Friday, 7 September 2012

An Interview With Al Ewing (Part 1 of 2)

From O Little Town Of Bethlehem, with artist Paul Marshall, from 2000AD prog 2010

I'd struggle to over-state how much I enjoy and admire Al Ewing's work. It's been that way since the March of 2010, when I first read his Sex, Vi And Vid-Slugs, a collaboration with artist Mike Collins which appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine #295. Having only recently returned to reading 2000AD and the Megazine after close-on twenty years away, I'd no idea who this Al Ewing was, though I quickly discovered that he'd long established himself as one of the most respected writers contributing to Rebellion's strips. Sex, Vi And Vid-Slugs remains one of the finest Dredd tales I've ever read, and no matter how often I turn back to it, its conclusion retains its power to inspire a fundamental sense of unease. In it, Ewing and Collins manage to present the familiar matter of Dredd executing an apparently irredeemable criminal without the slightest sense of catharsis being triggered. Death comes easily in modern-era genre fiction, and all too often it arrives as a grubby money-shot polishing off a dead-hearted revenge fantasy. But here, the execution was presented exactly as it should be. A hard, fearsome, conscience-challenging business with little possibility of the reader feeling empowered, joyous or even relieved. It's a scene that's stayed with me since, but then, so have a great many others from Ewing's work, and that's as true for his comedies as for his actioneers, for his novels and his comicbook scripts alike.

From Damnation Station: To The Dark & Empty Skies Part 3, with artist Simon Davis. from 2000AD #1679

A typical Ewing story is technically ambitious, ethically astute, and intellectually playful. In short; great fun.  He gives every impression of being determined to innovate and challenge without ever wanting the reader to feel impressed and improved. What's more, he's as adept at the broad political satire and slapstick of the undead-farce that's Zombo as he is with Damnation Station's radical tilt at militaristic space operas. (Both 2000AD/Rebellion) His novels in Abbadon Book's Pax Britannia range find him paying a sincere and  joyful respect to the long-standing traditions of the pulp and superhero genres, and yet, characteristically, he's also to be found re-casting these well-worn conventions in a radical fashion too. His Judge Dredd Christmas stories are the best of their kind since Will Eisner's annual Yuletide Spirit tales, combining a recognition of the holiday's heartfelt appeal with a bafflement and despair for how the season's perennially been exploited.

From Jennifer Blood #12, with artist Kewber Baal
As with genre, so with style. His two most recent collaborations find him pursuing a purposefully sparse, thriller-sharp technique for Jennifer Blood (Dynamite) while adopting a richer, denser approach to his narration and dialogue with The Zaucer Of Zilk. (Rebellion/IDW). At the heart of Ewing's work appears to be an intense, determined conviction that pop-comics culture can and should be smart, inclusive, challenging and enjoyable. All of which might, I hope, go some way towards explaining a measure of my regard for the man's work, as well as something of why I chanced my arm with the ask of an interview;

From the second chapter of The Zaucer Of  Zilk, with Brendan McCarthy, 2000AD #1776
1.Ridiculous, obvious, break the ice question, I know, but why a writer of comics? What's the point of being a writer of comics?

Oh God, what is the point? (At this point the interviewee hurled himself into a crevasse and the interview came to a sudden close.)

This is a big question to unpack. I suppose there’s two parts to it – why comics, and why writing. The ‘why writing’ is basically because I can’t do anything else – I’m the hedgehog who knows only one trick – and also because I want to be famous but not unpleasantly famous. And I don’t like getting out of bed.

“Why comics”… well, they’re my favourite medium. That combination of words and pictures, read as one thing greater than the sum of both… I understand it, in the way that someone who can play the guitar understands how the six strings work together without being able to fully put it into words. And I love it. I love being part of the history of comics, part of that tapestry that stretches from the first awesome issue of Union-Breakin’ Laffs (first appearance of The Golden Scab) to a poorly-photocopied scrap of what looks like Daisy Duck wanking off a horse that I just found in a hedge. I’m a small part of that history, but I’m part of it, and that history is in turn part of a larger history of pop culture (which is my favourite form of culture). So it’s nice to be involved in that.

from Zombo: The Day Zombo Died Part 7, with artist Henry Flint, from 2000AD 1746
2. What skills - if any - have you come to realise you lacked when you first started working as a professional writer? If you had the chance for just a brief moment to advise your younger self as his career gathered momentum, what would you try to tell him he needed to learn?

To be less of a prick, I suppose. Everyone’s the hero of their own life story, so it can be difficult to acknowledge to yourself when you’ve been an obnoxious little shit, but there have been plenty of moments where I could have been a little less thoughtless and inconsiderate and things would probably have turned out better for all concerned. I do occasionally cringe at the memories some people in my past must have of me – but then again, that’s pretty much a universal condition of humanity. I try and do better now, but it’s an ongoing process.

Writing-wise… one important thing I’ve learned is not be afraid to let go of things. If you’re in the shower and you come up with the perfect image or the perfect scene, and you end up building the whole plot around that, it’s almost guaranteed that that will be the image or scene you’ll end up having to remove in order for the work to progress. The longer you spend trying to wrestle something that doesn’t work into shape, the longer things will take in general.

from Judge Dredd: Twenty Years To Midnight, with artist Henry Flint, from Judge Dredd Megazine #302
3. I recall you mentioning on Twitter that Urasawa's 20th Century Boys was – to paraphrase from memory - an encouragement to dare more. Are you daring enough? What would being more daring involve?

I have no idea. I’ve made some recent leaps that seem promising - I’ve found myself experimenting with double-page spreads, now that I’ve got the space to do so (and now that I’ve discovered in Kewber Baal someone who is very, very good at laying out double-page spreads). JB #17 is… I just recently got the almost-final proof of that, and we’ve created, out of the second part of a three-issue arc – the part I was worried would be filler – something I’m very, very pleased about. I feel like I’ve pushed the envelope, and Kewber’s picked up that envelope and pushed it about twice as far as I pushed it, and that envelope is now somewhere in space.

from Jennifer Blood #8, with artist Kewber Baal
So since then, I’ve been experimenting a bit more with this new (to me) technique. There’s a sequence in JB #19 where – if I’ve got it right – for two pages, events aren’t ordered by left-to-right progression, but attack the reader all at once. I don’t know if it’ll work, but I have faith that it will.

It’s not just double-page spreads. In one of the episodes of the new Dredd, I’m asking for certain speech balloons to be placed a certain way, to represent memory. None of this is original thinking – this is all stuff that’s been done better by people like Clowes, for example – but the fact that I’m feeling confident enough to do it myself feels like progress of a sort. I generally think of this kind of experimentation as an end in itself, to be honest, but on the other hand it needs to serve the story.

from Judge Dredd: What The Hitler Saw Part 1, with artist Leigh Gallagher, in 2000AD #1728
4. I'm always fascinated by how our role models change - and don't - as we stumble on in life. Is there a comics writer who you admired when you began your career that you still regard highly, and why? Is there also someone who've you've really come to admire in the past few years whose worth you might not have recognised so strongly before you had professional experience? 

I’ve always admired Alan Moore’s dedication to principle, and to his community. That doesn’t mean I agree with every single thing he says, but I do think a lot of it is said with a humour that’s missed when it gets slapped up on a website in cold, hard print. Similarly, I admire Grant Morrison tremendously as a writer, but there are things he says in interviews that I have to take with a pinch of salt. It doesn’t stop me picking up his work and really enjoying it.

from Judge Dredd: Idle Hands, with artist John Higgins, from Judge Dredd Megazine #303
People like John Wagner, Pat Mills, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Christopher Priest, Peter B Gillis… I hold them in pretty much the same high regard now as I did when I started. I can think of a couple of people I thought reasonable highly of ten years ago who I’ve soured on a little since, but I wouldn’t have called them influences before. (I don’t think naming them publicly would do any good.)

Mark Waid I like more than I did. Ditto Neil Gaiman. Reading the Sandman Companion felt more fascinating for me than reading Sandman itself, which is a horrible thing to say, but while I did like Sandman a lot after reading it a few times I’ve got a fascination for that kind of behind-the-scenes, how-the-trick-is-done stuff. The fiery pop-culture crucible of all these unique people and their lives intersecting. Men Of Tomorrow, by Gerard Jones, is one of my favourite books – I recommend starting with that and then finding a copy of his earlier work with Will Jacobs, The Great Comic Book Heroes, if you want a very good and complete history of American superhero comics up to the mid nineties or so..

From Damnation Station: A Bone To Be Chewed Part 1, with artist Simon Davis, 2000AD #1686
People I admire a lot who’ve popped into my line of sight since I started… all my 2000AD peeps, obviously. Anyone good enough to take the Tharg Shilling is tops. Kieron Gillen. Matt Fraction. Paul Cornell. Brandon Graham is exciting to me at the moment. Fred Van Lente. Jeff Parker. Gail Simone. Urasawa I can’t get enough of. There are undoubtedly others. Ed Piskor, Tom Scioli, Chris Onstad, Danielle Corsetto. There are so many. That list of old and new names is maybe a third of everyone I admire in the field, and that’s just the writers.

From Zombo: The Day Zombo Died Part 8, with artist Henry Flint, from 2000AD #1747
On the critical front: David Brothers is brilliant on all subjects, DavidUzumeri’s a great read – I wish Uzumeri x Godel/Godel x Uzumeri would come back, unless it has and I’m looking at an old, defunct site – the Mindless Ones are essential reading (and listening!) and, if I can say this without sucking up, your own presence in the world of comics criticism is vastly appreciated

Sorry if I’ve left anyone out. I definitely will have done. Richard Davies, he’s always worth mentioning. He got fired from Marvel because he insisted on drawing Galactus life-size. I think Rob Williams actually met him, which is a story he’ll be happy to tell you in detail.

The second part of this interview will be up tomorrow, with a closer look at Jennifer Blood, Damnation Station, politics and the virtues of collaboration ...

From Judge Dredd: Blaze Of Glory, with artist Liam Sharp, from Judge Dredd Megazine #305


  1. I'm torn as I like Al, but as always happens when people graduate from indy comics to being paid for it so they can stop eating from bins, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to begrudge his success and fancy haircut now. That the former is deserved only serves to confuse me further.

    1. Hello Mr B:- Do be careful. With "Babble" just about to be launched into the world and your own professional career underway, there may very well be a time when you graduate to the non-bin-eating stata of life. (You lucky, lucky bloke.) As such, the last thing you need is self-loathing getting in the way of the experience of food that's fresh and healthy. Embrace AE's success, if for no other reason than you'll be getting in the practice that'll allow you to embrace your own rise up the system.

  2. Pleased to see the great Richard Davies finally being recognised.

    1. Hello Rob:- If only there were more information about him out there. He appears to make Steve Ditko seem like a typically extrovert reality TV contestant ...

  3. His insistence on only drawing Galactus life-sized or he'd walk curtailed what could have been a Kirby-like impact on the industry. Ditto for his 'Ant Man Adventures'. A brilliant but extremely literal man, the effect of his time drawing Negative Zone stories upon his home life was quite unpleasant, I understand.

    1. Hello Rob:- The more I hear about Richard Davies, the more of a sense of a palpable loss I feel. A man that principled and driven can only be an inspiration.

      If only some talented creators could put together a tribute to Mr Davies. The odd recollection, industry rumours, unseen drawings. Since the callous- callous, I say - attitude of the industry has seen no collection of his work appearing, there's a need for some kind of respectful representation of his art, and indeed his world-view.

      Perhaps his surviving family might finally be willing to talk about his Negative Zone period ...

      Those who don't know may even laugh at the mention of Mr Davies' life and art, but what do they know about the truth, or suffering, or suffering and truth?

  4. Interesting interview. I'm glad to see these kind of things, as a counter-point to all the hype-pieces you get thrown at you everywhere else.

    Haven't read Zombo, but that first panel has the semblance of a PG-13 version of the italian comic Necron, by Magnus.

    1. Hello CJ:- I think Al Ewing's work would be right up your street, to be honest. Certainly the 2000ad material would be, or at least, I think it would be based on what I know of your taste.

      Necron? Another book for me to add to my Euro-comics list :)

  5. Superb idea, Colin. I feel you're the perfect man to write an introduction for just such a tribute.

    The "recluse's recluse", I believe Mr Davies is currently referred to. Refusing to reply to Steve Ditko's incessent cold calls and Christmas cards.

    1. Hello Rob:- It would be an honour to share every single detail that I know about Mr Davies' career. Indeed, I feel I'm learning more and more by the afternoon ...

  6. I might be wrong, but didn't Davies start on a biography piece of Colin McKenzie?

    1. Hello CJ:- Even if never happened - and I wouldn't dare say one way or another - somebody surely ought to be producing a mockumentary about it :)

  7. Anybody who's as big a fan of Dan Clowes as this guy is getting on my reading list. I'm very interested to read how the influence plays out in these genres he's writing in.

    1. Hello Historyman:- Good stuff1 Obviously my bias is obvious. Let me know how you find AE's work when you reach it :)