This is the tale of two characters. Both originated somewhere in my creative imagination. One is good, one evil. One has been handled by a number of writers, including myself, one has essentially been written by just me. Both are currently on view in the U.S.AGENT limited series, the first issue of which is on sale now. But I write about them here not so much to promote the series as to discuss how writers shape the lives of Marvel’s characters.
The two are U.S.Agent and the Scourge of the Underworld, the latter of whom is actually a series of persons undertaking the exact same identity, mission, and mode of operations.
Let’s begin with U.S.Agent. When, in the pages of CAPTAIN AMERICA, I introduced the character who would become the Agent, I did not know what course his life would take. All I knew was that I wanted to introduce a character who represented the dark side of patriotism, to serve as an ideological enemy to Cap. My thinking was that, since Cap was a good and Cap was a patriot, people might conclude that the underlying theme of the book was that patriotism equals good. Actually, I believe that patriotism can be used to motivate good things and bad things both, so I wanted to have a character that embodied Cap’s flip side.
Thus, John Walker the Super-Patriot sprang forth, using patriotisms as some Americans do – as an excuse to feel superior to foreigners – and interpreting the American Dream as some Americans do – bettering one’s lot in life by making lots of money. He saw beating Cap at the patriotism game was his ticket to fame and fortune, and set out to do just that.
At this point, I had intended to keep Walker as the Super-Patriot indefinitely, but when I embarked upon my infamous “Cap quits” storyline, I needed a replacement for Cap and figured, why not Walker? It would be a good way to contrast further the two brands of patriotism that he and Cap embody. So he became Captain America for a while. Again, I did not know exactly what Walker’s final disposition would be; all I knew was that I was going to keep him as Cap long enough to milk all of the potential I could out of the situation. Readers hated him at first and many predicted he would die (the fate of many a past would-be-Cap), so I was determined to do two things: find a way to make him sympathetic, and not kill him off, no matter what.
Two years later, after acquiescing to popular demand and bringing back the original Cap back, I decided that Walker had too much potential to put him into mothballs, so I gave him the cool suit Tom Morgan designed as Cap’s non-Cap costume, and came up with the name U.S.Agent. I had no immediate plans for John Walker at this point (I figured the original Cap had shared the stage with his doppelgänger long enough), so when John Byrne asked to induct him into the Avengers West Coast, I said “sure.”
Up to this point, I was the only one to have written Walker, and in the course of developing the character I had taken him from an egotistical, jingoistic Cap-hating smart-mouth vigilante-patriot to a tortured, introspective, Cap-respecting soldier-patriot. Subsequent writers would have a wide assortment of character traits to choose from when searching for their own take on John Walker. Mr. Byrne elected to emphasize the tortured part (having Walker refuse to acknowledge that his parens were dead) and the smart-mouth part (being a general nuisance to his fellow Avengers). Subsequent writers (notably Fabian Nicieza in AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT and Roy Thomas in AVENGERS WEST COAST) have had their own approaches to the character, equally as valid as mine and well suited to the stories in which they featured the Agent.
The point is that the character was no longer just mine. Four people had now left their marks (ulp) on the Agent’s personality. Some approaches were more in sync with mine than others, but the matter was out of my hands. In a shared universe like Marvel’s, all characters eventually become community property.
For contrast let’s consider Scourge, a character concept that I came up with (though John Byrne did the costume design) and wrote all of his major appearances. The impetus for creating Scourge was another Marvel character, Arcade. Arcade called himself a master assassin who never bungled a hit (until he met Spider-Man and the X-Men) and yet no one could ever name one person he ever assassinated. I thought, “How about an assassin who did eliminate characters we’ve heard of before and, while I’m at it, maybe some characters that various creative teams felt were bankrupt of further potential?”
So I concocted a storyline wherein Marvel’s most wretched villains were eliminated by a master of disguise with an armor-piercing gun that went “Pum Spak,” and who would utter “Justice is served!” after every hit. In an unheralded display of line unity, many of my fellow writers agreed to pitch in and provide a Scourge elimination in their own titles, promoting the idea that Scourge could pop up anywhere, as anything, and do his dirty business.
While my cohorts were contributing Scourge sightings, none were developing or advancing Scourge’s characterization, leaving that task to me. Finally, at the beginning of my second year scripting CAP, I wrote the finale to the original Scourge arc, revealing him to be the brother of the first super-villain Scourge had offed. My twist ending, however, had Scourge himself get shot by someone with an identical modus operandi. The implications then were that there has been more than one Scourge in operation, and maybe the origin story Scourge told Cap was a lie.
I brought back Scourge about two years later in order to eliminate a Red Skull impostor, and a few issues after that to eradicate the Watchdog who supposedly killed John Walker. These were essentially cameos. Finally, I brought him back for a bi-weekly back-up feature and pitted him against my other creation, U.S.Agent. At the end of that storyline, Scourge was about to give another scurrilous account of his origin when he, like his predecessor, was shot by still another copycat killer. The implications – same as the first time around. In a story two years later, this third Scourge was revealed to be an employee of the Red Skull.
Which brings us to the present. In the U.S.AGENT limited series, I resolve the multiple Scourge storyline once and for all. I take the various strands of information I’ve established over the years and weave them together into what I hope is a satisfying, all-questions-answered, dramatic resolution. It’s gratifying to resolve something I set in motion eight years ago, just the way I want to, not having to account for anyone’s else’s “contribution.” Now, at least, if a reader thinks the whole thing was a big yawn, I have only myself to hold responsible.
It’s rare when one writer gets to handle a character from cradle to grave. And sometimes a character is all the greater from having a number of minds inform his life experiences. The best characters in the Marvel Universe resonate on a number of levels, attracting different writers to them, each of whom has a specific insight into and approach for the character. I would hate to be limited to writing characters of my own invention, and part of the fun of writing in a shared universe is that I don’t have to be.