As the success of Gran Torino indicates, we love stories about hard-edged, old timers fending off thugs and then bitching about them wearing their pants too low. Take a Walt Kowalski character-type, a tough, old fashioned, Korean War vet, and drop him in the middle of a mob-action story and you will have a feel for Christos Gage‘s awesome graphic novel, Sunset.
Gage’s story of revenge and redemption pulls no punches. Its script is as violent as it is politically incorrect — and in many ways, right on target. The main character, Nick Bellamy, never passes up an opportunity to comment on the softening of the modern generation. Their iPhones, their Prius, their kids’ scoreless soccer games: every topic is fair game. Nick also never leaves a challenge unchecked. As a former enforcer for mob boss Mr. Gianelli, Nick can still easily wipe out a small gang of common thugs like a septuagenarian Batman.
Christos Gage has written comics such as Deadshot, Absolution, Avengers: The Initiative, and X-Men Legacy. I recently had the change to discuss Gage’s latest comic, Sunset, with him.
Geeks of Doom: What made you decide to tell this story?
Christos Gage: It really has to do with actually reading real stories in the news about people who are what we would consider old age — 70’s, 80’s, even beyond — doing some pretty amazing things. Like there’s a woman who’s 86 years old and is like a gymnastics champion. And I read about a guy in his 80’s who fought off a mugger in his teens and stuff like that. I thought to myself that it would be interesting, rather than tell a period film noir or a modern film noir with someone in the modern age, to take someone from that era — the 50’s and the postwar era — but today, even in their old age, they’re still able to kick ass. So it kind of grew out of that.
GoD: Nick Bellamy is an old fashioned guy. He’s very simple and kind of a man’s man. Who was your inspiration for Nick Bellamy?
CG: It’s just really an amalgam of people both in fiction and in real life. You know your Frank Sinatra’s and guys like that. Every now and then you encounter someone who embodies that. I don’t know if you have ever watched that show American Pickers? My favorite part is not so much what the find as the people that they meet. A lot of them are really interesting older guys.
GoD: From what I’ve read in history, it seems that every generation before it thinks that the next generation coming after them is soft. Do you think that’s the case currently with us or is our generation just exceptionally soft?
CG: I would say that you’re right; every generation thinks that the next one is basically going to be the end of the world. Just recently, for instance, my wife and I were moving and we had these great, young college students that we hired to come and pack stuff up for us. They did an amazing job, they were really conscientious. They were great workers. People like that would be great for the future. But I think priorities change. For instance, in some cases, I’m sure that there are people from previous generations who would say that it’s a sign of the apocalypse that younger generations are more accepting of gay marriage, for example. I happen to think that’s a positive thing.
So, there is some of that. But I think that we live in a time where there’s a tremendous amount of advantages we have that people in other parts of the world and other times didn’t have. But having said that, I also think we’re coming into a time where things are pretty difficult. For the first time, a majority of Americans think that their children won’t do as well as they did. It’s really more a certain segment of society, a certain group of people. I don’t think you can make it one sweeping generation. I think that stretching from baby boomers to the present day, people in a certain segment of society—and actually if you look back to, for instance the Great Gatsby, probably back to the 20’s—people in a certain segment of society are sort of like that. I wouldn’t paint an entire generation with it.
GoD: Just kind of a trend?
CG: I think so. But not just a function of age. You show me someone who’s done 22 years old and has done three tours in Afghanistan and I’ll show you someone who is not a pussy. It’s certainly more of a cultural trend—economic and/or social.
GoD: In writing the book, what was your favorite scene overall?
CG: That’s a tough one, but I have to say that I enjoyed writing the scene where someone in Vegas calls Nick’s wife a MILF and he asks what that means and once he finds out, he just takes them apart.
GoD: Mr. Gianelli and Nick, to me, seem similar, like they were cut from the same cloth. Gianelli makes comments on modern culture himself and I got the impression that when they worked together that, if they weren’t friends, they had a mutual trust and mutual respect for each other. What do you think separates Nick ultimately from being a villain like Mr. Gianelli?
I think ultimately, at the end of the day, Gianelli would be cruel and whatever code of honor he likes to pretend he has, if it’s inconvenient for him, it goes right out the window. I don’t think Nick is like that. I don’t think he’s cruel just to be cruel. He likes kicking the asses of people whose asses deserve kicking. He’s not just wantonly cruel and he isn’t out to just exploit and use people. I think that’s really the difference. What I thought was brilliant about The Sopranos is just when you would start to root for Tony, they would do an episode that showed you that he was not a nice a guy. He’d screw somebody over or just totally ruin somebody. There was one good episode where he basically just ruined Robert Patrick’s character and life. And I think that to me is the difference: that’s the sort of thing Gianelli would do and Nick would not.
GoD: Nick Bellami is a bad ass, he doesn’t take crap from anybody. If anybody challenges him, he’s always going to put them down. What do you think attracts audiences to that character type?
CG: I think there’s a certain primal quality about that sort of person. I think a lot of times we wish we could be like that. Let’s be realistic, someone who’s actually like that probably is going to have some sort of a tendency towards being a bully. Rarely with someone like that do they have the exact right code of honor—where they’re bad ass for the right reasons as opposed to the wrong reasons. I think it’s also very elusive. It’s something we’d like to see as something that we’d like to be real.
GoD: Is this your first time working with Jorge Lucas?
CG: It is my first time working with him and I think he just did an amazing job.
GoD: How much input did you have into the art style and the layout of the comic?
CG: Well, I was seeing everything as it was coming in. He would turn in a layout and the editors would make notes on it and I also had the opportunity to do so. But for the most part, I didn’t have a heck of a lot of complaints. He did a great job. Sometimes there would be minor things. Like for storytelling purposes, something was coming in a future issue that he hadn’t read the script yet and you set this up and that’s it. It was pretty minor. I think he really understood the story and the characters and what I was trying to go for. Really I have no complaints whatsoever; he just did a great job.
GoD: I noticed that the preview was in color and the release was in black and white. Was that your decision?
CG: Originally this was going to be a miniseries and it was going to be in color. Ultimately, Top Cow came to me and said, “We’re reviving our creator-owned, Minotaur imprint and would you be interested? We’ve never done a graphic novel before, but we think this would suit very well as a black and white graphic novel. Would you think about about that?”
And my wife, who’s actually not a superhero comic person at all, had been seeing the art as it comes in. She was like, “This is great. It’s so beautiful in black and white. I wish it was printed in black and white.”
I had been kind of thinking the same thing, even though the colorist did a great job on that first issue. And so, we ultimately made that decision. The first issue, which is the first chapter now, came out it in a preview book that Top Cow put out called Top Cow First Looks, and that was a little while ago, maybe a year and a half ago now. Had it come out as a miniseries, the first issue would have come out considerably sooner. So that’s really why it was color, but at the end of the day, the decision was made to keep it black and white. Like I said, I had no complaints about the colorist, it was great work. But ultimately, I think that was the right decision. I think it’s just the feel. A lot of us associate film noir with black and white movies. I just think it helps the overall feel of the story.
GoD: Is there a possibility of more Nick Bellamy in the future?
CG: I could always go for it if people want it. If enough people want it and it looks like there’s a demand for it, then absolutely.
GoD: I read that your wife, Ruth, collaborates on screenwriting projects with you. You mentioned the input she had on the art. Did she have any input on the story itself?
Christos Gage: It wasn’t like a direct co-writing situation. We are co-writing an original graphic novel for Oni Press, which is really more her story, The Lion of Rora, it’s like a historical story of her relatives and her ancestors. That’s a direct collaboration. [Sunset] was more like, in talking over the original story, I’d say “what do you think of this?” I trust her probably more than anybody in terms of what makes a good story. So she definitely has her mark on it.
GoD: I notice in your writing-style, it’s very dialogue-driven. In several of your books you make minimal use of narration blocks and no use of thought bubbles. Is that a style a choice? Something that you do consciously?
CG: It depends on the story. For instance in X-Men Legacy, if I’m trying to convey that Rogue is struggling to maintain her persona over that of someone whose powers and mind she had absorbed, I’ll absolutely use narrative captions. But in this case, my thinking was that Nick is not the kind of guy who self analyzes a lot. He just does what he’s going to do. As a result, I thought it was the proper way to go, not to have a lot of thought captions or narrative or anything like that. It was to go with more of an immediate cinematic feel.
GoD: You’ve done X-Men, Batman, Avengers. You’re pretty much living the dream of comic book writers. What would be your advice for aspiring writers?
CG: Just absorb. Ray Bradbury once spoke to a screenwriting class I was in. He said if you want to tell stories, you have to devour stories. Just read as much of a variety of stuff as you can and try to notice what they’ve done and why it has the effect on you that it does. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission. Have another way to make a living. Don’t say, “Okay I need to write a script and sell it or I’m screwed.” Make it something that you do for its own sake. And if you’re able to sell it and make a living at it, then that’s gravy. But yeah, you don’t really need anyone’s permission. You can’t direct a movie unless you have a certain amount of money and other people helping you. You can’t act in a movie unless you have someone else’s permission. But you can write scripts and stories without anyone’s permission. I would say just remember why you want to do it and make that its own reward. If that makes any sense.
GoD: What’s next for you? What projects do you have on the horizon?
CG: I’m doing a miniseries called First X-Men with Neal Adams, which is pretty amazing to be working with Neal Adams who’s a legend in the industry–and whose stuff I grew up just loving. So, that’s awesome. Like I said, my wife and I are working on an original graphic novel for Oni called The Lion of Rora, which hopefully will be out in a year or so. We’ve had some bumps in the roads in terms of artists who couldn’t finish the project, so we’ve had to start over a couple of times and I think we’re in good shape now. There’s a creator-owned project with Darick Robertson from DC, which was something I wrote a couple of years ago before I signed a Marvel exclusive. He’s really starting to draw it in earnest now, so hopefully it’ll be out soon. I think it’s a really fun project. I love his work and I love working with him. So there’s that and a top secret video game project that I can’t say much more about. And the second season of my book from Avatar, Absolution, should be coming out in early 2013.
GoD: What’s your favorite curse word?
CG: There’s something really blasphemous about “goddammit“ that I think has a certain power to it. My wife has made me appreciate “cunt” because she says it a lot. Not many women like that word, but my wife wields it quite well.
[Christos Gage photo by Luigi Novi]