Marvel Comics writer Sam Humphries walks in with wild hair and rocking a T-shirt with one of the characters from his new comic wielding an equally unwieldy hairdo — X-Men member Storm with the iconic ’80s look of a mohawk. Humphries is currently writing “Uncanny X-Force,” “The Ultimates” and “Sacrifice.”
“Uncanny X-Force” is an X-Men book that also happens to be one of the rare Marvel comics set on the West Coast — right here in Los Angeles.
“There’s no better place to set a noir story than Los Angeles,” Humphries says.
Humphries has lived in L.A. for 14 years; he says that’s had an effect on him.
“The atmosphere, the personal space that you get in Los Angeles can affect your psyche in such a way that it can’t help but have an impact on your writing.”
“L.A. is a place historically where people come to make their name, to make their fortune,” Humphries says. “You can look at the history of noir stories in Los Angeles as people grasping for riches or power or the girl, and getting too caught up in the conflicting desires of strong personalities in Los Angeles.”
Humphries thinks that link goes back through noir history. “All the way back to ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘Maltese Falcon’ and ‘The Big Sleep.’ These are all classic stories. They don’t just take place in Los Angeles, but in a very subtextual way, they are about Los Angeles.”
“Uncanny X-Force,” which just launched this week, was pitched by Humphries as James Bond directed by David Lynch.
“I see noir in the context of ‘Uncanny X-Force’ as about characters who have a secret. Characters who are together, they’re in the same room, they may be allies, they may be pledged to each other, they may be on the same team, but they don’t necessarily, in their heads, they’re not necessarily thinking about the team first,” Humphries says.
“That’s something you get in the Avengers. With the Avengers, you have a bunch of characters who come together, and they think about the team first. It’s real American-like. It’s like a sports team. There’s no I in team — there’s a lot of I’s in ‘Uncanny X-Force.’”
He’s writing a book about outcasts. “They’re all looking for a place to be, a place to belong. They’re all looking for the next phase in their lives. And I think that search drives people to desperation in the wrong situation, and that’s when you get a lot of noir situations. A lot of people pulling guns on each other, people pulling double crosses.”
Humphries wants to leave his imprint on the Marvel characters he’s writing, but he also has a reverence for what’s come before.
“These are characters I grew up reading. These are characters, it may seem kind of silly, but I learned the beginnings of a moral code from. Loyalty, and sticking up for the weak, and not discriminating or judging other people. These are all things that you can find in the X-Men. These are valuable, powerful things.”
Time travel, Aztecs and epilepsy
They’re facing a time-traveling enemy, but in another of Humphries’ books, the initially self-published “Sacrifice,” we have a time-traveling protagonist. In that book, 21st century man Hector is hurtled back in time to the Aztec Empire. (I’m getting hives just thinking about not having access to my iPhone.)
What is it that makes time travel so appealing?
“Part of it is wish fulfillment. I’m obsessed with the Aztecs. I would love to spend some time in the early 1500s in what is now Mexico City. And who doesn’t want to go into the future and see what we achieve or see how we spectacularly destroy ourselves?”
Humphries funneled that Aztec obsession into “Sacrifice,” using his own knowledge and research to tell a story about that culture.
“What we really wanted to do was remain true to the spirit of the Aztec story — their story themselves, and not the distorted prejudiced story that the Spaniards told about the Aztecs. This is a story that survived unchallenged for hundreds of years, and it’s very self-serving to a culture that crossed an ocean to ruthlessly dominate two continents.”
The main character of “Sacrifice” also shares something with Humphries — they’re both epileptic.
“In the Aztec culture, as in many cultures around the world, if you are epileptic, if you have seizures, you are automatically regarded as a holy person. You are regarded as sacred, as a priest. You can travel back and forth between the spirit world and the real world. That gives you value.”
Things weren’t so easy for Humphries growing up.
“There is absolutely nothing cool about being the epileptic as a kid. There’s nothing cool about being the spaz in class,” Humphries says. “Part of me just wanted to create a story where having epilepsy was a really cool plus and not a really stupid negative.”
Still, Humphries says there is some separation with the character.
“He’s not a thinly veiled Sam Humphries. This is not the story of what I would do. But as an epileptic, it’s a story that you don’t see a lot represented in popular culture, just the way you don’t see the story of the Aztecs represented in popular culture.”
The lead character is also a Joy Division fan. Joy Division and the Aztec Empire? Sounds like the perfect book for a public radio fan. Humphries says he wants to do more Aztec stories that are thematic sequels to “Sacrifice,” but knows that it can be hard to get stories like that told.
“Despite ‘Downton Abbey’ or what-have-you, it’s tough to sell period pieces.”
Doing it yourself and dolphin sex
Humphries first made his name in comics through self-publishing. In 2011, “I realized that I was about to have a dead year in the second year of my career. … It was going to be the death of my career before I even really got started. So I made this decision, I made this vow to myself, that I was going to take my career into my own hands. … I was going to stop waiting for anyone else’s permission to make comic books.”
He said he wanted to make sure that the stories he told through self-publishing weren’t the same thing you could get from the major publishers.
“I wasn’t just going to take my Spider-Man idea, for example, and name him Wasp Man and just change the name slightly and just publish something that could find a home somewhere else.”
So he took the ideas for “Sacrifice” and for “Our Love Is Real,” a one-shot about a society where people develop romantic feelings for animals, vegetables and minerals.
“Almost everyone had the same reaction, which is ‘Wow, this is really cool, and I personally would love to read it, but it just doesn’t make sense for us as a company.’”
Humphries says that reaction makes sense, and it’s what spurred him on to make those comics himself.
“It’s that kind of looking over the cliff, that sense of finality, that sense of responsibility that drives you in those late nights. It’s 4 a.m. and you’re watching you’re twelfth episode of Cheers and you run out of tape, and you just want to go to bed, but you have two more boxes of comics to get out. That’s what it takes to be a self-publisher.”
The inspiration for “Our Love Is Real” came from a sadly defunct (or not-so-sadly, depending how you look at it) website, DolphinSex.org.
“It was just one man’s story about his love affair with a dolphin,” Humphries says. “He was very emphatic that this was a romantic relationship. It was a romantic, consensual, two-way relationship between two intelligent mammals. And that was a perspective I had never considered before. It’s certainly not something I identified with, it’s certainly not something I could endorse, but it was a point of view that was so foreign to me that it opened up this whole new world.”
Humphries got his first major Marvel comics work with an adaption of something far less controversial — one of the John Carter stories (which recently became a much maligned film). He says it was the perfect first project.
“If I blew it, I wouldn’t have millions of angry Spider-Man fans cursing my name until I die,” Humphries says (alluding to the recent controversial Spider-Man comic written by Dan Slott where Spidey secret identity Peter Parker was killed off). “There was a lot of confidence in having Edgar Rice Burroughs as my copilot.”
President Captain America
Outside of “Uncanny X-Force” and “Sacrifice,” Humphries has also been writing “The Ultimates,” a take on the Avengers that takes place in an alternate universe.
“It’s like the Avengers on HBO, because you don’t have as many restrictions in terms of the kinds of stories you can tell.”
In that book, he offered a brand new take on Captain America: He made him president of the United States. Marvel wanted to make sure Cap wasn’t just sitting behind a desk, and figuring out how to use Steve Rogers in this new world opened things up for Humphries.
“It really freed me to let Cap be Cap. And Cap is a soldier. He’s from the ’40s. He was frozen in ice for decades. He’s a symbol. He’s not someone who is going to want to negotiate. He is not someone who is going to want to maneuver around a fillibuster. He is not someone who’s going to want to sit behind a desk. He is going to make the presidency his own. He is not going to be changed by the presidency.”
Humphries got his start on the book co-writing with critically acclaimed comics writer Jonathan Hickman, before taking it over himself.
“[Jonathan Hickman] said, don’t worry about trying to write a Jonathan Hickman book. Don’t write what I would write. Don’t write what anybody else would write. Just write what you would write.”
Making your dreams come true
Before any of his own comics work, Humphries worked for MySpace.
“I like to think I take a spirit of innovation and risk-taking from the Silicon Valley atmosphere, where innovation and failure is celebrated.”
Humphries says that the only way to get something done is to just go do it.
“If you want to make comic books, you cannot sit around waiting for someone else to make comic books. … In any industry, your job is not just to do the job, but to enjoy doing the job, to fall in love with your job and stay in love with your job, and if you can’t do that at the beginning, you’re going to have a long road ahead of you,” Humphries says.
“You have your own goals. You have your own aspirations, your own dreams. And focus on the techniques and the methodology that will get you there. Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. Just focus on what’s fun and enjoyable for you, and what’s going to make your dreams come true.”
Humphries looks well on his way to making his own dreams come true.