Marvel will start a new shelf of original graphic novels this October with the release of Avengers: Endless Wartime, a 110-page epic by writer Warren Ellis and artist Mark McKone that will represent a number of milestone firsts.
Endless Wartime will be the first Marvel title released simultaneously in North America, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Brazil, Finland and Turkey. The book includes a code for accessing a digital edition via the Marvel Comics app and online in the Marvel Digital Comics Shop. The book’s biggest distinction, however, is the somewhat odd fact that Marvel rarely publishes major original graphic novels — more on that in a moment. But first a quick observation on Ellis: The man who dreamed up Spider Jerusalem and Planetary is putting together a pretty special year.
The Brit’s second prose detective novel, Gun Machine, hit the New York Times Bestseller list in January and his comics work will echo in two major studio releases this summer. There’s Iron Man 3 (which draws core concepts and themes from Iron Man: Extremis, the landmark 2005 story arc that pruned and primed the character’s mythology for Hollywood) and then RED 2 (the sequel to 2010′s RED, which gets its spy-versus-spy-retiree concept and its title from the old Wildstorm limited series by Ellis and Cully Hamner).
I spoke to Ellis by transatlantic call about Endless Wartime, which began as a business tactic (Marvel ordered up a book that might catch the curious eye of moviegoers, which is why the graphic novel is described as a “movie-length epic” by its publisher and features four Avengers from the 2012 hit film: Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Hawkeye) and the wily Ellis was smart enough to add the one visual effect that Marvel Studios can’t match on the screen — the sight of Wolverine standing next to Thor or Iron Man. The line-up is rounded out by Captain Marvel… a name that leads me back to the rarity factor represented by the Endless Wartime.
The term “Marvel Graphic Novel” became a boutique brand after The Death of Captain Marvel, but if you hand a copy of that trailblazing April 1982 release to a contemporary reader they would say it looks more like a collector’s edition issue of magazine than a graphic novel.
If you go by a purist definition of “graphic novel,” there haven’t been all that many published by Marvel, which instead churns out trade paperbacks that conveniently compile recent multi-issue story arcs or recycle the company’s vintage classics with yet another unexpected repackaging theme (which is why the Fantastic Four now rival the Beach Boys for compilation overkill). Avengers: Endless Wartime joins a short but illustrious stack of lengthy original stories presented in a unified form that includes peers like the The Silver Surfer, the 114-page cosmic novel from 1978 that marked the return of Jack Kirby to Marvel Comics.
That’s important to Ellis, who is coming up on his silver anniversary as a published writer and now looks to comics more for offbeat challenges than routine opportunities.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I don’t know much more than the title, so forgive the vague question: When you think about this new project, what aspect has you the most excited?
WARREN ELLIS: They haven’t actually told me what I can tell you so, um, let me feel my way through this. The main reason I took it is this will be the first of Marvel’s graphic novel line. Really, it’s the first time they’ve done original graphic novels of this scale. You remember the old Marvel graphic novel line from the ’80s?
Oh yes. I distinctly remember buying The Death of Captain Marvel the day it came out.
Sure, and there were some fun books but they were short. They were largely 48- or 64-page stories, I want to say. And this one is 110. It’s much more in the mode of what we think of now as a graphic novel. This will be the first one of this new [publishing initiative] and that is what attracted me to do it in the first place.
It would seem to fit your writing style. There’s a sense of scale in your work and, more than that, you’re storytelling doesn’t seem as hurried or breathless as lots of comics.
[Laughs] Probably it depends on the form I’m writing in, because I’ve done a lot of done-in-one stuff as well. But of course, coming out the back of Gun Machine and being in the middle of a new novel right now, I’m very much in the novelistic mode. It’s nice to be able to do something in comics without having to watch the 22-page count. It’s not often I’ve done anything in comics where I wasn’t watching that count and trying to find the break for the end of the issues. I’ve done a few mini-series where I decided I just wasn’t going to pay that much attention to the break. But it’s very nice to do a comic of this size where you don’t really have to keep an eye on where you’re going to find the natural breaks.
On that topic of craft and just overall writing approach: What is a thing you would like to improve on at this stage of your career as far as the writing life? Is it a craft thing, a motivation thing? Maybe something about lifestyle or creating new patterns in your work? What is your artistic challenge?
Getting out of bed before noon. [Laughs] It’s an interesting question because it is the kind of thing that comes to you when you’re living in the second act of your career. I get to, in large part, to pick and choose what I’m going to do. And I look for things. So something like [Avengers XX], there is something of a technical challenge to get something that feels like a graphic novel out of these characters and that genre and trying to get a new sound out of it. That’s only part of what I’m doing right now. I’m testing myself in novels and I’m thinking about doing more comics work that would probably not be like a lot of the stuff I’ve done in previous years. So [the challenge]? Looking for the new things.
A huge difference between your novelist work and your comics work is collaboration; comics are an artist’s medium as surely as film is a director’s medium. That can be tricky. Do you consider yourself a natural collaborator?
It’s always an awkward area to question with the company-owned stuff because it does tend to get very separated out. I can be collaborative, for instance, in situations where I go and study the artist’s work before I start writing. Then I can at least try to write towards their style. At the top of the page I give them my email address and say,” For God’s sake, if something doesn’t work let me know.” So it’s not a classical collaboration. I’m the one starting off with a blank page but I’m not cutoff from the rest of the process; if something isn’t working for an artist they can come back to me. A big part of my job is make them look good because if the artist looks good than I look great.
When it comes to the voices of characters, do you find it a challenge to keep those voices different and distinct? And which is more difficult, finding characters that sound authentically different when they speak or getting in the head of characters who think differently than you yourself?
It’s a case of finding the characters, who they are, where they come from and what they want. That’s how I try to keep the voices straight. If I can keep those things in mind — and it’s particularly hard with a job like this one because you are juggling seven characters — but if you keep all of that in mind when they start to speak, you’re normally able to approximate the voices you should have. It’s always difficult with the superhero stuff because you’re working with characters who have been written by 100 to 200 people over the past 20 years, at least, so they never sound the same or act the same. The best approach is to try to draw the best fitting line through all of the interpretations. And then find a note that sounds right to your ear.
Of the seven characters you have in this band of heroes — is there one you have a special affinity for? Or one that irks you?
I largely got to choose the cast, but a big impetus to launching this line with these characters was largely commercial. Let’s be blunt. There’s a Thor movie and a Captain America movie coming up. So at the top of the process there was a request from the office that those two characters be front and center or at least have them be fairly integral to the plot. The rest of them I got to pick and choose, which is why the Captain Marvel character is in there, because she’s written by a friend of mine and I quite like her.. .I put Wolverine into the cast because that’s nothing you’ll see in the Avengers film, well not for 10 years at least.