Who is Nathan Edmondson…?
Nathan Edmondson is one of comicdom’s fastest rising young stars. His “Spy-Fi” thriller “Who is Jake Ellis?,” one of several books he has written for Image Comics, made fans sit up and take notice for its unique take on the espionage genre. He also wrote “Grifter” as part of DC Comics’ historic New 52.
Edmondson is currently building a literally global following with “The Activity,” a so-realistic-it’s-scary military thriller from Image. This month also sees the launch of “Ultimate Iron Man,” where he will bring his unique touch to a classic Marvel hero. Here’s my full, non-redacted, interview with Nathan Edmondson.
Mark Syp: Why don’t you give us a little bit of background on “The Activity?” It’s been making quite a splash lately, including some attention from CNN.
Nathan Edmondson: “The Activity” is a military thriller series that I’m doing at Image Comics with artist Mitch Gerads. There really isn’t anything like it in comics. It’s heavily researched, but at the same time it’s still balls-to-the-walls action every issue. It’s about a real, little-known group called the Intelligence Support Activity, or ISA. They’re kind of like “Mission Impossible,” if “Mission Impossible” operated in today’s military theater. The ISA is a group that exists within the army, but is secret even from the army. Their ops are high stakes, they use bleeding-edge tech, they work in the shadows and they work alone, without backup. They really are the best of the best. Our story follows them on missions from Bosnia to Bogota, from Afghanistan to Arkansas.
MS: You mentioned that the organization the book is about is called the ISA. But it hasn’t always been called the ISA. Care to explain?
NE: Well, it’s had several different names since it was formed in the seventies, including “The Activity.” It’s highly compartmentalized to avoid exposure.
MS: Which begs the question, how the heck did you find out about this organization?
NE: I was doing some research into…I have to be careful. There are some things I don’t want to say [laughs]. But while reading about spycraft, the formation of Delta Force and some other things, I kept coming across this name, but very, very little was known about it. When we started working on “The Activity,” all we really had was the name and what their mission was. We knew this organization existed, but we didn’t know exactly what they did or how they operated.
After the first couple issues came out, we had a lot of people coming forward who were impressed with what we were getting right. Some of those things were correct because of the research we had done. Some of them were right accidentally, to be honest with you. Since then we’ve started to build up a network of people we trust who give us insight into this world. They include members or former members of the Navy SEALs, Delta Force, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, the Israeli Defense Force; we consult with people from all over. We’ve even consulted with the author of the controversial book about killing bin Laden “No Easy Day.”
MS: I remember I was interviewing you in Washington DC about a year ago and I asked who you were in town to meet with and you said, “I can’t really talk about that.” At the time, I thought “Oh, typical writer trying to act all mysterious,” but then when this book came out I realized, “No, he really couldn’t have said!”
NE: Yeah, not all of it is as sensitive or sensational as it might come across. There are a few sources we’re very protective of, but we’re simply trying to be respectful of anyone who talks to us and not get anyone in trouble. We do that as a common practice, even if we’re not necessarily taking state secrets and putting them in print. Which is certainly not the case, by the way [laughs].
If you look at the back of the trade, we list a lot of the names of the people who helped us. Some of the names are changed, some names are just an initial, and some aren’t there at all. Most of our sources are free and happy to talk to us; they just don’t want to be in any kind of spotlight. Nor should they be.
MS: When you’re writing, how do you strike the balance between keeping it accurate to that world, while creating your own narrative with your own characters going on fictional adventures?
NE: We do a great deal of research to build the base and try to understand the way that world works; what kind of equipment they use and so forth. But, when I go to write and Mitch goes to illustrate, our main concern is to tell an exciting story. We do our best to tell the dramatic, thrilling, white-knuckle story that we want to tell. Once we have the story down we will show the script to our advisors. They’ll give us feedback like “this line of dialogue is wrong,” or “this person would never be involved in this.” They help to take the story we wrote and sharpen the edges a bit to make it as accurate as possible. But, if we’re torn between telling an exciting story or an accurate one, our goal is to tell an exciting story, but one that’s accurate as possible.
MS: How has the military and intelligence community responded to the book?
NE: We’ve had a lot of feedback about the book from the military via email or at conventions. They’re all really excited about the book. The operatives we portray in “The Activity” are kind of like Keyser Soze for people in the army. They’re guys that most soldiers have only heard stories about or maybe encountered once on the battlefield. It’s kind of like we’re writing about their superheroes.
But we also show the military world in a respectful and accurate way, in a medium that a lot of people in the military enjoy. There are a lot of comic book readers in the military and we do ship a lot of books overseas. We’ve been invited to a couple of bases for some appearances and things. I’ve hung out with a lot of Special Forces people, wined and dined them, heard some cool stories. Mitch was also invited to participate in a SEAL training program.
MS: I liked that the book hit the ground running with high octane action, but now I’m enjoying that you’re starting to see, albeit in drips and drabs, the personal lives of some of the characters. Are you planning to continue that along with the action?
NE: Yeah. When you’ve only got twenty pages, it’s hard to put everything in there that you want to. We made a decision early on that this was going to be primarily an action, mission-oriented book and secondarily it would have personal drama. But of course it’s going to be boring without knowing your characters and seeing some of the conflict of their personal lives. So you’re going to continue to get to know the characters better.
At the same time, this isn’t a soap opera. In an effort to be realistic, we have to cut down that drama in a very significant way. At this level of special operations, people are still human, but you aren’t going to have an operator who’s having an affair with every person on the team. You don’t have operators coming into work hung over. These guys are professionals operating at the highest level. They don’t drag their personal stuff into work. They can’t. This is a life and death, razors-edge environment.
MS: I do get that sense that these guys are the best and they’re there to do a job, but at the same time there is also a deep personal bond and camaraderie because, as one of the characters says right in issue one, the only people who they can talk about their jobs with, and the only other people who know what they’re going through, are fellow team members.
NE: Indeed. I’ve talked to a lot of people in Delta Force and their kids and extended family may not know what they do. It’s an intense environment. The divorce rate is very high. They may only get five days off a year and they’ll spend at least part of that time at the gym or the shooting range, honing their skills. These people live this life. It is not a nine to five job by a long shot.
MS: Any hints you can offer about what we might expect going forward? I mean this is a world of permanent consequences. Any permanent consequences for team members?
NE: Let’s just say there’s nothing we’ve shown that is not going to become important later. And there are certain things that we’ve put into the book, which if you step back and look at them, are a pretty big deal in that world. We’ve set into motion pieces that are going to start to come together. Around issue twelve you’ll start to see the story grow bigger in a major way and start to see that we’ve been laying tracks for a much larger story to come rolling through.
MS: Another work of yours that a lot of people are excited about is “Dancer.” Care to tell a little bit about the genesis of that book? It’s one that I was tangentially present for.
NE: I was doing a signing in promotion of my spy series “Who Is Jake Ellis?” last June at Fantom Comics in Washington DC. On the trip, I was starting to put the pieces together for a new espionage thriller that I wanted to follow “Jake Ellis” with. At the signing, I happened to meet a ballerina form the Scottish National ballet and she happened to be a big fan of Jake Ellis. So, we started talking.
MS: I was at that signing. I remember her.
NE: I’ve always been a fan of the ballet. I’ve done a series of paintings of ballerinas. I grew up at a school that featured ballet. The conversation with her sparked the idea of including a ballerina in the story, which suddenly gave the story a motif. Then it kind of clicked and I realized that I could give the story the title “Dancer,” but make it more meaningful than the one character being a ballerina, and have it be the theme that this story about a battle between two sniper assassins revolves around.
MS: I want to comment on the book, but I don’t want to give away a major twist. Suffice it to say, it takes a bit of a turn towards science fiction. Is that safe to say?
NE: Yeah. It’s very much like “Jake Ellis,” not in terms of story, but the overall genre. One reviewer online said that I’ve become a writer of “Spy-Fi,” which I’ve been happy to adopt as a term. I think that’s pretty cool. I’d prefer not to spoil the twist for anyone who hasn’t read it, but it has a very classic spy feel, but infuses it with sci-fi genre elements.
MS: Since “The Activity” is so realistic do you find it a fun release to write some of the “Spy-Fi” stuff?
NE: It’s a very different exercise writing the two titles and there are things I enjoy about both. Writing “The Activity” is an education. I’m learning from the story as I’m writing it. I’m shooting from the hip a little bit more with “Dancer,” telling a story that’s more straight fiction. I certainly try to incorporate realistic elements such as location to ground the story. It’s also much more character driven.
MS: What draws you to the espionage and warfare genres, aside from the fact you obviously write it well? What pulls you into that as subject matter?
NE: I’ve always been interested in it. To me, it’s the summit of cool, but it’s that crossroads where things that are cool coincide with things that are important and vital. That’s what the spy world really is. You’ve got all that the genre has to offer as well. You’ve got complex webs of secret history and you’ve got grave situations where the future revolves around the actions of one or two operators. Remember, it was one person who gave us the DNA we need to identify bin Laden and that person’s actions led to a world-changing event. You’ve got people whose personal life and death situations become life and death situations for entire nations. As a storyteller, those are very exciting blocks to construct your story with.
MS: I’ve noticed that the superhero work you’ve done for DC and Marvel has been in more of an espionage genre as well. I know a lot of people enjoyed Grifter. Why did you decide to move on from that book?
NE: I did eight issues and that was about the point when DC was looking to shake up titles a bit and bring in different talents. When we started the book there wasn’t a very clear idea of what direction we wanted the book to go in and as the New 52 took shape they saw the position they wanted that book to occupy in the cannon.
I wasn’t angry, I didn’t make anybody else angry and I’m doing more work with DC. I’m certainly still welcome over there and I’m certainly still close with a lot of them. It just became increasingly clear I wasn’t the right fit for the book and I think both sides recognized that.
MS: You’re doing some work for Marvel as well, on “PunisherMax” and “Ultimate Iron Man.” I noticed that both characters are superheroes but are kind of in your wheelhouse, with Punisher being a Vietnam veteran and Iron Man incorporating a lot of bleeding-edge tech. What can we look forward to from the Nathan Edmondson Punisher and Iron Man?
NE: Well. I’ve been working in the Ultimate and Max world, since I feel like they’re a better fit for me than the mainstream Marvel titles.
The PunisherMax story is a one shot; it’s a pretty straightforward PunisherMax story. It’s a nice fun little crime story with a lot of blood in it.
With Ultimate Iron Man we’re bringing some of my strengths to the forefront. There are some military-industrial aspects to the story, there’s a strong lead character. I’m excited because we’re bringing to light parts of Tony Stark’s past that no one’s ever dealt with or talked about before. We’re not altering the character, but we’re certainly adding some big pieces to his puzzle.
MS: Will they be pieces that Tony Stark may not necessarily want revealed?
NE: I’ll say this; it’s a part of his past that maybe Tony Stark himself doesn’t even know. That’s pretty interesting to me, especially considering how famous, or infamous, Tony Stark is right now between the films and the comics.
The story I’m doing is intended in a way to be a bridge between the film and comics world. It’s going to be accessible; it’s going to be identifiable. If people come out of the film and walk into a comic shop and pick up the book it will look and feel like the movie they just saw. But it will be its own thing. We’re not bending the story to storylines in the film; it will be a part of the Ultimate universe. But it stands alone as a story that is accessible to crowds outside of comic readers.
MS: Now, Marvel has teased the appearance of Ultimate Mandarin. He’s obviously a character that readers of the Ultimate universe have been dying to see and he’s also apparently playing a large role in the movie. As Stark’s archenemy, there have been dozens of interpretations of the Mandarin over the years. How are you approaching that? Are you playing him similar to the movie? Is it your own take on the character?
NE: All I can really say is that it’s definitely going to be our own take on the Mandarin.
MS: [laughs] I figured you couldn’t say too much, but knowing how you write I’m looking forward to seeing Ultimate Mandarin, whatever form he/she/it may take.
NE: [laughs] Yes. Hopefully people will be pleased.
Edmondson’s Activity Vol 1, Who Is Jake Ellis vol 1 and Grifter vol 1 are all available now in your local comic book shop, or at the Fantom Comics online store. Dancer will be available for sale on October 24, 2012.