Before “Uncanny Avengers” before “Captain America” and before “Black Science” Rick Remender had an incredible science fiction adventure series with Tony Moore called “Fear Agent.” The book is very much the spiritual prequel to “Black Science” featuring alcoholic Texan roughneck Heath Houston as the last remaining member of the Fear Agents.
The series is notable for its emphasis on balls to the wall action, insane creatures, and complete disregard for actual science. It was designed to be a tribute to the medium, break all the rules, and even make a few of its own. Heath provides ample amounts of laughs with infinite charisma and haphazard problem solving skills as he encounters high stakes insanity in every issue.
As part of an initiative to introduce a brand new audience to the book Rick Remender sat down with Bloody-Disgusting to talk about this labor of love.
Bloody Disgusting: How did you and Tony pitch Fear Agent?
Rick Remender: It was 2004. I had been working on a science fiction book that I was drawing. I had really immersed myself in the works of Frazetta, Wally Wood, and all the EC stuff. At the same time Tony had done a science fiction drawing for Rob Zombie. I looked at what he had done. I called him up and we discussed science fiction for hours. We talked about how there wasn’t any of it comics or at least not the kind that we were looking for. We wanted a mix between the classic Han Solo/Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon with a little more barfly or arthouse grit. That would enable us to dissect the character a little more than the aforementioned heroes.
After that night on the phone we talked several more times throughout the week. Tony did up some sketches for our original pitch “Lone Star.” This alien exterminator alcoholic concept that was pretty much approved at Image. However, I got a lot of help from Eric Larsen and Eric Stevenson. I designed the logo with Larsen’s help. It was Kirkman and Larsen who kept saying that Lone Star wasn’t a good title. Stevenson agreed. Tony and I butted heads trying to figure it out. We were married to Lone Star. Which, looking back, is a pretty broad title.
I had a bunch of CDs piled up near my computer. One of them was “Fear” and another was “Agent Orange.” I thought “Fear Agent.” It fit because he had led this rebellion on Earth, and had to (SPOILER) commit genocide in order to save Earth. Which is the heart of his depression.
I threw “Fear Agent” at everybody and it worked.
RR: It’s not the absence of fear that motivates Heath, but learning how to overcome it. Which is sort of the point of it all. It had a couple different connotations. In “The Last Goodbye” story arc it was about putting fear into the hearts of the aliens who invaded Earth.
You got this guy who has no real reason to hang on. He has to overcome his fear and all that terror to keep going. He’s got to do the right thing. The stakes keep getting higher throughout the series and the fate of the universe falls on him.
BD: “Fear Agent” has a ton of Mark Twain weaved within Heath’s inner monologue. What was the inspiration for that?
RR: My mom used to recite a lot of Mark Twain quotes. I read a lot of his work in high school and college. There is something about his philosophy that has always spoken to me. I’ve always found some sort of identification with it. I’m drawn to the warm cynicism. He’s a pragmatist. He sees things for how they are. He sees all the frailties, the lies, and the corruption of mankind. At the same time he has this homespun, folksy, it’s-all-gonna-work-out attitude.
Philosophy in general has always spoken to me. I don’t remember how I plugged it into Heath. I think I might have even been writing that first issue thinking of a quote that I knew. “It’s not the expert swordsmen that one must be afraid of. It’s the rookie who just picked up the sword for the first time because he doesn’t do what he should.”
So I just stuck that into the first issue, and then as I was writing it became something that was a theme throughout.
BD: When “Re-Ignition” begins Heath’s story should be disorienting but it’s not. From the get-go we’re thrown into the thick of the action. Why start there?
RR: I outlined most of the series. It was an instinct I had while breaking it down. It originally started with the Earth invasion, and I realized that was a more interesting later chapter. I wanted to start with this guy as an already broken down alcoholic working as an alien exterminator to pay the bills. That way you get to know him during the fast tongue-in-cheek Indiana Jones in space of it all.
So by the time you’re invested in the science fiction fun I drop his origin on you. With a huge revelation about the character that adds another layer to him. The more I play with things like that and tell stories out of order something wonderful happens. There are more mysteries. If you can do it right, slice it and dice it the right way you can actually enrich the story.
RR: That’s always my favorite story to read. Yes you’ve done your research. Yes you’ve done your backstory. Yes you’ve done your world building. The Glithorians are living in the second sector of 7G, and they’re made of plant brains. Nobody gives a fuck. You’re not Tolkien. You don’t get to do that.
You get to do your homework. You get to do your backstory. Then you should drop me into the middle of it. Let me figure it out along the way. If it’s done right and the characters are engaging and there’s a beating heart to it with some velocity then you’ll want to learn more. You’ll trust that the writer has something to show you.
BD: “Fear Agent” seems like a huge love letter to science fiction. Yet, any time when you introduce any of the tropes or clichés, you seem to break all the rules and make your own.
RR: With my superhero work people get upset because I kill characters. I approach the work like suspenseful horror movies. Where you never know who’s going to get killed. These are costumed adventure people, they should be dying left and right I figure.
With the science fiction genre, what we did in theory was to dabble in genre mixing. Get some chocolate and peanut butter together. We have a volume that’s a war story. The fifth volume is a sci fi western. Mixing up a lot of the great genres that inspired the work. Horror, crime, and science fiction, shit, there’s even some piracy in the fourth volume. It was fun to not have any of those boundaries. Letting yourself roam to see what’s fun. The most important thing is to surprise the reader.
You can’t rely on dues-ex-machina, but you want to drop an anvil from the sky. Just make sure that when you drop that anvil it has three heads, it’s a telepath, and that you’ve seeded it in the second issue. That way it’s bubbling the whole time. It’s the writer’s responsibility to make sure their outlines are really tight before they move forward.
If I’m feeling in any way bored by a story even if its good character drama I’ll take the wheel and steer the car off the cliff. It’s fun! It keeps me excited. It keeps the reader excited and it keeps the velocity up.
BD: The second volume “My War” takes a turn at the end of every 22 pages. The frantic pace keeps up and manages to completely change the story by the end of an issue.
RR: “Fear Agent” was unique because I thought every month was going to be the last issue. Even though I had this outline, a lot of stuff got gutted. This made every issue a chapter in my outline.
So much of “My War” was intended to be two or three issues, but I only got one to tell the story. It was really get in and get out. I developed my writing style based on having to work that way. Anything that wasn’t absolutely mandatory got gutted. It was just the pure cream of the storytelling. It just moves. Sometimes that could even be too fast and I’ll recognize I’ve cut it down too far.
I’m grateful for Writers or filmmakers who use self-editing techniques. You can tell they’re only giving you the really juicy snippets. I’m happy that they’re not wasting my time.
BD: You had outlined the entire series before issue one?
RR: Before the pitch I had outlined everything in six pages of text. It had some stuff that we didn’t get to. The soulless zombie planet was much longer. We had plans to stay there for an entire year. That arc got cut down to two issues. It was all there. I knew what the jellybrains were up to, and I knew how Heath was going to solve it all.
I seeded it right there in the first arc with the time travel component so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There was other stuff that we made up along the way, and other stuff that got gutted. Most of it was outlined before we got working on the first issue.
BD: This is spoiler territory. There are certain horror elements to this book. Heath dies an incredible amount for a protagonist. Was that intentional?
RR: There is an aspect of me that likes horror movies. Prior to “Fear Agent” I had done mostly horror. I was really into it. The problem with horror in general is that I know someone will be horribly killed at some point. I know it’s coming. Knowing it’s coming already spoils it at some level because then it’s just guessing who and when.
That’s why I like working it into science fiction. Somebody could get brutally murdered at any moment, but I didn’t tell you that going into it. While I was outlining the series I kept hitting these moments where Heath should die. He’s fighting a gigantic robot that controls a planet, and all he’s got is a gun. He’s just a dude and he’s going to die. So I would let that happen. I would let him get killed.
Then you find a wacky, schlocky b-movie way to bring him back. I think we did everything. We did interdimensonal travel, cloning, consciousness swapping, and the list goes on.
BD: So has Heath come to terms with death? He has so little regard for his own well-being but still only seems to care about himself.
RR: When we first meet him Heath holds onto life by a thread. He still enjoys a cigar, a whiskey, and watching old NFL on vhs tapes just enough that it keeps life worth living but just barely. We deal with that in a couple of the volumes. One of the oneshots he’s pretty much ready for suicide.
Like any depressive the only reason he keeps going are the external things that require him to stay around. It’s the other things in the world that are dependent upon us, that perpetuate us, and keep us moving. Every time Heath would get down to that level something would drop into his lap that was Earth shatteringly huge. He would stand back up, do the right thing, and be a hero.
BD: Were you ever worried that the series was going to die itself?
RR: Not even one issue was easy. The book underperformed. Every time we launched a new arc we would open at 12,000 or 13,000 copies and then we’d drop to six or seven. By the end we were down to four or five thousand copies. Most websites didn’t even cover the last issue. It was something the industry didn’t give a fuck about. We did everything we could do to keep duct-taping the thing together and keep moving forward.
It was a seven-year job to get to end of Heath’s story in a way that I was happy with. None of it was easy. I kept pushing the boulder up the hill. There were plenty of years where I was wondering why I kept doing it.
It was a book where guys like Jerome Opeña and Tony Moore were coming in and just dumping their asses on the pages. It’s such a beautiful comic. It’s one of things I’ll always be the most proud of because of the effort those guys put in and the integrity of their art inside the project.
I knew it was special. I knew it was good. I knew if we could get to the intended conclusion it would go down as something that would truly gratify readers. Something that people who find it in the future would have this 2000 page character study that I feel incredibly proud of.
The sales on the hardcover have given me a little pat on the back. People have started to find the book and really love it.
BD: That fear seems to have propelled the book into this super tight story with no wasted space.
RR: It had to be. Even at 32 issues it was a duct tape job. We were just holding it together. We could only get to the end through the help of Mike Hawthorn coming in. He did layouts and pencils. He helped out throughout the entire series. He’s the third “Fear Agent” member. I absolutely couldn’t have done the book without him. By the third arc Mike came in and did all the panels. Tony would then do all the faces so it would look the same.
Everybody was working for peanuts. We just kept pushing it and pushing it. It’s gratifying now that it’s done. Even getting the hardcover out was difficult. Dark Horse didn’t see a lot of return on the trades or the floppies. So getting that Library edition out took some doing. Thank God, the first year it came out we sold 6,000 copies of this $50 book.
BD: It’s almost poetic that “Fear Agent” was this story you had to keep pushing and duct taping together.
RR: Knowing how much I wanted to get to that god-damned ending was the reason I kept pushing that boulder up the hill. It’s no coincidence that a lot of Heath’s story features depression and desperation. We worked very hard to create a story that almost nobody read. Which is a legitimate statement. We sold about 5,000 copies an issue. It’s not anybody, but that means you haven’t found your audience.
BD: None of the species we encounter in “Fear Agent” are benevolent. It almost seems like the nature of the “Fear Agent” universe is embedded in aggression.
RR: That comes down to a somewhat cynical worldview on my end. I know that through evolution a civilization should eventually become cosmic. Once we discard nationality, discard capitalism, discard fossil fuels we’ll become this harmonious united thing living in peace. But then there’s no fun in that!
I was a strident cynical punker living in San Francisco. Living in a squat and being angry. The universe felt like a dangerous place to me. Everything was coming at you and trying to tear you down. Which probably had a lot to do with why everything in “Fear Agent” was aggressive.
All the races do come off as self-serving to achieve what they wanted. Which comes down to the general philosophical history of what we’ve seen with civilizations and first contact on Earth. The more technologically advanced basically steamroll over the others. When the aliens come they’re going to take our resources and wipe us out.
Which might not be the case. Civilizations may not be able to continue past where we’re at if they continue their warmongering tribal instincts.
BD: I wanted to ask about Nickolas. A character that seemed destined to die, but ended up sticking around for quite some time. He seemed like he was an absolute blast to write.
RR: You just fall in love with characters sometimes. He was such cliché but I just loved him being Heath’s buddy. The real bummer for me was page count wise in the final issue. I had written segments for both Mara and Nickolas. All the characters I killed, I wanted to show their happy endings but that meant less time for Heath. So I had to gut them.
I loved Mara. Which is why I forced myself to kill her. I was starting to write her as the lead of the book. At a certain point Heath was the b-story. Mara and Charlotte become the lead characters. I considered doing an arc with her. So I had to kill her.
I could write Heath and Nikolas scuttle-butting across the universe for the rest of my life. I miss writing those guys.
BD: Is it possible that we could see Heath pop up in “Black Science”?
RR: I’ve thought about it. At one point while outlining “Black Science” I realized I could have them travel to all my creator owned universes. But at that point what am I really doing? Am I writing a good story or am I going “Look! These are my characters and I miss them!”
The whole thing feels too masturbatory. It wouldn’t be telling a good story. So I’ve talked myself out of it. You never know though. An issue of “Black Science” may come up with Heath walking through the background going “Hey, what’s up?”
BD: What makes “Fear Agent” different than other science fiction?
RR: Well there is absolutely no focus on real science. Unlike what I’m doing in “Black Science” which is all based off real life string theory and quantum physics. “Fear Agent” is all Saturday morning cartoons. Which makes it unique because it’s meant for adults with its barfly tone. It’s a hodgepodge of different tones. It’s humorous but dire. It’s action packed but it’s a character piece. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like that before. It cooks up into a unique soup.
A lot of the fun of doing it was being able to do whatever we wanted so long as it fit into the narrative of this guy’s life and who he was. We tried to do something that was very different. I was doing horror when there wasn’t much of it around it. Then Niles and Kirkman had their hits. Horror started to feel glutted.
Tony and I felt like “fuck it, let’s go trail blaze some science fiction.” It’s funny now because science fiction is the thing that everyone is doing but “Fear Agent” has a foundation and its finished. So hopefully people can find it and enjoy it.
BD: “Fear Agent” has this approach that feels a little crazy. You have all of the middle pieces of the puzzle, but the final arc seems to frame it all perfectly. Was that approach intentional?
RR: It’s all planned out. He’s going to run into this wacky jellybrain creature in the first issue. You think nothing of it when he kills it. When in fact killing this jellybrain and the experience he shares with the creature is the most important moment of his life. We’re not going to learn that for about 28 issues. It was kinda fun. Heath sets it all in motion but at the time it all seems insignificant.
I like surprises. As long as it’s seeded and thought out in advance it gives a much more satisfying read. If you know the author has an intention you can go along for the ride. You can go back through “Fear Agent” a second time and see that it’s all there. There wasn’t one dues-ex-machine out of my ass the entire time.
When Heath sleeps with Mara there is this portal that opens up and its hear screaming as the soulless are grabbing after her. That doesn’t even come into the book for another ten issues.
If you want to read the incredible first issue of the series Remender and Dark Horse were nice enough to provide it for your reading pleasure.
You’ll find it here.