Ask any comic book fan worth their salt what they think of DMZ or Northlanders and they’ll most likely wax poetically about the brilliance of these two titles, and their creator, Brian Wood. Since he began in the world of comics, Wood has gone against the grain of most writers. Instead of dreaming about penning the next great superhero epic, Wood focuses on his own creator-owned books that are always filled with the type of social commentary and conflicts not often seen in the mainstream.
In 2005, Wood truly arrived when he launched his politically-charged epic DMZ over at DC/Vertigo. The title dug deep into a world of perpetual conflict as the U.S. is split apart by another Civil War. It was a brilliant piece of pop-fiction that dealt with the very problems we see every day in the news. Following that came Northlanders, a mix of history and fiction that recounted the rise and fall of the Viking Age. With plenty of memorable characters and edge-of-your-seat plots, Northlanders quickly gained a rabid fan base, and it always ranked highly amongst the best comics of the year.
Now Wood is back and better than ever with the launch of his environmentally-conscious indie book The Massive, a new take on Conan the Barbarian, and writing duties on both X-Men and Ultimate Comics X-Men. With a slate of books as varied as this, it’s not surprising that he has quickly become one of the most in-demand writers in the industry. Complex was lucky enough to catch up with Wood recently to pick his brain about some of his exciting new projects.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)
Let’s start off by talking about your Dark Horse Comics title The Massive. Can you tell us what it’s about?
Sure. Put the shortest way I can, it’s a book about environmentalism after the world ends. It’s about a group of hardcore, direct action environmentalists that basically have failed to save the world. And all of this sort of apocalyptic, climate change stuff happens all at once and rather inexplicably.
So the story begins after that’s already come to pass, and this group sort of takes it upon themselves to, A, figure out why all of this stuff happened at such an accelerated rate, and, B, there is a subplot of how they devoted their entire life to this cause and they failed, and now what do you do? What does an environmentalist do now?
Do you view this as an extension of what you did at Vertigo with DMZ?
It’s definitely created with that in mind, and we’re marketing it that way. It’s not a direct link; it’s not a sequel. It’s more like a tonal follow-up or stylistic one. It’s political; it’s socially aware. It tries not to be partisan about it. All of that is wrapped up in a sort of near-future action kind of tone.
What’s the most important theme or commentary that you wanted to get across here?
There’s the obvious one about the perils of climate change. I tried to avoid making it be a polarizing thing for a lot of readers in that we sort of start the story after all of that has come to pass. So there is no longer any argument about the validity of the science, or like, “Is this even real?” All of that is kind of made moot because it’s happened here for whatever reason. So now we sort of have to deal with it. So there’s not a political message except for a really broad one like, “take care of the Earth.” In the same way that the broad statement of DMZ was, “War is a bad thing.” It’s kind of hard to argue with that.
But I think that the major themes of The Massive are personal ones that related to the characters and sort of social themes, like cultural issues. There are a lot of political breakdowns; there is a lot of war in it. Anything that you would expect to happen in that sort of scenario, the world basically going to hell. There are also a lot of topical themes like piracy and water scarcity and politics of the kind of food we eat. It’s kind of a big hodgepodge of near-future worries.
How long has the idea for this book been in your mind?
Kind of a long time. It’s taken me longer than it should have to actually get it off the ground, but I was definitely thinking about it maybe three years ago. When I knew that DMZ was going to end, and I knew when, was when I began to put some thought into what I was going to do next. I think it kind of came together in my head when I was watching the first season of that Whale Wars TV show, which I sort of liked at the beginning.
I wouldn’t say that was a major influence, but it was one of many. And I had it in mind that this is what I would follow DMZ up with, and it was all sort of set up at Vertigo. But DC Comics basically overhauled their entire business, or their comics business, and it was sort of orphaned a bit in that chaos over there. Eventually I brought it over to Dark Horse, and I kind of had to start the whole pitch process over again there, which is why it took a long time.
You’re also working on Conan the Barbarian, which is a much less gloomy book. Were you familiar with the original character at all from the movies or comics? Or did you have to brush up on him?
A bit of both. I feel like everyone is kind of familiar with Conan up to a point. This job I’m doing now is an adaptation of one of the old novels. So I limited my research to just this one book, which takes place when Conan is very, very young. And I kind of had a mandate to sort of play up his youth and make him less this sort of scarred, hardened, brooding warrior, and sort of make him this young guy who is 22, which is what he was in the original. And treat is as such: a slightly different take on how people usually see Conan portrayed.
He’s a bit thinner, a bit more, like, dumb. In the way that someone is young and dumb in a fun and funny kind of way. It’s also a big love story; it’s one of the reasons why this story has come to become such a favorite of the hardcore fans. It’s Conan’s first love and it’s this super-sexy pirate chick, so there is a lot of fun stuff to work with there.
This book seems a lot more relatable than Conan books in the past. Do you think that will help it appeal to readers who might be put off from the Barbarian angle of the character?
I can see that happening among my friends and Twitter group. I can see that people are like, “I bought your Conan book; I never thought I would. But I’ll give it a try because you’re writing it.” And that’s great.
So I don’t really know to what extent overall that’s happening. It’s hard to really say because I’m such an unusual choice for that book, and the artists that we’re working with also aren’t typical. The book doesn’t look like a typical Conan book. So I feel like it does have a shot at some level of mass appeal, but it’s kind of early to really tell.
Did your experience on Vertigo’s Northlanders help you with Conan’s world, or did you try to stay away from that tone?
It definitely helped. I don’t think I would have been offered this job otherwise, so I think it helped in that basic way. I mean, I feel like where those two books are the same, or what I'm taking from Northlanders and applying here, is just sort of trying to find the universal human experience and putting it into Conan.
If Northlanders had any kind of hook, it's that I felt like they were timeless stories that happened to take place in Viking times. But I always tried to make them, at their core, something that anybody could relate to, even if the details were wildly different from their own lives. So I am trying to get that humanity into Conan. Just trying to take this character that, in a way, is a bit absurd; I mean he’s a Barbarian. I mean that’s a bit absurd taken objectively. And trying to make it into something that I feel like someone could look past.
How does your approach change when writing something as socially conscious like The Massive when compared to Conan?
Stuff like The Massive and DMZ requires a lot of research. I’m trying really hard to get as close to actual events and things in the news as I can. It requires a lot of research and the careful application of things. Conan is a little different because it’s a fantasy story. It’s also a world that already exists. I feel like over the course of the 80 years that it’s been built up into a world that is every bit as complex and documented as Middle Earth is in Lord of the Rings. It’s very broad and very vast and detailed.
All that work is already done, and it’s awesome. I can just kind of walk into this living environment and tell these ripping stories. A lot of the pressure is taken off. I can just focus on having fun with these stories. Writing a script like The Massive takes two or three times as long. It’s much more arduous and more research as I go. It’s pretty different.
Are there any new projects in the works, or is your current slate keeping you busy for now?
I’m doing a couple X-Men books at Marvel. That’s sort of like the flipside of the Dark Horse work. Other than that, I’ve got a few small, indie projects that are in the very early stages of development. I try to balance out how much work I do that’s original, like The Massive, with how much licensed work I do like Conan or X-Men. I have a foot in both worlds equally.
When it comes to a book like the Wolverine miniseries that you were doing, Wolverine & the X-Men: Alpha and Omega, how long does it take to get accustomed to writing the superhero genre again?
That’s also a world that is pretty fleshed-out. Everything is sort of ready to go; it’s like pre-packaged food. It goes really easy and fast. Not to say that I’m phoning it in or anything, but these are characters that I know and everybody already knows, and it’s easy to step back into their shoes and tell these stories. It’s a lot of fun.
Do you have anything else coming up within the X-Men universe after this Wolverine story?
The Wolverine series ended last month. And this month, the middle of June, I’m writing two X-Men books. This is going to be funny: one is just called X-Men and the other one is called Ultimate X-Men. Which are two very different books, if you’re acquainted with them.
Yes, one is from the newly-relaunched Ultimate Universe.
Yeah, it’s like a whole separate world. So I’m the ongoing writer on both of those titles.
Since the Ultimate Universe is different than the regular Marvel one, do you have a bit more freedom to reimagine things the way you want? That’s pretty much what the whole universe is predicated on.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. It is a new universe, but, of course, it’s been around for a decade now. There is a lot of stuff that is as set-in-stone as anything else. But I think where the freedom lies is that you can sort of take a lot of risks. You can have characters die in a way that you can’t in the regular line. And you can also introduce characters that haven’t been introduced yet into the Ultimate world. There are still a lot that haven’t appeared yet. So there is freedom there.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)