The Mark Show: Mark Waid on 'The Unknown'

The Unknown #1, cover by Paul Pope

In May BOOM! Studios premieres two new series, Mark Waid's The Unknown and Mark Sable's Unthinkable. Since both books start with “Un,” and both writers are named Mark, we thought it would be best if writer Mark Sable interviewed Mark Waid and Mark Waid interviewed Mark Sable about their respective series. Both were given the chance to ask each other ten questions. This is part one of that interview session. Let the battle of the “Un” books begin!

Mark Sable: So I opened up Previews, and I saw, my book, Unthinkable, sandwiched between two of yours: Irredeemable and The Unknown. My first question is how many fans are going to come in asking for The Unknowable? Or, to put it another way, WHY DO YOU HATE ME?

Mark Waid: I'm just trying to keep you on your toes. Actually, the initial name of the series was "Whatever Remains," a play both on death and on the Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes quote "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." But The Unknown is a snappier comics title.

MS: The Unknown is about Catherine Allingham, a "21st century Sherlock Holmes" who has six months to live. She's enlisted the aid of a modern-day Watson to discover the answer to the greatest mystery of all - what happens after you die. My chicken-and-egg question is, which came first: the why-hasn't-anyone-ever-thought-of-this high concept, or the characters?

MW: The characters, but only by a nose. I knew I wanted to do a 21st century impossible-crimes detective series, because that subgenre has always been one of my great loves, but once I had the protagonist in place, I wasn't satisfied with it until I decided that a woman that accomplished would settle for nothing less than the solution to the greatest mystery of life, however seemingly unanswerable it may seem to be.

The Unknown #1, page 1

MS: The existence of a god and the afterlife is something that's come under serious questioning in the popular culture lately, with books such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great? Was there something in the zeitgeist that drew you to that question now, or is this the logical extension of a theme you've been grappling with for a while?

MW: It's an extension. When I was a kid, what captivated me about detective fiction were the puzzles more than the detectives or their enemies. And as I've gotten older, I see a lot of merit in setting your investigative sights higher than figuring out how someone stole Encyclopedia Brown's bicycle. Now I'm interested in the truly unsolveable and how science seems to be making greater and greater advancements in answering the unanswerable. Plus, a seemingly unsolveable question is far more dramatically compelling as a narrative device.

MS: You've said that you consider yourself "spiritual." I'm on the other end of the spectrum. With The Unknown, did you set out (or wind up) saying anything about people of faith vs. people of, well, doubt?

MW: Actually, that must have been said out of context, because I'm the opposite of spiritual (which is, I think, a personal failing, but that aside...). I respect people of faith, but I'm not one. And neither is our lead, Catherine Allingham. But like me, she wants to believe that there's something beyond the now, that bodies aren't simply bags of chemicals that flicker and die like batteries. She wants to believe that, but she can't 100% without finding something which, in her eyes, constitutes proof.

MS: I think what intrigued me about your concept of a detective seeking the answer to whether there's life after death is that you came right out and said you are going to have, an, if not the answer to that question. That's pretty ballsy. At what point in the creative process did you arrive at that question?

The Unknown #1, page 2

MW: The question is more important, but honestly, I decided she'd find an answer by the time I finished articulating the question. Anyone can write a detective story about a detective who fails, for Pete's sake. That's pretty unambitious.

MS: I'm not going to ask you the cliché question about whether it's harder to write a protagonist of a different gender. But I am curious if there was a reason you chose a female detective other than to play against type?

MW: Playing against type was exactly it. I wanted the male/female dynamic I had in the detective series I did for CrossGen called Ruse, a Sherlock Holmes riff with a female Watson, but I didn't want to duplicate that. Male/female is a more fun dynamic for me to write, particularly when you minimize the sexual tension and reach past that for genuine camaraderie.

MS: Let's see if we can't get you into more trouble. There has been research in the field of evolutionary biology about the different ways that men and women's brains function. In creating Catherine Allingham, did you give any thought to the idea that a woman detective might solve problems differently than a man? If so, how?

MW: Ha! That's an excellent question. But no. I simply gave more thought to her motivations in general. I'm approaching her as a detective first and a woman second, partially to keep myself from falling into any pitfalls of stereotype and partially because that's what the story demands. But good question.

MS: As I recall my Conan Doyle, Watson's role was to give the cold, calculating Holmes a bit of a soul. That, and to help him manage his drug addiction. What are the differences between your Watson and Conan Doyle's?

MW: My "Watson," a.k.a. Doyle, is along less to be a chronicler and more for muscle--but he's also a detective in his own right, albeit one less accomplished. Catherine's skill is in reading clues; Doyle's is in reading people. Plus, he needs to be a reliable second set of eyes for her because--well, read the first issue and you'll see.

The Unknown #1, page 3

MS: So you've created this great character in Catherine, and right off the bat you gave her a fatal brain tumor. Without spoiling the ending to the story, was there a point where you were mad at yourself for killing the possibility of her as a recurring character?

MW: That would be telling. But the "she only has six months to live" was such an integral part of the initial spark that it's never occurred to me to remove the brain-tumor aspect. As you'll see in issue one, the tumor sheds a new angle on her perceptions and her motivations.

MS: I asked the previous question because it seems just as with John Doe in Potter's Field, you've created not once, but twice, a character who can carry stand alone stories. Do you think that characters like Catherine or John could be a way to open up the comics medium to prospective readers who are wary of approaching a series that require so much back story?

MW: Every ongoing character has to start somewhere. With any luck, we'll be telling stories of heroes like Potter's Field's John Doe for years to come. But I do think readers like to come in on the ground floor. And while I welcome the audience, I'm not writing for super-hero continuity fiends; I'm writing for anyone who likes a good story and wants to get engaged without feeling lost.

A five page preview of The Unknown will be included in the first issue of Mark Waid's Irredeemable. And...Coming Soon: Mark Waid takes on Mark Sable about his new book Unthinkable!

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