Spoilers ahead for Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill #1.
With this week's Avengers Standoff: Welcome To Pleasant Hill #1, readers now know what S.H.I.E.L.D. has been keeping from villains and heroes alike: a secret supervillain prison disguised as a bucolic small town. How do they keep order? By wiping the villains' real memory and implanting them with false memories of a more civilian life thanks to the shards of a Cosmic Cube.
Newsarama talked with writer Nick Spencer about this kick-off issue, and how it grew from being a Captain America: Sam Wilson story idea into a seperate two-month event crisscrossing Marvel's Avengers-related titles.
And yes, we talk about that surprise in the final page.
Newsarama: Nick, there lot to talk about, including that twist at the end. But now that we’ve read the first issue and we know what Pleasant Hill is, can you peel back the curtain more and tell us how this came about?
Nick Spencer: It happened very early on in the planning of Captain America: Sam Wilson-- because as we were plotting Sam's story, we were also figuring out where Steve Rogers and Bucky were and what they were up to, not to mention all the familiar Captain America supporting cast members, and the rogues gallery. So as we were putting all these characters on the board, it became pretty clear that there were two very different storylines going on, and the more we got into it, the bigger it became; so much so that it wasn’t just a b-story or subplot of Captain America: Sam Wilson, but something else. Not its own series, but an event-style story was perfect. With the then-impending 75th anniversary of Captain America, it all made sense to do Avengers: Standoff!
Nrama: And the first issue begins with Bucky Barnes breaking into an S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and finding record of an experimental project gone wrong. First off, why’d you decide to bring Bucky back from his extraterrestrial duties he started during Original Sin – and will he be staying on Earth for a while?
Spencer: Yes, there’ll be more of him on Earth from here on out. In recent months, Bucky has been acting as the Man on the Wall, dealing with cosmic-level threats to Earth. Obviously, a sentient Cosmic Cube is a cosmic level threat to Earth, especially when it’s on Earth. So it makes sense for Bucky to be here. It was important to me to find something to draw him back that was consistent with his role as the Man on the Wall.
Nrama: After Bucky is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., the story then jumps ahead to an amnesiac man coming to be a part of Pleasant Hill. Readers are led to believe that the man, later named Jim, is in fact Bucky Barnes – but we’ll get to that in a moment. I have to ask about Pleasant Hill – where did this idea for Pleasantville meets supervillain prison come about for you?
Spencer: Well, I’m sort of a sucker for small town stories – especially weird small town stories… Twin Peaks, Wayward Pines, The Prisoner in a certain sense. It’s a great environment to tell stories. In comic books, one of the coolest was Springfield from G.I. Joe.
Nrama: A classic Marvel story.
Spencer: I loved that story when I was younger. In fact, I looked at a lot of the events that resonated with me when I was a kid, and one of the things they had in common-- from “Mutant Massacre” to “Under Siege” and Springfield-- was that they were all events about different kinds of confined spaces. Putting heroes in a dangerous spot in confined spaces. Instead of making the backdrop of your event as big as humanly possibly, putting them in these environments creates a different kind of tension. That’s what I was hoping to capture in Pleasant Hill.
Nrama: And that’s not to say you view all idyllic small towns as prisons though, right?
Spencer: [Laughs] No, not at all. There's definitely good subtext there, though!
Nrama: Readers saw some surprising faces already in Pleasant Hill: Doctor Erik Selvig, as well as a psychiatrist named Bruce with some anger issues. What’s going on here?
Spencer: There are a lot of Easter eggs in this prologue issue, and I hope it’s fun for readers to pick through it and find them all.
Some are the real thing, and some are red herrings. It’ll be fun to go through them and take note of which ones pay off by the end of the series, I think.
One thing: if Marvel would have let me have twelve issues to explore Pleasant Hill that would’ve been so much fun, getting to sneak in various characters and concepts.
Nrama: Readers of Morning Glories know that all too well, Nick.
Spencer: Yes! If we could figure out how to sell a Marvel book with no recognizable lead or supporting characters, set in a small town, I would have pushed for that.
That being said, what we’ve been able to do here – in this issue and going forward – was a lot of fun.
Nrama: Let’s get straight to it – is Dr. Bruce in fact Dr. Bruce Banner?
Spencer: I can neither confirm nor deny. They do seem to look alike and sound alike though, don’t they?
Nrama: My “Hulk-o-meter” first went off with the bed & breakfast owner’s name, Dr. Dorothy Bixby – the same last name as Bill Bixby, the first actor to play the Hulk. Is that just a homage to Bill, or something else?
Spencer: There seem to be a lot of references in this issue. But I can’t say anymore.
Nrama: Can you confirm or deny that you’ve seen the 1970s and 1980s television series starring Bill Bixby as the Hulk, however?
Spencer: [laughs] Yes, I have in fact seen the show.
Nrama: Ok, since I got you on a bit of a sharing mood… Another interesting thing I saw was the Ghost Rider-looking air freshener in the car Jim stole. Where can I get one of those, and what can you say about that? Was it a flourish from Mark Bagley, or did you ask for that in the script?
Spencer: That was requested in the script, but I can’t give away anything else.
Nrama: Ok, sliding forward to that ending --- Jim isn’t Winter Soldier but is in fact Baron Zemo. That one’s a shocker, answering some questions but raising more new ones. What can you say at this point about that final page?
Spencer: Well, obviously we wanted to do a major misdirect – and hopefully we pulled it off. Were you surprised, Chris?
Nrama: Yes. Definitely.
Spencer: Prologue stories such as this are often served well by surprise endings, but writers have to be very careful in how they do it.
Marvel, Mark Bagley and I wanted you to think Jim was Bucky. But there are reasons why Baron Zemo was the perfect fit there. He and Bucky have a complicated relationship, to put it mildly, so I think they were a natural fit for this.
Nrama: Speaking of Mark, before I read this issue I had a question written down about the choice of him for this book while he’s so busy drawing All-New X-Men. That final page put it all into place, however. Was it –
Spencer: Mark came on fairly late to the book. We had the script written, but hadn’t quite figured out who would draw this first issue.
Tom Brevoort came in and pretty quickly suggested Mark, and it was so obviously a perfect story for him. He’s very much associated with the Thunderbolts, and it felt very right to bring him it.
Additionally, I’ll jump at any chance to work with Mark Bagley. He did amazing work here, and the opportunity to work with such a storyteller is a big deal for me.
Nrama: So we can say it now – Thunderbolts. Back in January Marvel announced plans for a new Thunderbolts series, and it seems that new line-up is coming together now – including the ghost child from that first teaser image. I assume we’ll learn more by the end of Standoff, but what can you say to Thunderbolts fans right now?
Spencer: First thing, I give Marvel a lot of credit on this story. I really pushed to keep most of the details under wraps, which isn’t very common these days – especially with big event stories. I’m really surprised that they let us keep as much as we did to ourselves, and I think it’s paying off with this prologue story and that last page. Marvel deserves a lot of credit for allowing that; I’m sure it would have been much easier to lay it all out there, but they held back for the story and I appreciate that.
One of the highlights of this project for me is the Thunderbolts, and I’m excited what Jim Zub has planned for the upcoming Thunderbolts series. The team and that title are going to be a very important book for Marvel for a long time to come; not just the next few months, but really for the future of the entire Marvel U. It’s a big deal, and it’s exciting to see that book coming back with a lot of the original cast. Bucky is a great person to throw into the mix, so I’m really fired up for the book. I’m working really closely with Jim for what’s coming up next.
Nrama: Last question, seguing from what’s coming next to what’s in the history books and long-boxes.
This all centers on the use (and mis-use) of Cosmic Cubes, for Kobik and with Pleasant Hill. Sam Wilson has had major moments of his life changed, added and removed by Cosmic Cubes, so how will Avengers: Standoff! Touch on him personally as he gets involved in upcoming installments?
Spencer: It is going to hit home for Sam. As you mention, Sam is someone who’s own life has been influenced by Cosmic Cubes. He knows better than pretty much anyone else what it’s like; that’s hard to overstate.
The other thing I’d say is that there are other major emotional connections for Sam that will come into play for this event. He’s going to have a lot going on inside his head, but with the pace of Avengers: Standoff! Ramping up, he has to roll with it at the moment and won’t really have time to react to it at the present time.
That’s one of the things I enjoy about Avengers: Standoff! Not only does this provide a great story for the here and now, but also sets up stories for the future – with long-term ramifications for Sam, Steve, Bucky, and many others.