I gave up on 2000AD in the early 1990s. Not only did it seem to have lost much of its sharpness and satirical edge, but it often appeared complacent, sloppy and even, on occasion, smug too. So great was my disillusionment that I didn't even think of returning to the fold for almost twenty years, and when I did, it was the writing of Rob Williams as much as the work of any other creator which convinced me that I'd been missing out. In Williams' case, I was immediately taken by the mixture of ambition and populism in his work, a fusion of qualities which only the best of comics writers can successfully express. The strips he was writing, such as Low Life and The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael, were entirely distinct from each other, rigorously crafted and, most importantly, highly enjoyable. (Tellingly, the styles he's adopted for subsequent projects, such as The Iron Age and Daken for Marvel, have been notably and appropriately different too.) Despite the obvious care that he takes with his craft, there was never once been a hint of pretension or self-indulgence. In short, his writing's both entertaining and markedly bright-minded all at the same time.
So strong are his scripts that I've even ended up enjoying books where the art might not, for whatever reason, have been of the highest quality. (I can think of one particular comic - no names, no finger-pointing - which featured art working directly against the content and spirit of Williams' writing, and I still thoroughly enjoyed the tale if not the visual telling of it.) With the recent return of Ichabod Azrael to 2000AD, I chanced my luck and asked the writer if he'd mind my asking a few questions about how he approached the strip. Luckily for me, he was gracious in his response and generous with his time and ideas.
For those who haven't come across Ichabod Azrael, its first series fell, for want of brevity, within the borders of what's often called Weird Western, although its particular brew of mythology and frontier life worked as a unique and compelling hybrid. It can be a particularly grim tale at moments, and yet it frequently succeeds in expressing a wry sense of humour too. Set partly in a distinctly unpleasant, demon-dominated afterworld, rendered in black and white, and partly in what appears to be the post-Civil War frontier, presented in colour, it follows the efforts of the psychopathic Azrael to return to the side of the living woman he regards as his true love. Both celebration and deconstruction of the out-there Western, Ichabod Azrael also works to snare the reader's fascination with a string of enigmas concerning what is and what isn't real on the pages before them. The second series has followed the despicable Azrael through a series of different incarnations in separate time-periods, and, just like its predecessor strip, succeeds in beguiling without ever intimating how the events at hand are going to be resolved.
My sincere thanks to Mr Williams for his time and candour.
Even more than the first book, IA2 seems to express a loathing for violence. Yet it doesn’t do so by either tub-thumping or suppressing the entertainment on the page. What challenges have you faced in creating a long-running series about a psychopathic gunman which avoids celebrating such a dubious figure and the "virtuous" violence associated with the cult of the lone vigilante? How important has it been for you to do so?
I'm not sure I can say that Ichabod as a series expresses a loathing for violence. It's still a story where our heroes use violence to 'fight the good fight'. And I suspect we'd all be lying if we said that we didn't find the image of the lone gunfighter as a 'cool' one. I wanted the story to have a kind of moral tone - to be responsible about its use of violence, I guess. I certainly didn't want to portray him as anything other than what he is - a despicable killer, someone who's murdered innocents and it's not bothered him a jot.It's a redemption tale to an extent, in as much as love does set him on his goal, and he does sort of learn to sacrifice himself for his companions as a result - but even that's conflicted as the love that he feels is false and engineered to set him on a certain path. He remains a horrible killer throughout. It's simply who he is. "Some people are just born bad" I think the narrator says, or words to that effect.
The challenge, and when I started writing Ichabod I did this deliberately as a way of testing myself, was in writing a protagonist who's the bad guy. I think we need our protagonist to be the good guy/girl. As Erik Larson said recently on twitter (paraphrasing): "I don't need to know backstory, I just need to know who the good guys are." That's a pretty astute storytelling note, I think. But Ichabod isn't the good guy. So the way I hoped people would stick with him is if he's fighting against something far worse than him. Suddenly he's the underdog. I did the same thing on my run with Daken for Marvel. I think. Daken may be a sociopathic killer, but when he comes up against a far more powerful sociopathic killer, Daken's our underdog. And we'll follow the underdog.
You knew, I believe, that you’d be working with Dom Reardon again on Book 2, and you’ve described his work – accurately, I must say – as feeling “kind of ethereal and odd”. How does it affect a writer to know who their creative partner will be on a project like IA2 during the writing process? Where has he taken something in IA2 and not just fulfilled your intentions, but surprised you too?
It's a huge help. When you know in advance who you're working with, and you know their storytelling style and capabilities, you can tailor a script to their strengths. That's something I definitely do with D'israeli on Low Life too. I'll make definite narrative decisions based on who I'm working with, which helps the end book. It also helps if there's open and friendly communication on a story. When I work with Laurence Campbell, who's one of my best friends, we'll talk back and fore on pretty much every aspect of a book, to the point where he'll make story suggestions and I'll do the same with his breakdowns etc. The opposite example of that - and no names here - is where you're teamed with an artist, you have zero communication, you're not aware of their prior work, and the first time you see the art is either at lettered proof stage or even when the book is published. I've written silent beats in scripts before that the artist just plainly hasn't got or their storytelling isn't capable of carrying it, and it just looks confusing in the end book. Having confidence in your collaborator is huge. And, more and more as I work in comics, I'm aware that you're only as good as your artist. It's a visual medium first and foremost. The best script in the world can be butchered by a bad artist and a great artist can make an ordinary script seem way better than it is.
As for how Dom surprises me. I think he gives Ichabod a kind of haunted, staccato rhythm. The action set-pieces, when they're written, have a fast pace. Some artists would convey that. Dom's art kind of has its own pacing. It slows things down. You marry the two styles and it's got quite a unique feel. Considering the afterlife setting of Ichabod, I think Dom's art suits it perfectly. It feels kind of odd and dreamlike at times. Removed from the real world. And he doesn't draw Ichabod as a big muscled cliche. He feels a wiry, rat-like character. I appreciate a protagonist that doesn't feel cliched.
I may well be very wrong here, but it seems from the outside as if you’re determined not just to tell a good story, but to push your own boundaries at the same time as a writer. Not by developing some terrifically obvious grab-bag of showy techniques, but by approaching each story as a new and different challenge. IA2 is, for example, very much not the same beast as the first book. But is there a conscious fascination with story and finding new ways to tell compelling stories at work in Ichabod, or is that just how you express yourself in your work anyway? If it's the first, what opportunities did IA2 offer you in extending your approach?
The first series of Ichabod that was definitely the case. I wanted to write with a narrator, which is something I don't normally do. I wanted to write period prose - something I've never done before or since. And I wanted to challenge myself in terms of writing a story where the bad guy is the protagonist, as I said earlier. The second series of Ichabod has been looser, more action set-piece driven and less reliant on mood. The narrator's faded somewhat. I think, in retrospect, maybe that was a mistake and his voice was integral to the feel of the initial series and the mood of the initial series gave it a somewhat unique feel. But you're in different places in your life when you write different series', your influences are different. They're never going to be the same.
One of the aspects I most enjoy about IA2 is the fact that each weekly chapter works in its own right. The reader can parachute into part 5, for example, and there's more than enough there to both inform them and make them want to read on to the next chapter. How much of a challenge is it, when you're using the inciting incident/progressive complications/conclusion model in just 5 pages, to also hook casual/neophyte readers on top of everything else?
I probably don't worry about the neophyte as much as I should. That said, I try and break down every 2000AD episode - if it's five pages or six - into a three act structure. So, page/page-and-a-half of opening act and inciting incident, loosely three pages of our protagonist wanting something, obstacles preventing them getting it, then a page or so of final act resolution and cliffhanger. I stuck to this pretty rigidly with Low Life: The Deal, and I think it works. Every story in 2000AD has to have a start-middle-end, even if it's in an ongoing story. Of course it's difficult to do that in just five pages but that's the trick. And if you do that, then I guess the casual reader can follow that episode alone pretty clearly.
Initially Ichabod series two was all going to be set in the era of Prohibition and Capone's club. And that would've been fun, but I thought it'd be cooler to have the action flit between different realities/time zones. All of which are natural homes for a battle between killers. Visually it offers more. I guess if I'd planned Ichabod out as a Dante-style 15-year series I could've stuck with one timezone per series. But I suspect Ichabod is a three-series and out story. So the more we can cram in the better.
Not so much on Ichabod series two. In general terms: Robert McKee's Story had a big effect on my writing several years ago, both reading the book and going to one of this four day lecture series' in London. I'm a sucker for reading articles from writers I admire about process and structure. Stephen King's 'On Writing', for instance, is excellent but King saying he doesn't know what the theme is until the final act isn't a way I can work. Al Ewing teases me about my grasping onto theme when I write. I'm aware that you don't want to do that so firmly as to bludgeon the reader over the head with it, but for want of a wanky metaphor theme is like a lighthouse through the narrative fog, I think. When you set out to write something you've got a million different ways you can go, and that'll drive you bonkers - the crazy talents can navigate that way by instinct. The mortals amongst us need some kind of lead. I think theme, for me at least, influences your major narrative choices. Your story is either going to prove your theme correct or incorrect. When you're starting out trying to write for a living it's easy to see it as just being about talent and to expect stories to appear from the ether. That's a mix of very rare and bollocks. Writing's a craft. You can learn how to do it better via structure and storytelling tricks.
As for particular structure systems influencing storylines - I very deliberately planned Low Life: The Deal using Dan Harmon's 8-point circular structure and that worked very well. I was watching How To Train Your Dragon recently - which is a great movie - and I could see Harmon's 8-point structure there. Really effective.
Ichabod series one, and in general, had very strong influences - Andrew Dominik's brilliant The Assassination Of Jesse James (By The Coward Robert Ford) - long title, parenthesis - Daniel Woodrell's Woe To Live On really gave me the narrator's voice and a sense of what I wanted to do there. But mostly it was music. I was listening to a lot of alt-country at the time and, more than anything, I wanted to put the recurring themes and language of alt-country into a comic. Gram Parsons' Return Of The Grievous Angel was a strong influence. I don't put together influences as a jigsaw puzzle to create a story generally, but with the first series of Ichabod, that was definitely the case. Series two was really just continuing that journey. An apocalyptic,end-of-the-world western with angels and demons and a strong and pure sense of love at its heart. There's a Steve Earle song called The Unrepentant which tells the story of a lone figure taking on the devil in a gunfight. But it's not just the lyrics. Musically that song's got this great air of mean and attitude. Earle's voice sounds like the real thing too - he sounds like he's been to hell and back - and that sells it. All that kind of seeps into what you end up writing.
Thanks again to Rob Williams, and also to Michael Molcher at 2000AD for his info/advice about RW's various contributions to the world of Tharg.
There's a host of comics coming from Mr Williams, and if I take a moment to mention some of his projects, it's because I find the whole matter of matching productivity to quality fascinating. Ichabod Azrael Book II is currently running in 2000AD, with several Judge Dredd tales to come, including a collaboration with Laurence Campbell. There's also the much-anticipated next book of Low Life to come, entitled Saudade. (*) For Marvel, there's two collections of Dakken to come this year, as well as Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes # 6 in September and Avenging Spider-Man Annual #1 in October, a month which will also see National Comics: Madame X coming from DC. January 2013 will see the publication of Ten Seconders: American Dream and May Ichabod Azrael, both from 2000AD. The first month of 2013 will also bring RoboCop: Road Trip from Dynamite.
* 2000AD also recommends his graphic novels Asylum, Family, and the two volumes of Mega-City Undercover, the second of which was given four stars by some comics reviewer in Q earlier this year.