James Marsters reveals the secrets of his dark new Spike comic

After Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel ended, there were persistent rumors that Director Joss Whedon was going to make a Spike movie with actor James Marsters reprising his role as the fan-favorite vampire. It never happened, but now the movie is taking new life as a comic book called Into the Light, written by Marsters himself and coming out from Dark Horse next year!

We had a chance to have a length, wonderful talk with Marsters about what to expect in the comic, why Spike is better than Hamlet, his new TV show, and the biggest regret of his career.

io9: How did you get involved in this project? Did Dark Horse approach you, or you them?

I was at the San Diego Comic Con and I was describing an idea that had been kicking around my head for a long time to [artist] George Jeanty, who draws a lot of the Buffy comic books. And he thought that it was a fabulous idea and that I should definitely get in touch with [Dark Horse editor] Scott Allie. He made the phone call and then I pitched it to Scott over the phone and Scott liked it a lot. It's a story that was going to try to be made into a Spike movie years and years ago.

Wait — that Spike movie Joss Whedon was always talking about right after Buffy ended?

Yeah! Joss had called me up and asked if I wanted to do a Spike TV movie and I said, "Yes of course. Do you have any ideas?" And he said he didn't really have a lot, and I said that I actually did, and I said that we've never really seen Spike actively go out and get something for himself. He was a character that often reacted to events rather than getting the ball moving himself. But because we have never really seen him achieve something for himself, Joss was like, "Well, what about saving the world [at the end of Buffy season 7], man?" And I said, "Dude, no, I didn't even know what that amulet was going to do."

So being that we haven't really seen him do this before, I thought he should achieve something very small for himself. If he achieves something too grandiose it's going to be really cheesy. So the story was constructed to be the smallest little thing that Spike could go out and get for himself, while also dealing with the fact that he has a soul, that he is trying to survive, he can't fill his needs anymore by killing people, or hurting people, or stealing things from people. He can't feed himself that way, he can't clothe himself that way, house himself that way. But he'll be damned if he's getting a job.

So in the story he's basically homeless at the start, and he's really trying to figure out how this revival thing works, and also how to try to be a good person — try to be a hero, try to be a decent entity on Earth, and just these little baby steps that are part of, I think, the beginning of a journey from villain to… I don't know if hero is the right word, but a good vampire.

The comic will be set during Buffy season 6, right?

The timeline for Spike is that he goes directly from Sunnydale in Buffy getting burned alive to the offices of Wolfram & Hart in Los Angeles, and then spends a year making Angel's life a living Hell. I was interested in exploring that middle place between villain and hero. I thought that there's a lot of fertile ground and a lot of comedy to be had in a character trying to be good and kind of failing miserably.

So when specifically in season 6 is this set? Because Spike has quite a journey that season.

Yeah – it's right after he gets his soul, and after he's gone through the main part of the insanity that he's heir to, being that he has so many victims that have to come back and visit him and bitch about how they he killed them. So he has to go through all that, and once he's not really completely crazy anymore, I wanted to construct a story where he could really get out of Sunnydale and grow a little bit.

Well I was going to say, he's in a pretty dark place in season 6. I mean, everyone in Buffy is in a pretty dark place in season 6, but Spike had the worst of it.

[Laughing] Yeah, he's in danger of "going Angel." He's in danger of starting to feel bad about every damn thing he does. And since that background was already covered brilliantly, it's important that the comic goes a different way. I'm trying not to give too much away about the book, but it's definitely not Angel. It's definitely still Spike.

I always thought Spike is a very good underdog character. You don't want him sitting on top of the golden throne. You don't want him living in too big of a mansion; driving too wonderful of a car. I think it gets rich and interesting and funny when life just kicks Spike in the head.

Can you say who else in Buffy or Angel might appear in the comic?

[Long pause] Ummmmm, I'm going to be a dick about that and I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to read the comic.

Actually I really didn't expect you to answer, but I had to ask.

[Laughing] Okay. You know, I've always had other people tell me where these boundaries were. Without reviewing plot or anything, I can tell you that it's a standalone Spike and that he's on its own. He's making some new friends and some new enemies, causing pain and getting pain from entirely new places.

James Marsters reveals the secrets of his dark new Spike comicS

The title for the graphic novel is Into the Light, right?

Yeah! The journey of Spike, once he gets his soul, is to come into the light and come out of the darkness of evil. That's the basic trajectory of any vampire if you give them a soul. He's going to want to come out of the shadows. But, what happens to a vampire if he gets into the light? He catches on fire. So it's very problematic and complicated to come into the light.

Have you missed playing Spike? He's obviously one of your most defining roles.

Yes, definitely. I once told Joss that Spike might actually be a richer role — by season 7 — than some of the Shakespearean roles I've played. I mean, Shakespeare is a better writer, I will say that. Maybe lightning will strike me on the head, or maybe Iron Man will come and blast my head off for that, but I do think that Shakespeare is the greatest writer who has ever lived and probably ever will live. But he only had three and a half hours to dig into Hamlet. He only had three hours to dig into Macbeth. Any of those characters only last for one play, and there's only so many places you can explore.

And after seven years of ripping Spike apart, recalibrating him – as an actor I went through a more varied emotional ride than I had with any character I'd ever played, including Shakespearean characters.

Spike started as the big bad. He was built up to be so damn cool because he was designed to die by the 10th episode. But they decided not to kill him off and they immediately had to figure out a way to stop him from trying to kill Buffy, because if he kills Buffy the show is over, and if he keeps failing it's going to become pathetic after a while. So how do you do that? They put a chip in my head and I became the wacky neighbor for a while. Then I was the wrong boyfriend and then I was the guinea pig hero. To go through all that, that's a rollercoaster. That's almost like five different characters in one.

Now that I think about it, Spike did change more than any of the other characters, really.

You know, the original theme of Buffy is about vampires ad a metaphor for the challenges you have to face in adolescence when you realize the world is a messed up place. Your parents are idiots half the time, and your teachers only half-way understand the things they're trying to teach you. How do you face that, realize it, and not give up? eEther on the world or on yourself?

So in Buffy, vampires in general were supposed to be very ugly and very quickly killed off. And it was explained to me that I was only in it for more than one episode because Joss didn't want to go Scooby Doo — he didn't want to have a different villain every episode. He was trying to develop vampire villains just a few episodes before killing them off. But he never intended for a lot of romantic vampires running around his show. He used to say, "I don't like that Ann Rice crap." He wanted his metaphor and I think that's a very strong metaphor and it's why Buffy lasts to this day.

At any rate, Spike was not an adolescent and he was not human, so he was kind of put in as needed. Like in season 4 they needed a new Cordelia, who was the character in the beginning of the series that would tell Buffy she was an idiot and that they were all about to die. And Cordelia went over to Angel, the spinoff,. So Joss was thinking about it, and I believe it was Sarah [Michelle Gellar] who said, "Why don't you let Spike do that? That'd be awesome." And they tried that for a while and there were three or four episodes where I was running around the sunlight in a smoking blanket, trying to get into the room to tell Buffy that she was an idiot and all about to die.

[Laughing] It didn't really work out so well, and there was a point where, during season 4, I thought it wasn't going to work and I'd become unemployed again. But they found another place for me to occupy. And so I don't know if Spike was ever part of the main storyline. He was kind of put in as needed to help that storyline fit together, but I think when you stitch all that together you're right – it was a dramatically varied rollercoaster of a ride for the character. There were a lot of changes.

Was it easy slipping back into the role to write the comic?

In my mind, yeah. [In the Spike accent] I don't think I started talking like this all the time. Maybe I did a little bit, by myself. I'll admit it, I did a little bit. [Back to normal] But no, I didn't go full method actor.

When you're sitting down at the keyboard though, and you're ready to type, you go there in your mind. And I have to say it was quite pleasurable to look at the world through his eyes again – above and beyond the pleasure that is just writing. Whether you're writing music or writing a story, there's something about that experience that feels safe and also very exciting. For me.

You've written another Spike comic before — Spike and Dru, back in 2001. Can you tell us about that?

Yeah! I didn't see how those two characters were ever going to heal the wounds that they got in season 2. In season 2 he knocks her out and carries her into the car, but the fact is she's fallen back in love with Angel and he's not really comfortable with that at all.

So I wanted to rip the characters as far apart as possible in the opening panels of the book, and then devise a way for them to come back, organically, to be a couple again. In the big splash panel, she murmurs "Angel" in her sleep one more time, and Spike throws her out the window and into the sunshine, and she's burning to death on the driveway and he just drives away. I thought that was probably as far apart as I could get these two characters.

But she's mad about that – that's understandable. She hooks up with a necromancer to enact her revenge – necromancers being wizards whose specialty is dead flesh, so vampires are very vulnerable to them. But the necromancer goes too far and they're forced back together for survival.

So I wanted a really twisted romance and they have a really beautiful make-up scene. They're just sitting at the bottom of a pile of burning bodies – stuff like that. But it's a sweet scene! And that was a good experience. That was what I wanted to achieve and that was good.

What's different about writing a Spike comic in 2013 as opposed to 2001?

I feel like I'm a better storyteller than I was back then. I feel I'm better able to communicate what I see as a book and what I want it to end up as and why. Without being a little bitch about it and complaining about things, but really just setting it up where we're going in the beginning. I'm an actor, you know, so I've written a lot of scripts. I haven't actually filmed them, but in writing them you start to understand how to do it better. And I feel like if there's a big change, it's really been in my ability to communicate what I want this thing to be.

That having been done, it's been just a blast. The communication with Dark Horse has just been fabulous. I don't think I've given them any grey hairs, but I've been able to tell them what I want and why. And I invariably get an email back going, "Oh yeah, wow, you're right. That's a good idea."

In the first one, they had wanted to use an artist that was drawing the characters really ugly. Like, the whole world was just viciously ugly. And I didn't have the presence of mind to say, "Whoa, whoa – don't go there." What I wish I could have said was, "This is a romance." It's a twisted romance, yes, but the way a romance works is that every guy reading this book has to want the female lead – want to have sex with her – and he wants to be the male lead. And every woman, conversely, has to be the woman and want the guy.

The way we usually do that in romance is we cast good-looking people in those two roles. You don't have to but that's how you normally do that. And if you undercut that, you're going to undercut the power of what we're trying to do.

I didn't have the presence of mind to say that early enough so that could be accomplished and they went with an artist – a very talented artist – who went for a very horrific slant. And in hindsight I think it's interesting. You know, I never would have thought to do it that way. But it certainly looks like no other Buffy comic book that I know if.

I'm still very proud of it – but I had to explain to wonderful Juliet Landau [who played Drusilla] why I was in the middle of something that made her look so much less beautiful than she is in real life. That was hard.

That must have been an awkward conversation.

Yeah, but I mean, lesson learned. If you want something, say so.

I'm going to assume that you have no complaints about Into the Light at this point, art or otherwise.

None at all, man. None at all. If anything, I've just been trying to communicate that it's ok to make this character beaten down. In my script the first thing I say is, "Spike looks like shit." I don't know if they're going to go as far as I imagined. I had imagined the character on the cusp of starvation, really at his last gasp, and I think they may take it back from there a little bit. Probably wisely – he's the lead of the story. But I think, from what I've seen, it just looks spectacular.

So in the first comic you were too ugly, and in the new comic now you're too good-looking?

Yeah, well, like I said – I hope I'm a better storyteller. I hope I'm not going toward ego. I hope that I'm just trying to make a good story. Also I think that I'm much more secure in Spike's place in the hearts of the audience. When I wrote the first book I'd only been in 10 episodes and I was trying to build a character.

James Marsters reveals the secrets of his dark new Spike comic

I didn't realize you wrote it was that early during Buffy.

Yeah. I was trying to expand on a character and have the audience care about the character in new ways. And I guess I'm still doing that but I have a wealth of goodwill to draw on. So that gives you some latitude, I think, to play around.

Is there any danger of you forgoing your acting career to write comics full time?

You know, I like to do everything. I really don't think that one has to choose, especially when you're writing. There's these wonderful things called iPads and you can just take that with you and type on a set. You can go in your dressing room and keep typing and if it sucks you can erase it. I just don't feel like I need to choose.

It's harder to schedule acting with my band, Ghost of the Robot. But our last album debuted at #99 on the Top 100 list of iTunes – and there were people in Europe trying to get us a on a European tour this summer. And it's hard for me to say, "Yeah I have that time," because I might get something that's interesting to film.

It's very hard. I'm in the middle of this French scifi television series called Metal Hurlant, which is called Heavy Metal over here. Heavy Metal was a very popular comic book – it probably still is. It's a very popular movie. It's like a modern Twilight Zone. Very good characters and wonderfully drawn, but horrible endings for everyone involved.

And the first one I did was about an 18-year-old-girl who wakes up in a bomb shelter. Her next door neighbor is down there and he says, "World War III has started, the missiles have already been fired, I happen to have had a bomb shelter – didn't have any time to tell you all of this so I just knocked you out and dragged you down here – so don't open the front door. And she has to figure out if he's lying, which is wonderful. Really good cinematography, great acting, great props, great special effects. And horrible endings. It's just like, you know that Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith steps on his glasses and goes, [very dramatically] "Oh no!"

How is that not on the American Syfy channel already?

I think it will be. I think it's a lock. It's just the company in Europe only makes six episodes a year, and they were told wait until you have at least 12 and come back to us and we'll put you on the air.

Were you a comic fan growing up?

Oh my god, yes! I had stacks and stacks. In fact I remember I spent all of my money on comic books – to read them of course but also as an investment. I remember after years just taking all of these comics back to the comic book store and just expecting a return on my investment, but I think I only got like three bucks. I was horrified at what happened – but I got to read them all.

I was a big fan of Batman. I was a big fan of the Avengers, I was a big fan of Captain America. I'm old enough that I remember Captain America still fighting Nazis. When I read now about what they did with the character I think that he was an anti-Nazi/anti-fascist character, and after World War II he became an anti-communist character. And then the book just died until the '70s when they reawakened the character. But I do remember a lot of German right before people get hit. "Achtung lieber!"

I think that I was more into the Marvel universe, but my brother was really into DC. And between the two of us we cross-pollinated a lot, so I've read some of everything. Love comics.

They're movies, man. They're basically storyboards to movies and I think as long as you can keep the story tight. Because with comics the temptation is because I can do anything I want, let's do it all, and my favorite comics are more tightly focused, like the Frank Miller Daredevil series. You know, that's not a high-budget movie, if you were to make it into a movie. That's like a medium-budget film and it's really on character.

It's like what movies are doing with special effects now. We're discovering that just because we can do it doesn't mean it's the most powerful thing to do. Sometimes tightening the story down to the character's journey will be a little more powerful than taking them all over the map. I don't know if that makes any sense.

If you could write a comic about any of your other great genre characters – like Captain Hart from Torchwood, or Brainiac from Smallville, or Barnabas Greeley from Caprica – which one would you choose?

Oh Jesus. Wow, that's a good question. Ummmmm, Piccolo [from Dragonball: Evolution]. Yeah – I would like to explore Piccolo's inner journey. Boy, that's trampling on hallowed ground though.

I was going to say, there's already pretty detailed comic about Piccolo called Dragonball Z, though.

I know, but Piccolo is just always off on his own staring off into space. He's always brooding about something and you never really know what it is. So I think it would be kind of interesting to go in there. I don't know – it's hubris. In an alternate reality, maybe, I'd like to try that. Or maybe I'd like to write that and not show it to anyone.

What else do you want to tell people about Spike: Into the Light?

Here's a little nugget for you. My beautiful, amazing actress/model wife is in this book and playing the love interest. I wrote it with her in mind. And we sent pictures of her to the artists, so she is playing Dylan in this book. And if you want to, go online and search Jasmine Marsters and you'll see a very beautiful young women. Then you'll buy the book – you'll be like, "Christ, I've got check that out."

I can include a picture of her in the interview if you'd like.

That would be awesome! That would be absolutely awesome!

James Marsters reveals the secrets of his dark new Spike comic

No problem.

You'll get a lot more eyeballs on this interview if you include pictures of her.