In this episode of the Pop Culture SquadCast we spoke with writer Mark Russell. It’s been about seven years since Mark burst on the scene with his breakthrough book The Flintstones from DC comics.
Since that time, he has delivered a string of smart, thought provoking stories in the medium including Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, Second Coming with Ahoy Comics, Red Sonja from Dynamite Entertainment, Billionaire Island, Not All Robots from AWA Studios, and so much more.
We spent some time in this conversation talking about his two upcoming series which are Superman: Space Age on which he is work with legendary artist Mike Allred. And The Incal: Psychoverse that he is doing with Yanick Paquette.
If you are a fan of Mark Russell’s work at all, you know that we had to touch on some current events and nature of human society. It was a lot of fun.
We transcribed some of the interview below but also listen to the SquadCast to hear the whole conversation. We hope you enjoy it.
PopCultureSquad: You’ve written Superman before in Wonder Twins and One Star Squadron. How does this new story differ for you? Is it the same version of Superman?
Mark Russell: I wanted to write him as like sort of a wise old stoic, you know, sort of like Marcus Aurelius or Suetonius or something, but he doesn’t start out that way. And I think what is different about this story is it tells Superman from his beginnings to becoming that. So, it is much more about trial and error. It is much more about the process of him becoming Superman, about him absorbing the wisdom of the Kents and Lois lane, and synthesizing all of the influences that they have on his life and becoming what you would recognize as my Superman. He is an unflappable, wise character who realizes that he has to be the voice of reason, that he has to be the most generous soul in the room, because anything less than that would be a nightmare for the human race.
PCS: Right. And it’s interesting because the Superman that you have written is very different from Sunstar from Second Coming. Superman that you’ve written has that heavy gravitas to him. And you can tell that everyone who’s talking to him, or stuck talking to him, knows that they are talking to the most powerful person on the planet, and he is not acting like it.
MR: So. Yeah. When I had originally pitched the Second Coming story, I wanted it to be Superman, but, Dan Didio at DC said, “I get death threats when Superman fails to say the Pledge of Allegiance. You are not going to involve me in your blasphemy here.” So, luckily he said no to Superman, but he said, “You can write it as a creator own character, and I’ll approve it.” So, that’s when I created Sunstar. and it really turned out to be a good move, because Sunstar, I think makes a much better paring for Jesus Christ than Superman.
If it was Superman, then you just have two nice guys, two really wise guys bouncing off each other, and no one wants to read that. There is just really nowhere to go with that. Whereas, Sunstar is not that wise. He’s a guy who’s kind of spoiled, someone who’s leaned into his privilege, and Christ has to sort of dial him back a little.
I think the biggest difference, perhaps most the polar difference between Superman that I write and Sunstar, is that Superman is a character whose personality defines how he uses power, and Sunstar is someone who has let his power define his personality. And that’s sort of the tragedy of Sunstar. And I think it is sort of the tragedy of most people. They let whatever power or whatever role is thrust upon them determine their personality or determine who they are, as opposed to thinking intentionally and figuring out who they are and letting that determine their role.
PCS: I think that’s perfect in terms of how you use them and what you’re getting at.
MR: Yeah. Also, I just needed somebody who was a foil for Christ. Somebody who is not as good, or somebody who thinks that the fact that he has super strength and flight and x-ray vision means that these tools must be the solution to every problem, just because those are the tools he has.
I wanted to write Second Coming as sort of antidote to the assumption that underlies most superhero comics, which is that violence is the answer to every problem. It just should just be done by people who are good, which I’ve never really found very satisfying. The sort of ideology, that as long as the good people are better at murder than the bad people, then everything will be okay.
PCS: Right. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I brought up Sunstar, but I’ve been wanting to talk about Second Coming since 2018. How has the experience of telling that story of Jesus coming to a world where there are superheroes been, despite the controversies, and how do you feel about what you’ve accomplished with that?
MR: I feel like it is probably my flagship title. I feel when all is said and done, this is the one thing I hope people read of because it is so much about what my feelings and my opinions on how we approach the world, and how power is the ultimate culmination of our pettiness, and the real dichotomy is not between good and evil is between pettiness and generosity. And we really need to, as a species adopt the, the position of erring on the site of generosity.
If we were to just do that one thing, then life on the planet would be immeasurably better. If we could just give each other a break whenever possible, if we could approach each other with generosity and forgiveness, whenever conceivable, I think that that life on the planet would be so immeasurably better. The problem is that, with comics or with any medium, what you want to read as a story is about conflict. You want to read, which ultimately usually entails violence, pettiness and people getting revenge and evening scores. So, it was really meaningful to me to be able to write a comic that in a lot of ways is the opposite of what we’ve come to expect from superhero comics, which are ultimately sort of revenge tales.
PCS: So, I want to follow on that idea. I saw a listicle from 2020 that listed the “10 Best Mark Russell Stories” and it is an amazing list, but ultimately flawed because it did not include Red Sonja. When you were on that book, it immediately went to the top of the read pile. The masterful way that you told and exposed the weight of leadership and presented a somber and serious Sonja was devastatingly beautiful.
MR: I’m just happy that they found 10 titles. They felt worthy of putting on such a list.
PCS: There’s a certain current political news story event that is unfortunately very similar to Sonya’s plight, and that sentiment flows from what you were talking about with Second Coming. While this is a book that is filled with horrible, horrible violence that is being put upon people, her response to almost everything is never violence in its kind.
MR: Yeah. I think that, in a lot of ways, about the worst thing you can do to a tyrant or an oligarch or anything that is to deny them what they’re after. It’s not to match them in their evil. It is to deny them whatever they are after. And, leadership is ultimately about the doing what is best for the people under your care, regardless of whether or not it is emotionally satisfying to you, regardless of how it reflects on your ego, which in a lot of ways is the opposite of the way that Putin and most oligarchs and, and authoritarians around the world approach power.
PCS: I wanna thank you for Exit Stage Left. I don’t think you get enough credit for how important that book is. I often find your writing to be like I’m learning something, or my worldview is being questioned, or my perspective is being altered. And that was so true with Snagglepuss. The story was set in the McCarthy era of homophobia and how it is set against an entertainment industry. What was your inspiration for telling that story at that time?
MR: Well, the plot in the soul of the story had sort of two different inspirations, and I always feel like you need to have both when you’re writing a story. The plot was really about Snagglepuss as a Southern Gothic writer. I really built the story around the two things I knew about Snagglepuss: one being that he’s a gay icon, and the other being that he has a background in theater because both his catchphrases, “Exit stage left,” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd”, are both theater references. So I thought, “Well, if he’s a, a gay character, and he has a background in theater, why did he end up in cartoons?” And to me, that sort of like guided the story. What would lead him from having to leave theater to cartoons?
The soul of the story was really about how all art is an act of subversion, that it is us telling the world how it is killing us. And that is really the deeper message that I wanted to write about in writing Snagglepuss. And that art is not frivolous or something that is just pretentious. It is something that is vital to our survival as human beings. And that’s something I really wanted to like be present on every page of that story. That was sort of the main overriding spirit that was in my thoughts as I was, as I was writing that story. That was the main thing I wanted to get across.
PCS: I think it was perfectly executed. The plot of the story is great. It’s an entertaining story, but there is a richness to the characters that were being written and drawn, and the way that they interacted, and the emotions that they expressed, and the betrayal that they felt from friends society. It was moving.
MR: Well, thank you. That really is the way I like to write and the way I like to read. I’m never just explaining a plot where “A” happens, so, therefore “B” happens, and therefore “C” happens, et cetera. It’s more about, this is the most important thing I have to say in the world at the moment. And the story is just my delivery method of getting it out to you.
PCS: Is that true? How you feel about that? “This is the most important thing I need to tell people?”
MR: That’s how I try to approach every project. What is it that is at the core of what I’m feeling right now that I feel like I wanna write about that or I feel like I need to tell the world, and how do I get it in the story? I think one of the things that having a career in comics and being able to write different genres, different sorts of stories has allowed me to do. It has allowed me to like find these different types of feelings and these different types of things I want to say to the world and explain them to people in different stories.
Billionaire Island is very much about my thoughts on economics and about where the planet is heading because of the way we’ve structured our incentive system, which is basically all economics is. It is the study of incentives. It allowed me to go more in depth on what I feel about economics and what I think about what we are doing to the planet because of our economic incentives than I could if I was writing just one title a month. So, Billionaire Island and Second Coming, and these other titles working all simultaneously, has allowed me to expand my soul or at least explore in greater depth, my feelings and my thoughts about particular issues related to human existence.
My breakout series is probably The Flintstones in a way. I think the secret sauce of the Flintstones was the fact that I thought, at the time, “This is probably the last comic book they’ll ever let me write. So I might as well put it all my ammunition. I might as well just say everything I think about the world and you know, how we got here and what’s wrong with it. The foundational errors I see with civilization and put it all in one comic thing.” But now I have the luxury of sort of spreading that out, talking through a variety of comic books and the different genres and stories, what it is I want to say.
PCS: Is there an artist that you haven’t worked with yet that you would to work with?
MR: Oh, there’s a bunch. One artist’s artwork that I’m just always stunned by and would love to work with Marguerite Sauvage. I would love to work with her on a title, and also Christian Ward is another artist who I just think his work is always fantastic. It’s always next level. Not to denigrate any of the artists I have worked with because I’ve incredibly lucky with a lot of the artists, and by no virtue of my own. It was all editors having vision and just dumb luck of the timing and work being available.
Probably the first artist I ever got to really choose on my own or felt knowledgeable enough to like put an artist out there was Mike Allred for the Superman: Space Age. He was sort of top of my list, and he just happened to be available.
PCS: Yeah. He hasn’t done anything with DC since Vertigo closed. I think the last thing he did was Art Ops for DC.
MR: Yeah. We spent like a few days together in Eugene, Oregon. Which is where I grew up and where he currently lives. We are both Eugene guys, and so we hung out during COVID during the shutdown and just sort of like sequestered together for a little while and talked about the series and talked about our vision. Yeah, he talked a lot about how it had been a long time since he worked for DC, and wanting to like approach this project and really do it right. And I think I knew we had made the right decision with Mike when his approach to art is very similar to mine where you just have to pour yourself into it and make this as if it’s the last thing you’re ever gonna do.
PCS: Yeah. He’s, he’s amazing. There is something about his art that is captivating in a way that you don’t expect it. There are people who look at it at first blush and say, “I can dismiss this,” but if you don’t, if you take a moment, there is a depth and emotion that you don’t expect. There is a depth of development and fluidity that belies the first impression. And once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it.
MR: Yeah. I think of it as sort of the Marc Chagal of comics. His work is very otherworldly and sort of expressive and cosmic in a way. But, at the same time, yeah, there’s spirit there. There is a spiritual connection that he has to his artwork where this is about him. This is about what he is going through. And I feel like that is the way I try to write. So it really felt like this is a really good match. This is the sort of thing that we should both be doing together, because we are both pouring so much of ourselves into it.
PCS: All right. Thanks a lot, Mark.
MR: All right. Thanks Bob.
This transcript is just a sampling of the topics that we discussed with Mark. Listen to the SquadCast embedded above or on your favorite podcast delivery platform for the whole conversation which includes some of the following concepts:
- Mark’s legacy and how it will be seen.
- The success of Ahoy Comics and the Wrong Earth Story that he wrote.
- Del Close and Wasteland
- Elon Musk’s attempted Twitter purchase, and the ridiculous wealth structure of billionaires.
- How Mark got to writing comics and what it has to do with Count Chocula.
- The new Hummanoids “The Incal Universe” series that he is doing with Yanick Paquette.
Pop Culture Squad’s Interview SquadCast:
Google Podcast: https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5idXp6c3Byb3V0LmNvbS83MzUwOTIucnNz
Podcast Addict: https://podcastaddict.com/podcast/3062710
You can find Mark on Twitter at @Manruss
For a complete catalog of Mark’s works, you can check out his Amazon Author Page and find some gems that will knock your socks off.