Exclusive: Tony Moore and Rick Remender Talk FEAR AGENT’s Future Beyond Comics with MST3K’s Dr. Forrester
By Charles Webb on April 2, 2014
Fear Agent co-creators Rick Remender (he’s the writer) and Tony Moore (he’s the artist) series is an unlikely – and often thrilling – mix of influences. Pitting space-bound exterminator, drunk and Texas good old boy Heath Huston against a series of nasty aliens, Moore and Remender see the character (and his violent universe) as a crazy melange of influences.
The Dark Horse series is being reissued in a new series of trades starting today, while the second volume of the Fear Agent library – collecting the back half of the 32-issue series – will be out next week.
In this interview with Trace Beaulieu (AKA MST3K‘s Dr. Forrester), Remender and Moore discuss where old Heath comes from, some of their own creative influences, and their thoughts on bringing Heath to the small screen.
Nerdist: First off let me just say that I love Fear Agent. You guys have built such a lush and densely detailed world. I love little things like Heath Huston having old low tech VHS tapes, to the beautiful laser guns that shoot rings. The return to classic sci-fi space adventure is long overdue. I haven’t purchased many comics for a while now, and this has reignited my love for them. Short of having new Wally Wood on the rack, this will do nicely. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few of my fan boy questions.
There are very few comics I have read that have made me laugh out loud. I had never heard the phrase “booger hooks” before. Also, “Set phaser to “cowardly monkey” is a great line. Oh, and having Huston almost eaten in a food court is hilarious. What are your comedic influences?
Rick Remender: I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so, much of my initial exposure to humor was Harold Ramis films and the original SNL. Also things like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Strange Brew, Meatballs, Airplane, Caddyshack, Life is Hell, Mad Magazine, and other various absurd and wonderful comedies of that era. That was back when smart and quirky film comedies were made somewhat regularly.
In the early 90s as I reached my 20s I found underground comedy. Oddly enough it was the Ben Stiller Show in 1991 the first introduced me to what was possible the sketch comedy, and this was the first sketch comedy I can ever remember that was in the voice of my generation and felt pertinent to my life. From there I drifted over to Comedy Central a fledgling channel where I found Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a host of other great new comedians and shows such as Dr. Katz.
The biggest influence in my entire life though his The Simpsons seasons 2 through 10. I have watched those 1 million times. It’s all I still watch. Those coupled with Mr. Show basically cooked my brain in the 90’s and still define what I enjoy most in comedy: Absurdist humor with a serrated edge and something to say.
Tony Moore: I literally learned to read from my uncle’s Mad Magazines laying around the house, so that brand of humor is my cornerstone. I also had a gigantic stack of Cracked, and a litany of lesser-known Lampoon knockoff magazines. I grew up on late-night TV with SNL and Kaufman on Letterman, as well as early-morning TV, where i was a straight-up Looney Tunes fiend. My whole family was nuts for Looney Tunes, even my grandfather, who was a war-hardened old Depression-era farmer. We’d all sit around after breakfast on Saturdays and cackle like crazy clowns. Mel Brooks was also a cornerstone. My granddad couldn’t get enough of Blazing Saddles, and it’s still one of those movies I could watch on repeat for eternity.
I could sit here and list everything from Popeye to Monty Python, Harold Ramis, and the Coen brothers. If I could have one wish, it would be to sit around and laugh like an idiot all day. Maybe one day a magic genie will come brain me with a claw hammer.
Nerdist: I love the classic rocket-shaped spaceships, giant jelly brains, amoeba brain aliens in EVA suits, brains in jars, killer robots, giant robots, and brains in jars on robots. Was there a favorite character, including ships and alien races that you are most proud of?
Remender: Other than Heath my favorite characters would have been Otto, Mara, and the Jelly Brains. But it’s hard to really pick from the menagerie of insanity we cooked up on the series. It really was a matter of just having fun digging through the bag 1950s sci-fi tropes in trying to find ways to re-imagine these classic and iconic character types and creatures in a way that had some pertinence to a modern reader.
Moore: Aside from Heath himself, I love Annie. I’m not comfortable with doing slick future tech, because my mind doesn’t operate that way. In my world, everything is rusty old farm machinery with weeds growing through it, and shit cars up on blocks in the front yard. That’s Annie, though. She’s that once-glorious ’57 Ford Fairlane Skyliner, hanging together with coat hangers and Bond-o, with duct tape on the seats. But when her engine growls, you get all warms and fuzzy inside.
Nerdist: Fear Agent deals with just about every trope of the science fiction genre: trial before a space court, time travel, the western setting, destruction of earth and the battle for survival, cloning, etc. And it just keeps moving.
For me there is not a dead spot in the series. How long would it take to complete an issue?
Remender: I’d say that the issues on average were taking between 7 and 8 weeks from start to finish. It was a conscious decision to make sure we tried to hit all of the major tropes as we were moving through the series. It was a lot of fun actually, taking those classic sci-fi elements and trying to re-imagine them to make them fresh.
The issues all took longer than most comic books take, and that was the reason that the series had such sporadic shipping. We never once let a book go to print until we thought it was perfect and ready to go to print. That’s not a brilliant business decision but I think in the long-term the goal for us was to create something that was uncompromised that we could look back on and feel very proud of. To be able to say it was the very best we could do at the time.
And we can say without question that Fear Agent really is the very best we could do.
Moore: 7-8 weeks is a fair estimate. Sometimes quicker, sometimes longer. Sometimes we’d hit a snag in the schedule because one or both of us had to focus on some other job to keep all the bills paid. But we never wanted the story to get mired in overwrought theory or space bureaucracy. We deal with those elements, but it always had to hinge on throwing Heath from frying pan and into the fire, and into increasingly larger frying pans and fires, and never letting him catch up and deal.
Nerdist: Every page of this is gorgeous. If you had to choose one panel or page to represent the series, which one would it be?
Remender: For me it would be the final page in “The Last Goodbye” story arc where we see Huston drunk standing on the moon saluting his fallen comrades and the Fear Agent corps as he remembers the events that led to him fleeing Earth. I remember finding the perfect Mark Twain quote for that and feeling that that page summarizes the series perfectly. A broken soldier who can’t get over what he had to do during the war.
Moore: I’d pick the cover to “I Against I” #1, issue 22. A tattered Heath squinting into the sun(s), with his smoldering rocket embedded into a Seussian mountain behind him. That’s our guy in a nutshell.
Nerdist: Many reader reviews say Fear Agent brought them back to comics. This was certainly true for me. That has to feel good.
Remender: I love comic books and any time somebody tells me something that I’ve created had it handed in getting them into comic books or keeping them in comic books it’s always a tremendous compliment. To feel like I’m contributing to the industry and the art form that I love so much and have dedicated my life to is obviously rewarding.
Nerdist: I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi films, some good and some really, really, bad. What movies, if any, have had direct influence on Fear Agent?
Remender: It’s really a hodgepodge of so many different films and television series that it would be hard to put our finger on just one. But I think what Tony and I recognized at some point during the first story arc was that we were channeling a lot of Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China. We were subconsciously telling a sci-fi version of that film’s high adventure/fun tone.
Moore: I feel like I should apologize. Really, though, I’m thrilled Fear Agent could be someone’s gateway back into comics. It’s easy to get dismayed thinking that it’s all about guys with their underwear on the wrong side of their pants punching robots, but there’s literally something for everyone, if they look. Crime, war, horror, westerns, you name it. Also, a spaceman punching robots!
Movie-wise, I watched a LOT of those dollar bin collections of old sci-fi movies, a lot of Mystery Science Theater fodder, and a lot of flicks that i probably wouldn’t have been able to suffer through without you guys down there suffering with me. Phantom Empire, Warning From Space, Journey to the 7th Planet, Forbidden Planet – you know the stuff.
They’re not all junkers, though: Metropolis, Flash Gordon, 2001, and Alien were major touchstones. Also, a lot of Thunderbirds.
Nerdist: You created a classic comic book character in Heath Huston. Did you have someone in mind when you designed him?
Moore: His spacesuit is straight Wally Wood, his face is a busted-mug rogue. I wanted him to feel kinda like Moebius’ Blueberry or John Romita Jr.’s Punisher, only worse for wear. I referred a lot to Fred Ward as Remo Williams. Everybody’s just so pretty nowadays, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Nerdist: What about Mara? Charlotte? Were they based on anyone we would recognize?
Moore: Mara was a sexy Latina number with my wife’s haircut at the time, but no actress as the basis or anything. I tried to keep Julie Benz in mind while drawing Charlotte.
Nerdist: A movie has been hinted at, although I think it would have to be a multi-season series to do it justice. Any thoughts on your dream cast or director?
Remender: A television series would be perfect for Fear Agent. Given some of the conversations I’m having right now I would hate to speculate on the dream actor/director and hurt the feelings of somebody we actually landed. Fingers crossed that we’ll see Fear Agent crossover to other media soon.
Moore: A long-form approach would be much preferable to a movie, just so we could really get into all the nooks and crannies of Heath’s universe.
We’re having some interesting talks, so I’m hesitant to speculate too much. I’d personally love to see Jon Bernthal as Heath. He looks like he walked off the page, and he plays southern swagger really well, and can whoop some ass. Someone like Guillermo Del Toro or Neil Blomkamp who can imagine big and make things look great on a small budget would be great at the helm.
Nerdist: Fans have really been jazzed about the retro sci-Fi aspect. You both had a keen sense of that missing in comics when you started. Do you think you started a new wave of sci-fi comics?
Remender: I think there was bound to be the resurgence of science fiction at some point one way or another. We were a good 7-8 years ahead of the curve on that one but I think all genres are cyclical. People loved horror for a long time then they start to get tired of it and looking for something else and maybe they’ll be interested in science fiction again and then there will be a glut of science fiction for a few years now be tired of that maybe they’ll want to go watch crime or Westerns or whatever.
I do feel like what we did reminded a lot of people of how important Wally Wood was. Everybody remembers Jack Kirby and his contributions to comic books but Wally Wood and all of the wonderful work he did in all of the wonderful science fiction he and Al Williamson, and the rest, were responsible for that inspired so many generations of filmmakers, writers, artists and musicians are often overlooked in the general conversations that I see taking place. I like to think that we might’ve helped a new generation become aware of Wally Wood, or Jack Davis, or Harvey Kurtzman and the like. We’ve done our best to mention them at all of our interviews and hopefully have sent some people back to the EC archives.
Moore: When we first started kicking around ideas for Fear Agent, we felt really good about it, because it was a wide open spot in the publishing landscape. Nobody was doing anything like what we wanted to do. I feel like we were filling a specific niche with Fear Agent that had been long vacant, and we sat there with it for several years before it started becoming hot real estate. I don’t know if we started the new wave, per se, but I do feel like we were among the first to begin tending that long-forgotten trail.
Nerdist: In “Re-ignition,” Chapter 2, Heath prints out an invoice for his services, then offers a discount when the client complains. Then Heath kills him. Was that inspired by being an underpaid freelancer in the early days?
Remender: HA! Definitely some subconscious meta-commentary going on there.
Moore: Many of Heath’s tribulations are thinly veiled metaphors for the ridiculous life we’ve chosen for ourselves, so who knows? Probably.
Nerdist: You’ve mentioned having illustrator Jack Davis as a fan is a great honor. Do you remember the comic book that first got you excited about the art form?
Remender: I first experienced Jack Davis in Mad Magazine and I remember even as a kid being blown away with his caricatures in the amount of energy in his figures. I’d sit down and redraw Jack Davis pieces from Mad Magazine over and over again trying to capture his ability at cartooning. Later in my early 20s when I was managing a comic book store and became aware of the EC Comics archive was when I really grew new-found respect for Jack Davis seeing the range of his talents going from war comics, to science fiction comics, to horror comics.
Jack Davis is one of the absolute greatest artists to grace our medium and he’ll always stand as one of the greatest legends. He, Wally Wood and Will Elder are my very favorite cartoonists in the world.
Moore: Jack Davis was the prototype. He was the quintessential cartoonist of the 20th century. When I was a little kid digging though that inherited trove of old Mad Magazines, Jack Davis was the first artist whose work I knew by style on sight, and whose name I hunted down. He was and is my biggest influence and inspiration as a cartoonist. When i was on the phone with him, and he told me he enjoyed the book i was beyond ecstatic. When he told me he wished Harvey Kurtzman were alive to see it, I literally started crying. I totally lost my shit, and had tears streaming down my face while I was talking to the guy. Rick told me “Go drown yourself in the bathtub now, because it’s all downhill from here.”
Fear Agent at its core is a love letter to EC comics. As far as I’m concerned, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, John Severin, Al Williamson, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, these guys are the pantheon of gods in golden age American comics illustration. EC was a powerhouse, and if our little book gets anyone to go and pick up a copy of Tales from the Crypt, or Frontline Combat, or Weird Science, then I’m thrilled.
Nerdist: You guys started this back in 2005. Are you surprised at how popular Fear Agent has become after all these years?
Remender: Well, we just never really let anybody forget about it. The sales on the book where never tremendous, the average issue sold about 5 or 6000 copies, there are not that many copies out there. But we love the book and had poured so much of ourselves into it we couldn’t stop pushing it, beating the drum and kept pushing it into new printings and kept pushing it into new formats. I think part of the reason that still around is the tenacity born of our love for the series and the support of Dark Horse and Image Comics along the way.
Moore: I think the genre took a while to come back into vogue, and we finished up the series not that long ago. When we started talking about putting together new formats like the hardcovers and stuff, the genre was really starting to take off again. It seems it’s all over the place now, and we’re really lucky to be bringing these new editions out when the market is into this kinda stuff.
Nerdist: Readers new to Fear Agent can now enjoy reading the saga all at once. Was it hard to maintain an audience when these books were coming out one at a time?
Remender: It was more than hard, it was impossible. When we were doing Fear Agent the readership and comics were disinterested in creator-owned books or supporting them. There was resurgence in the superhero books, and some interesting stuff going on, and it was impossible to compete for the reader’s attention. Now, that makes it sound as if the whole purpose of doing something personal in creator-owned is financial gain or numbers. And that’s not what I’m saying. Because that wasn’t the reason we did it and it certainly wasn’t the reason we continued to do it, we pushed that thing forward month by month year by year simply because we loved it so much.
But, it was a very difficult task given that the readership was so low. Not only were people not interested in science fiction, they were not interested in creator-owned in general. Nobody was selling over 16 or 17,000 copies a month and if you were selling those numbers you were the Walking Dead or Hellboy, not a single independent regularly book sold over 17,000 copies for years and years. That’s different now and people by returning; looking for unique and personal works created by people unhindered and able to produce exactly what they wanted. I’m glad that I live in a time when there is room for both mainstream and independent work in the average consumer’s wallet.
Moore: Yeah, Rick pretty much nailed it. It was like Sisyphus and the bolder, only sometimes the bolder was a monster truck driving against us. But Rick is as bull-headed as the characters he writes, and he really made sure this thing got to the finish line.
Nerdist: Heath Huston, as a trucker, is a nice metaphor for being a space pilot; the loneliness, the isolation, and real truck stops make me think alien spaceports. Also, Heath makes the longest long-haul in the history or future of trucking by driving a truck through the Zerin portal to the Dressite home world. Have you ever heard from real truckers who have read Fear Agent?
Remender: I have to go back and look at all letters we received but nothing stands out.
Moore: I can’t think of any, but I’d love to. I listened to a lot of late-night trucker radio while i was drawing this thing.
Nerdist: Okay here’s a nerdy graphic question: The first time we see Heath’s ship, Annie, she’s shaded in what looks like old-timey zip-a-tone. Was this in homage to the old mastersʼ illustration techniques? Am I looking at this too closely?
Moore: I’m honored you looked at it at all. From its conception, this thing was an homage to the old guard. Sean Parsons inked that and really sank his teeth into getting to do that stuff. He even used real, hand cut zip-a-tone. No faking!
Nerdist: There are a ton of great sound effects in the series. Some of my favorites include “DOOM-THOOSH!,” “BLA-ZERT!,” and “ZZER-SHEP.” I would submit “Fooosh-THOOOOOM!” to the Oxford English Dictionary as the definition of the sound a class A lifeform’s ship makes when it explodes. Was it hard coming up with so many different sounds?
Remender: It really was a lot of the fun of the book. And I still remember sitting on the phone with Tony Moore talking about sound effects and cooking up what it sounds like when a spaceship is sent through a time travel portal. I think everybody wants to be entertained with something that is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon but with the maturity and voice that can say something to them in their adult lives. There is something fun about taking such campy sound effects, such a staple of the genre, and intermingling them with a story about a ruined alcoholic. I like the juxtaposition.
Moore: I used to sit on the phone with Rick asking me how I’d spell some noise he was making, and think how hilarious it was that two grown men made their livings doing this kind of stuff.
Nerdist: This is kind of an inevitable question for creators about the future of comics. I first read this series through Dark Horse Digital. How do you feel about a traditional comic book vs. the digital experience on a laptop or tablet? I’ll add that Fear Agent looks awesome patched into a big screen monitor.
Remender: I like digital for two things: 1) You can reach anyone in the world without a comic shop 2) You can’t see the other panels while you’re reading. I like the idea that you’re moving panel by panel as your reading and that they’re not all laid out in front of you, which can often spoil what’s coming up and kill the reveal. I still have a tactile addiction and like to hold the physical copy of the book however. I also recognize that the generation coming up right now do not share this tactile obsession and that they will be experiencing their entertainment digitally.
Now I don’t think print will be dead, like vinyl records I think that there will always be people who want to hold and have the thing have a collection of it and see it he able to scan it all at once. There are many upshots of having a real library that I only realized once I got rid of all of my compact discs and DVDs, I could no longer stand and peruse my entire collection in one gaze and pick what I wanted. I now have to dig through files which takes much longer and isn’t enjoyable for me. So this definitely ups and downs but ultimately as long as more people are reading comic books I see it as nothing but good.
Moore: I’m all about the smell of old newsprint, and seeing how the inks layered in the rosettes and spidered through the fibers of the paper. I love a handsome bookshelf edition. And when I come across something that demands it, I buy it and it comes and lives in my home.
But I’m a man of the age, as well, and realize sometimes I only want the content, and not the physical artifact cluttering up my office. And then, I’m happy to download. Just like music. I’ll eagerly pick up a Spike Jones record for the Jack Davis cover, or Queen for the Kelly Freas art, but I’m just as fine to fill out a hard drive or iPhone with all my daily musical listening needs. That’s the modern audience, and if this is the medium that reaches that audience, so be it. And the digital comics medium will grow into its own thing, tailored to the strengths of the format. For now, it reaches a new, wide audience, and readership isn’t hindered by availability or anything else. Nothing says “Star Trek future” like taking 20 longboxes worth of gems into the john on a tablet!
Stay tuned to Nerdist.com tomorrow for something Fear Agent fans definitely won’t want to miss…