In the span of a few years, Mark Russell has written a series of comics that have rethought and re-envisioned a number of characters at DC Comics. From Snagglepuss to Prez to The Flinstones, Russell has rethought the characters and their worlds in new and novel ways, finding depths and concerns that are striking and thoughtful. Russell’s first books in comics were God is Disappointed in You and Apocrypha Now, with Shannon Wheeler, which were published by Top Shelf Comix. So religion has long been an interest of his.
His new book is Second Coming with artist Richard Pace. The first issue arrived last month from AHOY Comics, with the second issue scheduled to arrive tomorrow. The controversy around it has drowned out the actual book, which is a smart look at Sunstar, a Superman-like hero, and Jesus, the character from the Bible. It’s a shocking idea, but perhaps more startling is what Russell does with the idea, which is to explore the limits of superheroes, start a conversation around power, and consider what religion and change mean today.
To start, how did you first come to comics?
Sideways, in a word. I had written a book about the Bible called God Is Disappointed in You, which brought me to the attention of DC editor Marie Javins, who asked me to write a reboot of Prez. They haven’t been able to get me out of comics since that day.
I’m curious, what’s your faith background?
I was brought up in what, today, would be a pretty conventional Evangelical background. Back then, though, in the age before mega-churches and televangelists, I think we were seen as weirdos. As snake-handlers without the snakes. And they were pretty much right. The weirdness has just gone mainstream is all.
Where did the idea of Jesus teaming up with a Superman-like superhero come from?
It actually stemmed from an idea I had about a Superman story. Initially, it had much more to do with Superman than Christ. In fact, when I originally pitched it to DC, I pitched it as a Superman comic. So glad it didn’t get approved, though, because the fact that it’s not Superman has allowed me to take Sunstar character places I never would have been able to go otherwise. And from there, it transformed into being much more of a story about Christ.
I can see how you were trying to rethink what Superman does and how he does it, though I feel like there’s a lot more to come on that front in future issues. Jesus does seem to arrive as Sunstar is having a crisis of faith, shall we say? Or at least a point where he’s becoming very aware of his limitations.
Jesus is sent there to learn from Sunstar, but as Sunstar’s crisis in faith deepens, he actually finds that he has more to learn from Christ. Sunstar’s journey mirrors our own in that I want the reader to realize the limitations of power and discover the potential of improving the world with simple acts of humanity.
How did you end up working with artist Richard Pace and what has your collaboration been like?
Vertigo brought Richard on. I liked the fact that he had a very similar enthusiasm and appreciation for what the series is saying. That’s the sort of collaborator I like to work with. Someone who is personally invested in the story itself and doesn’t just look at it as a gig.
I keep thinking about how this is very much a 21st Century American story. Others have talked about how superheroes are such an American creation and they were popular at a time when the United States was the most powerful nation in every way. And now we’re at a point where we’re in decline and what does that mean for how we think about their relationship between power and religion in this moment.
Religion is almost always co-opted by the people with the guns and the money, which is especially awkward for a religion which is precisely about not trusting the people with guns and money. And this might be a good time to revisit that distrust, given how little those people and their institutions have done to protect us. I’m not sure how we intend to shoot our way out of climate change, massive crop failures, and the ensuing global refugee crisis, some of which we’re already seeing today. I just know that if the human race is going to survive the 21st century, it will be because we found another answer that didn’t entail war, caging refugees, and hoarding the world’s resources in offshore banks.
You’re smart enough to know that this idea would raise a few eyebrows, but did you expect this?
No. Perhaps I’m naive, but I believed that people would wait until they could read the comic to get upset about it and that, once they’d read it, they’d appreciate what I’m trying to do with it. And, actually, I still think that’s the way most people will approach it.
You’ve written a number of comics that have gotten some headlines when announced which considered “shocking”, but you always seem to think about and write characters first, which I feel like is important to you and how you work.
Believe it or not, I don’t set out to shock anybody. I want to write a comic about a character that feels authentic to itself and that allows me to connect to the world in a way that matters to me. Beyond that, I don’t really care about the optics of what I’m doing. I figure if I’m doing work I believe in, I’ll win eventually, and if I’m not, no amount of PR is going to save me.
You’ve had this relationship with DC Comics for a while now. How did you end up at Vertigo? Were you asked to pitch them?
As I mentioned earlier, I originally pitched this as a Superman story. They really liked the idea but understood that, under no circumstances, could this ever be a Superman comic. So they invited me to pitch it again as a creator-owned Vertigo title.
I keep thinking about how much dropping Second Coming foreshadowed the end of Vertigo. Which is them saying, “We want something crazy and daring and controversial,” and you and Tina Horn and others did. And ultimately Warner Brothers went, “Um, you’re doing what?” Maybe that’s a little unfair.
I feel a little lucky, in a way. Like the guy who was given a lifeboat stocked with supplies and politely asked to leave the ship an hour before the Titanic sunk. I don’t think Second Coming had anything to do with its sinking, just that it was, as you say, a foreshadowing of the retraction of creative outlying titles that was about to happen company-wide. I’m very happy with the terms by which I left Vertigo, though. Much more than I would have been if we’d thought everything was fine only to learn one day that the whole label was being folded.
Once Vertigo decided this wasn’t going forward, how did you end up connecting with the guys at AHOY? And why was this the right home?
I had worked with AHOY on Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror, and I really liked their vision of comics being satirical, edgy and literary. It wasn’t too much of a leap to see that this was the right home for Second Coming.
On the other hand, should you – or anyone – be surprised by this response? You know how much most people hate Palestinians.
I’m always surprised by how bent out of shape people can get over a comic book. People realize that reading these aren’t mandatory, right? It’s like getting upset because a restaurant serves a dish you hate.
When Rick Veitch was writing and drawing Swamp Thing, he was going to have the character meet Jesus and after it was drawn, DC axed it, and he quit the book. Maybe you and Veitch should start a club.
I would be happy to be in any club that involved Rick Veitch. The man is such a legend.
For people who haven’t rejected this based on the description and are interested, what is your pitch to them? What is this book to you and why should people pick it up?
I think I can pretty much guarantee that this is unlike any other comic you’ve read where Jesus Christ shares a two bedroom apartment with a superhero.
Second Coming #1 is available now, and the second issue arrives this Wednesday.