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411 Interview: Mark Waid On Avengers vs. Unity Squad in Avengers Standoff, Diversity and Black Widow’s Dangerous Secret

February 24, 2016 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
All-New All-Different Avengers 1

Mark Waid is one of the most well-known names in the comic book industry. The multi-time Eisner Award-winning writer of such beloved stories as Kingdom Come, a lengthy Wally West run on The Flash, Superman: Birthright and a multi-year stint on Daredevil has been working in the industry for over thirty years, including serving as the Editor-in-Chief of BOOM! Studios for a three-year stint. Waid has written for more of the world’s most beloved characters than any other American comics author, an impressive level of experience that he is bringing to both Marvel’s post-Secret Wars world in both All-New, All-Different Avengers and Black Widow, as well as a reboot of American comics icon Archie.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Waid at Wizard World Portland this past weekend and talk with him about these titles and his plans for them, as well as the heavily-debated topic of diversity in comics representation and just how much backstory villains really need.

411: One of the things that seems to be a hallmark of your work is your ability to honor what’s come before while providing a new and different take, whether in All-New, All-Different Avengers, The Flash, Kingdom Come or Archie. How do you find that balance of staying true to these long periods of history while still finding room to go somewhere else?

Mark Waid: Thank you. It’s a fair question. I wish I knew exactly what the magic formula was. All I can tell you is that I will only take on the things that I love. You know, if they came to me tomorrow and said, “I want you to reboot Conan,” you know, I have no love for Conan. I don’t dislike Conan, but I have no love for Conan. When you give me something that I love, then I spend a long time drilling down on it and figuring out what it is I love about it. I look at it as, whether it’s Superman in Superman: Birthright or Archie or anything, my job is to take the diamond out of the rough, and to shine it up and show you why I love it. And that’s really the key to me is showing you why I love it and hopefully you’ll like it too. And you try to honor as much of the past as you can, which is not hard for me because I love all the incarnations of these characters.

But also it’s a question of, especially with Archie, you can honor the past but at the same time you also have to find new ways of how it reflects the twenty-first century we live in. And that’s just a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open and really paying attention to the world around you, and remembering that as a fifty-year-old man the world I live in is not the same as my girlfriend’s fifteen-year-old daughter lives in.

411: Makes sense. Over the past year Marvel has been putting new heroes in familiar identities such as Jane Foster as Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America and Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. You also have Miles Morales and Sam Alexander have been Spider-Man and Nova just a bit longer, and all these characters are in All-New, All-Different Avengers along with some strong ties to the team’s past. Can you talk about the process that came about in choosing these particular characters?

Mark Waid: Yeah, sure. I understand it’s a little dangerous to say, “It’s the new such-and-such character, but now she’s black.” And the people who are fans of the old character might get a little bent out of shape, but comics have been based on that for sixty years. I mean, all the people who’ve been telling me, “Barry Allen is the real Flash,” guess what? Jay Garrick is the real Flash if you want to go down that road. So fans — and I’m one of them — fans sometimes have a very selective memory about what replacements worked and what didn’t work. But we are looking at — and all creators, especially older white guys like me — are making an extra effort to work toward a more diverse representation of our readership. And it’s hard, because you don’t want to pander. You don’t want to say, “Oh, we’re going to make this character an Asian girl just because that might get headlines.” That’s crap, you don’t want to do that.

But then again, going back to Archie, that’s a perfect example. That would have been a really good time with Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and Reggie, the core five, that if you were ever going to say, “Let’s make Jughead black, and let’s make Betty Asian,” that would have been the time to do it. Now, we had discussions about that but ultimately it felt like it was patronizing and should have come out of the characters themselves.

So again, with Thor, no one said, “You know what, we need to shake it up. Let’s make him a woman.” Instead I know it came from Jason Aaron, the writer, going, “Jane Foster is interesting, what if Jane Foster had the power of Thor?” Or with Miles Morales and Spider-Man it wasn’t, “Let’s make a black Spider-Man,” it was “What would happen if a kid with these abilities grew up to have a Spider-Man persona?” So really as long as you’re coming out with characters and starting with character first, then it feels less like it’s a gimmick.

411: In the last couple of issues of Avengers, it’s been pretty clear something’s wrong with Vision, particularly the last issue where he really fractured the team apart. How is that going tension to affect them going into Avengers Standoff and Civil War II?

Mark Waid: There are repercussions from what happens that are very fragmenting to the Avengers. There’s not much I can say without giving everything away, but the conceit with team books like this is generally that if they have their own book you can’t really do anything with them in a team book. But [editor] Tom Brevoort and I, going into Avengers even before Vision had his own spin-off series, even before Miles Morales had his own series, we made the decision and Tom backed me 100%, let’s not worry about that. If we want big things to happen between the characters, if you want big milestones to happen to the characters, they don’t have to happen in the individual books. Avengers is probably outselling that book two-to-one anyway — and that’s not me, that’s because the Avengers are the Avengers — then do it big and we’ll worry about the repercussions in the rest of the Marvel universe tomorrow. So they’ve been very good about backing me up on that.

411: Speaking of Avengers Standoff, the first issue, the prelude just released last week. I would say it’s probably fair to say that with what’s been going on in his own book, Sam Wilson would not be particularly pleased to know what’s going on there.

Mark Waid: No! Not at all.

411: If he finds out, of course.

Mark Waid: Let’s say…I think it’s fair to say he finds out.

411: Because the team is still sort of formulating with very different personalities in play, is there a chance for division among the team for how they feel about Pleasant Hill, or is that something that could potentially unite them?

Mark Waid: There’s actually less division between the Avengers than there is between the Avengers and the Unity Squad of Uncanny Avengers. That’s where the real friction happens. At the end of Uncanny Avengers #7 and the end of Avengers #7 we show the same scene from two different points of view and we’re watching how, because of the way everything’s been set up at Pleasant Hill, these two teams collide ideologically. So we did want to play with that, yeah.


411: Going to Archie now, one of the things I found really interesting was the epilogue in-between the current issue and the older issue in issue #5 where you talked about Reggie and how you didn’t feel it was necessary with that character to give him a deep, sympathetic backstory.

Mark Waid: I really didn’t think so, yeah. I think my quote in the comic was, “I don’t need to know why the Grinch stole Christmas, I just need to know how the Grinch stole Christmas.” And that’s a fine line, you don’t want to make everybody a one-dimensional cartoon character but at the same time not everyone in your life who is a jerk is a sympathetic character who just needs love and hugging. No, there’s some people who are just jerks.

411: Right, and I think that plays really well into making him stand out similar some of the characters that do so in morally grey worlds like Joker and Red Skull to Joffrey Baratheon. Where do you look within a character to figure out how much backstory you think is necessary for them, or do they need to be this level of sympathetic?

Mark Waid: That’s a really good question, and it’s a really good question about Reggie. I had actually written in that same issue a couple of pages in a little more detail about Reggie’s background, about why Reggie is Reggie. And when it came down to it, it felt like I was working too hard to justify churlish behavior. It’s important for me to know why Reggie’s the way he is, but I don’t think it’s super-important to know every detail of his upbringing to know he’s that way.

411: Do you think that in trying to do that you were sort of subconsciously trying to fit him into the mold of what most villains are these days?

Mark Waid: Yeah, a little bit. Because again, you always walk a fine line with Archie. It is not a realistic book. There are moments that should be realistic; the emotions of the book should be realistic. The way people react to things work better when it’s realistic. But it’s still a cartoon, it’s still a comedy and in that sense I feel fairly safe with being able to sort of just wave my hand and go, “Moose is stupid.” I don’t need to know why Moose is stupid, Moose is just stupid. Reggie’s a villain. It would be different with anything else, but with Archie it’s that fine line between being realistic and being cartoonish.

411: You’re also reteaming with Chris Samnee on Black Widow, another character with a storied history. You’ve said that you guys will be throwing her out in the cold after the events that pre-Secret Wars run with Nathan Edmondson. Espionage and spycraft stories often rely on those connections with characters you can rely on. How tricky is it to tell those stories when you are sort of stripping those characters away?

Mark Waid: I think it’s actually easy to tell those stories when you strip those characters because that allows you go get past the gadgets and gizmos and all the extra stuff and get to why does Widow do what she does and what does she want. What would her life be like if she wasn’t a spy? What does she dream of in life? Getting back to those things and worrying less about every little aspect of how her mission works and what her spycraft is in that moment is more interesting to me. Stripping her away from that, putting her out there as a spy out in the cold also gives the opportunity to get back to spycraft basics. Part of our story is, she learned all this stuff from several different people. She would have learned disguise from somebody, she would have learned stealth from somebody, she would have learned ballistics from somebody. Let’s go back to some of the older, retired agents and give her — we did a lot of research into 1960s spycraft with her no longer having any access to that Stark Technology stuff like the camouflage, making her invisible and such but instead going back to Phil Coulson’s collection of ancient spy guns and spy utility stuff and try to make something out of that.

411: One of the things that really worked in the end of your guys’ run on Daredevil was taking that character and moving him out of his comfort zone into Los Angeles. With Natasha, she’s already a spy without a home and has been for decades. Are you guys looking to do a similar sort of shift and how are you doing that?

Mark Waid: By not only divorcing her from S.H.I.E.L.D., but she’s got a bounty on her head. She is Public Enemy Number One, wanted by every spy agency in the world and she has no one to turn to. And it’s because — this isn’t giving anything away — it’s because she knows something about the Marvel Universe that no one else knows. And once that secret becomes revealed by issue five or six, it puts her in the crosshairs of everybody, good guys and bad guys. All those people want a piece of her for this.

411: And finally, of all the stories you’re working on right now across companies, which has you most excited about the direction it’s headed?

Mark Waid: That’s a good question. Maybe Avengers, because I know what’s coming with issue seven and eight, and I know what’s coming after the Standoff crossover. I know the paradigm shift we’re going to make in the team, with some of the new people we’re going to have come in and some of the people who are going to have to go out. And I’m really looking forward to sitting down at the end of this convention and dig into issues eleven and twelve, because I know that’s good stuff.

All-New, All-Different Avengers and Archie are available now. Black Widow #1 goes on sale on March 2nd.