Max Payne doesn’t wear tights. But, if insanely fast reflexes, deadly marksmanship and an ability to swill the worst whisky around count, you could argue that the gritty NYPD detective of Rockstar Games’ shooters has superpowers. Powers or not, he’ll be appearing in a new series from Marvel Comics which is being written by Rockstar’s Dan Houser and Remedy’s Sam Lake.
Both men have put Max through awful tragedies in video game form and, in the interview that follows, Houser and Lake say that the comics will show that the character’s streak of misfortune runs all the way back to his childhood. Read on to find out about the comics that inspired Bully, why Viking myths showed up in the Max Payne titles and what Dan Houser thinks is a terrible thing about the internet.
Kotaku: What were the formative comic-book reading experiences for you both? Can you look back in your past and see stories or creators that made you want to become storytellers?
Sam Lake: I’ve been a big comic-book fan all my life. I used to drive my parents nuts by hauling a pile of Donald Duck comics to the dinner table when I was a kid. Then, I discovered superhero comics and became a big fan of X-Men and Chris Claremont. And after that it was Vertigo graphic novels, like Sandman by Neil Gaiman and many others. My love for comic books is definitely the reason why Max Payne used graphic novel panels as a storytelling method. And Gaiman’s use of old mythologies is one of the reasons the Viking gods are present both in Max Payne and Alan Wake.
Dan Houser: I’m English, so I combined reading fairly obvious American superheroes — in particular early Batman and Spider-Man, both of which we had in our house in some compendium or other — classic horror comics from the ‘50s, along with various issues of The Hulk, X-Men, The Fantastic Four and very early Superman. Alongside this was an array of British and European comics that I was reading obsessively from a young age – The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips. These were all a huge influence on our game Bully. There were more: Tintin (Hergé is an undoubted visual genius), Asterix, Lucky Luke, Roy of the Rovers, (an old British soccer comic – I know – it’s not very cool – but I did love it when I was 9) Dan Dare, the Commando Series, Warlord (both fantastic WWII series in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s – I think Commando is still going now), Viz when it first appeared in our house when I was about 11, and, of course, 2000AD (my favourite story was Strontium Dog).
I also loved Mad Magazine when I could get hold of it but thought American Dennis the Menace was a bit wet compared to his British namesake. I loved all of them and, as some of them were pretty much my first reading experience of any kind, they were, of course, massively influential. But it is hard to say this or that influence was more or less important. They are all so iconic, and fairly typical for a British kid. Most of the culture I experienced is a weird combination of British, European and American influences. I love everything about the comics form — the art, the combination of words and pictures, the sense of place and of character — but I cannot draw at all, and for me, the heroes of this medium are the artists.
Kotaku: Both Rockstar and Remedy seem to align with ideas that spring from outsider cultures like pulp novels, comic books, grindhouse cinema and spaghetti westerns. What is it about cult subcultures that you all find so appealing?
Dan Houser: I’m not quite sure, but I know that for a lot of us at Rockstar growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s — when our cultural references and interests were established before the Internet became widespread — there was enormous, almost pathological reverence for the obscure and the underground. Things that were mainstream felt packaged and obvious. So, while we may have loved them, we had to pretend not to. We were always seeking out stuff nobody knew about, as if that would contain some truth or honesty that other, more mainstream things lacked. I don’t know if that is still the same today, and I think one of the (few) great negatives of the Internet is that it does not allow subcultures to properly gestate and evolve. Movements, subcultures, styles of music… all those things nowadays become famous before they achieve any kind of creative maturity. Maybe that or simply constantly wondering about the answer to the question – what would make someone wear that?
Sam Lake: It’s the stuff that inspires us, it’s the brew we have been dipped in, soaked and marinated in since we were kids. We love that stuff, and we want to pass that on.
The new comics series takes place during the era of Max Payne 1 & 2, and will feature stories that predate those games. How far back will they go? Will we see Max walking a beat or romancing his wife? Will we see Mona Sax in these comics?
Sam Lake: The comics take you all the way back to Max’s childhood. You’ll finally see how far back the tragedy in his life goes and with that a lot of things will click into place.
Dan Houser: All the way back to his childhood, and through his career before and after Max 1 and Max 2, in a series of brief flashbacks. That was, originally, why I needed Sam’s help! For the comic books to do their job, which was to glue this game to the old games, and fill in the blanks for people new to the series, we wanted to go back to the very beginnings of Max. To do that, I needed Sam’s help and guidance to properly discuss the character’s origins. I had some ideas, and plenty of questions. What was very gratifying was how often my ideas and Sam’s ideas aligned. It gave me confidence that my understanding of the character and his were very similar.
Kotaku: What was the creative process when Remedy and Rockstar were making the Max Payne games together? Did the stories originate in one place and then get bounced back and forth? Or was there collective brainstorming from the very beginning?
Sam Lake: The Rockstar guys were very much involved in Max Payne 2, and while the story came from us, they gave a lot of feedback on it. It’s been very exciting coming back to Max Payne after all these years and being able to play and give feedback on Max Payne 3. The Rockstar guys take the earlier games very seriously and they have a lot of respect for the heritage, they want to get all the details just right, so much so that they have noticed and included things that I’m sure I would have totally missed.
Kotaku: Max Payne has always had a strong visual connection to comics. Where did that stylistic imprint come from? Why not use some other method to advance the plot?
Sam Lake: At the time, cutscenes were still quite clumsy, the graphic novel screens felt like the perfect way to tell the story, not only could you make them look very good, but they also fit the pulp style.
Dan Houser: I don’t know. We’ve thought about it, but for some reason it never seemed to quite come together. This time, it felt like it really worked creatively, as the character really fit in with Marvel’s style, and more importantly, it felt like we had something to say. So, the comic would be useful and support the release, and be entertaining in and of itself. I can’t say whether it’s well-written or not, but I can objectively say it looks very beautiful. The artists really did an amazing job and it was an honour to work with them.