"Saw" director and producer James Wan carves his way into comics this week with a dark take on superhero action from BOOM! Studios. In the four-issue miniseries "Malignant Man," a terminally ill man discovers what he thought was cancer is actually something far different -- and potentially more lethal. Created by Wan and written by "28 Days Later" scribe Michael Alan Nelson with art by newcomer Piotr Kowalski, the first issue hit stores today. CBR News spoke with Wan and Nelson about the project.
"Malignant Man" opens as Alan Gates, the main character, learns he has three weeks to live. From there, the series is "definitely the story of a man reaching the end of one life only to begin another, even more harrowing life," Nelson said. "There will be moments when Alan actually wishes his cancer was, you know, actually cancer. As horrible as that is, cancer is something that he knows, that he understands. But when he learns what's really going on, it plunges him back into that world of the unknown, of fear and confusion that he first felt when he was diagnosed with cancer. This story is about his journey to understand and, ultimately, accept his fate."
With the series beginning so deep into Alan's metamorphosis, CBR asked Nelson who this man was before the illness took control of his life. "Alan was sort of a middle management kind of guy. Bright, but not overly ambitious. Never got into trouble, paid his taxes on time, even dated every now and then. He was about as vanilla as you can get for someone who spent his adolescence in foster care," Nelson said. "But his childhood is something that he doesn't remember so he has no idea where he grew up, who took care of him, or if he ever had parents or any childhood friends to speak of. That part of his life is a mystery."
By the end of the first issue, Alan is caught between two rival factions with unclear motives -- though one appears poised to save him while the other is looking to kill him. "I can't really say much more without giving anything away, but you are correct in assuming one faction is trying to help, the other not so much," Nelson said. "It's also interesting how one faction decided to bring knives to a gun fight. It's just one of the many things Alan needs to learn about on his journey of self discovery."
"Malignant Man" began with the idea of disease as superpower, according to James Wan, whose "Saw" series of films and more recent movie "Insidious" also take unexpected approaches to their genres. "What attracted me to the story of 'Malignant Man' is the idea that a man's terminal illness is the thing that will end up making him strong with super-human powers. What if the very thing that was supposed to kill you ends up not only saving your life, but makes you indestructible? This is a very powerful notion," Wan explained. "We live in a modern but toxic world where more and more people are stricken by terminal illnesses. I know it's fantasy, but this is looking at something negative through the spectrum of something very hopeful."
While there are some gruesome scenes in the first issue, "Malignant Man" is not a horror story per se, which puts it a far cry from the director's work on "Saw" and "Insidious." "The most important thing for me is the story, regardless of the genre," Wan said. "I love finding new ways to break a familiar story. I'm a big fan of taking things that are established, but mess with it completely. As an audience/reader, you go into these stories with certain expectations, but then these conventions are flipped and subverted. This is the process that makes it fun for me."
The miniseries will be Wan's first foray into comics, and given his day job as a director and producer it is perhaps not surprising that he originally thought of the story in terms of a film. "'Malignant Man' was an idea I've had in my head for a while now. It's a sci-fi/action/horror story that I, initially, contemplated as a movie-screenplay but finally realized it would be better suited as a comic book. It has a pseudo-superhero story with a dark, twisted spin," Wan told CBR. "Plus, I've always wanted to make a comic book, and this story was perfect for it."
As for the best part of working in comics, Wan noted that "the product comes together so quickly." "I get to tell the story I wanted to tell without having to deal with the headaches of a massive production and hundreds of people, all trying to tell me what to do. Making a comic-book like this is so gratifying," Wan said. "It has been such an amazing experience collaborating with BOOM! Studios. This is my first comic book, and they've really guided me carefully through the process and making sure that the books stay true to my vision. You can see that they have genuine love and pride for comics, with the quality of the books they put out."
Nelson, one of BOOM!'s more prolific writers, has co-written with a number of other creators for the publisher including Andrew Cosby, Blake Masters, Walt Becker and more. Asked about working with Wan on "Malignant Man," Nelson said, "It's been fantastic. I love getting involved in projects with ideas that are just so much fun to play with. In 'Malignant Man,' I really had the opportunity to have fun in a way that's missing from some of my other comics. There are elements of humor here, which was refreshing for me, and the world is so imaginative that I almost spin around in circles for all the different avenues laid out in front of me. I've had an absolute blast."
Nelson and Wan are joined on this series by artist Piotr Kowalski, who is making his English-language comics debut. "I love his facial expressions. He's really able to capture the essence of a scene in a single glance," Nelson said. "I mean, look at that opening page! The look on Alan's face says everything you need to know! I almost hate to put words over it, it's such a brilliant image."
Wan also had high praise for his collaborators. "Michael is such a terrific writer. He captures the tone, feel, action; everything I envisaged in my head down to a tee. Piotr brings Michael's words to life with cinematic flair. For a film director, I can't help but look at them like movie storyboards!"