If you pick up a copy of Assassin Nation #1 this week, don’t get too attached to any of the characters. Kyle Starks and Erica Henderson co-created the Skybound mini-series, which has one major focus: “a lot of murder.”
Starks wrote the script for all five issues of Assassin Nation, with Henderson illustrating and Deron Bennet lettering. The series follows Rankin, formerly the #1 hitman in the entire world, as he finds himself in someone else’s crosshairs. To uncover who’s after him and to protect his life, he hires the current-ranking top hitmen in the world to be his bodyguards. What ensues is a murderous, hilarious series that’s jam-packed with truly epic fights.
Ahead of Assassin Nation‘s March 13 debut, The Beat called up Starks and Henderson to talk about what we can expect from the series.
Samantha Puc: So, to start off, can you tell me how Assassin Nation came together and how you decided to work on this particular book as a team?
Erica Henderson: Kyle and I have wanted to work together for several years, like five or six years, I would say. That was the first thing. We wanted to work on just, anything together. And then, I think, we just needed the right time for this to happen. [Kyle] sent me a Google Hangouts message one day that was like, “Hey, this is an idea.”
Kyle Starks: It was New York! It was at New York Comic Con. I was like, “I have this idea. It’s really dumb.” We had talked about stuff before, but this was the first one that you were like, “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
Erica Henderson: Also, Jon Moisan, who’s our editor, [was also at New York Comic Con] and he was like, “We should do stuff together,” but he was always busy. All three of us were in the same place that weekend.
Puc: What has been the process of working on this series together? Was it super collaborative or did you both bring pretty hard-set ideas to the table?
Kyle Starks: I wrote it and Erica drew it. I’m pretty Type A with my story stuff. Since I draw, too, I’m pretty much not concerned with that end because I know Erica’s going to kill it. Erica designed all the characters… yeah, that’s not a great story.
Erica Henderson: We have talked about how things will go. I think when you came to me, you had a three-sentence thing that basically gave the whole story arc. And then we’ve talked about things to flesh out the most bare bones.
Kyle Starks: Yeah, like locations and that type of thing, for sure. The ending…. Pre-epilogue, I think, is mostly [Erica]. It’s a very succinct sort of clean-up. [Erica] didn’t want an epilogue. There wasn’t going to be an epilogue but then we did one, so.
Erica Henderson: I think part of that is like… you contact me when you’re like, “Okay, I have this much story and I need like half of that. What am I going to do?” Then I’ll sit there and I’ll be like, “Alright. These are the things we don’t need and here’s how we can tie those other bits together without the bits we just cut out.”
Puc: This book has such a huge cast. How did you balance cutting and condensing, working with such a large cast of characters?
Erica Henderson: There is a lot of murder in this book. A lot of people get murdered.
Kyle Starks: There is a lot of murder. I really wanted to do an ensemble cast with unclear fates, so it’s a lot of dudes. It gets bigger each issue — or, after issue two, the roster gets even bigger.
Erica Henderson: But we do kill some people. I think you need, for this kind of thing, a larger cast. I watched Bad Times at the El Royale last year and they’re adding characters, adding characters… It gets to about six people and then one of them dies. I was like, “Wait. We’re already starting the murder?!” And then they don’t add anymore people. One more died and I was like, “Hold on. This is not enough people for this to go insane.” That was correct. It was very boring.
Puc: Did either of you pull specific inspiration from anything for Assassin Nation?
Kyle Starks: I don’t think the first show we did, but the second show I did with Erica, she had an ‘80s sketchbook. An ‘80s action movie sketchbook. So I think she’s been down for the big action sequences and exciting ‘80s action nonsense before Unbeatable Squirrel Girl ever came around.
Erica Henderson: It’s true. Before USG happened, I almost wound up doing a The Crow book with Donny Cates. Yeah. It didn’t happen.
Kyle Starks: If you did that in 2019, though, it would sell amazing.
Erica Henderson: I’ve always been into crazy ‘80s action movies. Even as we were talking about who the characters [in Assassin Nation] should be, I think I was the one who was like, “We need to have twins.” One of the archetypes I really wanted was weird twins.
Kyle Starks: The Mamba twins are great.
Erica Henderson: Yeah, you really ran with that one.
Kyle Starks: I wish I had… The Mamba twins needed so many more pages. That’s the problem with the ensemble cast. The Mamba twins are between the panels.
Puc: I would ask if there’s potential for a spin-off, but I feel like that would be spoilery for whether or not they die.
Erica Henderson: I feel like there’s potential for prequels for everybody. They clearly… I think it’s not really a secret to say they’re all the best [assassins], so clearly there’s a lot of stuff that happened to them before this happened.
Kyle Starks: It’s true. Many murders.
Erica Henderson: So much.
Puc: Have you actually counted how many murders take place over the course of Assassin Nation?
Kyle Starks: Uh, you know what? No. I was going to make a reference in the final issue to how many deaths actually took place, but it’s really high. Issues three and four are wild. They’re wild with murder.
Erica Henderson: I had been meaning to send Kyle a message, because there’s one crazy bit in four that we’re working on now, where I wanted to be like, “Um, Kyle? How many people are in this scene that are not going to be there in like three pages?”
Kyle Starks: Yeah, a bunch. The answer is “a bunch.”
Erica Henderson: I feel like I need a number.
Kyle Starks: Alright, I’ll have to think of a number. Well, you know what the answer is, Erica? It’s high enough to be impressive and intimidating and low enough that it’s worth drawing.
Erica Henderson: I think I need to make a little checklist of each time it specifically says there’s definitely at least one person dying… and then maybe add a couple more to that number.
Kyle Starks: Yeah. There’s a lot of deaths.
Puc: I’m so excited to read this. How many issues are there? Is it a completed arc?
Kyle Starks: It’s five issues. I’m really big on beginnings, middles and ends. The whole point of this ensemble book is that the stakes are so high that anyone could die. That goes all the way to the end. Anyone could die. I want that. I want to tell that. I want that story to have those high stakes.
Puc: Do either of you have a favorite character, whether they live or die?
Kyle Starks: I like all of them. I feel like I breathe a little bit of live into all of these characters. I love Fernando. I love Fuck Tarkington.
Erica Henderson: He’s your best friend in real life.
Kyle Starks: Unofficially. He may look familiar to some convention-goers. I don’t know. Smoke, Bishop and Rankin are all great.
Erica Henderson: You like everybody. You’re just naming all the characters now.
Kyle Starks: I like all of them. I feel like I could’ve included more Desert Regal. Desert Regal’s great. I like Smush Parker. I’m sorry, excuse me, Smush Walker. Smush Parker was a loaded minutes guard for the Lakers.
Erica Henderson: Wait, Smush was a real name you grabbed? That was one of those names where I was like, “Kyle is grabbing names out of a hat. He’s got those fridge magnets and he’s just pulling them out of a hat.” I did not realize that was based on a real person’s name.
Kyle Starks: Well, I’m sure it’s a nickname for that guy. I don’t think it was an intentional reference. I was looking at obscure stats from the early aughts, you know, and I was like “holy shit, did I use this guy’s name?” I did not. Good work, Starks! Way to make sure to legalize your subconscious references. Keepin’ us safe.
Erica Henderson: I like learning things about our own book in interviews. That’s always my favorite.
Puc: I’m trying to imagine how someone would react to realizing they’re in this book where they probably die, probably violently.
Kyle Starks: Listen. Two people close to us—
Erica Henderson: Three.
Kyle Starks: You’re right. I forgot about Rumble Deathpatch.
Erica Henderson: In another interview, I was asked about favorite characters and I was like, “I’ve gotta give it to Dave.” Kyle named this one character “Dave” and so I just made him my fiancé, Dave. He’s just in there. I think he’s pretty excited about it. He’s holding out hope that there’ll be a toy one day.
Kyle Starks: Oh, I didn’t even think about the toy possibilities. Okay, listen. I think if you look at any book I’ve done, there’s at least one character who is someone I was dealing with at that time. All of my friends have been in my books. Erica is in Kill Them All. She’s the shop girl who’s giving Tiger’s Daughter her killer duds. I don’t know if legally, you can say that, but needless to say, I think if you do the smallest amount of research, you can figure out who those characters are.
Puc: I assume this is going to read like an ‘80s action movie, so I’m curious if there are any songs you would put on a soundtrack for this.
Kyle Starks: “We Built This City” by Starship, for sure. There’s definitely a place for that. I can’t! It’s too much on the spot for me. Erica, big fight scene number four — what’s the song?
Erica Henderson: That one’s gotta be Japanese.
Kyle Starks: It’s funny, because whenever I’m writing and I’m visualizing things, I’m thinking about it cinematically, which is not to say I’m thinking about what a good movie it makes, it’s just — that’s the language that I speak. I never think of soundtracks, though. In this book, I can think of four or five scenes where a dope-ass song would be amazing.
Erica Henderson: I’m weirdly illiterate when it comes to music, but there’s a section in each issue where you’d need a banger.
Kyle Starks: I just did these fake interviews in the voices of a bunch of the characters and one of the questions they asked for Fuck Tarkington was, “What’s your favorite song?”
Erica Henderson: What is his favorite song?
Kyle Starks: I asked the person whom that character’s based upon and he wasn’t very helpful. So what we decided on is that his favorite song is “This City” by Loretta Lynn. We were like, “It should be a John Denver song” to go way off.
Erica Henderson: I don’t think John Denver is way off at all.
[Editor’s note: Starks later followed up via e-mail to add the following songs to a potential Assassin Nation soundtrack: “So I thought about some songs and they’re not super good but I think: ‘Fernando’ by ABBA definitely plays when Fernando shows up and the end sequence is definitely ‘Ballroom Blitz’ by Sweet.]
Puc: Is there any personal connection you have with any of the characters or any of the sequences?
Erica Henderson: I will say there’s one sequence where Kyle — it’s literally one panel — and Kyle has been so intensely excited about how it should be set up because it was inspired by Predator 2. I told him he had to get me a screenshot of the scene. But you were so obsessed with this one moment, this one visual cue that just sparked something in you.
Kyle Starks: You kind of want to do that thing where maybe there’s a character for everybody, but with a limited amount of pages I’m not sure exactly how much that works. Smoke is very much the disinterested millennial. Bishop is the tired old man. Fernando is the super cocky wunderkind.
Erica Henderson: One of the things I’ve been connected to that kind of comes up as the characters get to know each other a little better is that connection and disconnect you get in these kind of businesses where you’re sort of working with people from all over but not really. That’s kind of like working in comics.
Kyle starks: I think that was a big factor in writing too. We do this super private thing for a living but then once a month, we all get together and kind of get to know each other.
Puc: Is there any media that you are really into right now that you think our readers should check out?
Kyle Starks: I just finished watching YouTube Original Wayne and it’s the most Kyle Starks shit of all time. It’s about this tough, six year-old kid who’s okay at fighting, but he’s really good at taking the whooping. … It’s real good. It’s very Kyle Starks.
Erica Henderson: I have a hard time believing this is not one of your books.
Kyle Starks: Oh, yeah. It has a ton of heart in it, which is what I like about it, outside of some pretty dope fight scenes.
Puc: Is there anything else you want to add?
Kyle Starks: I think in general, we’re super stoked because [Assassin Nation is] going to be high action and super violent and a little bit funny with a bunch of cool characters. We think it’s going to be really fun for everybody. And Erica’s art is so good!
Erica Henderson: Aw, thank you. It’s been fun to just draw other stuff because so much of my professional career has been Squirrel Girl adjacent.
Kyle Starks: Zero murders.
Erica Henderson: There was a dead squirrel in Squirrel Girl, which I thought was really crazy.
Kyle Sarks: No one shot that squirrel’s head off. Jughead was why I knew you’d be super good at doing an action book, Erica, because of that pirate page. I was like, “Erica has to draw a whole action book.” I made it happen.
Erica Henderson: Thank you.
Assassin Nation #1 hits shelves on March 13. Check out the trailer and cover below, then be sure to pick up a copy from your local comic shop! To keep up with Kyle Starks and Erica Henderson, you can follow them on Twitter @TheKyleStarks and @EricaFails, respectively.