Rick Remender on the Legacy of Fear Agent, the Best Hardcore Sci-Fi Comic You Haven’t Read

Comics Features Rick Remender
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Rick Remender on the Legacy of <i>Fear Agent</i>, the Best Hardcore Sci-Fi Comic You Haven&#8217;t Read

This October will mark the 11-year anniversary of Rick Remender’s grizzled sci-fi opus, Fear Agent, a hyper-stylized evolution of genre homage that helped pave the way for the creator-owned comics renaissance. Co-created with artists Tony Moore (The Walking Dead) and Jerome Opeña (Avengers, Seven to Eternity), the series follows the harrowing adventures of Heathrow Huston, a Texan truck driver turned hard-drinkin’, Samuel-Clemens-quoting alien exterminator who rockets across the outer fringes of space on a quest for personal atonement. Since its conclusion in 2011, Fear Agent has evolved into a cult classic among pulp sci-fi aficionados and effusive newcomers.

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Ahead of the upcoming digital premiere of Fear Agent on comiXology Unlimited on September 6th alongside a slew of other trailblazing comics, Paste spoke on the phone with Remender to discuss Fear Agent’s legacy, how ‘50s sci-fi tropes have resurfaced in pop culture and the possible future of the series.
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Paste: It’s been over a decade since Fear Agent was first published by Image Comics. How do you look back on the series in hindsight? What does Fear Agent mean to you?

Rick Remender: Well, professionally it was sort of a challenge to prove that the industry was hungry for new ideas. We were told by everybody, from retailers to other professionals, that science fiction would never fly in comics again, and that there was no point in trying to do science fiction. Tony, Jerome and I locked in and we did it anyway. In terms of orders, when the book was initially coming out, those people were not wrong. We were only selling 5-6,000 copies of the book, but it eventually found its audience and proved that readers did, in fact, want science fiction—that there is an audience and those people were thirsty for new ideas.

Fear Agent was telling the story of—and mind you this was before a show like Mad Men—an alcoholic alien exterminator scuttlebutting around, dealing with the damage of what he’s left in his wake, and the sort of barfly, art house, Wally Wood science fiction aspect of it was something that hadn’t been done before. And the production of it was very difficult, because when you’re only dealing with so many orders, when the money’s not there, everyone involved has to make it as a labor of love. So between Tony and Jerome, and later when Mike Hawthorne and John Lucas came in and helped us with the artwork, and Hilary Barta and a number of other people who contributed to backup stories, we just pushed the boulder up the hill for six to seven years until we got to the end of the story—of which I am eternally proud of. As much as I am proud of the actual material, I’m proud of the accomplishment of finishing it in the face of an industry that was almost entirely focused on superhero stories at the time. And personally, there’s a lot of personal aspects of my life that are infused and hidden in the character of Heath, and so he’s always near and dear to me as one of the characters I most identify with.

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Fear Agent Interior Art by Tony Moore

Paste: How would you characterize the legacy of Fear Agent, as the series relates to the phenomenon of creator-owned comic titles during that time? Do you know any series or authors who might have been directly inspired by the work you did on Fear Agent?

Remender: Yeah, I mean in the last five or six years that’s happened quite a bit. I’ve been very grateful for all the response, because for so many years of making it we had no idea anybody was going to read it. We were basically like, This is for us, this is punk rock, we’re going to D-I-Y this thing into existence and if nobody else ever reads it, it’ll have been for us and our friends and our families and that’s what it’ll exist for. So to have other professionals and people in the industry and fans come up— and the fans of Fear Agent are real fans, it’s not a casual love affair with the people. Every show, people will lug out the library editions of the trades and I always take the time to make a full sketch for them for doing that. There has been a really wonderful response from professionals and fans, and it’s affirming to know the book had an effect on them.

I had started at Image back in 2004 and before that, I had spent a number of years at a now-defunct publisher along with a number of people, like [Robert] Kirkman, Tony and [Matt] Fraction. So when we all migrated over to Image between 2003 and 2004, all of us were of a mind that we wanted to do unique and new things in comics, and to take the voice of our generation and put it on display. For me, two of the things that I really wanted were a strong, intelligent, female punk-rock lead, and so I created Strange Girl and the character of Bethany Black for that, based on a girl I grew up with, because there was so much, at the time, half-naked girls with bio-armor covering their nipples, and it was just such an embarrassing thing. I felt like Tank Girl kind of started something that spoke to Generation X and our sensibilities that I wanted to see emulated, and beyond that was the degree of wondrous craft that the EC Comics people had put into their work. And EC Comics were the biggest deal going for much of the ‘50s, and they were all genre. It was all horror and crime and science-fiction and pirates and suspense, and it always occurred to me that if for an entire decade those comics could be the biggest comic book titles of their time, then we could get back there. It just needed a bunch of people putting out genre work again. I think ultimately we’ve seen that that’s right, and some of the successes that have come out of this have inspired other people and we’re seeing a real resurgence.

Paste: Now that you mention Wally Wood and EC Comics, I know that you’ve spoken in the past about how much his work has meant to you as an artist and a writer, especially in the creation of Fear Agent. When did you first encounter Wood’s work and how did his sensibilities and aesthetic inform your work beyond Fear Agent?

Remender: I actually wrote that scene into Deadly Class, where the lead character Marcus is working at a comic book store and a lot of that is taken out of old journals. I worked at a comic book store when I was about 21 and the owner, Blake, turned me onto all sorts of EC Comics, which gave me a recap of who Wally Wood was and his life and how he died. Looking at his work on Cannon, looking at his work with EC, at the work he did with Eisner on The Spirit and all these various projects that he had done, you could see someone who cared so much about every panel, and dumped so much love into every illustration. The style in which he worked was just very appealing to me, and he was sort of a punk-rock spirit before punk rock. He was like Hunter S. Thompson. He lived a very outlandish life and he suffered for his art, he just sort of became a hero of mine back then. At the core of it, I think I just naturally gravitated towards his work, all the beauty that he could create with whites and blacks and shadow work is unparalleled, there are very few people who have come near it. Dave Stevens, [Mark] Schultz, and a couple others have managed to come close, but none quite like him. So in a way, Wally was a lot like Frazetta; his comic book pages were unlike anything we’ve seen before or since.

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Fear Agent Interior Art by Tony Moore

Paste: Aside from Wally Wood, are there any other lesser know artists or writers who were a formative influence on Fear Agent’s tone and story?

Remender: I had tried to develop a number of science-fiction series on my own, so I had been digging into a lot of the old Frazetta and Al Williamson stuff, more of the EC stuff, and Tony was doing something for Rob Zombie that he was emulating an EC style for. I’m thinking back to the night where he and I actually made up our minds to do [Fear Agent], and we were talking on the phone and we decided that we should do an EC-homage-based science fiction that would then jump into other genres. So there would be an alien invasion story with a war tone, and then there would be a western, and there would be science fiction and a high adventure storyline, and so on. So we were looking at Frazetta and Williamson and Wood and talking about how much we loved that stuff. In terms of writing, I’m part of that generation that grew up reading Frank Miller comics back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The choice to do internal captions was not very popular back then, wasn’t being done very much, so I made that choice to include those in Fear Agent based on my love of Sin City and the Elektra books Frank had done. The internal dialogue is definitely a by-product of me being a Gen Xer who was raised on those comics.

There’s some Bruce Campbell in there too; Evil Dead had such an effect on me in my formative years because it’s got such a wonderful sense of comic relief. So many winks and nods that it makes the horror fun, while still being horrific. Raimi always understood how to add in that humor to add some levity so that it didn’t take itself too seriously, and I think that probably informed Heath’s sense of humor a good bit. Oh! And the trucker stuff probably came about because Tony and I were such fans of Big Trouble in Little China. You could dig through the ‘80s and whatever else I was exposed to from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s and you could extrapolate where my brain was at back then.

Paste: Touching on humor for a second, your own personal brand of comedy is a defining quality, not only of Fear Agent, but your entire body of work. Who are some of your favorite comedians or comedy writers? What it is about their particular humor that resonates with you?

Remender: I remember the subversiveness of Kids in the Hall having a huge effect on me, and that led into a love of Mr. Show. The Simpsons of the ‘90s, the first eight seasons I had on VHS tape. I didn’t have cable through the ‘90s, but what I did have was a VHS collection of every episode that I would record religiously every Sunday night. I would watch them over and over and over again, to the point where Conan O’Brien and that whole crew informed my sense of humor quite a bit. The Kids in the Hall was the first time where comedy seemed personally made for me and my friends, that was absurdist and unique and maybe not meant for wider distribution, but we really loved it.

Before that it was SCTV and George Carlin, I’ve listened to all of his records a number of times. Carlin probably formed a lot of my comedic sensibilities when I was very young. I think Scott Aukerman on Comedy Bang Bang is tremendous, I think that feels like a natural outgrowth from the Mr. Show days. The sort of underground comedy of back when David Cross would do his stand-up and Louis C.K., even before he broke out and would do bits on Conan and do stand-up, those guys hit a level of fearlessness that sort of emulated Lenny Bruce. Going all the way back to The Ben Stiller Show in 1991 where Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller and Bob Odenkirk and a number of other cast members were doing humor that was aimed directly at a small subsection of Generation X that could laugh at itself and make fun of grunge and take the piss out of a lot of the stuff that was going on at the time.

That was always the sort of stuff that I gravitated towards at the time, because I like commenting on the hypocrisies and the idiocy around me, but also my own idiocy and hypocrisy as well, and I think that was a hallmark of all of those influences. There was always a finger pointed back at the person delivering it as well as whoever they were scathing, and it was more of just an examination of humanity and a look for truth, and that was what Jon Stewart picked up on. I think if you take all those people I listed and kind of get a snapshot of what Generation X was cooked in and who we are.

Paste: In the afterword of the first issue of Fear Agent, you said that the creation of the series was in part an answer to the problem that science fiction had “lost its stones.” Do you still feel that way? How do you feel the genre of science fiction in and outside of comics has, or hasn’t, evolved since 2005?

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Fear Agent Interior Art by Tony Moore

Remender: Well I wrote that in 2004, so think about 2004. Star Trek had been over, the last few Star Trek movies were “meh,” it sort of had lost its way. The Patrick Stewart stuff had lost its way. The Star Wars franchise was in the midst of The Clone Wars or something, those prequels all sort of blur together for me. There wasn’t a Han Solo out there anymore, there wasn’t an Indiana Jones in space. There wasn’t a barfly out at an alien bar, there wasn’t a Bruce Campbell making jokes while fighting a facehugger. They had tried to make more Aliens and Predator movies back by 2004, they had made Alien vs. Predator and were tapping people who really just didn’t get the smarts of the originals and why they worked, in my opinion. It felt like the rough and tumble, bestubbled old man of action, the cliché of the 1950’s had sort of disappeared.

And so when we were watching Star Trek or Star Wars back in the early aughts, we had bypassed the fun and gotten into trade embargoes and nonsense science. It had all fallen apart and the fun was gone for me. And so, at the core of it there was also a sense that we needed Captain Kirk to be out there punching a lizard man and bedding a blue-skinned woman. In 2004, that was very far from having had happened. It would have been five years before Captain Kirk would make a return and do these things, and it just didn’t look like it was going to happen. So Tony and I were just like, let’s do some science fiction with a guy who was going to live in a rocket ship that’s covered in filth and he’s got some strange alien woman sleeping there and he’s drunk. And then of course, all of a sudden you saw that in Guardians of the Galaxy. The character of Star Lord had never been like that in the comic books previously, and that of course follows in the wake of the recent return of Kirk portrayed by Chris Pine. So obviously we were onto something, because in pop culture you’re beginning to see these things pop up left and right, but to pat ourselves on the back we did totally get there first.

Paste: What distinguishes the 1950’s era of science fiction from the more contemporary eras of the genre? Why does the look and feel of that era and aesthetic still resonate today?

Remender: Well it’s kitsch for one, it’s camp, but there was also an appeal to the imagination of it. The Thing from Another World was remade by [John] Carpenter and man, I would kill for a remake of The Blob with the current special effects budget we could do it with. They were films that were defined by big crazy whack-a-mole ideas. And a lot of them were iconic, especially in the case of the [Frankenstein actor] Boris Karloff genre stuff. It was memorable and fun, but none of those things was meant to be informative. War of the Worlds wasn’t teaching you about science. It was all just nonsense, and looking back at science back then and what we knew, it was serviceable. But there was a real sense of fun to it and that carried on into the ‘60s even with something like the original Star Trek, which was perfect because that had a mission.

It had an ideology, a way of painting a version of humanity with a diverse cast. There was a forward-thinking optimism there. They weren’t out there going, “We got to go blow up blangdango.” Star Trek was about how we were on an exploratory mission and we have rules of how we explore. That’s drawing from Asimov and all the great stuff that was going on in the ‘40s and ‘50s and up until that point. And then you’ve got Star Wars, which is what you get when you take a whole bunch of sci-fi serials and samurai movies mixed all into one soup. I don’t think George Lucas has ever been shy about that—there’s a bunch of french comics that seem to have been an inspiration for that. The resurgence of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon during the 1970s, that was a real heyday for trying to bring that stuff back. I think that there’s a universal appeal for it, and I think that the lull we saw was not entirely misdirected. It was an attempt to make it loftier and smarter, but maybe in doing that and attempting to comment on our lives and where we were at, maybe it lost some of the fun.

And that’s where Tony and I were at when we created Fear Agent. If you can find a way to mix those two, get that chocolate and peanut butter to balance out, you’re in heaven. We had seen two eras where one was entirely one and one was entirely the other, and maybe what we’ll get as more science fiction is being developed and more of these kinds of stories are being told, maybe we can get back to where there can be a Star Wars and a Star Trek and a 2001: A Space Odyssey and a Buck Rogers. Maybe there’s a place for all these different things to coexist and thrive.

Paste: You’ve mentioned in the past that you had floated the idea of relaunching Fear Agent with Tony Moore and Jerome Opeña. If you were to pursue such an idea, what might a possible relaunch of Fear Agent in the year 2016 look like?

Remender: Well we already have the story. I already know what the story is if we were going to do it, and tonally it’s kind of the same stuff, but it’s a different perspective from a different Fear Agent. I don’t want to give away too much in case if we ever do decide to produce it, but it wouldn’t look that much different. What we struck on back then, even though it’s been emulated in things like Guardians of the Galaxy and we’ve seen a return to the high-adventure incarnation of Star Trek, I think you can make a mistake in trying to rework what you’re doing or what you’ve got in mind, because of other things that are happening in pop culture.

The mistake would be to go, “Well, now that everyone else has done this, it’s going to be Heath Huston: Trade Federation Embargo Man!” I think that every time we talk about doing it, it always comes back to: we had an idea, I wrote a story bible outline with a beginning and a middle and an end to a story, and somehow despite all the obstacles we ran up against, we made it. The last issue of Fear Agent sold 3,300 copies. Try finding one of those copies when we announce the big television series! But the end result is that the ending felt good. I feel like it’s cathartic, I feel like we stuck a landing. So every time we talk about going back we just figure, why don’t we just do something new instead?

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Fear Agent Interior Art by Tony Moore

Paste: What do you miss the most about writing Heathrow Huston? What did you learn about yourself as a writer from penning his arc?

Remender: From when I started the series in 2004, I had only written four graphic novels and drawn maybe three or four others and inked the Avengers. That was the whole sum total of my comic book work. And so from the inception of Fear Agent until the end of it, I was still storyboarding part-time, and within two or three years I had full-time booked myself up writing, and that transition was surprising because I always saw myself doing both. And so I was just doing more and more of that, then I did a bunch of work with Dark Horse, became an exclusive writer over at Marvel for years and years, and that was all in the period of when Fear Agent was still being made.

I wrote a screenplay for The Last Days of American Crime, I wrote one for XXXombies. I had done just a metric shit-ton of writing. So by the time that it ended, I think I had grown considerably. I haven’t sat down and re-read the book in some time, though I’ve thumbed through some of the art. But I know for a fact year by year, arc by arc, it improves because I wasn’t just writing Fear Agent, I was also writing Strange Girl and working on a number of other books. My breakout performances at Marvel were Punisher, Uncanny X-Force and Venom, and I made those three runs with Tony Moore and Jerome Opeña and Mike Hawthorne and a number of other very talented people, obviously. But the core of those was Tony and Jerome. I can tell you that Punisher and Franken-Castle were a continuation of Fear Agent ideas. There’s so much of Heath in Fantomex from X-Force and in Venom, basically Flash Thompson is an alcoholic, so I had found a different angle to write on addiction than I had with Heath, but essentially all three of those books are continuations of themes I was exploring through Fear Agent. So I know that the learning experience of the book in the time that I was doing it was invaluable.

Paste: In the spirit of Fear Agent, if you could travel back in time to 2004, just before the release of the first issue, what would you say to your past self?

Remender: I would probably tell myself how much I was going to pay for the completion of Fear Agent and Strange Girl and the creator-owned books that I loved and wanted to produce. And how difficult it would be to write full-time and build this career. But that if I wanted to do it, if I felt like locking myself away for seven years and typing endlessly, that at the end of it I could continue to write more comics and provide for my family. So I guess it would be sort of, I know you’re addicted to this and you’re not going to stop, but it’s going to suck for probably another five years real bad and then it will slowly start to get better. Those years were very difficult in terms of trying to do those books that I was passionate about doing, because you never know if it’s going to find its audience later, you never know if your work is going to find people, and you never know about the thoughtful and kind people who are going to be touched and inspired by your work. At the time, you just make it and keep pushing the ball up the hill. So I’d probably just give myself a little heads up.

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