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Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into 'Blue Flame'

Comic Books

Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into ‘Blue Flame’

The poignant superhero epic wraps up this week.

A lot’s been done to explore the superhero archetype. From Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, and even Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s Kick Ass and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns saga, we’re fascinated with what makes these heroes so essential to our culture and shared experiences. And while it doesn’t have nearly the same impact and sense of legacy, certainly Blue Flame could enter this larger canon and conversation in the years to come.

The brain-child of writer Christopher Cantwell (who accomplished similar dissections in his Iron Man run) and artist Adam Gorham (Immortal Hulk and Black Panther), the book follows the titular “DIY vigilante” operating in Milwaukee. And while it initially feels like an homage to Silver Age comics (which it still very much is), the book quickly reaches its final form: an unflinching break down of the man behind the jetpack, Sam Brausam, as he comes to terms with his heroism and innate humanity following a terrible accident.

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With a rich, multifaceted narrative (it touches on, among other references points, Birdman and Strange Adventures,), the book is a gripping exploration of why people become heroes, and what that ultimately means in every sense (logistical, emotional, philosophical, etc.) And while Cantwell and Gorham never let up for one second in putting Brausam through the wringer, it’s a nonetheless dazzling love letter to those who just want to do better. And did we mention there’s maybe a trial for the fate of Planet Earth involved?

With the finale (issue #10) debuting this week from Vault Comics, both Cantwell and Gorham gave us the deep dive into the series. That includes their collaborative process, how they felt the series was perceived, things they’d have done differently, the story’s core mission, Sam’s ongoing development, and what might come next. It makes for especially compelling analysis that helps further explain just why this series is both entertaining and hugely important to the craft of comics storytelling.

Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into 'Blue Flame'

Variant cover by Yoshi Yoshitani. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: What was the collaborative process like as you got deeper into the story? Did that help make it easier to make decisions, take risks, etc.?

Adam Gorham: For me personally, the collaborative process was loose during the second half of the series, and it came down to my needing space to draw the pages. Chris and the whole team were always only an e-mail or DM away and are wonderfully supportive creative partners. The great thing about Chris’s scripts being so sharp and clear is that as I was drawing, everything I needed was on the typed page. The guy is a terrific writer. Furthermore, Kurt is an absolute powerhouse of an artist, and his color work deepens every panel.

Chris Cantwell: Fairly quickly I felt I was writing to the tone of Adam’s art. This story is so uniquely visually his that I was trying to channel that in my scripts. He and Kurt and even Hass to an extent own the visual look and feel of this book and I was really just doing my best to play into that in how I broke up panels and chose what to emphasize on the page. Of course, I always left it for Adam to overrule me in any way he wanted to, and he when he did it only elevated what we were building together. Also, Aaron Fischer continuing to build our score was very influential on the team, so much so that Kurt laid down a beautiful original guitar track of his own. I felt like our Slack channel and email chains were a little hippie commune. I want to try to put out a blue vinyl soundtrack record with the collected edition with Aaron and Kurt’s music on it. I have to figure out Kickstarter.

AIPT: Are there any parts or areas of this run you would have changed?

AG: I’m never satisfied with my own art, so if there was anything I’d work on or change, it would be minor things like a face here or an angle there. However, Kurt’s colors always make me feel way better about my pages, so it all evens out. Otherwise, Chris penned a rich story I’m very proud of.

CC: I always knew where we were going to start and finish. I did make some turns in the overall story as we were writing, because I had enough time in the process to really reflect on what felt best. Things such as the Crimson Visage’s complicity in the tragedy that kicks the story off came in the middle of the writing process, but ultimately felt stronger because it spoke to the book’s underlying themes really well in my opinion. Honestly, when I have the leeway to curse in pages (or any writing) I feel I do it too much, so I’d probably go back and strip out some of the profanity that might feel unnecessary now. Maybe that just stems from childhood Catholic guilt.

Vault Comics launching 'The Blue Flame' from Chris Cantwell and Adam Gorham

At from issue #1. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: Similarly, are there things that were removed or de-emphasized that you wished played a bigger role? I would have loved to see even more with Matteo, for instance.

AG: As I recall, when I turned in pages featuring Matteo, he was the character that took us all by surprise, and I guess he’s an unsung hero of the series. On a different note, I think I was taking a big swing with the cosmic elements of the story that Chris made sure he gave me lots to play with.

CC: Man, I love Mateo. He’s got such a good heart in this series. Every moment with him really rose to the top, and when it felt like the story had finally broken him I think it was truly heartbreaking. That was always the intention. Yeah, perhaps we could’ve seen him more on the inside of the detention center if we’d had the time, but each issue of this book is just brutal and doesn’t pull any punches. I don’t know how much more emotional darkness it could’ve held. I would’ve liked to do more flashbacks to the Night Brigade maybe, seen more of Theia and Sam’s relationship. I always loved writing Reed and wanted to do more with her.

AIPT: Can we talk about the Sam-Yarix relationship? I feel like that’s such a huge part of the emotional and thematic payoff of this whole series. And it felt like a great commentary on the whole hero and “villain” dynamic.

AG: In my office hangs a very lovely print of Death and Antonius Block from The Seventh Seal, and that became my inspiration for Sam and Yarix’s dynamic, to the point where I slimmed Yarix down and made his cowl more form fitting. While I don’t consider Yarix to be a true villain, he does represent Judgement, literally and figuratively, and that to me is more harrowing because Yarix isn’t simply an adversary to defeat, instead he’s a figure Sam has to answer and is forced to do the hard work of owning his mistakes and the mistakes of all humanity.

CC: Adam’s archetype for Death and Antonius was brilliant and I actually tried to write to that because the allegory was so rich. Yarix is very much a conflicted soul in this book who has this sincere respect for Sam, but also holds him to account like no other. He has real conviction that’s unwavering, unlike Sam / the Blue Flame. It’s important that Sam’s lawyer at the end visually look like Yarix. Here are these hierarchical figures in Sam’s life that he alternately disappoints and confounds. They are wise and at the same time limited. They don’t have the moral scope that Sam possesses. They might admire him, but they might not truly ever “get” him. In Yarix at least there might even be a deeper-seated aspirational quality to Sam that is forever out of his reach.

Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into 'Blue Flame'

More art from issue #1. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: The book does a lot to parallel characters physically and emotionally (in at least one part, Yarix and Reed, the reporter). Why is that such an effective device for this tale?

CC: I wanted to draw parallels between important people in Sam’s life. The intention behind that was not a mislead of what was real and who wasn’t, but how you run into these resonant people in your life that share similar qualities you are drawn to, and how your adversaries are often going to stack up against you in ways where the opposition is unique to your own personality.

AIPT: The book’s narrative hinges a lot on this idea of reality versus fantasy. But I don’t think it’s as simple as this is real and that’s a “dream” for Sam. Is it more nuanced than that?

AG: For Sam, it’s all real. The way I approached the material, there’s no question of what’s real and what isn’t. Sam is going through these trials and they’re important. As a reader and a storyteller, I know that while all things end, life carries on. What is significant to me is that by the end of our story, Sam is ready to face and accept his judgment.

CC: It’s all real, but I never set out to write anything concrete in either direction. I’ll be irritating and say it’s all a dream as well. It’s ambiguous on purpose. But I was careful enough to put enough details in either direction that I think any reader can draw their own logical conclusion about what’s happening. I think most importantly, the emotional journey for Sam is potent and sincere whether he’s in space or Milwaukee. He has many facets to his personality and persona and interior life, just like we all do, and they’re all as real as anything is in existence.

AIPT: Similarly, I think you could make an argument for this book being both “pro” and “con” in exploring the place and value of traditional superhero comics. Are you effectively exploring the complexity here as opposed to making arbitrary moral distinctions?

AG: From the first reading of the script for issue one, this story felt less of a deconstruction of the superhero genre and more of an attempt to grapple with our modern world through the eyes of a superhero.

CC: I’ll concur with Adam. Yeah I have a sincere love for super heroes which I think is evident in some of my other comic book work. But I think it’s fair to say that in this book and even other hero books I write, I’m really investigating the imprint heroes have on our psyche and why that is so. What makes them indelible and how can that be helpful and also problematic in a life, in a society? I think most importantly in this book, this is a story about how we’re all the super hero protagonist of our own story, even if others don’t see us that way, and some might even see us as the villain. We are the stories we tell ourselves, both to good and bad effect.

EXCLUSIVE Vault Preview: The Blue Flame #1

Variant cover to issue #1 by Richard Pace. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: How much is this book ultimately about his helping being as the core tenet of humanity? And not that we’re bad folks who can be redeemed or good people in a mixed up world?

AG: I’m not sure our story makes definitive statements about humanity, but instead offers a lot to think about. For instance, one of my takeaways while making this comic has been that you can’t help those around you if you resist bettering yourself.

CC: Adam is right. There’s a Zen tenet that you must reflect on (and even dissipate) the Self before you can truly help anyone else. And I think stories should be a mirror not a message. I tried to throw a lot of valid perspectives in there about how humanity is noble in its struggle and maybe should just die away. That debate is never ending and has a lot of dimensions. I tried to reflect that in all the characters’ points of view.

AIPT: I think the ending could be seen as a little “controversial” (I think it works perfectly). Spoiling as much as you want, why was that very quiet moment the place to leave it?

CC: I ultimately think stories with real definitive answers can risk being boring. Others might see it as lazy writing or a cop-out, but I don’t think so. I just want people to take away the emotional resonance of the story and whatever else they have in their minds. I also think that we sit at a precipice right now as a species. As I write this, the world population hit 8 billion. Are we headed for disaster or is there hope? Can it be both? I’ve got a brand new baby son and I love him and his smiles. That’s real and pure, regardless of whether he leads a life with opportunity or is later pushing the rusty shopping cart full of drinkable water like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Was it selfish for my wife and I to have this child? Absolutely. But we also have hope, and without hope there is no future at all and we may as well just call it a day.

AIPT: So much of how Sam (and maybe other characters to boot) is at any moment is told through subtle visual bits. How deliberate is that device, and what do you think it provides in terms of his evolution across the series?

CC: I think between me and Adam it’s very deliberate. Sometimes I’m calling out small things in script and sometimes Adam is doing it on the page independent of me. Even Kurt and Hass are sneaking things in or making choices with intention in terms of how the story is hitting them in that moment. It makes the whole book much richer in my opinion, and more than I’d hoped it would be.

Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into 'Blue Flame'

Cover by Adam Gorham. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: There’s a profound brutalism here to the lives of these characters. Why is that so vital, and is this perhaps a commentary on the “feel-good” nature of some comics stories?

CC: I wanted a book that pulled no punches. The idea for this book came out of a real moment of despair for me when I looked at world events and nothing seemed to matter. So I wanted to write something about how people still choose to get up and live life day by day when things feel like that. And how a superhero continues to function in a world like that (or fails to function).

AIPT: Chris, you recently had a new child (congrats!) Is this series, then, a kind of love letter to fatherhood? Is it maybe inspired by other real world events?

CC: I think I hit this one above. Yeah, I have three sons. What world will they inherit? They do active shooter drills at schools. How f----d up is that? My middle boy has no real cogent memories before the pandemic. Isn’t that sad? But they’ve got whole lives ahead of them. Anything could happen. They will have joy and suffering. It’s how it goes. That’s the game. The future is bright and also f-----g terrifying. So yeah, that’s in this book for sure.

AIPT: How much of this story is meant to be deeply and unapologetically meta — not just about comics and storytelling but also families and our legal system and substance abuse?

CC: This is maybe my most “about comics” comic book. But it really is about stories we tell ourselves and how to quote Sam “we are diseased with stories” in our lives. So this has several stories laid out on top of each other, all happening at once, which is often how my life feels like. There is some stuff about how systems and institutions fail us or are cold, whether it’s the Collective or the Milwaukee court system or immigration. But then there are these moments of grace that happen. These little exceptions to bureaucratic rule where the miracle of humanity seeps through. The substance abuse in this book is about coping with the pain and suffering in the world, and how it’s often the easiest thing for people to turn to in the face of the horror of being alive.

AIPT: This series joins things like The Boys in exploring a more “grounded” take on superheroes. But unlike that franchise, this one seems to have a kind of empathy and nuance to these heroes. Is that accurate, and why does that matter so?

AG: The potency of The Boys came from the creators’ disdain for the superhero genre, whereas we are exercising our disdain for humanity. I’m kidding a little. Although our book does ask “what kind of person decides they’re the one to save the world?”

CC: We hold Sam to account for his choices and actions. We look at “individualism” as a potentially very dangerous and sick concept in the American mind. But we also look at the power of it. And Sam is not a bad person… he’s just maybe realizing he’s as helpless as all of us. But there’s a beauty in his refusal to accept that. But there’s also a perversity, a rejection of the laws of the universe.

Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into 'Blue Flame'

Variant cover to #7 from Yoshi Yoshitani. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: I’m curious about some of the visual inspirations, especially in the latter issues in dealing with “god”/the edge of the universe. Why depict it in that way and what does that do to inform or enhance the story itself?

AG: Depicting the “great beyond” was pretty challenging, but it essentially came down to thinking of what the opposite of space would be like. Whereas space is infinite dark, if Sam somehow managed to travel outside of that, would there be some inversion of those characteristics? That left me with this idea of going backstage where you can see the support beams and blueprints of existence, layer upon layer of data and coding and mapping. That’s what made the most sense to me at the time, and it felt different than a Bleed space or going meta.

CC: I did some cursory research about how there is no real center of the universe, but how there is this thing called the cosmic horizon, and how light hasn’t reached it yet. I gave that to Adam and Kurt and they ran with it to amazing effect.

AIPT: Did you accomplish whatever goals you had laid out before this series even debuted? What are some of said goals?

AG: I regret not being swifter with my art duties, to be perfectly honest, but The Blue Flame is the largest and longest single project I’ve worked on to date, and in many ways it’s some of my most personal work. That’s not much of a goal, but I never really set one besides doing a good job.

CC: I think so? You try to write something that reflects how you feel and see things. I need to see it altogether and sit with it. I think people will dig the collected edition. I think it will really pack a punch in that form.

AIPT: Did you have a sense of how this book was perceived by readers? Did that response surprise, inspire, terrify, etc. the two of you at all?

AG: The readers I’ve heard from have been very kind and supportive and it’s meant a lot to me.

CC: I was scared about writing a mass shooting event into a comic to be honest. But we just tried to be legitimate and sincere and authentic with the emotions around it. The savvier crowd that picks this book up is looking to push the envelope in their reading, and the small group of avid readers have been very kind.

Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham dive deep into 'Blue Flame'

Cover by Adam Gorham. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

I don’t know how much overlap there is between this and some of my Marvel stuff, where I’ve got people mad at me because Iron Man’s armor isn’t doing enough cool stuff, but there IS overlap, and people who’ve responded to what I’m trying to do with Tony in Iron Man seem to appreciate what I’m doing with Sam in this book just as much.

AIPT: Is there a future for the Blue Flame universe in a new series/stories/etc.? Or are you content with the ending Sam and co. received here?

AG: I think the larger story is told, but I can see how there’s opportunity for the Untold Tales of The Blue Flame. Chris is a fantastic writer. If he calls, I’ll answer.

CC: I’d love to work with Adam again on anything. The acting in his characters’ faces is unparalleled. To me, the Blue Flame is done. It was always a contained story. Oddly enough, I’d like to see what happens to Reed… but who is reading that book unless we send a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter to space?

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