Comics & Graphic Novels Interview Marvel

An Interview with Greg Pak about Marvel’s New All-Asian Superhero Team ‘Agents of Atlas’

(A version of this interview appeared originally at melancholyball.com)

DOM MAH: Hi, Greg! So, for those of us (like me) who sometimes get the Marvel Events out of order in our head canon, can you tell us the overall premise of War of the Realms? 
GREG PAK: All you need to know is that the otherworldly villains of the Thor book are attacking Earth — and Sindr of Muspelheim, daughter of Surtur, Queen of Cinders, is determined to conquer the Pacific region with her Fire Goblin army! It’s big super hero action with over-the-top fantasy elements featuring Amadeus Cho and a huge, fun, pan-Asian group of super heroes.

The New Agents of ATLAS has us all excited about an Asian/Asian American super-squad, which you first gave us a taste of with the Protectors storyline in Totally Awesome Hulk. Can you talk about how you got from that delightful restaurant check-battle scene to the upcoming A of A? They have many of the same members, including some brand-new characters, right? 
Yes, the book features both Asian and Asian American heroes, which I absolutely love.  A lot of the fun of the Protectors arc from Totally Awesome Hulk, which featured a bunch of Asian American super heroes saving New York from an alien invasion, was the diversity within the group. Young heroes and older heroes; immigrants and US-born; folks with family origins from all over Asia. It made for a ton of fun as they hung out and fought side-by-side and bonded over their similarities — and differences.  So now, as Sindr threatens Asia, this group of Asian American heroes will team up with overseas Asian heroes, which gives us even more diversity of experience and greater challenges for Amadeus in holding this team together. I just love that in this big, fun comic book about fighting Fire Goblins, we get to subtly explore some aspects of the Asian diaspora. We’ve got it all, friends!

When I think about super hero teams, which is often, I get real nerdy and consider the composition of the squad based on power sets (as they often do in the Avengers-assembling-new-team issues). Was there any consideration in what kind of powers you wanted the roster to have, including both the established and new characters? Like, at first glance, it seems like Hulk is the big bruiser, am delighted that they have a Spider-person to do the Spider-tasks. Also, is Shang-Chi in the leader role, or is there a leader?  
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to feature Amadeus Cho, who’s now in his slightly slimmer but still Hulk-like Brawn form, along with Shang-Chi, Silk, Jimmy Woo, and Kamala Khan, our big heroes from the Protectors storyline. Amadeus would be our point character — the big emotional arc of the story centers around Amadeus, who’s used to being a kind of brash, cocky outsider, but now has to actually step up and lead a big, sprawling team with tons of internal conflicts.  And then there were certain new characters that my editors were really hoping I could incorporate — like Luna Snow and Crescent and Io, original Korean superheroes created for the Marvel Future Fight game, and Aero and Sword Master, original Chinese super heroes created with NetEase for Chinese webcomics.

And the kind of wonderful thing was that as I dug into those characters, I realized they fit in really well with the pieces I was already looking at for the story. Our big enemy is a kind of fire goddess, after all. And Luna Snow has ice powers and Aero has wind powers, so that felt like a really good match. And then at a certain point I looked at our roster and realized it was almost all folks of East Asian descent, but this was a big regional fight and we should have some broader representation. So the great Filipino artist Leinil Yu and I co-created Wave, Marvel’s new Filipina super hero, who debuts in our first issue. She’s got water-based powers, which complement our air and ice based heroines pretty nicely, huh? Oh, and just to clarify, Wong isn’t in this particular story. But someday….

If you can, please briefly summarize what Atlas is, for those of us who are still disambiguating the roles of SHIELD and SWORD. Do they have a specifically Asian mandate that is explained in the story somehow? 
Writer Jeff Parker and artists Leonard Kirk and Carlo Pagulayan get the big credit for making Atlas what it is in the Marvel Universe today. Over the course of a few cult favorite series, they showed Marvel secret agent Jimmy Woo pulling together a team to take on the villainous Atlas Foundation — and eventually taking over Atlas himself. Now Jimmy runs Atlas as a kind of secret world protection agency. It doesn’t have a specifically Asian mandate, but when Sindr attacks the Pacific region, Jimmy pulls together a special team to take her on, hence the New Agents of Atlas. 

Let’s catch up with some of the established AAPI characters before discussing the all-new ones. Like Silk? What’s up with her lately? She isn’t evil these days, is she? Although I much enjoyed Into the Spider-Verse, was a little surprised she didn’t show up.  
Cindy Moon, a.k.a. Silk, was a Korean American teenager who just happened to get bit by the same radioactive spider that bit Peter Parker back in the day. She’s got a typical Spider-Person’s chipper personality and kind of serves as the team’s heart and soul — and cheerful ninja.

Amadeus Cho/Hulk – as a principal creator of this character, what can you say about his arc in the upcoming Agents of Atlas? Are we gonna get to see RAGE ALL-CAPS HULK at all? (I mean, I like full sentences as much as anyone, but I also like it when Hulk is moved to YELL EVERYTHING.) 
Amadeus struggles with the fact that in his last days as the one and only, fully powered Hulk back in Incredible Hulk #717, he kind of lost his mind and tried to take over the world. Whoops! So he’s a bit apprehensive about taking too much responsibility. So that’s exactly where we’re pushing him, natch.  

Shang-Chi — hey, we’re gonna get a movie of him too! Any comment on that? I don’t expect you to spoil anything, Greg, but if you wanted to drop a “hint” about Shang-Chi in the series, it comes down to one question for me: Repulsor nunchucks? Repulsor anythings? Chi-powered nunchucks?  
I’m just thrilled to write Shang-Chi as the one and only, undisputed, uncontested Master of Kung Fu in comics. He doesn’t need gadgets — he just heads out there with his bare hands and takes on the biggest, baddest super-villains around. I also love the fact that like Jimmy, Shang-Chi’s a bit older than the rest of the heroes, so he plays a kind of Asian uncle role that the team really needs from time to time. 

Can you now briefly introduce us to the Brand New Asian characters we’re gonna meet in this series? I see that one is specifically Filipina, was there thought given to representing specific Asian nationalities to fill out the group? I mean, I know some folks who could not tell you that Shang-Chi is Chinese (boo), and in following Silk I think I gathered that she is Korean only by inference after several issues, just to say, her Asian-ness was emphasized but her Korean-ness not necessarily (I may be wrong, haven’t read every Silk comic ever). Contrast with Kamala Khan, where her cultural specificity has always felt like an active part of her story. 
Luna Snow is a K-Pop star turned ice-powered super hero. Crescent is a kid taekwondo prodigy who summons a big glowing spirit bear called Io to fight by her side when she dons the magic mask. These characters were created by Marvel Games and the Netmarble Monster team for the Future Fight game globally — they’re appearing for the first time in comics in War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas #1! Sword Master and Aero are new Marvel heroes who were created by amazing Chinese artists and writers for the Chinese market — we’re getting the chance to debut them in American comics for the first time in this series. Sword Master is a young man whose archeologist father left him a mysterious magic blade. So he’s got this awesome magic sword, but he’s still pretty much a kid who has no idea what he’s doing, so we’ve got a great dynamic forming between him and Shang-Chi. And starting in July, Marvel’s launching a Sword Master ongoing series that’ll feature translations of the original Chinese comics Sword Master appeared in, along with a brand new story written by yours truly that teams up Sword Master with Shang-Chi! Aero is a Shanghai architect who has air-based powers. Like Sword Master, she was also created by Chinese creators for Chinese audiences, and we’re debuting those stories in translation for the first time in American comics this July. Aero and our new Filipina heroine Wave will also end up teaming up in the original story in that new AERO book in July.  

Did anyone get a costume redesign? Along those lines, can you speak a little about the artists who designed the new characters and are drawing the A of A book? I know from speaking with you previously that you tend to work closely with the artist in conceiving the images and looks of the story. 
The main interior artist for the book is the Korean artist Gang Hyuk Lim, who’s doing an absolutely stellar job, along with colors by Federico Blee and letters by Clayton Cowles. Of course Gang Hyuk’s knocking all the big action totally out of the park. But a hallmark of all the stories I’ve done with these Asian and Asian-American heroes has been their down time — we often see them eating or hanging out together, which becomes a key time for big emotional moments. And Gang Hyuk is just incredibly good at those moments. In War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas #1, the team goes for dim sum and Jimmy Woo tries to teach them a little lesson about teamwork using an Asian pear. Gang Hyuk just nailed all the nuances of that scene and made it feel so lived in and real to me I might have whooped out loud when the pages came in. And I’d like to give Leinil Yu a big shout out for his design of Wave, and for giving me feedback throughout as we’ve developed the character’s voice and backstory. I had this idea that Wave should be from Cebu, and totally by chance, it turns out that Leinil is from Cebu. So somehow this thing felt destined from the beginning. Leinil’s brought so much passion and thought and incredible detail to both the design and the story. I’m so lucky to be working with him! 

Moving on to a few other topics: You get to write a lot of books based on established movie and TV IPs, it seems like! Star Wars, Bond, the John Carpenter movies… what others am I forgetting? Can you talk about what that process is like, with respect to how it differs from working in the prime Marvel Universe?   
Yeah, in addition to Star Wars and James Bond 007, I’m also writing the new Firefly comic book. It’s all a blast. And essentially it’s all the same process as writing the super hero books I’m doing for Marvel. I mean, every book has its own specific challenges. But the basic process of coming up with a fun take, developing a compelling story, working with editors and artists, taking notes, and making things work within shared universes is the same. I love ’em all!

Your Twitter presence has a healthy amount of political content to go with the comics content. Would you go on record as being on Team Delete Facebook? (I’m on the fence, myself.) Do you want to share any thoughts on the prospects for the Resistance in 2019-2020?  
Ha ha! Yeah, I’ve been pretty public about my distrust of Facebook. I deleted my account last year and have seen nothing to make me question that decision since. I know that’s not possible for everyone, so I will never judge. But it’s worked for me so far. Regarding 2019-2020, I just recommend everyone register to vote and vote like heck in every election, including primaries, midterms, and special elections. Vote.org!

Along those lines, how is it being a writer of super hero stories in these tumultuous times? As I’m sure you recall, there was a glut of shall we say Big Bummer storylines during the Bush presidency — If I’m remembering right, Civil War I fractured the once-unassailable bond between Cap and Iron Man, and a lot of people were just getting killed all the time. During the Obama years, with the Heroes Reborn concept, there was some re-embracing of the more traditionally heroic ideal: aspiration, honor, the bonds of teamwork (I believe Avengers Vs. X-Men happened in the Obama years, but I found that series just entirely delightful in tone, for whatever personal taste reason). And then just in the first couple years of Trump, I believe we’ve had both Civil War II and Secret Empire, both harshly deconstructing the essentials of the hero myth, questioning morality, testing loyalty, heady themes like that. Soooo… what would you like your super hero stories to contribute to the moral discourse of our society, if anything? Do you think about real-world crises that you would like to illuminate? And (especially given some recent incidents of toxic fanboy trolling unpleasantness) how do you think Marvel characters, in the best case scenario, can offer hope, solace, and/or inspiration to people in need?
I won’t presume to speak for Marvel or the writers of other storylines. I’ll just say that from my perspective, we live in a diverse, complicated, ever-changing world, and good stories tend to reflect that. I think questions of how different folks get along and how societies may be built to choose winners and losers are eternally relevant, and so time and time again, I’m drawn to stories about underdogs and folks who stick up for them. I also think the super hero genre, with “hero” right there in the name, provides a tremendous opportunity to dig deep into what “heroism” actually means in a complex world, and I’m always drawn to stories that explore the struggle, the confusion, the glory, and the price of trying doing the right thing.

Thank you for your time and for all you do, Greg! And here’s hoping that in some near-future phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we will get to hear Randall Park say the magic words: “Agents of Atlas Assemble! (But I’ll pick up the check, no, seriously, MY TREAT.)”

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