House of Socks/Powers of Socks: An Interview with Al Ewing on S.W.O.R.D #1-5

Cover to Sword #1 by Valerio Schiti, published by Marvel Comics, 2020

As we draw closer and closer to the Hellfire Gala, we took the time to sit down with Al Ewing to talk about all thing S.W.O.R.D. We take a look at the many ways the book and its team took shape, how to offend Khora of the Burning Heart, and how to launch a title during a crossover. Strap in, zip up, and enjoy.

Khora of the Burning Heart arrives.
S.W.O.R.D. #5 – Ewing, Gracia, Maher, Schiti (Marvel Comics, April 21, 2021)

Dani Kinney: So. Let’s kick off with arguably the most important question…Khora of the Burning Heart…does she sleep with her socks on or off?

Al Ewing: Well, Khora’s from Arakko, an exiled mutant nation that up until recently was involved in an endless war, so I’ve got to assume off. Socks seem like kind of a luxury there.

DK: Lots of callouses built up on the Arakki I would imagine.

AE: Yeah. I’ve been getting into their culture — both in terms of reading previous X-issues and thinking through stuff from a writing perspective — and it feels like things like comfortable socks would be disrespected by most Arakki mutants. Maybe one or two would be into the idea from a practical standpoint. Or as the spoils of war. “I’ve taken your socks, now they’re mine.”

“I’ve taken your socks, now they’re mine.”

DK: Looking forward to seeing Isca’s sock necklace then.

AE: You’ll have to wait for House of Socks/Powers of Socks in 2023.

DK: Well, we heard it here folks!

So, let’s get into it. I’d like to work from the frame towards the center of the painting. S.W.O.R.D. itself is such a unique book, structurally, in terms of its team, the book’s setting, and its pace. Where did this concept for the book begin for you.

AE: Well, Jonathan and Jordan had approached me about X-stuff — the X-Office was already at full steam and wowing everybody, but they were looking towards X of Swords and what would eventually become Reign of X, and they had my email. So we back-and-forthed on things, and stuff — I’m going to be a little cagey here about what things and stuff, but it’s not super relevant to the story — and I ended up tagging along to the X-room at C2E2. Which sounds like a panel — no, we took advantage of having all of us in a hotel with conference rooms to do the story conference. I was only sitting in for… I want to say a day and a half? I had my plane home. But it was a very X of Swords-y story meeting, and there was talk about using the Peak, and what we might do with it afterwards… and I think that was where I started pitching an X-Space book, because I was doing a lot of space stuff already.

This, by the way, was the last convention any of us did for a while. And very quickly — though I’m obfuscating a little to avoid getting into story secrets — that kind of became what I was doing for X. A S.W.O.R.D. book, headed by Abigail Brand, involving a mutant space program, to come right out of the end of X of Swords and Empyre. That was the seed we began with.

DK: Did you get to pick the team from there? There’s the deepest of the deep-cuts on that team from Taki, to Peepers and from Mentallo to Frenzy. What about the team overall and individuals made you reach for them?

And I was very hungry to write Magneto, so in he went. Also, Cable. The others were picked on the basis of powers or jobs — I knew I wanted Frenzy in there because she’s canonically an ambassador, she had this great history with Magneto, all that.

AE: I did get to pick the team, but I had two strong pieces of advice — one of which is as old as the hills, which is to make sure there’s an A-lister or two on there. And I was very hungry to write Magneto, so in he went. Also, Cable. The others were picked on the basis of powers or jobs — I knew I wanted Frenzy in there because she’s canonically an ambassador, she had this great history with Magneto, all that. And Wiz-Kid was an early pick because I needed a technologist, and he was great, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to be a rock star. But the first of them all was Manifold. If you go back and look at that flash-forward ending of Empyre — it’s Brand, Manifold, and some shadowy figures. And that’s because, at the moment Valerio [Schiti] drew that page, it was Brand and Manifold and we didn’t know who else yet. Manifold was the obvious choice from the start — the space-est mutant. Cortez was the second strong bit of advice — to remember that we had access to the bad guys. Amnesty meant anybody could be on S.W.O.R.D. I knew I wanted Mentallo, but he’s not really an X bad guy. I think someone mentioned Fabian as part of a list of names, and the more I researched him, the more I wanted to write him. He’s wonderfully terrible.

Cover to Sword #1 by Valerio Schiti, published by Marvel Comics, 2020
S.W.O.R.D. #1 cover by Valerio Schiti, (Marvel Comics, 2020)

DK: As somebody who really treasures Taki’s role in X-Terminators during Inferno, specifically the way he articulates a really concise argument for the social-model of disability politics, it’s really a heartwarming sight to see a visibly disabled mutant holding space alongside titans like Magneto.

AE: Yeah, that was part of why I wanted him on the book, wanted to give him that exposure and the Valerio redesign, because of the impression he made in X-Terminators. I want to do more with him than we’ve been doing already — he’s had a lot to do in terms of being a vital part of the station and kicking ass, but I’d like to get into his head a little too. So I’m thinking that out.
I feel like one of the successes of the book has been getting these characters from the lesser-known corners of Marvel and introducing them to a new fanbase.

DK: I think I speak for a lot of fans when I say it was so reassuring to see the redesign and to see Taki’s disability not erased by the the Resurrection protocols. Especially given how much Taki, personally sees the chair as an extension of himself, like many who use ambulatory/mobility aids/devices do.

AE: Yeah, I try to stay conscious of the real world as well as the sci-fi world I’m writing. Although when you get deep into that sci-fi world, it can bring up some very crunchy, interesting metaphors — I’ve seen a lot of back and forth online about Crucible and what it means to different people. Part of the interesting thing of this world the X-team built before I turned up is how it rewards going in and testing it. It’s there to be questioned and thought about, I think. Way of X is doing great on that right now.

DK: I agree. I think those spaces where the metaphor breaks down or strains illuminate just as much for us as when it lines up. I think that’s the fascinating potential of this status quo. Within the context of S.W.O.R.D., it’s interesting to see the mutants of that team somewhat more distanced from the mutant politique.

AE: Yeah, I think we’re going to end up playing with that a lot as things go on.

DK: How are you approaching S.W.O.R.D.’s connectivity to Krakoa/Arakko and what that means for the metaphor?

AE: We’re getting very slightly into spoiler territory with that one, so I’m going to choose my words with a little care, but… I think every character — whether it’s one of our every-single-issue characters, or one of the ones we’ve ended up touching on less — has their own level of connection and disconnection to Krakoa. Brand is the obvious one. She talked a lot in that first issue about how she can’t only speak for Krakoa. But then you have Manifold and Mentallo, who both, in different ways, are not really part of Krakoa. Or Manifold is, but he’s not exclusive. He’s the Everywhere Man, so he’s an Avenger and an agent of Wakanda and a Secret Warrior and now he’s doing X-Stuff — he doesn’t belong to any of those things. He definitely doesn’t belong to Krakoa over Kata Tjuta. Krakoa doesn’t have the same pull for him as it does for a lot of mutants. And Mentallo is also not exclusive, because he goes where the dollars are. He saw a society with no dollars and didn’t like it.

Manifold Returns to Kata Tjuta
S.W.O.R.D. #3, Al Ewing, Ray-Anthony Height, Valerio Schiti, Bernard Chang, Nico Leon, February 10, 2021, Marvel

DK: I remember clocking Brand’s line in issue #4 about “blindly serving Krakoa”… and felt like that was A) So dead on for her B) so very ominous.

AE: Insert gif of Francis Urquhart saying “You may think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” Which is also quite on-brand for Brand.

DK: I’m interested in Khora’s place on this team. With the degrees of separation that S.W.O.R.D. has from Earth, to pluck an Arakki from their indigenous land and suddenly have then out in space is well, exciting. What has been in your head surrounding introducing Khora?

AE: I knew I was going to have a story beat where Cortez reached too far, too soon, and got slapped down. And I knew I was going to replace him, so I had this short-list of mutants who could do his job. And at a story meeting, it was suggested that the replacement could be Arakki, since we had loads of them around, and that was an idea that appealed to me, because it meant keeping this bigger story we were all telling in the reader’s eye. And also, it meant a great new mutant. In terms of a mutant of Arakko joining S.W.O.R.D., we’ve seen them wandering out into the world, so they’re not cloistered on their island. Whether Brand approached Khora or Khora approached Brand — I think it was probably the latter. The burning desire to see what’s out there. But whatever led to it, it happened early. Cortez’s days were numbered from before King In Black started. Khora’s somebody else I want to get into and flesh out more — if I’m being vague, it’s because there’s so much potential there.

DK: She’s already a cult classic. There are a lot of folks praying she’s going to stick around. I’d take a bullet for her.

AE: That’d be a terrible insult to her, to suggest she couldn’t take her own bullet.

DK: I can’t believe I’d dishonor my daughter like that…

I’ve just written a nice scene for [Khora] in S.W.O.R.D. #8. Her and Frenzy watching… let’s say a ball game and avoid spoilers.

AE: She’s sticking around — I’ve just written a nice scene for her in S.W.O.R.D. #8. Her and Frenzy watching… let’s say a ball game and avoid spoilers.

DK: Nothing is more mutant than a ball game.

AE: Her and Wiz-Kid are sparking off each other too. She’s part of the crew now. There are going to be clickbait articles now. “The X-Men are going to have a softball game again!” They’re not, it’s something else I can’t reveal. Or if they are, I won’t be writing it. I don’t know the rules. One of the fun things with Khora — this isn’t much of a spoiler, I think I mentioned it in #5 — is that nobody on Arakko has ever asked her to boost their powers. Because that’s an insult. So when Krakoans do, she’s very “are you sure? You can do this yourself.”

DK: So Khora really has a chance to grow her abilities in ways that she really hasn’t tested before?

AE: Yeah! It’s new territory. The dream when creating a character is always that I do my shift on them, wander away to the next job, and then somebody comes along and does something brilliant that I never considered. And the sky’s kind of the limit with Khora and the Arakko mutants. One of the dreams, anyway. But you want them to last.

DK: Speaking of dreams, it’s clear Frenzy has been keeping her relationship with Scott Summers from Age of X very fresh in her mind. Is that something we should expect to see become more and more present for her?

As a writer, I can see pathways where she could go, but I don’t know yet, and I won’t until she gets there, and then it’s going to suddenly seem very obvious and I’ll just write it down as it happens.

AE: Not really. I don’t think Cargill’s the type to hold an impossible torch for this length of time. She’s practical. Scott isn’t happening. But the desire for something like that — what she had in the Age of X world — that’s still what she wants. Not the man, but the love. And that’s hard, because she’s still got a lot of walls up. Protective walls, but still. And this is one of those things where — as a writer, I can see pathways where she could go, but I don’t know yet, and I won’t until she gets there, and then it’s going to suddenly seem very obvious and I’ll just write it down as it happens.

DK: It seems like there are a lot of pillars of this team who are very guarded…Brand, Frenzy, Khora, Magneto

AE: Write what you know! I’m kind of guarded myself, so a lot of the time I do gravitate to those characters and personalities. And I like doing the thing where someone has an expression you can’t quite read. Which, if you find an artist who can do that, chain yourself to them. I’ve been pretty lucky over the years. But also… there’s that thing where secrets make good stories. Eventually, they build up and its like a domino topple.

DK: Speaking of the art, what was the process like of designing the team’s initial costumes? Twitter basically exploded when issue one came and we saw those looks.

AE: It was literally a case of just watching Valerio go. I think I made one, maybe two suggestions? Legion of Superheroes was, strangely, an inspiration on my end — that era of my childhood where they all had jackets with their symbols on. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to do jackets on teams. There was a point where I wanted to put the New Avengers in jackets, like the ’90s with Black Knight in stubble and leathers. I think at this point it’s out of my system, because Valerio just delivered these amazing high-fashion clothes for everybody and I’m pretty much satisfied forever now.

DK: What was it like to launch the book with a crossover [King in Black] so early in the title?

AE: Well, it was kind of old home week for me. I have a habit of seeing these tie-ins as a challenge — how do I tell my story and this other story? In this case, we did end up taking a big bite, but I’d made a rod for my own back. I’d launched a series where part of the point, as we’d set things up, was that this team was going to intercept and deal with space threats for Krakoa. So when a space threat comes and possesses some top-level Krakoans, we’ve got to jump in. Every issue, I got to move S.W.O.R.D. and the characters forward, though — so I’m happy with that. It’s been interesting seeing people’s reaction to S.W.O.R.D. dealing with King In Black, Hellfire Gala and Last Annihilation — which are three very different things, but they do all involve some form of tying into, or at least reflecting, an outside story. That’s making me think about how to approach things in 2022. Most of the reaction has been great, though. I’m kind of taken aback by how people are devouring some of those wordless preview pages.

DK: Speaking of previews, what should fans expect from S.W.O.R.D. on the horizon (light fun tease or a pithy quip, not like a spoiler).

Doctor Doom. Turns out he’s like Pringles — once you Doom, you just can’t… stoom.

AE: Doctor Doom. Turns out he’s like Pringles — once you Doom, you just can’t… stoom. And in the further future… Gyrich. Big time Henry Gyrich. He’s not messing around.

DK: Clearly…him and his mole…

AE: Now there’s a wine I absolutely can’t serve before its time. Some fun guesses so far, though.

DK: Alright then, keep your secrets. Well, Al, Mr. Ewing, it has been a true pleasure. Thank you so much for sitting down.

AE: Thanks very much! I’ll be happy to do it again sometime. I’m a big fan of the site.

DK: Well on behalf of all the WWAC-ers, I’m honored.