Enter the Circle
Dark Circle Editor Alex Segura talks to Cavan Scott about reinventing universe... an entire superhero
How Archie Comics created the Dark Circle and revived their entire superhero line.
The Shield. The Fox. The Black Hood.
Even comic fans may be surprised to hear that these characters are this year celebrating their 75th anniversaries. Legendary publisher Archie Comics hopes to make them better known with its new Dark Circle imprint.
The fact that Archie even has its own superheroes might be a surprise. But they actually predate the publisher’s eponymous teen, as editor Alex Segura explains: “Like DC Comics and Marvel, Archie has had a stable of superheroes since the golden age of comics. However, over time they’ve been constantly rebranded, relaunched or licensed out to other publishers.”
The company originally known as MLJ has published its heroes in a cavalcade of imprints including Archie Adventure Series, Mighty Comics and Red Circle. They’ve even twice been published by DC, first as part of the ill-fated Impact Comics line of the 1990s and then, between 2007 and 2011, as part of the regular DC Universe. The nomads of the comic world, it’s little wonder that the Red Circle heroes struggled to achieve the recognition their legacy deserves. This all began to change when Jon Goldwater became Archie’s CEO in 2009. Realising what a valuable resource they were sitting on, he began bringing the Red Circle rights back in-house. After all, how many publishers had a ready-made superhero universe? Next came the task of setting up a creative team to reinvent these forgotten heroes for a new generation.
Enter writer and editor Alex Segura, who has fond memories of the Red Circle heroes from growing up in Miami: “I read Archie when I was a kid, and always thought it was cool that they also had their
own superheroes. Even after I’d made the transition to Marvel and DC, I always kept an eye on the Red Circle heroes.”
Did this childhood knowledge help when he became editor of Archie’s superhero line in 2014? “I was familiar, but I wouldn’t say I was embedded in the continuity, which ultimately I think is a good thing. When I started at Archie, we needed to reimagine the Red Circle heroes in a way that showed this wasn’t just another iteration. The classic versions of these characters were held dear by many people, but with due respect to what had gone before, if we wanted to get interest, we had to shake things up.”
Segura tested the waters for Archie’s new brand of superheroics by reinventing The Fox. Written by Mark Waid ( The Avengers) with art by Dean Haspiel ( The Quitter), the five-issue Freak Magnet miniseries was critically acclaimed, but was traditional superhero fare with its smart-talking crime-fighter and an outlandish rogues gallery worthy of Spider-Man himself.
However, when Dark Circle finally rebranded in February 2015, its first title was decidedly different from the norm. When he was introduced in 1940, Black Hood was a man of mystery clad head-to-toe in a garish yellow costume. 75 years later, his modern-day counterpart is a facially scarred cop who, addled by painkillers, takes the law into his own hands as a brutal masked vigilante. This radical departure was the brainchild of crime author Duane Swierczynski, who teamed up with artist Michael Gaydos to create a gritty tale of violence, vice and addiction.
A new beginning
“With the Black Hood, we were talking to a bunch of different creators,” recalls Segura, “but Duane’s pitch really knocked us out. Duane later admitted that he didn’t think we would say yes, because it was so dark and intense, but we told him to keep pushing the boundaries.”
And push he did, Black Hood becoming the first Archie comic to drop the f-bomb. “Black Hood was a game-changer for the imprint,” insists Segura, “as it showed that we were willing to try new things and weren’t just trying to outMarvel Marvel.”
The success of Black Hood was quickly followed by a new ongoing series for Haspiel and Waid’s Fox. Segura was determined, however, that the book would be a jumping-on
“With The Hangman, we’re tapping into the
urban legend vibe”
point rather than a straight continuation, even after the success of
Freak Magnet. “I didn’t want people to feel that just because they hadn’t read the first 2,000 issues of The Fox, they couldn’t pick up issue one of the new run. For all our titles it’s important that issue one is all you need, even if it’s the only one you’ve ever read.”
The same approach has been taken with arguably Dark Circle’s most famous character. The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary, debuted in
Pep Comics #1, a full year before a certain other patriotic super-soldier.
“The problem with the previous incarnations of The Shield is that people always tie him to Captain America,” admits Segura. “You never hear ‘Hey, Captain America came after The Shield’. It’s always ‘The Shield was the first patriotic hero before Captain America’.”
The similarities between the two characters are obvious. Both wear costumes fashioned from the Stars and Stripes and owe their enhanced abilities to a chemical created to combat the Nazi threat. It’s little wonder that Segura wanted to break out from Cap’s shadow: “We wanted to make sure The Shield was her own character, able to stand on her own.”
So the G-Man has become a woman, with Victoria Adams taking up The Shield’s mantle. Written by novelists Chuck Wendig and Adam Christopher, The Shield is a conspiracy thriller in the style of Tom Clancy, Homeland or The
Americans. “Chuck and Adam’s script is an action-packed but thoughtful commentary on what it means to be patriotic today. The high concept is that Victoria has always been The Shield, appearing whenever the country needs her. Now, for the first time, she has no idea who she really is or why she’s returned. It’s how Chuck and Adam unravel that mystery that’s really interesting.”
When Segura first met Wendig and Christopher via social media, he had no idea that they would form Dark Circle’s first writing partnership. “I was talking to both Chuck and Adam independently, and while I knew they were friends, I didn’t realise they were going to pitch together until their outline arrived. It’s the perfect balance. Chuck is really intense, his ideas are kinetic and really in your face, while Adam is a smart plotter.”
A writer himself, had Segura made a conscious decision to recruit novelists? “Not specifically,” he replies, “but I knew Duane, Chuck and Adam could break down a story in a different way to bring a fresh perspective.” Team Shield is completed by
Wonder Woman veteran Drew
Johnson. “Drew has a lot of experience drawing superheroes, while also working on creator-owned books like Midnight
Society for Dark Horse. He’s an artist’s artist whose main goal is to be a storyteller. Best of all, at this year’s San Diego Comic Con he told me how great it was to finally draw a female character that isn’t overly sexualised or plain weird, someone that he can show his daughter. By design, The Shield is a very strong female character. Her costume isn’t a swimsuit. It’s utilitarian, a uniform that serves a purpose. In her we want a character that inspires awe. Chuck, Adam and Drew are certainly providing that.”
Two further series are currently in the works, with Frank Tieri and Felix Ruiz’s The Hangman launching this October. Following the success of the Afterlife with
Archie (see the boxout on the right) series, Segura knew that they could produce a good horror book, but didn’t want to go down the route of modern torture horror cinema, opting instead for a more psychological terror that is, in his words, “not for the faint-hearted.”
“With Hangman, we’re tapping into the urban legend vibe. Frank was the ideal choice as writer as his stories are very street level, but he also has a wide knowledge
of the supernatural. I like to call it Stephen King meets Tarantino.”
Also providing the chills is artist Felix Ruiz, best known for
Wolverine MAX. “Felix has already worked with Frank on Batman and has a great sketchy style that somehow isn’t the polished or clean art you’d expect for a superhero. It feels more like a horror comic, more dangerous.”
Casting a Web
At the other end of the spectrum comes The Web. Due in early 2016, the fifth Dark Circle book is written by bestselling author Dave White, with art by Spawn’s Szymon Kudranski. “In The Web we meet Jane Raymond, a 14-year-old high- schooler who’s a devoted fan of a superhero known as The Web. She goes to conventions, cosplaying as her hero, but as you’ll see in issue one, ends up gaining abilities and becoming The Web herself.”
You couldn’t get much further away from the dark, dirty world of
Black Hood or the patriotic exploits of The Shield. “It’s all about trying to explore different genres,” explains Segura. “The Web is very much a Young Adult book, treating the character in a real-world way. She inhabits her very own corner of the Dark Circle universe, which is exactly what I wanted.”
So, if they exist in the same universe, should we be
expecting a Hangman/Web crossover in the near future? Segura says no. “Every book has to breathe on its own. You’re certainly not going to see a large “Infinity Gauntlet” style event. First and foremost, we’re not in a position where we can compel people to buy everything. We don’t have that cachet yet. I’d rather people got engrossed in one comic and decide to
try another on their own without me painting them into a corner and saying ‘you won’t know what happens next unless you buy a different book’.
“As a fan I would get defensive if, while reading Spider-Man, I suddenly had to hop over to Iron
Man. Perhaps I’m projecting that frustration onto our books, but I don’t want people to have to read every single title we publish to understand what’s going on.
“Yes, you might see a little tip of the hat to The Black Hood in
The Shield, but that’s only a little reminder that this is all happening in the same place, rather than something that is constrictive.”
Although it has been only nine short months, how would Segura rate his new imprint’s success? “The market is so crowded, we could have easily flown under the radar,” he admits, “but the reviews have been resoundingly positive, especially for The Black Hood. It’s shown Dwayne’s work in a new light and given Michael a second chance to play in the crime genre. They are one of those pairings that you don’t know are going to be special until everyone has a few issues under their belts and you realise that it’s going to be perfect.”
“It’s all happened at a great time too. Comics are in the mainstream in a way they’ve never been before. People who don’t go into a store every week or log onto Comixology still know what’s happening with superheroes.” The challenge is that those people can be entertained by more media than ever, often getting their superhero kicks from TV, movies and video games rather than the printed page. “The pressure is on to make stories so compelling that they’re worth the four dollars you spend on a comic,” says Segura. “With our books, I want readers to connect with the title they’ve chosen and come to see Dark Circle as a seal of quality, to say ‘I like The Shield, so maybe I’ll give The Black Hood or Hangman a try,’ knowing that these books are really carefully curated.”
Above: The Fox reinvents a hero created in 1940, adding a smart, modern vibe. Following last year’s Freak Magnet miniseries, the story arc in the first five issues of the ongoing series is described as “SpiderMan versus the Sinister Six... times a thousand.”
Above: The creators’ affection for the greats of the past is evident in this Eisner-esque title.
Below: Each Dark Circle title has its own personality and The Black Hood is much, much darker.
Above: The Shield and Captain America were created within a year of each other, but The Shield actually came first, in January 1940.
Left: How do you distinguish a patriotic character from Cap today? Play down the Stars-and-Stripes look, and make her a woman.
Above: The Hangman also originated in the 1940s but the Dark Circle reinvention takes its cue from the name and steers towards urban horror. And you thought Batman was a creature of darkness...!
Above: The Web also revives a character from the earliest days of Archie (or MLJ, as it was then), but again gives it a very different twist.
Left: Alex Segura has described The Hangman as “Quentin Tarantino adapting a novel by Stephen King.”
Above: The 1942 Web was a criminologist and mystery writer seeking to understand the motives and behaviour of criminals. (We’re not making this up!) In the 1990s the Web was a network (get it?) of costumed secret agents. The Dark Circle Web is a 14-year-old girl who’s into cosplay but gains real powers. Talk about moving with the times!