It’s extremely rare for me to get pulled all the way into a new fictional reality from the very first page of a comic. With only a map and four captions of expository text, the first page of Kingsway West #1 got me hungry to know more about the world of a Chinese cowboy in an Old West radically changed by magic gold.
An ongoing series debuting on August 24 from Dark Horse Comics, Kingsway West comes from the mind of Greg Pak, co-creator of some of the best Hulk stories ever told (including Planet Hulk). This new series centers around title character Kingsway Law, a war-weary gunhand trying to carve out a peaceful life in an alt-reality America split up into different nations warring over a magical natural resource.
Pak is currently the writer of Marvel’s Totally Awesome Hulk and a veteran of great runs on Action Comics, War Machine, and his creator-owned Code Monkey Save World. In the interview below, he answers questions about reshaping the cowboy genre around non-white ethnicities, negative fan responses to Marvel’s efforts to diversify its heroes, and the genesis of Kingsway Law. There’s an exclusive eight-page preview of Kingsway West #1 below, too.
io9: What was it that made you spin up this particular mix of genre ingredients for Kingsway West? Why not a cyberpunk Viking time travel love story or a psychedelic noir buddy-cop dramedy?
Greg Pak: I was a biracial Korean American kid who grew up in Dallas as a Dungeons & Dragons-playing Boy Scout. It was probably inevitable that I’d end up writing a Chinese gunslinger comic set in an Old West overrun with magic.
At what point does the timeline of Kingsway West diverge from real history? Does the existence of magic and the attendant ripple effects go all the way back to the dawn of time?
Pak: Imagine a world in which instead of gold, folks discovered red gold in 19th century Northern California. And red gold is the source of all magical phenomenon in the world—and thus the most valuable natural resource on the planet. So, all of the relationships and power dynamics between the different groups in the Americas shift in huge ways and our story picks up after the 13-year-old Red Gold War between the Chinese Queen of Golden City and the Mexican-ruled República de los Californios.
So, a big chunk of the differences between the Kingsway West world and the real world come about after 1848. But that red gold was in those hills for a looong time before then, so there are some subtle fantastical elements in the Kingsway West world that have presumably been at work for thousands of years.
Does the westward march of Manifest Destiny look very different for native people in the Kingsway West reality?
Pak: Yes! The exciting challenge of an alternate history Old West story like this is to explore different communities in the Americas in non-stereotypical and compelling ways. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but we’ll begin to reveal details about Native American communities in this world in issue #2 and some big payoffs will come in issues #3 and #4.
Characters of Chinese and Mexican backgrounds tend to be ‘seasoning’ in the Old West genre (when they show up at all) and not central to main storylines. But in a story like this, there tends to be a need for a “good” faction and an “evil” one. Do you worry about people from these backgrounds feeling like they’re being pushed into stereotypes all over again?
Pak: I sure hope not! I love the way Hayao Miyazaki movies like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind explore conflicts between communities without picking one of those communities to depict universally as straight-up orcs. I’m trying to a similar approach with Kingsway West. You bet, we’ll have protagonists and antagonists and straight up villains. But none of those characters will represent their entire race or community; we’ll strive to show the differences within communities as well. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a story of kings; this is the story of foot soldiers, of regular people caught up in terrible conflicts and struggling moment by moment to figure out the right thing to do. The kings and queens may tell them what to be and who to hate. But they’re making their own choices.
This is the kind of comic that people could use to accuse you of using diversity to pander. What’s your response to that assertion?
Pak: This is just the world I live in. Diversity isn’t a trend or gimmick. It’s just life, and the stories I write have always reflected that.
Who are the poorly-realized Asian characters in pop culture who’ve made your life difficult?
Pak: Oh, so many to choose from! Probably the Mr. Yunioshi caricature from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the worst example I can think of off the top of my head. But let me turn this around a bit and talk about some of the Asian and Asian-American characters, creators, performers and stories that made my life better when I was growing up. All my love to Toshiro Mifune, Margaret Cho, Lynda Barry’s Marlys, Usagi Yojimbo, Takeshi Shimura, Seven Samurai, just about all of Hayao Miyazaki’s characters, Wayne Wang, all the actors in Joy Luck Club but especially Tsai Chin and Tamlyn Tomita, the family from Peter Wang’s A Great Wall, Akira, Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and Tripmaster Monkey, Robert Ito in Quincy, Bruce Lee, all of the great Hong Kong films and stars of the ‘90s, Christine Choy’s Who Killed Vincent Chin, Hokusai, and even the off-screen Japanese American soldier and family in Bad Day at Black Rock.
Everybody’s list is going to be different. But these are a few of the Asian and Asian-American stories and people and characters that blew my mind and opened doors and inspired me while I was coming up. So huge thanks to all of them and all the others who came before and followed.
What was your favorite Superman story that you wrote during your tenure?
Pak: Probably the “What Lies Beneath” story that Aaron Kuder and I did at the very beginning of our Action Comics run. I just loved all the utterly human nuances Aaron brought out in that art. I also loved writing a young Clark who’s so determined to do the right thing but who finds himself in situations that are so much more complicated than he might be prepared for. I absolutely love that Superman—always trying to reach out to friends and opponents alike, never giving up, and then grappling with the emotional consequences in tough, honest ways. I also loved our supporting cast in that book. Lana Lang and the monster boy Baka were some of my absolute favorite characters to write at DC.
Some readers don’t like the sweeping changes Marvel’s made to make their superheroes more diverse. Where do you think the disapproval comes from?
Pak: Well, any new take on characters can take a while to earn the trust of readers. And yet every legacy character has gone through massive changes over the years, and that’s one of the exciting glories of storytelling in shared universes over generations. As I writer, I can’t worry about it too much in the moment. I just have to do the best I can with every book to get to the core of what makes the character tick and make the story as honest and compelling and exciting as possible.
If/when the historical status quo for the Hulk gets reinstated and Bruce Banner becomes the Strongest One There Is again, how do you want Amadeus Cho to be remembered? What’s your proudest moment with the character so far?
Pak: I’m so biased I can’t choose. I love everything we’ve been able to do with Amadeus. I love his very first appearance, drawn by the great Takeshi Miyazawa, which to this day might still be one of the cleanest, best-constructed short stories I’ve written. I love the way we integrated him into World War Hulk as the Hulk’s biggest fan and supporter. I loved all the ridiculous humor and enormous heart my co-writer Fred Van Lente brought to our Incredible Hercules run with Amadeus. And I love the stories we’re doing with Amadeus right now and how deep we’re going emotionally. Co-creating this character with Tak with the support of our amazing editors Mark Paniccia and Nate Cosby and writing him over the past 11 years has been one of my greatest joys in comics.