thought we knew and the choices they make, and how they crawl out of the tail end of this.
NRAMA: Who are some of the characters that you've started writing?
KG: There are some that have ended up being my favorites. Like I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with Ibis the Invincible. But you get down into what they did to the character in Countdown to Mystery and he's a fun character to write.
But right now, my favorite is Black Alice. She's got attitude. And her power is, "I touch you, I get powers." Why is that not something that is a cause for concern? I'm thinking to myself, doesn't that make her potentially one of the most powerful beings in the DC Universe? So there are some things that have been established about some of these characters that I'm going to explore and kick up another notch.
And you have to think... if Black Alice touches God, what happens? That's a powerful little girl you've got there. And the fact that she's so screwed up makes it a cause for concern.
NRAMA: Does this war affect the DCU in general?
KG: Ultimately our goal is that it will affect the DCU and we will have a new, unique take on Hell for the DCU. With the new regime will come new infernal paradigms. We're also going to try to curb the point-and-click magic that's going on in the DCU. We're going to start with some ground rules that make sense. Michael Moorcock, years ago, wrote this wonderful magic bible that somehow fell through the cracks, so I've been referring to that and using that quite a lot in trying to redefine the concept of magic in the DC Universe, especially as it applies to infernal positions or calling on the devil or demons. It is at least my attempt to completely redefine DC's concept of Hell and pull it out of the same, stale depictions of hell we've seen since Dante.
NRAMA: We've seen a revamp of the magical characters, but it's true there isn't a real good explanation of how it applies…
KG: Well, that's the problem with magic. It's magic! It's such a hard concept to grasp. It's not like science, wherein if A is 1 and B is 2, then A plus B equals 3. In magic, if A is 1 and B is 2, then A plus B equals hippopotami. I'm just trying to make some sense of it so there's some kind of foundation that people can build off of. And also show that not all magic is benevolent, and sometimes the price that one pays for using magic or accessing certain power points is not always pleasant.
NRAMA: When this is done, are things going to be nice and peachy and rosy in Hell?
KG: Things are never going to be nice and peachy and rosy in Hell. And they're not talking about turning it into the Garden of Eden. They're just injecting a message of hope that there might be an end of the torment and that a new regime might do things a little bit differently.
Plus I realize early on, I was sort of implying there will be a new regime and Satanus will win. But I'm not guaranteeing that Satanus succeeds in overthrowing Hell, nor that Neron holds on to Hell. I'm not guaranteeing any of that. There might be a player that hasn't even taken the field yet that might have an extraordinary impact on the direction of hell. We're just playing out this war, and at the end of it, you may have a different hell, but it might not be what you expect.
NRAMA: Does this play into Final Crisis, or does Final Crisis play into this?
KG: Final Crisis is far-reaching, but by keeping most of the action in hell, I don't have to worry about all the action going on on earth. Final Crisis has a vibe that is, you know, there was a war in heaven and heaven lost. Well, we're in Hell and this is dealing with that. It's kind of like Grant [Morrison]'s talking about the war going on in the European theater during World War II, and I'm over here in the Pacific screwing around. The two will not dovetail except for the fact that, at the end of the day, they're all part of one larger universe.
NRAMA: How has it been working with Tom Derenick?
KG: Derenick is great. He was one of our anchor guys on Countdown, just bam, bam, bam, bam -- week after week after week, no trouble at all. And now he's able to kind of sit back and spend some time on it and get it done beautifully. And we have Bill Sienkiewicz coming in and inking. Come on! How can we go wrong? These guys are making me look good.
NRAMA: Does the comic have a darker tone?
KG: Yeah, I think so. It's Hell, for God's sake.
NRAMA: But knowing you and how you're able to take a Crisis and laugh at it with Ambush Bug, your comic about Hell could be humorous. But this is a dark book?
KG: There are always moments of dark humor sprinkled throughout. The most serious stuff I do, I always try to sprinkle some moments of humor. But this one is serious as a heart attack.
NRAMA: What can you tell us about the back-up stories in Reign in Hell?
KG: Dr. Occult has his own little back-up feature in all the issues, and he has a story that kind of parallels events in the main story, and then of course in the last issue, everything comes together. At least, I hope it all comes together! [laughs]
KG: DC is still 100 percent behind it. There has been stuff I've handed in just recently that I thought DC would say, "No way. You're out of your mind. There's no way we can do this." It just slides by. So when they called and said they wanted Ambush Bug to romp through DC continuity to remind us that comics should be fun and we all need to lighten up and have a good time, they're now putting their money where their mouth is. It's the first time we've done Ambush Bug where we've gotten this kind of support. Plus, if you've seen the cover artists that are lining up, it's amazing. You've seen now that the third one is Amanda Conner in September. And there are more coming.
And I'm having a ball. And I'm on the fourth issue already, so I'm moving along nicely.
NRAMA: Have you seen the promotional ads that are running in DC comics right now featuring Ambush Bug?
KG: "Unvictorious!" Yeah. There's no such word! But yeah, that's a great example right there. It used to be we would do Ambush Bug and the book was put out like an apology. But they're embracing it this time! When I called and said, "Can I do a DC Nation page with Ambush Bug?" They said, "Sure!" And in the DC Nation page, when I handed it in -- and this is for all the people who think Dan is this tight-fisted tyrant who beats his freelancers around to get his own way -- I put that thing through and goofing on him featured very prominently in it, but he got the joke; he put it through. So we've got that, we've got the poster with the flashlight under the chin -- I'm happy with the way we've been treated and I'm especially happy with the response we seem to be getting from people about the character being back.
I really firmly believe that if you pick up the first issue and read the first four pages, we've got you. We've got you.
NRAMA: Before we turn this completely into an Ambush Bug interview, because I think we could both talk about him all day, is there anything else you want to tell people about the Reign in Hell series?
KG: Buy it. Give it a chance. Come enjoy this world and these characters.
And expect the unexpected. If you think you know where it's going, odds are, you're wrong.