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Inside the new Crime Syndicate on the new DC Earth-3

Crime Syndicate #1
(Image credit: DC)

Bring on the bad guys...

DC's post-Death Metal/post-Generations/post-Future State line-up is starting to take shape, with the latest additions both being series that star villains. This week DC announced the Joker would get his own ongoing series in March and that classic Justice League villains the Crime Syndicate (you know, the sort of 'mirror universe' evil version of the JLA) would get their own March-debuting six-issue limited series on a new Earth-3 in a new Multiverse.

A deeper exploration of what a "new Multiverse" is will have to wait until after the finale of Dark Nights: Death Metal in January, but until then we can go a little more in-depth into this new Crime Syndicate with series writer Andy Schmidt. 

Schmidt, who'll be joined by artist Kieran McKeown, is a veteran of the comic book industry. He's a former Marvel editor (where he and I shared office supplies for a short time), writer, entrepreneur, and co-writer of the aforementioned DC Generations: Shattered and Forged one-shots in January and February. 

I got him to put down some of the various balls he's juggling at any given time to answer some questions about Crime Syndicate. 

Newsarama: Andy, the DC Universe from a story and publishing standing has been in a state of flux the last few months leading into March. So out (or independent) of all this storytelling chaos how did Crime Syndicate come about and how did you come to it? 

Andy Schmidt: I was surfing through the Multiverse and crashed on Earth-3, got imprisoned in one of Gotham's metahuman gulags…

Wait, that's not what you meant. I met with editor Brian Cunningham two years ago at San Diego and we continued talking for about 18 months looking for the right project. My time for freelance writing is very limited because of my duties running my two businesses, so we wanted to find the right thing to collaborate on. When a Crime Syndicate book came open in which they wanted to drill down into the core of these characters, he apparently thought of me. Then it was the usual pitching process to earn the spot.

Of course, part of that process was working with Brian and others to make sure Crime Syndicate would work with the direction DC was taking their universe in 2021.

Crime Syndicate #1 variant cover by Skan (Image credit: DC)

Nrama: Thanks for the segue.

Now I know from experience you might be limited in answering this question, but the hell with it, I'm gonna ask anyway. The one story out of recent events DC has connected Crime Syndicate to is the January 5 finale of Dark Nights: Death Metal. Can you expound any on what that connection is? 

And a new Multiverse? What background can you give readers as to where/when your series takes place, on what DC is calling a "new Earth-3?"

Schmidt: I'm not sure what I'm allowed to say! But I think I can tell you that this is a reborn Earth-3, which presents us with some really great storytelling opportunities. We can nip and tuck things a little bit and we're telling the Crime Syndicate's origin story for the first time, which is super fun.

So it is a new Earth-3, but don't expect to see a vast departure from what makes the Syndicate cool and interesting. But do expect the execution to be a little different. My guiding light on this is really two-fold: keep them villains and write these characters as independent of their counterparts on Earth-0. I'm not writing evil Batman, I'm writing Owlman. I'm not writing dark Wonder Woman, I'm writing Super Woman, and so on…

Nrama: Got it. And on that note, the Crime Syndicate has a pretty 'storied' (duh) history, and with several alternative versions having appeared pre- and post-'Crisis,' and 'New 52' and then post-'New 52.' Do you have a favorite Crime Syndicate incarnation or storyline?

Schmidt: There are two, actually. The first story I remember reading was the first issue of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths when their planet was destroyed. It's not even a full issue, but I thought they were awesome and tragic and that is what burned into my brain.

The other is Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel

And Kieran's and my take on it is somewhere in between the two, I'd say.

Nrama: Nice, I like the confidence. 

DC has made it clear this is a new version you're building from the ground up. But given the history we've mentioned, how'd you go about selecting and altering elements from past incarnations for this new version? I assume you borrowed some things?

Schmidt: Yes, I don't think anyone familiar with the Crime Syndicate is going to come away thinking we betrayed anything core to the concept or characters. Often, characters like these are fully developed when initially created, and we had some lead time, and so we were able to develop the world itself, we know who else inhabits it and what their twisted backstories are. And there are little touches of our own—readers really paying attention will notice that the sun sets in the East and rises in the West on this Earth-3 because the planet spins in the opposite direction, little touches like that that aren't important but hopefully helps complete the illusion so readers feel immersed in the world and characters.

Ultimately, you pick and choose and throw in something new so that it's true to its core but feels more current and fresh. And I hope we've done that from a character and design standpoint.

Nrama: DC was able to wrangle up a cast 'line-up' image from Kieran. Can you walk us through your main cast and say a word or two about who your version of this character is?

Schmidt: Sure, I'll pull this right from the first draft of the initial pitch. What follows hasn't changed since day one and is the first page of every individual script. It is, of course, just the beginning. How they interact and how these traits play out is really fun to mine for story.

Crime Syndicate #1

Crime Syndicate #1 character art 'line-up' by Kieran McKeown (Image credit: DC)

Core Characters

Ultraman

The Paranoid Titan. 

An alien on our world, once he learned of his true origins he felt betrayed—lied to. And it sent him on a spiral into paranoia, trusting no one and unable to connect with others. No one would ever hurt him again. Unfortunately, he has no qualms about hurting others.

Super Woman

The Narcissist. 

Donna Troy is an Amazon from Demon's Island. She simply believes that she deserves the world. Serve her purpose, and you have use. If you have no use, you simply don't exist to her. She wins. Nothing else matters. No loyalty. No honor. Self-serving. Always.

Owlman

The Nihilist. 

To Thomas Wayne, good and evil don't matter. Life and existence add up to nothing. None of it matters. And when arguably the smartest man on the planet believes in nothing, the rest of us should be very afraid.

Emerald Knight (formerly Power Ring)

The Broken Moral Compass.

John Stewart was a good man. Until he received a ring that gave him immense power. He couldn't trust anyone else to wield it. The ring subjugated him. He would be the voice of reason if he could muster the courage to speak up…

[editor's note: a previous version of this story identified Emerald Knight incorrectly as Harold Jordan.]

Johnny Quick

The Sociopath.

Johnny Chambers is incapable of empathy. It makes him uniquely qualified to thrive on Earth-3. His ability to run at nearly the speed of light and his low value of the sanctity of human life makes him one of the more frightening members of the Syndicate.

Atomica

The Sadist.

For Rhonda Pineda, being a super-villain is about the adrenaline rush of inflicting pain on others. And her powers allow her to inflict a lot of pain.

Crime Syndicate #1 cover by Jim Cheung (Image credit: DC)

Nrama: So with the possible exception of Emerald Knight, everyone here looks like a flat out heel.

So then the inevitable question - one theory of storytelling is that characters have to be changed/affected by the events of the story, or there has to be growth. I know this is just six issues, (at least this first series), but how do you navigate making compelling heroes out of evil, irredeemable characters? 

Schmidt: Did someone say they'd be heroes in this? Pretty sure I didn't say that. If you're looking for bad guys turning good, you might be barking up the wrong tree….

These are bad people. Or, and I find this more interesting as a writer, they're deeply flawed, but their flaws lead them to very dark places.

Nrama: So the events of the story don't serve as a catalyst for a heroic turn by some or all of them?

Schmidt: When viewed as flawed characters, what you can get here and there is that sometimes they do things that can be seen as ultimately good, but likely they did them for their own reasons. So in some sense, they are at times kind of heroic, but again, you don't want any of these characters living next door.

Nrama: Part of the fun of Crime Syndicate is the 'opposite' element of the 'illusion of change' dynamic - your characters are twisted versions of familiar icons. On your Earth-3, will readers see other twists of familiar DC characters and concepts? 

Schmidt: We've got six issues and six core characters, and we're focused on them. But you'll definitely meet other characters—they have to have someone to murder and maim, right?

Nrama: Speaking of which, I haven't really asked about your storyline yet. DC has revealed it is their origin story. What can you tell readers about what sort of adventure or conflict brings them together?

Schmidt: We decided to approach the origin story as a kind of twist on the Earth-0 Justice League for the first three issues and then we diverge. Our plan was never just to do "this guy but twisted" stories. Once the twist on a character or situation is established, they should evolve in different and entertaining ways—a fun mix of the familiar and the new. Ideally, at the end of these six issues, readers aren't thinking of Ultraman as an evil Superman anymore. They just see Ultraman and… kind of love to hate him. But he's his own character.

Nrama: Finally Andy, is anything you'd like to say about your artist Kieran McKeown and/or what else would you like readers to know about Crime Syndicate that I didn't know to ask about? 

Schmidt: Kieran is an amazing talent, of course. I know of very few other lawyers that draw as well as he does! One of the really fun things about working with him is that he and I have known each other for years and even worked together on a creator-owned project that we haven't released yet. 

That said, Brian recommended him to me, not knowing we'd worked together before, which was super cool. Few artists are as expressive with faces as he is—he is truly gifted in that regard. This book is big and bombastic, but you'll notice that we found ways to make sure Kieran got plenty of space to show off that particular gift. 

We're also really glad to have Dexter Vines on this book after he took some time away from comics, this marks his return. And Steve Oliffe practically invented comic book coloring. Rob Leigh is an amazing letterer who brings life to the words. 

Final thought—if you want a superhero book about the villains, this is for you. We have a lot of fun with the fact that our characters are evil and jerks and I hope we have moments of genuine horror and humor. We have had an absolute blast putting this project together and we hope that readers pick it up and have as much fun with it as we did.

The Crime Syndicate are top-notch Justice League villains, but who are the best DC villains of all time? Find out in Newsarama’s countdown. 

I'm not just the Newsarama founder and editor-in-chief, I'm also a reader. And that reference is just a little bit older than the beginning of my Newsarama journey. I founded what would become the comic book news site in 1996, and except for a brief sojourn at Marvel Comics as its marketing and communications manager in 2003, I've been writing about new comic book titles, creative changes, and occasionally offering my perspective on important industry events and developments for the 25 years since. Despite many changes to Newsarama, my passion for the medium of comic books and the characters makes the last quarter-century (it's crazy to see that in writing) time spent doing what I love most.