Rick Remender on optimism against all odds in sci-fi ‘Low’ at Image

Jan. 16, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.

In the depths of “Low,” Rick Remender is finding reason to be optimistic.

His new sci-fi series with artist Greg Tocchini, announced last week at Image Expo in San Francisco, takes readers into a far future where the expanding sun’s radiation has sent humans to the bottom of the ocean, where they’ve long been waiting for the return of probes sent to search for other habitable worlds. But the series’ “beating heart,” he says, is the hopeful Stel, who sets out after a probe that has returned.

“Low” is one of three new series the writer of the cult favorite sci-fi series “Fear Agent” has running or ready to blast off at Image Comics: “Black Science,” with artists Matteo Scalera and Dean White, is two issues in and follows Grant McKay and his Anarchist League of Scientists (and his children) on a trip through alternate dimensions that quickly went horribly wrong after their reality-crossing device, the Pillar, was sabotaged. The upcoming “Deadly Class,” with Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge, is set at a high school for assassins in the Reagan era and draws on the 40-year-old, L.A. area-based writer’s skater punk youth.

And he’s made his mark at Marvel, where he memorably cut Frank Castle to pieces and had monsters stitch him back together as Franken-Castle in “Punisher” and took Steve Rogers on a reality-and-time-bending odyssey through Dimension Z in his current run on “Captain America.” “Uncanny Avengers” is also an ongoing mission, and the “Winter Soldier: The Bitter March” limited series is coming up.

Remender discussed “Low” and his other Image books with Hero Complex backstage at Image Expo in a conversation that touched on startling childhood realizations, creator-owned versus licensed work, how spoiled he is with artists, writing from an optimistic perspective – and included some sincere, colorful language, including an unusual idiom about putting one’s heart and soul into the work.

Hero Complex: In “Black Science,” you’ve got a setup where you could be in a different reality every issue. But in “Low,” you said on stage you might go 60 issues there in one well-developed world. What makes it creatively appealing to linger in the world of “Low”?

Rick Remender: Because it’s real, because the threat isn’t science fantasy, it’s science fact. The sun will expand, and obviously I’m increasing the timeline on it and the rate of its expansion for the sake of fiction, but it’s something that always captivated me on some level as a child.

I remember being 7 or 8 years old and finding out that the world will one day be consumed by the sun. I remember it was a total state of disbelief. It’s almost like Santa’s not real. It’s like all these things, but more. It was like, “The sun will expand and eat the entire world?” And, “Yeah, that’s what’s gonna happen.” And I remember thinking, “Jesus, what a … waste of time this all is, then. It’s all futile. No matter what we build, no matter what we do, no matter what, the sun’s gonna eat the world.” And it’s real.

After finishing “Last Days of American Crime” with Greg Tocchini, I was looking for our next project and this was something I’d been banging around. I was reading National Geographic, and it was talking about the timeline and the expectation of when this happens – and it’s a long, long, long, long time before our star decides to go nutty and eat us up. It just got me thinking: That’s a really good sort of ticking time bomb, and it’s a real ticking time bomb. And it was interesting to me on a universal level as a child, so I was like, “That’s home run material.” That’s all good stuff to build a story on.

I started from that point and I built it upward. It was nice. I remember being a kid and sort of exploring and kind of considering things like, “Well, how would we survive and what would we do? I guess we’ll dig holes in the ground.” So as I was developing I was like, “Well, man could move to the bottom of the ocean to escape the radiation while they’re looking for a new planet. What if they were down there, and what if they had built a hundred cities but then no probe ever found an inhabitable world and there was no hope? And then tens of thousands of years pass and now there’s just these two cities left and all of a sudden this one woman, who’s this eternal optimist and holds hope and keeps hunting for probes, calls a probe home that finds an inhabitable world, but it crashes on the surface? And the surface is like no man’s land. No human’s been on the surface in tens of thousands of years, and what’s up there is going to be a lot of fun.”

But what really got me interested was the levels of the ocean and the different levels of radiation going down deeper and what you would find as they’re traveling up to go to the surface. It’s these two teams, one from each of the remaining cities, going to get the probe. They’re at war….

It just kind of snapped in place. That’s always a good sign, I think, with a high concept, that you’re hitting something that might be a good read.

HC: We’re introduced to Stel in the [Image preview book distributed at the event]. She’s very much the optimist. Her husband says “a fiery death is coming to us all and everyone knows it,” he’s sort of trying to tamp her down a little bit and …

RR: She won’t have it.

I remember reading something about some physicist and a very common theory that matter doesn’t take shape until a living being looks at it. And this is something that is being very seriously considered as fact. … And I was like, “Ah, that’s nonsense.” But the more I read about it, they really believe this is real and that matter can exist in two places at once and that the universe is a hologram – and you’re just like, “Well … all bets are off, I don’t know what reality is at all.”

And so why not have somebody who has such faith in your mind’s optimism, and that reality is our own projection, and that we’re all creating it around ourselves, and that life is reality, and that we make reality with our minds, and that having an optimistic appraisal, even in a completely hopeless situation, is the only way through it? As I developed the optimist angle and built on that, it really became the beating heart and Stel became the beating heart. And I’ve never written from an optimistic perspective. I’m in therapy right now, dealing with depression. I realized this is a wonderful place to take what I’m learning and extrapolate what I like the best from it and associate with the character. So that’s where Stel came from.

"Black Science" No. 2, by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White. (Image Comics)

“Black Science” No. 2, by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White. (Image Comics)

HC: To go back to world-building for a moment, I wondered if you could pick one of the two from the first two issues of “Black Science,” the sea turtles with the ziggurat civilizations on their shells or the Columbus-never-gets-to-America, just pick one of those realities and talk about what surprised you in the development, or where the seed was.

RR: One of them is complete fantasy, alien-world nuttiness where there are no continents on Earth, and Earth is a water-based planet and electrical storms are charging everything and life evolves on the back of these giant tortoises who just float throughout and they basically just become the continents. Then on these giant alien sea tortoises, there are two civilizations of what I just called the fish people and the frog people, and one eats the other [laughs] — which is normal in such environments. They are at constant odds. Then you just kind of figure out how this world works. There’s a scene in there where frogs are harvesting lightning that you see being caught from the Mayan temples above and that they’re also catching the fish people which are hanging flayed all around it. So they eat electrical goo as well as fish. You just kind of let the imagination go to what’s going to be visual and interesting. From there, I sort of dropped Grant into this world, and then I cut the first 18 pages of the Pillar arriving and the team arguing and Grant lying… I just cut it. It just didn’t happen. I opened with him and Jen, his assistant, running through this crazy place as he was introduced to all these things. … It’s a really fun way to unravel a world.

The next one is just a really big “what if” story. What if the Native Americans were technologically superior and what if it was like inverse Manifest Destiny?

HC: “Black Science” and “Deadly Class” come after a period of, what, maybe a couple of years where you were pretty much doing Marvel stuff – and taking characters to some fantastic and unusual places [Remender laughs]. Certainly “Deadly Class” you’ve talked about being personal, taking music and culture from your youth; and Grant’s concerns in “Black Science,” they jumped off the page as maybe being personal – not all of them …

RR: Hopefully, or else my wife’s going to be bummed.

HC: Did you feel an urge to go to more personal stuff in creator-owned material? Can you talk about the relationship between the licensed and the creator-owned work?

RR: In my youth, I was stridently DIY punk rock and against the Man, and then I had a family and I had kids and I have a wife and I have other relatives that rely on me for financial support. Marvel comic books supported me and gave me work.

There’s the kid in me who can shake his fist and go, “… man, do it all yourself.” And then there’s the adult in me who was supported by Marvel Comics and had my bills paid and was allowed to work with guys like Axel Alonso and Stephen Wacker and Tom Brevoort and Jody LeHeup and Sebastian Girner, who is now my editor on my creator-owned books, to hone my craft and really learn the ropes. I got better at Marvel – I got much better at Marvel.

But it’s not mine. And I would dump my ass into something like Venom and realize, “Man, I just put some of my ass into that character, and I don’t get that ass back.” And you have to dump your ass into it. Your name’s on it. You’re writing it. Somebody’s paying money to read it. It better be … gripping. It better be true. It better have something to say, or else you’re just wasting my time. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s been real wonderful, I’ve learned a lot. … I’m no longer of the mind that it can’t be both things, and that one doesn’t need the other.

Because my career was built at Marvel after doing 10 years of creator-owned work that nobody gave … about, after a decade of doing 23 graphic novels’ worth of creator-owned material that I wrote and drew that just nobody – it just didn’t find its audience, from “Fear Agent” to “Strange Girl” to “Night Mary” to “Doll and Creature” to “Black Heart Billy,” just year after year after year of grinding that … out, it was doing the work at Marvel built my name up. That’s just the reality of it, it worked that way. I like doing both for different reasons.

I think I’m going to start to, in terms of what I divide up, I think that the very sort of personal stuff is going to go in the creator-owned, and the big bombastic, fun, out-of-this-world superhero stuff has got a home at Marvel. I feel very fortunate that I have both of those opportunities.

The upcoming "Deadly Class" No. 1 is by Rick Remender, Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge. (Image Comics)

The upcoming “Deadly Class” No. 1 is by Rick Remender, Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge. (Image Comics)

HC: If you could just talk a little about the three art teams you have on your Image titles – Scalera and White on “Black Science,” Tocchini on “Low,” Wes Craig on “Deadly Class.”

RR: With “Deadly Class,” with Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge – and I’ve worked with Lee before on books like “XXXombies” and “Fear Agent,” and he’s one of my best friends in the world – you’ve got what I think is sort of a strange mixture of Frank Miller and Adrian Tomine. It’s like “Optic Nerve” meets “Ronin.” It’s “Year One” dabbled in Clowes’ “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.” It’s a lot of disparate things that are working very well together. It was a lot of risk-taking in the development of that book, and a lot of personal stuff went into it. But I just couldn’t be prouder of what Wes and Lee have done. It is high art. I don’t say that lightly, and it’s not just promotion. If it was somebody else’s book, I would just be jealous as … I would be like, “Well, that is … amazing.” Because it is. Because Wes is so good. He’s such an amazing storyteller, such an amazing designer. I’ll write him a 10-panel page and it’ll come back 15 panels, and every beat plays a role and it moves like a film – that first issue and the second. He just keeps doing it. It gets better and better. And Lee’s coloring – he’s using just pure, flat colors on it, with no grads, no funky effects, it’s just such a breath of fresh air.

I’ve got two of the very best colorists. I’ve got Dean White, who is a painter who just dumps his … ass all over that page and just works himself to death, and then you’ve got Lee who does it as well but in sort of a Mignola minimalistic way. Lee was one of the pioneers of flat color and doing it that way 15 years ago….

And obviously Matteo Scalera is one of the most dynamic, exciting storytellers in comic books, as well as just one of the most amazing illustrators. And you mix that with the painterly effect of Dean White, and what comes out of it is equally European and American. It’s just this wonderfully strange black-light poster. Every new world we go to is a chance for these two genius artists to develop new. … And that’s a dream job. That thing just writes itself. There’s not a flaw I can think of with Wes or Matteo or Tocchini.

He’s Greg Tocchini. If you’ve seen “Last Days of American Crime,” the book we did together, he spent about two and a half years painting that. It’s just a testament. It is just a … work of love. He is just amazing. He is not only a great storyteller, he is a next-generation draftsman and designer. When you see what he’s doing in “Low,” when we start revealing some of these designs, it’s game-changing. It really is. It’s just a treat.

Between that and getting to work with guys like [Daniel] Acuna and [Steve] McNiven and [Carlos] Pacheco over at Marvel, I’m a spoiled … with art.

– Blake Hennon | @BlakeHennon | @LATHeroComplex

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