Remember “Remember the Maine” in history class? Your textbook probably didn’t mention the aliens.
In AfterShock’s new miniseries Rough Riders, writer Adam Glass (Suicide Squad, TV’s Supernatural and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders) and artist Pat Olliffe (Untold Tales of Spider-Man¸Spider-Girl) ask the question we’ve all wondered: What if Teddy Roosevelt was a bad-ass Batman-like figure who secretly saved the world from aliens with help from Harry Houdini, Annie Oakley, Jack Johnson and Thomas Edison? The miniseries, which premieres in April, dares to reveal what really happened in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in an epic look back to the events that set the stage for the Twentieth Century…sort of.
Newsarama talked to Glass about the new series, his love of history, and his thoughts on the upcoming Suicide Squad film, which draws heavily from his run.
Newsarama: So, Adam, Rough Riders – “Strenuous Ted” and strange technologies! Give us the down-low on this idea.
Glass: Well, Teddy Roosevelt is a personal hero of mine – he’s one of the greatest presidents we ever had. Flawed as any human being is, but I think the good outweighs the bad.
We have National Parks because of him; he broke up the monopolies, and helped put the United States on the world stage, planting our flag as an international power and is considered the first modern-day president.
The idea that I thought was interesting – and I veer away from comparisons to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I love, but these are real-life people rather than fictional characters – was that “What if the Spanish-American War was not an invasion of Spain, but rather a secret mission?”
I don’t want to reveal too much, but it involves an alien invasion, some extraordinary people from that time…and a lot of historical fact. Teddy Roosevelt was a sickly child, he suffered from asthma, and at eight years old, his father came into his room and said, “Teddy, your mind has to become stronger than your body, or you’re going to die.” Imagine being told that at eight!
So you have a man who literally willed himself to health and then in his 20s, his wife and his mother both die on the same day, in bedrooms right across from one another. And he’s so devastated; he packs up and goes west to the infamous Badlands, not unlike Bruce Wayne traveling the world to get the skillsets he’d need to become Batman. And in the Badlands Roosevelt reinvents himself; there are some lost years there.
But Teddy Roosevelt returns a changed man – already wealthy and educated, he’s now able to kick ass, has all these new skills. And the idea is, again, looking at him as someone who fought for justice and helped the poor and was a police commissioner – he was a real superhero in history.
Nrama: How long have you been working on this – had you always planned this as a comic book, or had you thought of it as a screenplay or TV pitch first?
Glass: Oh, it was always a comic – I watch a lot of History Channel, and I read a lot of historical books, especially ones about Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive era, so it got me thinking about those similarities between Roosevelt and Bruce Wayne. and they were so plentiful that I started thinking of a story to showcase it all in.
That’s where the Rough Riders idea was born, and in researching the Spanish-American War, I realized Teddy could have used the battle of San Juan Hill as a front for a secret mission with a special team, one made up of the greatest people of his time. I’m a huge Houdini fan, so Harry Houdini became part of this instantly. His skill set as a magician made him perfect for this team as did Annie Oakley’s shooting abilities, Jack Johnson’s fist, and Thomas Edison’s brain.
And what was interesting was we play into everyone’s real journey through history – Houdini is on the way up, he’s working on Coney Island, a low-end magician when we meet him. Jack Johnson becomes the first black heavyweight champion of the world, but right now is a contender fighting his way up. And Teddy Roosevelt is an ex-police commissioner, but is not world renowned yet, but within three years of this story becomes President of the United States.
So, we catch those three before they become the famous men they will become. Annie is already a legend at this point, but is starting her descent into alcoholism.
And the other figure in this story is Thomas Edison – who was essentially the Steve Jobs of his time. An entitled, arrogant, patent thief, who is about 15 years removed from his last great invention, and itching to find his next one so he can stay relevant. We’re playing both sides of Edison – the genius, and the asshole. [laughs]
The goal is to play these people as they really were.
Nrama: Were there any interesting historical discoveries you found that surprised you while you were researching this?
Glass: I knew a lot of stuff already, but if there’s anything I sort of learned it was about the darkness all these characters really carried with them. It’s interesting, this team has a woman, a black man and a Jew at a time when none of them were very welcome in the world. And you can’t ignore that.
The one big surprise in researching the Spanish-American War was the real reason we were there, which basically was America’s journey into Manifest Destiny and colonialism. They didn’t teach me that in high school. And the Rough Riders trained in Tampa, Florida for three months before they went off to fight in Cuba, and when they came back, they were quarantined for over a month.
So, there were some historical liberties I had to take in the timeline to make my story work.
Nrama: Any chance William Randolph Hearst shows up? I’m just a big fan of how Citizen Kane satirizes his role in that war…
Glass: I had so many big characters in here that there wasn’t any room for him! He’s mentioned, and there are soooo many other characters – J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, generals and a real mystery man from the pages of history.
Nrama: So I would imagine you’re working with a couple of levels with this story – you’re depicting an actual historical event, you want some context that relates it to the present a bit, you want to depict the fictionalized action of the story, and the real-life people as characters. Plus, science fiction.
Glass: Agreed. The first few issues are “getting the band together,” but as we get into the mechanics of the story, there’s a lot more research required. Plus, it’s a story heavily influenced by technology of its time, which was very progressive. and the tech of our story which is influenced by Alien “tech.” So, we’re playing with a lot of steampunk imagery.
My hope is in success we can tell the story in three other parts – really explore the characters and this world, and show them at different levels of their lives. Houdini is struggling in this first story, and then I want to look at him at the height of his success, when he was one of the most famous men in the world – and then after World War I, where his fame was in a decline.
None of these people wound up where they really wanted to be, and that’s a powerful story to explore. These people did amazing things on their own, and having them on a super-team lets you explore them both as teammates and as individuals – and you have elements like women’s rights, racism, fame and fortune, coming from nothing – these timeless elements that apply to these special individuals who really made their mark on the world.
Nrama: In terms of developing the science fiction elements – what went into that process?
Glass: We’re looking at what we know was already invented back then, and looking for what we didn’t know about…and where that tech was coming from. Alien tech is a game changer.
Nrama: What’s it like working with Pat Olliffe? I enjoyed his work on Untold Tales of Spider-Man back in the day…
Glass: You know, Patrick – what I love about his style is that he’s a classic artist. What I mean about that is I love the hard lines, I love that the characters feel real. I don’t feel like I’m reading a comic book, I feel like I’m reading an illustration of this event from the past, and he still brings all that action and characterization to the story. His stuff just pops off the page.
Nrama: What’s it been like working with AfterShock?
Glass: It’s been absolutely amazing. Mike Marts I knew from my DC days – he’s the one who let me use Harley Quinn on Suicide Squad, and that’s what led to her becoming such a big part of the book, and now she’s in the movie.
They gave me all the freedom in the world for the book – it’s truly been an amazing experience, and I hope we get to do a lot more work together.
Nrama: And you mentioned the Suicide Squad movie – have you had any involvement with that?
Glass: I’ve had none. [Laughs]
But I’m a great admirer of his David Ayer’s work, and he was kind enough to tweet a picture of my book next to a copy of the script, so if I’ve had any influence on that film at all, I feel very lucky.
But I’ve said this before – at the end of the day, there’s no Suicide Squad without John Ostrander. He’s responsible for the concept, the characterization, and at the end of the day, the future of this concept is because of what he put in motion.