Greg Rucka has been enchanting comics readers with his sprawling stories for years. Although he might be best known as the writer behind acclaimed runs on major superheroes like Wonder Woman, he’s also got a stack of critically acclaimed creator-owned comics under his belt too. One of those series, The Old Guard, is making its way to the small screen in a new Netflix movie starring Charlize Theron. The Gina Prince-Bythewood directed flick centers around Theron’s immortal warrior, Andy, and her team of undying soldiers who’ve been protecting humanity for millennia.
There’s no question that Andy is the tragic hero of The Old Guard. So where did the idea of the deathless warrior come from? Well, as Rucka explains, it wasn’t an easy road.
“That is one of those deceptively hard questions to answer,” he says. “Because, for me, a lot of ideas tend to end up as a conflation of ideas. So Andy had existed as a potential character since 2009 or so. I’d had this idea of this woman who was incredibly sad and incredibly old and incredibly dangerous, and she was sad and dangerous because she was so old, and she just couldn’t die.”
That immortality offered up the chance for Rucka to explore the realities of living forever.
“In having discovered that she couldn’t die, she’d benefited from experience,” he says. “She didn’t have to be the smartest person you’ve ever met, but simply by the fact of having literally had millennia to learn things, if only because she’d gotten it wrong so many times. There wasn’t a language that she didn’t speak and there wasn’t a weapon she’s not an expert in. The things that interested her, she was a master of. I knew she was a warrior, so those things went together.”
But it wasn’t just Andy who sparked the inspiration for The Old Guard, there was something else too.
“There was another thing that had been floating around my head for at least 20 years and is probably due more to my wife who’s also a writer, Jennifer Van Meter,” Rucka says. “It also comes out of a song by Stan Ridgeway called ‘Camouflage.’ But it’s this myth, and it’s an international myth that appears in almost every culture of soldiers who have ghost soldiers, [who] appear on the battlefield when needed in times of crisis. And almost every military that I’m aware of has some sort of legend about the ghost company or the ghost platoon or whatnot.”
After those two concepts began to gel in Rucka’s mind, The Old Guard was born. After working alongside his collaborator, artist Leandro Fernández who got the tone and look of Andy just right, which inspired Rucka even more. So then it was all about working out how to ground these very unreal characters in a very real world.
Rucka decided to go with an offbeat approach to the characters’ mortality. ‘I’m gonna pretend they’re Looney Tunes characters. I can literally do anything to them and they’re gonna bounce back.’ And that lasted maybe three issues. And then, of course, by the time I got to the fourth issue, I remember talking to the editor of the comic and having the realization that what I was actually writing about was my father’s death. I was trying to reconcile with it. I was trying to answer why we have death, why we have to let people go, trying to find some sort of meaning in it. I was attempting to come at it I guess from the opposite way, which would be what happened if you never died?”
Despite the high concept at its core, The Old Guard is very much a story steeped in the gritty and often violent real world. That stripped-back magical realism is something that Rucka feels embodies much of his body of work.
“I think you’ll find it in almost anything I’ve written,” he says. “That was one of the first lessons I learned as a writer. Those works that speak to us are the works that regardless of their setting or the fantasy of them are the works that we look at and go, ‘Well, that’s emotionally true.’ The default I go to is the Mark Hamill Luke Skywalker scream [in The Empire Strikes Back] because the anguish in that moment is so genuinely emotional. So that’s part of it.”
In Rucka’s words, his “Looney Tunes” characters offer up a complex challenge to that emotional truth. But their journey was key to the mythology that he built.
“There’s an absurdity to that, there’s definitely an element of fantasy to it. But I think the element that it hurts, that they are not actually just going, ‘That was fun.’ They don’t particularly like it. They’ll accept it, they’ll work with the pain. So that was part of the mythology when I went into it, and I knew I had to have a reason for this. So I made a list of all the reasons for it and when I settled on what it was I was like, ‘Okay, so now I know when I can write it.’ But actually my intention was never to answer it.”
Taking inspiration from Rian Johnson and his time-travel movie Looper, Rucka was keen to just present immortality as fact, rather than over explain the mythology behind it.
“I wanted to do that Johnson take, which is just that it doesn’t matter. It’s just there and this is the nature of it. And oddly enough you can go right down the line of people who have approached the material, and the people who accept it and the people who are like, ‘No, it has to be answered.’ We just finished the last issue of the second series of The Old Guard. We actually just sent the issue to press–it got delayed because of COVID stuff–that goes into the mythology. And I imagine that, should we be fortunate enough to make a sequel, we’ll also be pursuing it further there.”
Even with all of that said, Rucka is quick to reassess that the how and why of the characters’ immortality isn’t the point.
“I suppose this is weird to say given that I’m, quote, renowned for my worldbuilding, end quote, but I really was not interested in answering that question. I think for the first story and certainly for the film, it does not need to be answered. But if it extends beyond that then it becomes the question.”
The Old Guard hits Netflix on July 10th.