Real American Heroes: Andy Diggle Extensively Talks 'The Losers'

Mon, May 12th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[The Losers]The tenth anniversary of DC's mature imprint, Vertigo, has yielded some exciting new projects for fans, but one that's getting a lot of attention is "The Losers" from writer Andy Diggle and artist Jock, both of whom are relative unknowns to American audiences. But like most Vertigo imports, these two have proven their skills over the last few years in the UK on "2000 AD" and various other projects, and now hope their first joint American venture will enthrall audiences. CBR News spoke with Diggle about "The Losers," the hype surrounding the series' June launch and what exactly you'd do with a series that has such a downbeat name...

"The Losers were a covert U.S. Special Forces unit seconded to the CIA" explains Diggle. "When they stumbled across one of the Agency's dirty little secrets and refused to play ball, the Agency had them assassinated. Except the Losers survived. Now they've gone rogue, and have declared war on the Agency which stabbed them in the back.

"The series has more of a crime caper/espionage flavor than a military one. The Losers essentially become a heist crew, except they're targeting illegal CIA operations rather than a bank or casino. The series kicks off with a bonus-length first issue on sale June 25th, with an 8-page preview in '100 Bullets' #45. Plug!"

While Diggle acknowledges that "The Losers" started out as an old World War II comic book, he was never an avid reader of the original series and so this isn't a big nostalgia trip for him. In fact, the one idea he did conceive of that would have most played off the old continuity was dismissed before the final scripts were created and instead, an entirely new story had to be conceived. "I was writing 'Lady Constantine' for Will Dennis at Vertigo when we started chatting about what I might work on next. I'd already pitched him a couple of my own ideas, but I wasn't a big enough 'name' to get creator-owned work commissioned. We really wanted to do a heist story, so we started casting around for some old forgotten DC crime characters to revamp into a new company-owned mini-series. It was Will who suggested this old World War II comic called 'The Losers.' He figured, what if these guys got together after the war to pull a heist?

"I'd never heard of 'The Losers,' but I instantly loved the title, and a storyline downloaded itself into my brain almost immediately. We'd start off in the closing days of World War II, with the original Losers smuggling Nazi rocket scientists out of Europe. Then we jump forward to the mid-50s, where the Losers are now jaded veterans, embittered by the fact that, rather than being brought to justice, these ex-Nazis are being paid to work on the American rocket program... at the American taxpayers' expense. Then the Losers get wind of a shipment of gold, which was destined to fund a secret Nazi weapons program. It's still hidden somewhere in central Europe, just waiting to be found. But before they can get their hands on it, they're going to have to kidnap these German scientists from Los Alamos...

"It would have been a lot of fun, a mix of 'L.A. Confidential' and the original 'Ocean's 11' - suits, cocktails and guys calling each other 'Daddio.' But before I'd even got anything down on paper, Will decided that the milieu was probably too similar to some other books that DC had in the works, like 'War Story,' 'High Roads' and 'American Century.' We didn't want to tread on their toes. But that was okay, I just filed the idea away for safekeeping and cooked up something new.

'Losers' #1
"The new version was set in the present day, a four-issue mini-series about a bunch of former soldiers who absconded with a shipment of Al Quaeda gold they looted from a cave in Tora Bora, and who were now setting their sights on heisting an American oil company which was up to no good. That was it. At least, that's how it started..."

The metamorphosis of Diggle's "The Losers" didn't stop at a complete reworking of the core concepts and the characters. "The Losers" was originally slated to me a mini-series, but the writer explains that once Vertigo saw the pitch, it was green-lighted as an ongoing. "The Powers That Be evidently liked the premise and thought it had 'legs,' so they asked me to develop it into an ongoing series," explains Diggle. "I went back to the drawing board to flesh out what was, at this stage, merely a piece of entertaining fluff. I figured, if we're going to follow the adventures of these guys indefinitely, it really needs to be about something, y'know? It needs to be personal. It would need more substance, more edge, to make it worthy of being a Vertigo book.

"That's when I came up with the CIA angle. It's not about profit, it's about self-preservation and revenge. They're the ultimate anti-establishment heroes. That's when everything fell into place. Once I had the political angle, the whole story just rolled out in front of me."

If trying to describe "The Losers" to someone not fluent in comic speak, Diggle says that by comparing the series to some popular films, one can understand the "feel" of this upcoming Vertigo series. "I gave Jock a big list of movies to give him a sense of the tone I was aiming for. They included 'Heat,' 'Ronin,' 'Way Of The Gun,' 'Three Kings,' 'Ocean's 11,' 'The Usual Suspects,' 'Leon,' 'Payback'... You get the idea."

One of the most fun aspects of the "Losers" creative process for Diggle has been the character creation and as much as he's excited about readers' reactions to his work, he doesn't want to reveal too much at this point. The British scribe is quick to remind people that these are new characters and fully accessible, so the paucity of information now won't in any way ill-prepare them for June's issue #1. "I don't want to give too much away about the characters to start with - I'd rather the readers pick it up as they go along - but the Losers comprise Clay, the commander; Pooch, the pilot/transport specialist; Jensen, systems specialist; Cougar, sniper; Roque, demolitions. They're joined by Aisha, an Afghan mujahideen with a shadowy past and her own personal agenda.

"What inspired the creation of them? Two things, really. One, necessity: I needed characters with specific skill-sets to perform the special operations I had in mind. Two, actors: I always like to cast specific actors for the characters I'm writing, so I can 'hear' their speech patterns and mannerisms in my head. So I chose the dream cast for my own personal heist movie: George Clooney, Ving Rhames, Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro and Jean Reno. Who wouldn't want to write parts for those guys?"

Many readers may be excited by the description of "Losers" thus far, but with all the comparisons to "100 Bullets" and stylistic parallels to "Human Target," some Vertigo fans may wonder how to differentiate this series from their other favorites. "Well, I suppose those titles are similar insofar as they're all 'contemporary thrillers,' but other than that, they don't really have a great deal in common," contends Diggle. "They deal with very different subject matter. The Losers is a fast-paced action book, while '100 Bullets' has more of a mystery/conspiracy flavor and 'Human Target' is about the loss of personal identity.

"Losers" #2
"I guess '100 Bullets,' 'Human Target' and 'The Losers' all begin with a 'high concept' premise, but then develop into something far more complex and interesting. 100 Bullets has a fantastic premise with the gun in the briefcase, but it's not like that happens in every issue. The story has evolved beyond the initial high concept, and that's what you'll see happen with The Losers. Seeking revenge for their betrayal at the hands of the CIA is just the beginning of the Losers' journey, not the end of it."

There are some fans who might say that since the series was originally conceived as a mini-series, finite by its nature, that "The Losers" is being stretched farther than it should be, but Diggle is quick to disagree. The time that he spent expanding on his initial concept gave him a wealth of ideas and he promises that readers won't face a shortage of twists and turns. "Oh yeah, I have plenty of material," says Diggle enthusiastically. "Naturally I re-jigged the mini-series premise to ensure the ongoing would be more than just a succession of heists. It's hard to reveal how the series will develop without spoiling some of the surprises in store, but the scale of the action will evolve and expand over time, become more complex. The stakes just get higher and higher, building to a very specific climax. I figure it'll take me two or three years to reach that point, after which... Well, let's just see what happens when we get there!"

However, one of those twists will not involve giving in to the clichés that many comic books can be perceived as pandering to, specifically when it comes to female characters. One of the lead characters is an Afghan woman, and while Diggle realizes some fans may already be asking if he can "write female minorities correctly," he says the key is to not think in those terms. "Well, I know I can write the character of Aisha correctly because I created her," asserts Diggle. "I know how she's supposed to talk and act, because she talks and acts the way I want her to. What I don't do is approach her as a 'female minority character,' because I think that'd lead to pigeon-holed, tokenistic thinking. The obvious cliché would be the oppressed Muslim female who bravely soldiers on with quiet dignity while suffering the hardships of inequality. Aisha is a lot of things, but she a victim she ain't...

"To a degree, it's a no-win situation: make her sensitive and lateral-thinking and you're pandering to a sexist stereotype. Make her tough and uncompromising and you'll be accused of writing a male character in a female body. Well, screw it. If Aisha pisses somebody off, so be it. Goes with the territory. I saw this one guy on a message board who claimed the mere idea of a female Afghan fighter was stupid and unbelievable. I mean, if someone's that ignorant and small-minded, what can you do? Fuck 'em. I think Vertigo readers are smarter than that."

If you're one of those smart Vertigo readers wondering why Diggle chose to develop "The Losers" at DC instead of Oni or Image for example, Diggle says it's simple - "'The Losers' is a company-owned book. I didn't bring it to Vertigo, they asked me to pitch it. So to answer your question, the appeal of DC is that they gave me a job! They've been very good to me. Will Dennis and Karen Berger let me get my foot in the door at a time when it's very hard to get noticed, and I'm grateful for that. You can do stuff at Vertigo you can't do anywhere else, take risks that other publishers wouldn't dare. Naturally there are plenty of other publishers I'd like to work with, but I'll happily stick with DC as long as the work's enjoyable."

Andy Diggle has done a lot of research in preparation for the series, specifically looking at the history of the CIA and its past operations. While he doesn't want to reveal everything he learned or that inspired him, he does say a lot of the stuff that happens in "The Losers" will have some basis in reality, as crazy as that might sound. "For me, research is a source of inspiration rather than something to be obsessively adhered to, and I'm not pretending that everything that happens in 'The Losers' happens in real life," admits Diggle. "This is a fast, loud, high-octane action book, after all. That being said, all the freaky shit you'll see in the series, however off-the-wall or outlandish it may seem, generally has some basis in reality.

"Losers" #3
"When I discover some scary little nugget about CIA and its history, I might try to spin it into a storyline. I'm not talking about crank conspiracy theory here, I'm talking about historical fact, matters of public record. Undermining democratically elected governments, supporting brutal fascist dictatorships, the Agency's long and sordid history of working with drug traffickers. You name it. It's a nasty business. As Senator Inouye said at the Iran-Contra hearings, 'There exists a shadowy Government with its own Air Force, its own Navy, its own fundraising mechanism, and the ability to pursue its own ideas of the national interest, free from all checks and balances, and free from the law itself.'

"Of course, the CIA has changed a lot since the end of the Cold War. Back then their actions were driven by an obsessional fear of Communism, whereas today they seem to be driven more by the financial imperatives of big business, particularly oil and arms. The Agency's actual on-the-ground intelligence-gathering capability has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where they'll put more faith in a satellite photo than they will in the word of an agent in the field - and then they wonder why they're unable to infiltrate terrorist networks. No wonder the Agency did such a lousy job of protecting the American people on September 11th 2001. And yet they have a budget of over $30 billion a year. That's American tax-payers' money, remember. Where is it all going? Of course, the Agency is merely a tool of the administration, and that's where the ultimate responsibility must lie.

"As for research, there's only one way to do it - read. Books like See No Evil by former CIA officer Robert Baer, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs And The Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky, and Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace by Gore Vidal were never far from my desk, and websites like From The Wilderness, Common Dreams and Professor Peter Dale Scott's site are better eye-openers than a double espresso."

Diggle admits that the Bush administration's reaction to the September 11th tragedy influenced his thinking on this series. Though it may lead some readers to anticipate a deeper, more profound series, is there a danger that "The Losers" might veer into soap-box territory? "Don't worry, there's nothing I hate more than preachy, moralizing, didactic storytelling," promises Diggle. "Who cares what I think anyway? Readers want to be entertained, not lectured. Besides, you shouldn't assume that I share the same views as the characters I'm writing. For a start, the Losers each have their own individual points of view, and we'll meet characters inside the establishment who get to point out some of the home truths which my detractors will no doubt be throwing in my face. Of course, the CIA does do some good. Every country sometimes needs to do morally questionable things to preserve its own freedom. The question is, where do you draw the line? That's what 'The Losers' is all about. Those gray areas."

But there's also the concern by some that a series about ex-government operatives working against the U.S. Government might be perceived as unpatriotic or anti-American at a time when tension is high in the U.S. and measures such as the 'Patriot Act' have been enacted. 'Is it 'patriotic' to stand idly by while vested interests inside the establishment are allowed to tear up the Constitution at will?'" asks Diggle. "I don't think so. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Losers would see themselves as the bravest patriots of all. They swore to defend America from all enemies, both foreign and domestic - even if some of them occupy positions of power."

Promo images and solicitations for "The Losers" have seemed to tap into that "cool" factor that all comics want to tap in some form or another. Marvel does it with their X-Men comics and DC has done it recently with the Loeb/Lee "Batman"- but Diggle is doing it without nostalgia or big name stars. The image and concept are selling a certain atmosphere and when CBR News asked Diggle how he taps into this "coolness," the writer admits… he doesn't know. "I'm not really sure what 'cool' means, to be honest. One man's cool is another man's naff, y'know? Personally I like characters who really don't give a fuck what people think or say about them. Characters who are willing to make the hard choices, take a stand, and go all the way to the end of the line. Is that 'cool?' I don't know. I just try to write the kind of stuff I like to read."

"Losers" #1, Page 13
So, you've learned that "The Losers" was an old World War II comic book and the original concept for the series was tied quite strongly to that series, but this new series seems to bear little connection on the surface. There have been some fans who say that using the Losers name and not tying this series more closely to the original is disrespecting the past, but Diggle believes rigid adherence to outdated continuity is the problem with comic books today. "The only connection to the old series is that one of the characters is a descendant of one of the original Losers. Maybe," teases Diggle. "I'm all for continuity insofar as it means 'internal logic and consistency,' but when it means you have to memorize 50 years' worth of backstory just to figure out what the hell's going on, you can count me out, baby. That's why I never really got into soap-opera style superhero comics, and conversely why I'm really enjoying stuff like 'The Ultimates.' It lets you in at the ground floor."

Since Diggle's such a fan of being able to get into a series at the "ground floor," he says he'll be keeping the arcs in "The Losers" suitably short and making sure that readers can enter and exit the series as they see fit. "Mostly four-to-six issue arcs with one or two-part stories in between. I like a degree of structure and closure to my stories."

Within those arcs Diggle will tackle a diverse set of issues, from revenge to consequences, the latter being one that's blasted across the news around the world these days. "Consequences is a good way to put it. It's about taking responsibility, accepting that our actions have repercussions, and costs. I guess ultimately it's about honesty, having the courage to stand up to lies and hypocrisy and say what you believe, regardless of whether you're pro- or anti-establishment."

It's not hard to get Diggle talking about his work, but he's adamant about the fact that "The Losers" is a team effort and wants to make sure that artist Jock gets the recognition he deserves. Jock's already seen a lot of positive buzz since his "Losers" art samples were released, and Diggle says it only gets better from here. "His stuff's great, isn't it?" gushes Diggle. "I first came across it when I was working editorially at '2000 AD.' It was an unsolicited submission, obviously streets ahead of everything else in the slush pile. I gave him some work as soon as I could, and later on we ended up doing 'Lenny Zero' together for the 'Judge Dredd Megazine.' I love the fact that Jock's characters can really act - just look at his work on 'Hellblazer' #181 - and he's as good at intimate character scenes as he is at these spectacular action splash pages.

Jensen, from "The Losers"
"His linework has this fantastically stark, gritty quality which makes it perfect for material like 'The Losers'. His figures look incredibly powerful, almost iconic. And from just his first three 'Losers' covers you can see he has an eye for composition and graphic design to rival Brian Wood."

The synergy that readers will see between Diggle and Jock is a result of a strong friendship between the two, which of course includes strong mutual respect for each other's talents. "Jock and I get along really well, he's a good bloke," smiles Diggle. "I'll always ask him if there's anything in particular he wants to draw, and I'll figure out a way to work it into the book. Similarly, he's always sending me sketches for cover designs and thumbnail page layouts, and we'll talk about how the page flows. I'll often re-write the script after seeing his layouts, and then he'll re-work them himself - and this is all way before it gets anywhere near an editor. It's all about making the book as good as we can make it. It's a real collaboration. He seems to trust my instincts for editorial and story matters, and I trust him completely when it comes to graphic design and visual storytelling. Will Dennis edits the book with a very light touch - he just points us in the right direction and lets us get on with it, which is just what you want."

Vertigo's series have often had irreplaceable artists on their series, and while Diggle says Jock is intrinsic to "Losers" as a whole, he won't always be doing the art. "Jock's doing the covers and the vast majority of the interiors. We may have occasional fill-in issues by another artist, although I can't say for sure just yet."

There's a stigma attached to British writers, especially "2000 AD" folk, that they're all supposed to be these crazy, inventive, mind-blowing writers. That isn't to say all British writers are or aren't, but one wonders if people would have different expectations of Diggle if he were American or Canadian. So did being British help him get the job? "I'm honestly not sure, you'd have to ask Will why he hired me. Those compromising photos probably had something to do with it. Personally I wouldn't even try to compete with Grant Morrison or Alan Moore on the "cosmic mind-blowing wackiness" front. That's not what I'm all about. What I am all about, I guess you'll just have to wait and see..."

Clay, from "The Losers"
There's a lot of pre-release hype for "The Losers," with posters and previews coming out the wazoo. The marketing muscle being applied by DC is making people think Andy Diggle might be the next big thing, and the writer couldn't be happier seeing people anticipating the series. "It's fantastic to see the way DC has got behind the book. I just saw the retail poster for the first time this morning, and it gave me a real buzz - I've never seen my name on a comic shop wall before! Of course, on the downside, the hype does create a huge weight of expectation which I find a little bit daunting, to be honest. The more somebody gets talked up, the more you're waiting to see them fall flat on their face, y'know... ?

"As far as being the 'next big thing', obviously it's flattering when people say things like that, but to be honest it does make me feel slightly uncomfortable. I'd certainly never describe myself in those terms, I'd sound like some kind of swaggering asshole. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just starting out, still learning my craft. I want to keep improving. I don't want to become one of those guys who gets so big, he stops listening to his detractors, y'know? cough*georgelucas*cough"

For many DC fans, "The Losers" won't be their first exposure to Andy Diggle and his unique writing style - he caught the attention of many with his "Lady Constantine" series not too long ago. "I was very happy with the way it turned out. I thought Goran Sudzuka did a stand-up job on the art, really brought the characters to life. I must admit Lady Constantine wouldn't have been at the top of my list of characters I wanted to write, but once I got into it, it was a blast. It was nice to see that it was well-received by the fans, too. I was afraid the slightly irreverent, adventurous tone might put the Sandman fans off, but it went down a treat."

Popular opinion, though twisted by rumor columns, is that Diggle will be writing a new "Swamp Thing" series, but he isn't telling CBR News anything yet. "No... comment..." he says cryptically.

Though it may be a bit early, Diggle is willing to offer some teasers for the future of "The Losers" and in doing so, displays an irreverent sense of humor. "Okay, you heard it here first: Clay assassinates George W. Bush and wears his hide for a rain slicker," says Diggle with a straight face. "Pooch turns out to be a shape-changing alien and eats Jensen's brain. Roque and Aisha run away together and form a folk-singing troupe. Cougar is fatally crushed under the weight of his own hat. After that, we have to make some changes to the line-up."

Vertigo are hoping for another hit like "Y: The Last Man" or "Fables," but Diggle would be content with just making the fans happy. "Obviously I hope it's going to be a runaway hit, but predicting success is a fool's game. I'm an optimist without illusions. It's like William Goldman says of Hollywood, 'Nobody Knows Anything.' 'The Losers' won't be to everyone's taste, but I think there's enough interest in the style and subject matter for it to do okay. Of course, it's all relative. But I'd have to be pretty arrogant to say I expected it to be an instant hit, wouldn't I?"

If you're still skeptical about "The Losers", Andy Diggle says he's providing the readers with something they won't find in any other series:

"A big, fat kick in the ass. You're welcome!"

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