How might the United States look if, instead of falling over the course of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the American mafia grew even more powerful? This is a question long-time collaborators Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming look to explore in their latest series from Marvel's Icon brand: The United States of Murder Inc.
Although this isn't the first foray into the crime genre for this pair, both Bendis and Oeming are quick to point out this series will be unlike any other story readers have experienced from them before. And to make this a real family affair, Oeming's wife and fellow creator, Taki Soma, will be joining the pair as the colorist.
We spoke with the duo about their newest series, where this falls in line with their other work, and how close the world of Murder Inc. is to our own.
Newsarama: Mike, Brian, telling a crime story isn't new to either of you. Obviously, there's your award-winning, creator-owned collaboration, Powers; and Brian, you also were at the helm of the critically acclaimed A.K.A. Goldfish, Jinx and other crime / noir titles as well. What's the appeal for you both as creators in this genre?
Bendis: It’s the same jolt of excitement you get from reading very good crime fiction except multiply it by 100. You are taking your characters and putting them in these realistic yet very heightened/very dangerous scenarios. You get to put dramatic characters in the most dramatic of settings and throw them up against the wall and see what these people do. It is so exciting to create and craft. It really is.
Oeming: I'm a big fan of the "Hidden World" concept. The idea that below the surface of everyday life there is another layer, a whole other world happening. The tales of Faerie, or films like Highlander or Neverwhere, the idea that right around you is hidden adventure. Comic books, superheroes are very much like that. The crime genre lends itself to that same feeling: Behind every store there may be a secret meeting, the car you are driving next to may have a million dollars in the trunk, the guy crossing the street may be hiding a gun under his coat, or that businessman... is no businessman.
Others love the extremities of the world: How far will a character go or what choices will they be forced to make. I love that too, but for me, the crime genre is more primal, almost pagan-like.
Nrama: You both touch upon the concept of a "hidden world" that is both like our own and yet characterized by a heightened sense of drama and violence. What can you tell fans about their "in" - the characters from whose perspective the readers will experience this new envisioned world?
Oeming: Brian can speak on the characters and story. One of the big jobs for me and Taki (as colorist) is creating a visual difference between the Mafia controlled cities and the rest of the country. I love making cities a character, and this is something I'm having a lot of fun with. I can’t give anything away - I don't want any techniques or tricks getting in the way of the reader - but I hope when you read it, there is a visual subtext that will bring these places alive.
Bendis: We have imagined a world very, very close to our own. We will illustrate one thing in history, something that actually happened, that would have caused the government of the United States to eventually concede a whole territory to the families. From there America becomes a completely different place. A place where organized crime goes from an underdog status to a lifestyle. Some for the good, some for the bad, all depending on certain characters point of view.
So I wouldn’t characterize it a hidden world as so much a world very similar to our own, yet very uniquely different. I think people will enjoy the choices we have made to the world showing how one thing in history could have changed so much as to create the world we are unveiling page after page.
Nrama: In some regards, the concept behind the story has something of a "What If..." feel to it but pertaining to contemporary history instead. What sort of research went into these aspects of the story?
Bendis: I know that us comic book people like to say "what if…" but we wouldn’t say Breaking Bad is: "What if a high school teacher started selling meth?" You would just call it a story about a high school teacher who started selling meth.
This is a story about a made man who discovers that the world he grew up in is a dangerous house of cards more delicate than he could have possibly imagined. And the surprise placed in it is more shocking than he would have ever guessed. I know that sounds vague, but all of that will be revealed on the very last page of our very 1st issue.
Oeming: I'm bringing minor fashion looks from the classic 1930's era into the book, but nothing over the top like in the first Batman film. You won't see classic cars or heavy handed art deco buildings, just touches that will hopefully tap into the back of the readers mind without being distracting.
Nrama: Can you describe how this project came together along with some or any influences on your creative thinking behind the series? Was it similar or different to other collaborative efforts?
Oeming: I kind of pitched the idea to Brian, "What if the mob won the war in the 60's?" Like, "What if the American Mafia never weakened after its height in the 60's? What would the world be like now? What happens when they make enough money they have to deal with true international money powers?" I'm not sure I was pitching the idea as a series, but I was bouncing the concept off him for a different mob thing I've been thinking about. Brian ran with it. He loved the idea right away. We were at a costume party and the Fractions were there. Brian got very excited and started running it by Matt, which was very funny in retrospect seeing us talk excitedly about writing and concepts while dressed as we were.
Right now, Brian is in writing mode. We work on the world together: "How is the Mob territory different from the rest of the states? How are things worse for people and how are they better?"
Bendis: Mike presented the initial idea and I thought he was legitimately pitching something for us to do together but he was, I later found out, just talking. The idea started me on years of development towards these characters and this world. The reason I got so excited was that I have always been toying with doing a Murder Incorporated story but truthfully if you are a fan of Murder Incorporated you have kind of seen that story told dozens of times. [Newsarama Note: The term "Murder Incorporated" refers to those crime groups who provided lethal enforcement of the New York mafia's dictates]That’s really what the problem with Frank Darabont’s Mob City was. We have all seen the story. It needed a different edge. The United States of Murder Incorporated allowed us to take everything we love about those stories and put them in a new scenario with new characters in the new environment. And yet it all says so much about us as a society.
Nrama: How does The United States of Murder Inc. set itself apart from the other works both of you have done within this genre and your other collaborations?
Bendis: It’s a completely different universe with completely different characters. Everything about what we are doing from how I approach the scripts and Mike on the artwork to how we approach the color choices is different from what we do with Powers. Because we have a certain rhythm and sound when we work together, fans of Powers are going to be very excited about what we’re doing here. As you can see from the pages that are accompanying this article, this is what we do, yet it's also all new groundwork for us.
Oeming: I think this is a completely unique crime series; it's never been done before. It's an American crime drama set in an alternate now, but it's not science fiction or "fantasy." It's not like putting the Mob in space or some other shorthand for thinking.
Nrama: Mike and Taki - how are you both approaching the art for this series? Digital? Traditional?
Oeming: Art wise, I'm challenging myself to step up in a lot of ways. I'm pushing my blacks way harder, using a clean line rather than a lose Toth-like brush, keeping solid shapes and less rendering. Way more contrast.
Also, Taki Soma, true-life Takio character, artist, writer and wife will be coloring this. Taki and I have worked together before, co-creating/writing/drawing Rapture for Dark Horse Comics. Like Takio, United States of Murder Inc. is a true family affair. The colors for this will also stand apart from our other works. We are going for a true Neo Noir, using stark primary colors like a Wong Kar Wai film. It actually sort of goes back to looking at old school colors, how the 4-color process really made guys like Toth pop on the page. Taki is killing it.
Soma: If it's coloring, yes, all digital. Jen Grunwald will take Mike's line-work and adjust it to the specs that work for them and then I'll just go ahead and color from that point on. I just got a personalized coloring 'workshop' with Dave Stewart, the master colorist of the universe, and I am much more confident in the technical end of coloring - much to the relief of the readers, I assume. By the way, I am so excited for this series. I feel lucky being a part of it.
Nrama: Taki, is this your first time collaborating with Mike and Brian, or were you involved with them on Takio? How has working on United States of Murder Inc. been different from your past efforts?
Soma: Glad you asked that burning question, I actually had nothing to do with Takio except for the character, who is named after me! Nick Filardi was the colorist for that one, and he can color around me while wearing a blind fold - no joke, I've seen it except maybe he was on a motorcycle, too. I have always watched Bendis/Oeming/Filardi working like a symphony, and I really wanted to experience that myself. I was only going to just flat it, but I mentioned that I'd be interested in coloring the book and they were on board. Lucky me.
Nrama: For United States of Murder Inc., you will be providing the color art. How would you describe the 'Neo Noir' style Mike mentioned? How do you see color affecting the story of United States of Murder Inc.?
Soma: I decided to stick to only two colors per page and/or scene. The colors are dictated by the content of what's happening on the pages. Brian and Mike are both fans of film director, Wong Kar-Wai, so we watched a documentary on his photography style together to gather the mood and ideals of that distinct 'look.' Brian in particular didn't want to see much 'flesh tones' or 'coloring book' approach for this series, so everything is bold and rich.
Nrama: Comic book readers today face an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the number of veteran and up-and-coming creators delivering amazing new series. How might you convince readers that The United States of Murder Inc. is the "next big thing” that they need to add to their pull lists?
Bendis: I’m not interested in it being the next big thing. I've been that. It's annoying :) But I am interested in it being on their pull list and giving people a lot of story, new story, for their hard-earned dollar.
I’m hoping that our track record with Powers proves to anyone beyond a shadow of a doubt that when Mike and I get together and tell you that we created a brand-new comic book world that we are immensely proud of that we mean it. We are crazy excited to show it to you. If anything, for people who have followed us all these years, Mike and I are just better creators than we were when we started Powers.
Oeming: Great question. First off, I'd say issue 1 is double-sized. That means you won't just get a taste, you'll get a meal, a real introduction to the world and characters. There are some lines in here that will become classic Bendis lines like "Not like this." We both have a track record with both of our creator-owned and mainstream comics. I'm a pretty good artist, and Brian is as a fact one of the best writers comics has ever had. We also have alternate covers by David Marquez, David Mack and Alex Maleev. How's that for a sell?
Nrama: I understand there are about six issues planned out so far before the series moves into an alternating schedule with Powers. What sort of things can readers expect from this series?
Bendis: The very 1st issue is double sized. Over 45 pages of new story. So you really get to see our world and meet our characters. The legitimately big surprises at the end set up the series perfectly. You will understand why I am so into this on page 42.
Oeming: I don't want this to be just a smart crime comic with a twist. I told Brian I specifically want to do a good amount of gunplay. Let's not be so smart that we're boring. I love Boardwalk Empire, but that last season felt that way. Like they got too good - just give us crazy shit. We have a lot of lofty aspirations for the book, but there will be LOTS of fun too.
Nrama: Is there a projected release date for the first issue? Will it also be available in digital format alongside print?
Oeming: I don't know! I work on several books at once. That means I set goals for myself and stick to it. Taki and I just went over my schedule and for the foreseeable future, I'll be drawing three pages a day 7 days a week. I love it though, if I had less to do, my brain would turn on me and I'd end up calling Brian with my crazy brain. So I really only look at my schedule and I stick to that. The Victories at Dark Horse has rarely been late, and if so, not by much, it's all about sticking to the schedule. Powers has been plagued with lots of outside forces over the years, I won't deny that. But Murder Inc. and our love of comics and working together has shot some fresh blood into Powers.
Bendis: May 14th. Day and date. With special material going into both editions.
For years, people have been asking me to do more crime comics, which is always incredibly flattering, but I really wanted to make sure that when it was time that it was something unique. Thanks to my darling Michael, we have a very unique crime comic experience for you.
United States of Murder Inc. is now available for preorder at your local comic shop.