Blowing one's own head off is bound to change a man, but who knew that it could also readjust one's moral alignment?
That's the question at the very heart of "Image United," the upcoming six-issue crossover series written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Image Comics founders Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino. At the recent Diamond Retailer Summit in Baltimore, Kirkman made the shocking announcement that the recently deceased "Spawn" protagonist, Al Simmons, is the villain of "Image United," delivering an emotional sucker punch not only to the characters of the Image Universe, but to longtime readers as well.
Kirkman spoke exclusively with CBR News about Al Simmons' role in "Image United," what it means for the book's characters and how his shocking return will effect the Image Universe in the months to come.
Al's change from good guy to not-so-good guy is certainly a big surprise, but that's not the only surprise regarding the character. After all, Simmons recently killed himself in "Spawn" #185, which begs the question: how on Earth is he even alive? The answer, it seems, lies not on the mortal world's surface, but a few significant strides beneath it.
"Anybody that's read 'Spawn' recently knows that Al Simmons got fed up and, for reasons that are yet to be revealed in that series, he just decided to kill himself," Kirkman explained. "There is a new Spawn named Jim Downing that's still learning what's going on, but nobody really knows what's been going on with Al Simmons. 'Image United' is going to reveal a little bit of that. There are a lot of changes he's undergone since he technically killed himself — he's been in Hell and has kind of risen through the ranks of Hell. Time works a little differently there. Now, he's come back to Earth and he wants to take over."
With the how out of the way, it's worth focusing on the why. After nearly two decades as the begrudging hero Spawn, why would Simmons decide to wreak havoc upon the people of Earth? "This is definitely still the Al Simmons we know and love, but he's grown and evolved a bit more on his crazy journey — this is Al Simmons a little bit ahead of the game," the writer teased of Al's motivations. "One thing that makes Al Simmons the perfect villain is that everyone knows Al Simmons. Most people who are going to read 'Image United' have read 'Spawn' at one point or another and are very familiar with Al's past and the sacrifices he's made in trying to get his wife back, and the absolute living hell that he's wrought upon himself. We're definitely seeing more of that and what's driven him to the point that he is at now. It's a cool thing to have such a well-rounded character as your villain — it's not just your archetype that's going to be cackling madly and causing all kind of destruction. This is Al Simmons, and there will definitely be more character development with him in this series."
Clearly, the return of Al Simmons in this menacing capacity will have a profound effect on the heroes of the Image Universe — but unless they start listening to the panicked prophecies of rookie hero Fortress, they might not live long enough to realize that effect. "Fortress is definitely the character that is aware somehow of what is coming and what Al's actual plans are," Kirkman said. "He's the one running around trying to gather everybody in preparation for Al's arrival. How he knows this and where he got this information is something we'll find out along the way."
But Fortress isn't the only one destined for a confrontation with the former Spawn. Jim Downing, the current Spawn, is bound to have a bone or two to pick with Simmons. "We'll definitely be seeing that [confrontation] in the opening sequence of issue #2," said Kirkman. "We're getting that out of the way right away. One of the cool things about 'Image United' is that this isn't an A-B-C story. It's not the bad guy poses a threat, the good guys get together to fight him, the heroes win, and then they all go home. There are a lot of nuances to this story, and a lot of shifts along the way. We do get the confrontation between these guys, and people expect that — people expect Al Simmons to fight Jim Downing — so we get that out of the way right away so we can move onto the things that people don't expect."
While fans awaiting "Image United" might not have foreseen the villainous return of Al Simmons, Kirkman said that it was an obvious choice for the story. "When we started talking about 'Image United,' Todd was in the early stages of coming back to 'Spawn' and doing his story with Al committing suicide," Kirkman recalled. "When I sat down to plot 'Image United,' knowing that that was happening and that there'd be a different Spawn running around, I was trying to think of who would be the best villain that has punch and that the fans would respond to. There are a ton of cool 'Youngblood,' 'Savage Dragon' and 'Cyberforce' villains and whatnot, but there isn't really any breakout villain that everybody would assume could pose a big world-ending threat that would bring all of these heroes together. Knowing that Al was being taken out of the picture and knowing his history with the series — all that Hell stuff that goes on in 'Spawn' — it was a pretty easy jump to come up with Al Simmons as the villain and centering the series around that. It was a no-brainer decision because Al Simmons stood out as the one key villain that would bring a lot of emotional impact to this series. "
Lest you think McFarlane had a problem with his own creation taking such a dramatic turn, don't be so sure. "Todd's cool with it; he's on board," the writer said. "Todd and I had to have a lot of conversations to make sure that this would jive with everything he's got coming up in 'Spawn.' It will work in seamlessly with that series. It won't conflict with anything in any way, shape or form. [The other Image founders] are all excited that Todd gets to draw the villain."
They're not the only ones excited, as Kirkman himself has the opportunity to write not one, but two different incarnations of Spawn. "It's almost too much Spawn for any one man to handle," he laughed. "It's awesome! It's really cool. I've been reading 'Spawn' since 1992, and the recent McFarlane issues with Whilce Portacio, Brian Holguin and all of those guys has been a great run on the series. To be able to spin off of that a little bit with 'Image United' is a lot of fun. I've always wanted to get my hands on Spawn, so this is exciting for me."
Beyond having the opportunity to incorporate Simmons into "Image United," Kirkman is also exploring a different type of story than he's used to. "This is an old-fashioned 'I want to rule the world' type of story, which I don't think I've ever really done — this kind of a straightforward 'I want to take over the planet' type of thing," he described. "It's fun, because that's usually a hokey thing. You can't realistically take over the world. What would you do? But this guy could actually take over the world. He actually has the resources to complete his plan and everything. That's what 'Image United' is all about."
With the announcement of Al's involvement in "Image United" out of the way, readers might be wondering what other surprises Kirkman and company have in store for them. According to the writer, this is just the tip of the iceberg. "The thing about the Al Simmons reveal is that it's just a hint of all the different things that are happening in 'Image United' that will effect the titles of the characters that appear in the series," he explained. "There are going to be little things like Al's development, his status as the villain in this, that will spin out of 'Image United' and live on in new books and in books that are already running. 'Image United' is the beginning of a big, big overarching plan in all of these titles."
The idea of "Image United" having such grand repercussions throughout the Image Universe is undoubtedly exciting for longtime fans of the comic book publisher. Still, there is a reasonable concern that Al's villainous resurrection is too out of line with the character, no matter how much good it might herald for the future of Image Comics. Those fans shouldn't worry their own heads off just yet, according to Kirkman.
"I would say that they definitely want to read 'Image United,' as all of those concerns will be addressed throughout the series," he said. "By the end of 'Image United,' Al will either still be a bad guy, a good guy again, or really dead. Stay tuned. No fan of Spawn or me or Image Comics or things that are generally cool is going to want to miss this."
"Image United" #1 hits comic book stores on November 25, 2009.