With this week's Champions #24, writer Jim Zub and artists Sean Izaakse, Marcio Menyz, and Erick Arciniega take the teen team's ethos of fighting for social causes to a new level with a story about the effects of gun violence.
Focused on the aftermath of a mass shooting at Miles Morales' Brooklyn Visions Academy, Champions #24 foregoes superheroics and teen drama for a look inside what some people who have PTSD experience in the wake of trauma.
Newsarama spoke to Zub about the story, uncovering the process of understanding and relating the experience of PTSD and grief and framing an all too real problem in the "world outside your window" of the Marvel Universe.
Newsarama: Jim, gun violence and active shooting incidents are prescient issues in American culture right now. What specifically lead you to write this story for Champions #24?
Jim Zub: It was really looking at this idea that Marvel strives to depict the “world outside your window,” and this just became too big a topic to ignore. I felt like Champions was really a place where it felt appropriate given the number of teen characters on the team, and most of them are in school. So, out of anywhere in Marvel’s line, it felt like the most appropriate place for us to reflect on gun violence and the aftermath of a tragedy.
Nrama: There’s a mantra that sometimes rears its head in response to media that depicts these hot button issues that entertainment should not “be political.” Did you or Marvel feel any hesitation tackling this kind of heated issue head on?
Zub: Not hesitation, I just wanted to make sure we didn’t rush into it, that we took our time and made sure we had something valuable to say, rather than reactionary. To me the story is about the effect on people and their lives, and how we can support each other through difficult times and traumatic situations. The story is about what happens after a tragedy, not what happens during it.
That was important to me – that there was something value to be said, but also that it wasn’t just about one singular point of view or outcome.
As far as Marvel goes, I want to mention the support we had for the idea all the way up the line. I pitched the idea to Tom Brevoort earlier this year and he didn’t shy away from it. He said “Look, I want you to feel you can send me story ideas, no matter how wild or how grounded.” Tom and Alanna Smith have always been supportive that way.
So, I told Tom this was something important to me, and he said “send me the pitch.” I sent it and he sensed there was something solid in it, so it went all the way up the line to everyone editorially and we got great feedback from Sana Amanat, Joe Quesada, C.B. Cebulski – everyone was really engaged and ready to see the story through. That meant a lot to me. The easiest thing would have been to say “No, we don’t need to do this.” But no one did that. Of course they had the option, but no one backed down.
And the fact that we were able to do that, to say something like this through the world’s biggest entertainment company, and to get support all the way through this process, that speaks to the importance of this topic.
Nrama: It’s not widely known, but you’re a schoolteacher. How did that perspective inform this story?
Zub: I don’t teach high school, I teach at the college level, so I’m working with teenagers and young adults in their late teens and early 20s. But it’s still a really valuable experience to engage with students and to be reminded of my own vulnerabilities and fears about the future, and about the things I thought were important at that age and the way I framed those things as I grew up.
This issue is a part of that process, but my run on Champions as a whole is about that perspective. I’m constantly touching base with real people who are at this transitional point in their lives, thinking deeply about who they want to be and what their priorities are, and remembering those key moments in my own life and channeling that into the stories as much as I can.
I want these characters to feel like real teenagers. They make mistakes like real teenagers, they make hard choices like real teenagers. With any kind of superhero story you want to put the characters through their paces and show their heroism in the face of adversity. Champions #24 and what we do in the “Trigger Warning” story is a part of that, but I want that to be a continuous conversation in my run on Champions, that these kids are growing and learning and changing, falling down and picking themselves back up.
Nrama: You brought up the story’s title, and I want to ask you about that. Because Champions #24 deals with school shootings and PTSD, the story’s title, “Trigger Warning” – a clinical term used to prepare readers for material that could induce a PTSD-related trauma response - could be interpreted as a play on words. What was your intent with that title?
Zub: It can be taken multiple ways, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not being taken seriously. It can be used in both of those connotations, but it’s setting the reader up to be ready that this is not a regular Champions issue, if you want to put it that way, but that there’s something more difficult and intense that’s going to be dealt with.
We also put that first page, the kind of warning page of text before the story. It’s a kind of narrative airlock - you’re saying to people, “You’re entering this story in a very specific manner, and there’s a specific intent so we want to prepare you for it,” so the reader can go in with the right headspace for what’s about to come.
But also, it is “trigger,” like the trigger of a gun, and I used that to indicate that there’s a hard conversation about gun violence that’s going on, and it’s something that affects all of us on some level. There’s something broken in that kind of discourse in general. So that to me felt like a way to express both of those ideas in a single title that, yeah, is a “play on words” in a way, but it’s not done with a wink and a snap. It’s very much “Hey, this has a double meaning, and both of those meanings are important.”
Nrama: Why did you choose Miles Morales as the focus of the story?
Zub: You know, I considered different ways to tell the story and different ways to focus on the cast. It went through iterations, but Miles was always the focal point. Not only did he have the most well-developed school life, but he had a cast of high schoolers that we already know which gives the story extra meaning for that very reason.
If I had to introduce and establish a whole school and cast of characters before I got to the Champions it would take away from the actual story. At the same time, I want to make it clear that something poignant and awful has happened, but the fact that these are characters we know, who have carried on from Miles’ solo series gives it extra meaning and impacts his world in a much bigger way.
We saw some of Viv Vision’s school life in a previous arc but we haven’t really touched on that again afterwards. We saw some of Sam’s school briefly, but Miles’ supporting cast has been constant in the narrative and the Brooklyn Visions Academy is a location we already know.
And of course there’s the fact that, until now, Miles hasn’t been the focus of a Champions issue for me. We’ve focused on Sam and Viv, we’ve introduced Snowguard, so I felt like, of the cast we have, Miles worked best to focus on this particular theme.
Nrama: Speaking of the supporting cast, there are a few characters we know who become casualties here, including Fabio/Goldballs, who is wounded. Will Goldballs be OK? Will we see the ramifications of this story and the effects on those characters moving forward?
Zub: Yeah, we’ve got big plans for Miles, and Marvel has big plans for Miles in general. This isn’t something that’s just being done in a one-off story. We’re going to see how this affects Miles as a hero, how it plays into his fears and his thought process. There’s a story I’ve got coming up in 2019 with Miles in the center of it that’s going to come back to this story and the things Miles and Kamala talk about in that rooftop scene in a big way.
So Champions #24 isn’t - and I don’t mean this in a pithy way - isn’t a “very special episode” of Champions. It’s a very real way to examine this issue and get to the heart of these characters and their ongoing heroic stories.
Nrama: Did you do any research or consultation on the effects of PTSD and how counselors work to treat it before writing Champions #24?
Zub: Yeah absolutely. I wanted the aftermath and the human effect of the incident to be at the heart of it so I wrote around the counseling scene in the first draft. And then, when I was refining it, I consulted with several counselors working here at the school and I spoke to some folks I know who have worked with people with PTSD. I wanted to make sure we accurately depicted what it’s like to go through grief counseling, so we talked about some of those themes and ideas in broad terms.
I wanted to show an experience that was specific to Miles but which presented the real ways you can bring someone out of their shell, or start those conversations, those moments of realization about things you’re experiencing internally and then trying to express them externally.
That was really important to me. Even if it was only going to be a few pages, it was important to not be stereotypical. I didn’t want it to feel like a therapist’s office where they’re lying on a couch and there’s a guy taking notes. I wanted it to feel like a real thing. I wanted to depict what it’s actually like to be in that moment and to have those conversations.
Nrama: There’s a message throughout Champions #24 where the heroes are asked some variation of, “What are you going to do about it?” It would obviously be irresponsible to depict the Champions somehow defeating the concept of gun violence, but was there consideration given to depicting the characters taking the kind of actions people in the real world take to protest and work to end gun violence, or including the names of any organizations that work to end gun violence or which provide counseling for the survivors of active shootings?
Zub: When I was putting together this story, I wanted to be careful not to take too broad a point of view or say that there’s only one way to react to school shootings or gun violence.
Like you said, you can’t have the heroes taking on a real-world problem and giving the easy answer, defeating the concept of pollution or war, or whatever. There are some stories that take that kind of far reaching approach and it can work in a self-contained narrative, but we wanted to depict something much more realistic and current for readers. In the ongoing Marvel Universe, if we want to show the “world outside your window” we have to show real-world scenarios but also real-world reactions, so the experience Miles has and the things he goes through are very much about what he needs to pull himself up to keep going, not just to take steps to deal with the problem.
And there is that reaction first of how you can solve it, particularly if you’re a teenager, particularly if you’re in the world where these things are a real ongoing concern. But rather than focus our support on a particular movement, or a particular way of dealing with it, we wanted to show that that’s not the endpoint of the conversation. The conversation is how Kamala frames it in that ending conversation, it’s about choosing despair or hope.
So rather than trying to say “this is how we fix it, step one, step two, step three,” we wanted to step back and examine this kind of trauma, and also that there’s not just one right way of dealing with this kind of trauma.
Nrama: And to that end, through the Champions, you express a number of different reactions we often see in response to school shooting and active shooting events. Which of the Champions represents your response to these kinds of tragedies?
Zub: I think it’s not necessarily my place to express that. I don’t live in America – I’m from Canada. So of course I have opinions about gun violence and ideas about what could be done, but at the end of the day I can’t go to the ballot box and cast my vote to change it.
The good part – “good” in the storytelling sense – is that because I’m not directly taking part in that process I can take a bit more of an aerial view. Not that Canada’s perfect – far from it – but not being in that current gun debate means I can look at the whole thing and try to show as many reactions to the trauma as possible.
It’s about taking all the different viewpoints – some people say it’s about numbers and statistics, some people say it’s about emotion and the human heart – and saying these are all part of the problem and part of the solution.
And I think that’s the reason I wanted each of the Champions to have these different opinions. They’re all very different people, and they take these different responses, and have these different feelings about it rather than just lock-stepping everyone into the “right” – I use big hanging air quotes on “right” – way to react to this. So rather than having the Champions finger-wagging and saying “You’ve got to fix this!” it’s about looking at this damage and looking at these difficulties, and letting the reader decide what they want to take from that and what they should do next.
Nrama: That’s a great segue to my last question. What do you hope readers will feel after reading Champions #24? What do you hope they will do?
Zub: I think it would be a mistake to try and say how people should or shouldn’t feel when they’re confronted with this sort of thing.
Sean Iszaake, Marcio Menyz, and Erick Arciniega all did an amazing job on the art. It perfectly captures the emotion of the story. It’s subtle where it needs to be subtle, it’s broad where it needs to be broad. You couldn’t ask for better artistic collaborators to handle a story like this. Everyone on the team brought their A-game, from Clayton Cowles on lettering to Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort in editorial, everyone busted their humps to try and thread the needle on a very difficult subject, so I hope it’s emotionally affecting. I hope people read it and it gives them pause. I hope it presents the understanding that as much as these are superheroes, fictional characters, the story is framed in something that is going on in the real world.
The scene for me where the active shooter drill is happening at Kamala’s school was difficult to write and to see it visualized, knowing this isn’t some kind of big, exaggerated super-villainy. This is a real window into what it’s like to be in that situation in 2018 in America. All the visual cues and references I sent to Sean and the rest of the team were real photos, real videos, real news reports – we’re framing it in the Marvel Universe without any exaggeration. And that’s both important and heartbreaking.
I don’t want to tell people they must feel this certain way. If we’ve been effective in our jobs, people will feel what we wanted them to feel. And if they’re struck by that and want to see things get to a better place, I hope they do something about it.