Monday, 22 April 2024
Meet the underappreciated woman who invented X-Men’s Apocalypse

Meet the underappreciated woman who invented X-Men’s Apocalypse

Anyone who saw this weekend’s $178 million Fox tentpole X-Men: Apocalypse got a heaping helping of the titular supervillain. He’s an ancient being with a wide range of fantastic abilities like telekinesis, teleportation, and inhuman strength. He believes the world should worship him as a god. He’s colored blue, for some reason. He’s one of the most important and oft-used threats in the X-Men mythos, right behind the angst-ridden Magneto and the sinister Sentinels. But while Magneto and the Sentinels were crafted by some of the most famous creators in the history of superhero fiction — Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — the writer who conjured up Apocalypse is all too often overlooked.

Her name is Louise Simonson, and she co-created Apocalypse (his look came courtesy of artist Jackson Guice) in the pages of Marvel Comics' X-Factor, in 1986. Simonson — “Weezie” to her friends — is one of the better superhero-comics writers of the past 40 years, a person who crafted beloved stories about the X-Men and DC Comics’ Superman, just to name a pair of the more famous properties she has worked on. The 69-year-old was also a pioneer: She did much of her most famous work when women writers were a rarity in the comics industry. Despite all that, she’s never gotten her due in mainstream media outlets. But within the comics world, her name reverberates.

Simonson got her start in comics in the mid-1970s at Warren, a small publisher of comics and magazines based in New York City. She worked on their production team, then quickly got bumped up to an editorial position, supervising writers and artists. But her career really took off once Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter poached her, in 1980. Other than secretarial staff, there were virtually no women working at Marvel at the time, and Simonson says there was no chance she could edit the titles that the company valued most. Though Shooter admired her, she says her gender was a handicap within the organization.

“There were people who were appalled at the idea of me getting anywhere near the real Marvel books: the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, that stuff,” she recalled to Vulture. “I know of one or two people who just didn’t think women belonged anywhere near the core titles.”

She says she took it in stride and “found it more amusing than anything else.” Besides, she loved the stories she was editing, especially the adventures of the band of persecuted mutants known as the X-Men. At the time, those characters were regarded as second-tier at best, even though writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne were using them to craft what are now regarded as some of the best superhero comics of all time. She oversaw such epics as "The Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past" — both of which have been adapted into Fox-produced X-Men movies.

Her big break came in the early '80s, when Marvel beefed up its editorial staff and Simonson's workload was lightened. “I was having no problem doing the work before that, so when it was cut in half, I got bored,” she said. She started writing comics instead of editing them. One series she helmed was an X-Men spinoff called X-Factor. Bob Layton had been the writer for the title’s first five issues, but, once he fell behind on deadlines, Simonson was called in to take over. Layton had been hinting that a supervillain was crafting a plan to attack the titular X-Factor team, and had been intending to reveal that he was an old Daredevil enemy named the Owl. Simonson wasn’t impressed with the idea. “The Owl just didn’t strike me as the kind of bad guy I wanted to have,” she explained. “So I asked [X-Factor editor] Bob Harras if we could substitute him with a bad guy I wanted.”

Her pitch for him was novel. “For some reason, I liked the idea of a Darwinian villain,” she said. The guy would know that the world was headed toward some kind of apocalyptic event, and his goal would be to prepare for it by using whatever means he had at his disposal to “kill off the weak and force the strong to be even stronger.” That meant recruiting superpowered mutants like X-Factor to his cause and killing off humans. He would be ancient, strong, a shape-shifter, and in possession of advanced technology. He would have an appropriately grandiose name: Apocalypse.

Simonson took the idea to X-Factor’s artist at the time, Jackson Guice, and he sketched out a blue-colored behemoth with metal cords looping between his arms and his hips, and a giant “A” on his waist. Readers first saw him in silhouette in the last panel of April 1986’s issue five, clenching his fist and monologuing to some minions. “The time is nearly at hand and I will brook no interference!” he cried. “You shall soon provide all mutant-kind with a source of unlimited might — a race of super-mutants! And I shall lead them to war against the puny infection called — man! So swears Apocalypse!”

For the next 20-odd issues, this sinister new villain bedeviled X-Factor, either sending his underlings the Horsemen (also a Simonson creation) to attack them or confronting them himself. They eventually beat him, but he escaped, of course. Over the course of the next 15 years or so, Simonson and Guice’s creation became one of the X-books’ best-known recurring antagonists. But, for the most part, she wasn’t the one writing him anymore. She jumped ship to Marvel’s rival, DC, in 1991, and launched a new Superman title called Superman: The Man of Steel. While there, she was one of the brains behind the massively successful “Death of Superman” story and its growling villain, Doomsday.

In the past two decades, she’s penned comics for Marvel and DC, as well as some young-adult novels. Right now, she’s working on a comic with artist Jan Duursema for a digital-comics company called Stela, as well as a few other projects she’s not allowed to discuss. She spends her days in Suffern, a small town in Rockland County, New York, where she lives with her husband, veteran comics artist Walter Simonson (who served as artist on some of Weezie's best X-Factor stories).

Though she co-created the chief antagonist of this weekend's blockbuster, seeing the movie isn’t too high on her list of priorities. I ask if she got to see it at an advance screening; she says she was never invited to one. That’s a move that’s out of step with the times. Although the superhero-fiction industry hasn't always been great at acknowledging its comicscreators, this year’s previous superhero hits have all invited writers with big influences on the films to screenings and premieres: the writer who proposed the Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker, got to see Captain America: Civil War well before general audiences did; Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld was at the premiere of the movie about his brainchild; Frank Miller, the writer/artist with the most influence on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, got to walk the red carpet, too.

But although she hadn’t seen the movie when I spoke to her, what she hadseen didn't impress her: She checked out promotional photos for the movie a few months ago and felt Apocalypse "was this little guy who looked blue like a Smurf," as she puts it. “So, yeah, I’m a little nervous. I’m just hoping the screenplay is good.” While comics creators aren’t typically given much creative input on film adaptations of their characters, directors will often reach out to them to chat, get their blessing, or ask them to make cameos. I ask Simonson if Apocalypse director Bryan Singer ever communicated with her. “Oh, God, no!” she says, with a laugh. “I’m hoping my name maybe makes it into the credits.”

It doesn’t, as it turns out. But she does get to pad her wallet a bit from the movie. When Apocalypse debuted in 1986, Marvel had an agreement whereby creators could earn royalties when characters they created showed up in merchandise or filmed entertainment (something the publisher doesn’t do anymore). Though Fox — not the Disney-owned Marvel Studios (the folks who make the Avengers movies) — owns the film rights to X-Men characters like Apocalypse, that contract persists.

In any case, Simonson isn't losing any sleep over getting credit. She’s been in the superhero hustle long enough to know the score. “You create a character,” she says, “and if people love him, you put him back in the sandbox. Then other people get to play with him.”

- Abraham Riesman