Mark Russell is one of the funniest writers in comics today. That fact is especially evident with his most recent series, One-Star Squadron. Paired with Steve Lieber — who is the artist with the best comedic timing in comics — it’s a series that’s at once poignant and hilarious, mixing the mundane with superhero action
If you missed One-Star Squadron #1 when it dropped December 7, it’s a story about heroism meeting capitalism, involving a group of heroes led by Red Tornado. The “squad” offer an on-demand hero service through an app to answer any call from the small to the large. Sadly for these heroes, though, most calls request aid in the most inconsequential ways possible.
To better understand the series and his work at-large, I spoke to Russell about his approach to this specific kind of comedy, his collaboration with Lieber, grounding larger-than-life superheroes, and much, much more.
(Editor’s Note: One-Star Squadron #2 hits shelves on January 4.)
AIPT: Mark, you’ve proven time and time again you can ring comedy out of the mundane. How do you approach bringing comedy out of the mundane?
Mark Russell: I think scale is a big part of storytelling. I mean, you can’t have people saving the world or the galaxy or the universe every week. You know, at some point, you have to scale the stories down to a human level for them to, you know, make sense for them to feel like they have stakes.
AIPT: Right? You give us respite while Scott Snyder blows up entire multiverses.
MR: Nothing wrong with blowing up multiverses, there’s a role for that too. I think the stories that resonate the most with me now are told on a very human level, are about one person’s life, or the stakes that may be incredibly high to them, which no one else sort of even acknowledges as being important.
AIPT: Something I keep asking folks lately in interviews in the comics industry is when did you realize you had the story for One-Star Squadron?
MR: I think it wasn’t really until after I knew Steve Lieber was coming on board, that whole story sort of congealed in my mind, because I was thinking about writing, what characters would look like with him drawing him in certain situations. And I really kind of wanted to build it around the emotional core of people feeling like the rug is being pulled out from under them. And this is the last rug they’ll ever have.
That’s really what’s sort of the central concept of the story of people having to work, the gig economy, and the tail end of their diminishing career. And what it’s like to feel yourself sort of disappearing from view and to see the dream that you’d always chased sort of being pulled from you slowly. The plot details all kind of emanated from that.
AIPT: It’s funny when I saw Elon Musk was Person of the Year I immediately thought of Billionaire Island. Is that something that comes to your mind often, that series?
MR: Yes. In fact, I’m working on a second season. And part of the problem is that like, it all feels to me too much ripped from the headlines. People are gonna think, “Oh, well, this is just a hamfisted commentary on COVID.” When I was writing about this virus before, you know, COVID hit. Part of the problem is how do I make it seem resonant and relevant without being too much on the nose? It’s getting increasingly hard to do. My pessimism has yet to outflank reality. When it comes to writing.
AIPT: I can see the headline now: Elon Musk puts Mark Russell out of work because comedy is too real.
MR: Yeah. Reality outflanks satire once again.
AIPT: Things I really like in One-Star Squadron are these little moments, be it posters on the wall, or the way Red Tornado eats a hamburger. Are these moments that occur to you while you’re writing from page to page, from cover to cover? Or are these moments you’ve got hidden away like a squirrel in a notebook?
MR: A little of both. There are some things like the signs and stuff that I kind of had come up with as I was fleshing out the series, and I just been looking for little places to put them in. And some of the things too, are just Steve’s innovation. Steve just comes in with an idea and he throws it in the background. But some of them are very much inspired by the moment.
I think it’s sort of an underappreciated part of comic book writing, the background details, say without necessarily having to say it in a balloon, but what you can just sort of sneak into the background. But to me, they really add that third dimension to comic storytelling.
AIPT: It’s funny, I was just interviewing Casey Gilly, who writes Buffy The Last Vampire Slayer, and she spoke about how it’s frustrating to never see superheroes eat because their metabolisms would be such that they would need to be eating all the time.
MR: You would think. And Red Tornado, interestingly, is one of the few supers doesn’t have to eat. He just does it because he feels like it’s what you do as a human being. And he’s trying to learn what it is to be human. He eats for pleasure. He eats a cheeseburger for lunch because he enjoys the cheeseburger, or he really likes Cathy’s enchiladas. And that’s why he eats. I think he really is trying to assimilate as a human being. And a lot of what the series is about his take on humanity and what’s important.
AIPT: How do you get in the right mindset to write a book like this because it does feel so different from most other books, there’s a vibe to it, where it is a bit sad but in that sadness, there’s a bit of humor and quirkiness?
MR: Well, I feel like, in a way, that’s what draws me to stories, the fact that this is a little different, the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly into the established universe in which I’m writing is kind of what makes it worth telling. Tonality, I think, is really important to a story because it’s ultimately a window into your soul and how you are and what you think is important in how you connect with the world.
I’ve never been attracted to writing something that I felt was sterile, or just a pure genre piece that didn’t really have anything to say about the world or humanity, or things that just sort of fit seamlessly and unforgettably into an established universe. Those stories never really held any great appeal to me.
AIPT: What makes the mundane so funny?
MR: I think it’s big and small. You know, it’s the irony of unexpected contrast that you have these really mundane subjects that are incredibly important to some people, like a game of Magic the Gathering the ends of friendship, or a nuclear war is launched based upon somebody’s having a bad lunch. And I think it’s that sort of thing, the mundane speaks to the cosmic in an almost inherently comic way.
AIPT: So I literally lost a friend because of Magic the Gathering.
MR: Whoa! Wow. I’ve heard of marriages being imperiled by Settlers of Catan. A friend of a friend had to like institute a house rule where the Robber was basically decapitated because it was causing too much strain on his marriage, the fact that his wife would use the Rober to steal his cards.
AIPT: Uno and Sorry are also really tricky with loved ones.
MR: Navigate ethically. Yeah.
AIPT: Well, Mark, thank you so much for your time.
MR: Thank you, David.
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