DC’s Villains Month unites writer Tony Bedard, Brainiac and Black Manta

Writer Tony Bedard has his hands full for DC Comics’ Villains Month. Whether it’s his take on Black Manta in “Aquaman” #23.1 with artist Claude St. Aubin or focusing in on Brainiac in “Superman” #23.2 alongside Pascal Alixe, Bedard has the responsibility of stewarding two of the DC Universe’s heaviest hitters. Bedard spoke with CBR News about his upcoming Villains Month issues, including his spin on Black Manta and where it falls in Geoff Johns’ current “Aquaman” mythology, reuniting with “R.E.B.E.L.S.” artist Claude St. Aubin and picking Brainiac up out of the toybox in “Superman.”

CBR News: Tony, where does your issue of “Aquaman” pick up during the course of the series? Tony Bedard: If you’ve been reading Geoff Johns’ landmark run on “Aquaman,” you know his two archenemies, Black Manta and Ocean Master, are both imprisoned at Belle Reve penitentiary for super-criminals. My “Aquaman” issue focuses on Black Manta and ties directly into the events of September’s new series, “Forever Evil.” It’s a real turning point for Black Manta, whose entire existence has been devoted to killing Aquaman. Now the world is about to turn topsy-turvy as the villains take over and Black Manta has to find a bigger reason than revenge to go on doing what he does.

Villains Month is a big opportunity to explore the motivations of villains, something you’ve done before in “Gotham City Sirens.” What was the draw of a character like Black Manta?

To begin with, I am a huge Aquaman fan and have been for years. I think it goes back to the cartoons of my youth, watching “Superfriends” as a kid — I always thought Black Manta was the coolest guy in the Legion of Doom. That awesome helmet and metallic voice made him the Darth Vader of that universe. Later, when I learned more about Black Manta in the comics, I knew he was (like Aquaman) underappreciated and full of untapped potential. Now Geoff’s doing a great job of tapping that potential and I definitely want to play along. Black Manta is in one sense a mystery man — we don’t even know his last name. But what we do know is he’s a normal human who uses special gear, cunning and his iron will to hunt down the man who murdered his father. In a way, he’s the villain version of Batman. You think of him in those terms and you begin to see his draw (beyond the fact that he looks so dang cool).

One of Manta’s big motivations in the New 52 is the fact that Aquaman killed his father. When Manta learns Aquaman might be dead, how does he deal with that driving force potentially vanishing?

That’s the crux of this issue. If the one fixed point in your life, the one thing that gets you out of bed in the morning is suddenly gone, what do you do? Manta’s going to be offered a bigger purpose, a chance to be part of a new world order — but this is a guy who isn’t much of a team player, so will he go along with the program? I want to keep it vague because I don’t want to give away too much of what happens in “Forever Evil” #1. Suffice to say, I’ve read the script for “Forever Evil” and it made my head explode. There’s stuff in there that really changes the state of play in the DCU and Black Manta has to redefine himself. Since he plays such a big role in the ongoing “Forever Evil” saga, I’m thrilled to handle the moment when he’s faced with this existential dilemma.

You’re working on this issue with Geoff Johns. What was your collaborative process in putting the Villains Month story/script together?

Since the Black Manta issue is so closely tied to “Forever Evil,” we’re co-plotting the issue and I’m dialoguing it. We’ve already done some phone conferencing to talk through the beats of the story and make sure I leave Manta in a place where he’s primed for some villain-on-villain mayhem. At the heart of it is the question of why does Manta do what he does? At the start of the issue, Amanda Waller is trying to recruit him for the Suicide Squad and she sees potential in him that goes far beyond a thirst for vengeance. Just as Batman is simply out to get Joe Chill, Manta needs to broaden his horizons beyond his sole motivation of “kill Aquaman.” We’re gonna have fun watching him come into his own at the darkest time in DCU history.

DC fans remember you’ve actually tackled Aquaman before in “Flashpoint: Emperor Aquaman.” What do you think separates the New 52 Black Manta from Emperor Aquaman (who also has a rage driven by desire for revenge) in “Flashpoint?”

Emperor Aquaman’s rage was a more wide-ranging hatred and he had lost his mind. Black Manta’s rage is much more focused and personal, which in a way makes him scarier. There’s something detached and impersonal about flooding a continent. Yes, it’s horrific, but it’s another thing entirely to look in someone’s eyes as you shove a blade in their heart. Black Manta is that kind of killer. It doesn’t matter if you’re an average Joe or superhuman, Manta will find a way to meet you and beat you. Another difference is Emperor Aquaman was hotheaded and passionate. Black Manta is cold and methodical. Imagine Hannibal Lecter with Batman’s toys.

This issue also reunites you with “R.E.B.E.L.S.” artist Claude St. Aubin. How easy was it to step back into writing for his art again?

I’ve known Claude for years and he’s always been one of my favorite people in the comics community. Neither of us is terribly flashy about what we do, but we’re both totally committed to telling a fun story. Working with Claude on “R.E.B.E.L.S.” was a delight — I’m so glad Editor Brian Cunningham is reuniting us. Claude has a lot of range in his visual style and his visual storytelling is impeccable. I’d work with him all the time if I could.

In addition to “Aquaman” #23.1, you’ve also taken the reins on “Superman” #23.2, which focuses on Brainiac. Obviously, you’ve had experience with a very different version of Brainiac in “R.E.B.E.L.S.” What kind of common links did you find between the characters as you wrote your issue of “Superman?”

I’m doing an origin story that shows how a Coluan scientist named Vril Dox became the Collector of Worlds known as Brainiac.

Origin stories are tough to construct, if only because readers expect a certain number of answers, but writers don’t want to give too much away. How did you work to strike this balance for the New 52 version of Brainiac?

I’m not sure how to answer that without giving away too much of the issue. Let’s just say you’ll see Brainiac harvesting cities from multiple planets and how he became Brainiac in the first place. You’ll also see him be an incredible bastard. All in the space of 20 pages.

What do you think makes Brainiac such a compelling villain?

First, he has a great name — a totally comic book name. He’s one of the few villains that strikes fear into Superman’s heart, and he’s so smart we’re like bacteria to him. When you’re that smart and you choose to do evil anyway — there’s something doubly evil about that. Plus, he’s tied into Superman’s origin in a way that makes any Superman/Brainiac battle deeply personal. I have my fingers crossed that the next “Man of Steel” movie features Brainiac. Maybe a Brainiac/Luthor team-up? A boy can hope.

You’re working with artist Pascal Alixe for this issue. What do you think makes his art a good fit for the Brainiac story you have planned?

If only I could show you the design work he’s already done for this issue! Pascal’s amazing at creating alien worlds and I’ve given him planets that evoke classic “Flash Gordon”-esque sci-fi, dark “Blade Runner”-ish cityscapes and even a Steampunk world. There’s so much for him to sink his teeth into that this book is a showcase for his amazing talents. He’s great at conveying subtle emotion, which is crucial with such an emotionless villain. It’s a lot to ask from one artist, but he’s very much up to the task.

What can you tease about comics projects you have coming down the line in the future?

Can’t really announce or even hint at anything beyond Villain’s Month, and to be honest I’m still trying to catch my breath after several years doing Green Lantern stories and so many other things. On top of that, I’m working on some video game projects. But comics remain my first love and I have plenty more stories to tell at DC, where my favorite characters live.

DC’s Villains Month begins in September