“So much straight-up murder”: Assassin Nation’s Kyle Starks and Erica Henderson on Launching their New Comedy Blockbuster
December 21, 2018
Assassin Nation, the new action-comedy comic from writer Kyle Starks and artist Erica Henderson, unites 20 bloodthirsty, absurd contract killers to protect a crime overlord. Laughs and violence ensue.
Kyle Starks knows how to make you laugh through a blood bath. The cartoonist behind Sexcastle and Rock Candy Mountain walks a meticulous tightrope of absurdist violence, left-hook belly laughs, and equally surprising emotion. All of those skills will take on a new intensity in Assassin Nation, his new Skybound project with artist Erica Henderson. Known for her lengthy, jubilant run on Marvel's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl with a stint on Archie's Jughead, Henderson takes the premise of 20 contract killers meeting in a room and unleashes a jet stream of whimsical violence and '80s neon cool. In the following Q&A, the pair describes the process of creating an ensemble of hilarious murderers and naming them after fiancés and profanity.
A sample of this Q&A ran in the March issue of Previews.
How would you describe the premise of Assassin Nation?
Kyle Starks: The premise is that the World's Former Greatest Hitman, now a major Crime Boss, has been the target of several failed hits. Tired of his bodyguards being unable to handle the problem, he hires the Top 20 Killers to be his bodyguards. There's some b- and c-plots in there, but the gist is going to be who's trying to kill Boss Rankin, and can these killers work together? As you can probably expect, it gets super murder-y.
Kyle, this is your second assassination-centric project after Sexcastle and Kill Them All. What keeps you coming back to hired guns?
Starks: You know, I honestly shouldn't even fess up to this but, this is my third book with “The World's Former Greatest Assassin” type character and my third book with some sort of hitman union or something, and frankly you'd think I just got dropped on my head.
I think the reason that I'm so drawn to it as an archetype is that it automatically dictates a high degree of skill and threat, and there are so many reasons to step away from that life and so many possibilities for what that means for this character and where they are now and where they want to go. This, however, is also one of the clearest influences on me from having watched far too many '80s action movies in my formative years. Everyone is either the former best killer or ex-special forces, and I think I've always leaned toward the darker side when it comes to compelling characters.
I promised my wife I wasn't going to do a World's Former Greatest Assassin book for at least two books after Assassin Nation.
Erica, you’ve been working on superhero and teen-friendly comics for the greater part of the last decade. What appealed to you about a group of absurdist murderers?
Erica Henderson: I've worked on a lot of all-ages stuff for sure, and I love all-ages stuff too—but some of my favorite pieces of media are action and horror. Oh man, I cannot tell you how many times I've seen Predator, Hot Fuzz, or Robocop, which are all bloody action movies with humor mixed in. Also, Kyle and I have been talking about working together for years, and part of my wanting to work with Kyle was knowing the sort of stories he comes up with. Basically, at one point, Kyle said he had something, and it had to do with assassins, and that was really all it took for me to say "let's do it."
The first issue presents 19 hit-people from all over the world. How did you approach writing and designing this ensemble?
Starks: I really wanted to do an ensemble cast book, one where the body count would be high, the action would be huge. I came up with a bunch of funny names and, in my opinion, cool backgrounds, and Erica made them rad as heck. I think the trope of “a lot of different bad guys getting together” is so intriguing and full of potential.
I think as a writer, you want to always be challenging yourself and writing an ensemble cast is definitely challenging. But, luckily Erica and I made some great, great characters that I adore, so it was also a grand treat to endeavor.
Henderson: I was mostly concerned with making sure people felt different from one another. I'm really a big fan of distinct looking character actors like Ron Perlman, Jennifer Coolidge, CCH Pounder, and Lance Henriksen, so this was an opportunity to basically make a book full of those kinds of people. Some of them were just me drawing a character and saying to Kyle, "I don't know who she is, but she's in the book." And some were Kyle really wanting certain character archetypes in there and a few were just Kyle writing down an insane name and me filling in the blanks. With 19 characters, there was enough room for everyone to add something.
Who's your favorite assassin from the first issue?
Henderson: I'm just going to say Dave because I based him on my fiancé (maybe husband when this comes out?), Dave. If I remember correctly, Dave was a placeholder name that Kyle came up with for his normcore character, and I remember asking Kyle to change it. When the finished character list came in, his name was still Dave, so I just went for it. Dave's in there now.
Starks: Oh my god. I sincerely love all these characters. Wistful Stan the geriatric, retirement home hitman? Rumble Deathpatch? Desert Regal? Meat Stick? They're all cool, man!
F*%& Tarkington and Dave, I think, are All-Time Great characters. Current Number One Ranked Killer, Fernando, is the swaggiest, toughest guy that's every walked into an assassin meetup. I think Smoke and Bishop are two dope ends of the killer spectrum. I love them all, honestly.
Given the title, what’s the percentage that any given character will survive an issue? Should we expect a lot of turnover?
Starks: What? What do you mean? You don't think this 20 person killer ensemble will survive until the end? Really? Aw man. I think they'll be alright.
How extreme does Assassin Nation get, on a scale from a litter of bulldogs surfing a tsunami to Gun-Chucks?
Starks: I don't want to give anything away, but the second half of issue one is pretty extreme. And it just escalates each issue after that. The trouble just keeps getting bigger and more dangerous.
What can readers look forward to in Assassin-Nation?
Starks: You know, I like to think I promise the same things in all my books: action, comedy, mayhem, an entertaining good time. There are a couple mysteries in this book that will run the thread of it. There's a ton of really fun characters that just keep increasing from issue to issue. It's going to be a fun ride. With lots of murder. And a guy named F*%&.
Henderson: So much straight-up murder.
Assassin Nation #1 releases on March 13, 2019