John Smith Interview by Grant Goggans.
(Additional questions from by John Munro)
The Class Of ’79 would like to take this opportunity to thank John Smith for giving up his time to do this interview.
Now over to Grant Goggans (& John Munro)
Well, I have to start with an ‘Indigo Prime’ question…why was ‘Killing Time’ the last we saw of the series in the weekly? Was this your decision or Tharg's?
That was all down to me, I’m afraid. After creating the back story and all those characters I just kind of lost interest in the whole set-up and eventually moved on to other stuff. You have to realise that back then I saw the ‘Indigo Prime’ stories as really just a stepping stone to better things. They were an alternative to writing ‘Future Shocks’ and ‘Time Twisters’ - a calculated attempt at brand-naming my own one-off stories in the hope they stood out from the rest.
Moving back, can you talk about the origins of this series in the Future Shock in Prog 490?
That first story (‘A Change of Scenery’?) was written when I was still trying to get my foot in the door at Fleetway. It was just one of dozens of ideas I was submitting every week at that time, an attempt to come up with a nifty story in the true ‘2000AD’ tradition, and it just so happened it was that one that got accepted rather than something else. Just thank God they never went for ‘Brian’s Magic Car’ or life could have been very different…
Basalt and Foundation were then working for a company called Void Indiga. Was this name changed to avoid any conflict with Steve Gerber's graphic novel Void Indigo?
Yes. I hadn’t heard of the Steve Gerber thing at the time – or if I had I’d promptly forgotten it – but when it came to my attention after that first story came out it was pretty obvious I should change the name. No one else seemed to spot it or care about it particularly but who needs two comic strips with the same title? That mistake did annoy me a bit because I was trying to create a kind of integrated John Smith ‘Universe’ at the time, make everything perfect, but I didn’t think anyone would really notice if I changed it.
You mentioned in the foreword to the ‘Killing Time’ collection that this was your first effort at building continuity. That seems to manifest itself in the huge casts of mostly unseen characters in both ‘Indigo Prime’ and in ‘New Statesmen’. How necessary is that pre-planning to building a fictional universe?
It varies from story to story. I do like to know the world I’m writing about well – even if most of that stuff never comes out in the actual comic, it means at least you know what you’re talking about – but there’s no point going to all that trouble if you’re just writing a five-page ‘Pulp Science Fiction’ strip. Things change and develop as you write the story but it’s good to have your feet on familiar turf…
The crossovers between Tyranny Rex and that old ‘Future Shock’ were very surprising to readers. Were you planning on reintroducing ‘Indigo Prime’ when you created Tyranny, or was she created independently of the other work?
They were both part of the same tailor-made Universe. That was intended right from the start. There is one story still unwritten, a weird post mortem team-up I’d always had planned which saw every character and every reality wiped out, but the last books of ‘Zenith’ beat me to it.
How conscious were you of the "tough bitch with a gun" stereotype when you created Tyranny and in what ways did you work to avoid it?
At the time I don’t think it was the cliché it is today. You have to remember this was after ‘Alien’ but before the sequel so the Ripley character was about the only tough bitch around at the time. Tyranny came from a sketch I did for Steve Dillon which was basically Sigourney Weaver with a tail and big gun. I’m sure that’s no big surprise. Tyranny Rex is a reptoid Ripley.
Which artist's rendition of Tyranny do you consider to be the definitive one?
Steve Dillon, purely because he drew those first stories. I think Mark Buckingham’s version was also great – an attempt to show a different side of her – and could have become the definitive version if he hadn’t had so many problems getting paid by Fleetway at the time and decided to quit.
After just eleven episodes, Tyranny took a sabbatical from the weekly. Why is that?
Because I was commissioned to write an adult Tyranny series for ‘Crisis’ which would have replaced ‘New Statesman’ but which never saw the light of day. Five double-length episodes of an ‘adult’ nature which John Hicklenton did some great samples for and which may even today be languishing in a drawer somewhere at Fleetway. It was a satire on the music business of the time and had Tyranny launching an ultra-violent pop career under the guidance of her agent – Harlan the transvestite dog – and had lots of groovy cults and limbless oracular torsos spinning round in gyrosopes and other such grand guignol barminess.
You mentioned on the newsgroup that Tyranny became a nun because of the slightly sinister image you have of nuns. Could you elaborate on that, and perhaps explain what the character's motivation for joining the convent was?
Isn’t this the kind of thing they ask on ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’?
Like a lot of my stuff there was no real motivation behind it. It just seemed to be a good idea at the time. I’m also not too keen on those series that run and run forever and I’ve always been conscious that I don’t want to outstay my welcome with any one character or story. I tend to get sick of those interminable on-going series that don’t really go anywhere, which is probably why I give my characters such a hard time. For example, the first Devlin series in ‘The Megazine’ was probably my biggest hit and while it would’ve been easy to flog the whole thing to death it was another six or seven years before I returned to that character. Maybe I have Attention Deficit Disorder or I’m just easily jaded or something. I don’t know, but I always think less is more…
In ‘Soft Bodies’, we met Fervent and Lobe for the first time. Have you ever determined what they did to get on Major Arcana's bad side?
Christ, some of these questions! I honestly can’t remember that far back in such minute detail. I’d probably have to dig out all the stuff from my antiquated word processor to be sure but knowing the planning that went into that little bubble Universe of mine it’ll be in there somewhere. They probably fucked him over big style by inadvertently introducing DreamPlague to his mom’s bingo group or something…
‘Crisis’ debuted with only two stories each issue: your ‘New Statesmen’ and Pat Mills' ‘Third World War’. Did ‘New Statesmen’ effectively counter ‘3WW’, or did ‘Crisis’ need more than just the two stories to keep going?
Steve MacManus’s intention right from the start was to have the two fortnightly strips of 12 pages each collected and reprinted as a 24-page monthly in the US and Europe. It was a great idea at the time and I was really excited to be involved in such a big project at such a relatively young age (20). The Crisis tour… the posh hotels… the signings and slap-up meals and chance to meet all my idols. And of course ace publicist Igor Goldkind himself… Such larks we had!
‘Third World War’ was always overtly political, and Mills has been accused of using the story to advance his own agenda. By contrast, ‘New Statesmen’ only showed some concern over genetics, and with Britain becoming the 51st state. Are these real concerns of yours, or simply elements to kick-start a story?
I was a big fan of the group The The at the time who did a track called ‘The Fifty-First State’ but I could be lying here because quite a bit of the original set-up for ‘New Statesman’ came from Steve MacManus. This was also during the Thatcher/Reagan years, remember – when the UK really was becoming "America’s poodle" – so all those undercurrents were bubbling away at the time. Like films or novels, you have to look at a story in a social context. The concern about genetics though was definitely mine. Ever since hearing about DNA I’ve always realised that mastering gene manipulation would alter our entire species (and every other species too) and that was an area that fit in nicely with the whole superhuman angle. At the end of the day ‘New Statesmen’ had some pretty groovy ideas but I think I was a bit intimidated by Pat’s overt politicising and his clever-clever tone and tried too hard to be grim and adult and ‘Watchmen’ instead of going for all-out fun and weirdness. There are some nice bits of purple prose in there and some of the text fillers are okay (in my less lucid moments I still think that Mr Soft story with the Brendan McCarthy pics is years ahead of its time!) but yeah, "Tried too hard" about sums it up.
Were there ever plans for another series of ‘New Statesmen’? I was surprised it never crossed over to ‘2000AD’…
Yes and it would have wiped the floor with the first story coz it was all original stuff… all new stuff… all the weird reproductive/genetic engineering stuff Jim Baikie and I were really interested in. I suppose that’s the one respect in which it’s still pretty relevant today. I can see how easily this new soft science revolution, once it gets really under way, is going to change the world.
(One thing I do I harbour a bit of a grudge about was being asked by David to do a ‘Rogue Trooper’ treatment centring around these issues which I never got any feedback about at all. It just seemed to disappear into limbo. Maybe I should ask David to take another look at it because it does take Rogue and Venus in a pretty radical direction as the cutting edge stealth tech of the far future – which to my mind is what ‘Rogue Trooper’ sorely needs.)
There's a great example in ‘New Statesmen’ of your tendency to inflict enormous violence, almost casually, at your heroes. I'm thinking of the cliff-hanger where Burbank is killed. Later on, we see Tyranny decapitated, Winwood and Cord maimed, Rogue Trooper crucified and Revere on a constant uphill slope. How comfortable is it to act with such aggression towards your protagonists?
Since they’re all only make believe, very comfortable indeed. On a deeper level I’d also have to say a lot of it has to do with personal stuff, working out my own feelings through fiction and so on, but I do have a warped and morbid interest in violence and murder and all kinds of extremes of human behaviour. It also ties in with what I said earlier about not trying to flog a character or a series to death by trundling the same shit out for the next ten years. I have absolutely no qualms about killing off my characters – which I think can communicate a certain edginess to readers.
On that note, do you think it helps to create more tension in the reader when they cannot be assured the hero will come out unscathed?
Oh definitely. Of course it does. Just look at virtually any medium and you know just by the casting which characters are going to survive and which ones are cannon fodder. What’s the point of reading yet another bloody story where the hero snatches victory from the man-trap jaws of defeat and lives to fight another day (in yet another dull bloody sequel)? That isn’t where drama comes from. Fiction’s about risks, twists and turns, plot reversals, not knowing if the characters are going to live or die. I like to pile on the pressure then sit back and watch what happens…
Many people cite ‘Cinnabar’ as one of the best Rogue Trooper stories. Can you tell us how that came about?
It’s one of the only stories that I actually made up totally as I went along – something I’d like to try again though David reckons I’m "undisciplined" enough as it is so I won’t hold my breath over it. I didn’t have a clue where that story was going other than that core idea of "Rogue Trooper has AIDS". That conceit – that his immune system had fucked up and he was no longer protected from all the chemicals and bacteria of Nu-Earth – I just sort of aimed it and watched where it went. Somehow everything just seemed to fit perfectly into place. (For example, the attack in the river early on – when this giant bony jellyfish thing capsizes the boat – I never realised that the monster there was part of Charybdis because the whole idea of Charybdis didn’t even exist at that point. I didn’t think it up till near the end of story but somehow all the bits and pieces were already there subconsciously embedded in the story just waiting to be used.)
As a writer it’s much better to be working on lots of different stories at the same time because whatever bizarre spur-of-the-moment idea you’ve just dreamed up, you can guarantee to use it somewhere rather than say just writing Devlin and having to shoehorn everything into the particular constraints of that story. I think a lot of writing works on that pre-conscious irrational level where your mind comes up with stuff you don’t realise you’re gonna need until a lot further down the line…
Steve Dillon's art on ‘Cinnabar’ is among his very best, and a noticeable improvement over his work in the ongoing "Hit" storyline. Do you think Steve was more in tune with your vision for Rogue Trooper, or, less tactfully, was everyone just sick of "Hit"?
I think everyone was sick and tired of ‘The Hit’ – I know that’s why I was commissioned to write that flashback story – so maybe Steve had a bit more enthusiasm for something that was a bit fresher. Also don’t forget that ‘Cinnabar’ was inked by Kev Walker and he added a whole other layer of detail to the artwork.
Shortly afterwards, Fervent and Lobe got their own series. Can you tell us about the narrative device of the stage play in ‘Issigri Variations’?
Like most of the things in my stories it just seemed a good idea at the time. Just another way of trying to do things a bit differently and have a bit of fun with it.
I'd love to hear the inspiration for Almaranda, one of 2000AD's most unique female characters.
Probably one of artist Mike Hadley’s fat girlfriends of the time! I know he claimed to love Almaranda with a passion but I’m not sure still whether he was putting me on or not. I think she was also an amalgamation of a character from another series I’d planned called ‘The Privateers’ which had this immobile grossly-huge fat woman who used acupuncture on her own body to put herself in a state of "eroto-comatose lucidity", as Aleister Crowley called it. Easy when you know how.
So, ‘Indigo Prime’ got its long-overdue launch in 1990 and trickled to a halt after a month. What happened there?
Sorry but you’ll have to remind me which stories you’re referring to here. Or actually – maybe don’t bother. My short-term memory’s so full of holes I haven’t got a clue!
After that month of black-and-white adventures, there was the Almaranda two-parter and then the very weird "Danzig's Inferno". Where did that come from?
From either Alan McKenzie or Tharg in his Richard Burton incarnation, and from Sean himself who’d only worked on ‘Crisis’ at the time and wanted to do something colourful and outrageous and fun for ‘2000AD’. Can’t remember why (Sean’s murderous deadlines, maybe) but it was supposed to run longer or be open-ended so we could do a follow-up – which is why it has that daft "Everyone turns to Barbie dolls" ending.
"Danzig's Inferno" was drawn by Sean Phillips, with whom you've worked frequently, and who understands the impact of silent, dialogue-free panels of characters reacting to something shocking. Is this something that he interprets better than anyone else, or are the two of you just in tune to the visual drama?
I think we were both on the same wavelength with a lot of that stuff. Also Sean didn’t mind doing a lot of panels per page. In fact, I remember him saying: "You don’t have to keep to six panels a page. Stick more in if you want." The original artwork for ‘Swimming in Blood’ was massive and got bigger as the strip went on so it was easy to fit in more panels without losing any of the detail. Everyone seemed to love that story and we both realised we’d hit on something and put a lot of work into it. It’s the only time I ever won a UKCAC award.
[Well bugger me. Just looked and it says "Best Character" on my engraved formica plaque and I always thought we got the award for "Best New Character". Isn’t it normally Dredd who wins that? Do you guys know any way of checking?]
And then to "Killing Time". I don't think the editor would appreciate me sending a hundred questions about this story alone, but I am curious, once you decided to do a Jack the Ripper story, what research you did, and how you avoided the clichés associated with the image of the Ripper.
I research everything I write – though obviously a story about something like dragons is a lot harder to research than one about serial killers or dinosaurs or whatever. I like doing research as long as the subject matter interests me – which it usually does since I get to choose what it’s gonna be. I like new facts and new ideas that make me see things differently. You might not think it with the horror and SF stuff I write, but you actually learn a lot when you’re writing a story. For this last Devlin series I’ve learned all kinds of groovy stuff – not just about magick and conspiracy theories and UFOs, which have interested me since I was a kid – but stuff about the Earth’s atmosphere and geophysics and the electromagnetic effects on man. Believe it or not, a lot of the "wanky techno-babble" in ‘Devlin’ does actually mean something if you have the same abstruse interests I have.
As for ‘Killing Time’, it’s much more a time travel story than a look at the Jack the Ripper mythos. (And even that combination of elements isn’t original. There’s an SF story by I think Harlan Ellison along similar lines, plus the film "Time After Time", where H. G. Wells jumps into his time machine and pursues the Ripper to twentieth century Los Angeles.) I always felt that introductory picture of the Ripper drooling over a sliced orange like some silent screen villain was a bit over the top – especially since we identify him as the Ripper in writing right from the start – but the story was never meant to be a whodunnit. I wanted the readers to know all along who the Ripper was so I could milk their expectations of as much suspense and sense of foreboding as possible.
Obviously, that said, I did nowhere near as much research as Alan Moore must have done for ‘From Hell’ but then the Ripper was only a relatively small part of ‘Killing Time’. It was more about this ultradimensional horror than it was about the Ripper.
It's astonishing how cold Max can be about the forthcoming deaths of the humans, while Ishmael is upset, but Max gets very emotional when he sees Ishmael in trouble. Is Max just that disassociated from his job, or are there layers between the characters we never really got to?
Max is definitely the bastard of the two. The way I see it, he’s experienced a lot more than Ishmael – he’s been with Indigo Prime through two previous bodies and seen all kinds of weird shit first hand – and his attitude is, "Get the job done at any cost." Most Indigo Prime operatives are recruited from the ranks of the newly-dead and downloaded into new bodies and Max has had more than his fair share of unwanted side effects while being re-embodied. They’re not gay lovers or anything like that, though, if that’s what you mean…
I'd say Dr. Culver's death is one of the greatest death scenes in all of fiction. How'd you come up with that?
That’s a nice compliment but I’m not sure how much I’d agree with it. How about Patrick Troughton’s mad priest being skewered by a lightning conductor in "The Omen"? Or Edward Woodward’s death at the end of "The Wicker Man"? As for the idea, I think it came from slicing eggs on an egg slicer one day and wondering "What if…?"
And then there's that ending. The entire supporting cast killed, the Iscariot eaten by a billion canaries, and our heroes blind and helpless. Could you describe the emotional impact of writing such a monster of an ending for all the players?
Not sure what you want to know. I figured the story was so nasty and fatalistic it needed that kind of hopeless senseless carnage as a payoff. I find that "No one gets out of here alive" mentality quite interesting, coz of course none of us ever do, and after building up this big demonic threat it had to deliver a pretty powerful punchline. I think the reader would have felt cheated with anything less than complete unmitigated mayhem…
The reaction to "Killing Time" seems typical of your work, in that Tharg printed some letters praising it hugely and some that hated it, one of which called for you to be shot. How thin is that love/hate line you stride?
Seen that new Marmite add on TV? I seem to elicit that same reaction – "You either love it or you hate it." I’m not really sure why that is except for that hoary old platitude "It’s all just a question of taste". Some people do seem to find my stuff hard to fathom but it isn’t deliberate. It all seems pretty straightforward to me. Maybe it’s because I try to let the story develop naturally at its own pace without cramming in loads of exposition… I don’t know. I suppose you just have to bear with it and hope it all becomes clear at the end.
Returning to Sean Phillips, you and he worked on a "Hellblazer" fill-in for DC. How'd you get that job?
I’d actually been one of the writers (along with Garth and I think Warren Ellis) who pitched to take over the book after Jamie Delano left. I’d already met Karen Berger by then and I submitted this huge sprawling outline with the next 2 or 3 years worth of stories laid out but I never got the job. DC probably just remembered my stuff from there and Stuart Moore asked me to do a fill-in while I was developing ‘Scarab’ (which was Doctor Fate at that time). He asked me to pick one of the single issue storylines from that original ‘Hellblazer’ proposal so I chose "Counting to Ten"…
What's it like working in John Constantine's head?
Grimy but interesting. It’s a shame I never got to do more with him because he is one of my favourite comics characters. I always preferred the Alan Moore ‘globetrotting occultist’ angle to Jamie Delano’s more introspective naturalistic view of the character and would have loved to have seen him trekking with Eskimos in the arctic and handgliding in the Grand Canyon and lounging round on four-poster beds with loads of Afghan hounds and beautiful women and stuff. Sort of Constantine meets "The Persuaders".
Strange that the one story I did get to write was so humdrum and down-to-earth. For that particular story I bought all the collected plays of Harold Pinter and tried to write what I thought would be a neat Pinteresque zombie story. There are lots of little in-jokes in there like the street names and stuff but that was the idea, yeah…
You also gained some notoriety among US readers for your Vertigo miniseries "Scarab". I read that was intended to be an ongoing series, but what happened?
Oh God. It’s a long and depressing story paved with poor intentions and misguided efforts. Like I said, it started out as ‘Doctor Fate’. I’d been submitting all this stuff to DC and not really getting anywhere when I got a phone call out of the blue one day from Stuart Moore asking if I’d like to take over writing ‘Doctor Fate’. I’d never really read DC Comics in any big way - all I knew about the character was from his appearance in Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’ – but opportunities like that don’t come every day so I said yes. Then someone there decided my take was a bit too extreme for Doctor Fate so Stuart asked me to revamp the proposal using a new character and new backdrop. The similarities are pretty obvious and in hindsight it wasn’t the cleverest idea ever but there you go. Stuart wanted me to create an alternate Golden Age history, a Vertigo take on all that ’40s stuff, which I did, all connected to this big background storyline which was gonna reintroduce all these Lost Heroes to the Vertigo universe, but we had to ditch all that when the continuing series got cut down to an eight issue miniseries. I think Vertigo had overestimated their own selling power and a lot of their new titles just didn’t get the advanced orders they expected and from what I understand Karen Berger just said: "No. Chop it down to a miniseries." Which, you know, considering it started off as a monthly ‘Doctor Fate’ comic…
I’ve since heard she hates my stuff anyway. There were lots of censorship problems and strange directives issued by Karen Berger and all my enthusiasm kind of fizzled away the more I was forced to change stuff. I mean, ditching all these supporting characters, ditching the continuing subplot that tied all the storylines together – it was just doomed to failure from the start.
(I remember one bit of censorship concerned a throwaway line about "anus-eyed children". It didn’t really mean anything in the context of the story – it was just a disturbing image meant to convey a disturbing atmosphere - but it was that kind of stuff they kept complaining about. There didn’t seem to be any logic to it all. You sort of expect some kind of editorial restraints in stuff for ‘2000AD’ because of its young(ish) readership but this was a horror comic from the much-touted new adult Vertigo line and it just really pissed me off that they wouldn’t stand by me and let me write the stories I wanted to write. Basically the whole ‘Scarab’ thing was a fiasco from beginning to end.
At the end of issue 7, we met two characters, Dazzler and Creed, who had me scurrying to the ‘Indigo Prime’ organizational chart to see if I'd forgotten them. Were they just cut from similar cloth, or did you have something more grandiose in mind?
A bit of both. I needed a deus ex machina ending and I had all this stuff figured out about what the Labyrinth of Doors really was but because the series was cut down to 8 episodes I never really got to use any of that stuff. Same with The Angelus/superhuman reproduction stuff on ‘New Statesmen’. We were going to discover that the Scarab suit was alive in its own right and would gradually gain independence and go out skulking over rooftops and into bedrooms to inseminate people, male and female; lay seeds in their minds and bodies and start to really fuck up the world… But by that time I was probably just so sick of the thing I thought - "Fuck it. I’ll rip off my own story" – and stuck in ‘Indigo Prime’ as a lazy way out.
Scarab recently returned in the pages of ‘JSA’, creating huge surprise and controversy among DC Universe fans. Were you consulted before James Robinson resurrected and then killed Louis?
No. Some guy at DC did leave a message on the answering machine but I never did get to speak to anyone. I thought it was just typical of DC’s sloppy handling of things. You’d think it’d be common courtesy to at least let you know what was going on, even if you don’t have any final say in the matter, but the editorial people don’t seem to understand such sentiments. Part of me thinks I deserve a second hearing from DC but a bigger part of me just thinks, "Fuck ’em."
Turning briefly to "Revere", this series made me wonder…which do you fear more, magic or technology?
Neither and both! ‘Revere’ was actually co-created with Simon Harrison and the second half was written after a bad trip I had. It sounds pretentious but that whole last book was an act of catharsis, a way of clearing all that crap out of my head, and it’s probably the one story of mine I’ve no hankering to reread. Thinking about it (which I haven’t for years) I’ve got some distance on it now but I’m still a bit wary of looking at it because I can remember only too well the sort of stuff in there.
And in "Revere", which is the more dangerous of the two?
Well that’s up to the reader to decide. Probably magic in that story because it does end the whole world but really, it’s not a question that keeps me awake at night…
Simon Harrison seemed perfectly suited for the series, but I could never tell how old Revere was meant to be. He looked like a 12-year old…
I think he was supposed to be in his early, mid-teens, something like that. It was never specified so again the readers could read into it whatever they wanted.
Book II of "Revere" ends with the "leap of faith" cliffhanger, which seemed very much like the end of the series. Was it always planned for three books?
Yes. All the stuff before it was just part of Revere’s weird mystical initiation. Book III was the real money shot, as I believe they say in porn films…
"Slaughterbowl" was the only part of the 2000AD Summer Offensive in 1994 not written by Mark Millar or Grant Morrison. How'd you join that little club, and could you tell us what 2000AD was like behind the scenes for those weeks?
A lot of fun. I was good pals with Mark Millar at the time and met up with him and Grant to talk the whole thing over, visited Grant’s spooky Victorian house and so on, and the whole idea was to take over ‘2000AD’ for eight issues and just write these high concept action stories. It was really an act of cockiness, of bravado almost. It was our way of trying to show how easy it is to come up with new characters rather than dragging on the usual old slags who whored their way through the comic month after month after interminable month. But it was great! For those brief weeks we were the dictators of Zragg wresting control from Tharg!
It mostly escaped the near-unanimous and often harsh fan criticism of that run (In fact, I may be the only fan to like it). Why is that?
Because ‘2000AD’ didn’t print any letters mentioning it, maybe? I’m sure other people did like it but they just weren’t very vocal about it. I still think it’s a pretty strong concept. I mean, death row killers fighting it out on dinosaurs with weapons add-ons… It practically screams out to be made into a computer game though you can bet the big nobs at Fleetway are more interested in developing ‘Cronos Carnival’ or ‘Outlaw’ or something equally shite and one-dimensional.
You then contributed ‘Roadkill’ during a period where Judge Dredd was being handled by a bank of rotating writers. What was it like working for the lead feature in the book, and was there any editorial control to keep the Dredd writers on one "vision"?
I think the Dredd "vision", as you call it, is all there in the stories. It’s John Wagner’s baby with, what, 20 years of established history built up there, so everything you need to write a ‘Dredd’ story has already been established for you. It’s like a big toy box that’s there for you to plunder. The real challenge is to introduce new elements, new story ideas, rather than just pilfering from what’s already there. As far as writing the comic’s lead feature goes, obviously it’s a big privilege and a huge amount of fun. I’ve been a ‘Dredd’ fan since ‘2000AD’ started so you can imagine what it buzz it is to have the chance to add to that mythology.
Unlike some of your other Dredd stories, like ‘Darkside’ or ‘Fetish’, the antagonist in ‘Roadkill’ is a more traditional Dredd foe. Do you prefer putting Dredd up against something way out of his element, or finding new angles for Mega-City One stories?
Whatever suits the story. ‘Judge Dredd’ has some of the greatest villains around – it’s one of John Wagner’s many strong points – and it’s my one big ambition to come up with a major league villain in the same vein. Haven’t got there yet but I’m working on it! There’s also ‘The Jigsaw Murders’ in ‘The Megazine’ which – like ‘Roadkill’ – was a much more traditional story but with a bit more of a John Smith twist (namely lots of amputations and strange psychoses). Then of course there’s Mega-City One itself, with all its inhabitants and crazy fads and weird future crimes, not to mention all the other Mega-Cities and off-planet colonies and stuff, so there’s really a limitless source of ideas there to be plundered.
On that note, what's the secret to coming up with a good challenge for Dredd?
That’s a tricky one. I suppose it’s to try to do something new, bring something to the series that hasn’t appeared before, which itself is very difficult considering how long ‘Dredd’ has been going. I remember disliking a lot of the stories during Garth’s run because he just ended up rehashing all these old characters in the same sort of stock situation. That seems pretty pointless to me unless you can bring something new to it but it can obviously be a big temptation to fill-in writers. Originality – weird crime – new villains and threats. Those would be some of my key ingredients…
In the foreword to ‘Fetish’, David Bishop spoke of the huge difficulties in putting this story together. At one point it was apparently 11 standard-length episodes, but was changed into 5, 17-page episodes. What was it like, rewriting this tale so many times?
I didn’t rewrite any of it – it was ruthlessly cut to size by David’s own fair hand. I wouldn’t have minded having a hand in rewriting it (those first few episodes were pretty sloppily spliced together) but it was a fait accompli by that time so it was out of my hands.
Once Siku was assigned, did your scripts take into account his frequent use of double-page spreads?
I’d already finished the series long before I knew who was going to be drawing it. Siku wasn’t even an option back then. ‘Fetish’ was originally to be drawn by Ashley Woods but he was sacked after turning out about five pages in a year or something daft like that so Siku it was. I think his characters can be very inconsistent, as can his colouring, but when he puts his mind to it – especially in those panoramic nature scenes – he can do a pretty good job. I’m glad to see from his more recent stuff that he’s improved a lot. At least now the characters look the same from panel to panel and Dredd isn’t just this huge chin in a helmet any more…
Judge Karyn is in constant danger in this story…was there any talk of killing her off?
Karyn was originally Judge Anderson in the first couple of scripts but in the end I wasn’t allowed to use her because she was off in outer space so we just substituted Karyn instead. It would’ve obviously had much more emotional impact if it had been Anderson under threat – especially considering her and Dredd’s history together – but in the end it wasn’t my decision.
It's billed as a Dredd story, but do you see Fetish as a "Judge Dredd" story guest starring Devlin Waugh, or as a "Devlin Waugh" story with Dredd in it?
What you said first. I mean Devlin was only in it for, what, less than a quarter of the story. To be honest, the whole thing came out of a rejected proposal I did for a "Doctor Moreau"-type jungle fever story in which I attempted (perhaps misguidedly) to introduce this tongue in cheek character called Judge Tarzan. In my opinion there’s not nearly enough nice-looking skimpily-dressed male characters in comics and I wanted to do my bit to redress the balance. (Of course nowadays there’s Dante, I suppose, but as a character he’s just so… adolescent, isn’t he? And - ugh! - all that hair.)
Moving back to Devlin and his first appearance, whose idea was the missing tooth?
Can’t remember. I think it might have been Sean’s idea, actually, but I can’t say for sure. I’m a big Terry Thomas fan though and I think it suits him perfectly. Sucking air dismissively through his teeth is just one of his many annoying mannerisms.
Many of the elements seen in the prologue to "Chasing Herod" were first mentioned in passing in "Swimming in Blood". How long have you held this tight backstory for Devlin together?
I guess about seven or eight years, since I first sent in that proposal for Dirk Devlin, as he was then called. (In fact the series was originally entitled ‘Sin Eater’ but David reckoned it sounded too much like a female pop vocalist of the time!) All this stuff sort of comes out automatically when you’re in the early stages of brainstorming a story, when the idea really grabs you and starts to come alive and you just fill page after page with stream-of-consciousness ramblings as one idea sparks another. That’s my favourite part of writing something. It always has been. All the rest is just transcribing and polishing and trying to fit things into a semblance of order. But there’s nothing like that first white-hot moment when the story takes on its own life. I enjoy writing the proposal a lot more than I do writing the actual script, which I find deathly dull, a real chore sometimes. Your mind just riffs off at all different angles and it’s tempting to put all that stuff in there even if it doesn’t really apply to the storyline at hand. I’m sure it’s a big bugbear for editors that my proposals are so lengthy and detailed. It’s also probably one of the things that puts people off my stuff – a tendency to bog the story down with extraneous detail, which really doesn’t work so well in five or six page episodic chunks as it does in a full-length monthly comic. I always try to see the story as one big overarching entity, though, and that’s how I structure it.
How easy is it for you to fit your vision of Devlin and his world into the Dredd universe?
It’s not hard at all. Devlin sort of explores the highways and byways of weirdness in the Dredd universe, that dark underbelly that we get occasional flashes off but which has been left relatively unexplored in the main ‘Dredd’ strip. I think the Dredd universe is so big there’s plenty of room there for all kinds of interpretations. And remember Devlin was created for ‘The Megazine’ whose raison d’être was to explore those different avenues so no, it isn’t really a problem. I sometimes feel I’m taking a bit of liberty when I go into the Vatican Judges and that kind of stuff but it’s just the nature of the beast, as it were.
Does Devlin have immigration problems everywhere, or is it just Mega-City One?
Just MC1, and probably just because of Dredd himself. As the Vatican’s top occult agent Devlin has full diplomatic immunity wherever he goes so border checks and stuff like that don’t really apply to him. Basically, he has carte blanche to break whatever laws he wants in the pursuit of justice.
Devlin's "outing" as a vampire in the public toilets was clearly culled from George Michael's legal troubles, but that's just one of many gay references and subtexts in the series. How comfortable have the editors been with the homosexual overtones in the series?
Surprisingly, they seem to have been a lot more relaxed with the ‘2000AD’ stuff than in ‘The Megazine’. That might be a matter of playing it safe when Devlin first appeared, or it might be that the late ’90s were more tolerant, I’m not sure, but as far as I know I haven’t had any editorial changes made on the Devlin story in ‘2000AD’. Most of the changes were actually done in the text stories I wrote for the annuals and specials, probably because with text is it’s right there on the page - said, explicit - whereas you can leave a lot unsaid in the comic because the visuals tell the story. Perhaps I’ve mellowed a bit over the years and I’m not quite so in-yer-face as I used to be. I do understand that ‘2000AD’ is primarily a kids’ comic and I don’t want to push my luck. If I did go too far I’m sure David and Andy would tell me but I’m not really a militant Outrage! type anyway. As long as I can stay true to Devlin’s character and tell the stories I want to tell, I’m reasonably happy.
On that note, are you allowed to be more overt with gay overtones in Sirius Rising than you were in ‘Swimming in Blood’?
Hmmm. That’s a difficult one. I think so, yeah. What do you think? From my point of view, David didn’t seem to treat ‘Sirius Rising’ with quite the same kid gloves he did with ‘Swimming in Blood’. Like I said, maybe that’s more to do with the fact that those kinds of issues seem more acceptable, much more part of the norm at the end of the ’90s than it did when Devlin first appeared back in 1992 or whatever. I think it was always Steve MacManus who seemed most uncomfortable with the gay elements, probably because he’d already had his fingers burned on ‘Crisis’ with strips like ‘Skin’ and ‘True Faith’. I guess all this political correctness bullshit probably has something to do with it.
Will we ever get to meet Devlin's brother Freddy, or is he to be left to our imagination?
We might – always assuming he’s still alive. One of Sean’s ideas (who’s first child is called Freddy) was to have him as this Sister of Perpetual Indulgence figure, you know, the decadent bearded male nuns, but that’s not how it finally worked out. Freddy’s definitely more outlandish than Devlin. He’s Mycroft Holmes to Devlin’s Sherlock. I don’t really want to say too much about him for fear of ruining whatever tiny amount of mystique he may have. He’s much more important by his absence than his presence and if that sounds too cryptic you’ll understand what I mean over the course of any future Devlin stories.
As I write this, I'm as worried as ever that Devlin won't make it through this series alive, but if he does, does the management seem receptive to more Devlin Waugh adventures?
Yes – he will be coming back (I can hear the groans already!) – but remember it took me seven years to write a sequel to the first story so don’t hold your breath. He has been in the comic continuously for the last half a year and I’m very conscious of not wanting people to become sick of him because of overexposure. When he does reappear, though, I guarantee he’ll be back to his old self, with none of the soul-searching and self-pity of ‘Sirius Rising’. He’s had his appetite whetted – he’s loved the publicity and prestige of saving the world – and next time we see him he’ll be back to his old preening swaggering self. The next story will see him getting in the thick of things and really kicking ass in his own unique occultbusting style.
Outside of Devlin Waugh, what else are you working on now, and what can we expect in and outside the Galaxy's Greatest in the future?
I’m always working on lots of ideas but it takes me a while to decide which one to put all my energies into. I’m very fickle like that. Sometimes a storyline will come fully formed but often it’s a gradual process of accretion as all the elements come together. I’ve got a zombie story in the works (which features Charles Manson so I’m not sure if that’s quite ‘2000AD’ material) and an alternate history story tentatively called ‘Anno Frankenstein’ which imagines what the world would be like today if Frankenstein’s experiments had really taken off and been embraced by the scientific community. World War I fought with living cadavers and that kind of stuff. And my big ambition is to tell this faery story I’ve had at the back of my mind for ages now which explodes that fey ‘Books of Magic’ thing and looks at faeries from a totally new perspective. The idea is, we’ve had cyberpunk and splatterpunk and steampunk - well this will be the first faerypunk strip ever done. I’m also writing some ‘Dredd’ stories right now and I want to fulfil some of those ambitions I mentioned before – I want to introduce a really cool classic villain; I want to create some new Mega-City crazes and a supporting character in the Chopper mould; just basically have fun with that big toybox of ideas.
I’ve written a kind of spin-off series from Devlin called ‘Pussyfoot 5’ set in outer space – just a five issue story at first to introduce the characters and concepts, just to test the water, but which’ll hopefully continue if it goes down well. Then of course there’s the next Devlin story. I want it to be totally different to ‘Sirius Rising’. That’ll either be ‘Ship of Fools’ or ‘Dead Eyes’ or something else entirely. Not quite sure at the moment but it’ll be sorted out over the next couple of weeks. There’s also a computer game version of ‘Swimming in Blood’ in the pipeline which is all very hush-hush but I’ve seen a demo and it promises to be pretty spectacular.
After my horrible experiences at Vertigo, I’m also trying to get back into American comics and I’ve written some ‘Aliens’ and ‘Predator’ proposals and I’ve got a few ideas for mainstream DC Universe stuff – ‘Batman’ and a ‘Demon’ miniseries, that kind of thing. My biggest projects are two creator-owned titles… the zombie story I mentioned, which I think is going to be too strong for ‘2000AD’ to print, and something called ‘The Supernaturals’ (which’ll probably be called something else entirely by the time it’s written up). These are only in my head at the moment though so who knows? I could dream something else up tomorrow and ditch the lot of them. Last, there’s a novel I’ve been working on on-and-off for the last two years called ‘The Judas Mill’ but that won’t be finished any time soon.
What is the first thing that you wrote for ‘2000AD’?
The first thing that saw print was a ‘Time Twister’ but I honestly can’t remember the first thing I actually wrote. I was a big ‘Doctor Who’ fan back then in the ’80s– a sad and lonely soul bombarding the BBC weekly with script proposals – so it was probably a doctored version of one of those.
What are your future plans? "Pussyfoot 5"?
What comics, if any, do you read?
Not nearly as many as I used to. ‘The Invisibles’ is my favourite comic but since that’s ending pretty soon I’m going to have to find something else to obsess over. I’ve been hearing a lot about ‘The Authority’ and ‘Planetary’ so I’ve checked out some issues – though I’m not a big superhero fan. I’m seriously preparing my big blitz on the American publishers this year so I’m going to be reading all kinds of crap just to re-familiarise myself with the market. ‘2000AD’ I read religiously, of course…
What movies, books, plays have inspired your work?
Far too many to mention but I’ll give it a go. Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub – I’ve read almost all the horror writers at some point and lots of classic SF and I try to keep up to date with the new stuff. Ray Bradbury for that really rich descriptive prose of his. Ramsey Campbell and Elmore Leonard – totally different to each other but both with such a great way of writing. I’ve actually been reading a lot more non-fiction stuff these last couple of years though so I’m a bit behind on modern fiction…
‘Stig of the Dump’ was a major influence on me as a kid as were the Hammer horror films and the old black-and-white RKO and Universal horror flicks. I love T.S.Eliot and the Metaphysical poets like Donne and Marvell. I like the plays of Peter Shaffer and Nigel Kneale who wrote the ‘Quatermass’ stories (that TV series years ago with John Mills as Quatermass and all the stone circles and stuff). I love Edward Albee – especially ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Films, I love Cronenberg and Nicolas Roeg and John Carpenter and Gerorge Romero and David Lynch and Larry Cohen - all the great horror and SF directors. And there are dozens of films that have really influenced me. ‘12 Angry Men.’ ‘The Wicker Man’ (which seems very trendy now but deservedly so). ‘Sleuth.’ ‘The Last Wave.’ ‘The Ninth Configuration.’ ‘The Shout’, which is a gem of a film. Polanski – especially ‘The Tenant’. ‘Drowning by Numbers’ and a couple of other Greenaway films. Most recently I loved ‘The Sixth Sense’ which was the best film I saw last year. I could go on all night…
You seem to be interested in magic. Do you practice it?
No. Only wishful thinking. I’m pretty open-minded to all sorts of weird possibilities and have had some unusual experiences but I’m not into magic to any serious extent. I’ve never even tried to use a ouija board – though my brother assures me it works. I’ve studied different magical systems but never really practiced it as such. As a kid I fancied myself more as Baron Frankenstein - that marriage of science and the mystical – and regularly tried to reanimate frozen earthworms and tadpoles and things like that. (One of the behavioural precursors of serial killers is apparently torturing animals as a child but my research was always strictly in the name of science, you understand.) I’m into earth magic and ley lines and have visited most of the sacred sites of Britain but that’s mainly just an excuse for a holiday and a piss-up. I’m also very interested in the various conspiracy theories of history.
Would you like to write Dredd again?
I am doing and I hope they’ll let me keep coming back every now and again. The pay’s better, for one thing!
In a perfect world what would you be writing?
My long planned sequel to the Bible. ‘League of Gentlemen’ (the BBC2 TV series – not the Alan Moore comic.) Big-budget Hollywood films alongside pretentious European art house movies. Novels, of which I’ve started dozens but haven’t got the stamina to finish one. I was seriously into writing novels way before I read comics (which I discovered after being laid up in hospital for six weeks) and that was always my real ambition. I’d love to write a really great twenty-first century horror novel.
Have you ever thought about approaching Computer Game Company for plans about ‘Slaughterbowl’?
All right! A man after my own heart! Wouldn’t it make a great computer game? Death-row convicts – dinosaurs with weapons add-ons. If you have any contacts I’m ready to hear about them because I’ve no idea how to even go about approaching a computer games company. (The guy’s doing ‘Swimming in Blood’ were the ones who contacted me.)
Are there any other comic writers whose work you enjoy?
All the good ones. I love Grant Morrison’s stuff – Alan Moore – some of Mark Millar’s stuff (a sort point among ‘Robo-Hunter’ fans, I know, but he’s done some neat stuff elsewhere) – I’ve liked the ‘Hellblazers’ and ‘Preachers’ I’ve read of Garth’s as well as some of Warren Ellis’s more recent stuff. Neil Gaiman’s written a few neat things (though I did tire of ‘Sandman’ after a couple of years) – John Wagner – whose storytelling is so smooth and unshowy, he’s the consummate laid-back storyteller. Frank Miller, of course. All the usual suspects…
How did you get started?
I gave up reading comics in my teens but started again when ‘Warrior’ came out. That comic just blew me away and made me realise what it was I loved about comics in the first place. I wrote Alan Moore a couple of fans letters and got some really encouraging replies back off him and from there on it was just a matter of persevering, sending stuff up to publishers every week in the hope I could wear them down. My first job was writing for the D.C. Thomson science fiction comic ‘Starblazer’ when I was 17 or 18. I basically ditched all ideas of going on to university and decided to start writing full-time.
How do you work, do you set yourself regular hours or work as the ideas come to you?
I try to set myself regular hours but I’m too bloody lazy to keep it up for long. I know that’s the one piece of advice every writer says you should follow: Keep to a schedule. I generally faff around for weeks planning a story and working it out but I find it a real chore typing it up into script form. I’m a big Alfred Hitchcock fan and I sort of subscribe to his view of doing things – once you’ve planned a story out in your head, all the fun goes out of it and the rest is just a chore, a matter of transcribing it and making it real to other people.
Where do you get your ideas?
The little old lady who runs the sweetshop on the corner in Blackburn where I live. Half a pound of Cola Cubes and an idea for a 12-issue limited series…
The truth is everywhere. A big one with me is watching films, reading books, and realising the writer or director hasn’t taken the idea to its logical conclusion. People are always telling me that I have this morbid urge to always take things one step further than I really should. That’s what I love so much about David Cronenberg’s stuff. He takes an idea to its ultimate logical conclusion. Odd imagery also often kick-starts my thinking along weirdly divergent lines.
How quickly do you work?
Pretty slowly. I have been known to do about 12 pages a week but I’m extremely lazy so these days it’s usually more like 6 pages. I’m also extremely critical of my own stuff and hate the idea of hacking things out to fill a deadline. I do try to tell myself "It’s only a comic" but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a prima donna when it comes down to it and don’t send anything off unless it lives up to my own hyper-critical standards.
What is your favourite piece of work to date?
It’s actually something that’s never been seen, a three-issue sex-and-science fiction series called ‘Trailing Ishmael’ for the defunct Trident Comics (who published Grant Morrison’s ‘St. Swithin’s Day’). It was a kind of road movie tale about a narcissistic far-future rentboy – an IshMale – who escapes slavery and tries to find a new life for himself. A sort of adult ‘American Gigolo’ in space. Lots of nudity and four-letter swear words and graphic violence so Trident would’ve been the only company brave enough to print it. The artist was Dominic Regan, who drew and lettered the whole first issue of 24 pages, and he did a brilliant job. I used to have photocopies but I can’t find them anywhere, which really pisses me off because they were just brilliant. (If anyone reading this knows either Dom or Martin Skidmore and they have copies, I’d love to see it again.)
What are you working on at the moment?
Have you created any characters that have been turned down flatly by editors?
Eddie Whyteman (who sacrificed himself in ‘Sirius Rising’) took about seven or eight years to get to the page – I’d conceived him even before Devlin and Matt Brooker/D’Israeli did some superb art samples but in the end it never panned out. Judge Tarzan I already mentioned. Uhmm… Yarrow and a load of supporting characters at the time ‘2000AD’ was soliciting ideas for a ‘female-centred’ fantasy series (David eventually settled on Gordon Rennie’s diabolically hackneyed ‘Witch World’). Lenny Domino from ‘Anno Domino’, also submitted to ‘2000AD’. There’s probably loads more but I can’t remember off the top of my head…
How would you describe your own work?
Fernickity and over-worked. I rework my stuff maybe a bit too much and sometimes feel I lose some of the spontaneity that a good comic story should have. I’m also not great with endings – generally because I’m so "undisciplined" (as David Bishop would so assiduously attest) that I always run out of space at the end of a story. That’s the one big thing that annoys me about comics – having to work in restricted episodic segments.
If you weren’t writing comics what would you be doing?
Optimistically - writing novels or I’d have gone on to study Film at university or parapsychology at Edinburgh. Or perhaps working as a librarian. I love libraries and here in Blackburn we have one of the best in the country. The head librarian is apparently a witch and she always gets in the latest weirdo magic and conspiracy books imported from the US…
Will you be at Comics 2000?
I doubt it.
You’re in the shower and you hear someone come in... Ideally, who is it, Johnny Alpha, Judge Dredd or…?
Kano from ‘Bad Company’. Those head scars are such a turn-on.