Mike Raicht, writer of the New York Times bestseller Stuff of Legend, spent some time with ARealAmericanHero.com to discuss about his work with IDW's G.I. Joe: Infestation series. Mike (@MikeRaicht on Twitter) talks about his start in comics, his fondness for those early Larry Hama stories, building believable characters, and the future of those brave toys in The Dark.
ARAH: Tell us about how you got started in comics. I understand you had an internship with Marvel.
Mike Raicht: That’s right. After I graduated from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY, I decided I was going to try to go to grad school for an MFA in Fiction. After I got into Long Island University - Southampton, I immediately applied for an internship at Marvel. I'd always read comics and I wanted to work in the industry. One of the assistant editors there, Paul Tutrone, had also graduated from LIU and helped me get my foot in the door. I spent one semester interning every day. That was with Brian Smith and Bobbie Chase. They worked on a lot of fun books like Fantastic Four, X-Force, Iron Man and the Hulk. The next semester I interned a few days a week, taking a train from Southampton into Manhattan which was a long trip, in the Jason Liebig and Lysa Hawkins office. They had the junior X-Books. I spent a half a year in that office.
After I wrapped up my MFA I would fill in from time to time to help other editors. That's how I met Mike Marts. He had just been hired after a stint as an editor over at Acclaim. We really hit it off and he ended up hiring me as his assistant.
ARAH: What books were you reading as a kid (or as a college student)? Any particular stories stand out in your memory that made you think "I want to make books like this for a career"?
"I think Cobra lends itself to the Infestation crossover the best because they lack the morals of the Joe squad. They are willing to cross that line in the name of winning a war at all costs."
I kind of stopped reading as much in college. Budget and time concerns stalled me out.
I read a lot of books now that make me want to write even more. I think we're in a great age for comics.
ARAH: I was a huge X-Men fan myself during that same time, for that exact reason. Chris Claremont told phenomenal stories with deeply complex and nuanced characters. One of the many things I enjoy about your writing is how well developed your characters are: whether it is a toy pig caught between loyalties, or a middle-ranking Cobra official trying to stay sane while the world around him goes impossibly crazy. I especially appreciate you injecting a little personality into otherwise nameless and faceless Cobra troopers. I'm assuming fleshing out characters is an important goal for you when you're plotting out a story?
"I really try to know all of the characters I write...even if it's just a Cobra Snow Serpent...I know that I would not want to go towards someone screaming for his help."
For example, Interrogator has become one of my favorites just based off of what Max Brooks did with him in Hearts & Minds, which I loved. I tried to take a character who knows he is the smartest man in the room and put him into some situations where what he is seeing just completely can not compute. The Infestation storylines are great for that and it makes him a perfect character for that slightly out-there world.
Like all writers, I really try to know all of the characters I write, no matter how small the role. Even if it's just a Cobra Snow Serpent, I try to make them believable. I know that I would not want to go towards someone screaming for his help. It all adds to the moment or the mood and makes the fantastic a little more grounded.
ARAH: Your effort definitely does shine through. You have a fantastic and fascinating grasp on all the G.I. Joe characters, from the previously established ones like Baroness and Crystal Ball to ones you introduce yourself, like Psych Out and Raptor. How did you first get involved with IDW's Infestation events?
"[Valentine De Landro] was perfect for [Infestation 2] because he can mix the realistic with the genuinely creepy. That can be tough to pull off."
I had been speaking with former IDW Senior Editor, Andy Schmidt, about trying to figure out something for us to work on for awhile. I'd pitched things to him at Marvel as well that made it to the presentation stage but never past that. It's a tough business. Lots of pitches never get made. I had also been talking with the amazingly talented Zack Howard, who I worked with on an Exiles one shot, and who most recently drew The Cape for IDW, about working on something together. The original plan was for the two of us to work on Infestation together but our schedules never matched up quite right. But Andy like the pitch I had presented for the initial Infestation arc and we moved forward.
ARAH: In the first Infestation mini, you introduced us to Psyche Out and a pre-crazy Raptor, and re-introduced us to Interrogator. Why did you pick those characters?
MR: Well, Interrogator was a favorite from the Hearts & Minds mini by Max Brooks. I thought he just had a cool vibe to him. He's a great straight man and, in most cases, the most intelligent man in the room. From there I wanted to have him match wits with someone who might prove his match in the interrogation room, so we went with Psyche Out. I also liked that Psyche Out was not your typical field operative so this would be different than if Snake Eyes were there or Scarlett. Psyche Out is a soldier but he's more of a mind first.
I think Andy Schmidt suggested Raptor. When he did I was excited to try to build a new beginning for him in the IDW universe. They have done a great job mixing old and new and I was hoping I could be a part of that. I had no idea if I would be able to return to him but I hoped I would be able to. I think he could still be an important asset to Cobra and the world down the road.
"[T]he more mentally unstable cast in Infestation 2 definitely lent itself to some lighter moments. Just allowing the characters from the asylum to interact gave us a lot of nice moments."
MR: I was always hoping I'd be able to use Raptor again, but I wasn't sure. I knew, even though we didn't see it on the page, that Dr. Mitchell would become Raptor after barely surviving the devastation of the first Infestation. I didn't know what would happen to him next, but I always knew he had followed his bird to safety.
The whole idea of the Cobra Insane Asylum came from the 2nd Infestation arc. Since I knew it would be Lovecraftian in nature, I thought it would be an awesome time to study madness. Raptor fit the bill. Since IDW's Joe series is grounded a bit more in reality, I thought it would make sense to have a place where operatives who had lost their minds would try to get better. Or worse, depending on your point of view. Obviously, being in Cobra to begin with puts your state of mind in doubt, but it seemed like a fun place to introduce some of the more hokey aspects of the Cobra lore.
ARAH: Speaking of surviving, what are the chances that Gristle would show up in a future story? He was a fun and likable character, and while IDW doesn't have any qualms about killing off characters, I've read too many comics not to be suspicious when I don't see a body.
MR: Gristle did seem to catch the wrong end of a thermal grenade but you never know. If I'm ever asked to do more, I'm sure he will at least get a mention by those he fought beside. I actually thought he was a likeable psychopath, too.
"The first [Infestation] was my take on a trapped (robot) Zombie tale so it was meant to play pretty serious."
MR: I am a big fan of what Mike Costa is doing on the Cobra book but I love all of the Joe books. I think Cobra lends itself to the Infestation crossover the best because they lack the morals of the Joe squad. They are willing to cross that line in the name of winning a war at all costs. Their look also lends itself to the creepier and more horrific stories we are trying to tell. That being said, I always try to add in some Joes to show how they would try to stop the madness.
ARAH: Speaking of adding some Joes, thank you for not making Snake Eyes the "deus ex machina," saving the day single-handedly, in the second Infestation mini. That scene with him and the possessed Scarlett was genuinely unnerving (Valentino De Landro gets a lot of credit for his art in that scene, too).
MR: I love Snake Eyes, but the power of Cthulhu is a tough one to fight your way through. I wanted him to come across as the baddest of the bad, but also to show the limitations of using your fists and conventional weapons against something beyond that.
I love what Valentine was able to do with this two issue storyline. I would love to work with him again on anything. He was perfect for this arc though because he can mix the realistic with the genuinely creepy. That can be tough to pull off.
ARAH: How familiar were you with the G.I. Joe franchise (comics, action figures, cartoons and movies) before working with IDW?
"Obviously, being in Cobra to begin with puts your state of mind in doubt, but it seemed like a fun place to introduce some of the more hokey aspects of the Cobra lore."
ARAH: If an original collection isn't in rough shape, then it wasn't played with nearly enough. What figures and vehicles were your favorites? Do you remember getting your first Joe figure?
MR: I don't remember my first, but I know I loved Firefly, the Cobra Eels, and Snow Serpents the most. I liked anything snow related, like the Snow Cat, whether it was Joe or Cobra, and I loved my HISS Tank. The turret came out easily and I used to sneak Cobra or Joes onto the tank, to serve as spies, all of the time.
ARAH: So I take it that it was no accident Eels showed up in the beginning of Infestation 1 and Snow Serpents appeared in the beginning of Infestation 2. Firefly was another character in Max Brooks's Hearts & Minds that had a great story, but is so far underutilized in the IDW universe. Can we assume you've got a couple potential stories cooked up for him if given the chance?
MR: Yes, it's true I requested both the grey Eels and the Snow Serpents for Infestation 1 and 2. I loved those outfits. I would have liked to have found a place for Firefly, but we had a lot of stuff going on. If I ever get to write him, I want to make sure he has a real purpose in the story. Hopefully I'll get the chance to use him in the future.
ARAH: Infestation 2 seemed much scarier and creepier than its predecessor, but it also has so many "laugh out loud" moments that really made me fall in love with that story. Did you add the humor intentionally to counterbalance the darker plot, or did your cast of characters naturally lead to those humorous moments?
MR: I think the more mentally unstable cast in Infestation 2 definitely lent itself to some lighter moments. Just allowing the characters from the asylum to interact gave us a lot of nice moments. I also think I had a better handle on Infestation as an idea. The first story was my take on a trapped (robot) Zombie tale so it was meant to play pretty serious. I gave myself a little leeway with the Viper in Infestation 1 as our funny man. In part 2, while I know the situation was more horrific, I really felt like Interrogator would begin to feel a little bit like Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 or 3. How many times can something like this happen to someone? I think that gave him the opportunity to act a bit looser in a "can you believe this is happening to me again?" For someone as smart as Interrogator, it would be hard not to wonder what could possibly go wrong next. And, of course, as a writer I want the script to have all of the emotions. Mixing the horror elements with the humor makes each of them way more intense for the reader. At least, I hope.
ARAH: Do you have any particular favorite story lines or characters from Larry Hama's Marvel run of G.I. Joe?
MR: I have a soft spot for anything early on in the series. I think my subscription started with issue 30. I think it had a lot of Zartan and Dreadnok stuff happening. It also dealt with the assassination attempt on Cobra Commander by Billy. I was totally into it. I was watching the cartoon at the time and the comic was just way more intense...at least to a 10 year old. My favorite issue was the one with Destro facing off with Storm Shadow. I remember getting that one in the mail. My head almost exploded.
ARAH: I completely understand. My love for Storm Shadow has everything to do with him giving up his acts of vengeance of his uncle's death to save the soul of his enemy's son. Between Claremont's Uncanny X-Men and Hama's G.I. Joe, that was a great time to be reading comics. Which comic titles are you reading and enjoying now?
MR: I read a lot of different stuff. Walking Dead, of course. I also pick up Crossed. I think Garth Ennis does some amazing things in that title. I'm a huge fan of X-Force, which is the closest thing we have to the classic Claremont stuff you mentioned. I pick up the Cobra book every month and I'm also really digging Batman. I thought Joe Hill's The Cape was genius and a lot of fun. The artist, Zach Howard, is amazing. We're working on an indy book for next year that I'm really excited for.
ARAH: Speaking of amazing artists, the illustrations in Stuff of Legend are absolutely gorgeous. You mentioned that you've known (co-writer) Brian Smith since your intern days at Marvel. How did (artist) Charles Paul Wilson III join this collaboration?
Regarding Stuff of Legend: "[W]e took the idea of toys protecting their master and trying to save him and turned it into our own little war."
ARAH: Stuff of Legend: The Dark was one of most outstanding books I'd read in 2010. It's rare that I come across a book that seems unique and fresh, but Stuff of Legend was just that. It's on my short list of comics I'd recommend to people who don't read comics. Can you tell us a little about coming up with the plot and themes of Stuff of Legend? I understand Max the bear was inspired by your son's teddy bear.
MR: It was a big factor in the book's creation. I wanted to work on a story for Austin, who is 6 now but was just a baby when we started talking about this, that wasn't as sanitized as a lot of the kid stuff out at the time. Austin had a teddy bear above his bed that looked like it was kind of standing watch over him and it started my brain working a bit. After that I spoke with Brian Smith, my co-writer on it, and we loved a lot of the creepier and more intense kid movies from our youth. Stuff like Watership Down, The Secret of Nimh, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. Stuff that was for kids but had a little edge. So we took the idea of toys protecting their master and trying to save him and turned it into our own little war.
ARAH: Stuff of Legend hits that perfect combination of beautiful art, intriguing plot, and wonderfully complex characters. My favorite character is undoubtedly the Jester. His swashbuckling swagger and his flirtations during the heat of battle reminds me of Nightcrawler in older Uncanny X-Men and Excalibur stories. But the most fascinating character has to be Percy the Pig. He is, perhaps, the most tragic of the characters. He didn't ask to be part of the group (in fact, he tried to avoid it), but he's stuck in a position where if his companions succeed in their mission to rescue The Boy, it will ultimately mean his death. On the other hand, he can't bring himself to betray his companions. He seems to be neither a protagonist nor an antagonist. He's tough to like, but he's impossible not to be interested in.
MR: Thank you for saying that. We put a lot of time into building each character with the art and writing to give them their own personalities and drives.
Jester certainly has a lot of fans and was the breakout favorite. Charles knocked his design out of the park. I can see what you're saying about Nightcrawler. We always wanted Jester to have a bit of the philosopher mixed with the swashbuckler. He spent a lot of time trapped inside of his box. He had plenty of time to ponder life, and now he is out there living it... with hatchets.
Percy is a character people either love and feel sorry for or completely hate. I personally feel bad for him. I don't think The Dark suits him, but in all honesty, he at least has a fighting chance there. Unfortunately, fighting isn't really his strong suit.
ARAH: Without getting into major spoilers, what does the future hold for our favorite questing toys? Will the series continue for a while, or is there a definitive ending in sight?
"I wanted to work on a story for [my son] Austin...that wasn't as sanitized as a lot of the kid stuff out at the time. Austin had a teddy bear above his bed that looked like it was kind of standing watch over him and it started my brain working a bit."
Our plan is for this story to run six volumes. We have had the ending written for a long time. The major concern was whether or not the book would sell well enough to tell all of the stories we wanted to tell. It has, so we've been able to stretch the tale out a little bit. We've been having fun working on it, but we're very excited to get to our ending. It has been an amazing book to work on. I love the world and the characters so much.
ARAH: Any other projects in the works we should be keeping an eye out for? You mentioned a collaboration with Zach Howard coming up.
MR: Zach, along with our co-creator, Austin Harrison, and I are working on a book called Wild Blue Yonder. Zach is probably one of the most underappreciated artists in the industry. His pages are phenomenal. He was amazing on The Cape. You can feel the sweat and tears he's putting into them. We're actually doing a kickstarter for Wild Blue Yonder so that Zach can devote a good amount of time to get the book started. He puts so much time into each page that we need some time to get us going. IDW has offered to publish the book if we are successful, which was a huge thing for us. You should all definitely check out Zach's art at Deviant art. His work is just beautiful to look at.
I'm also working on Dark Shadows over at Dynamite. Our new arc began in issue #6 and focuses in on child disappearances in the nearby town of Spafford. Guiu Vilanova is turning in beautiful pages right now. I worked with him on Raise the Dead II and he is getting better every issue. He is delivering serious gothic, horror, soap opera pages that are blowing me away. I love his pages and I love working on Barnabas and the crew. We're really trying to channel our inner 70s vampire, soap opera. I really hope fans young and old give it a try.
I'm also adapting Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments for Th3rd World Studios. It's a New York Times Bestseller and it is coming together beautifully. And finally, I've been doing some work for Viz on some back up stories in their Redakai graphic novels. Fun stuff.
ARAH: Sounds like some really interesting projects. We'll definitely be checking them out...and eagerly awaiting your return for Infestation 3!
We really appreciate the time you've spent talking to us at ARealAmericanHero.com. It was a genuine pleasure!
MR: Thanks for being interested in talking with me. I hope to work on more G.I. Joe in the future. It's an awesome world and franchise.