THE COMMENTARY TRACK: "The Un-Men" #6

Thu, February 14th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

"Un-Men" #6 on sale now
"Un-Men: Get Your Freak On" trade paperback on sale April 9
Welcome back to THE COMMENTARY TRACK. This is the mostly-weekly feature at CBR in which we invite creators to stop by and talk about their most recent releases, often in spoiler-filled detail. Go behind the scenes and into the minds of your favorite creators and flip through their comics along with them. It's just like a DVD commentary, but without all the awkward pauses.

This week's TRACK features a book that's a murder mystery. It's a horror comic. It's a carnival of freaks. It's a reality TV show. It's "The Un-Men," a Vertigo series that debuted six months ago and is set to start its second major story arc later this month.

The Un-Men first appeared more than thirty years ago in Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's "Swamp Thing." The characters have grown beyond their original conception and now inhabit their own title created by writer John Whalen and artist Mike Hawthorne. Familiarity with their early appearances isn't at all required to enjoy the new adventures of the Un-Men, as Whalen has tied it all together in such a way that nods to longtime fans while moving forward into new and decidedly freakier territory.

"The Un-Men" #6 is on sale now, and Whalen and Hawthorne stopped by THE COMMENTARY TRACK to discuss the stand-alone issue. The conversation is lively and honest, and you'll get the sense of some of the panic that goes into making a monthly comic book -- the choices that have to be made, the "cheats" that must be employed, and the mistakes that slip by.

As always, the following contains SPOILERS.

Story continues below

PAGE 1

John Whalen: This is our Capra-esque issue. Mr. Kilcrop goes to Washington--only with less moral uplift and more severed limbs. Now take a look at panel #1. No, that is not a colorist's error. Those eyes are deliberately pink, because our protagonist, federal Agent Kilcrop, is an albino. "The Un-Men" is a comic about freaks – the natural-born kind as well as the kind made by mad scientists who have no regard for bilateral symmetry. I'm not suggesting that albinos are "freaks," but as we see in this issue, that's how most of Kilcrop's colleagues in Washington treat him. By the way, I'd like to point out that unlike most depictions of albinos in pop fiction, our albino is a positive, good-guy character and not a self-abusing Vatican assassin or homicidal cowboy sociopath.

Mike Hawthorne: Yeah, that's important. We push real hard to make Kilcrop a "man" first and foremost who happens to be an Albino. His personality is definitely affected by how people react to his albinoism (John, is that a word?), he is not defined by his albinoism.

JW: It's one "o" more than a word. So, some background: This issue is a bit of a departure because it doesn't take place in the usual setting for the series, a government-sanctioned freak reservation that's been developed into a freak theme park called Aberrance, U.S.A. This issue takes place mostly in Washington D.C. -- insert your own freak joke here.

MH: Where the freaks wear sheep's clothing.

JW: And judging from what I've seen on C-SPAN, sheep wool hairpieces.

MH: BWAHAHAHA!

JW: But we digress. Only one of the regular Un-Men characters makes an appearance in this issue. I was reluctant to take Kilcrop out of Aberrance but we needed a bridging story explaining how he goes from being a federal agent on assignment to becoming the permanent local law in Aberrance. This issue does that and also fleshes out Kilcrop's backstory and some of what makes him tick.

MH: I think we needed a "quiet" issue after the huge ending of issue #5. Learning more about Kilcrop now, after we've gotten to know him a little in the first five issues, was kind of a must.

JW: Okay, the opening scene: In my original script for this issue, I had Kilcrop narrating his return to Washington. He's ambivalent about this "homecoming" and the narration spelled out why: Because of his appearance, he's treated like a freak by his peers, despite his best efforts to downplay his albinism (he's always wearing sunglasses and a hat). Karen Berger at Vertigo suggested that the scene might work better without narration, and even though we wound up sacrificing the setup of the "bitter homecoming" theme that runs through this issue, I think she was probably right.

MH: Yeah, this scene was very cool. It shows very clearly that although Aberrance has its extremes, it was kind of nice for Kilcrop to not be gawked at every moment of every day. To steal a line from "Scalped," "No more being an Indian among Indians." I tried to draw him with very stiff, tense body language. I wanted you to feel his reluctance to cross the street and go into that building.

JW: The Richard B. Cheney Federal Building, which you see in panel #2. By the way, it's completely made up. I thought it would be cool and mission-appropriate to relocate the headquarters of the Department of Energy to a building named after the fossil-fuel lovin' veep. I later found out that there actually is a Richard Cheney Federal Building in Wyoming. So now there are two. And speaking of Cheney, there he is in the hanging portrait in panel #3. The script called for a double-barreled shotgun to be tucked under his arm, but Mike wisely dialed back the detail. I'm always asking for way too much detail; Mike bitch slaps me when I overdo it.

MH: Not so much a bitch slap as a guiding hand. No, seriously it was a funny idea but would have been a bit too comedic for this serious scene.

PAGE 2

JW: That logo in panel #1: There really is a National Nuclear Security Administration. It's part of the Department of Energy, and they even have a website. And that is their actual logo.

MH: Yeah, I didn't draw it. I just dropped it on the page in Photoshop and blue lined it so I could ink it. No use trying to reinvent the wheel.

JW: A lot of people seem to think that Kilcrop is an FBI agent--probably because federal agents in pulp fiction usually are. But in real life, there are all sorts of obscure federal agencies whose employees are inappropriately allowed to carry side arms and flash badges. I decided to make Kilcrop an NNSA "special agent" because Aberrance is built on the site of a decommissioned atomic bomb test range. I liked the idea of keeping the land under the thumb of the Department of Energy, even though it's now a semi-sovereign state run by freaks. Similar to how the Bureau of Indian Affairs administers Native American tribal lands.

MH: I thought that was a brilliant idea. Gave it an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, he's a real cop but on the other he's kind of viewed as a "fake" cop by some of the characters. With an FBI agent, you couldn't play it like that.

PAGE 3

JW: Yep, Kilcrop's asshole boss, Miskavitch, is proud to have an office desk built on top of Fatman, the A-bomb we dropped on Nagasaki. True story: There was this Internet startup company whose asshole CEO had a desk made from an aluminum aircraft wing. I'm not saying that all CEOs who have an aircraft wing desk are assholes. I'm just talking about a small subset of CEOs with an aircraft wing desk.

MH: When I got this from John, I thought it was a fantastic idea! But I gave the thing a flat surface, which was dumb. Killed the whole idea. It was out editor Jon that jumped in with the idea of making the desktop outline the bomb. You also can't see it here, but the other half of the bomb is above the desk and holds some fluorescent lights.

JW: Panel #1 is another case of Mike wisely smart-bombing some of my more over-the-top details. In the script, I asked for a gag novelty sign on the desk that reads, "I am become desk, destroyer of paperwork." It's way long and the atomic age pun is probably way too obscure. Sometimes I just write for myself.

MH: This is an example of something I wanted to keep, but it would have been so small no one would see it anyway.

PAGE 4

JW: Here's where we start to get some of Kilcrop's back-story. You can tell by the evil smirk on Miskavitch's face that it will be used against Kilcrop. Hey, I just noticed: We didn't give Miskavitch one of those little American flag pins.

MH: Oops. Sorry, dude.

JW: Bitch-slapped again.

MH: Nah, I just goofed and forgot to draw it in!

JW: Some plot catch-up: Miskavitch is chewing out our guy for doing actual police work in Aberrance, instead of covering up for UnCorp, the company run by the Un-Men. In the first story arc, Kilcrop links the murder of a performing freak to one of the bigwig Un-Men on the UnCorp board of directors. UnCorp is a contractor working on all sorts of freakish projects for the government, and Miskavitch's primary concern is keeping that going without any scandals erupting.

The handbill at the bottom of the page is the first time we learn that Kilcrop has a carny background. He's pretty much ashamed of it, and he's spent most of his adult life trying to bury that part of his background, for various reasons that become obvious later in the issue.

MH: You'd be ashamed, too, if you had to fight bare-chested and in tights in front of a crowd.

JW: This is true.

PAGES 6-7

JW: I love the use of black negative space on these flashback pages. It sets this scene apart from the traditional paneling in the present-day scenes. It also gives Kilcrop's memory of his fraternal, non-albino twin brother a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness quality. That was all Mike's idea, and it's perfect for the story.

MH: Many times in comics you see flashbacks are treated kind of ham-fisted, with the use of different colors or something. I wanted to take a page out of Mr. Eisner's book with the layouts here. I also had Paul Grist's flashbacks in mind, where he uses a certain layouts for the flashbacks so it's always clear, but he doesn't hold your hand.

JW: Why is Kilcrop's brother named Jonah? In old-time carny lingo, "Jonah's Luck" means "unusually bad weather or mud." As we learn from the dialog on this page, Kilcrop and Jonah's mother died while giving birth to Jonah. So their father must have been one vindictive bastard to have given son number two that name. Kilcrop's first name, as we learned in the previous issue, is Phineas, after Phineas Taylor Barnum, a much more positive namesake. So you can see which was the favored son

MH If you can call being named "Phineas" as being favored!

JW: Good point. Kilcrop, himself, is ashamed of that name. Which is why he chooses to go the mono-name route, like Diddy -- because "P. Diddy" is just ridiculous.

JW: The picture of the pretty lady that Jonah is holding on page #6 is their late mother. Unfortunately, the coloring of her hair is a bit off. It should have been pure white, to make it clear here that she, like her boy Phineas, was an albino.

MH: I should have made a note for [colorists Richard and Tonya] Horrie about that.

JW: That's the patriarch of the family Kilcrop at the bottom of page #7: Magnus Kilcrop. The arrogant, dismissive, sneering expression on his face is perfect. I'm not sure how you got all of that into two small panels, Mike, but wow.

MH: I do my best.

PAGES 10-11

JW: Magnus introduces the big main attraction here, and like his busted-down, moth-eaten carnival, it's pretty pathetic: He's billing his sons as "Cain" and "Abel" in a completely choreographed pro-wrestling-style "steel cage match."

JW: By the way, Mike, very clever using the razor wire on the top of the cage as a panel border at the bottom of page #10.

MH: Thanks, man. It was tricky sometimes making the panel-less pages work, so I used any way I could find to separate panels.

JW: Panel #3 on page #11 makes it pretty clear that the sophisticated DC Comics fans in the audience aren't buying into this phony performance. Either that or Bruce Wayne grew a mullet.

MH: HA HA HA!

PAGE 12

JW: I love the way the characters themselves serve as panel borders on this page. This is the money shot in the flashback. Where did the gun come from?

MH: Yeah, I dropped the ball there a bit. Should have made that more clear on the previous page. Wonder if [editor Jon Vankin] will let me fix that for the trade?

JW: But you can see Jonah drawing the gun from the back of waistband in panel two. So you covered the bases.

MH: Yeah, but it would have been a better bit of business if I'd found a smarter way to show him hiding it in the previous page.

JW: The actual murder of Magnus takes place off-panel, and I think it has more resonance that way -- to see the consequence of the gunshot through the expression on Kilcrop's face, at the bottom of the page.

MH: I agree. I didn't want to just show a graphic head shot here. Too easy.

PAGE 15

JW: That envelope in panel #1 contains something that the boss is using to blackmail Kilcrop into going along with the cover-up of the murder in Aberrance. And since Kilcrop is a bit of a straight arrow, it's got to be something pretty big to buy our guy's silence.

MH: Yeah, the envelope holds the story together, and I tried to make that obvious with the art work. You'll see it throughout the issue, even as a panel board for a scene.

JW: I mentioned that only one of Un-Men appears in this issue. Actually, she's an Un-Woman: Niko Parish, the statuesque one-armed, winged hottie who has come to Washington to offer Kilcrop a job as security chief in Aberrance. I guess we should explain about the various types of Un-Persons in Aberrance. The elite core of UnCorp consists of a small group of Un-Men that were created by Swamp Thing arch-nemesis Anton Arcane. That includes Cranius, the brain-on-a-hand, Janus and his conjoined son, Janus Jr., and at least three others, who were murdered in the first story arc. Niko is part of the second wave of Un-Men, radically modified by Cranius in the UnCorp labs. All of the UnCorp security force are second-wave Un-Men, as are most other UnCorp functionaries. We haven't told Niko's back-story yet, but we've implied that for some deeply troubling reason, she consented to let Cranius lop off her right arm and refashion her in the image of the Greek goddess Nike, based on the Winged Victory of Samothrace statue.

MH: I'm just glad she didn't "lose her head"!

(Sound of crickets)

Seriously, Cranius was nice enough to let her keep one arm and her head. If not, we wouldn't have anyone to rest our eyes on in this book!

JW: You can see that Kilcrop and Niko have some chemistry going, but so far their mutual attraction has been frustrated by Niko's loyalty to Cranius and Kilcrop's suspicion of that loyalty.

MH: And because Niko was possessed by a homicidal cancer god!

JW: Now you're dishing the spoilers.

PAGE 16

JW: I think there's something little unsettling about a beautiful woman with one arm. I wanted Kilcrop, and readers, to be attracted to her, but at the same time made slightly uncomfortable by her asymmetry, and the implied violence that a missing limb suggests. That's one of the themes of the series – how, as voyeurs on one level or another, we find ourselves fascinated by, and attracted to, the grotesque; that strange interplay of attraction and repulsion. We can't help but rubberneck as we pass an auto accident. It's an instinct that probably hard-wired into our genetics, but it's definitely amplified the culture. How else do you explain reality TV?

Mike, how do feel about drawing a one-armed woman?

MH: Well, from a technical point of view I have to pay special attention to her. I have to always be aware and not draw that second arm, or make sure I'm giving her the correct arm. At the end of issue #8, I accidentally drew her with two arms and didn't notice till it came time to ink. Can't tell you how many times I've drawn the wrong arm missing and have to change it. Thing is, and this may be lost on many people, that complicates things for me when I do it. I mean, she'll be acting something out some scene and if I've drawn the wrong arm it usually throws off the composition of the scene.

Besides that, I can't help but wonder what has happened to this woman to bring her to the point that she had to lop off an arm and add wings to herself to feel whole. I think of all the characters in The Un-Men I'm most curious about Niko, especially since you won't tell me about her past!

JW: Or what happened to the missing arm….

MH: That scene of Kilcrop and Niko walking takes place on the Washington Mall between the Capital building and the Washington Monument. My buddy, and frequent collaborator, Erik Swanson, lives in DC so I was able to call him and get him to send me some pics of the mall to use as reference. That's him gawking at Kilcrop and Niko. Erik and my other college buddy Pierre have been in almost every comic I've ever drawn. Go break some out and look for them. One is a tall white guy with a goatee and glasses. The other is a tall black dude

with a uni-brow.

PAGE 17

JW: Here's that panel you were talking about. The envelope frames the first image in the final flashback of this issue. That, of course, was your idea, and I think it's beautiful. A visual metaphor that starkly links the contents of the envelope to events in Kilcrop's past that are about to be revealed.

MH: Thanks, man. It served a practical purpose, too, because I needed to go from real time to flashback and take the pages panel-less again. I didn't want to do another floating-head-type flashback thing, and the envelope fit the bill well. Jon Vankin didn't think it would work at first, if I remember correctly, but was cool enough to trust me to make it work. Jon's great that way.

This is also kind of a scary page, if you put yourself in these two brothers' shoes. Jonah has to go into the world alone, for the first time in his life. No Kilcrop to look out for him. So, I made the world dark all around him. For Kilcrop, he has to do two things that go against his nature: Leave his brother alone, and break the rules. You know hiding a murder goes so far against his nature, but he has to do it to save his brother.

PAGE 18

MH: This page is one of my favorites, but also one of the most difficult to pull off compositionally. Lots of business to take care of, but I still had to stick to the panel-less set up for the flashbacks. I ended up having to use some borders, but went with a more jagged line. Still seems to work.

We're in the lower 9th ward of New Orleans, at a flophouse for junkies. So, that needed to be clear. Then it's set in the late '80s, so I had to get things like haircuts and clothes to fit the time.

JW: Earlier in the issue, Kilcrop's father mentions that he "rescued" the boys' mother from the lower 9th ward, presumably to exploit her in his carnival. At any rate, here's that homecoming theme again. Kilcrop is returning to his mother's old neighborhood to find his brother, who's been hiding out here for the past seven months.

MH: In the end, I really loved this page. I wish I'd have given more notes on the colors for this, as I think the page didn't work as well once colored. It's my fault of course, cause this was a lot to drop on the Hories.

PAGE 19

MH: This page had to have actual borders again, to get the layout to work and tell the story. Kind of feel like I cheated, but hey, what can I say. The book is monthly and I couldn't fight with it forever. Had to get it done.

JW: I think it works really well. You still have the several backgrounds bleeding together, and characters in other "panels" overlapping the main panel.

MH: So, we see what became of Jonah. I remember Jon Vankin didn't understand what the hell I was doing with Jonah's hair here. I wanted to show a hint of the man he was, with the braids. But, he's been through a lot on his own, and the mileage is showing. Only half his hair is still in braids, with the rest in an unkempt messy 'fro.Jon thought it looked like a weird growth in the pencil stage, but trusted me to make it work. Got to love that dude!

JW: So, we'll end this runaway train of a commentary track right here, without spoiling the ending of this issue, where the contents of the envelope are revealed, and we learn why Kilcrop agrees to return to Aberrance and join forces with the Un-Men. That's what you call a cliffhanger.

MH: Sounds more like the hard sell, dude.

JW: Say goodnight, Mikey.

MH: Goodnight, Mikey.

"The Un-Men" #7 on sale next week
Special thanks to John Whalen and Mike Hawthorne for stopping by this week to talk about their collaboration. Don't forget to check out "The Un-Men" #7 next week for the start of the next story arc, "Children of Paradox."

Come back here on Friday afternoon for our next COMMENTARY TRACK, featuring Marvel Comics' "X-Force" #1 as commentated upon by writers Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle.

If you have any titles or creators you'd like to see featured in THE COMMENTARY TRACK, drop us a line. If you're a creator with a book due out soon that you'd like to stop by to talk about in detail, let us know. We're especially looking for artists/colorists/letterers who are looking to talk about their craft, as we've had a shortage of those so far. We're busy behind the scenes lining up books for the weeks ahead, but there's always room for more!

Now discuss this story in CBR's Vertigo forum.

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