ISLAND HOPPING: Beland Leads the Life Fantástico

Wed, November 14th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Jeffrey Renaud, Staff Writer

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"Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte" one-shot on sale in December

Since November, 1961, Marvel Comics' first family -- Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben -- have battled out of this world foes like the Kree and the Skrull while protecting Earth as the Fantastic Four. But on December 26, 2007, the team faces one of its biggest challenges ever, a threat that comes from 1,200 miles off the coast of Florida as the Chupacabra make their Marvel Universe debut in the one-shot special "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte."

The project is the brainchild of writer Tom Beland, whose hit indie comic "True Story, Swear to God" is set in Puerto Rico, with art by Puerto Rican descendant (he calls himself a "first generation Nuyorican") Juan Doe ("24seven"). CBR News spoke with the creative team, as well as the book's editor Alejandro Arbona, who hails from Puerto Rico, about this original one-shot that will be published in both English and Spanish.

"Ben, it turns out, has been going to Puerto Rico secretly for about 15 years," Tom Beland said of the premise of "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte." "Nobody knows why and they've never asked about it. Johnny finally wants to know why and he talks Sue into talking Reed into following Ben on his trip. That's where the big secret is revealed and all hell breaks loose."

And while Beland wasn't about to reveal what in the "hell" was breaking loose exactly, he did tease, "There's a big villain we haven't told anyone about who shows up to really mess up Ben's vacation."

Beland did confirm the appearance of Puerto Rico's thought-to-be extinct cryptid, known as El Chupacabra, A.K.A. the goat sucker. The first reported sighting of the Bigfoot of Latino culture was in the early 1990s, and ever since, stories of its blood sucking ways have made headlines in Puerto Rico, Texas, Maine, Russia and dozens of other locations around the world.

Beland says unlike Galactus or Doctor Doom, readers should feel empathy for the Chupacabra. "Yeah, sure, they're draining people of blood and all, but they're also trying to survive in a place where their natural habitat is dwindling. You understand their dilemma as the story progresses," explained Beland.

Editor Alejandro Arbona concurred with his writer -- sort of. "The Fantastic Four have always been monster-fighters, going all the way back to their first adventure," said Arbona. "So for them to take on the fiercest, meanest, blood-thirstiest creature Puerto Rico has to offer will turn out to be something that comes perfectly naturally to them and, at the same time, like nothing they've ever faced before.

"But the question might not turn out to be what kind of threat an army of Chupacabras poses to the Fantastic Four, but what kind of threat the Fantastic Four could pose to the Chupacabras. Aah-ha, I just blew your mind, didn't I? After all, are the Chupacabras really all that bad? Who knows? I don't know, maybe they are. I guess we'll all have to read and see."

Thanks to Beland, what we do know is that the book will feature not one, but two versions of the Chupacabras. "The smaller ones can take flight and are dark and the larger, white ones are the tanks in battle," revealed Beland. "Look, everyone has their idea of what these things look like and you can never find two people to agree. But I think Juan [Doe] did a very cool job with our version. They won't look like the alien big-eye spaceman version you see on T-shirts."

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Juan Doe explained his take, "I definitely drew inspiration from the sensationalized portrait displayed in popular lore but based on the origin we use in the story, I tried to create a creature that while terrifying and alien-like could at the same time be grounded in reality, an undiscovered species. What if these creatures were the basis for many of the myths we grow up with like demons, trolls or goat-suckers? That approach made it easy to establish a personality for how the Chupacabras look and feel. These are highly evolved organisms that because of certain ecological disparities in the world are forced to reveal themselves to man, albeit in a brutal way, for the sake of trying to survive.

"In the book, there are two types of Chupacabras: we have the grunts, children-sized creatures that represent the majority of the hive and then there are the Gorilla-sized ones, the bad-asses of the colonies that represent the Alphas. They're like a displaced pride that ends up in Puerto Rico because of certain geographical advantages, the underground sanctuary of the caves and the lush, bountiful resources of the rain forest."

As to whether or not Chupacabras actually exist outside the worlds of comics and supermarket tabloids, none of the three wise men of "Isla de la Muerte" were about to play the role of Doubting Thomas. "Well, I come from California, where Bigfoot resides, so why the hell can't something like the Chupacabra exist?" Beland remarked. "I'm not so full of myself to say we're the only type of evolved being on the planet. Bigfoots and Chupacabras and Loch Ness Monsters, they have a place in our world. They keep us thinking and I think they keep us in our place. I don't see why they can't be as real as anything else here on this planet."

"I believe that if not physically, the creature now certainly exists in the annals of cultural history," said Doe. "Incidentally, the Museum of Natural History in New York City is exhibiting a show called 'Mythic Creatures' and one of the featured legends, you guessed it, good ole' Chupacabra."

"The recent reported appearance of El Chupacabras in Cuero, Texas is hardly the first time this creature's traveled abroad," said Arbona. "Chupacabras also became big in Mexico, and from there, the folklore, the alleged sightings, spread throughout the American southwest, down South America all the way to Chile, and even as far as parts of Europe. El Chupacabras is no joke!"

Indeed, Arbona is not kidding around. He says he wanted to make the Chupacabra as realistic as possible in "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte"because it's the type of treatment the goat-suckers deserve. "There was an 'X-Files' comic put out by Topps sometime in the 1990s, where Mulder and Scully traveled to Puerto Rico and investigated the mystery of el Chupacabras," recalled Arbona. "I vividly remember reading it and being thrilled that they were doing it, but at the same time being kind of disappointed. The story didn't seem all that particular to the island, like the people responsible for the comic didn't know Puerto Rico so well.

"And don't forget, the mischievous Chupacabra has also turned up in comics over at Dark Horse, as a member of 'Perhapanauts.'

"But we're hoping to pull off something totally new here. We want everyone to enjoy "Isla de la Muerte." nationwide and around the world, but we also want the book to have deep roots, and reading it, Puerto Ricans will make no mistake about it."

And while Chupacabra is central to the story, Beland believes the real star of the book isn't a character at all. "The biggest character in this issue is the island itself," the writer said. "I think it is one thing to say we have the Chupacabras. But to really show their habitat, here on the island, to me, adds to the coolness."

In fact, the genesis of "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte"came from The Thing's resemblance to Puerto Rico's picturesque Morro Castle. "This is the one place Ben has been to in the world, where the people didn't freak out in horror over him," explained Beland. "And it's a child who points out his resemblance to El Morro by pointing at him and saying, 'El Morrito,' meaning 'little fort.' The connection between Ben and this iconic building is one of deep affection, which Ben had never experienced before in his life. The fact that he's held it so close to his heart, to the point of keeping it a secret, speaks volumes of his love for the island. And now, Ben shows he's just as much a protector as the fort is."

Beland says Morro Castle is just the beginning of the Puerto Rican visits and vantage points explored in the book. "We're still stuffing more and more cultural items in this issue. People who know this island will know we're not kidding about Puerto Rico being the centerpiece of this book. What I mean by that is, you won't just see a bunch of square buildings in the background or generic scenery filling up space. It's all legit," declared Beland.

"I mean, if you were told that there was a superhero book or any type of comic that was taking place where you lived, you would really look over that book to find the faults," continued Beland. "You don't see any buildings that resemble your area, there's no connection with the culture, none of that. That book may be popular to those who don't live there but to the actual resident, forget it. You've failed there.

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"We take readers to enough island locations that a first-time visitor could probably bring the book along as a primer for places to visit," quipped Arbona. "Old San Juan, la Plaza del Quinto Centenario with the artist Jaime Suarez's Totem sculpture, the lush El Yunque rainforest, the caverns of Camuy and, of course, the beach.

"Everyone will enjoy this book, that's our whole purpose here, but Puerto Ricans in particular should flip out for a million and one in-jokes, references and Easter eggs. We're trying to hold up a mirror to parts of the Puerto Rican character, especially, as befits a story revolving around el Chupacabras, the more surreal, unusual and absurd side of life on the island."

The book has already received incredible pre-release buzz on the island, including a recent two-page spread in Puerto Rico's largest daily newspaper, El Nuevo Dia. "The anticipation is definitely huge," agreed Beland. "I think Puerto Ricans are one of those cultures that love to see themselves celebrated, as much as they celebrate themselves. They bring out their flag on so many occasions, much more so than, say, the Irish, or French or English, which I am. If there's a Boricuas boxer, baseball player, singer or whatever out there in the spotlight, those flags come out and people go apeshit over it.

"So, that said, not only is having the Fantastic Four come to Puerto Rico a big deal, having Ben on the cover in front of the Puerto Rican flag made everyone here go nuts."

"It's a kind of perfect storm," continued Arbona. "First of all, even people who don't know comics know the Fantastic Four and everybody has an innate affection for these great characters. Secondly, we Puerto Ricans love to see the island show up in movies, on TV, in comic books, anything, we love it. We'll even go see an awful movie like 'Assassins' in droves on opening night because it was shot in San Juan. And third, we're also very fond and proud of el Chupacabras, our own beloved, absurd folkloric monster.

"So even when this project was in its very earliest stages and we didn't even have an artist, I'd tell my friends and family, 'I'm working on a comic where the Fantastic Four visit Puerto Rico and fight el Chupacabras,' and heads would literally explode. It's a hell of a feeling, seeing something and recognizing yourself in it so intimately, and that's the way Puerto Ricans feel when we see Puerto Rico show up in a story, because we're so tied to the island and the people."

"The initial buzz from what has been relayed to me has been incredible," said Juan Doe. "It hasn't dawned on me yet that this is going to be seen by thousands of people, specifically the people of Puerto Rico. The island and many of its treasures play a significant role in the story and I've been studiously working to try and depict not so much a literal interpretation of the island but to try and capture the essence and the spirit.

"There are a variety of locations in the book that I remember going to with my family throughout the years from the majestic rain forests of El Yunque to the underground labyrinth of the Camuy Caves. There is certainly a reserve of pride in knowing that I get to represent a part of my culture not only with fellow Puerto Ricans but more importantly with my extended family in New York and on the island.

"When I'm working on the pages, I'm constantly thinking how I can't wait to show this to my cousin and most importantly my father. He has personally been brought to tears with pride as he was the one that steered me into comics as a child. It is truly a hallmark moment. Hopefully that energy I feel has come across the artwork."

"I couldn't be happier that Puerto Ricans are getting excited," continued Arbona. "Of course, my editorial mind is always set on making sure we tell the best story possible for all the readers who'll be picking this up, but as a Puerto Rican, my secret goal for us is that people on the island enjoy the hell out of this and then feel proud after reading it. Proud because Puerto Rico is so unique, so surreal and so wonderful, and we hope that comes across in the story."

With a December 26 release date, online clamoring has circled around another date on the calendar beyond Christmas for picking up extra copies -- Three Kings Day, the traditional gift giving day of Latin America. "I think, since the book ships after Christmas, it's a great Three Kings gift," Beland concurred. "But to hear people say they're ordering 12 copies to give as gifts, and I've been hearing that a lot online, that's a special thing to hear. And it's great to hear because I think it's worth giving. I think it'll warrant the thought. Because this is more than saying it's a Puerto Rican book, it's stuffed with the culture."

Beland says he would love to tell more superhero stories in Puerto Rico, including an adventure with the island's very own White Tiger. I'd love to bring the White Tiger to Puerto Rico, to La Perla, a small area near El Morro that is sort of run by the drug lords," said Beland. "I also have an Iron Man story in me where he takes on Radioactive Man at the old nuclear facility on the west coast of the island. A creature from the phosphorescence bay is on my list too. But I don't want to be only a writer of Puerto Rican stories. I love writing about it in my own series, 'True Story, Swear to God,' but I'd like to be known for more than that."

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Beland just finished a Bart Simpson book for Bongo Comics that's in production and is also writing some "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man" scripts that are expected in 2008. "The Spidey work has literally been a dream come true," said Beland. "I have a wonderful time writing that particular character.

"There's also the big 'True Story, Swear to God' Essentials book coming out in February from Image. This book will collect every issue from my self-published run. A lot of people have the AiT trades, but they only feature 11 out of the 17 issues I published on my own. This book from Image has every issue. There's also going to be a small photo gallery of the main characters in my book. It's titled 'You Can't Love Too Much One Part Of It,' which is taken from a John Mayer song. It's a long title, but I really love that line."

For more on "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte" and to read some pages in Spanish, check out our extended interview with artist Juan Doe, and for more of his artwork, our friends at MySpace Comic Books have even more preview pages in both English and Spanish, with introductions by Tom Beland and editor Alejandro Arbona.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics forum.

 
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