Some of you will know that I run the worlds premier (only) USAgent fan page.
Well a while back I reached out to writer Kurt Busiek - a massive star in the world of comics who at Marvel alone gave us perhaps the best run on Avengers fans have ever seen, co-created the Thunderbolts, and also wrote titles such as Iron Man and Spider-Man.
Kurt also wrote a series called 'Maximum Security' though. This was Marvels crossover series of 2000-2001 (back when you only got one or two of them a year!) and saw the Earth turned into an intergalactic prison camp.
It's also a story that saw my favourite character USAgent given a big push, as he was provided a new look, new gadgets, a new team, and a new mission to protect the Earth from the scum of the universe.
Everyone wants to know the inside story behind their favourite characters, and I'm no different. Well I asked and Kurt provided!
1) You’ve been a household name among comic fans for some time now, and have been responsible for some truly great work over the years such as the highly celebrated ‘Marvels’, a lengthy and popular stint on the Avengers, and being one of the original pioneers of the Thunderbolts. How is Kurt Busiek in 2018, and are you working on anything in particular at the moment?
KB: I’m doing okay, thanks. I’m currently finishing up a limited series called BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT with John Paul Leon, working on the first ASTRO CITY original graphic novel with Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, and working to get the third arc of my creator-owned AUTUMNLANDS series, with Ben Dewey, up and rolling.
2) I presume that like most other comic book creators you grew up reading comics yourself. What did a young Kurt Busiek enjoy reading, and are you still reading comics today?
KB: I didn’t grow up reading comics all that much, at least not comic books. My parents were of the opinion that comics were brain rot that led to juvenile delinquency (hey, thanks, Fredric Wertham!), so we weren’t allowed to have them in the house. As a result, my exposure to the usual American comic books was limited to at friends’ houses and in barber shops, at least when I was still in elementary school.
What they did have, though, was some newspaper comic strip collections, including a POGO volume that I read over and over and over, and they bought various ASTERIX and TINTIN albums — but they bought them mostly in non-English editions. So if we wanted to make any sense of them, we had to puzzle through French or German or Spanish or something. The idea was, maybe it’d get us interested in learning languages, and that actually worked on one of my sisters, who became a language major in college and later a language instructor for the Army. Me, I just liked the comics.
I would occasionally buy comics at the drugstore, read them on the walk home and ditch them before I got home — but at one point, I picked up a copy of DAREDEVIL #120 and liked it so much I dared to keep it, and even buy more. By then I was 14, which was apparently old enough to ignore my parents’ rule — by then they’d either worked or they weren’t going to, I guess — and I branched out from Daredevil to the rest of Marvel, then to DC and beyond.
3) Could you tell us a little about how you got your big break into mainstream comics work?
KB: I interviewed Dick Giordano, back when he was the editor in chief at DC, for a college term paper, and afterward, when I told him I wanted to write comics after graduation, he invited me to submit some samples. So I went back to school and wrote up a batch of sample scripts. Those led me to getting a tryout from Julie Schwartz, which didn’t go anywhere, and a chance to do a “Green Lantern Corps” backup story for Ernie Colon, which did. I sold that GLC script on the Thursday before graduation, so I guess I got my wish!
Shortly thereafter, I sent an unsolicited plot pitch for a POWER MAN AND IRON FIST story to Denny O’Neill, along with a note saying that I was already professionally writing for DC. I sent it because I’d noticed that despite the fact that a new regular writer had been announced for the series, every issue seemed to be a fill-in written by Denny, the editor — so I thought maybe he might need some help. As it worked out, he not only bought that story, but I wrote POWER MAN AND IRON FIST for about a year. And I haven’t stopped writing comics since…!
4) I’d like to focus if I could on your 2000-2001 story ‘Maximum Security’- a story that saw the rest of the galaxy elect Earth as a penal colony and them send all of their undesirables there – from space criminals, to monsters, to refugees - to keep Earth’s heroes occupied and stop them from further interference in galactic affairs. This was Marvels crossover event of the year, with its own mini-series and stories in a number of other ongoing titles, and seemed like a very bold idea. Where did the concept originate and what role did you have in its design?
KB: I wrote MAXIMUM SECURITY out of self-defense, really. Tom Brevoort had let me know that Marvel was looking for ideas for a big crossover story, and I knew that either I needed to come up with a story or I’d be participating in someone else’s crossover story. It sounded to me like it would be better to be driving the bus than be stuck under it, so I came up with a few ideas, and the powers that be at Marvel liked a couple of them.
The one they liked most was called Y2KANG, and involved time-travel shenanigans, so that when the clock ticked over at midnight on the last day of 1999, it became 1900 again, and all the Marvel heroes would be turn-of-the-century versions of themselves. But by the time they said that’s the one they wanted to do, it couldn’t be solicited until, like, April, and unfortunately it had to happen starting at New Year’s or it would make any sense.
So we did MAXIMUM SECURITY instead, which they’d also liked.
The concept basically comes from Australian history — how the British used Australia as a place to dump convicts, too far away from Britain for them to escape and return. I thought it’d be fun if the galactic powers that be viewed Earth the same way, dumping their criminals here and not caring about what happened to the natives. They’d had enough trouble from us over the years anyway. It’s an idea I’d used before (The Seraphim, in LIBERTY PROJECT), and that I used again later (Konvikt/Warhound, in TRINITY), but I thought it was pretty well suited to a Marvel crossover story, because it set up a situation that any hero could deal with in their own way, without having to be tied strongly into the overall plot.
5) You wrote the main ‘Maximum Security’ series, as well as the one-shot ‘Dangerous Planet’. You also wrote the associated crossover in the pages of Avengers. What were your intentions going in? What were you looking to explore and achieve?
KB: I wanted a big ol’ superhero adventure, really. And the outer space angle made it work well for the Avengers, since Earth being caught up in multi-galactic politics had been a thing at least since the Kree-Skrull War. This was we could use the Kree, the Skrulls, the Shi’Ar, and anyone else we wanted to (like Ego!). There were things we could do along the way, like bringing Quasar and Jack of Hearts back to Earth. And we thought it’d be fun to do something about the Kree, who I’ve always thought were visually dull — unlike most of the Marvel aliens, they look human, except for the blue ones who look like blue humans.
It had been a part of Marvel history since 1971 that the Kree were at an “evolutionary dead end,” so I figured, let’s do something about that. At the end of AVENGERS FOREVER, I’d had the Kree Supreme Intelligence in possession of the Forever Crystal, with the implication that he was going to do something with it to benefit the Kree. But I hadn’t decided what, at the time.
So I figured he could have used it to evolve the Kree beyond their “block,” giving them interesting powers and visuals. That’s where the Ruul came from, who were evolved Kree, secretly behind the whole shebang, giving us a mystery to solve and a reason why, at the end of the story, the galactic civilizations didn’t just keep dumping criminal aliens on Earth.
It didn’t go over that well and didn’t last, but it was worth a try.
6) As I’ve mentioned previously, I am the admin of the world’s premier (*only*) US Agent fan page. The character became perhaps the main protagonist for the story, which I was perhaps a little surprised about at the time as US Agent was a character who very much occupied the B-list of Marvels roster of heroes. Why was US Agent chosen to play such a large role in a big event when any number of other heroes might have been considered the more conventional choice?
KB: I thought that if were were going to have alien crooks on Earth, it would be fun to have someone who could play the role of “alien cop,” specifically out to track these guys down and incarcerate them. And who’d be better for that role than the USAgent?
He hadn’t been used much, of late, and I was inspired by the character Tommy Lee Jones played in THE FUGITIVE — a tough, no-nonsense Federal agent who didn’t really care about your sob stories, just that if you broke the law you were going to jail. That seemed very USAgent-y to me, and I thought it’d give him a new and interesting role in the Marvel Universe, something that’d make him useful for guest-star appearances and maybe even a distinctive basis for a new series.
7) Maximum Security also saw some major changes and developments to the US Agent character. He was given a new costume, new gear, a team of his own to lead, and a new remit of protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe. How much of a role did you play in these changes?
KB: I came up with all that stuff — I mean, I didn’t design the new costume, but I’m the guy who said “let’s give him a new costume,” and all the rest of it. I like finding new roles for unused characters to play, ways to make them more useful and distinctive again. And since the USAgent’s original purpose, as a replacement for Captain America after Cap was “fired,” had pretty much run its course, he’d kind of gotten less and less distinctive, being kind of “he’s like Captain America, but he’s an abrasive jerk.” And that great “Captain” costume he’d worn when he first became the USAgent had been dropped, and he was wearing what I recall as a pretty boring outfit, too. So I wanted to give him something new to do, and get him back in a version of that great black-and-white suit, but bulk it out a little, make it look like motorcycle cop gear rather than superhero spandex.
The costume was designed by Jerry Ordway, with me making suggestions, and I think he did a great job. We got a bunch of flak from readers who thought we were trying to rip off Judge Dredd, but we were actually trying to make him look more like a riot cop — which was what the people who designed Judge Dredd had been drawing on, too. We did our best to make sure every element was different from Dredd, but as a whole, “exaggerated riot cop/motorcycle cop” is going to feel similar.
Giving him a S.T.A.R.S. team gave us the opportunity to have him talk to others and bark orders, like Tommy Lee Jones in THE FUGITIVE, and in the event that he got his own series would give him a ready-made supporting cast. I just thought it’d make him more distinctive, give him his own role to play at Marvel, rather than just being “the second-tier Captain America."
8) Whilst these changes were significant, they were sadly not long lasting. After Maximum Security we had a three part US Agent mini-series, and a couple of guest appearances in other titles, but it wouldn’t be long until the character reverted to his more traditional look and role within the Marvel Universe. Where there any longer term plans for the character that would have been seen if circumstances had been different? Is there anything you might have done differently?
KB: I didn’t have any specific long-term plans — I thought it was a setup that could stand on its own pretty well. Unfortunately, the idea of a federal agent taking on super-criminals apparently didn’t click for other writers, or they never read it, or the decision was made not to push it after the mini-series didn’t sell all that well. If I wanted the role to stick, I really should have had him appear in AVENGERS a few more times, to really cement the idea. But so it goes.
9) I certainly have some of my own favourite parts of the story, from the absolutely incredulous reaction of Captain America when he suddenly found himself under the command of US Agent, to US Agent slugging it out with Ronan the Accuser – but do you have any favourite moments of your own?
KB: I just had a blast writing him. Whether he was taking down Piledriver in a seedy dive or ordering around the Avengers, it was just a lot of fun to write that nice, that dialogue. So many superheroes are introspective, overthinking everything they do, and this guy is just blunt and smug and forceful, and that makes for fun dialogue. Also, any scene with his team — I like that kind of support-squad set-up.
10) We had previously seen you write US Agent in a few issues of Thunderbolts where he acted as antagonist to the Thunderbolts leader Hawkeye. That’s a favourite of mine, and I personally thought you nailed the dynamic between US Agent and Hawkeye that developed in their West Coast Avengers days (and has sadly been pretty much completely ignored since). Was this a case of you writing a character you were previously aware of and enjoyed? If yes, do you have any particular favourite appearances prior to your own work?
KB: That THUNDERBOLTS stuff was another example of me looking for a new role for him — as leader of the Jury, he’d have a mission and a direction he didn’t seem to have otherwise. But yeah, I was using him because he was fun to write.
I can’t say I liked him when he first showed up — then again, we weren’t really supposed to like him — but when he joined the West Coast Avengers, I got to like him more, as a disruptive personality who didn’t really play well with others. So I liked him as a character, and was happy to get a chance to write him. When I did start writing him, I reread all his appearances, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t mess anything up, contradict some reference or some relationship. Particularly with Hawkeye around, since they had shared history.
11) US Agent has been portrayed in so many ways in the past. A jingoistic glory seeker. A man with deep seated insecurities and an identity problem. A government ‘hatchet-man’. A cantankerous but loyal hero with a secret heart of gold. A guy who yells insults to your face but says nice things about you behind your back. Who is US Agent to you? How would you define him?
KB: All of the above!
He’s a good guy, at heart, but he obviously goes into any situation thinking that if he shows any weakness he’ll get kicked in the teeth, so he’d better do the kicking first. That suggests a lot of insecurity. He likes being in a position of authority, because he feels it legitimizes him, but he doesn’t like taking orders, because it makes him feel criticized. He admires a lot of the heroes he’s clashed with even if he won’t admit it (sometimes even to himself). He’s a complicated guy. That makes him a rich and interesting character to write.
He probably spends a lot of his spare time on Twitter, “owning the libs.” And laughing.