Just because you're dead doesn't mean you're down and out. Especially not if you're the Phoenix.
No, it's not Jean Grey returning -- it's Atlas Comics, and one of their star properties is a science fiction story with a new spin on power and humanity. Written by Jim Krueger and Ardden Entertainment co-president Brendan Deneen and illustrated by Dean Zachary, Phoenix takes a look at an alien abductee -- and shows what kind of power awaits him as he comes back from the ashes.
Will our hero be enough to ward off an alien invasion -- and his own eroding humanity? We caught up with Krueger, Deneen and Zachary to discuss who Phoenix is, what his history has been like in the decades since he was introduced, and what's in store with the new Atlas relaunch.
Newsarama: Just to start off with -- what made Phoenix the book for the two of you?
Jim Krueger: I remember first coming across Atlas comics and Phoenix at a drug store when I was a kid. Of all of them, Phoenix was the coolest. Aliens... superheroes... flying saucers... I think what gets me so excited about the character is that he is a victim who refuses to act like a victim. He has o idea what’s going on, why he’s been abducted and manipulated, but it doesn’t matter as much as making sure the people he loves are safe, and the people he’s lost are avenged. It’s cool. And primal. Plus, there’s this little thing about him dying multiple times...
Brendan Deneen: Jim and I have known each other for about eight years now, stretching back to when I was at Dimension Films. As soon as we met back then, I knew we had very similar sensibilities. We liked the same comics, books and movies, and we had comparable ideas on how stories should be structured. More recently, Jim and I had already worked together on the 2009 release of THE STAND-IN #0 (which will finally be returning via Ardden Entertainment this fall), and I think it was just a matter of time before we ended up writing something together. When Jim came on as a Consulting Editor for Ardden and we ending up collaborating on the Phoenix #0 issue, everything kind of clicked into place. The outline we worked up for the first Phoenix arc is beyond cool. It takes the standard “abducted by aliens” plotline and really elevates it to the next level.
Nrama: For those who aren't as familiar with the Atlas properties, what are the sorts of qualities that really stood out to you about this character?
Deneen: The main character, Ed Tyler, is an ordinary guy who’s thrown into extraordinary circumstances. That, to me, is always a great character dynamic (and is why I also love writing Flash Gordon). He’s a guy who’s abducted by aliens and ends up being their “chosen one,” but unlike a lot of other classic stories, being the “chosen one” in Phoenix is a very painful, life-destroying experience (literally). And Jim and I have put together a great cast of characters, especially Max, Ed’s best friend from high school.
Nrama: Bouncing off that last question, since I know Phoenix had a lot of changes, even in the context of his initial short run: How will this new iteration be different than the 1970s book?
Deneen: Similarly to how we’ve handled Flash Gordon and Casper the Friendly Ghost, we’ve tried to retain what made the original character so fun and made changes that updates the character without taking away so much that he’s unrecognizable. So, he’s still Ed Tyler. He’s still abducted by aliens. And he’s still imbued with these amazing powers that he doesn’t necessarily want. One of the major differences is that he’s a “regular” guy instead of an astronaut. And the inclusion of Max (as you’ll see from the issue #3 cover) is both an homage to the original Phoenix while also an exciting departure.
Krueger: You know, Brandon and I have been very careful to protect the essence of the original character and situations. I know a few people have asked where the original costume is. My answer to that is to just wait a couple issues, and to remind the purists that Ed’s costume in the original series changed by issue three, as did te name of the character. There was a free sense of experimentation to the old Atlas series. They were trying different things from issue to issue, and we’re having a blast using what worked in those issues, and then looking at what didn’t work, and figuring out a way to use that as well.
Nrama: As far as character goes, can you tell us a little bit about our protagonist, Ed?
Deneen: Ed is a regular guy who left his home town after high school and never looked back. Unfortunately for him, he happened to visit home on the day that the aliens came knocking. His ex-girlfriend and best friend are abducted, too, and this love triangle (though a decidedly twisted love triangle, as anyone who’s read the Phoenix #0 issue might guess) is central to our modern storyline. I’d say it’s almost Shakespearian, with two best friends pitted against each other in a really compelling way.
Krueger: We’re still writing the first few issues and sort of letting parts of Ed determine himself. The #0 issue opens with Ed going home after the first time in a long time. His best buddy is now married to Ed’s former girlfriend, Ed’s Mom isn’t doing so well, and people are kind of frustrated that Ed took off to make his fortune on Wall Street. The blood’s a little bad. But nothing that can’t be solved with beer, or so they plan. But their plans shatter when they’re all abducted by aliens and Ed’s home-town is wiped from the surface of the planet.
Right now, as we open issue #1, it’s all about necessity for Ed. What has to be done to survive. Once he realizes what he has become and the power he now has. Then, and only then, while he be able to try to get back to what he was and rediscover the humanity that seems to have been ripped from him.
Nrama: I know Ed comes into possession of some pretty wild alien tech. Can you tell us a bit about what he will be able to do with this stuff, power-wise?
Krueger: First of all, he dies at the beginning of the first issue. He becomes back, and he dies again. And again. And every time he comes back, he becomes more and more powerful. He doesn’t know the limits to his power. And that’s part f what our opening arc is about. That said, I love death as a literary device. It almost never means true death, unless it’s at the end of the book. In this case, death is transformative, like passing through a gate. And it’s in that, that we’re going to see not just one level of power, but levels. And the question really is, how powerful can one man get before he goes mad?
Deneen: It’s going to develop as the series progresses. The hook here, and as the title implies, is that Ed becomes more powerful each time he dies and comes back to life. Jim and I are planning on killing poor Ed over and over again. At first, his abilities will manifest as strength, nigh-invulnerability, and power beams. As Ed gains more abilities (and becomes less human), he’ll get even more powerful. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Nrama: Finally, a hero's only as good as his villain -- so who will Phoenix be taking on in this series?
Deneen: We have a couple of villains in this first arc. The first, perhaps obviously, is the alien race which has abducted Ed (and has been abducting entire towns for quite some time). Their motives are very murky. And then we have poor Max, who becomes as powerful (if not more powerful) than Ed, and becomes a dark version of Phoenix. I truly think their battles, both emotional and physical, are going to be the kind of thing that people talk about for a long time.
Nrama: Considering the two of you are tag-teaming on this book, how do you two approach sharing the workload?
Krueger: I’ve known Brendan for a long time. He’s a great friend, and this isn’t the only project we’re working on together. I sort of plot out a panel by panel breakdown, he scripts, and then I rework and then he reworks.
Deneen: We’re doing all of the plot development together, which has been a blast. I take the first stab at the script, and then Jim does a pretty significant polish, and then we both take one final look at the script for any last minute changes. It’s been an amazing process so far. I’m hoping I can convince Jim to bring me along for a Marvel or DC assignment one of these days!
Nrama: Let's talk about your artist, Dean Zachary. For those who don't know who he is, can you describe his style a bit, and what you guys feel he brings to the table?
Krueger: He’s got this life-like darkness that’s cool. And very in your face. I’m a big fan already.
Deneen: Dean is incredible. I’m not an artist, so I don’t know how to describe his stuff in technical detail, but he does these ridiculously cool detailed penciled pages that go right to the colorist. It’s mind-blowing. I think he’s going to be a huge star in the future and probably won’t return my phone calls.
Nrama: Dean, can you tell us a little bit about how you approached this character? I know the original Phoenix had a number of changes, just within his original short publication span...
Dean Zachary: For me, I had to first physically define Ed as an Everyman caught in extraordinary circumstances. Ed is charismatic, intelligent and his will is tough as nails, so I try to use facial expressions and body language to communicate those attributes. The reader has to experience this adventure through Ed, so it's important to identify with him as well as empathize with him.
Nrama: For you, what was the appeal of the original design?
Zachary: I've always loved science fiction stories and the concept of an alien abductee with ever-increasing abilities that were beyond his control was the hook. It was more the nature of the character that made it compelling.
Nrama: What were the sorts of qualities that you were trying to shoot for, as far as the new design of this character goes?
Zachary: Visually, I want to use lighting, texture, expressive gesture and the grittiness of the environment to give the tone of Phoenix an edge. Phoenix's adventures should look dangerous, and the storytelling should be unexpected. If there's one word I would use to describe my approach, it would be unpredictability. I also use a lot of environmental texture in my art when I can. You'll notice that whenever I get a chance, I'll use, rain, snow, sleet, ice, smoke, falling debris, ash, fog or moody lighting to elevate the comic page a bit more into the level of cinematic spectacle. But I also just plain love to draw that type of thing, so it's gratifying to include those elements in the scene if at all possible. Brendan and Jim are fantastic to work with, in that they sort of let me "do what I do" in terms of visuals.
Nrama: For those who still aren't sure about Phoenix, what would you tell them to get them on board?
Deneen: If you like science fiction, this book is for you. It’s got all of the elements you love with some really fun twists and a surprisingly deep emotional core. I’m proud to be working on it with Jim.
Krueger: First of all, this is a very intense personal story. Not a million characters, not a thousand storylines. It’s the story of a man who begins the story fearing death, only to become a man who is grows concerned that he may be the only one who will survive an alien invasion. And that, for Ed, is not good enough.
And remember: if it's amazing, astonishing, adventurous - it's ATLAS