En­ter the Cir­cle

Dark Cir­cle Edi­tor Alex Se­gura talks to Ca­van Scott about rein­vent­ing uni­verse... an en­tire su­per­hero

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

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.”

Shields up!

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.”

Writ­ing part­ners

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.”

New light

“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!

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