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Drive & Shoot

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You’ve heard it before: two old-timers are asked to come out of retirement for a one-time only job that only they can handle. Still, at the end of this month, Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman—entertainment veterans turned comic rookies—are putting their own spin on the premise in WildStorm’s newest mini series, The Highwaymen. Lee Garbett (interiors) and Brian Stelfreeze (covers) provide the visual razzle-dazzle in this five-part high-octane thriller, about which BF spoke to Bernardin, first part of the comic’s brain trust.

BROKEN FRONTIER: The Highwaymen are a duo, going by the names of Able Monroe and Alistair McQueen. Where did their paths meet, and how did they become the Highwaymen?

MARC BERNARDIN: It’s funny…we changed McQueen’s first name after we handed in the solicitation text. Because his last name was cool enough, he didn’t need to have a first name to match. As for where they met, and how they became the men they are, I don’t want to give too much away. But they met by chance, as young men.

Monroe was driving a cab and McQueen happened to get in. They both realized that they wanted something more, something that life wasn’t currently offering. McQueen had a family fortune at his disposal. Monroe knew America like the back of his hand. McQueen could shoot like no one’s business. And Monroe was a demon-genius behind the wheel.

BF: Who were they before they became Highwaymen then, or is that a core element of the mini-series as well?

MB: We dip a little bit into their backstory, but we liked leaving their backgrounds intentionally vague. We liked intimating a past, but not revealing it. It’s like when we first meet Snake Plissken in Escape From New York . We don’t get much background on him, aside from nuggets like "S.D. Plissken, Special Forces until Black Light. Two Purple Hearts, Leningrad and Siberia." But you know that this is not a man to be jacked with. The Mysterious Stuff That Happened Before is all part of the fun.

BF: Also, are these guys the only Highwaymen ever—i.e. is it a name they gave themselves, or were they selected by a special ops department or some such?

MB: The Highwaymen is a name that the business-minded McQueen came up with, to brand themselves, and Monroe begrudgingly agreed to. These two guys are private contractors, always were. That was part of their appeal to people in the highest levels of government, like President Clinton, who called on their services, as well as others who skirted issues of legality as often as possible—although they were guided by a loose moral compass. They did the job, and they got paid. Few questions asked.

BF: The story starts with Monroe and McQueen having retired, but are called out of it when they receive a message from a dead President to pick up a mysterious package. Shouldn’t the fact that the message comes from a dead guy put them on their heels? Why do they accept the mission?

MB: In the past, they’ve accepted missions under weirder circumstances. These are men accustomed to taking what life throws at them and taking it in stride. Besides, they both realize that they were stuck in unsatisfying circumstances: Monroe driving a bus, and McQueen sitting behind a desk. This offer from the late President Clinton is like a life preserver thrown to drowning men. And they reach for it for all their worth.

BF: From a storytelling point of view, how much time will be devoted to their earlier missions and overall back story? Will readers see a lot of flashbacks?

MB: Little to none. And what there is, is in passing. One of the things they tell you in almost every book about dramatic structure, especially for popular entertainment, is that flashbacks and voiceovers are to be avoided like a particularly rampant strain of the plague. Not that you can’t make them work, and that there haven’t been masters of every form who’ve used both to groundbreaking effect.

The first season of Lost uses flashbacks as well as anyone has, and the voiceover in Fight Club is crucial. But your story should be strong enough to play out in real time, beginning to end, without having to walk anyone through it. We wanted to tell a story about these guys, right now, taken for who they are. And we wanted it to be a self-contained story.

Should we get to tell more Highwaymen stories, we’d definitely want to do a flashback arc, because there’s a lot of grist there. But for now, just as it is with the Highwaymen themselves, what you see is what you get.

BF: The package we’re talking about here is in fact a young woman, called Grace Anderson. Now, without giving too much away, has she come across any government secrets or does she possess some kind of knowledge that makes everyone have the hots for her, so to speak?

MB: Without giving too much away, as you said, she IS a government secret. The thing is, she doesn’t know she is. Poor Grace is dragged into a vast and explosive government initiative without knowing why. Imagine waking up one morning with the combined might of the US Intelligence community targeting you, and two crusty old pistoleros giving you that old line from The Terminator : "Come with us if you want to live." That’d screw with your day a bit, wouldn’t it?

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BF: I’m sure it would. [Laughs] Was the concept of this series inspired by titles such as Vertigo’s Losers where special ops people have to face off against corrupt government individuals and their minions?

MB: This idea had been fermenting on the hard drive since long before the Losers came out. Were we emboldened by the fact that a hard-core espionage-action book like The Losers could find an audience? Absolutely. But this is a One Last Job story. It’s archetype. It’s legend. It’s the last act of the heroic journey. Where things go bad before they get good and redemption is found in the unlikeliest of places.

BF: You say this idea had been been germinating for some time. When were the first seeds planted, and how come you decided to wait all those years to actually get it out?

MB: I think the first computer file I have on The Highwaymen dates back to 1996. (And it was nothing more than, literally, "Two Men. One Shoots. One Drives." Which is now pretty much the ad copy. Which weirds me out.) As to the 11-year interval, the planets all needed to align before we could dive in. It needed, as most ideas do, it’s own time to ferment a bit, stew in its own juices.

We needed the right outlet: it felt right as a comic story, rather than a screenplay—though part of what people seem to be responding to is that it reads like a big ol’ action movie—and neither of us had any contacts in comics 11 years ago. And we needed to be at the point in our lives when we were motivated to tell it. We needed to be older, and more mature.

Not that 36 is Redwood-y compared to 25, but it’s something.

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BF: You’ve covered the comics career extensively for Entertainment Weekly—what made you want to get to the other side of the fence?

MB:Man, I’ve wanted to write comics since I was 12, sitting on the curb debating the age-old question of who’s stronger, Superman or The Hulk. Comics are in the blood, it’s only a matter of how you get it out. I’d covered comics as a journalist—first at Starlog magazine, then at EW—for almost 15 years. But time marches on, and as my life begin to shift—marriage, children, mortgages—I decided that if I was ever gonna give in to the comics lust, now was the time.

Dreams only stay dreams for but so long, before they become regrets.

BF: You’re not writing this title by yourself—Adam Freeman is your co-pilot across the highways. What’s the creative process like between the two of you?

MB:He does all the work, and I bask in the glory. Nah, I’ve known Adam since the fifth grade, so we’re at the point where we can have the arguments, the disagreements that come with successful collaboration without having to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings.

And that’s what the beginning of the process like for us: wrestling over the story, the plot, the themes, the structure. Once we’ve hammered it into shape, we just bat the script back and forth—since he’s in LA and I’m in New York/New Jersey—rewriting what’s there and adding some more. Then come the polishes. After that, the beer.

BF: Was Adam someone who you brought on after you came up with the concept, or did the two of you set out on this ‘adventure’ together from the start?

MB: When Adam and I decided to write together, we put all our ideas on the metaphorical table, and looked at them like draft picks. Which would be best as a movie? A TV show? A comic? Tinder? The Highwaymen was one that I loved from way back, and Adam really sparked to. So that got put in the "To Do" pile. It was just a matter of getting someone to do it.

BF: Rounding out the creative team is Lee Garbett on art. Was he suggested to you by Wildstorm editorial, or did you actively seek him out?

MB:When we got the greenlight from Wildstorm, we sent over a wish-list of the artists we’d love to see on the book. People we knew could handle the action as well as the characters. These aren’t nubile young women or overly-muscled genetic mutants. These are men with age on their faces, weight on their bones. Whomever we went with would need to be able to handle both.

One of the artists on that list agreed to do the covers: Brian Stelfreeze. And then our editor, Scott Peterson, sent us samples of Lee’s work, and we were blown away. He could do the action. And his faces showed the wear-and-tear we wanted. Plus, he’s drawn Judge Dredd for 2000 AD. And that’s just bad-ass.

BF: Since this is a ‘one last job’ type of story, is it all over and out for Monroe and McQueen when the mini series concludes in October?

MB:Not if we have anything to say about it—but it isn’t our money. Adam, Lee, and I would love to continue this story. There are so many places we could go with it, so much more fun we could have with these characters. But the marketplace, as with all things, will decide our fate.

BF: Does that mean that the end of this mini-series isn’t fully scripted yet, in that it can be tweaked to respond to interest—or god forbid—lack thereof?

MB:No, all the scripts have been signed, sealed, and delivered. And it ends the way it should: All the plot threads that need resolving get resolved, while still leaving the door open for more. It’s like a TV movie that also serves as a back-door pilot.

To butcher an analogy, these five issues are like a big meal: totally satisfying in and of itself, but there’s enough for leftovers—should you want to heat it up and serve it again. And the vibe I get is that, unlike, say, Fox TV (damn you for treating Firefly, and now Drive so badly!), Wildstorm is committed to publishing all five issues. So unless The Highwaymen is accused of causing babies to grow extra elbows or something, you’ll see the complete story.

BF: Regardless of what happens with The Highwaymen, now that you’ve found out what writing comics tastes like, do you plan on sticking around?

Oh, yeah. We’ve got a graphic novel called Monster Attack Network coming out in July, from AiT/Planetlar. And we’re working on a few upcoming anthologies from IDW and Random House that we’re really excited about.

We’d like nothing more to spring from this into a career in comics. If the medium have us. We’re housebroken. We do the dishes. We’ll rub your feet, comics. We’ll treat you right.

The Highwaymen #1 goes on sale June 20.

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