The Power Of One: Tieri talks "Underworld"

Thu, January 12th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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It's not easy being a criminal in the real world (not that it should be easy), but imagine how hard it is for the corrupt to earn a dishonest living when your country is home to the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil and more. Even worse, you've only got your brains, your brawn and God given talents…which isn't enough in a world of gods. On February 1st, Marvel Comics releases the first issue of "Underworld," a new limited-series from writer Frank Tieri and artist Staz Johnson, and CBR News caught up Tieri, who explained more about the book.

"Imagine this…you're one of the top underworld figures in New York-- underboss to the Silvermanes, the most powerful crime family of it's day. While there are a few cases scattered here and there, there are really no superheroes to deal with-not too many super villains for that matter," he explains. "But now something bad happens and you go away for almost ten years. When you come out, it's nothing like the world you left. Suddenly, everybody and his mother are running around in funny underwear-and we're talking both good guys and bad.

"So where does that leave you? No powers, no more influence to speak of-- and not only can't you get your old gig anymore, but the guy who's got it is all suped-up and wants you to go the way of Jimmy Hoffa.

"Welcome to Jackie Dio's world."

In addition to the exploring the Marvel Universe underworld in more depth than may have been seen before, Tieri is also creating a variety of new characters and is happy to introduce readers to these new faces. "Jackio Dio-- our main character and the guy who now has to adjust to this new "Super" world he finds himself in. The problem is, old school tough guys like Jackie don't usually adjust too well -- and this is especially true of Jackie since he absolutely despises superhumans. This all leads us to two of the big questions to be answered in the series… Why does Jackie hate super-folk so much and will his current situation force him to become one?

"Mr Pain-he's the grade A nutbag sitting in Jackie's "spot" and he's certainly not willing to just give it back, ya know? There's also some history between him and Jackie which really complicates matters - and when you throw in the fact the guy makes the Hulk look like Gilbert Gotfried on kemo, Jackie's really got his hands full.

"The Consultant-the concept behind the Consultant is a simple one, really… what if there was someone who could tell super villains what they were doing wrong? Someone to tell them "you know what, do yourself a favor and pick out a different arch enemy than the friggin' Hulk, for crissakes" or "get the Hell out of New York and set up shop in Cleveland-nobody gives two flying craps what happens in Cleveland" or "Dressing up like a fucking giant armadillo might not be the best way to go". Advice like that would be invaluable-and I'm not exaggerating when I say it would change the very face of Marvel's underworld.

"Other important players include Consultant clients and former lame-o's Boomerang and the Grizzly, (who are hired to eliminate Jackie), mob bosses the Owl and Silvermane (Silvermane being the top boss before Jackie went in, Owl being the big hefe now), and usual underworld thorns Spider man and the Punisher (who's encounters with Jackie affect him both in the past and in the present)"

Fans of Tieri have seen him tackle villainous characters as leads in a number of series, but perhaps most prominently in "Weapon X," a series that developed a cult following. As for his interest in villains, as both a fan and creator, he explains, "Bottom line, there's less unrealistic bullshit with the bad guys. I'm sorry, but have you taken a good look at the world we live in? How many people do you think are honestly going to throw on costumes that would've made Liberace blush in order to stop Ned the Wino at 3 AM from knocking off the local liquor store? I think a lot more would be throwing on ski masks and car jacking P Diddy, if we're going to be honest about it.

"I guess you could call it a VERY black comedy. Fans can expect a busload of violence, some big twists and turns here and there, and my own disturbing and diseased brand of humor."

In his time at Marvel, Tieri's been creating his own characters in every series he's touched and it's a combination of wanting to blaze a new trail and being encouraged to do so. "In some cases it's that I was specifically asked to create new characters. In others, it's because we found that a new character would work best in the situation. This time, it was both, actually.

"'Underworld' originally was a pitch that starred an established Marvel villain and would have tied into Bendis' Breakout event. But Joe Q and Axel both felt the situation would be best seen from the viewpoint of a new character, so I was asked to create one. My first idea was "What if the toughest guy in the Marvel hasn't been seen yet?" – basically, we'd be introduced to this unstoppable force that hasn't made an appearance yet because he'd been cooling his jets in the hoosegow for the last ten years. But then I realized the concept worked better with the opposite slant-a tough guy who came out with NO powers at all. (After all, anyone who's ever even just been in a schoolyard fight knows strength has nothing to do with toughness.) That was more interesting to me, more of a challenge-and that's how Jackie Dio came to be born."

"Underworld" will also be a chance for Tieri to address some of the issues he's had with super-villains, explaining, "The problem I've always had with how a lot of people have written Marvel villains over the years is they throw this "evil" blanket over these characters-and that's just plain stupid. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely evil people in this world. Hitler was evil. Stalin was evil. Jessica Simpson is evil.

"But do you mean to tell me the guy robs the local gas station to support a nasty crystal meth habit or somebody who clips a box of Suzy Q's to feed his family is necessarily in that same category? It's nonsense- people are more complex than that. Criminals are often just like the rest of us-they have problems, dreams, personal shit they have to deal with, etc. Yes, they deal with these things differently than the rest of us-but it's possible a person might do a bad thing and not be "bad". There are degrees of evil-and that's something we explore a lot in this book."

The question that has to be asked, of any superhero universe, is how do the villains exist in a world with so many heroes? "The question you really should be asking is how do the heroes survive?" responds Tieri. "For every Wolverine and Punisher out there, there's 100 evil scumbags not only willing to kill but who KNOW WHERE THESE GUYS LIVE. Want to wipe out the FF? Make the Baxter building go ka-plewey. Want to know where the super secret spies of SHEILD are hanging out? Just look up in sky for a quite visible giant flying monstrosity. In the real world, that would never work-these places would be getting attacked like every five minutes. Look at the Trade Center-the bad guys wanted it bad enough and they eventually got it. And that's exactly what would happen with places like the X-mansion or the Avengers Tower if they really existed

"And you know, people sometimes complain that I'm guilty of killing too many characters over my career and ignorantly dismiss it to "Shock Value". It's actually a lot more than that because the way I've always seen it, if we really did have guys running around with indestructible claws or were able to life 100 tons or what have you, there'd be a lot more people dying than even I've portrayed. And I mean, a LOT more. In real life, the bad guys don't shoot at you 8,000 times and miss like on the A-team or everybody in a burning plane parachutes out alive like they do on a Saturday morning GI JOE cartoon-and all I'm doing is trying to reflect that."

Tieri's not only enjoying being able to bring some "reality" to these villains, but he's also enjoying working with Staz Johnson, whose art has already generated positive fan buzz. "I think I'm having as much fun working with Staz as I've had with anybody in this business. Not only do we share a lot of the same sensibilities, but he's really not afraid to push the envelope when called upon, as I've found with some other artists I've worked with. In other words, he's a sick, polluted poor excuse for a human being just like me and we're getting along wonderfully."

Don't look for "Underworld" to emerge as an ongoing, but if sales and reaction warrant it, we might just see Tieri bringing these characters back for some more tales. "I don't see it as an ongoing, but I could definitely see other mini series or other appearances in other books based on certain characters and themes we've created here.

"Ongoing villain books just don't work, ya know? Take it from somebody who's been down that path. In my opinion, they work best in doses-mini series or one shots here and there. In an ongoing you need somebody to root for, and that's tough to pull off in a villain book without compromising who the characters really are-and I just refuse to do that."

If you're heading to the comic store today, Tieri wants you to order your copy of "Underworld," and says, "Because it's different than anything else out there. Yes, there've been villain-centric books before, but I honestly don't think anyone's looked at comic's criminal underworld quite like this. What we're doing here is taking a long hard look at how the ten year superhuman boom of the Marvel U would REALLY affect things in the underworld, and I think a lot of fans would want to see that. Underworld is violent, humorous, shocking, mysterious, emotional-but mostly I just think it's fun to spend some quality time with a side of the Marvel U we don't normally see."

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