Pulp heroes ran rampant in the early 1900s, and now Chapterhouse Comics is aiming to deliver one for the 21st Century.
In January, the Captain Canuck publisher is launching Freelance - a progressive take on the 1940s public domain character Lance Valiant and his globetrotting group of friends. Thunderbolts writer Jim Zub is partnering with Another Castle's Andrew Wheeler and artist Vaneda Vireak for a modern update mixing Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate and "a bit of James Bond sexiness."
Zub, Wheeler, and Vireak spoke with Newsarama about their update on the 1941 hero and what they're doing to make him matter in 2016.
Newsarama: What can you tell us about Freelance?
Andrew Wheeler: For me personally, Freelance fulfills a lifetime ambition. The original Freelance was an archetypal mid-20th century pulp adventure comic starring a Doc Savage-style globetrotting hero, right down to the jodphurs. I love that style of storytelling, but it needs to be brought up-to-date to make it work today.
One of the ways we're doing that is by placing a gay hero at the center of the story. There still aren't many superhero comics or genre stories out there with gay leads, and that's crazy. Chapterhouse is doing its part to change that, and they're doing it with one of Canada's oldest homegrown heroes. That makes a big statement, and is hugely important to me. There were no comics out there like this when I was a kid.
Jim Zub: It's a modern update of one of Canada's oldest original comic heroes. Freelance is an international action-packed mystery with rich characters and a lot of heart. Raiders of the Lost Ark by way of Stargate with a bit of James Bond sexiness thrown in for good measure.
A few years ago I wrote a queer couple in Dynamite's Pathfinder series and I'm excited to broaden the adventure genre here with Lance. I really like the matter-of-fact-ness of his sexuality. We don't belabor it or ignore it. It's an action-adventure story, it just happens to have a gay lead.
Nrama: Lance Valiant is a long-time Canadian superhero, but for many he's an unknown. How would you describe him?
Wheeler: He's an outsider. That's his defining feature; he doesn't belong to this world, but he fights for it. He's not loyal to any ideology or flag; he fights evil and oppression wherever he finds it.
If readers don't know the character, that's not an obstacle, because he doesn't know himself either; he's lost his memories of who he used to be, so you'll learn about him as he does. As originally defined by creators Ed Furness and Ted McCall, he's a mystery man from a lost tribe in the Antarctic. He's tough, he's principled, and he comes from "somewhere else." That's where we start from, and we've built our story from there.
Zub: Although the character is Canadian-created, the story isn't focused on Canada in the same way Captain Canuck or Alpha Flight are. Lance and his crew are travelling all over the place uncovering secrets and getting into trouble.
Nrama: And what about John Cabot and Tasha Kolchak?
Wheeler: Lance needs something to connect him to the people he's fighting for; he doesn't want to be alone. In the original comics his travelling companions were Natasha the spy and John the pirate, but we've given them modern makeovers. Tasha is now a brilliant Inuit scientist and former intelligence agent; she only ever pretended to be a Russian operative. John is a former black market smuggler with a lot of friends in low places and a past he's running away from. They both have stories we'd like to explore over time.
In the original comics, Natasha was the one in love with Lance. We've changed that too.
Zub: Exactly. The original stories and characters provide inspiration, but we're able to dig a lot deeper and build out a broader mythology for the cast.
Nrama: Vaneda, did you do any designs or redesign work on these characters of Tasha, Lance, and John?
Vaneda Vireak: Kalman Andrasofszky did the redesigns for the three heroes, which I love. Very beefy.
Nrama: So then, what is this trio up against?
Wheeler: Our lead villain is Apollyon, an archaeologist of sorts; she's trying to tap into an ancient power that may have some connection to Lance's past, and she doesn't care who gets hurt along the way. She's a flamboyant, operatic baddie, a Doctor Doom for the Chapterhouse universe.
Nrama: Andrew, you're co-writing this with Jim - did Chapterhouse play matchmaker with you two, or did you two come to the publisher together?
Wheeler: Chapterhouse approached us both about working together, knowing that we'd both bring different strengths to the story. But it was always a safe bet on their part; Jim and I are great friends, and I've been hoping for an opportunity to collaborate with him. I have endless admiration for his creativity and dedication, and his understanding of story, and he's always been tremendously supportive of my writing career.
Nrama: Jim, you're balancing work here, and at Marvel, IDW, and Image. How did you come to work with Chapterhouse, and write with Andrew Wheeler?
Zub: They reached out to Andrew and I to see if we had any interest in their new publishing line and Freelance in particular. My schedule is pretty packed right now and through 2017, but the material they're developing sounded great I wanted to contribute so teaming up with Andrew was the best way to make that happen. We both get to bring what we do best to the project. Andrew's character work is stellar and I love developing big action. We both love writing banter and snark. It's been a lot of fun.
Nrama: Vaneda, how did you get involved with Freelance?
Vireak: I was introduced to the team through Keith WTS Morris, who I worked on Kill Shakespeare with. Everyone's been really nice, I'm sure I'm really lucky to get such a positive experience on my end.
Zub: Vaneda was brought on board by Chapterhouse and it's been a blast discovering her work and collaborating as the project moves forward.
Wheeler: Vaneda is brilliant; I love her storytelling style and her approach to our characters. There's so much life and expression in them, and she knows how to capture the sexy, glamorous side of the story we're telling. Everyone is so pretty; especially our boys. Anyone who hasn't checked out Vaneda's webcomic, 51 Hundred, should do so immediately!
Nrama: Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is your first print work after doing 51 Hundred for so long. How has the transition been?
Vireak: It's honestly not bad. If anything, it's nice to get to work on a book that has a start and end to the script; I get to feel grounded and have some closure. Working on my own personal project... well, I intend for a chapter to be 20 pages and it ends up at 50. On my own I'm really floating in the abyss sometimes. [Laughs]
Nrama: Are you doing full art, including colors and lettering?
Vireak: I do the roughs all the way to the colors, but not lettering.
Nrama: So, overall - what are your big goals with Freelance?
Vireak: An adventure, a good balance of both light and dark in storytelling, if that makes sense.
Zub: Pulp-inspired action and adventure done with modern storytelling flare. Four unforgettable issues to whet readers' appetite for adventures to come.
Wheeler: We have four issues to tell a story; I hope we tell such a good story that people are knocking down Chapterhouse's doors for more! There's a whole new shared universe out there to explore!
But even if this were the only Freelance story we ever got to tell, it would be worth it for me just to have one more comic out there on the shelves with a gay superhero at the center of the story. That's one more than I ever had growing up.