Howard the Duck. She-Hulk. Nighthawk. Frankenstein’s Monster. Man-Thing.
It’s a wonderfully random lineup that could be the cast for a Marvel Universe version of Celebrity Apprentice, and also happens to be the main characters of the June-debuting miniseries Fear Itself: Fearsome Four. It’s four issues, written by former Vertigo editor Brandon Montclare, with art from comics veteran Michael Wm Kaluta and Ryan Bodenheim (A Red Mass For Mars).
The titular four are Howard, She-Hulk (Jen Walters, the original), Nighthawk and Frankenstein’s Monster, dealing with the threat posed by Man-Thing — readers have long been warned that whoever knows fear burns at that fellow’s touch, and there looks to be a lot of fear going around during Fear Itself.
How does a team like this get pulled together? Newsarama asked that and more — including information on another high-profile artist contributing to the series — in an email interview with Montclare.
Newsarama: Brandon, last we talked to you was in advance of the Chaos King one-shot during Chaos War. From the best you can report from your perspective, how did this miniseries come about for you?
Brandon Montclare: My Chaos King editors, Mark Paniccia and his assistant John Denning, approached me back in the Fall. Fear Itself wasn’t announced, but they had a lot of Matt Fraction’s story material in hand. They didn’t give me much more instruction than: “what characters can you fit into this?” That was an enormously cool show of faith — Chaos King had a lot of out-there ideas, so I’m finding that coming up with concepts is one of my strengths. That being said, of the four or five stories I initially proposed, some characters were off-limits and the others weren’t clicking.So I was going back to the drawing board when Mark called me up — he theorized that some of the elements, if combined, might work better than the sum of their parts. So it was his idea to take the few seeds I scattered and grow it out to a “Fearsome Four” book. Nighthawk, Frankenstein’s Monster, She-Hulk, Howard the Duck… as bonkers as they sound, they’re actually all more mainstream than my other two Marvel assignments (the aforementioned Chaos King and an 8-page Korg story that was a back-up in Incredible Hulks #620) — so I’m moving on up!
Nrama: Obviously a big part of the selling point of this series is the wonderfully wacky starring team. Were the members all your picks, or was the team already in place when you got involved, or maybe a mixture of both?
Montclare: Before it was a “team” book, we had the idea that it would be four different tales that would occasionally intersect. We were throwing around stuff like: “four characters, four stories, four artists — Fearsome Four!” But over time and due to both editorial and marketing concerns, it became a straightforward team adventure. Filling out the roster took some time. It was always obscure characters, but it may surprise you that the craziest heroes are often quite popular with writers. So there were a lot of guys I wasn’t allowed to use. But the final four, plus Man-Thing, were all my choices. I wanted a female presence on the team, and She-Hulk was immediately suggested by Mark for her relative star power — but I can’t think of another character I’d have substituted.
Nrama: And obviously the main characters of this book are slightly (and to varying degrees) on the more obscure side. Were these all characters you were pretty familiar with before starting work on the series? Do you tend to gravitate towards the Nighthawks of the world?
Montclare: I’m definitely familiar with all these characters. There’s a certain degree of fantasy fulfillment going through copies of Marvel Universe and being allowed to populate a reject version of the Fantastic Four. And this whole Fearsome Four business started when I gaudily suggested I could make Nighthawk Marvel’s best selling title. Plus there’s a definite creative freedom you’re allowed when you’re working with properties less essential to the publisher’s massive multimedia plans. But in reality, no one is yet offering me Spider-Man or Avengers. I’m encouraged that I’m moving in the right direction — getting more work on more important titles. And I do have a Batman project going with DC (but details are not ready to be announced). Working on the most popular characters is a goal — mostly for the larger audience they more easily touch. But I wouldn’t want to reach that one goal at the expense of not being able to have fun with the obscure stuff. I wouldn’t trade the Fearsome Four for anyone else right now. It’s a D-list cast to which I’m bringing my A-game.
Nrama: Man-Thing looks to be at the center of things here, a character most folks thought was a natural fit for Fear Itself given all that "whoever burns at the touch" jazz. How would you characterize his role in the context of the larger Fear Itself conflict?
Montclare: The Fearsome Four have come together to stop Man-Thing. With the events of Fear Itself, Man-Thing is about to explode--literally. Man-Thing isn’t evil — in fact he’s more mindless than anything else. But in a world completely scared stiff, he’s a ticking time bomb. Also coming into play is the less predictable Nexus of All Realities. This is a part of the Man-Thing mythos that started deep in his mossy roots. He’s been recently using the NoAR to transport the Thunderbolts to and fro in that book — and in Fearsome Four he’ll unfortunately be bringing some alternate reality nightmares into this world.
Nrama: I think it's fair to say that Howard the Duck will be one of the main attractions of Fearsome Four. He has a long history with Man-Thing — is that touched upon in the course of the series?
Montclare: The important heroes have their eyes on the main onslaught in Fear Itself. So the Man-Thing threat might fly under the radar if not for Howard the Duck. Their history is essential to the story. And it’s more than just a NYC neighborhood Howard wants to save from inferno. Man-Thing is his friend, and Howard wants to bring him in safe. And if this is the time that Marvel’s avatar of fear has to be taken down, Howard wants to be the one to do it.
Nrama: Being a former Avenger and all that, She-Hulk is probably the Fearsome Four member with the most street cred, despite being frequently rather whimsical herself. How'd she wind up with this gang, and how does she feel about it?
Montclare: And don’t forget her most important tenure was a former membership in the bona fides Fantastic Four! I think She-Hulk is asking herself the same question: “how’d I end up with these guys?” She has some history with Howard, and also Nighthawk. She sticks around to make sure that none of these other guys screw things up — and that might wind up biting her in the ass.
Nrama: Nighthawk is a team book veteran, with stints in the Defenders and the Thunderbolts under his belt. He's also a character that, despite being around for decades and appearing semi-regularly, a lot of fans probably don't have much of a handle on. What's your take on the guy?
Montclare: He’s been all over the map — so many different motives, and quite a few different versions. I latched on to the concept of Nighthawk wanting to finally establish a concrete identity. Concrete in definition, and also stone cold. To achieve this he’s decided to embrace the power of fear. To strike terror into the hearts of evildoers. To fight fear with fear.
Nrama: Some fans may be surprised to realize that there even is a Marvel Comics version of Frankenstein's Monster. What role does he play on the team?
Montclare: Frankenstein’s Monster is quite simply the archetypal monster. The Marvel version is closer to Classic Hollywood, but for Fearsome Four I gave him some depth by pushing the needle only a couple of degrees toward the Gothic Romance origin. He’s the odd man out on a team of oddballs. He just wants to be left alone, mostly because he winds up hurting anyone who tries to get close to him.
Nrama: Fear Itself sounds like a very heavy story all around. Is it fair to say that the purpose of this series, at least in part, is to add a bit of levity to the proceedings?
Montclare: I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Fearsome Four will bring levity. It’s a meaningful story with real consequences. But at the same time, it’s funny. I remember having a conversation with Karen Berger, and she was saying how Vertigo doesn’t really do humor… but how funny is Preacher? Or 100 Bullets, which made me laugh out loud at least a hundred times? Now, this miniseries is definitely not a Vertigo vibe — it’s superheroes and the special craziness that comes with that genre. But what I’m trying to say is that there’s solid humor within the darkness. Howard the Duck kind of typifies this: if you’ve never read his stories, you’d think he’s ridiculous comic relief. But the truth is he’s always been a miserablist. But his stories come full circle to humor again, because it’s just so out there. Fearsome Four is likewise out there. It has it all. It’ll pump you up after reading it, and you’ll be ready to face all your fears.
Nrama: Wanted to ask about the artist situation — looks like you're both reuniting with Chaos King artist Michael Kaluta, plus working with Ryan Bodenheim. How are things being split up there?
Montclare: As I mentioned earlier, the original plan was to have four different artists doing four mostly separate stories. The multiple artists is a remnant of all that. In a very organic way we’ll have a solo look at each of the four characters — one per issue. All of these “asides” flow in and out of the main narrative — so there are no distractions. The plot is designed to allow these changes of perspective. Michael Wm Kaluta is doing the covers, and also the first story-within-the-story: a look at Nighthawk, and the direction fear pushes him. Simon Bisley will be contributing a Frankenstein’s Monster story in #2. And She-Hulk and Howard the Duck will be in the last two issues — and we have equally awesome artists lined up for those! And believe it or not, there’s yet another surprise waiting on the art side of things.Kaluta and Biz are guys I edited while at Vertigo. I’ve been incredibly spoiled to work with them. Not just because they’re living legends—but also because I have that history and a solid working relationship. Then I get spoiled in a whole new way when Marvel lands Ryan Bodenheim to draw the main story. I’m massively enthused to see him bring his talents to Fearsome Four. He has a lot of buzz coming off a couple of Image books, but I think he’s set up for even bigger recognition — that’s one of the quantifiable benefits of working with Marvel. I think when you have so many great artists working on the same book, each of them want to make sure their own stuff stands out. It’s a healthy competition, and the clear winners are going to be the readers.