Marvel's New Mutants saved his life, and now Bishop is healing it: Veteran TV writer J. Holtham on his journey with the X-Men
Comic and TV writer J. Holtham talks about how the X-Men helped him survive the challenges of growing up Black in a white community and writing Bishop: War College
As a TV writer J. Holtham has worked on some of the biggest scifi and superhero properties around— Jessica Jones, Supergirl, The Handmaid’s Tale. He also wrote Marvel’s Wastelanders: Hawkeye podcast and contributed to the Wastelanders series, and has written Miles Morales for the Spider-Verse Infinity Comic and Sam Wilson for Marvel’s Voices.
From his first issue on Spider-Verse (with artist Nathan Stockman), Holtham has shown a great sense for action—his fight sequence in Spider-Verse #2 and 5 are some of the most creatively scripted action sequences I’ve seen for the vertical scroll. He also gets very quickly to elements of his characters that haven’t been explored elsewhere: What’s it like to be “the other" Spider-Man? Or in his Sam Wilson story for Marvel Voices: Legacy #1, Sam confronts the unique expectations from his own Harlem community about being Captain America.
Now Holtham is turning heads with Bishop: War College, in which Bishop and Tempo travel to an alternate universe where the X-gene occurred only in Black people, resulting in an all-black X-Men.
On the heels of the succes of Bishop: War College, I spoke to J. about his experiences writing comics, his history with the X-Men, and his work on War College.Popverse: How do you find writing comics vs. writing for TV?
J. Holtham: It’s such a different head. You have to think and write in moments rather than in movement. Even though you’re telling a panel or a series of panels, and they’re connected and movement is implied, each panel is just this one moment in time. When you’re thinking about dialogue, I’ve got to think about what are they doing in this one moment of time that allows them to say whatever I need them to say, as well as how is this one moment in time communicating the other parts of this story. I like that technical challenge.
There’s a sort of simplicity to it, too. It’s really just me saying, 'Hey, here’s what’s in my head. Let me explain it to you. You translate it however you translate it, and I can adjust it,' as opposed to me trying to convince someone else [like an actor] that the story I’m trying to tell is the story I’m trying to tell.
I love it. I really, really love it. Part of it is the childhood geek in me, and it’s a dream come true, but part of it is, it’s a fun medium to work in.Were you a comic book fan as a kid?
Oh yeah. From the time I was ten. My older brother was really into comics and art, so very early on I got his hand-me-down comics. But when I moved to New Jersey when I was ten, every Wednesday I was walking to the comic book store at lunch or after school and spending my entire allowance on comics.What were you picking up?
New Mutants was my absolute favorite. That was my team. I was 10, and they were 13, so those were the people I identified with most deeply. And X-Men—this was the early 80s Madelyne Pryor years. I remember I got the issue right after Scott married Madelyne.You said in a recent interview with AIPT that the New Mutants saved your life. What did you mean?
I was born in Brooklyn, and I was a city kid at a very difficult time to be a city kid. It was dirty, it was just beginning to get really dangerous. It was near the height of the crack era. It was a rough time and a rough place to be in a lot of ways.
Then when I was 10, my dad was about to remarry to a white woman who lived in suburban New Jersey. And my brother and I moved out of my mom’s house literally overnight to this tiny wealthy town in New Jersey that was like out of the 50s, all green lawns, and all white kids. And I very much did not immediately fit into that world. It was a difficult transition.
When I look back at the things I gravitated to in those early years, it’s stories of people who don’t belong, people who are as they say hated and feared, as I’m processing all of a sudden being one of two Black kids in a very white town in 1984, and dealing with being called “n-----” for the first time in my life.
Reading the New Mutants and the X-Men I felt, 'Oh this is me.' I felt like I was part of that. Really, every part of my childhood was filtered through them. It was okay to feel like an outsider because here are these other outsiders.
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had that. I probably would have become a much angrier, much more disaffected person.Were there certain characters that you specifically identified with?
It was more the group, but Nightcrawler was a big one. Kitty Pryde. Wolfsbane. I was drawn to the people who couldn’t really fit in, especially those most ambivalent about being a mutant. That was a thing I understood. At ten and in this environment, I was relatively ambivalent about being a Black kid. It took a long time to process my way through that.Was Bishop another one of those characters?
Bishop barely entered my life. By the time I got to college, I kind of wandered away from superhero comics and was in the land of Vertigo. Preacher, Sandman, Y the Last Man-- those were the things that I was really invested and engaged in for a very long time. I was aware of Bishop, I was aware of the cartoon in the 90s, but he was never anyone that I identified with in that same way.How did you get back into the X-Men?
I picked up the trades for the Hickman House and Powers. And I was like, 'This is amazing and brilliant,' but also, 'Dude, you broke the system. I don’t know how you go forward from this. They can’t die anymore. I don’t know what you do.'
Doing Bishop, I’ve gotten a lot more caught up, and it’s all so great. Some of the best comic book minds are working on those books and creating unbelievable worlds. It’s been a really exciting reintroduction into that.For you, what’s the key to writing Bishop?
One, you’ve got to process that this is a Black guy. I mean, yes, from the future and all of that, but there’s still a cultural thing that has to be a part of that experience, even with him being Australian.
And then, two, the dude’s been through trauma. He’s been through some shit that he has not healed from at all. And he is the kind of person that does not want to heal from his trauma. He’s one of those people who really feels like 'My trauma is holding me together. Without this pain and this loss I would fall apart.' That was one of the things that I really wanted to have him confront, that maybe that’s not the way it has to be.
For me, that’s got to be the question of Bishop: Can I ever heal from this trauma and move out of a place of fight or flight (generally fight) for the rest of my existence? What does that look like? If I get to do more Bishop, I just want to dig deeper and deeper into that.Would you say the trauma is everything that he dealt with before he came to the present?
And everything that’s happened to him since. It’s been nothing but non-stop trauma. Dude has bounced all around time, he’s been a mass murderer, he’s tried to kill multiple friends of his, multiple friends of his have tried to kill him. Every six months, there’s someone else he has to kill to try and fix the future that he’s never going to fix. He is just nothing but trauma.
I don’t understand how you write someone like that without really turning into the PTSD and what that experience and existence is.The series is also digging into some really interesting questions around race and identity. Was that always part of the plan?
Yes and no. As an X-Men fan, the racial politics of how mutants are depicted has been something I’ve wanted to investigate for a very, very long time. I love them, they’re near and dear to my heart, but when I’m sitting in a movie theater, and I’m watching X-Men First Class and I’m seeing Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the most attractive white people available to you, talking about how they feel like outsiders and that they’ll never fit in, it’s a little bit like, 'Okay guys, we may have lost the thread here a little bit.'
So coming into this I definitely knew that I wanted to bring that into it. And then [editor] Sarah Brunstad brought up that when he was a child, Bishop imagined the X-Men were Black, because he only heard of the X-Men through stories. And I was like, 'That is an interesting thing to think about.'Wait, that was a story point?
Yeah, there’s a series they did 10 years ago or so called 'The Life and Times of Lucas Bishop,' and they really dig into his childhood in his horrible future. His grandmother told him the stories of the X-Men, and there’s like one panel where he imagined them as Black. And I was like, 'Of course he would. He lived in a Black community, with very few white people around.'
So that’s where I hit on the idea of 'Let’s show him that, and let’s see what does to him.'
And here’s the thing: our artist Sean Damien Hill took it and fucking ran with it. What I had in the script is when we saw the X-Men, everyone here is Blackety Black Black Black. Like, really invest in the breadth of Black experience. They’re not just the X-Men, you know, with a tan. And when you see his images you’re like, 'Okay, that is what Nightcrawler would look like if he were black. Beast has dreadlocks—Yeah, that’s what he would look like.' He really imbues them with that idea.How would you compare their world and its development with what we know?
That world is harmonious. I didn’t want to construct a world where the same oppressive dynamics are in place, but the races are flipped, because to me that says that oppression is intrinsic. I’m not a fan of that concept. I don’t like to play that game.
But one of the things that I have struggled with over the last few years in a lot of science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy fiction is we have the sense of the future being a raceless classless utopia, but we never really talk about how you get there. And that obviously is really important. We’ve spent 500 years in this country struggling with that, and the last 200 years actively trying to fix racial inequality, and yet we have not. And I still don’t know how we fix it.
So the idea we can just handwave past how Star Trek became Star Trek, we can’t do that anymore. I have to at least nod to the fact that it took some work, it took some effort.
So I was like 'Okay, let’s imagine the world that we have, but that in 1963, Black people started getting these weird powers.' The X-gene that makes mutants is, for whatever reason, bundled together with race. What does that do to history? How does that world develop to reach a point similar to where the X-Men are now [on Krakoa]?
MLK and Professor X have a lot of similarities. You imagine, 'What if MLK was a mutant, and he lived?' And then you take it from there.
There’s definitely still strife, still people who are not happy about all of this, because in some ways the mutants are the dominant life form. But it’s a space where everyone is welcome. We’re really fulfilling Charles Xavier’s dream of a world where everyone just gets to live in peace and harmony together, human and mutant alike.It feels like there’s a whole universe of stories to tell there.
Yeah. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to go back to this world and these X-Men, but for me, being able to show that to the X-Men fans, to say 'Hey, here’s a thing for you to think about and process,' that’s, in many ways, enough for me. I mean, God, if my editors are reading, I would love to dig deeper into this world and spend more time in it. But I’m also cool if not.Would you say this has been a personal story for you?
Yes it is, because it’s ultimately about processing your trauma, and processing the idea that things could have been a different way. The last couple years I’ve gone through a lot. We all have. I’ve gone through losses that have really shaken me to my core and involved me looking back at my life in a lot of different ways.
This is the Bishop that we know—scarred, hardened, a warrior who feels 'This is the way I’ve always been and this is the way the world is,' face-to-face with a version of himself that is not that, that is soft and open and friendly and optimistic, and not a warrior. And for me, the idea of facing another version of myself is an important part of healing, a part of saying 'Oh, I guess I do have that in me somewhere.' And if I do, then I can bring it forward.
I don’t know that Bishop makes all of those turns, but that’s the personal part of it for me. This whole book, even with the kids he’s working with, to me it’s all about facing who you really are and embracing that. And that’s as personal for me as I can get.
The first 3 issues of Bishop: War College are out now. Issue 4 drops May 24th.
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