Director’s Cut (For Geeks Only): Comics Writer Chris Sims Takes It Back to ’92

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    So you’ve read our condensed interview with comics writer Chris Sims and you still want more? Then enjoy this extended cut with extra answers, context, and details on X-Men ’92, Deadpool: Bad Blood, and Swordquest.

    Superhero comics hit puberty in 1992, violently sprouting massive muscles, bosoms, and guns, with ‘tude to match. The characters and the industry alike seemed volatile and overstated. DC Comics’ “Death of Superman” stunt sparked a mainstream media frenzy. Even as the X-Men were everywhere, Marvel Comics grappled with the defection of its money-printing young stars—including X-Force creator Rob Liefeld—to Image Comics, which permanently shook up the work-for-hire market with a creator-owned revolution.

    Many of today’s leading creators also came of age around the early nineties, like Chris Sims, who moved from Sumter, South Carolina, to Research Triangle Park last year. After years of self-publishing his comics with writing partner Chad Bowers and working as a columnist for Comics Alliance, Sims hit the mainstream in 2015 with X-Men ’92, an exuberant throwback that drew as much on Fox’s popular nineties animated series as Marvel’s comics.

    After hitting such a sweet spot in the nostalgia cycle, the only conceivably more “nineties” thing to do would be to write a Deadpool (born in ’92) graphic novel with the antihero’s polarizing creator, Rob Liefeld, whose art is widely thought to simultaneously represent the best and worst traits of nineties aesthetics. So, of course, Sims and Bowers did that; Deadpool: Bad Blood came out in May. (Their next project is Ash Vs. the Army of Darkness, another class of ’92 ringer.)

    But don’t let it be said that Sims is stuck in ’92. He and Bowers are also currently penning Swordquest for Dynamite Entertainment, based on a series of Atari video games from the eighties and, more important, on the unfinished real-world contest associated with them, in which you could win real versions of the games’ mythical treasures, worth tens of thousands of dollars. All these stories are steeped not only in nostalgia but also in layers of fascinating cultural sediment, and we recently sat down with Sims at Scratch to sift through them.

    INDY: You were a columnist at Comics Alliance for years until it shut down. Were you writing comics then, too?

    CHRIS SIMS: I did a bunch of self-published stuff. I had an urban fantasy parody called Solomon Stone with Matthew Allen Smith. My writing partner, Chad Bowers, and I had a “studio” down in South Carolina. (It was just me and him.) Chad’s from Columbia; I was in Sumter. We did a webcomic with Matt Digges called Awesome Hospital, which was basically, What if Grey’s Anatomy happened on dirt bikes? And, in 2014, we had a graphic novel with Scott Kowalchuk, Down Set Fight, come out from Oni Press, the publisher of Scott Pilgrim. That was kind of our breakout thing. It’s about a football player who fights mascots.

    We went to Seattle for Emerald City and gave a copy to Tom Brevoort, the executive editor of Marvel. He mentioned it in an online interview when someone asked him what non-Marvel books he was enjoying. By the end of that year we signed a contract with Marvel.

    How did X-Men ’92 come about?

    I had been on good terms with an editor at Marvel named Jordan White; we actually do a Sailor Moon podcast together now. [laughs] At San Diego Comic Con that year, 2014, he was like, Hey, we’re doing this event coming up called Secret Wars and I can’t tell you what it’s about, but we really want you to do something related to nineties X-Men stuff. At the time, I was writing an episode guide for the nineties animated series—though this comic couldn’t exactly be the nineties X-Men series, because Fox owned the rights. We had a hard time, like, OK, it’s not season six of the animated series, so what can it be? Ninety-two was the first year after seventeen years of Chris Claremont [writing the X-Men comic books], the year the animated series began, the year of the arcade game, the year X-Men had the Pizza Hut tie-in. We did our best to recreate the feel of those books.

    We found out when we did the book that there’s a lot of people for whom that is the X-Men, and me and Chad were those guys, too. I was ten in ninety-two, and one of the big, guiding things for me is that when I was a kid, I couldn’t get every issue of X-Men. I had to piece together what I knew from issues on the rack, a couple of back issues, and trading cards. I always had this feeling—and this is one of the things that made X-Men both super appealing and terrifying—that I would never read enough comics to know what was going on.

    So, when we did X-Men ’92, in my head there was also an X-Force ’92 and X-Factor ’92 and even Uncanny ’92, but you never see those books, so things go really fast. I didn’t want to lose anyone, but I did want them to have that overwhelming feeling. I’ve seen some reviews that say it goes a little too fast, but that was by design. I wanted to have less of the specific bits and pieces of the era and more of the feeling, and for me, that was it: Wait, what’s happening, who’s this?

    The book seems ideal for people who know that era of comics but also has fun stories for those who don’t.

    We riffed on stuff that happened after the nineties, doing all the post-2000 stuff nineties style. And the X-Men of the 2000’s were so different. Grant Morrison comes on in 2001 and introduces Cassandra Nova, and a lot of it comes from the movie. It wasn’t Marvel’s first successful movie; that was Blade. But it was the one reflected in comics most prominently.

    The first X-Men ’92 series was sort of doing “E Is for Extinction” and “Gifted,” the first major post-2000 stories, at the same time. The idea came from the animated series. If you watch the first couple of seasons, they’re doing Dark Phoenix, Genosha, all these major stories from the X-Men’s past—except they can’t kill anybody and the cast is different.

    But, by the time they get to season four or five, they’ve run out of the major X-Men stories and they very clearly start calling up Marvel like, What’s in the pipeline? There’s an “Age of Apocalypse” story that happens before the comics, which I’ve heard actually happened because the TV show was so well received. Tyler, Cable’s son, first shows up in the animated series (he plays a little part in Deadpool: Bad Blood). The cartoon and comics did “The Phalanx Covenant” at the same time. So, our idea for ’92 was, what if that had continued? What if the nineties never stopped but they had this ham radio to another universe, where they’re like, Jubilee becomes a vampire? OK!

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      The concept was popular enough for a second limited series.

      It wasn’t originally meant to be limited, but honestly, ten issues in 2016 is not bad. Chad had pitched it as a twenty-five-issue series. In the ten issues we have, you’ve got the Upstarts, one of the big unfinished plot lines of the nineties, and each of them was going to have their own arc. First the Fenris twins, second Cortez, third Sebastian Shaw, fourth Fitzroy. If you look at the four variant covers by David Nakayama for the [first] mini-series, they would all have been stories we’d tell in the ongoing. The first is Storm marrying Dracula, the second is a big Arcade one. Arcade was in the very first pitch. But all that had to be truncated to fit into ten. You can kind of tell the moment when we find out we’re getting cancelled, halfway through number seven, when a book that had moved very fast starts moving ultra fast. But we got to the ending we wanted to get to.

      And it got your foot in the door at Marvel, which brings us to another very nineties topic: Deadpool and Rob Liefeld.

      Jordan [White] used to be in the X-Men office, but the Deadpool line grew so big it became its own office. Now Jordan edits Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Deadpool, three huge things for Marvel. Rob wanted to do the graphic novel that would eventually become Deadpool: Bad Blood. He wanted to give Deadpool a Sabretooth, is what he said. And Jordan knew that Chad and I, being the age we were …

      I’m the guy who had a really public coming around on Rob Liefeld. I loved him when I was a kid. There was an episode on the Sci Fi channel show The Anti-Gravity Room in 1996, during [Marvel relaunch] “Heroes Reborn,” where Kevin Smith was the guest and reviewed Rob Liefeld’s Captain America. He didn’t like it. I wrote a paper in school rebutting that review.

      Then, in my twenties, as a snarky comics blogger, I made the jokes; I was kind of a Liefeld hater. But, and you can probably still find it at Comics Alliance, I had this public awakening, like, You know what, Rob’s good, actually!

      I read interviews with Rob and that’s what cracked the code for me. He was talking about how he had editors telling him he didn’t deserve to be selling as many comics as he was. I don’t know how you tell someone that when it’s happening specifically because of him. The second wave of ToyBiz action figures was X-Force, his characters. He brought stuff to the table with an energy and style that, even if it’s not your taste, you kind of have to give him that—that he did it. Rob was a millionaire when he was twenty-one. If I had half that money at twenty-one you couldn’t tell me anything; I’d be the worst! [laughs]

      Did you co-write the book with Liefeld?

      It was done Marvel style, so Rob drew all the pages based on a plot we came up with together, and then we scripted it over those pages. Chad and I got on the phone with Rob, who brought us the idea of Thumper being this figure from Deadpool’s past coming back after him. I think he already had the first ten pages laid out. We worked with him on fleshing out that plot, and then we let Rob be Rob.

      Was there any awkwardness in working with someone you’d been critical of once?

      I don’t think so. Honestly, talking to Rob was fascinating. The thing people forget about Rob, because his style is so crystallized from the nineties, is that he’s a twenty-seven-year veteran of the industry. He’s smart. He knows what to do. He’s not the guy  a lot of people expect. I think he feels a lot of pride and ownership of Deadpool, but the first thing he told us on the phone was that there’s a Deadpool for everybody: for people who like the comedy book, the hard-R violence, the psychological Rick Remender X-Force stuff, which he said was his favorite.

      The hardest thing was finding a balance that would be that Deadpool for everybody. We knew the movie was going to be a big thing. We started before it came out but Rob knew it was going to be big and we had to consider someone who’s only seen that movie picking up this graphic novel. We had to think of someone who only reads Rob’s stuff. We had to consider the person who reads Gerry Duggan’s Deadpool every month. I feel like by the time we were into the scripting, we got Deadpool’s voice down, which is surprisingly hard. I’d written comedy stuff for years, and Chad’s hilarious, but figuring out what’s Deadpool-funny was really hard.

      I think a lot of people would imagine Liefeld being megalomaniacal to work with, but it sounds like that wasn’t the case.

      Not at all. He was really open to suggestions. Chad came up with the title Bad Blood, and Rob was a little reluctant because it’s another “blood” thing, Youngblood, Bloodstrike. But the more he thought about it, it was a good title, and he talked on Instagram about doing a sequel called Badder Blood, which is perfect. The challenges of scripting that comic were like any other; there were pieces we were scripting without having the rest of it, getting pages as they came in. But that wasn’t a Rob thing; that was just a comics-deadlines thing. Rob was great to work with, and now Chad’s writing Youngblood.

      The debut of Image Comics was such a defining part of the summer of 1992 for me, and when I look back, I always think some of the books stand up on artistic value, like Sam Kieth’s The Maxx, and some that stand up on nostalgia only, like Liefeld’s Youngblood. But maybe that’s a false dichotomy.

      Youngblood was legitimately, and this is something I said long before I worked with Rob, ten years ahead of its time. It’s about celebrity militarized superheroes, and that’s what The Ultimates is; that’s what The Authority is. And Rob might have the best taste of anyone in comics, if you look at who he works with. It’s Alan Moore, it’s Mark Millar early in his career, it’s Robert Kirkman. Rob reads comics. And because he has the best taste, now he’s working with us. [laughs]

      Rob’s done interviews about Bad Blood and he always talks about how great Chad and I are. That shouldn’t be unexpected, because you should always talk about your collaborators; I always try to mention Matt Milla and Alti Firmansyah and Travis Lanham and everyone on X-Men ’92. But Rob is clearly being interviewed as the creator of Deadpool, a guy who does not have to talk about us. He sent us a thank you email when it came out and I was like, thank you, Rob, because he’s the star of that book. I was genuinely touched by that.

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        Tell us about Swordquest. Unless they’ve read the novel Ready Player One, a lot of people probably don’t remember the crazy story about the contest.

        This is a real-world story, something that actually happened.

        There was so much money in video games in the early eighties and Atari was dominating the home console market. Adventure had been a big success for them, so they decided to do another fantasy-style role-playing game. The idea was to do four games with a different comic packed in with each game. The comics were by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Dick Giordano, and George Perez. I try to tell people that’s like if Brian Bendis and Jim Lee did a comic for Call of Duty. So they clearly backed a truckload of money up to somebody.

        The idea was you would go through these games and, as you solved a puzzle, you’d get two numbers, like thirteen and seven. So you’d go to page thirteen, panel seven, in the comic, and there’d be a hidden word. You’d put all the hidden words together to make a phrase, and if you sent in the right phrase you got entered in this contest to win what were about $200,000 in prizes. And the thing was, it’s the same stuff you were looking for in the game. In Swordquest: Earthworld, you were looking for the Talisman of Ultimate Truth, and if you won the contest you would actually get it: a gold, jewel-encrusted talisman worth $14,000 in 1982 money.

        The big prize for all four games was the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, this $50,000 silver, jeweled sword. But in 1983, the video game market crashes, which in Japan is called “the Atari shock” because it was so associated with Atari. You’ve heard about the E.T. cartridges buried in the desert; that was all part of it. They no longer have all this money to spend, and the third game is released as mail-in only. The fourth game never comes out. Three of those prizes were awarded. One was melted down; I think the guy payed for college with the gold but kept the jewels. But the sword was never given out.

        Where did the sword wind up?

        There’s a rumor that it hung in the CEO’s office for twenty years. There’s a rumor it was stolen. There’s a rumor that the Franklin Mint, who produced all the things, still has it in a vault somewhere. It’s this weird, prototype ARG [alternate reality game], and I love the idea of you actually questing for the thing you’re looking for. At the end of Super Mario Bros. you don’t meet a princess, and at the end of The Legend of Zelda you don’t get the Master Sword.

        Chad had been talking to Dynamite because we really want to do James Bond, and they asked if we wanted to do an Atari book. We said of course, because at the time X-Men ’92 was ending. Dynamite sent us a three-page, single-spaced list of Atari titles we could pitch. A lot of them were like Blackjack or Baseball. The three we pitched were Night Driver, Pong, and Swordquest. One of the reasons we picked Swordquest is that there are preexisting comics to flesh out, and this really compelling backstory, a mythology. I thought about doing a 2017 version of this fantasy story, but the more we went into it we wanted to play off that real-world story.

        So our story is about a guy who played the game as a kid and was obsessed with getting that sword. Now, it’s thirty-five years later and he still feels this missed opportunity. Something happens to him that sets him on this path of a real-life sword quest. Its the same team behind Down Set Fight: me, Chad, Ghost, and Josh, our letterer. And in the same way Down Set Fight was nominally a book about football, but also about fathers and sons, this is a weird heist book that’s also about missed opportunities, and I think that’s something people can relate to.

        When you’re tallying it up at the end of the day, what do you wish you had done and what would you do to fix it? It’s one of the most weirdly personal things we’ve ever done, for being an Atari comic. We’re basically treating it like a creator-owned property. We run everything by Dynamite and they run it by Atari, so it’s not like we’re slipping it past them. But they’ve both been very supportive of how we want to tell this personal story that has nothing to do with this game.

        click to enlarge Chris Sims - PHOTO BY AIDAN SULLIVAN

        • photo by Aidan Sullivan
        • Chris Sims

        Do you have any qualms about getting pegged as the retro guy?

        It’s already happening. [laughs] There was a review, and it was a very good review, but it said, Chris Sims and Chad Bowers have made names for themselves writing preexisting IP. But you can say that about, like, Mark Waid. Batman’s a preexisting IP.

        I’m OK with it. Honestly, we love the things we loved when we were kids, but everything we do, even if it had an old-school feeling, we try to bring a modern sensibility. I think that a lot of comics are based on taking those ideas you loved in the past and figuring out what makes them work today, and I think we’ve done that, so I don’t mind being a guy who loves the stuff he loves.

        What brought you to North Carolina?

        I moved here with Aidan, now my wife, who was from Minneapolis and was used to some culture. We talked about Asheville and Portland but they’re super expensive. We came to Durham for literally twenty-four hours to see a show at Motorco, Scharpling Wurster, and stayed at the Durham Hotel. We were driving east on 40 the next day and said, Why don’t we move here?

        How’s the comics community here compared to where you came from?

        Sumter had nothing. If you spend all your time writing on the Internet, it’s fine, but if you’re used to shopping for groceries at a place that’s not Walmart or eating at a place that’s not Chili’s, it’s not super good. I worked in a comic shop for years; that’s where I met Chad. Columbia, forty miles down the road, has a decent comic book scene. Steve Epting and Roy Thomas are in South Carolina; Roy used to come into the store. And there’s local guys, a collective called FRANK Comics that does amazing, offbeat work set in fantasy versions of Columbia.

        But Durham has a really strong comics scene. Jeremy Whitley is here, Tommy Lee Edwards, Ultimate Comics is an amazing shop. They’ve been super big supporters of Chad’s and mine since before I moved here. I had known them from doing cons in the Southeast; we’d done NC Comicon and Free Comic Book Day at Ultimate a couple of times.

        What do you have in the pipeline?

        Ash Vs. the Army of Darkness, also for Dynamite, starts in June. Army of Darkness is the comic I’ve wanted to write since I was twelve, which, again, is another property for 1992, but something still very much in the public consciousness. That’s easy for me to write because it was my favorite movie of my teenage years, which probably says more about me than it should. [laughs] And we’ve got a Guardians of the Galaxy annual coming up that is very contemporary, with Mauro Vargas. What’s more modern-day Marvel than Guardians?