Cullen Bunn on the end and aftermath of The Fearless
Marvel’s big Fear Itself crossover event last year introduced readers to Odin’s brother, the Serpent, who along with the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin, used seven divine hammers to turn several Marvel heroes and villains into his agents on Earth. Spoiler’s alert: Marvel’s heroes win, but in the wake of the event came the question of what happened to all those hammers.
Cullen Bunn, Matt Fraction, Chris Yost, Mark Bagley and Paul Pelletier answered that question in the pages of The Fearless, a miniseries that saw Sin and her boyfriend, Crossbones, in an Amazing Race-style adventure to find all the hammers. They were pitted against Valkyrie, a character ripe not only for an Asgardian-laced race against the forces of evil and some character development of her own. Over the course of the series, we learned a lot about the Valkyrie’s history, saw guest stars galore and even got a tease for a potential new series. Now that the miniseries has wrapped up, I chatted with Bunn about the comic, the characters he used and what he did with them. My thanks to him for taking the time to answer my questions.
JK: If I’m not mistaken, this was your first major project for Marvel since going “exclusive” with them. You’d done other stories for them and even other Fear Itself tie-ins, but is it safe to say this probably put you on the main stage of the Marvel Universe in a way you hadn’t experienced yet? Did you feel any pressure going into it because of the scope and the fact that it came out of a big Marvel event?
Cullen: Yeah, this was a big, intimidating undertaking. The Fearless featured most of the major Marvel superheroes in one way or another, and it spanned numerous locales. Luckily, I was working with a very supportive team who made me feel pretty comfortable going into this. They put a lot of trust in me with the series, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. Every time I sent some crazy note or suggestion for plot points, I expected them to yank me off the title, but they were pretty receptive to the idea of exploding sharks, a new team of Valkyrie, and Wolverine gutting Crossbones (among other things).
JK: The series was billed as being written by you, Matt Fraction and Chris Yost, with you doing the scripts. Can you break down a little bit more how the three of you worked together (i.e. who did what?) And how did the series relate to Battle Scars, the other big post-Fear Itself miniseries? I believe originally there was only going to be one post-Fear Itself miniseries that covered both story lines, correct?
Cullen: Originally, Battle Scars and The Fearless were slated to be two parts of the same story. The plan was that the two “tracks” would intersect and come together at the end. During some of the early discussions, it was decided that we were really trying to mash two completely different stories together. At that point, we spun them out into their own books.
Matt, Chris, and I (along with our editors) spent most of those early days on conference calls and trading e-mails. There was a lot of back and forth regarding where we wanted to go with these stories, who we wanted to guest star, and how we wanted the books to impact the Marvel Universe.
From there, I wrote the script for The Fearless and Chris wrote the script for Battle Scars. Each issue was sent to the rest of the team for review, but I don’t remember a lot of rewrites at any stage of the game. There were a few tweaks here and there, but nothing major. Around the mid-point of The Fearless, I realized the story was deviating from the original outlines, and I sent the team a revised outline for the second half of the story, which was pretty quickly approved.
JK: Although from a marketing perspective this was billed as a post-Fear Itself series, story-wise it was really a Valkyrie maxi-series (with guest stars galore). She’s a character I knew from the old-school Defenders stories, who then went away for a while, but recently has gotten a bunch of screen time in Secret Avengers. Was she a favorite character of yours before you began working on the series, and what were you hoping to do with her character over the course of the series?
Cullen: Like you, I knew Valkyrie from the old school Defenders. I’ve always liked her, even though I couldn’t say I had a strong sense of her character. Yeah, being a total badass is a character trait, but there had to be more to her than that.
But, the truth is that Valkyrie wasn’t the original lead in the book. A number of characters were considered—Gambit, Black Widow, and Mystique come to mind. Domino was the front-runner early on, and I have some original outlines from when she was going to fill the role that would soon belong to Valkyrie. But something was always missing. The story just didn’t come together the way I liked with Domino in the lead. As soon as Tom Brevoort suggested Valkyrie, everything seemed to click. She was a character I loved. She deserved the spotlight. She had a back story and personality that could be expanded. She had ties to Asgard, which was important in regards to the Serpent’s hammers. I thought she was a character who might surprise people.
Valkyrie has a convoluted, complicated history, but she’s always been something of a blank slate personality-wise. In The Fearless, I wanted to show that she was more than simply a “female Thor” (a description that I’ve always thought was way off). I wanted to give her some hopes and dreams. I wanted to show that her responsibilities over the years have weighed heavily on her soul.
JK: One of the things you did was flesh out her history a bit, in the form of various flashbacks in many of the issues. As she’s a Valkyrie from Norse legend, I never thought of her as having a life before she took up a sword to serve Odin and fly around on a winged horse. Did you and your fellow writers come up with the back story here, or were you drawing from the character’s previous history (or even Norse mythology)?
Cullen: During Fear Itself, Nick Spencer did an issue of Secret Avengers that featured some of Val’s backstory—in particular this lost love from her mortal days. That story became a springboard for some of the stories in The Fearless. I also wanted to weave in some of her comic book history and touch on some actual mythology as well. The flashbacks helped to show how long she’s been around, tie her directly into the Thule Society (from the very first issue we show that the Thule intended to summon the Valkyrie as weapons), and to show off her personality a little. Valkyrie started off as a mortal, transitioned to a demigod, and then becomes a little more “human” by the end of the book.
JK: I know when the series was first announced that the two main characters were billed as Valkyrie and Sin. But to me the breakout star, besides Valkyrie, was Crossbones. Would you agree? Was that intentional when you approached the character, or did it happen organically as you were writing him?
Cullen: What’s interesting is that in one of the early conversations on the book, we tossed Crossbones around as the lead character. In the end, I’m glad we didn’t do that, but I’ll admit that I kind of geeked out over the idea. It would have been a challenge to make someone as reprehensible as Crossbones a lead readers would follow for 12 issues. But it would have been so much fun. He’s a character who doesn’t pull punches, who takes no prisoners. There’s an appeal there, even though he’s the picture of a horrible person. While I’m glad he wasn’t our “star,” I really had fun writing him into the series. Many of his scenes are among my favorites in the series.
JK: Crossbones is a pretty brutal, irredeemable guy, at least as we’ve seen him in the past; he was even kicked out of the Thunderbolts program. And yet he has a moment of redemption near the end of the series as he decides maybe he doesn’t want the world to end. Can you talk a little bit about his story arc and what led him to do that? And do you see him as irredeemable?
Cullen: Yeah, he’s irredeemable. There’s really no coming back from some of the awful, awful things he’s done. But I liked the idea that even though he’s a bad guy, he doesn’t want to see the world destroyed. Where’s the fun in that? If the world ends, he can’t bust heads anymore, he can’t spend time with his lady love, Sin.
Now, if Sin ever finds out that it was Crossbones that helped spoil her plans, there’s gonna be one bloody lovers’ spat.
JK: The other character arc I wanted to bring up was Damian Hellstorm’s. I guess it isn’t entirely unexpected that the son of the devil would turn on the heroes, but I kept thinking he’d eventually be revealed as a double agent for Valkyrie or something. Yet we end the book with him as a “bad guy.” Was the intent from the beginning to turn him into a villain?
Cullen: I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reaction to Hellstrom’s change of heart. I knew readers were expecting him to be a double agent from the moment he sided with Sin, and I’m glad to have surprised them. Hellstrom, as far as I’m concerned, is a bad guy. Sure, he’s done some good in the past, but he’s been pretty ruthless and self-serving, too. Let’s not forget the time he burned Dr. Druid alive in a trash can. He belongs in Sin’s group. But his turn was not without reason. And his goals may not line up with Sin’s future plans.
JK: In addition to Crossbones, Hellstorm, Sin and Valkyrie, you had the chance to write, well, just about every prominent character in the Marvel Universe. What cameos or scenes were your favorites from the series? Was there anyone you wanted to use or do more with, but didn’t have the space for them?
Cullen: There were a few characters I was really excited for from the beginning. Dr. Strange, for example. I also had the confrontations between Wolverine and Crossbones, and Valkyrie and Storm in my head from very early stages of the game. If there had been more room, I would have liked to see more of the X-Men and maybe spent more time with the Thunderbolts. I would have also liked to see a few more villains in the book.
I wanted to use Man-Thing in the story, but I had to change my plans because he was traveling through time and space with the Thunderbolts at the time.
JK: Speaking of Man-Thing, I know you’re a fan of Marvel’s horror characters, so how fun was it to get to throw in all those various bad guys for a battle royal with the Avengers?
Cullen: Not gonna lie, it was awesome!
I love the weirdness of the D.O.A., and a newly invigorated version of the group gave us the perfect opportunity to bring in all sorts of strange, horror-based characters.
At one point in the series, we see a horde of new D.O.A. recruits. Some of them were existing characters, but in the script I called for all sorts of new baddies to make an appearance. Mark Bagley drew that page, and he just went crazy with it. I gave a few suggestions for the types of ne’er-do-wells that might appear on the page, but he really surprised me. Later, I was asked to name all of those new D.O.A. members. I think I named a couple of dozen new villains.
Now I’ve gotta use them, don’t I?
JK: You ended the book with a well-developed Valkyrie and the tease of a potential, for lack of a better term, Lady Liberators series. You’ve kind of teased the idea that it would be up to the fans to create enough noise for this series to get Marvel to greenlight it. Did you include that possibility at the end of Fearless on your own, or is it something that you talked over with Marvel and they are genuinely considering it?
Cullen: The idea to replace the Valkyrior with heroes from Midgard hit me while I was scripting the fifth or sixth issue. I ran it by the team, and they were all for it. I thought it wrapped up the story of the Serpent’s hammers neatly, and I liked the potential of Valkyrie choosing a new group of Shield Maidens. I was surprised how many readers really liked the idea. Will it happen? I’m not sure, but I’d love to see that come about.
JK: Both Marvel and DC are frequently taken to task for their treatment of female heroes or their lack of books with female protagonists. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the need for women superheroes and what your approach to a book like that would be if you got the chance to write it. Not in terms of specific plots, but in its overall theme and how overtly feminist you think it should be.
Cullen: While I definitely feel there’s a need for books featuring strong, capable female characters, my only goal is to tell exciting, interesting stories with compelling characters, whether they’re male or female. If the characters are there and if the stories are exciting, it shouldn’t matter if it’s an all-female team. Does it introduce different dynamics to the story? Absolutely. And I think it might be interesting if the Marvel Universe as a whole becomes obsessed with the “novelty” of a group of women superheroes. How would the team handle the attention? Some (like Valkyrie herself) would likely reject it. Others, though, might welcome it.
JK: Finally, beyond the Lady Liberators tease … while you wrapped up the main story, you left some hooks you or someone else could pick up on, like the DOA, Hellstorm’s betrayal and the fact that Valkyrie probably pissed off a whole bunch of heroes (like the X-Men) during her quest. Will you be picking up on any of them?
Cullen: Definitely. I can’t say what it is just yet, but I’m working on something that picks up on one of the big hooks from the end of the story. Suffice it to say, the DOA is still at large and they are gonna be very busy.