As Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed us, Hydra has been lurking in the fringes of the Marvel Universe for decades. But who are these agents that pop up and mess with our heroes? What are their stories?
Meet Hank Johnson: Agent of Hydra. In the new Secret Wars one-shot, out today, the world will finally get a glimpse into the life of one of Marvel’s most interesting characters thanks to writer David Mandel and artist Michael Walsh (Secret Avengers). Mandel, the recently crowned showrunner of Veep (and executive producer of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) is taking his comedic talents to a new level by exploring Hank Johnson’s life — and it’s a journey that the world is not going to want to miss, whether you “Hail Hydra” or not.
EW spoke with Mandel about making the leap from television to comics, bringing Hank to life, and how his penchant for falling into real-life comedic situations played a role in shaping the character.
EW: This comic seems like it has a different tone — more tongue-in-cheek and lighthearted than usual. How was that writing experience, given your comedic background in television?
I have been reading and collecting comic books since I was a little kid. I still go to my comic shop every Wednesday and buy the new books. And while I am happy to sit around and argue about what Wolverine’s origin should have been or who’s stronger between the Thing or the Hulk, most of my ideas for comics are comedy ideas because that’s what I do for a living. Marvel has been really wonderful about letting me come in and kind of do my own mini-Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque episode smack dab in the middle of their universe, and that’s how I treated it. For me, it was like writing a pilot for a TV show that never was, about a guy who happens to work for Hydra.
How much fun was it to create Hank’s backstory and really dive into his personality?
Starting back in my Seinfeld days, the best stories were always the ones that were based in reality and then you take them and turn them into TV. My childhood friend once had a run in with an overly familiar health club worker and that became “The Pool Guy.” My wife grew up on a farm and had what she called “farm hands” and that became “Man Hands” in the “Bizarro Jerry” episode. So I didn’t so much create Hank as take a bunch of elements from my own life and think about what things would have been like if I had gone to work for a big faceless corporation. Back in college, I did some recruiting and at some point Proctor & Gamble wanted to fly me to Ohio for an interview. At the time, I wasn’t sure comedy writing was a real job, but I realized I did not want to talk about shampoo and cereal for the rest of my life. So Hank is kind of me if I had gone to work for a big company, only that company is Hydra.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Michael Walsh? I know he recently finished his run on Secret Avengers, which was also a little lighter in terms of story and character.
I have to admit I wasn’t that familiar with Michael’s work before we started together. Marvel brought him to my attention, and I was really taken with his style. Once he was on board, Michael instantly understood that he didn’t have to draw “funny” — the story and dialogue would be funny and he could do what he does. There is a wonderful reality to his work: Hank looks like a regular guy, his wife is a regular girl. The other thing that was great about Michael is that we were able to work “Marvel-style”. I had written a very dialogue-heavy book with lots of small moments, and I had a sense of how long things should be, but within that framework, he was able to take my dialogue and really give the panels a sense of life. We did a scene at Hank’s son’s little league game. The Hydra team is playing the Junior Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and while the scene is mostly about Hank talking with his rival coach, Michael was able to add some real life to it with Hank’s son getting a hit. So it was a real collaboration between us.
I thought I would also mention that one of the other things that I collect is original comic art — the pen and ink original hand drawn pages that make up a comic book. I thought Michael did such as amazing job, I had to buy the complete story from him … all 20 pages and his variant cover. And they just look incredible. That’s why I took the job with HBO as the new show runner of Veep, so I could pay Michael.
What excited you most about writing this comic and diving into this character? Was there something specific about the book that made you want to jump into comic writing like this?
I actually came up with this idea for Hank back in 1998 just Seinfeld was ending and pitched it to the original Marvel Knights Team of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti. At the time, I think the Marvel higher ups were not confident in a comedy book, and it kind of went away, but Axel Alonso remembered the pitch and when Secret Wars came about he asked if I wanted to be a part of it. So a big part of this for me was finally getting to the book after so many years. I was also excited to “be funny” in the Marvel Universe. I tried to write a comic that would make comic fans or comedy fans laugh and if you are both, so much the better.
Alright, give us a bit of intel…what can you tease about the first issue for readers?
The first issue is filled with some of the most amazing action ever seen in modern book — an attack on Hydra by Nick Fury, a funeral, a school meeting with the principal at Baron Strucker Elementary, an eight-year-old’s birthday party, filing sexual harassment charges against Madame Hydra, and a baby that accidentally drinks Red Bull. Such is the life of Hank Johnson, Agent of Hydra.
See below for preview pages of Hank Johnson: Agent of Hydra, out today in comic shops and in digital format.
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