THE INITIATIVE's C-List Shines During Marvel's DARK REIGN

THE INITIATIVE & DARK REIGN w/ Gage

Click here for a preview of Avengers: The Initiative #28 (shipping Wednesday Sept. 23)

Avengers: The Initiative #28

In superhero comics today, it's common to see titles that feature an "A-list" hero to help make them sustainable over the long term. After all, there a lot of Superman and Wolverine fans in the world, so it doesn't hurt to make comics for them.

But one obvious exception to that rule is Avengers: The Initiative, where the pages are filled with not only heroes from the B-list, but C-, D- and E-lists as well. And as readers have discovered, there are a lot of great stories to be told about even the least known characters in the Marvel Universe.

Writer Christos Gage has been guiding the stories in the Initiative since his former co-writer Dan Slott left the comic last year, and the title just came off Gage's critically-acclaimed Avengers: The Initiative #27, an issue that focused on a little-known villain named Johnny Guitar.

But don't let the obscure characters on the cover fool you into thinking The Initiative doesn't carry some weight in the Marvel Universe. The Initiative is deeply involved in Marvel's Dark Reign event as Norman Osborn gave criminals power within a new Initiative. With a villain like Taskmaster training a long list of villains to feign heroism, the Initiative has been twisted much like the rest of the Marvel Universe under the shadow of Dark Reign.

Avengers: The Initiative #29

As the series heats up toward confrontations between those loyal to Norman and those confronting his power, Newsarama talked to Gage about what's coming next in the comic just as today's Avengers: The Initiative #28 hits stores.

Newsarama: Christos, issue #27 surprised a lot of people as you told the story of a little-known villain named Johnny Guitar. What was behind your choice to concentrate on that character, how did the story evolve, and how do you think it turned out?

Christos Gage: I have always wanted to tell a story about what it's like to be a z-lister. A loser. We've all heard the old saw about how everyone is the star of their own story, but as a writer, you rarely get to tell stories from those points of view. And it's understandable: if you're writing The Hulk, people expect to read about the Hulk, right?

What I love about the Initiative is that it gives me the opportunity, every so often, to do something a little off the beaten path, like the Butterball story in #13 and now the ballad of Johnny Guitar (an actual old villain who appeared once in an '80s issue of Dazzler). In addition to telling what would hopefully be a poignant tale about a guy whose dreams were always bigger than his abilities, I thought it would be cool to show aspects of the unfolding larger storyline from an outsider's perspective…what the Norman Osborn-led Initiative is like for someone new to it.

Avengers: The Initiative #30

And as much as I love Taskmaster, I felt it was time to remind readers he's not a nice person. He has his redeeming qualities, but he's a villain. What was so great about The Sopranos was that, just when you'd start to get comfortable with Tony, they'd do a story like the one where he destroys Robert Patrick's life to remind you that he's a bad guy.

As for how the issue turned out, I'm very happy with it, and I've been thrilled by the reaction it's brought. The entire team, from editorial to art to lettering, did an amazing job, and the response has been wonderful. It seems like Johnny Guitar's story touched a lot of people, which is the highest goal I can aspire to.

Nrama: The initiative has such a large cast of characters. How do you juggle them to keep yourself and the readers interested in the ongoing story?

Gage: I won't lie; it's a challenge. You want to give everyone their moment, but you can't dilute the emotion and clutter the story, or it just gets confusing. Most of the “good guys” - Justice, Tigra, etc. - didn't even appear in #27. They're back in the spotlight in #28, as is Prodigy, who hasn't been seen in a couple of issues.

To me the challenge is not in finding interesting things to do, it's keeping it all grounded so the events resonate, so it's not just a chaotic mess. I think you do that by getting into the characters' heads whenever possible and making the most of the space you have. Our penciler, the magnificent Rafa Sandoval, has not only been terrifically patient with my crowded pages, he's turned out some amazing stuff, and I think that is a huge part of making the book work.

Nrama: Since Dark Reign has started, readers have gotten to know Taskmaster. How did you choose this character for your series, and what's your approach to his character? And what will we see coming for him in the future?

Gage: I've been a huge fan of Taskmaster since he first appeared in 1980! If he showed up in a book, it was as good as bought! Could he be any cooler? He wears a skull mask! He carries just about every weapon known to man! He can imitate any feat he sees just by watching it once! And George Perez designed him! Another thing I loved about him is that he seemed smarter than most villains…when the odds were against him, he'd run for it, which is what I would do.

Avengers: The Initiative #31

Anyway, as you can see, writing Taskmaster is a big thrill for me. It was my former co-writer and Initiative founding father Dan Slott who actually brought him into the book, and before Dan moved on to Mighty Avengers, we agreed that when Norman Osborn took over the Initiative, Taskmaster was the logical choice to run the training camp.

My approach to him is to stay true to his character…he's smart, tough, selfish, and awesome. There's some big stuff in store for Taskmaster. Issue #31 focuses on him as Norman offers him the opportunity of a lifetime, but it may come at a price. If you like Taskmaster, trust me, you want to stick around.

Nrama: Last we saw Tigra, she was vowing revenge. How has she gotten to this point and where might her campaign of revenge take her?

Gage: Tigra was brutally beaten and shot by the Hood, as an example of his power and reach, back when the Hood and his gang were outlaws and Tigra was a registered hero. Now she's the outlaw and they're the Initiative, she knows where they live, and she's giving them a taste of their own medicine. She rationalizes it by saying it's psychological warfare, throwing them off their game. But there's more to it than that. She's slaking her thirst for vengeance, and it's a road that doesn't lead anywhere good. Not to mention that most of her teammates don't realize the extent of what she's doing…yet.

Nrama: The return of Butterball has added a fan-favorite to the team. What's coming up for that character, and are there any other heroes joining the team?

Gage: Butterball was the first original character I created for Marvel (with the wonderful Steve Uy), so I'm thrilled the readers have embraced him! Butterball has seen his dream come true as he's been accepted into the Initiative, but as so often happens, dreams and reality are two very different things. He's had to face the brutal truth of what the Initiative is really like now. How he reacts remains to be seen. No other heroes are joining the team at the moment. Our cast's big enough already!

Nrama: It looks like the Initiative is starting to see some problems keeping members intact. What has brought them to this point, and where will things go next?

Gage: Well, when you start letting in criminals, sociopaths and mental cases, the potential for disaster increases exponentially. The question is how long this can hold together, but even as the Initiative has been put under strain, so has the Resistance. I wanted to explore what happens when you switch the labels: ”hero,” “villain,” “legal” and “outlaw.” Where things will go next remains to be seen, but the road's a rocky one for all concerned.

Nrama: According to solicitations, there is going to be some unexpected teamwork going on in future issues. How does the threat of Nightmare force unlikely partners to work together?

Gage: The demonic dream-lord Nightmare manages to use his son, Trauma, to invade our world, and Camp HAMMER is the epicenter. Nightmare doesn't make distinctions between hero and villain; they're all prey to him. I'm not sure you'd call it teamwork, but the two sides do have to fight a common threat on a cosmic scale. The question is whether they can stop trying to kill each other long enough to do it.

Nrama: What else can you tell us about what's coming up in Avengers: The Initiative?

Gage: Well, you may have heard whispers about a certain big Avengers event coming up in the near future. I can't talk about it without getting struck by lightning, but the Initiative will be in the thick of it. And I don't mean characters in our book will react to the repercussions from the sidelines, I mean they'll be right in the middle of the action! As for what else is coming, how about romance among snake-themed characters, double and triple crosses, an original Initiative cadet switching sides, Justice and Ultragirl's relationship evolving, and the first meeting of Penance and his former New Warriors teammates?

Nrama: Anything else you want to tell readers of Avengers: The Initiative?

Gage: If you're reading it, thanks for your support and for letting me tell stories like the Johnny Guitar one. If you're not reading it, check it out. Issue #27 is a good jumping on point, as is #28, out this week! And if you've been waiting for more of a connection to the other Avengers books, wait no more. It's coming…in a big way!

Click here for a preview of Avengers: The Initiative #28 (shipping Wednesday Sept. 23)

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