Philip Press is the worst mass murderer in the history of America's hardest city. But no one he works with at the police department knows it.
That simple hook is at the heart of "Bedlam," the new Image Comics series from writer Nick Spencer and artist Riley Rossmo (joined by cover artist Walter O'Neal). But as Spencer dug deeper into the concept for the Halloween-launching ongoing – teased this week before its official announcement today at Image Expo – the comics concept went much deeper as its protagonists insanity and his broken city were put under the microscope.
"Madder Red is a homicidal maniac and criminal overlord in the city of Bedlam until he is finally brought to justice after his worst attack on the city ever," Spencer explained of the series. "After his trial, he is found insane and sent to an institution wherein he undergoes experimental treatments that cure him of his mania. After a few years of close supervision and testing, he is released. He's undeniably cured – no longer ill and no longer a thread to society. So he's a free man, and he finds himself living in transitional housing for former mental patients, undergoes extensive plastic surgery to get a new identity and finds himself slowly but surely being drawn back into the world he was once a part of.
"He finds himself compulsively studying serial killings and crime in the city of Bedlam, and he's eventually recruited by the police department to become a consultant for them. The story is about his new life with a secret past. He's the worst murderer the city has ever seen, and now he's around all these people day-to-day who have no idea who he is."
The writer went on to say of the reformed villain "He's probably the most in-depth character study I've done. You're never going to be sure where he's coming from, what's in his head. Imagine suddenly waking up from a dream in which you killed hundreds of people and did all these horrible, brutal things – and then you find out it wasn't a dream. And then there are all these questions about responsibility, and accountability. Regardless of the state of his mind, how culpable is he at the end of the day? We live in an age where most of us can at least acknowledge that many of the bad things people do can be traced back to either mental illness or some past trauma in their lives-- root causes and all that. But how far does that go? And this compulsion to solve crimes-- to be near them and a part of them, where does that come from? Is it a need to atone for past sins, or is it something more dangerous?
"And it'll be very tough on you, as the reader – because this guy is your connection point in the story, our protagonist. But every time we start getting close to him, we're reminded of all the pain he's caused, all the awful stuff he's done – and make no mistake, it is awful. This guy wasn't just a rogue-ish anti-hero. He was a vicious, cruel psychopath. So, yeah, He's my favorite kind of lead – the type that's impossible to take your eyes off of, but you're not sure if it's because he's (hopefully) so compelling or because you can't trust him."
Spencer tapped Rossmo for the book's interiors after following his work through a few Image series. "I've been a fan of his since 'Proof,' and we've been talking about working together for a long time," he said. "When you work on these creator-owned ongoings, I've got to be really tough on the artists I work with. You look at Joe [Eisma] on 'Morning Glories,' and the dude is such a machine. He pushes out pages and gets passionate about the story. Riley is the same way. He's passionate about telling good stories and loves drawing comics.
"He's got an insane work ethic, but it also helps that his stuff is fucking beautiful," the writer added. "Nobody looks like Riley. He's got a style that's completely his own. In that sense, working with him is a lot like working with Christian [Ward]. Clearly the way he approaches the page, does his layouts and develops a certain aesthetic, the way that he captures mood and movement...all that makes him a special talent. And when you've got a guy who's fired up about telling good stories, loves what he's going and then has an identity and style all his own? That's a very rare combination. He's been turning heads since 'Proof' and "Cowboy Ninja Viking,' and then I loved 'Green Wake' which was one of the most incredible books of last year. So I've got real high hopes for this book, and I think he's the guy who over the next few years is going to be a really, really big name in this industry."
As for the origins of "Bedlam," Spencer admitted that he didn't expect to create this kind of book, but as the character and idea grew, he became interested in doing something different with the concept of supervillainy than a simple serial killer procedural. "I never thought that I'd do a creator-owned superhero thing," he said. "I love writing superheroes and love doing my work for Marvel, but I always thought I could scratch that itch over there. But when I had this idea, one of the first decisions I made was that there's no supernatural in this and no superpowers. If you want a good barometer for the rules of the world, I think the Nolan Batman films are a pretty fair place to put it. What I was drawn to was this idea of these guys employing masks and identities to make statements.
"There's a big story here about cities and about the state of things," the writer added. "I grew up in Cincinnati, in the rust belt, and if you look around at that part of the country right now, a lot of it is dying. It's withering on the vine. Driving through street after street of abandoned and boarded up buildings will send a chill down your spine. There's shuttered factories and poverty everywhere. This is very much a story about those cities of industry and what the future holds for them – whether or not they can be saved or should be saved. There are going to be very strong arguments on both sides embodied by these men who put on masks to represent groups of people. That's what I got drawn to. This isn't a story about superheroes and supervillains as much as it's about tribes and classes. That's what's lurking underneath the surface.
"This is my view of if you shoved Detroit and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and Flint all into one place together to make a big megacity. That's what Bedlam is, and I know those places, so this will be fun to come back to."
On a professional level, Spencer is pleased to have an idea and a creative team that can help him launch a second ongoing series – something he's been looking for for a long while. "I was finally starting to see some daylight in my schedule once 'Infinite Vacation' wrapped, and I was desperate to get another creator-owned ongoing up and running," he said. "I think so much of my career has been about 'Morning Glories' up to this point, and I've always wanted to follow the example of someone like Robert Kirkman or Brian K. Vaughan. Robert had 'Walking Dead' and 'Invincible.' Brian had 'Y' and 'Ex Machina.' And it always feels right to me when you have that sister book. When you have those two, creator-owned ongoing books, I think there's no stronger statement you can send that the work you own is a high priority for you.
"These books become your roommates or your family. They become parts of your life every day, so you have to be comfortable spending so much time in your life with them for the next five to eight years. So obviously I psyched myself out and said, 'Maybe I'll just do some minis.' But then one day I was walking along the Themes, and the same thing that happened with 'Morning Glories' happened with this. It was just a cascade of inspiration, and this character came to me fully formed. His life started playing out in my head like dominos falling, and I said, 'This is it. I've found my baby.'"
Readers can discover the ins and outs of Madder Red, Philip Press and all the rest of "Bedlam" when the first issue ships on Halloween. "It's a thoroughly different kind of book than people would expect from me," Spencer said. "If you just tried this book, I would not be the writer you'd guess would do it, and that's something I'm passionate about. I get worried when I feel like I'm getting too comfortable in one room."
Stay tuned all weekend on CBR for more news out of Image Expo.