Ultron won’t just terrorize Earth’s Mightiest on the big screen next summer, but in the proper Marvel Universe as well. The big bad robot returns in style next June with “Avengers: Rage of Ultron,” the next Avengers Original Graphic Novel from the rock star “Uncanny X-Force” team of Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, and Dean White. Not seen since the pages of last year’s “Age of Ultron” event, the unholy sire of Hank Pym is coming back in an astronomical way—no, seriously, he is. Inhabiting Saturn’s moon, which includes such lovely landmarks as Thanos’ birthplace, Ultron will step his game up by embedding himself within the entire civilization’s tech infrastructure. That’s right: Planet Ultron. If you thought Lady Ultron was something to look at, prepare for a real head-spin. Mining the roots of the classic Stern/Bryne era of Avengers lore, Remender will put a new spin on past events to make the Rage Ultron that much more emotional for the post-AXIS Avengers squad.
Below, Remender and Opena share how “Rage of Ultron” will be their best collaboration yet, what makes Ultron a compelling villain, and how this story will have major implications on Remender’s future Marvel plans (which may or may not include a possible rumble between Thanos and Ultron).
Thanks for taking the time to talk, guys. How far along are you on the project right now?
Remender: More than half of the script is done, and Jerome and Dean are in the 30-page range. So we’re well underway with it.
Obviously it’s an incredible treat. Jerome and I have been working together for a decade now. Part of the thing that Marvel wanted to during Marvel Now! was to split up all of the teams that were comfortable with one another, and really shake things up. They did that, and now I get to undo it and get back to work with my teams (laughs). I’m excited to get back into the saddle with Jerome. I think what Jerome and Dean and I did on Uncanny X-Force catapulted our careers to another level. I’m glad to have them as the storytellers doing the heavy lifting here, given the sort of spot light that this book will have.
Opena: It's great to be working with Rick again. We've collaborated for many years and we're good friends. Even though it's been a while since we've worked together, it's as if we never stopped.
And this is your first project together since Uncanny X-Force, making it a reunion of sorts. How have you changed as artists and a writer since X-Force, and in what new ways are you guys pushing each other into becoming better storytellers?
With any sort of partnership and collaboration, the more you work with the same people, the more you in-tune you get. Jerome and I speak the same language both culturally and visually. We have the same sensibilities when it comes to music and art, and I think that becomes apparent in the craft. As proud as I am of everything that Jerome and I had done prior to working with Dean White on X-Force, his inclusion and involvement helped bring things to the next level.
Circling back around a couple of years later and getting the band back together is incredibly fulfilling. I can see that all of us have gotten better. We’ve all stretched different muscles and done different things, and I think we’re in a spot now where the work that we’re doing is maturing. We’re becoming, for lack of a better term, “craftsman.” But it is a craft, it is a discipline, and I think that the longer you do it and the more seriously you take it, the better you get. In terms of their art, I can see that Jerome has begun to limit the amount of lines he uses more and more. He has such a concise visual style, and such a subtlety to the characters’ expressions, and such perfect staging to all of the sequential action. There isn’t a stray line. Everything he puts on there is for a reason. Then you get Dean White following behind him, and we’ve all seen what that mix can produce. I have already seen these pages, and I can attest that they are the next step up from what we were doing in X-Force together.
Opena: There are a lot of things I enjoy about working with Rick. I really like how he will call me up and discuss story ideas and ask my opinion. It's a true collaborative effort with him. I also value how much trust he has in me when it comes to how I draw or interpret his scripts. That comes from many years of working together. So far it honestly doesn't feel very different. We're just working with different characters. Maybe when we get further into the project things will might be different, but the way we work and interact is how it's always been.
Rick, you mentioned back that you and Jerome speak the same cultural language. What language is that exactly and how does it factor into your collaborative relationship?
Remender: When I met Jerome, we were both working in San Francisco’s Sunset District. I was working in a studio nearby and he would come over. We’d scan his Fear Agent pages or his Strange Girl Pages, and we’d shoot the shit, as we have a similar sarcastic sensibility. We’re both goofy. I think we both grew up on the same cultural things like post-punk and punk rock, and the skate culture in the eighties. All of that wonderful indie stuff. Musically, and also with art and film, we have a lot in common. We became instant friends. How that feeds into the relationship is that there’s a comfort there. I can say something and he immediately gets it. There’s shorthand that happens. In terms of storytelling, he went to the Academy of Art University. I actually first became aware of his work when I was teaching at the Academy in San Francisco. He was famous. He was only a year or two younger than me, but he filled these sketch books that just made the rounds, and everyone was going “Jerome Opena! Holy Shit!” We were finally introduced through a buddy, and we became pals, though I was already such a huge fan of his stuff. Because of his training at the Academy, and the time he spent at the academy, I think we have very similar disciplines in terms of storytelling. We think about how to pull the camera back and not crowding out a page so you can sell a big shot of Spider-Man. He hits those big moments when they matter. Jerome’s the type of storyteller that keeps the camera pulled back wide, showing you the entire scene for clarity. Yet by pulling it back, he also makes it more dynamic than if you had someone breaking the panel and punching you in the face every panel.
Let’s talk about the storyline for a bit. “Rage of Ultron” is obviously very similar in name to “Age of Ultron,” the last big Marvel story featuring the villain. Seeing as how these OGNs are supposed to tie into current continuity, is Rage of Ultron a sequel of sorts to that storyline?
Remender: Tom Brevoort selected the name “Rage of Ultron,” but my working title was “The EVILution of Ultron.” And the story really is more focused on the evolution of Ultron. What we’re doing here is taking that character to the next step of his evolution, as well as addressing his relationship with his father Hank Pym and his relationship with his son, who is also an insane and murderous artificial intelligence. And what happens is something that ultimately will lead to a new Ultron and have huge ramifications on those characters. But the “Rage” title does work. I liked both of them fine. I think ultimately this is an Ultron at that peak of his rage and his desire for vengeance. And as he comes to exact that vengeance, and to return his pain upon his father, we see a very emotional creature. We see his rage come full circle.
I think the title also helps people understand that this ties into the movie. This will definitely drum up some support for Ultron, as well as tell a story that’s integral and important to the Marvel Universe. New readers can totally come into this and be reintroduced to Hank and Ultron and understand that relationship. They’ll also be able to understand the Avengers of the past and the very different Avengers of the present.
What’s it like working I the world of OGNs, where the borders are much tighter and there’s less room to play? How have you adapted to meet the different borders?
Remender: I think that the joy of doing an original graphic novel, which is something that I got to sort of do with Last Days of American Crime with Greg Tocchini, was to write it without being concerned about issue breaks. The issue breaks can help you because you have to reach a climactic cliffhanger moment every 20-22 pages, but at the same time you can also get into a place where you’re not at that moment, and you’re only at page 20. You’re going to have to rework your entire script and shift things around to get yourself to that cliffhanger moment. With a comic book, you can’t just end on any page. You can’t just say “Page 20: They finish their cereal and put it in the sink! Ta da!” But with a graphic novel, you don’t have to do that. With a graphic novel, it’s just the equivalent of writing five or six issues of comic book, but as one long story. My time writing and studying screenplays and the three act structure is a discipline that I’m able to dig into here. The script is the same size as a screenplay. I’m basically writing it like a screenplay, which is a wonderful exercise.
Jerome, what have you enjoyed the most about working on an OGN? Do you find the different space to be a rewarding change of pace, a challenge, or something else entirely?
Opena: For me, it's being able to collaborate with both Rick and Dean again. I know Rick is going to write a hell of a story and Dean is going to pretty up everything I draw. It's a win-win for me.
Will Rage of Ultron have ramifications in future Marvel titles? Will the events of this story later show up in other Marvel work you’re plotting?
Opena: Yeah. We’ve already started talking about some of the things that are going to be set up here. We had too much story for this, so some of what’s being set up here with evolution of Ultron and the changes that come out of this—much like the changes coming out of AXIS lead to a new Avengers that we follow in the present day portions of Rage of Ultron—the Rage of Ultron story and Ultron’s evolution ultimately leads to something that is coming up, which I have planned in a year or so.
So this will lead to your next major Avengers storyline?
Opena: I shouldn’t say that. It very well may be, but whatever it is, it will feed out of this. Sort of how Barbara Gordon became Oracle coming out The Killing Joke OGN, the events of this were very important, in that we told an introductory story that new readers could hop into, old readers would still enjoy, had the emotional context and connection to all of these characters, and then still get something out of the other end with huge ramifications that spill over into the greater Marvel Universe and the monthly single issues.
So the Avengers in this book will be a post-AXIS Avengers unit?
Opena: Yeah. We’ll see new two new Avengers coming out of AXIS, and we’ll see those two Avengers here in action, along with Sam Wilson as Captain America. Odinson will also be in this—the hero formerly known as Thor—and a number of other interesting shake-ups. We’re also taking Star Fox, who has been sort of a joke for a long time, as Rocket Raccoon was, and doing something really exciting with that character in returning him to the Avengers fold.
So this will be your first purely-Avengers tale (without any X-Men as supporting cast) in a while.
Opena: Yeah, but I think Secret Avengers really informs a lot of this. There’s a lot of connective tissue between what Matteo Scalera and I were doing in Secret Avengers and Rage of Ultron. In fact, people who have read my Secret Avengers will find a lot of nice Easter eggs as this story ties into Father and the Descendents quite a bit. The adaptoids also make an appearance. A lot of things that I set up there with Hank Pym, and plans for him coming out of Secret Avengers, which were cut a little short, were wonderfully waiting for me when this assignment came up. It’s not going to hurt you to go out and read the Secret Avengers stuff I did with Gabe Hartman and Matteo Scalera. If not just for their wonderful artwork, there is some connective tissue in the ideas about artificial intelligence. Some of things we were setting up with Father and the Descendents pay off in this as well. But, you don’t have to—it’s an all inclusive story.
So what’s the difference between writing a book with just X-characters, a cross-breed of Avengers and X-Men, and a pure Avengers tale? How do you shift your style and tone to suit each ensemble?
Opena: It’s a different team; it’s a different cast of characters, so there’s a different color to it. All teams are sort of different, in that they all sort of find their voices as you’re writing. You sort of discover who these characters are. I do a lot of character work prior to starting scripting. I do a lot of character worksheets and lot of research on who they are. But it’s not until you get them in a scenario with a motivation that you start to see how they're going to interact, who’s going to have conflict, who’s going to get along, and ultimately how they’re going to work as a unit to deal with whatever the threat is. Depending on threat, hopefully you have some context between the threat and one of your characters, so something emotional is there. It shouldn't just be “stop robbing that bank, Bankman!” In term of the story itself, we open up in the past with the Avengers from the Roger Stern/John Byrne era. It involves something that those Avengers did to Ultron earlier in the Avengers career, and earlier in the history of concepts like artificial intelligence. So, the choices they make in the past inform what they’re up against in the future quite a bit. I’ve been able to write both Avengers from that era and the modern Avengers, which is a very eclectic and interesting group. They all just take on their own properties depending on the stage and characters.
Which relationships are you enjoying exploring the most?
Opena: Hank Pym and Vision. We’re establishing some very interesting things between those guys, given Hank’s new mission statement and mental state. A number of the new Avengers that come out of AXIS who are joining the team are incredibly fun and exciting to write. Some of the Uncanny Avengers are wrapped up in this too. They have a large presence. I’m also working towards the unification of the Uncanny Avengers and the Avengers proper. Like, when you see the Avengers on a mission in AXIS, Sunfire is with them. You shouldn’t see a big dividing line between those two squads and how they operate. I’m starting to tear down the walls a bit.
So, Ultron is setting up shop on Saturn’s moon, which is the birthplace of Thanos. What significance does Saturn hold for Ultron?
Opena: No significance other than that it is a planet that has been completely built into a technologically advanced civilization. It has the infrastructure that someone like Ultron could take over. So, Ultron sees it as a tool. What he uses it for is what brings Starfox into the story, and will have connective tissue to Thanos for sure. It’s the kind of thing that might even make someone like Thanos not like Ultron very much. And it would be terrible if we had a story with those guys fighting. No one would read that…
Ha, I’m sure. But what makes Ultron such a compelling antagonist?
Remender: The context is important, beyond just the fact that he’s one of the first cool evil robots. In the context that he has with the Vision and obviously Hank, he’s got a situation where his Father rejects him and basically has gone to great lengths to shut him down—i.e. kill him—over the years. That makes for a wonderful personal context in the way that you don’t have with any other character. You don’t have a character with that same legacy and that same reason to be upset with the team. Even though he’s a murderous scumbag robot, he doesn’t see it that way. His perspective is that he’s always been misunderstood and sort of denigrated, not being seen as a real living thing. He has an emotional reaction to that, which begs the question, is artificial intelligence life? And there’s such a richness in that concept, so I think the familial connection on top of that A.I. stuff make him a complex and intriguing villain who has been shown to have power level so high, he can take down any squad of Avengers.
Opena: Rick's take on the villain is really great. It's gotten me more excited about having him in the book. All that aside, I do enjoy drawing robots, so having one of the main characters in the book be a robot makes it more fun for me as well.
Rick, how to you plan to add to that rich legacy and threat level?
Remender: Well, this is the evolution of Ultron. The Ultron that you see coming out of this story won’t be like anything we’ve seen before. It was one of those ideas where I recognized that, “oh why hasn’t that happened yet?” Those are always the best ideas. Like with Uncanny X-Force, I asked, “Why isn’t Archangel there? Well, he’s inside Warren; he’s the heir to Apocalypse. And then you get a story that feels like it’s been waiting to be told for years. And I think I have the same sort of idea for Avengers: Rage of Ultron.