Note: This interview contains spoilers for Lazarus Planet: Alpha #1.
The first DC crossover event of 2023, Lazarus Planet, has officially kicked off with January’s Lazarus Planet: Alpha #1. Helmed by Eisner Award-winning comic book creator Mark Waid, with art from Riccardo Federici, the story serves as the culmination of Waid’s work on Batman/Superman: World’s Finest and Batman vs. Robin, along with other recent developments across the DC Universe. Following Alpha, Lazarus Planet continues in a line of tie-in specials and crossovers to ongoing books before reaching its fiery conclusion in April 2023.
Taking place in between penultimate and final issues of Batman vs. Robin, Lazarus Planet has Batman gravely injured after being pitted against his son by the demon Nezha. With Nezha on the loose again, along with his acolyte King Fire Bull, the DCU is overwhelmed by acid rain fueled by the magical Lazarus Pits after the volcano on Lazarus Island violently explodes. Robin and his ailing father assemble a team to intercept Nezha and King Fire Bull to stop the natural disaster from ending life on Earth as they know it. However, with a magical catastrophe unfolding that leaves technological solutions useless and the magic community depowered from Nezha’s recent rampage, this team may be too little too late to save the day.
In an interview with Popverse, Mark Waid reveals the origins of and build-up to Lazarus Planet, unpacks some of the major moments from Alpha #1, and hints how the story will impact the DCU moving forward as the fate of magic hangs in the balance.
Popverse: This feels like the culmination of everything you’ve been working on since coming back to DC, with World’s Finest and Batman vs. Robin, and also what Gene Luen Yang has been working on with Monkey Prince. How was it putting together this story, marking the end of one era of storytelling while setting up what’s coming next?
Mark Waid: Once we got Nezha off the ground and realized we had something there when I was doing World’s Finest, that only made sense to play into all this stuff. It’s been building for a while, and I’m really pleased with how it’s all come together-- in no small part because of Gene.
Gene has come at the Nezha/King Fire Bull/Journey to the West mythology from a different angle than I had in World’s Finest. Once we realized this was the case, we decided to work together on this and make it look like we did it on purpose.
Ever since you’ve come back to DC, you’ve been leaning into the supernatural side of the DCU. As the guy behind scifi concepts like the Speed Force and the Hypertime, what is it that brings you towards the paranormal this time around?
A couple of things. For World’s Finest, it only made sense because Superman is vulnerable to magic and you need some sort of threat that can level up Superman and Batman together so that they can both be effective in a story, and that made sense as a kick-off there. With the Lazarus Planet and Batman vs. Robin stuff, that was always part of my pitch.
I love fish-out-of-water stories in which the hero is in a domain that they’re really not used to. The idea of doing a Batman horror comic where he is forced to enter the world of magic to save his son was really appealing to me. That’s what we had in development, and then someone at DC had the brilliant idea of Lazarus Island exploding into a Lazarus volcano. That made sense because of the Robin connection and, once you start dovetailing all that stuff together, it became what it has become.
You’ve got this more intimate threat in Nezha and King Fire Bull, with Nezha literally getting under Batman’s skin by the end of Alpha, but also this planetary wide magical acid rain. How was it playing with that dual sense of scope?
It’s a pretty heavy gear shift from suddenly going from a very personal story to a very big one. To me, the appeal of a world in which science is completely useless and magic is ruling day probably comes from my own personal worst nightmares being a science guy. It’s always good when you’re writing about things that terrify you personally.
We’ve spoken before, you’ve said that you enjoy taking characters and showing new possibilities for their powers that we may have never seen before. How was it exploring that with this Dirty Dozen, with characters like Power Girl and Blue Devil?
It was fun! Like you said, my favorite thing is to take these characters and remind you of things about them that you might have forgotten. The fact that Blue Devil’s trident has the power to detect demons, of course you’re going to send him on the quest for Nezha. The fact that Poison Ivy probably knows Ra’s al Ghul but not necessarily as Batman villains but because she has a heavy background in biochemistry which is something we don’t talk about very much – of course she would’ve had conversations with Ra’s al Ghul about the Lazarus Pits and stuff.
There’s that scene with her and Swamp Thing already in the thick of it and she’s like “Everyone forgets I’m a botanist.”
Yeah, she’s not just about making giant vines grow out from the ground to crush things!
Which character has surprised you the most in how much fun they are to write?
Monkey Prince by a long shot. I liked the book when I was reading what Gene was doing with him and really started him when I got a handle on the character. The way he plays off Robin is just great, they’re a buddy comedy right there. Robin cannot stand Monkey Prince, and Monkey Prince has learned to lean into needling Robin, and it’s fun. They’re a great team.
This is the most vulnerable we’ve seen Damien in a while, with him watching the world burn down because of mistakes he ostensibly made during Batman vs. Robin. What’s Damian’s headspace going into Lazarus Planet?
He very much feels that a lot of this is his fault. I’m not sure that’s a justifiable feeling but that’s the way that the Bat-Family and a lot of the DC superheroes tend to operate – when things go wrong, if they had any contribution to it, they tend to feel guilty, and Robin is no exception. His sense of guilt and the things he’s willing to do to make up for what he’s done are a big part of Lazarus Planet: Omega and of Batman vs. Robin #5, which follows.
I do find it intriguing that you’ve got Lazarus Planet coming out between the fourth and fifth issues of Batman vs. Robin, almost as an extended interlude between chapters. Was it always planned that way?
Yeah, it was planned that way. It was admittedly a very strange way of doing things, but it only made sense-- otherwise I would’ve never had room in Batman vs. Robin to really blow the conflict up to the level it was demanding. It would’ve been a much quieter story, and we had so much potential going into Batman vs. Robin with the whole father-son dynamic between Nezha and King Fire Bull. There wouldn’t have been room for a lot of that, so Lazarus Planet really gave that some breathing room.
It feels like everyone is playing with a handicap, with Supergirl losing her powers, the magical community almost completely depowered, and science largely useless. What’s the state of the hero community as they have their backs to the wall?
Everybody’s playing at a massive disadvantage, and you’ll see a lot of that in the spinoff books coming out between Alpha and Omega. In Omega, a big number of the heroes you’d expect to show up for these things do show up to make a quick stand against King Fire Bull, and it does not go well in the least. And that only takes you up to page 10!
You’ve coordinated crossovers before, like Underworld Unleashed, which also saw a big demon come for the DCU.
Come to think of it, you’re right! I guess I do write about things that scare me!
How has it been orchestrating all these one-shot tie-ins that build out the story and what have you been telling the various creative teams to keep in mind?
That’s the beauty of the setup. I deliberately gave them as much freedom and flexibility as I could. I can’t think of anything less constricting than magic is happening so anything goes. As a writer who has been involved in crossovers, that’s the perfect direction. I don’t want to be told what to write or what has to happen point-by-point and plot-by-plot.
Almost all of the spinoff stories in the one-shots are just delightful surprises to me. I knew the characters that were going to be involved, but I didn’t have any interest in dictating what needed to happen. Just pick some good writers, and let them surprise everybody, including me! It was a lot of fun to read that stuff.
Speaking of magic happening, the Tower of Fate is down and everyone who was sheltered inside has been unleashed. How is the magical community stepping up across Lazarus Planet?
At the end of Alpha, they’re absolutely powerless. It all comes down to Black Alice, the woman who put all the magic in the Doctor Fate helmet to begin with, to find some way to reverse-engineer that. We have Zatanna and her team, who desperately want that to happen for them, and we have King Fire Bull, who very much wants that to happen for him. That is the big conflict of Lazarus Planet: Omega and the fallout of that, without giving anything away, is that magic works a little bit differently in the DC Universe after this.
There are things, powers, situations, and status quo that we took for granted before that have been upended by this. You’ll see some of that in the Shazam! book I’m doing this year with Dan Mora.
I loved seeing Phantom Stranger at the end of Alpha, with all due respect to Carmine Infantino, he has one of my favorite DC superhero designs. What was it about having him be the one to take up the sword and take point among all the magical heroes?
I wanted him to do that because I love that character, and, like you said, he’s got a great design. I tried, as much as I could, to give each of the magic heroes at least a line of dialogue, if not a moment. The magic villains, a lot of them got play in Batman vs. Robin. The magic heroes, though, I literally keep trading cards of all of those characters in front of me as I write. I can shuffle them around to be reminded that Alan Scott hasn’t had anything to do for two pages, so let’s put him in this scene.
As much as anything, that’s how Phantom Stranger got involved. I have all these characters, he’s very cool, and he hasn’t done anything for a while so let’s give him a sword!
You’ve got a lot of pairs going off in this story to handle their own missions, with Supergirl and Power Girl, Robin and Monkey Prince, and Nezha and King Fire Bull.
It’s less by design than by accident. The only duality I was trying to hammer home was the duality between King Fire Bull and Nezha and Batman and Robin, the father-son duel between both of them.
While Nezha took over heroes remotely in World’s Finest, this is completely different, as he literally takes over Batman’s body. What was it about having him take over the Dark Knight? Was it because Batman was weak?
It’s Batman is weak and Nezha is a little bit weak. Nezha knew that by literally inhabiting Batman, that was the winning play for him. He’s not in the business right now of controlling other superheroes, he’s in the business of being Batman. They’re absolutely inseparable at this point because, if you take Nezha out of Batman right now, he’ll die. There’s nothing left in Batman anymore.
As a fun aside, is “Aiiiieee” the most fun exclamations in comic books?
I think so, but I only use it for villains. I don’t like using it for heroes because I feel like it’s kind of weak. [laughs] I prefer “arghs” for heroes and “aiieees” for villains.
How has it been working with Riccardo Federici on this book?
It’s phenomenal! I’ve never worked with anybody with that style before, that dark, painterly, shadowy and very moody [look]. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, but watching him interpret these scripts has been really astonishing. He really gets it, he’s a good storyteller, he asks the right questions, he never disappoints. That work is really good and unlike anything I’ve worked with before. It really doesn’t look or feel like a Mark Waid book, in terms of just looking at it, but it’s great and he’s just terrific.
Had you followed any of Riccardo’s work with Phillip Kennedy Johnson?
Yeah, I was reading their Warworld stuff, but I was reading it from a distance. It never occurred to me that I wanted to work with that guy, not because I didn’t like his work – I love his work – but that style is not what I normally look for. When he was presented to me, I was worried that we wouldn’t mesh, but I think that we meshed really well.
What was it about having Mary Marvel really step up in this issue?
Even beyond the fact that I’m doing Shazam!, Mary Marvel just doesn’t get enough play. I love the New Champion of Shazam! book that Josie Campbell and Evan Shaner are doing. Really the way of cracking the Tower of Fate by having her use the magic lightning, not just the usual Shazam! lightning, the world at this moment is covered in magic super lightning, so calling that down to burst the Tower of Fate, she really needed to be there for that.
Between this and Underworld Unleashed – and this might give away the game on your Shazam! run – what place do you think the Fawcett characters have in the wider DCU?
It does give away the game a little bit, that’s part of the discovery of Shazam!. It’s a good question but I plead the fifth on that one.
What else can you tease about Lazarus Planet? The stakes are very dire, Mark!
Like you said, the stakes are very dire. The world is coming to an end. King Fire Bull is playing tug-of-war with Zatanna for the fate of Black Alice. Black Alice becomes a huge part [of this]; she’s the emotional center of Lazarus Planet: Omega. Her friendship with Monkey Prince, as new as it is and started to build in Lazarus Planet: Alpha, is a big part of the emotional hook of Lazarus Planet: Omega.
We’ve seen Lazarus resin rise in a big way with Task Force Z and the al Ghul family expand during Joshua Williamson’s run on Robin. What was about having these elements as the centerpiece for a crossover event?
That was never part of the original plan but, seeing what Josh was doing on Robin with Lazarus Island, it only made sense. The connection actually came so late in the game that the plan to have Nezha trapped on Lazarus Island rather than someplace else was a last-minute art change in [World’s Finest] #5 because we had not decided to go that way. Once we realized how that all came together, Dan Mora was pleasant and game enough to make a couple of art changes there to get the Lazarus Island connection.
If we’re talking about characters that don’t get much love, Black Alice hasn’t had much to do since Justice League Dark years ago. What was it about having her be an emotional center to the story?
She was originally only there as a device. She was originally only in this story because it made perfect sense that she would be the one to funnel the magic into the Doctor Fate helmet. It was only after I started to sit down with Lazarus Planet that I wanted her to be a character. I knew what was going to happen to her and that the stakes revolved heavily around her. Then I did my research – not that I didn’t know Black Alice before – but I dug down deep and really got a feel for that character. The whole point of her having a connection with Monkey Prince is that I really wanted people to feel for her.
Written by Mark Waid and Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Riccardo Federici and Billy Tan, colored by Brad Anderson and Sebastian Cheng, and lettered by Steve Wands and Janice Chang, Lazarus Planet: Alpha #1 is on sale now from DC Comics. Following tie-ins throughout January and February, the crossover concludes with Lazarus Planet: Omega #1, on sale Feb. 21.