Back in 2003, writer Peter Milligan and artist Mike Allred planned to bring Princess Diana back to life as part of the Marvel superhero team X-Statix — that move was met with so much controversy that the story was eventually changed to remove Diana, but if the past eight years have left you with a burning desire to see famous dead people fighting crime in comic books, Ardden Entertainment has a new title that just may be up your very specific alley.
Comeback Kings, starting in March, brings together Bruce Lee, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Andy Kaufman and Tupac Shakur as a super-secret team of super-spies, who faked their own deaths as part of “Project Resurrection.”
Newsarama talked via e-mail with co-writers Matt Sullivan and Gabe Guarente and artist Ethan Young about the series, what each Comeback King brings to the group, and what’s influenced their celebrity satire.
Newsarama: Matt, Gabe, this is definitely a series with a unique concept — what are the origins of the story? And how did you go about selecting which dead celebrities would comprise the team?
Matt Sullivan: The stars we chose are obviously all icons that died too young who could still be alive today — but they also all have an audience that believes (or wants to believe) they faked their own deaths. We thought it’d be interesting to use that folklore as a satirical springboard to comment on both celebrity culture and the superhero genre simultaneously. There’s actually a lot of common ground between the two. Our superstars are all larger than life characters, with both heroic attributes and tragic dimension — just like many comic book heroes. There are similar core issues: Are their talents (and the fame resulting from them) a gift or a curse?
Gabe Guarente: So when we started talking about the names that fit the bill — Bruce, Elvis, Andy Kaufman — we saw how each one could be different personality type in a super team. Andy could be the goofy master of disguise, Jim could be the brooding ladies man, etc. It seemed so natural, we wondered why they never teamed up before. Would have been the best Enter the Dragon sequel ever.
Nrama: Ethan, how did you get on board, and how does it compare to other work you've done in your career?
Ethan Young: Gabe and Matt found my website, youngillustrations.com, where I basically offer illustration services for all different types of projects: comics, storyboards, logos, you name it. They pitched me on the idea of a satirical super-hero comic and I was intrigued from the get-go. It's a lot of fun to work on. I've been able to expand my repertoire and fool around with zip-a-tone; most of my other work is just traditionally inked. I think the final product is going to look neat! People who are more familiar with my previous works will see Comeback Kings as a pleasant surprise.
Nrama: Tonally, a pop culture satire like this is fairly rare in mainstream comics. What kind of media has influenced you along the way?
Sullivan: Mad and Cracked parodies were certainly old-school influences. So was Robert Smigel and Adam McKay's X-Presidents, the SNL/TV Funhouse animated sketch turned comic book that had former presidents like Carter and Reagan as a superhero team. Reality TV shows like Celebrity Rehab were also in the mix. There are also structural similarities to movies like Oceans 11 and The Expendables — and of course, comics like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Fables. Basically, Comeback Kings is like Superfriends with superstars.
Guarente: I’m also a heavy consumer of celebrity weeklies and tabloids. So when I see headlines such as “Elvis Is Alive,” I probably take it way too seriously.
Nrama: By the nature of the series, it definitely seems like there's a large humorous aspect to this, but also some straight-up action and intrigue. What can you tell us about the tone of the story?
Sullivan: The tone is darkly satirical, at times even spoofy, but we hope it’s still emotionally involving and exciting on an action genre level. I always liked the way the best of Bond could combine winky wit with genuine action and suspense. But my personal standard bearer for mixing sharp punch lines with intense emotional content is Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Guarente: Being a huge comic buff myself, I also wanted to incorporate the spirit of titles like The Boys, where there’s some tweaking of comic conventions, but you’re still drawn in by the story.
Nrama: And if it's not too spoiler-y, what's the nature of how these celebrities have remained alive? For instance, Bruce Lee would be 70 if he were alive today, but he looks pretty spry on the Comeback Kings #1 cover.
Sullivan: They're getting cryogenic treatments that keep them physically at around the same age that they were when "died." We'll always remember them at that age anyways, so this was a satirical, sci-fi way of making our collective memory of them a literal living reality on the page. That said, they are not immortal and can most definitely die again. Time has taken its toll on them — but it’s also given them wisdom they didn’t have in their previous lives.
Guarente: It’s sad, but I actually did do some research in what advances there have been in anti-aging technologies and worked some of those into the story. Beyond, you know, Rogaine.
Nrama: Let's look at the members one by one. Bruce Lee, despite the age factor just mentioned, definitely would seem to be an asset. What's his portrayal like in Comeback Kings?
Sullivan: In addition to being a martial arts master, Bruce is the leader. He considers the team to be an artists’ colony with its own code of social justice. Even though Jim Morrison died first, Bruce tracked him down and recruited him to be part of Project Resurrection, adding uniquely qualified members to the squad over the years. The members of the team all possess self-sabotaging streaks and have trouble with authority, so it’s up to Bruce to navigate their egos and idiosyncrasies, the same way he combined different fighting styles to create something new and improved.
Nrama: And then there's Elvis Presley — are we getting fat Elvis or skinny Elvis here? And he's apparently pretty handy with a sword, judging by the cover.
Guarente: Well, Elvis hasn’t quite given up the banana and peanut butter sandwiches. But he still feels like the Jailhouse Rock-era Elvis, thanks to Bruce’s training. We portray him as kind of a gregarious daredevil, who will pick up any weapon — a sword, a rocket launcher — as long as it makes him the King.
Sullivan: Our Elvis is also detoxed and in fighting shape. In real-life, Elvis was in the Army and also took karate lessons — a background that wouldn’t be out of place on any superhero’s resume.
Nrama: Jim Morrison's strengths were his unique charisma and elliptical lyrics. How do those apply to the job of being a super spy?
Sullivan: Our Jim Morrison is definitely a ladies man, who shares poetry with Tupac and loves to push boundaries. He’s fearless (maybe TOO fearless). But his main asset is that he can "break on through to the other side" — forgive me — and communicate with the spirit world.
Guarente: He’s kind of like a hippie John Constantine, with a heavier drug habit.
Nrama: Judging by his lyrics, Tupac always seemed like a pretty tough dude. Where does he fit in with the team?
Sullivan: Our Tupac is a thug angel, torn between being a socially-conscious man of honor and a ready-to-die gangsta who just doesn’t give a fuck. Focusing his revolutionary impulses beyond “me against the world” is his mission — and his struggle.
Guarente: Also, as the youngest member of the group, he’s brash and doesn’t like to take orders from guys who he thinks are well past their primes. You’ll also be interested to see where he is in his alter ego “retired” lifestyle, before getting called back into duty. It’s definitely a softer side to the Tupac you might know.
Nrama: Andy Kaufman certainly seems to be the wildcard of the group. What does he bring to the table?
Guarente: Comic relief, certainly. But more than that, too. Like The A-Team’s Murdock, he’s a little unstable, possibly even a danger to everyone else. But the real-life Andy was so good at transforming himself, we felt he could really help everyone disappear into their characters when they go undercover.
Sullivan: And let’s not forget, he’s also the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion — a skill that most definitely comes into play! And unlike the rest of the group, our Andy is still considering coming back to the world as himself — a prolonged punch line to his ultimate practical joke (though he’d never call it a joke).
Nrama: There’s clearly a heavy amount of celebrity likenesses in the comic — what makes Ethan Young the right illustrator for the job?
Guarente: When we went through Ethan’s portfolio, we saw that he had done some celebrity sketches in the past (Iggy Pop, Billy Idol). But we were more drawn to his panel work, which had a cool, stark indie quality, kind of like Charles Burns. So we thought he would be comfortable doing the celebs without going into caricature and lend the art enough gravitas that it could still work as an action-adventure story.
Sullivan: And when I heard Bruce Lee was Ethan’s idol, that just sealed the deal.
Nrama: Ethan, with a cast of recognizable faces, is it more important to you to get the likenesses right, or to put your own artistic interpretation on the characters? Or maybe a combination of both?
Young: I would have to say both. Luckily, since it's a satire, the faces don't have to be 100% spot-on. You can toy with it slightly, like a caricature. So long as certain aspects stand out, the audience will recognize the specific celebrity. Bruce Lee's got his hair, his build, and his stare. Elvis has the curled lips and pompadour. Things like that.