For DC's new title The Silencer, writer Dan Abnett admits that he's mining a trope - but he's doing it in a way that he says turns the trope "on its head."
The lead character, Honor, is following in the footsteps of predecessors by struggling to balance her real life with her secret heroic activities - but she's surprisingly doing it as a mother and a wife.
Working with artist John Romita Jr., Abnett is also making sure Honor's quest for domestic bliss doesn't end up being boring - as he put it, "we tried to go almost Kirby-esque in the craziness of it," complete with robots and assassins and a guest appearance by Talia Al Ghul.
After our discussion last week with Romita about his "un-PC" approach to The Silencer, Newsarama talked to Abnett about what readers can expect from the title as it debuts this week.
Newsarama: Dan, we've heard some stories about the meeting where the "New Age of DC Heroes" books were first created. Can you describe that meeting and how The Silencer emerged from it? Was this book invented at that meeting? Or before it?
Dan Abnett: Actually, both. I had the idea of the character awhile back - in a very different form; the name was the same, and the gist of it was the same.
And it was actually something I was thinking about using in Titans early on, when I took the book over and I was planning out what I could do. The character would have been very, very different, to be honest, but I'd thought a really interesting way of bringing this mysterious character in and having it play up against the Titans.
That, for various reasons, didn't work. And so we shelved it. But I thought, it's still a really interesting idea.
Early last year, DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio summoned a whole bunch of creators to Burbank to essentially brainstorm - the idea being that "Rebirth" had been a huge success in terms of reminding everybody how cool the existing DC characters were and how their legacy was still strong, even today. That's why we worked so hard on "Rebirth," to bring the world's focus back on to the classic characters like Aquaman, which worked very, very well. And people remembered how cool these people were and they've been reading the books very enthusiastically ever since.
And I think Dan was thinking that the other thing that he wants to show that DC can do is create new stuff and be as inventive and imaginative as a comic book company should be.
So he challenged these people - six or seven writers - to come up with new ideas, and to bring to the table ideas that we might have been kicking around, which is why I thought of Silencer.
But he also had in the room artists - John Romita Jr. and Jim Lee and other really, really key people - because the feeling was that some of the greatest comics in comics history have been the product of writers and artists working together, an artist actually contributing to the invention process.
That was exciting. To my mind, that should happen all the time, but sadly doesn't. More often than not in mainstream comics, a comic is created as an idea and then an artist is assigned to deliver that idea. They may well bring a lot to the table at that point, but they're not there from the start.
So this was terrific. It was like speed-dating. There would be three or four of us at each table - four or five tables in the room. The people at the tables would change. And toward the end of the day, various ones of us who felt they'd come up with something and were shameless enough to do it would stand up and say, "Well, this is the idea that I've been thinking about."
I was one of the people who did that, and I talked about "Silencer."
People were really keen on the idea. There was a lot of support.
Particularly John Romita Jr. said, "I love that. I want to draw that."
Nrama: So did all of the stuff in this new wave of comics under the header "New Age of DC Heroes" come out of that meeting?
Abnett: Yes, either there on the day or subsequent to that. It was the connection between the writers and artists, getting excited about things.
Nrama: So after John said he wanted to draw that, you worked together on the concept?
Abnett: Yes, John and I were assigned to it and we started shaping it together. It wasn't just me going away and writing up the idea and giving him scripts. It was John saying, "What if we did this? How does this work? How can we do this?"
So there was much more incorporation of that input early-on, rather than an artist querying something that was happening in a script. We kind of built it together.
Nrama: And from your original idea, it evolved?
Abnett: Yes, and it's changed massively from my original idea several years ago when it was a Titans-related thing. And it's even changed from the day I first pitched it, in as much as there are quite fundamental differences to the way it was.
But because of that, it's been stress tested a number of times. And what we've got is a really good version of it that we're very happy with, that we can see massive potential for.
So we're excited for it.
Nrama: And it doesn't hurt to have an artist like John Romita Jr. involved.
Abnett: The issues look terrific. John's work is, obviously, always amazing.
We've also done it in what's known as the "Marvel style" - that is to say, I've plotted it, John's drawn it, and then I've scripted. And we've been able to make some really nuanced changes to the way it works like that.
Nrama: Let's talk about the book. We've seen the lead character in some previews that DC shared with readers. But how would you describe the title?
Abnett: It's quite an unusual DC book, I think. It's quite real-world, and it creates an area of the DC Universe we haven't really seen before. We call it "the underlife," which is the sort of strange, organized crime network of killers and assassins and secret societies - and the codes and structures they have within that.
And the Silencer, whose name is Honor - she was a very, very serious agent in that world who didn't like it anymore and got out, but she finds that you can't leave that sort of life behind, even though she's got this perfect, normal life now that she wishes to protect.
From day one, it's her past trying to catch up with her and her trying to hide it and silence it and quiet it down so she can get on with being the person she actually wants to be.
And that means you get a great - to me - that great vibe you might find in stories where a very ordinary person with a very ordinary life secretly being this completely different thing and having to hide not only that identity but all of those activities from the people very, very close to them. That was always the delight in the classic comic book stories - Friends or co-workers or loved ones couldn’t possibly know our hero (or heroine just jumped out a window to fight some crazy threat. And we've got that in this.
It's as much about Honor trying to shelter and disguise this other part of her that she doesn't want to be, but it obliged to be, certainly temporarily, from her family, literally to protect it.
So we've built a sort of lore of the way this other world works - its code and its rules and its honor system. And that has been enormously fun to do.
And then John's brought to that this extraordinary vision and imagination. We tried to go almost Kirby-esque in the craziness of it, to remind people how much fun comics can be. Comics can deliver wildness that you won't find anywhere else.
So in some of the early issues, when I was plotting it out, she was going up against monsters, gangsters, organized crime people - you know, the high-tech weapons and that kind of stuff. And John was going, "Can they not just be, I don't know, cyborgs?"
And I'm going, "Oh!! OK!"
So suddenly we've got these extraordinary, fantastical things that are happening that are all part of this world.
And I think that really makes the contrast between the extravagant craziness of the super heroics with the very, very ordinary, real life that she's living otherwise.
Nrama: I love that it's not just a "real life" where it's a teenager trying to go to school. This is a mom and wife. You picked someone very identifiable to me - something I just don't find in comic books.
Abnett: That was one of the key things about it. We're deliberately mining a trope here, which is the young hero with a secret identity - which is delightful, and it is absolutely the mainstay of Spider-Man, and it also, in the day, was absolutely the mainstay of Superman as well. It was always great fun.
With something like that, as we're called to these characters, it always ends up getting broken, because there's always the temptation that somebody needs to find out. And then you need to reset it so that everybody forgets it, and all this kind of stuff.
So we're deliberately mining that trope.
In this case, it becomes life-or-death essential that she keeps these two parts of her life apart, but also, how do you mine that trope by turning it on its head? And the idea of making her a female character and giving her a different set of responsibilities appealed to me very much.
And then as we started to plot the stories out, I found that so many times, it's very revealing about the sort of things that you would take for granted if it was a male character doing it, but you don't if it's a female character - to really try to subvert those things and try to play around with it.
Nrama: Interesting. Example?
Abnett: In very simple terms, if Silencer was a male character, was a guy who had a wife and child who didn't know what he did, no one would think twice about him sneaking away to be a hero and go off and do things and come back and covering for himself, because that's so conventionally part of what stories have always been like and fits with the way we think about the relationships between men and women.
But to make it a woman who is a mother, there is instantly this this sense that, you know, she can't go off and do that because, what about her kid? Why are we thinking like that? Or if we are thinking like that, let's explore that and actually work out if that's a justified thing to think or if that's just traditional thinking that needs to be rethought.
So there have been a lot of places where we've deliberately done things in the story because we think it's fun to throw everything on its head and make people look at it again in a fresh light and go, oh, wait, this works in a completely different way if you turn it around.
There have also been things that happened by accident. There have been things that I've accidentally happened upon that inverted the dynamics and I've thought, "Oh, we've got to do that now."
We've got a character slightly later on in the series - a neighbor, the very ordinary neighbor next door who complains to Silencer's husband that she wants to get a job and wants to be out of the house, and why isn't she a stay-at-home mom and stuff - just to throw light on what the expectations are. Those are taking us in directions we weren't necessarily expecting to go but we're enjoying this stuff because it hasn't necessarily been done before.
I'm not pretending because I'm a white male writer of a certain age that I've got any particular answers or particularly great insight into what I'm trying to do, but it's interesting to become very aware of those things and see what stories they invite me to tell.
And it's been fun because it's like a seed that we planted and we didn't expect where it was going to go. I know where I want to go and I've got certain things I want to accomplish, but at the same time, almost every issue, as I'm writing it, I'm going, "Wait a minute! We need to think about that now and we need to find space to acknowledge that."
To me, that's proving to be very interesting indeed. The comic keeps taking an unexpected movement, which I think is going to be very refreshing to the reader.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell potential readers about The Silencer?
Abnett: It's something I'm very, very excited by, and DC certainly seems to be very excited by it. And I hope that that translates to the audience. I also think it's going to be a book worth picking up because it's John Romita Jr. and he's astonishing.
What I'd really like people to think about is the idea of giving something completely new a chance. In this day and age, everybody does – and DC itself does this, and you can't blame them, and every major company does this - we tend to play it safe by going to things we know will work. We know Batman works, so let's have more Batman. And that's great, and it's fantastic.
The tendency of readers is to also play it safe, and the market reflects that. But that's not always been the case. The 1960s had a shock of the new that made people get really excited about these characters. And now they're household names.
So I would encourage people to try these new books and these new characters. The whole idea was to excite people by saying, "Look at this new stuff!" And it can all fit seamlessly into the DC Universe so that one day we'll see Silencer standing next to Batman.
And what's fun with these books is you don't know what's going to happen. They have not got a pre-ordained back-history and continuity to keep up with. They're not toys that can't be played with too much. We can do anything with these characters because they're new, and that's where the fun comes from. You don't know what's going to happen next. I'm hoping everybody gives it a chance.