Interview With John Figueroa
(October 2010)

The writer of the second volume of MARVEL KNIGHTS talks about the 6 issue collaboration with Alberto Ponticelli in 2002. Many thanks to Mr. Figueroa for this interview and this look back at the series.

Kuljit Mithra: The second volume of Marvel Knights was 6 issues and from what I can remember it seemed like it was abruptly canceled after the Brothers Grace storyline concluded. Before we discuss the origins of the story etc., I wanted to get that info set straight... because it seemed you had more to tell.

John Figueroa: When I signed on as writer it wasn't clear if it would be a six issue mini-series (The Brothers Grace arc) or an ongoing run. I was told to assume it was a limited run and proceeded accordingly. However, Marvel was very happy with the first script and at some point it was made an ongoing series.

Still, all involved with the book were aware that some of the readers might still have conceptual problems with the idea of Daredevil sharing a title with Punisher (in any context) so we knew it was possible we would just get through the first six. I mapped out another arc (and even wrote one script for it) but alas it was not meant to be. We launched strongly but the sales tapered off and it was decided to end after The Brothers Grace arc.

Mithra: The second volume was very different than the first one. Chuck Dixon's stories were more "superhero team-up" rather than the "crime story" you wrote. Was this something Marvel wanted or did you already have this story in mind and they decided to put it under "Marvel Knights"?

Figueroa: Marvel wanted to continue the series but were looking for a fresh approach. There were no preconditions given before I pitched my idea other than they wanted a clear vision of what I would do with the title if I were chosen.

I must mention the very brilliant Bronwyn Taggart. She was the editor on MK Vol. II and it was her idea that I be considered for the position (we knew each other when she worked at Paradox Press/DC Comics--I wrote a collection of graphic short stories titled THE PROJECT for them).

My take for MK Vol. II was to create a crisis so grave that Daredevil and Punisher were forced to set aside their differences and work together.

Their relationship would maintain much of the hostility the first volume captured so well but it would be dramatized in the context of them trying to reconcile their very different methodologies in order to literally save New York City.

At the center of this all I saw Black Widow as the ideological middle ground between Daredevil and Punisher. It would fall to her to keep the troika from coming apart and in doing so she became the De facto leader on my run (handling much of the operational logistics and keeping the group focused on the mission at hand).

It was also important to me (I was born in Manhattan) that New York City be a crucial part of the story we told. Indeed, many of the locations used in the arc actually exist (the church where the Knights meet for example) and helped to enhance the story we were trying to tell because readers get a sense of what is at stake.

It was my hope that this direction answered the question I was asked more than any other (before and after my run); Why would Daredevil and Punisher work together?

Because they have to.

All that was left was to create villains so heinous and powerful that our characters would be compelled to team-up in order to stop them. Enter The Brothers Grace!

Mithra: Speaking of the Brothers Grace... I wanted to ask to you about their "creation", so to speak, in your mind as the villains. Was there a particular influence to have them being addicted to plastic surgery? Also, I found myself liking Mr. Tune (and his unique artwork!). You created a lot of interesting characters here, including Helen Kim as well.

Figueroa: Thanks, I'm glad you found them interesting!

As it goes with these things I had a vague idea about eccentric brothers who ran a criminal empire before I was on MK. This has a historical basis (the Kray Brothers, Jesse and Frank James, among others) but the specifics of the Brothers Grace did not fully form until I started writing the series.

The MK team was larger than life so I wanted to make the Brothers Grace way over the top. They ran their syndicate with ruthless efficiency (indeed, they come across like accountants in some of the issues) but were also extremely eccentric.

Their operation had quasi-religious undertones complete with minions (Shockers) who were bred to worship the Order of Grace. The plastic surgery addiction was a shout-out to Thomas Harris' great novel RED DRAGON (famous for introducing Hannibal Lecter). In the book we are told Lecter has written a well received paper on surgical addiction -- this always stuck with me and I thought the concept might work for Marco and Polo but we should use plastic surgery so that they would cut a freakish visage.

MK Vol II is full of Easter eggs (i.e. references to other works) and I still get the odd e-mail now and then asking me about some small detail in an issue. In one of the panels we see a book on Mr. Tune's shelf titled "SURGICAL ADDICTION". Would that I was able to add Lecter to the spine but alas...

All of this weirdness was in the service of the story. Our heroes would be at wit's end in trying to battle such powerful and strange bad guys.

Mob bosses rarely get involved directly with day to day operations so the Brothers Grace needed an enforcer to do the dirty work -- thus Mr. Tune was born. I knew I wanted Punisher (the most lethal of the Knights) to have a worthy physical adversary -- the best Bond films do this really well -- a secondary, really tough bad guy that Bond must battle in addition to the largely sedentary evil genius with the master plan.

A slight digression: often I am told that MK Vol II. was a crime story (which is true) but the Bond novels and films were a huge influence on my approach. The briefing that Helen Kim gives to the Knights in issue one; Marco and Polo owe some of their banter to Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER; and much much more.

Back to Mr. Tune... he would have to be match for Punisher but I didn't want him to just be a lug. So I worked hard to add layers...he considered himself an artist (so do lots of psychopaths) but he twisted the human body to create his art. He is much older than we would expect him to be (we find this out mid-series) but is in peak condition. He does the Brothers' bidding but has his own agenda that in the end turns out to be more of a threat than the Brothers Grace.

One question I had to answer before I could map out the full story was if the Brothers were so horrible, why weren't the F.B.I., C.I.A, or S.H.I.E.L.D involved with taking them on?

My solution came in the form of Helen Kim.

I made her a North Korean detective who is a also working for S.H.I.E.L.D. We find out the Brothers Grace have played for various sides while plying their evil trade and this might rattle a few powerful people in the government. S.H.I.E.L.D is involved albeit covertly. Kim is their conduit to the Knights.

I didn't want her to be a dry field agent so I added a common history with the Brothers. They had wiped out her family in North Korea and she has vowed to take them down.

For the Knights, it's their duty, with Helen Kim it's personal. This also enabled us to form a connection between her and Punisher because he can relate to the trauma of losing a family member to violent crime.

I want to add that the illustrator on the run Alberto Ponticelli did a brilliant job realizing the mad stew you've just read through. I don't have enough superlatives for how happy I was with his work!

Mithra: I'm currently enjoying Ponticelli's work on UNKNOWN SOLDIER, and I had completely forgotten his work on MK here. I know it's an odd compliment, but I really liked the way he drew the bent knuckles, the twisted arms etc. It had a Risso 100 BULLETS feel. Had you worked with him before MK? What was it like to work with him on the series? Did he surprise you with any of his ideas for the characters?

Figueroa: Working with Alberto was a really great experience! At the time he was in Italy and I was in the U.S. so we didn't actually meet face to face until the run was over but we exchanged a lot of e-mails about the characters and scripts. Since it was important that New York City was a central part of the story and I wanted to use real locations I created a very simple website (OK, my wife Ariane did all the technical work and I supplied the content ;-) where I could upload reference photographs and other fun stuff.

Still, Bronwyn Taggart deserves the most credit for coordinating art and story. She really kept everything focused and running. For example I might use some colloquialism to explain an action bit and Alberto might not get the reference Bronwyn did an excellent job of streamlining that process (and making sure my crazy ideas made sense AND that the storytelling held AND... ).

I was very happy with Alberto's designs for the characters. Obviously some of the them came with more detailed descriptions than others.

With Mr. Tune I described him as really tall, hair like Stalin, and physique more like a ballet dancer than super villain. When I saw the first sketches I was blown-away -- it was just like I had imagined! With Nigel and Skye (soothsayers of The Brothers Grace) I had a brief description of them but Alberto ran with that and I was surprised and delighted with his take. He added a lot of detail and nuance NOT there when I created the characters... so all praises due to Maestro Ponticelli!

Mithra: Was there anything Taggart nixed, in terms of story or artwork, and was there anything she suggested that turned something you imagined into something else (and better)?

Figueroa: To be sure there were minor editorial suggestions and changes but nothing major was nixed. I do recall Bronwyn being very mindful of how dense the issues were (we had more scenes than a traditional comic with a lot of cross-cutting) so she would pull me back from my excessive tendencies ;-)

ALL of her suggestions improved the scripts! The one that comes to mind -- it's a great example of how the writer can sometimes fall asleep at the wheel and the editor lends a hand -- was in issue one.

Late mass in a church, villains approaching, a priest says "Hail Mary full of grace..."... that was how I wrote it. In her notes Bronwyn wrote that I should have Nigel and Skye finish the line... so the priest says "Hail Mary full of..." and they finish: "Grace!"... which is creepy and was a sly play on our bad guy's names. There were many, many instances where she saved me from myself -- she is a brilliant writer which is a plus for an editor!

Mithra: From your responses so far, I can see that you were certainly proud of the series. Did you ever think it was released "at the wrong time"? I mean, you've mentioned it was a dense story and it was a different tone than the first Marvel Knights series. When it came out, I felt it was lost among all the other titles out there.

Figueroa: Not proud in a "Man, we did a great book!" kind of way -- that is, of course, up to the readers to decide. More like I am very pleased we were given the freedom to do something that was a little bit different and that we published the book we set out to make.

Marvel provided strong promotional support, setting up interviews for us, previewing the art on various web sites, and a full page in-house ad. It is possible though that we came out too close on the heels of the first volume. We didn't start with a clean slate so that might have had some impact on the reception.

The responses I gauged were some people hated the book, a few didn't know what to make of it, and (thankfully), a good portion got what we tried to do and really loved it. A reaction that varied does not a huge hit make!

I also think the conceptual problem of some not wanting Daredevil and Punisher working together loomed as well. Around the time our issues were coming out I attended a comic jam in NYC (for those who may not know these are events where artists get together, riff, and create comics). One of the guys there said "I dunno man, Daredevil wouldn't work Punisher."

I gave my standard line (I'd heard this dozens of times by then) that he should give it a look, that we worked hard to sort that complaint out. I said Churchill and Roosevelt despised Stalin but knew that Hitler was the more immediate threat. They set aside their differences to defeat the Nazis.

LoOOOOoooong beat...the guy looks straight into the air and repeats: "Daredevil would NOT work with Punisher."

Tough crowd.

You do the best job you can and move on--such is the nature of the business. Now that some time has passed I feel very lucky to have written the arc.

This might be a good spot to mention that had the series stuck around The Brothers Grace would have returned. I mapped out a storyline in which Marco breaks Polo out of jail, they reconcile and buy a massive amount of land in a remote part of Asia. Their plan was to form a criminal city-state named (of course) Graceland!

Helen Kim infiltrates a Shocker training camp in order to search for her brother (whom she believed to be dead but found out was alive in issue five).

We were going to learn what happened to Mr. Tune's body (it disappeared from the morgue at the end of the story). Also: Tune's sons (part of a circus act of acrobats, jugglers, and knife-throwers called "THE 54 SONS OF TUNESKI") go after Punisher to exact revenge!

Funnily enough there was an editor (who shall remain unnamed) at Marvel who really, really liked the first story and thought down the line we ought to bring the gang back and incorporate some of the concepts above albeit with different heroes.

We never got around to it but maybe one day? ;-)

Mithra: So in conclusion, is there anything else you'd like to share about the Marvel Knights experience? I also almost forgot to ask you some questions about the Double-Shot story as well.

Figueroa: A brief bit of info about our MK DOUBLE-SHOT story (this was to introduce Alberto and I to readers -- but in the end came out later than expected). I wrote a script that involved a terrorist attack on the United Nations -- it was set to go but before Alberto could illustrate it the attacks of 9/11 occurred.

No one at Marvel asked me to make any changes but I literally did not have the stomach (after so much devastation had just taken place) to see it published. I asked if I could substitute another script and permission was granted. SERIOUS PEOPLE (MK-DS number four) sprang from that. Whenever I come across the finished comic it always brings me back to those hard days.

OK, I think that about does it. This was a lot of fun. I want to thank you for your interest, the great questions and for maintaining such a wonderful, informative site! All my best to your readers as well! Take care and Hail Grace!

(c) Kuljit Mithra 2010
Daredevil:The Man Without Fear

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