Al Ewing is a writer of comics, strips, and books, and may or may not be the bastard stepchild of THARG. No offense, but he probably even writes better than you. But will it be enough to save the world?
The sadness of a thousand exploding suns.
Al, do you ever feel you were born in the wrong time, past or future, or is the modern age the right age for you?
I feel like one advantage of living in a previous era would be the security of knowing that humanity won’t destroy itself any time soon, and that no space asteroids or gamma-ray bursts would wipe us out – things we can’t say about right now. Also, there’s the benefit of knowing how certain chips would fall and placing myself accordingly. If I was transported back in time forty or fifty years, I could likely survive and even thrive by anticipating trends. I still don’t think I’d enjoy it as much as the present day, but at least I’d be filthy stinking rich from investing in Google or Shergar or whatever.
Who was the very first writer, from whatever medium, that really captured your eye? Your own style can range from the ultra gritty realism to the colorful fifth dimensional hyperdrive, so what style or feel first spoke to you from the work of others?
I remember reading Catch-22 when I was young, and presumably that had an effect… like so many other people, though, the first comics writer who really made an impression on me was Alan Moore. He was so different from anyone else around at the time, both at home or abroad – the poetic captions, the formalism – and obviously, being around nine or ten at the time, I was impressed by anything that made comics seem more ‘grown-up’. He was absolutely the best thing to happen to comics, and to me, at that time.
In terms of influence, though… I wouldn’t really call him that, because I never made a conscious effort to imitate him. He was a high bar to try to clear, rather than someone to study and adopt techniques from – by the time I was seriously practicing writing scripts, the idea of mimicking Moore’s incredibly dense panel descriptions seemed crazy, and poetic captions were on the way out, replaced by more cinematic writing. Grant Morrison, my other fave as a child, ended up being much more of an influence on my later work. Him and Jack Kirby, who I still maintain is one of the greatest writers ever, so far ahead of his time we still haven’t quite caught up.
Of course, during all of this, John Wagner was the best writer I never noticed. When you’re a kid, you don’t know how good or how bad you have anything, so Wagner just because the baseline, the definition of ‘normal’ – surely all writing was of that basic standard? (Naturally, a lot of writing seemed to be below the basic standard, but I didn’t question my assumption.) I’ve come to realize since just how good I had it, and how great Wagner’s work is. When I came to write Dredd, that was the tone I tried to go for – since then, I’ve found my own voice, albeit by allowing other influences like Richard Stark to bleed into the work.
I agree on all points. Kirby is possibly even a better writer than artist, I think, and I would love if DC’s NU52 could find room for Wagner’s Chain Gang War especially.
You have been an unsung heroic burst of energy in the mini-comix realm- a personal passion of mine. Was that how you were discovered for professional work? And do you keep up the dirty habit?
I only made a few mini-comics, though it always surprises me that so few people ever copied my technique, which is – take a sheet of blank copier paper, A4 (A3 will make larger pages, but is more expensive to copy and harder to fold). Fold it in half, and again, and again, and again – you should have a little booklet of 32 small pages. Unfold, and start filling them up, one panel per page – you’ll find you need to keep refolding it to check which panel you’re doing next and make sure everything’s the right way up. After a couple of hours, you’ll have a full booklet – go to a copy shop and copy the page, double-sided, fifty times or so. That’ll give you fifty copies. Re-fold, staple it in the middle and cut the edges with scissors of a knife, and you have your comic! So all you need is a pen, paper, stapler and staples, a sharp edge, and a small amount of cash for copies, and you are now in the comics business.
Why doesn’t everyone do that? I know why I don’t anymore – the folding and stapling is very boring and takes a lot of time, which I don’t have because I’m being paid to make comics now. And the nights I used to spend alone in the pub doing these things are now spent with people. But all that said, it’s a fun hobby and I really should get back to it – they make great business cards.
Did it ever help? No, not really. I was discovered through other channels – following the submissions guide – and while the mini-comics might have helped keep my name on people’s radar, I doubt it really influenced anyone to employ me. But I’m certain it did me some good, and it meant I could never moan about invisible barriers between me and comics – I could put out a comic in a day of work, as long as the copy shop was open, so there were no excuses not to. And, if you’re reading this, there’s no excuse for you not to. Seriously, make a few dozen cheap mini-comics, go to your local comics store, and if they’re any kind of comics store worth the name they’ll help you sell them. There you go. You’re in the industry.
Amen! Garth Ennis hand-picked you to follow his lead with Jennifer Blood. Did he realize you’d be building the whole property up to the extent that you have? And what sort of research, if any, goes into such a strange spin on suburban living?
I gave Garth and everybody else at Dynamite fair warning to a certain extent, in that my basic pitch was ‘what happens after the end of the revenge movie’, and Garth got a good look at my ideas for the first arc and made suggestions and corrections. For example, he suggested expanding from four to six episodes and also dialing back some of the darkness – originally I was going to end the arc with a realization from Jen of how far over the edge she’d gone, and Garth suggested that that might be going a bit too dark too soon. As it turns out, Jen still hasn’t had that realization yet, and as a result things have gotten very dark indeed, but on the other hand we have been keeping the laughs going.
I honestly don’t know if I have blindsided Garth with this – he has said to me in the past that I should feel free to do what I like, which is something I’ve taken to heart, and I’d like to think that as long as the glowing reviews keep coming in that everyone’s happy. To be honest, last time I had a pint with him the subject of Jennifer Blood never came up – although I was so jet-lagged that I’m surprised any subjects at all came up – so I’m just assuming he’s fine with what I’m up to.
Research… anything in the real world requires a lot of research. The smallest, tiniest little things – recently I suddenly realized I had no idea how the school system works in America, for example. What grades equate with what ages, when the holidays start, little things that I couldn’t rely on to be the same as they are at home. So I had to go off and research that, which I’m sure sounds ridiculous to anyone who grew up in the US and knows these things inside and out. There’s a character coming up who’s a small-town Sheriff, and suddenly there’s a whole system I have to research there because if I get it even slightly wrong it’ll throw US readers completely out of the story… it’s horrible, that realization of how little I actually know, how much of my knowledge of American society is based on TV shows and vague assumptions that it must be pretty much the same as here. That’s part of the craft of writing, though – cobbling together research and empathy into something that’ll stand up to scrutiny. Hopefully it does.
Writing genre fiction like this, with all of the madness and torture and the like, are there lines that you yourself would never cross, editorial aside? The Jennifer Blood Annual was pretty intense, as well as her later bit of domestic violence with her husband. In both cases, I think the art is evolving on up to what you’re doing yourself, which could be dangerous, being more and more realistic. Or do you still have the Manjettes in mind to fall back on, to lighten things up?
There are lines I won’t cross, although from the outside I’m sure that doesn’t seem like the case. I had one particularly vile reviewer compare my work to a ’22-page rape joke’ – in a positive review, which staggered me a little. I’ve never done a rape joke in my life. In theory, I’m sure it’s possible to do one that’s funny, as opposed to just the braying sound of a human turd celebrating its own stench, but I don’t think I’ve got the chops to do it. To be honest, it’s a subject I’m frankly not comfortable about approaching at all, just because of said lack of chops. I don’t think I’m a good enough writer to cover it in a way that would make it worthwhile, and I’m uncomfortable with trivializing it – the whole threat-of-rape-as-titillating-peril thing that so many comics seem to do so often because if Rainbow Raider was a real guy he’d totally be raping everybody as part of his colour-themed crime sprees and blah blah blah my spandex is gritty and full of realism, blah blah! BIFF BAM POW COMICS AREN’T FOR KIDS ANYMORE. EVEN AN ANDROID CAN CRY. So I tend to just find routes around that trope – it’s not that it can’t ever be done intelligently and well, just that I lack confidence in my ability to do that.
On the other hand, something like the ‘torture works’ trope is one I just refuse to do on basic principle – the hero getting information ‘the hard way’, and it’s good intel, because he or she was hero enough to yank someone’s teeth out or waterboard them or blah blah blah and that moral courage saved the day. The Jack Bauer trope. That makes me sick. I’m sure I could write a version of that that was like Proust, but it’d be contributing to a conversation about torture that frames it as something ‘strong’ or ‘tough’ to do to your enemies, as opposed to something that’s not only morally indefensible but also completely useless and stupid. So I won’t do it.
Generally, even if I’m putting some horrible things in the work, they’re things that I’ve thought seriously about and feel I can justify including – for example, the torture in that Annual, and Emily’s death in the main series, absolutely had to be as disturbing as possible. I wanted the reader to feel a little sick, to remove any temptation to see Sam or Jen as the heroes of the story. I feel like ‘realistic’ is a good adjective to go for in terms of that. When the A-Team shoot the bad guys, nobody gets hurt – I find that has the potential to be a lot more dangerous than showing in detail just what violence does to someone, both physically and emotionally.
Having said that, though, I also write Zombo, which is one big festival of goofy grand guignol, so I suppose ethically I’ve not really got a leg to stand on.
I was really excited to finally read Zaucer of Zilk, having heard so much about it the last year. Without endorsing anything, is it safe to presume that you may have accidentally explored a controlled substance at some point in your past? I mean really, it’s such a sci-fi disco, so inventive and zany. And was it just a little bit flattering that McCarthy came to you for the scripting? Everything he touches is pure icon.
I used to smoke weed every so often – not so much any more, as I found that it stops me working and I never did get the hang of rolling up. I’ll have some if it’s being passed around, but to be honest it gets in the way of booze, which remains my number one drug. I’m like most of the population in that respect, I like my highs legal, self-destructive and societally approved. I’m a fairly quiet drunk, though, and I’m increasingly sober, since drink stops me working as well. I honestly can’t work with anything in my system except caffeine and the occasional cheese and pickle sandwich. It’s horrible.
That might be one reason why the whole ‘weirdness=drugs’ equation is such a bugbear of mine. It’s a kind of thinking that comes up a lot on pop-culture TV shows, ‘I love the 80s’ etc, when the celebs are discussing things like Willo The Wisp or Bagpuss or The Magic Roundabout. This idea that you can’t tap into that space without chemically altering yourself. I mean, I’m not straight edge by any means, and I’m not saying nobody should be having a go on the mushrooms if that’s what they feel like, but it’s a bit rough on people like Brian Cant or Eric Thompson to say they got everything out of a big jar from Sandoz or off the top of a cactus. It’s kind of devaluing the power of the human imagination.
Anyway, to answer your question, thank you for the kind words, and yes, it was extremely flattering. Brendan’s one of the great titans of the medium, and was already a legend when I was still in short pants, so to get an email saying he wanted to work with me on something was one of the highlights of the year for me. I’m very happy with the response to the first issue – people really seem ready for this kind of very wild, very dense McCarthyism, and I feel like I’ve managed to hold my end up in terms of the writing, which is nice.
You know that Lovecraft was “straight-edged”, right? There’s a rich story in DeCamp’s biography that on a New Years Party somebody had slipped Lovecraft a spiked drink and it was apparently the only time in his life he’d ever encountered alcohol. Steve Ditko was the same way, with him supposedly even being offended that his trippy Doctor Strange art was particularly big among the hippy community. But Alan Moore is a keen example of how creativity and mysticism are not too dissimilar. And in the Crowleyan sense, magick is partly dependent on foreign substances. But you are totally right. Imagination is most fostered when we’re kids, and aside from sugar buzzes it’s all them. Schedules permitting, is Zaucer something you’d care to return to? That level of uniqueness and individuality, I would think, should be aces especially for bringing new readers to the medium.
Oh, I’ve got no issue with magic. Magic requires hard work. And I remember Englehart’s Dr Strange issues, which were very much drug parables (I seem to remember one issue ending with Strange ‘coming down’ in a wink-at-the-reader way). So I’m not saying drugs have had no influence at all on pop culture, just that there are a lot of lazy assumptions being made by celebrity talking heads (and student arseholes who think they’re the first person ever to think of it) when it comes to Magic Roundabout.
I wouldn’t mind coming back to Zaucer. I might need a rest first. It all depends on Brendan, really – he’s the visual engine behind it all, and for all I know he may have other ideas he wants to dive into. I know he’s got some ideas for a sequel, and so have I – whether they’re the same idea remains to be seen.
Something I’ve especially been interested in is your DJing skills. Has music long been a big passion of yours, or is it more of an outlet for release? And do you scratch vinyl, or is it all electro-poppable tech?
All CDs, I’m afraid. Some of the new school of DJs are bringing in tablets and laptops with DJ programs on, but I can’t get my head around that – I might not be able to mix, but having to find the next CD at least brings some small amount of spontaneity to the process.
I’ve been into music since I was very small – mostly on the ‘pop’ end of the spectrum, although there’s no genre I couldn’t find at least one example of that I liked. I think the DJing impulse is the same as the impulse to put money in jukeboxes – I want the whole bar to listen to my music, I like that feeling of making people dance. It’s probably a fucked-up control ego-thing as much as it is a love-of-music thing.
Would you say that your approach and aim for the music is no different from your approach and aim for the comic scripting then? Might there be something almost egotistical about the act of creation itself?
Well, there’s got to be some element of ego involved, but I think as long as that doesn’t get out of control it’s to the benefit of the work. I mean, I always try to do the best I can with any particular script or idea – I’ve never half-arsed anything. I’ve run out of time occasionally, but I’ve never gone in thinking I’m going to do a half-arsed job. Even when it’s been a horrific struggle, I’ve tried to wring something good out of it. And that’s an ego thing, that’s me not wanting anything with my name on it to look bad.
At the same time… you have no control over what people read into the work. People will spend maybe half a second looking at half a panel and invent whole readings based on that, and then they’ll invent a version of you that only exists in their minds to have written it. And that’s you to them, and anyone they talk to. That’s all you’ll ever be. That can do horrible things to the ego. The solution is not to read any reviews ever, but then you have no idea if what you’re doing is coming across, if you’re just flashing signals into the void and nobody’s picking them up. Maybe you’re alone. Maybe there’s nothing out there. That’s the dark side of the ego, the fact that it’s so fragile. But then, maybe that’s better than having a big, bulletproof ego that takes up a building. I don’t know.
I think the right audiences are finding your work, or else you wouldn’t be exploding like this right now. In light of the many different avenues you’ve already explored, the things you’ve tried and accomplished, where would you like to see yourself in say, five years time? More prose works, maybe?
In five years… still working with 2000AD, obviously. Ideally I’d like to be working on creator-owned work by then – I’ve been talking to people about that, but it’s a slow process. To be honest, I’m seeing my future more and more in terms of creator-ownership and work-for-hire outlets that’ll allow me to experiment and take creative risks.
And creative risks are the only risks worth taking in life! Al, thank you so much for chatting with the LP. I am one picky customer but I have not read a single story that was even remotely weak from you. Your work, like yourself, is madly brilliant.
Thank you for the kind words! I’ll try to continue justifying them.
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Tags: Al Ewing, interviews