How Tragedy Turned ‘Weirdworld’ Into One Of Marvel’s Best Comics In Decades

Despite all of the major events in the post-Secret Wars Marvel Universe – The mutants are dying! Steve Rogers is Captain America again! Two Spider-Men, and one of them is basically Tony Stark! – it’s Weirdworld, the book that has absolutely nothing to do with any of them, that stands out as Marvel’s best. Co-created by writer Sam Humphries and artist Mike Del Mundo, the title combines seemingly irreconcilable elements from Mad MaxThe Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland into a wonderfully odd title, one of Marvel’s best new books of recent years.

All Becca Rodriguez wanted to do was take her recently-deceased mother’s ashes to Mexico. Her journey gets incalculably more complicated when her plane is drawn into Weirdworld. Now, it’s not just a matter of getting to Mexico, but getting back to Earth. Becca is joined on her quest by two Weirdworld natives: Goleta, a wizard-slayer, and Ogeode, a cat-bat wizard…thing who, in a previous form, was responsible for bringing Becca to Weirdworld in the first place. But saying Weirdworld is just about Becca trying to return to Earth is like saying an X-Men book is just about people born with superpowers trying to stop other people with superpowers. There are layers, here, at once intimate and accessible.

Unfortunately, Weirdworld will meet its too-soon demise today, which sees the publication of its final issue. Still, we come not to bury the book, but to celebrate a story of loss and anger and sandsharks and wizards and swamp men and giant lava creatures and trying to find your way home. We spoke with Humphries about the book, how a personal tragedy influenced the main character, and why he compares himself to a mediocre quarterback with a terrific defense.

How instantly did you click with Mike Del Mundo?

Mike and I just mesh very well on a personal level. We talk and text all the time. I think our first phone conversation, the first 20 minutes was spent talking about the first Wu-Tang Clan solo albums. We not only got along, but we had some sensibilities and passions outside of comics that really meshed. I’m extremely lucky to have done this book with him. And, you know, it’s Mike Del Mundo. If he says he’s going to draw the hell out of something, then you better put it in the book and get out of his way. 

Could you have told this story without him?

No. No, no, no. Something else that’s really special is that he picked up on Becca and the suicide of Becca’s mother very early on. We had this moment of recognition, where I’d put it in an outline, and he had noticed it, and even though we’d never met in person, it was almost like our eyes had met across the room, and we had a full understanding. He was like, “I get it. I see what this book is really about.”

A lot of artists might feel reluctant to do quieter moments, or invest in scenes that are about mothers and daughters sitting on couches, but Mike instantly understood what I was going for there, and the power of it if it’s done right. And that gave me the confidence to invest even further in what is really the heart of the story. It’s the heart of Becca’s emotional life in Weirdworld. I would then lean into those moments a little more in the script, and Mike would lean into them harder for the artwork. By about issue four and five, he’d text me and say, “Dude, I teared up reading the script.” And I was like, “Dude, I was tearing up writing it.”

Look, sometimes, when you have a partner like Mike, you have to recognize that sometimes your job is being a mediocre quarterback on a football team with a fantastic defense. Like sometimes, you just gotta get on the field and don’t fuck it up.

So you were Peyton Manning or Trent Dilfer.

Exactly. You’re probably the only comic book interviewer I can make that reference to.

How do you balance those two stories – the story of Becca trying to get out of Weirdworld, and the story of Becca trying to deal with her mother’s suicide?

You could summarize it as the difference between interior and exterior life. Sometimes there’s a perception that those need to be separate, or there’s a burden to do both, but if you do it right, the balance between the two is a strength.

With Weirdworld, it’s in the title. It’s going to be weird. You want things like sand sharks and the grand mechanic and giant lava monsters. You want to see the weird. But it’s going to be tedious almost immediately if you don’t have a way to invest in the well-being of these characters. And the way that you get an audience to invest, is you open the characters up to them. You become as emotionally honest as you can be through these characters.

And when you’re really hot, when shit is really flowing, and you have scenes and sequences where both (interior and exterior) come together at once, that’s when books and stories really take off and sing.

How do you form those characters?

When you’re writing a Marvel book, you don’t always get new characters to play with. You don’t always get to develop them from the ground up. Sometimes they have decades and decades of stories and the baggage of expectations attached to them. It can be very difficult to find a way to take these characters and do something with them that rings emotionally true to you. If you’re emotionally involved as a creator, then the chance of you getting the audience involved is much higher. With Weirdworld, I decided to really go for it. I realized I had the chance to write a Marvel character that was more personal to me than I’d ever done before.

I have to give it up to Tom Brevoort and Alanna Smith because there’s one version of this outline where, you know, Spider-Man guest stars in issue two or whatever, and they were very plain about it. I wasn’t asking for permission to do anything, but they could kind of tell, and they were like, “Look, if this is the book you want it to be, it can be that. But don’t feel like you have to stick Spider-Man in issue two just to fulfill some sort of edict or expectation, because if that takes away from the emotional core of the book, then you should go down the other path. You should pursue this emotional story of Becca because if that’s what resonates more for you, it will resonate more for the audience.”

I think that was a very brave thing for a couple of Marvel editors to say, “Don’t worry about bringing Spidey into it.” You don’t always get this opportunity to imbue a Marvel or DC character that you’re writing with an emotional life or journey that rings true to you.

With Becca, I dug real deep and I based her experiences with her mom and her mom’s ashes on the experience of myself and my siblings after my step-mother killed herself.

How hard was that for you?

Sometimes it’s real difficult, sometimes it’s too easy. When you’re trying to connect to such a real emotional place for yourself and your family, and you’re trying to put that in the context of barbarians driving tricked out Cadillacs and shit, it can sometimes be tough to get there. But if you are able to find a way to synthesize the two, and get in the emotional experience that you went through, it can be very, very easy, and very, very painful, and very, very raw. Once you open that channel for yourself, all of the sudden, the things that hit the hardest, or are strongest about the book, start to come very easy.

And by easy, I mean really painful and really hard for me. But in some ways, it becomes the easiest thing to write. There were some people who reached out to me and said they were really surprised and thankful that I portrayed Becca as someone who had a suicide in her family not as somebody who was maudlin about it, but actually had anger about it, and was angry at her mother about it – who didn’t just revere her mother as some sort of burnt-out star, the way some people think of Kurt Cobain, but as somebody who felt abandoned and left behind and hurt by what happened. Someone who wasn’t prepared to take it in stride and have a traditional sense of mourning to it.

When someone dies of natural causes, it’s very different from when someone commits suicide, in terms of what happens afterwards. I don’t think we give people who experience suicide in their friends and family the space to be angry. I don’t think people feel like they have permission to be angry about it, because that’s now how you’re supposed to feel about somebody who killed themselves.

That is something that I definitely wanted to tap into through Becca and put on the page, because it’s not something you see on the page or screen.

Was this your way of getting your anger out?

Absolutely. If you find a way to make these characters speak to you on an emotional level, it becomes like therapy that you get paid for doing, instead of the other way around. That’s the thing. People will ask how much of yourself do you put into your work and your characters. If you’re doing it right, you’re putting quite a bit of it in there. If you’re working on something and you find yourself putting your own emotions and experiences into it, even if it feels quite raw at the time, there’s a power and authenticity there that can’t come from anything else.

I absolutely worked out some of my anger while writing Becca. I have siblings, too, and I feel like by proxy, I worked out some anger we all felt during that period of time.

What did your family think?

Oh, they don’t know. They have no idea. Long story short, probably about two years after my stepmom killed herself, because of the callous actions of some of our older relatives who should know better, my stepmother’s ashes ended up with my younger sister who was in college at the time. She had them for one night. She lived in a college town, and someone broke into her car and stole the fucking ashes.

It’s such a shitty failure on our quote-unquote adult relatives that led to this situation.

And for Becca to have to cart her mother’s ashes not just from Florida to Mexico, but Florida to Weirdworld to Mexico and have to bear this burden because the adults in their lives weren’t able to do it themselves, I think you can hear my anger that I have. That’s where I came up with the central journey for Becca. Her true quest, which is not to get out of Weirdworld, but to get her mother’s ashes to her intended resting place in Mexico.

Is there a danger of putting too much of yourself in a character?

Only in service of being true to Becca. The danger, of course, is you end up writing yourself more than you write the character. That’s not going to do anyone any favors. You do want to be unrestrained when you pull these emotional experiences out of yourself, but you want to write these characters, not you. They’re not a mouthpiece for you. If these characters are preachy or grinding an axe for you in public, then audience will not relate to them or invest in them. Then you have people who don’t care about the characters or the sand sharks. Who cares about the sand sharks if you don’t care about the characters? Nobody will give a shit!

Are you going to miss the book?

I’m going to miss the shit out of the book. I think Mike and I would have done this book for a hundred issues, no question.

But, I do feel like we did it. We did this book. If you look at the critical acclaim and the fan base and the way people responded to it, I think we really did turn in a book that was very special, and if I may say, putting on my modesty hat, I do feel a level of accomplishment like I was finally able to co-create a Marvel comic that stands alongside the best comics published in the past 15, 16 years.

The sixth and final issue of Weirdworld will be released today, May 25. A collected edition is scheduled for July.