In addition to establishing The Punisher's modern persona in the mid-'80s (the story, "Circle of Blood," is considered to be an under-sung entry in the mid-'80s comics renaissance) writer (and CBR columnist) Steven Grant also wrote Marvel's biography of Pope John Paul II, which went on to become one of the best selling comics of all time.. Grant has been working in comics since the late '70s and has worked for every comic book company with name recognition. In the '80s, Grant created "Whisper" and, this summer, he's bringing the series back... with one major difference. It's a new character.
Coming this August from Boom! Studios, "Whisper" #0 places Grant's First Comics heroine in New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. This amnesiac -- but still skillfully violent -- woman joins a team of mercenaries providing security for a drugs-for-weapons swap.
In the online comics community, you're a significant presence. Still, I had some trouble finding information about the original "Whisper" series. I found descriptions of the character being a ninja and the series dealing with the shadow politics of the 1980s. This new series will be featuring a different character. Can you briefly explain it?
The original heroine wasn't actually a ninja: she was faking it, and had to keep faking it as various people took her seriously, and things evolved from that. She was pretty reluctant about it, which is very interesting from a writer's point of view, but I had to keep inventing a lot of reasons for her to get involved with things. It got a bit tiring after awhile, so I'm trying to avoid that this time around.
The new character is - I wouldn't say eager, but less reluctant. She has a stronger sense of mission. She also begins fairly innocently. The original Whisper, Alexis Devin, took on the role to save her estranged stepfather, and wasn't thinking beyond that. The new Whisper, Dyan Young, begins by being forced to kill someone she's close to, and she then goes after the people who put her in that situation - which takes her into the midst of a black ops deal going down in New Orleans as Katrina bears down on the city. But the series isn't about revenge, it's about penance. (The ubertheme of the original series was betrayal.)
Like the original series, this one uses black ops, shadow governments, the crime/intelligence community interface and political paranoia as a backdrop. But the 2006 versions. There's no connection to the original series - I doubt Alex Devin or any other characters from that one will ever make an appearance in this one - and I have to commend Boom! publisher Ross Richie for going along with that. (There's also an entirely different rationale for the title.) It's nice to be able to start a whole new continuity, without the baggage. A lot of creators and comics companies talk about doing that, but we're doing it.
The setting in "Whisper" -- just before Hurricane Katrina hit -- is obviously topical. Did the "Whisper" update fit that setting or did the setting fit "Whisper?" And off the point, are you a fan of New Orleans, the city?
I'm a fan of the corruption and criminality that has always been a part of New Orleans history. It was the country's original Sin City. It started out as a smuggler's paradise, one of the major battles of the War of 1812 was pointlessly fought there a month after the war ended, it was the birthplace of the American edition of the Mafia, it has all kinds of connections to the JFK assassination, it was notorious for years for one of the most corrupt police departments in the country, and it's still a smuggler's paradise. Even its greatest contribution to American culture, jazz, started out as entertainment in its wide array of brothels. It's a great city. But the shenanigans surrounding Katrina also connected well with what I wanted to do with the story and the character, so it was a mutual thing. I didn't say, "I've got this character, what would be a good place to set her story" or "man, there's this story I want to do set in New Orleans, it'd work great as a Whisper story." Left to my own devices, I don't often work that way. These things usually sort of evolve as the story takes shape, but I commonly don't consider them separately from story. They just come together in my head that way.
Given that you're setting a fictional story in a very real setting, did you find it a difficult setting to write a story in?
Not really. This isn't a documentary on the Katrina disaster. I have to do a certain amount of research for the sake of verisimilitude, but this amounts to an "untold tale" of Katrina.
Something I realized a long time ago is that comics readers have specific expectations of white, male characters if they're positioned as the "heroes." It's a very narrow, parochial view of heroism. It was the catalyst for the original "Whisper" series: I had done a Spider-Man story where Spider-Man figured out that no matter how long he kept fighting with another hero - the Shroud, who in my version was set in Los Angeles and masquerading as a villain to infiltrate and control that city's underworld - it was going to take him more time to win than it was worth, and he had a plane to catch and other things to do, and eventually just cashed in his chips and called it a draw. And Jim Shooter, who was editor-in-chief at the time, called me on the carpet for it, declaring that Spider-Man would never ever walk away from a fight. (Never mind that he did just that more than once in the Lee-Ditko stories I grew up with.) And I thought, "Why the hell not? Is he stupid? Is that what we're supposed to blithely accept, that heroism is a synonym for stupidity?" The fact is that there are a lot of situations where the smart thing to do is just walk away. There are a lot of situations where the smart thing to do is run. It's not unheroic to look for advantage rather than let yourself get trapped in a disadvantageous situation and pray for dumb luck, raw pluck and the hand of God to get you out. And I wanted to write characters who had the brains to get the hell out when getting the hell out was the only sane course of action. And I noticed that readers just didn't hold female or minority characters to the same idiotic standards they held white male characters to. So a female character seemed the way to go. Female characters can run from a grossly uneven fight, they can act deviously if it's to their advantage, they can behave smartly and nobody bats an eye. When male characters, esp. white male characters, do things like that, they're viewed as weak, cowardly or effeminate. It's this sexism/racism thing that underlies most superhero comics that people never think about. Anyway, it's why I like writing female protagonists: they're allowed a wider range of situational response.
The new "Whisper" is a one-shot. From what I could find, the old "Whisper" had a lot of multi-part stories. Do you like the single-issue, single-story format (as it's at odds with the mainstream, written for the trade norm)?
If we do more - that's up in the air, we'll see - this will be the first chapter of that, so an eventual trade isn't out of the question. But it's not hard to prepare for that and still run the issue as a self-contained story. I never have much problem adapting to formats, especially with "Whisper," which has always used a lot of (frequently experimental) compression techniques. The first issue of the original series was more or less a self-contained story, and later on I did a serial running 9-10 pages per chapter, and then it was regular comic size, but I never had any trouble adapting to whatever format publishers decided on. They all have their pros and cons. I have economic questions about the validity of some formats, but creatively I'm ambivalent about them. Ideally the story would determine the format, but it usually works the other way. It's all part of the game.
A lot of First Comics creators have been bringing back their old comics, as of late. Is it all just a coincidence, or is something else going on here??
Yes and no. It's mostly a matter of either timing or the resolution of legal issues, though neither of those things apply to "Whisper." I could've started a new "Whisper" series as early as 1995, and have been approached about it several times, but either I didn't think market conditions made it worthwhile or I didn't like the proposed deal. Ross not only "gave" me everything I wanted, he volunteered it before we even had a discussion about it. And I like the company, I like the way he's doing things. It gives me confidence. But "Grimjack" returning didn't influence the return of "Whisper" one way or the other, I didn't know anything was being done with "Shatter" (I wonder if I'll get royalties for that; I wrote two issues as a favor to First to wrap up the undying first storyline) until last week.
You've been writing comic books for almost thirty years, writing for the Big Two and independent companies of varying sizes. Do you miss the days of "Rom: Spaceknight?" What's your feeling on the state of the industry today?
It's a pretty different industry. I can't say I really "miss" the days of "Rom: Spaceknight." Not that it wasn't a great life if you didn't mind living at the whim of editors. (Most of whom, let's be fair, were pretty good to work with.) It was always a business, of course, but there used to be more of a sense of adventure to the industry. By and large, it feels more inert now. "Cold mechanic happenings," as G.K. Chesterton put it. Which isn't helped by the way distribution has calcified and the industry's newfound obsession with Hollywood. But there are still occasionally publishers with a sense of adventure out there.