Dead or Alive: Jay Faerber talks 'Noble Causes: Distant Relatives'

Sun, August 24th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Noble Causes: Distant Relatives" #1
Superheroes and superheroics have created a genre that many will time and time again call too stagnant or treading water, lacking in any innovation. But as far as writer Jay Faerber is concerned, there's a lot of vitality in the genre and he's been impressing fans and critics with his creator-owned "Noble Causes" series from Image Comics. If you're new to the series, Faerber agreed to bring you an introduction to what's been and what will be- so it'll all begin with the scribe describing the drivng concept of the series.

"'Noble Causes' is the ongoing saga of the world's most famous family of super-heroes, the Nobles," Faerber told CBR News, "as seen through the eyes of Liz Donnelly-Noble, a normal young woman who married into the family, only to have her husband, Race, die on their wedding night. The series focuses on the family's interpersonal relationships and conflicts, rather than the villain-of-the-month stuff you see in other books.

"'Noble Causes: Distant Relatives' is our current 4-issue mini-series, and the first issue hits stores on August 27th. The storylines taking center stage this time around include Frost getting to know his estranged father; Rusty meeting someone new while he and Celeste go through a nasty divorce; Krennick being pressured to take over his dead father's kingdom; and Liz's belief that she's found a way to bring her dead husband back."

The series has a diverse cast, who were all featured in the recent "Extended Family" one-shot, which drew in many creative talents from throughout the industry, and Faerber breaks down the essentials of each member.

"Doc Noble is the patriarch of the Noble family. He's one part Flash Gordon, one part Doc Savage. He's a brilliant inventor who specializes in robotics. He likes fine cigars, spends long hours in his lab, and packs a mean right hook.

"Noble Causes: Distant Relatives" #2
"Doc's wife, Gaia, is a sorceress with command over the basic elements. She migrated here from another world, and as far as she's concerned, the world is her stage.

"Rusty is Doc and Gaia's eldest son, a quiet guy who sports a bit of a temper. Not too long ago, he was nearly killed, and Doc was forced to place his brain inside a robot body.

"Race, the middle child, was born with super-speed, and left a trail of broken hearts when he married Liz Donnelly, a completely normal woman. He was tragically killed on their wedding night.

"Zephyr is the youngest of Doc and Gaia's children, and their only girl. She controls the wind. She also sets fashion trends the minute she steps outside in a new outfit, and changes boyfriends more than Race changed running shoes.

"Frost is Gaia's illegitimate son, who was raised in seclusion by a family friend. He possesses control over ice and cold, and lives in an ice castle in the frozen north. The other Nobles know about him, but they pretty much hate him.

"Celeste is Rusty's wife, who can fly and shoot beams of stellar energy. She's quite comfortable with being in the public spotlight, and thrives on it, in fact. She's been carrying on a secret affair with Frost, but Rusty recently found out.

"Noble Causes: Distant Relatives" #3
"Krennick is the son of Draconis, the family's greatest enemy. He and Race became best friends when they were stranded in another dimension for a year. He's since become a surrogate member of the Noble family, and has something of a crush on Zephyr.

"Liz is the one normal person - both physically and emotionally - in the whole family. She was married to Race for a matter of hours before he was killed, but she remains attached to the family for reasons we'll explain in the upcoming mini-series."

Before we get into anymore of the deeper elements of "Noble Causes," the writer wants to let people know what the new mini-series is going to offer fans. "The new series follows up on some plot threads started in previous installments," he explains. "The biggest, of course, is the identity of Frost's father, which has been an ongoing mystery. At the end of Noble Causes: Family Secrets, Gaia said told him that his father was Doc, which wouldn't seem to make a lot of sense. But this story explains her answer, and how it does make sense. That's the driving plot to this mini-series - Frost's budding relationship with his father. We've also got Rusty, on the verge of finding happiness for the first time in a long time, and Liz, who thinks she might have figured out a way to get Race back."

Ever wanting to keep fans on their toes, Faerber brought along a new artist (or five) with him and he says that "the new guy(s)" isn't someone that'll stay unknown for long. "The primary artist on this one is Andres Ponce, a guy from Argentina. He's done two stories for me previously (the back-up in 'Noble Causes: Family Secrets #4,' and Gail Simone's story in 'Noble Causes: Distant Relatives'), and he just keeps getting better and better. Plus, he inks himself, so that's a nice package deal.

"We were originally going to go with Ian Richardson, who drew the lead stories in the last mini-series, but Ian had some health problems, and wound up in the hospital. That threw our schedule out of whack, and he was only able to do 10 pages in the first issue. Andres was nice enough to finish out the issue, and then I asked him to stay on and finish the rest of the mini, because it was apparent that Ian wasn't going to be able to do all of issue #2 himself, either. I didn't want to have two different artists contribute to a 15 page story, you know? So in order to get some consistency, I went with Andres. He's really getting into a nice groove, and is improving with every page.

"Noble Causes: Distant Relatives" #3
"As usual, we've got four new artists contributing back-up stories, too. Andie Tong pencils the first one, Shane Davis the second, Ray-Anthony Height the third, and Ethen Beavers the fourth. They're all fantastic, and all four stories have been done for a while now. I like to get them started early, so they can take their time on them."

Fans will also notice the art will be colored differently- as in not at all. "The decision to make the switch to black & white wasn't an easy one. But when we took a look at our order numbers on the first issue of 'NC:DR', it seemed like the best way to get the book out, and not actually lose money. In the past, we've done variant covers on all our issues, but I always did so sort of reluctantly. Speaking purely for myself, I really like seeing other artists' takes on the Noble characters. But I know the whole variant cover-thing isn't very popular amongst retailers, and even a lot of fans, and yet, despite all that, variant covers do increase orders. So, we did them for the first two mini-series, but I decided to do away with them, and go for the more unified cover look we came up with this time around. Still, orders came in much lower than we expected, and I decided I wanted to try the book in b&w. I know there's a certain stigma against b&w super-hero books, but the current readers that we have hooked seem pretty devoted to the book, so I'm hoping they stick around, despite the loss of color. Really, what it comes down to, is that a b&w 'Noble Causes' is better than no 'NC.'"

Like the first issue of "Noble Causes," there's a big surprise in this mini-series' initial issue and Faerber does admit that there's pressure to keep at the top of his game. "I can't really talk too much about the specifics of this story, since I don't want to ruin the surprise in issue #1. But basically, I saw an opportunity to take a comic book staple and put the 'Noble Causes' spin on it - that is, treat it more like a soap opera. And then that led immediately to a fantastic way to get Liz involved, and then I just had to do the story.

"As for pressure, yeah. Big time. When our first arc was so well-received, it made me scared to death when I started writing the second arc. What if people hated it? What if that first arc was a fluke? 'NC' is the first time readers really responded to what I was writing, and frankly, I wasn't used to it. So yeah, it was kinda scary."

One way that writers keep a story fresh is by raising the stakes for the characters and while Faerber has been doing that, some might wonder how he knows if he's going too far or raising the stakes too high- or if there is even a "too." "In a sense, I'm the one who decides if the stakes are too high, or if I've taken things too far. There's no one else to answer to. Well, I guess, ultimately, I answer to the readers, because if the overall impression is that things have gone 'too far,' they'll stop reading. But it's really my call, at least initially. And I think one of the cool things about the book is just how far we are willing to take things. I mean, I killed off Race - who many thought would be the star of the book - in the first issue. Then I killed off our major villain, at the end of 'Noble Causes: Family Secrets.'

Two pages from issue #1 by Ian Richardson
"And that last one, by the way, was kind of spur of the moment. I hadn't initially planned to kill Draconis, but then I thought, 'Why not?' Then I made sure I wouldn't be screwing myself out of future storylines, and once I realized how I could spin some cool developments out of it (particularly with Krennick), it was full steam ahead.

"At the end of the day, the most important thing I have to do is keep the characters true to themselves."

So far no single character has won over the hearts of fans, though Faerber says there might be a slight leader for favorite "Noble Causes" character. "A lot of people seem to like Frost, so if I had to find a favorite amongst the fans, he'd be it - but not by a wide margin. Every character seems to have his or her fans. And that's something I'm proud of. One of the things I set out to accomplish with this book is to make characters that are well-rounded, and have both virtue and vice - characters that aren't purely good or evil. So it's nice that fan support seems to be spread fairly evenly between them."

These days, superhero comics need to assert their uniqueness early on and while "Noble Causes" is described as "the Kennedys of superheroes," it's also been compared to the classic "Fantastic Four" comic, which features a super powered family dealing with their own dynamics. "Well, with the FF, while you do have the inter-family bickering, it's usually pretty good-natured. Johnny and Ben don't really hate each other, for instance. Rusty and Frost, on the other hand, really do. Also, in the FF (and most other comics), the interpersonal stuff usually takes a back seat to whatever bold new adventure they're having. With NC, we turn the family conflicts into the big adventure."

Another difference from the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Comics Magazine" is that "Noble Causes" is only released as sets of mini-series and not as a regular ongoing series, despite the pleas of some fans. "It's more economics than writing styles, really," explains Faerber. "Sales weren't spectacular on the first series, and since we had to change artists (when Pat Gleason started getting work at DC), I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to switch to a series-of-mini-series style of book. That way, we can sort of catch our breath in between each mini, since it is pretty hectic trying to get the book out each month. Plus, with a new first issue at the start of every arc, it gives people an easy 'in' if they want to check out the series. In a perfect world, I'd love to do 'NC' as a monthly - or even a bi-weekly! I just love that rapid-fire, lots of cliffhangers-style plotting."

Two pages from issue #1 by Andie Tong
Another option for Faerber, maintaining the mini-series format, would be to do a "mega-story" where one big story is divided into three small mini-series that connect, but he explains that's not the way he plots. "The way I construct the series is that each mini-series has its 'A' plot, which takes up the most panel-time, and is then essentially resolved by the 4th issue. But then we've got a 'B' plot and a 'C' plot and sometimes even a 'D' plot, one of which reaches a big cliffhanger by the end of the 4th issue, thereby setting itself up as the 'A' plot in the next mini.

"It's a good way to work because it imposes at least some structure on me, and forces me to actually resolve the plots I set in motion. And, the mini-series format benefits us because it gives us a little time to catch our breaths after each mini concludes, and the first issue of each mini gives new readers a chance to start fresh. It provide a good starting point for anyone who's heard good buzz, and wants to check us out.

"As for doing a 'mega story,' that's kind of hard to answer, since the series isn't really plot-driven. It's character-driven. And, frankly, I don't plot that far ahead. I map out each mini-series before I begin to write it, and then as I write it, I sometimes jot down notes as they occur to me, for future mini-series. I have a general idea of where the characters are going to go, in the long run, but not exactly how - or when - they'll get there. So, I don't think we'll be seeing a larger arc that's as tight as the Dark Phoenix saga, but all the mini-series do connect and form a larger whole."

The series is, as Faerber says, a character driven series, built upon relationships first, super powers second. "I wanted to create a series based almost solely on character interaction. I didn't want the book to be plot-driven (i.e., 'so-and-so is trying to blow up the world again, and we have to stop him'), so I had to put a lot of thought into the characters, and give them many different facets, so I can get a lot of mileage out of their interactions.

"It's important to me that the characters play off of each other very differently, too. Frost, for instance is, is very deferential when dealing with Gaia, and antagonistic (even mean) when dealing with Doc or Rusty, and surprisingly sweet when dealing with Liz. I think all the characters have that kind of depth, and it makes things interesting. It lets you root for different characters, depending on the situation."

Two pages from issue #2 by Andres Ponce.
That's also the reason for the "paucity" of inter-dimensional battles against villains who speak in over-the-top soliloquies, with Faerber saying he doesn't want to do a comic like all the other ones out there. "Because you can find that stuff in pretty much every other comic out there. There's a demand for that stuff that's already being filled. There are some great guys working on those kinds of stories, many of whom can tell them better than I can. I prefer to concentrate on the Nobles' own interpersonal relationships. Dialogue and character interactions is where I've always felt most comfortable, so I try and play to my strengths. So, no, there won't be any big interdimensional battles in 'NC'. At least, not the way you'd expect there to be."

While some writers might approach writing their own comic book series, where the rules are to a degree nonexistent, as a chance to explore specific themes or subtext, Faerber says he doesn't have any such goals and explains the limits he puts on himself. "The only thing really off-limits to me is nudity and serious swearing. And it's not that I'm against that stuff, it's just that I don't think this particular book needs it, and I think I can tell my stories without it. Everything else - almost literally - is fair game.

"As for how I approach my writing in this series, that's a tough one to answer, only because I've never been one to consciously work in 'themes' and 'subtext.' I think that stuff is what gets worked in, by me, at least, on an unconscious level, and is only really visible after the work has been completed. But I know I've probably got some family issues (don't we all?) that get worked out when I write the Nobles. But really, when I sit down to write these characters, it's really just a matter of putting two of them in a room together, and the rest takes care of itself."

On a similar note, you're not going to find "Noble Causes" to be lampooning or subversively critiquing the superhero genre- it's a series dedicated to fun and proud of that fact. "No, not at all. Sorry if you were looking for some deeper meaning, or thinking that this book is my 'statement' about ... whatever. But it's not. It's just meant to entertain, pure and simple."

Part of entertainment is rotating in everyone's favorite character and Faerber says it's been a bit difficult to make sure everyone gets some spotlight. "The hardest part would be making sure each character has something going on in each mini-series. We've got a fairly large cast, and each mini-series only has 60 pages of story (plus back-ups), so it's hard to give everyone their own plot. In 'NC:DR,'1 for instance, Gaia doesn't have much to do. But, she had a fairly prominent role in the previous mini-series, so I think it all balances out.

"The easiest part is just writing it - as glib as that may sound. Some books, even books that you love, can be hard to write, for any number of reasons. But with NC, it's fun. Fun and easy - once I have an outline, of course. I guess I should qualify that. The first thing I do when starting up a new mini is outline the entire thing, all four issues, plus the back-ups. And that can be hard, because I've got to juggle numerous plots, make sure my cliffhangers happen in the right moments, make sure everything flows together, etc. But once that's done, the actual scripting is a lot of fun, and comes pretty easily.

"In fact, there was a time when Liz was almost being overshadowed by everyone, and I had to make a conscious effort to bring her into the story more."

CBR News made note of this before, but the "Extended Family" one-shot that was recently released saw contributions from lots of major creators like Geoff Johns, Phil Hester, J. Torres, Todd Nauck, Brian Vaughan and Gail Simone, something that's quite big for such a virgin series and Faerber says what drew the creators in was the unique experience. "Well, it's not like any other work-for-hire gig because it doesn't pay nearly as well. (laughs) But seriously, you'd have to ask the guys themselves. I was fortunate in that only two creators that I approached to write stories turned me down - and it was only a matter of scheduling in both cases. I could be wrong, but I don't think any of the artists I approached said 'No.'"

Two pages from issue #2 by Shane Davis.
"I simply went after people whose work I enjoyed, and who I thought would have something interesting to say about the characters. I wasn't nervous about how their stories would turn out, but the results far exceeded my expectations. I was shocked at how much depth a lot of them had, in terms of being about the specific characters they were writing about. I mean, let's face it - Geoff Johns could've just taken an old Flash idea he never got around to using, and then turn it into a Race story. But he didn't. None of them did. That was the most flattering thing - the amount of time and effort these guys really put into getting to the hearts of the characters they were writing about.

"As for what appeals to them on a creative level - I guess the freedom of it. I could be wrong, but I don't think I put many restrictions on them. For others, it could've been an opportunity to flex some different creative muscles, since writing a short story is a lot different than a full-length comic. And in some cases, the writers I approached had been wanting to work with certain artists, and this gave them their chance. I know Phil Hester wanted to give Sean Murphy something to draw. Same with Geoff and Brent McKee."

Faerber readily admits that not all his work preceding "Noble Causes" was well-received, so the almost universally positive feedback is a nice change of pace. "The book's been really well-received, by those that read it. I couldn't be happier. So I guess that's a surprise. I was kind of taking a beating when I was on 'Titans,' so it was nice to put something like this out - something I had complete control over - and to have the response be so positive. I took a big risk by focusing my career for a little while on this one book - with no guarantee of a paycheck - and it's immensely gratifying to see it so well-received. But it's not like we've got a huge readership. We've got plenty of room to grow, and that's why I hope people continue to check us out, either by picking up the first TPB, or jumping on with 'Noble Causes: Distant Relatives #1.'"

Speaking of trade paperback collections, a lot of people these days prefer that format for purchasing comics and with an independent comic like "Noble Causes," it puts Faerber in an interesting position. "We're at a weird transition period here, in terms of regular comics versus trades (or graphic novels). I think it's good that more and more comics fans are embracing the TPB / OGN format, since that's our future. But at the same time, 'waiting for the trade' will sometimes backfire, particularly on books that don't come from Marvel and DC. With Marvel these days, yeah, it's a pretty safe bet that the next Bendis 'Daredevil' arc will be printed as a TPB pretty quickly. With 'Noble Causes,' there's no guarantee. Trades are often thought of as cheap to make, because there's no creative costs involved. And that's true. But you still have to pay to have them printed, so it's not like a trade is going to make you a quick buck. It takes awhile to see any actual profit, because you've gotta pay the printer, first. So, in my particular case, if you want to read 'NC,' pick up the regular series, because there's no guarantee that we'll keep making trades - as much as I'd like to."

The future of "Noble Causes" is bound to be exciting and Faerber lets loose some more teasers, also letting fans know when to expect the infamous DEO kids from his controversial run on DC Comics' "Titans." "The DEO kids will show up just as soon as Andy Helfer comes aboard as editor," he laughs. "Here's some stuff you can expect to see in 'Noble Causes: Distant Relatives' - Frost vs. a bunch of super-heroes! The debut of two important new cast members! Zephyr learns some unsettling things about Krennick! Rusty gets laid! And most importantly, we answer the question that's been bugging everyone: why does Liz still hang out with the Nobles?"

 
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