Rick Remender is one of the biggest writers in contemporary comics, co-creating Fear Agent, Sea of Red, and Strange Girl; and penning acclaimed runs on The Punisher, Uncanny X-Force, and Venom; to name a few. Over the course of his career, Rick has worked as an animator on the likes of The Iron Giant and Titan A.E., pencilled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, illustrated album covers for Fat Wreck, was lead writer on Bulletstorm, and is now penning Uncanny Avengers and Captain America for Marvel Comics, as well as working on his forthcoming Dynamite series Devolution (with co-creator Paul Renaud).
With a résumé like that, and the workload that comes with it, it's perhaps a little surprising that Remender came out of hardcore; the Arizona scene of the mid-'80s to be exact. Punknews Editor Andy Waterfield called Rick recently to talk corpses, mutants, neaderthals, and punk rock.
Your Punisher run, 'Franken-Castle', transformed the Punisher into a walking corpse, and had the feel of an Eastwood western soundtracked by early Misfits. What kind of response did you get, taking an established character and throwing him in with those Universal monster archetypes?
Rick: The die-hard Punisher fans didn't like it, but those tend to not be my fans in general. My fans, and people who dig the same things that I dig, responded really well to it. The sort of kitchy monster vibe, mixed with all the cool Kirby and Ditko, and '70s monsters - people who got it, really enjoyed it. It was a very polarising arc, which is what you want; you want to speak to your audience, and you want to alienate people you don't agree with. *laughs*
It was an exercise in making sure, once I got to Marvel, that I was still doing the kinds of things that got me excited, and that I felt passionate about; to keep my general sense of absurdity flowing, even in a comic like The Punisher, where absurdity doesn't necessarily feel like a natural fit.
The reaction was great. I mean, I had a couple death threats, and some people went crazy. That's what you have to expect when you mess with The Punisher; die-hard fans screaming that the Punisher must be treated as this dead-serious, gritty vigilante. But, to me, at this point, that's sort of boring. We've seen enough of that, I think.
As a reader, your current run on Captain America seems to be exploring humane themes, through a story which is literally otherworldly. How hard is it to balance the relatable with the outlandish?
I think the balance is that it's imbalanced. The juxtaposition couldn't be more different, and I wanted it to feel very odd. I wanted you to see this kid growing up in The Depression, and then to see this grown man version trapped in this dimension for years and years, raising this boy.
In issue 5, you'll see why it was structured the way it was, when you get to see the payout for each one of the flashbacks come back in subtle bits of dialogue. Those four moments in Steve's youth really did define him, and speak to how he moves forward as an adult man, and where he earned that heart and ethical compass.
That was the idea behind the two things, and I feel that once people see issue 5, and get a sense for how each of those moments helped shape Steve, it'll inform the other flashbacks later on in the series, and hopefully give you a nice picture of who this character is, more than just a tactician, or a patriot who throws a discus.
Your current work on Uncanny Avengers reintroduces the Red Skull as a major Marvel villain, and, of course, an unreconstructed Nazi. Given that the story so far is about extremes of prejudice, paranoia, and violent hate crime, how did you prepare yourself for it?
To be honest, it was a little unsettling. My instincts most of the time are to go to the big, cosmic, and crazy; science fiction, and psychedelic, and to just kind of go off the rails. This character didn't seem to fit with any of those plans. As I would explore options with him, it seemed that it needed to be trying to show people what a monster does, and have them feel it on a ground level.
As opposed to going bigger and bigger, I tried to go smaller and smaller; these are human beings dying on the street. That was the point of issue 3 - I tried to get in a little bit of third person narration that defined each one of the these characters being killed, to try to put a point on the fact that this guy is murdering human beings for his own gain. It's the most evil thing that someone can do.
The idea was to make him vile, and to establish what a terrible, unapologetic, mustache-twirling piece of shit the Red Skull is, and do it in a way that was focused in enough that you could hopefully feel it. That was what I attempted.
It reminded me of learning about Germany in the interwar period, and just what it took to push one of the, at the time, most progressive cultures in the world to fascism. People often see it as this monolithic concept nobody in their right mind would fall for, but people have fallen for it, over and over again.
Right, and that was something I wanted to try and show in his syrupy seduction of Steve. He's obviously using Xavier's mind to tweak Steve's thoughts and emotions here, but I wanted to show that evil always has a pretty sweet story to draw people in with. The Red Skull needed a version of that to sell to Steve, taking bits of truth, personifying the negative aspects of them, and ignoring the rest, creating an almost North Korean propaganda version of America. There was just enough in there that he could plant these doubts in Steve's mind, while using Xavier's power to give him the whammy.
This next question could veer toward the personal, so if you don't feel comfortable answering it, that'd be fine, but much of your work seems to explore quite harrowing themes. For example, characters dealing with isolation, depression, addiction, or abuse. Do you recognise these as recurring themes in your output, and what does that mean to you as a writer and an individual?
*laughs* That I'm probably a somewhat broken person, I don't know.
They're all things that I am interested in on a personal level, and have had some experience with in the past. Those things have all shaped me in some way. They don't define me, and they're not all that shaped me, obviously, but they're aspects of things in my life that I'm interested in unearthing and writing about.
They say, "write what you know," so that's what I drop into.
Can you talk about your forthcoming Dynamite book with Paul Renaud, Devolution? From what I've read, it seems to mix high concept sci-fi with social critique. Would that be a fair assessment?
Yeah, a bit. I'm not gonna get too up my own ass in wagging my finger at everybody.
I came up with the idea after reading an article about the CIA having developed a serum that would devolve or regress the part of the brain associated with religious fervor, or extremism, so that they could crop dust the Middle East, and turn off their religious fervor. I don't know if that was real or not. According to the article I was reading, it was purportedly something the CIA were considering.
Whether it was or wasn't, it gave me the idea of the unintended consequences. What if they had created something like this, and what if they had used it to do this heinous thing, and castrated people's 'religion gland,' and it didn't just devolve this part of the brain, but over time devolved everything, and reverse-mutated life on Earth? You have a planet of seven billion Neanderthals now, and cats turned into sabre-toothed tigers - Yes, a lot of this is making up things that might not exist.
More importantly, it's dealing with the ramifications to the cast. Who are this group of marines who were given the antidote when they deployed the stuff, and are still sapiens. These 'still sapiens' have taken a marine base in Nevada and turned it into a home. We discover this through the eyes of our lead character, Raja, who is the daughter of a Saudi Arabian scientist. The scientist was one of the people responsible for creating the devolution agent and he had given his family, as well as some family friends, the antidote because we was fearful of the spread of the stuff. Sure enough, he was correct.
Raja also knows that her father, before disappearing, was working on a re-evolution agent in a laboratory in San Francisco; so she's spent the last decade travelling in a world that has been reverted to prehistoric times, and is full of all manner of devolved and insane threat, not to mention eight million violent neanderthals.
She's on her way to San Francisco to try and get her hands on this re-evolution agent, in hopes that she can undo the hubris of man, and re-evolve humanity. Along the way, she runs afoul of our marines, who we get a look at and see that they're more primal and savage than the neanderthals living around them, in terms of the society, and how it has broken down among the last 30 or 40 human beings on the planet.
When Raja runs into this band, that's when things take a turn for the dramatic. Obviously, the alpha warlords among the marines don't want her to succeed in her mission. Others have motives because there is a deeper mystery to what went down; who is responsible for it, and was this an unintended consequence?
The rest of it is the survivor's journey to San Francisco to try and re-evolve the planet.
It sounds almost influenced by Planet of the Apes, or George A. Romero zombie movies; the "Is man the real monster?" thing...
Yeah, of course. That's a natural theme that comes out of it. There's a deeper level, and a bigger reveal. I don't want to give that away, but there's a number of layers to it. But then, there's also an excuse for me to have a beautiful Saudi Arabian with a sword, and some badass marines, fighting through a post-apocalyptic, prehistoric wasteland as they fight to save humanity, which speaks to my love of '80s action films as well.
Your work is peppered with references to punk and hardcore. Black Heart Billy basically is punk and hardcore, more or less. What did punk mean to you as a kid, and what does it mean to you now?
Punk rock, to me, growing up in the '80s, was the voice of other kids who were similarly disillusioned by what they saw around them and had taken to making music, and to distributing that music. They weren't trying to make music that some scumbag executive would listen to and recognise, jam it on the radio, and play it on heavy rotation for a month, and make some money off of.
It was people making fast, aggressive music with something personal to say. It spoke to what I saw around me, and also didn't identify with, which was a culture obsessed with misogyny, football, golfing, racing fast cars, drunken fighting, and proud beer swilling. I always felt like an outsider in my own culture because of that stuff, and punk rock told me that I wasn't an outsider; that in fact, there were a lot of other people out there who felt the same way.
In a society that was sort of happy to embrace greed, and all of the excess of the ugly side of capitalism, it was an ethical compass. Like hey, take care of your friends, collaborate, and share, and don't grab more than you need. Just the idea that you'll be a happier person if you follow your bliss, follow your heart, and don't go solely after money.
That's the reason I do comics, to this day. I have to support a family with it, so most of my work in the last couple of years has been with Marvel, which is a lot of fun, given that I grew up reading these comics. The 15 years prior to my career taking off, I just kept making comics because I had no choice. My barometer for success was if I succeeded in making the book that I was trying to make, how close it was to my initial intention, or if it had changed, was it still something I felt proud of?
I tethered myself to this pursuit, even after a good portion of time had gone by. I started doing comics in 1998; I had no inkling that anybody would ever give any kind of a shit about what I was doing until probably 2005/2006. Even after that, I wasn't making a living; like an adult living, like I'd walked away from in animation and video games; doing comic books, until probably 2009/2010.
Long story short, it was growing up punk rock, immersed in that scene, that kept me going, because I had learned what was important was to do something you love, and to do it because you enjoyed it, more than to just take the road that led to the money box.
Finally, you worked as an animator on The Iron Giant, so you've kind of already told a Superman story, tangentially. However, do you think you have a Superman story in you?
Yeah. There was a period when I was at DC, and I pitched a Superman story with Rafael Albuquerque. I've still got the pitch, and I've still got Albuquerque's art from the pitch. It was wild because, in 2008, Albuquerque and I were desperately trying to get a book at DC. I pitched a team book, we pitched a Superman book, we pitched Aquaman together; we just couldn't get anything to happen. Of course, a couple years later, we were in different positions, but by that point it was far gone.
In 2004, Tony Moore and I cooked up a Lobo pitch that he did some artwork for, that I still have, and would like to do. There was a bunch of others. I was just pitching my ass off at DC, and I just couldn't get any of it to fly.
So, y'know, I've got tons of that stuff I'd like to maybe do at some point, but right now I'm pretty happy at Marvel. I don't think it's gonna happen anytime soon.
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