Max Bemis isn't shy about the roots of his artistic point of view. With a self-deprecating, dark sense of humor driven by everything from living with mental illness to classic Jewish comedy, Bemis is carving out his own killer corner of the Marvel Universe in Foolkiller, Bemis's first ongoing series for Marvel, which tells the story of a therapist who kills the supervillains he can't find a way to treat.
Alongside artist Dalibor Talajic, the Say Anything frontman has set out to prove that the Marvel C-Lister is more than just a guy who picks up Deadpool's discarded punchlines - he's a deeply complex, darkly satirical character living in a veritable treatise for the way identity relates to superheroes. Foolkiller #1 hit stands last week, and Newsarama followed up with Bemis to find out whats hiding behind Foolkiller's mask.
This article also contains never before seen interior art for Foolkiller #2, and a new cover for February's Foolkiller #4.
Newsarama: Max, let’s start off with an easy one. Who is Foolkiller, and what’s his mission in this series?
Max Bemis: Greg Salinger is the Foolkiller. That’s the literal answer. He’s a guy who was initially a vigilante, kind of a corny Punisher rip-off. He ended up getting committed to an insane asylum, and wound up wandering around the Marvel Universe doing kind of useless stuff. The last time we saw him was working for Deadpool, but he popped up a few times recently before that.
He’s kind of an undefined character beyond the base level of personality. But in Foolkiller, he’s got a lot of personality. He’s sort of an optimist. He wants to better himself, and he sees his calling as a therapist as a way to distinguish himself not only from his past, but from being a lunatic criminal. He feels he can be a buttoned-up member of society and work a proper job. Not to mention he’s now on the other end of the couch, so he feels powerful and important.
He’s a very positive guy, but flawed. And the whole idea of the book is that he can’t stop killing criminals even though he’s treating them. He ends up enforcing vigilante justice.
Nrama: You’ve been in comic books for a while, but this is your first ongoing series for Marvel. How did you land the gig?
Bemis: I’ve had a long relationship now with Jordan White, the Marvel editor who brought me into the fold for the first short story I did for them and then set me up with Worst X-Men Ever, which was originally supposed to be a Marvel Knights X-Men story, but it quickly became clear it was too weird not to be its own thing. And Jordan has done a lot of amazing things with Deadpool, so when they were considering giving some of the Mercs for Money their own titles, he reached out to me.
I love working for Marvel and I made it really clear to him that I would be excited to work on pretty much anything cause I’m such a huge Marvel fanboy [laughs]! I grew up on Marvel Comics. I’m a fan of other publishers too, I don’t discriminate, but it was definitely the X-Men that got me into comics as a small child.
Nrama: Your work has often dealt with really personal things, such as very openly talking about mental illness. That’s something that ties in with a superhero psychiatrist. How is Foolkiller personal to you?
Bemis: Again, to some degree he’s coming into this as kind of a blank slate. He was written really well recently, but before that he just didn’t have enough page time without Deadpool eating up the scenery to really be defined. It’s one of those Big Two books I can kind of write like a creator-owned book in general, and that’s the kind of creative freedom Marvel has given me so far. I think they realize in this day and age, that’s a viable way to do it. Especially with a less established character, you really need your own voice. The premise, like you said, is very easy for me to latch onto as someone who’s been in therapy almost my whole life, and also someone who’s grappled with trying to conform. I guess that’s almost a mind-numbingly repetitive theme in my work.
Greg has a personality disorder, which I don’t know if I have. I have a chemical imbalance, but he probably has something like that too. But in general, I can sympathize with someone who wants to be righteous and who wants to fit in, but who feels like kind of a freak, and like they’ve done too many bad things in their past to ever run away from it. And that’s all he’s trying to do really. As anyone who reads the book will come to understand, he’s a very loveable character, so he’s easy to relate to. He’s a lot more wide-eyed than me, even though he’s a killer. He’s a lot more optimistic and kind of gullible, but I like people like that. He’s very sincere. I’d have a hard time writing a main character who is a total a—hole.
Nrama: You mentioned this a minute ago, it seems like Greg Salinger can’t escape killing people. There are a lot of secrets and questions of identity in Foolkiller #1, with Young Red Skull, Greg seemingly unable to escape being the Foolkiller, and some major questions about his mentor, Span. How deep does the rabbit hole go?
Bemis: I think I see that in everyone. We’re all sort of grappling with our identities to some extent. And especially since Foolkiller is exploring the underbelly of the Marvel Universe rather than the high functioning characters, I think we are going to see a lot of that, and it may be one of the main themes of the book. Superheroes in general are projecting an iconography or image and trying to live up to that. Same with supervillains. This is a world with people trying to live with literal secret identities.
As many smarter creators have explored, from Alan Moore, and on and on, it’s very rife for exploration of the theme of people using costumes, and the law, and righteousness or villainy to define themselves. It’s a big part of the whole story. It’s winding, in different ways, to more than just what’s in the first arc. The whole idea of him being a therapist is kind of the draw of the book.
Nrama: There’s a strong element of black comedy in Foolkiller, which fits with the inherently dark subject matter. What are your touchstones for the tone of this series?
Bemis: My whole sense of humor is pretty pitch black. That’s not the only thing that makes me laugh, but I deeply laugh the most when examining harsh realities of life, including my own shortcomings. My biggest influence as a writer is Jewish comedy. As a Jew and a writer, I grew up with Robert Klein, Woody Allen, then later in life, Larry David. The classic Jewish comic move is to laugh at these horrible parts of reality.
Nrama: You have to laugh, or you’ll cry.
Bemis: Exactly! And I’ve written quote unquote serious stuff, but I can’t name anything I’ve done, really, that’s been dead serious, even when I worked on Crossed for Avatar, which is very dark, there’s room for black comedy in there. You can take that and make it stone cold sick and depressing, but both the stories I wrote for Crossed were darkly, darkly, darkly comic in a way. And all my creator owned work has been that way.
In Foolkiller, it does grow a bit out of Deadpool, which is such a wonderful example of dark comedy in mainstream superhero comics, and even the world at large now that his movie is a big hit. People get it. People can relate to someone like that, even in terms of superheroes. I think we’re seeing a lot more comedic stuff in superhero comics where not everything is taken so damn seriously. At the same time, if you’re writing a book about a serial killer it can’t be all goofy.
Nrama: You’re working with Dalibor Talajic on Foolkiller. Have you tailored your scripts to his clean, expressive style? How has your working relationship developed?
Bemis: It’s weird, I think that happens pretty subconsciously. I’ve always written enough in advance that I envision the art of the book. I think “OK, it’ll maybe look like this.” I’m not one, particularly, for tailoring things to an artist, but I know it’s in there. I think more than anything, it’s inspiration. I think of this book as very Garth Ennis-y, and Dalibor has this talent for realism where he can still make things exciting and magical. I love his expressions, and his realism, it’s a lot like Steve Dillon. If this book were drawn looser, it wouldn’t be as funny. Some of the things I put out for him, his interpretation surprises me. Like, “It’s so funny that he literally just drew exactly that.”
I would love to become more attuned to that, but I just generally try to write stuff I’d like to read. I’m not one for having many suggestions for artists, maybe a comment or two, an encouragement, but I tend to accept what people give because I’ve always been really satisfied with my collaborators. I try to script as openly as possible while still be specific when necessary, which hopefully makes it easier for Dalibor to be creative. I don’t want to imprint on that, cause I’m not an artist.
Nrama: How does working in the collaborative environment of comic books compare to creating music with a band? Is there a different approach to creating something open ended, like an ongoing series?
Bemis: I think the ongoing thing is definitely different. But it all has its parallels, is the weird thing. A band is essentially an ongoing series, a brand - I was gonna say Say Anything is like the X-Men, but we’re not that popular. Maybe Alpha Flight? Anyway, in an ongoing series you’re trying to hold people’s attention and keep enough integrity that you’re not doing things solely for that reason, even though that’s a reality. There are lots of parallels. Working with an editorial team is similar to working with a record label. Working with co-creators is similar to working with people in the band.
My band is barely a band. It’s mostly me and a rotating group of people, some of whom stick around longer than others, but it’s kind of open-ended. I think the writer of a comic book is only half the presentation - less than that if you figure in art and production. But in a band, I think I take up more creative space, because the book couldn’t exist without Dalibor. Without him, it would be like if I was writing the songs, but no one was singing them.
Nrama: You touched on this a little in the opening of Foolkiller #1, but Foolkiller has a long, strange history with Marvel Comics. I think I first saw the character in a trading card set in the very early 90s.
Bemis: [laughs] He’s definitely one of those characters you see marked as “dead” in the Marvel Handbook, and you’re like “Who the hell is this?”
Nrama: What are your plans to dive into his past? The solicitation for Foolkiller #3 says “someone from his past is coming back to haunt him.”
Bemis: There’s a little bit so far. There’s one major thing coming up that I don’t want to spoil. But I’d like to go further. I’m taking the Warren Ellis approach. Well, I don’t know Warren Ellis. But I imagine Warren Ellis’s approach would be to read everything from the source material and then disregard it. Like, when you read his stuff it seems like he either read every WildC.A.T.S. comic, or didn’t read any WildC.A.T.S. comics and then wrote his own volume. So I’m trying to take that approach of not knowing too much but knowing the history. Because of the nature of his limited appearances, in the popular consciousness, he’s open for revisionism.
I would love to get in there and pull stuff from the past more as the book goes on, but there is at least one big thing. But it’s less of a priority than it would be for, say, Captain America.
Nrama: Now that you’re working on an ongoing series, are there any Marvel characters you’d like to see guest star in Foolkiller? Any villains you’d like to see Greg Salinger’s couch?
Bemis: I’m just wrapping up the writing on the first arc, and as long as this series is allowed to go on, the longer it goes on, the more I’ll be willing and excited to introduce the Marvel Universe at large. There’s like literally two or three Marvel characters prominently featured outside of flashbacks, or in someone’s mind, and I’m becoming more comfortable with that. Part of it is wanting to earn it, not just for Foolkiller, because you want people to get the premise before you start relying on that stuff, but also for me as a writer, I slightly feel self conscious doing anything that could affect the Marvel Universe, or even bringing in someone from the Marvel Universe, but I’m becoming more comfortable with it. Knowing me, I’ll eventually take it too far. Like, have him kill someone really prominent, like Daredevil. They’d never let me do anything like that [laughs].
Nrama: But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be kind of great if Marvel did just kill off Daredevil in an issue of Foolkiller?
Bemis: [laughs] That would be the best. I’ve actually had that thought before, like the last thing you’d expect is someone dying in some peripheral spin-off series. It’s cool when it happens. Like the Vision series that just finished up, I feel like that fundamentally changed that character. I feel like that’s cool, when part of a character’s history is fundamentally changed. That’s really what I’d like to accomplish. That to me is a bigger event than someone dying when you know they’ll come back.
Nrama: Segueing from that, what’s your master plan for Foolkiller?
Bemis: I think the Marvel Universe has become such a cool place for books with a sense of humor, and modernist books. Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye kind of opened the door for that in a lot of ways, and lately there’s been a lot of quirky, cool stuff. Like you said, Foolkiller is dark humor, so I want to be able to tell a story that is simultaneously heartwarming, but is also dark and kind of makes people uncomfortable, as opposed to being soothing.
Look at Ms. Marvel. I read a book like that, and I’m like “Oh God, I love life! This is awesome, and it’s great that she’s a prominent character, this is wonderful!” And I’d like to do sort of the evil version of that, where people read it and go “Wow, the world really is kinda f---ed up!” And I don’t want to do that on every book I write, but when you look at Foolkiller, when you have a character who is a killer therapist, that’s very weird and dark. So, inherently, I’d like to push that further and further.
I like Greg Salinger. I want him to grow and learn. He’s kind of a wide-eyed child right now, so I’d like him to be somewhere else as a person at the end of the run.