Interview: Kyle Higgins Breaks Down the First Arc of Image’s Radiant Black

Note: This feature discusses plot points through the first six issues of Radiant Black. Trade waiters be warned.

Image Comics’ new series Radiant Black, created by writer Kyle Higgins (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Nightwing) and artist Marcelo Costa, introduced readers to failed writer Nathan Burnett. Nathan is 30, debt-ridden and recently moved back home with his parents in the Chicago suburbs. After a night of catching up with his childhood friend Marshall, Nathan discovers a strange, miniature black hole that grants him new abilities. 

After following Nathan for three issues, Higgins and Costa blow up the series status quo, with Nathan seemingly dying and Marshall taking the power after a battle with villainous counterpart Radiant Red. Marshall’s quest for revenge is interrupted by the arrival of two more Radiants and a strange assailant. 

To cap off this initial story arc, the sixth issue brings on guest writer Cherish Chen and artist David Lafuente to explore the origin of Radiant Red, a young woman named Satomi. 

I spoke with Kyle Higgins about Radiant Black’s first arc, his philosophy of superhero stories, exploring failure and the storytelling responsibility of producing a creator-owned book.

Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and length.

Issue #7 wraparound cover by Daniele Di Nicuolo and Walter Baiamonte

Tim Rooney: For those who might not have been reading through the series up to this point, can you give an introduction to Radiant Black?

Kyle Higgins: Radiant Black is my new Image Comics series that is a look at superheroes from a more millennial, contemporary perspective. It’s a book where truly anything can happen because Marcelo Costa, editor Michael Busutil and I all own the property. So we’re able to take big, wild swings while we explore these generational issues, using superheroes to look at the way the world works, especially for those of us who are of the “Oregon Trail” generation. That’s not a term that I came up with, but I do quite like what it means. The idea behind it is if you’re old enough to remember walking into a classroom and dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail on an old Apple 2 computer, you’re not really a millennial, because you remember life before the internet. We’re the last generation to grow up without it.

We’re also the last generation that was sold the idea of the “American Dream.” Maybe it was more viable to generations prior, but the way it gets talked about to this day has not been viable for quite some time. We don’t like to talk about debt in this country, or the failures of our systems. My generation, all my friends, we’re all going through the same thing — trying to navigate this world where maybe we’re OK at social media and doing video stuff, but not as good as people younger than us. But it also feels like we’re too old to start over. The creative industries are all changing so rapidly. If you’re older and established, with an audience, then you’ve certainly got a leg up. Or, if you’re just starting out, you’re going to be far more nimble and malleable with regards to what avenues you’re probably interested in creating for. But for me, in my mid-30s, I’ve often had a feeling of not knowing what to do, or what my place is or where I can go next.

So taking all of that and looking at it through the filter of arguably my favorite genre, which is superheroes, felt like an interesting starting place for this book.

Tim: It’s interesting that you answered it that way because that’s exactly where I was going to go next. It really, for me, reflects these specific economic structures that our generation is caught in. It feels familiar to me, this pressure we feel to establish ourselves in our 20s. And a lot of superhero books are about teenagers, especially these origin stories. So, that really resonated with me from that opening splash page in issue #1 with the $40,000 in credit card debt, it really felt like a mission statement. And for Nathan and for Marshall, who is kind of stuck in this dead-end video store job, it feels like they blew their chance and this is a second opportunity for them. Am I off base with that? Are second chances and finding yourself a major theme you wanted to explore?

Kyle: You’re not off base at all. It’s finding yourself and it’s also, and I don’t think this is unique to people my age, sometimes you try to do something, like start a small business, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how long you dreamed of doing it. The reality sometimes means you failed and I just feel like we don’t really explore failure as often as we should considering we’re in the business of storytelling. A story doesn’t have anything to it if everything goes perfectly right. On the one hand, especially related to superhero comics, it is escapism. But we are in the business of creating worlds and immersive experiences, hopefully, and so you do want to be careful about reflecting the world too honestly in all of its awfulness and depravity, unless that’s the story you are wanting to tell. But we often shy away from some of the more nuanced challenges that all of us deal with in our day-to-day lives.

As it relates to the idea of second chances, that to me is powerful. I just wrote up a pitch doc for Radiant Black, and to your point about Nathan not being a teenager trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up, he already had dreams, chased them and it didn’t work out. But much like life, this is just where his story is beginning. 

So that idea of not only second chances but redefining yourself and not letting your failure in one thing define what you can do in something else mentally, is really important. I mean, I’ve had books bomb. I’ve considered many different careers at different points in my comics career for different reasons. I love comics to death, but my true dream is directing, and that’s what I’ve been chasing my whole life. It hasn’t happened yet, and there were opportunities for certain things that I wasn’t able to tackle, and you think about those chances all the time. But hopefully not to the detriment of being willing to try again. Unless you really don’t have it as a creator. And you have to be honest with yourself in that case, too.

So that is all the stuff that keeps me up at night. And it’s certainly the stuff that I feel is more relatable than we often think it is. 

Tim: So with issue #6 out, that is a wrap on the first arc and the first half year of the book. I think you alluded to this a little bit in your discussion of exploring failure, but it seems like for the last couple months especially you’ve consciously tried to subvert expectations for superhero books. Is that something you think about in your plotting? Or is your approach more character-focused?

Kyle: Honestly they go hand in hand. It’s a little tough to say now because I’ve kind of done the heavy lifting and have a plan for the first three years of the book. So I kind of know how everything works and fits together now, but yeah, in the ideation phase it isn’t so much that I’m looking to subvert expectations but constantly looking for, “What is the cooler way to do that?” or the better way or the more interesting way. Or, what’s the way to do this that I haven’t seen before? 

So when you find a way that is really exciting, and there’s a way to make it seem like it’s going to be the thing you’ve seen before, and then we bait and switch, then absolutely. That is fun.  

For me, Radiant Black is as much about the experience, so a lot of what we are building here is experiential. Which is why we are doing all the other stuff we are doing, like the social media, the soundtrack and score by Sam Ewing, and merchandising — yes we are working on merch, people ask us every day.  For all of these fun things, we want to make sure we do it in a way that befits the ambition of the book. 

We have a plan, it’s pretty cool, but it’s going to take a bit of time. And all of that comes from a place of experiential storytelling.

Tim: The biggest example of this kind of swing is what happens to Nathan, the protagonist in the first three issues. He seems to die at the end of issue #4. And this may be a question you can’t answer because things are still unfolding, but why start with Nathan, let us into his emotional space so intimately, and then radically shift direction to another character as the lead, in this case his friend Marshall who was a side character earlier on?

Kyle: There are a few reasons, some I’m not ready to talk about. But what I can and will say is, to our previous point about subverting expectations, while it is not something I am usually consciously planning to do until I get into the execution, there is often this feeling that I can’t shake which is: We have a responsibility as an indie, creator-owned, superhero book to take really big swings. 

There’s a lot of comics on the shelves, and a lot of them are superhero books. If we are vying for people’s attention and for shelf space, and we have a creator-owned book where we can say: “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” and can do it, then I feel a responsibility that we should be doing it at every turn. 

So, it’s not a bait-and-switch, but some of the planning about how we executed what has become the new status quo with Marshall is very, very deliberate. You don’t care about someone dying unless you care about them when they’re alive, otherwise it is just a macguffin or a plot device. You need to care as much as Marshall cares in that moment. Because what happens after that moment is what the book is about, and that’s where we are gonna be exploring things in some pretty wild and different ways.

Tim: To that point, was what happened to Nathan part of the original plans for the book, or was it something you discovered more organically once you got started?

Kyle: Yeah, that was always the plan. And I should say: He’s not actually dead. He died, the paramedics revived him. It’s not looking good, I’ll give you that, he’s on life support and in a coma. It’s not good. But without spoiling much coming up, the process of grief and saying goodbye is something that’s really important to me to explore. 

So yes, it’s always been the plan but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

Tim: As far as superhero stories go, there have been a lot of impulses the last few years to go dark and twisted in the indie space in comics and TV and offer an alternative and, some would argue, more “realistic” exploration of how people with superpowers would abuse those gifts. But Radiant Black embraces that tradition of fun and wonder and escape, even though the stakes are heavy, which I think Costa’s art really helps capture. Do you have a philosophy on superheroes, because I think both your Power Rangers and especially the tail end of your Nightwing run really embraced an optimism in the concept.

Kyle: This is something I feel very strongly about. I like my dark and gritty heroes as much as anyone. Things like Batman: Year One, Dark Knight Returns or Daredevil: Born Again. But here’s the thing: If all you have is a hammer, then you start looking at everything as a nail. “Dark and edgy” isn’t the same as complex and sophisticated. But as part of the reductionary society that we live in, especially when it comes to mass market entertainment, somehow we have come to this place where a whole lot of people think dark and edgy means complex and sophisticated. In contrast to things that are brighter and more poppy that feel lighter in tone, then this feels like, “Oh, this is the real world.”

And that goes in waves. I am slightly too young for the late-’80s explosion of dark comics. But I was around for Image, and Batman: Knightfall, and the kind of grimdark aesthetic vibe of it all that was coming in. And there were some interesting avenues where we ended up with things like Gotham Central from Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark on art. That book is dark and it’s gritty but it is complex and very sophisticated. It’s a look at a societal system and law enforcement in a city where there is a vigilante and all of this craziness. It looks at the normal people who still have to be police and navigate this extraordinary world. The fact that it is dark and edgy, and has some of the greatest Joker scenes that have ever been put in comics, that’s not the reason it’s complex and sophisticated, it has something to say as well.

Doing things like Power Rangers was really amazing for me, and meeting Mat Groom and Michael Busutil, because I certainly have had that in me. In my Nightwing stuff, there are aspects of that run I am very proud of and that final issue in particular, but it is also from an era of grimdark in the New 52 — and grimdark for grimdark’s sake. And, look, I’ve written Batman and I love writing for Batman. It’s rare I turn down a Batman job, and that’s a darker character and I like dark stories, I like noir. But not everything is a nail that needs a hammer. 

Doing something like Power Rangers and really embracing the optimism, and working with artists, particularly Daniele Di Nicuolo and Walter Baiamonte at the end of my run, who can do bright without it feeling cheesy, that was a milestone and turning point for me. Because then you have a lot more tools in your tool belt then and when you do go dark, it’s a lot more impactful. When we killed Tommy (the Green Ranger) in Shattered Grid, it lands in part because it is in contrast to the more optimistic tone, and then when they overcome it the triumph is made that much greater.

It makes me a little sad that for an entire generation of viewers, the DC films of the last however many years is their version of the DC Universe. Now, that’s not an indictment of the quality of the films, they’re just not for me. But when I think about, and now I sound like an old man, when I think about the DC content I grew up with, the Burton Batman films, Batman: The Animated Series, even the Nolan Batman films a little later which were “dark,” they had a point of view and had something to say. And I feel like so many of the films since then, if they’ve had something to say, it’s been the least interesting version of the sentence.

Tim: Well, if you sound like an old man then so do I, because I am on the same page as you.

Kyle: Like I said, they’re just not for me. That being said, I am really excited about Matt Reeves’ Batman. It looks like there’s more going on there under the surface, which as a writer and filmmaker myself, makes me excited. And it also looks dark as hell, so it can work, but it certainly isn’t the catch-all we’ve turned it into.

Tim: Right, something can be dramatic and have stakes without being cynical and angry. Now, having talked about Power Rangers a bit, that brings me to my next question. Particularly in the press leading up to the launch, there was a lot of talk about the tokusatsu influence on Radiant Black. Can you speak a little bit to that influence beyond just the aesthetics of the costume?

Issue #7 interior pages by Marcelo Costa and Natália Marques, lettered by Becca Carey

Kyle: The one that you can probably look at and spot immediately is the “level ups.” You know, Radiant Black gets a cape and these, we call them black hole hands, and Red ends up in this mecha form. And those are certainly secondary forms that they’re able to access power-level wise. And it stands to reason that if red and black have those, then perhaps yellow and pink have those, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out. That idea of the powers evolving you see in Kamen Rider a lot, and I’m not as versed in Kamen Rider as I should be or will be. But I’m really enjoying taking my time and enjoying them. Kamen Rider Build really takes it to the nth degree where the bottles unlock all these different forms. So that’s something we definitely have in common with certain toku.

I’ve jokingly said to friends before “It’s Power Rangers for adults,” and even that is reductive because Power Rangers isn’t just for kids. But it means that it’s Power Rangers with adult problems. Even that, it’s not Power Rangers. These are people who don’t know each other who have come into these abilities. We’ve already had one die and the friend takes over the mantle. You don’t see that in things like Power Rangers. In some ways, these four, until we get into more about who these all are, I actually think it is better to think about them more as Kamen Riders and independent. For reasons you’ll see in the next issue, they are together right now, but it’s really just for survival.

Some of the other stuff I can’t actually talk about because of where the book is heading and what it will become. 

Tim: Moving on from some of those big thematic questions to more of the process side, after the big surprises in issue #4 with Nathan ending up in a coma and #5 with the introduction of the new Radiants, you switched gears for issue #6 and decided to tell a very character-driven interlude with Radiant Red and you brought in a guest writer in Cherish Chen. Why was she the right choice to bring Satomi’s world to life? 

Kyle: I knew that as I was going to be building out these other Radiant characters I was also going to be building out a much more diverse cast as a result. I also knew while I was putting together the publishing model I wanted to be on the stands every month. With a brand new superhero series I very much felt I needed to keep the momentum. I helped build the publishing model on Power Rangers, where we did four issues and the fifth was a fill-in we built to. One of the things I really prided myself on when I was doing Nightwing, while there were a lot of events we had to navigate, I never took the mindset of “this thing is a hindrance to the story I’m trying to tell.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to have eyes on the book, so I’m going to build my character arc for Dick to culminate in the event. So in “Death of the Family,” when Joker tears down the circus, that was the culmination of him building the circus and trying to carve out this new path in life, and Joker tells him, “You can’t run from your past, boy.”

With Rangers, Hendry (Prasetya) was able to do four issues and we needed someone on the fifth. So I built a model where I can structure it so that the fifth issue doesn’t feel like a fill-in. We can get a guest artist but do a character-focused story, and those stories can either shed a new light on or reveal something that was set up in the first four issues. So for example, in issue #5 of Rangers, Zack is tempted by the Green Power Coin. That introduces a new wrinkle to something we didn’t see before. That hopefully informs why Zack feels the way he does about Tommy. It was a very elegant format. On Radiant Black, I thought we could take that and go to the next level with it.

I was building the character of Radiant Red and had ideas for who she was. I knew she would be Japanese American, she was 28 and her name was Satomi. I knew what the Red Radiant powers were, and I knew what the financial situation was with her partner. But it’s also something of an origin story, and one of the things I said in the back matter of Radiant Black #1 applies here. I want to build a community with this book. That’s why we do the letters column, it’s why we do the social, it’s why we do all of it, to put a little bit of magic back in the world.

Well to that point, we are doing some things in the backups like “Marshall’s School of Business,” where a whole lot of new writers are doing one-pagers for us. They’ve already done them, they’re awesome. So in that spirit I thought, can I bring a co-writer in to help build Satomi? And, I don’t know if you can tell this or not, Tim, but I am not Japanese American. In looking to be authentic while also giving an opportunity to a writer I really believe in, that’s where the decision came from. 

Tim: That got you to the decision of bringing Cherish on to the book. What was the process of working with her to write the issue?

Kyle: We went back and forth. We outlined it together and did different passes. Then I broke the page structure for the issue, she wrote a first pass at the script and I made notes. Then we went back and forth on the dialogue. So it’s very smooth, very organic. That’s how I like to run my books, just make the book in real time. The whole Radiant Black team has a G-Chat thread that we are all on and communicating back and forth. When we get down to the wire on stuff, we’re making tweaks in real time before we go to the printer. It’s great, and we are able to build ideas off of one another. And Michael ran point on it. I also brought on David “Darko” Lafuente, who is one of my all-time favorite artists, and Miquel Muerto, a new colorist whose work I wasn’t familiar with until David introduced me to it on Something Is Killing the Children. It was a fun guest team to have, and I think we are all very proud of how it turned out.

Issue #7 interior pages by Marcelo Costa and Natália Marques, lettered by Becca Carey

Tim: While Marcelo Costa is the main artist, recent issues have seen other guest artists drop in. Eduardo Ferigato stepped up for issue #5 due to a hand injury Marcelo was dealing with. How has seeing this world brought to life by different artists changed the way you think about the story and its potential? 

Kyle: Well, it has … but I can’t tell you how. But you should ask me that question again in … a while from now. It is safe to say that working with incredibly talented storytellers is always going to give you ideas on what else is possible.

Tim: So you talked about those in-between arc issues, is that a space you plan to bring in other collaborators and possibly expand the world a bit and give Marcelo a break?

Kyle: Possibly, yeah. The structure of every sixth issue being something like this is in place. As far as what every sixth issue will cover, that might be different. But I’d say you’re on the right train of thought.

Tim: I wanted to talk a little bit about Becca Carey’s work on the letters because I think her work has been really effective and included a number of subtle effects like the faint glow around the thought balloons in issue #3 and that kind of blurry effect in issue #6 to represent muffled sound through the window. How much of that kind of thing is scripted, and how much is her bringing her artistry to the visuals?

Kyle: It started as her doing what she does. I discovered Becca and her work through Clayton Cowles, who has been my letterer in the past on a number of things, and still works with me on Ordinary Gods. I asked him about Radiant Black, and he recommended Becca as kind of his protege. He told me she’s very innovative, and I went, “Ooh, that’s interesting.” I have a graphic design background, I love typography, so great, let’s do some stylish stuff.

Early on in Radiant Black, Michael gave me a heads up that she’s a designer too and he knew her work. Very quickly it became clear that this could be next level for us. She started integrating bits of Michael’s glitchy text code he uses in his book design, using it in the location captions, and that made us really take notice. As we went along it became really clear that Becca could do things that we haven’t really seen in comics and they look great.

As an example of how that works, I knew issue #3 was going to be about the writing process. But I didn’t know if I was going to be doing it in captions or what. Then I started thinking around the time we were wrapping issue 1, that thought bubbles could be cool, but through a contemporary design lens. So I emailed Becca about her thoughts on designing thought bubbles for a new generation. So that’s what she did and they turned out amazing, like the blue static line that she augments based on anxiety. It’s a subtle thing, you don’t do it too often, but it’s a tool. I’m actually looking at some cool stuff that she just sent me that is really impressive. 

Tim: I also want to make sure we talk about Costa’s art. His colors especially have really defined the look of the comic and its tone. Can you share a little bit about what you think he’s brought to the story and if it’s impacted your approach to the book?

Kyle: Of course it has. I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it didn’t. You should always write and create to your artist’s strengths and interests. Hopefully they align, and that’s how you know if there’s a really good fit. And we were able to figure that out really quickly and we are in lock step here. Marcelo’s brilliant. I wasn’t familiar with Marcelo’s illustration before this, but I knew him as a colorist. I told Danilo Beyruth, who I am working with on The Trap, early on that I was working with Marcelo and Danilo said, “Oh, he’s a great artist,” and he thought I meant Marcelo was coloring. Then I told him Marcelo was drawing, and he couldn’t have been happier.

So to see Marcelo not only come out and showcase on a big stage, but continue to get better every issue has been really awesome to see. We have brought on a colorist, Natália Marques, who colored the issue with Eduardo. She’s going to be coloring Marcelo for the next few issues because coloring and drawing a monthly series yourself was doable for the first issues but just too much work in not enough time for one person to do themselves.

Tim: I heard you say in another interview that it was important to you in this book to take advantage of the monthly release schedule and give a full story every month and not focus solely on future collected editions. Issues #3 and #6 in particular really operate as done-in-ones that also further the overall story. What in your mind makes a compelling single issue that you would consider satisfying? 

Kyle: It just has to be narratively satisfying. At a certain point as writers we pivoted our structural emphasis toward the collected edition. That’s still a viable way to write comics, but it doesn’t really incentivize readers to pick up the monthly floppy, and if you don’t sell those monthly floppies it’s hard to make the collected edition. 

Beyond that, I love the format of the monthly periodical. We wanted to do some things with it to make it stand out and make it unique. That includes back matter, sometimes it means more pages. Issue #5 and #7 are both 36-page comic books with 24 pages of story, and we’re not charging any more for that. First and foremost though, the narrative decision making is through the lens of a full story each month. That’s not always gonna be the case. I’d say issues #7 and #8 are very much a two-parter, but issues #9, #10 and #1 are all their own thing. It’s a fine line. For example, I’d argue issues #1 and #2 were also sort of a two-parter, they’re one story, but I did also structure them to work entirely on their own. Issue #2 opens with Nathan arriving home and talking to dad and then ends with him talking to dad the next morning after arriving at home. Their arc is “resolved” within one issue, so it narratively feels satisfying. It’s something I’ve always tried to do, but I’ve really tried to prioritize it for Radiant Black.

Issue #7 interior pages by Marcelo Costa and Natália Marques, lettered by Becca Carey

Tim: So to wrap up, I thought I’d see if, with issue #7 going back to the main story in the present with the new Radiants that showed up at the end of issue #5, if there is anything you want to tease about it or what’s to come in the back half of this first year?

Kyle: Can’t do it. It’s too cool! 

Although, I can say that we just announced on our Comic-Con panel that issue #10 will be printed in fluorescent ink, so it’ll be a blacklight comic. There will be a standard edition, for the standard price, but there will also be a special blacklight edition, which is a story-based decision. So that’s the next big thing I’ll tease, because it will be a limited run that people will want to pre-order.

Tim: That sounds very cool. Well, that’s all I had, so I just want to say thank you for your time and hopefully we can chat again as the story continues!

By day, Tim is a nonprofit professional. By night he is either reading, writing, or thinking very seriously about superhero comics.