With one current comic about superpowered Royals and another about a non-superpowered plumber, Rob Williams is clearly still the same Cla$$ warrior who wrote his first comic 12 years ago, discovers Dave Golder
R ob Williams seems a little disappointed at the press reaction to The Royals: Masters Of War. Or rather lack of it. “When you consider how the mainstream press went barmy over that gay Dredd story that I wrote, you’d think they might have the decency to get all hot and bothered about making the Royal Family superpowered!” he laughs.
Maybe we can print something out of context that the Daily Mail could happily misinterpret?
“Yes! If we could still achieve that, it would be wonderful!” agrees Williams. He then quickly adds, “I don’t want to sound conniving, but I did think with the Royal Family on the front of every paper we might get picked up.”
You wouldn’t have thought The Royals needed any extra publicity considering the kind of reviews it’s been getting. “Yeah. I think it’s the best reviewed thing, across the board, that I’ve ever done,” admits Williams, sounding slightly embarrassed. “That sounds really arrogant, but it’s not meant to. It’s just really nice. All the reviews were really glowing and I just hope that translates into sales.”
Arrogance is not something you’d accuse Williams of having in abundance. Despite a rich Welsh accent that immediately suggests an air of supreme self-confidence, he spends much of the interview deflecting compliments, praising his collaborators and sipping thoughtfully on his coffee when asked to analyse his own contributions. He’s arrived for the interview – at the cafe in the Bristol Watershed arts centre – by bus and needs to leave in time to pick up the kids. In a country that usually produces comic book writers at the more eccentric end of the spectrum, you just know that Williams is going to favour a five-a-side match over dabbling in black magic any day.
Comic Heroes: For a writer whose name seems to be everywhere in the comics world these days – you’re currently behind two creator-owned titles, The Royals and Ordinary, as well as working on Titan’s new
Doctor Who range – you had a relatively late start in the industry, didn’t you?
RW: “I was a freelance journalist. I’d always been a comics fan. I think I was about 29 or 30 before I even thought about writing my own comic script. I pitched one Future Shock to 2000 AD and received a reply from the then editor, David Bishop, saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve sent in the most unoriginal Future Shock we’ve ever received at 2000 AD – we first published it in 1978!’ He’d dug it out, photocopied it, stuck it in the envelope and sent it to me. So that was a good way to start.
“But then I found out through freelance contacts that a new publisher – Com.x – was starting up and I gave them a script: the first issue of Cla$$war – and they liked it funnily enough. Everything else went from there. All the doors were shut, then people liked Cla$$war and suddenly I was asked if I’d be interested in writing for 2000 AD, and Marvel were open to pitches.
“I think I was enormously lucky for a number of reasons. One was the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing and I gave Com.x the full script, not a pitch. I mean, who reads full scripts? Not only that, they paired me with an amazing artist, Trevor
You’d think the press would get all hot and bothered about Royals with superpowers
Hairsine. My first published comic and I got an amazing world-class artist. I mean, one thing – if I didn’t know it then I know it now 12 years later – you’re only ever as good as your artist. Obviously the script has got to be there, but it’s a visual medium and we just came out with a great-looking comic book. It was the first thing I’d written but it had an energy about it I think.
“I was talking to some friends last night about it and it’s a completely symbiotic relationship. We were talking about the argument of who’s more important, the writer or the artist in comics. I’d say it’s 51% comic art maybe and 49% script because it’s visual storytelling and I think if there was a case of a bad script and good art, or bad art and a good script, the comic with the good art wins the day. The art can carry a lot of sins.”
CH: So did you have any idea about how a comic script was presented back then?
RW: “No, I think the Future Shock was just a paragraph, like the perfect example of how not to do it, you know? I just hadn’t done the research. Back then the internet wasn’t quite the resource it is now. I had no idea how to format scripts or pitches but now there’s this whole wealth of reading material online and you can see how professionals lay out comic scripts. Before that, I remember Neil Gaiman put a script in the back of one of the Sandman graphic novels and I think John Wagner did some kind of ‘this-is-howa-comic-script-is-written’ in a 2000 AD annual. But those things were really rare. There are no excuses these days for not at least getting the format right even if you can’t write for shit.
“But one of the cool things about it that you learn as you go is that no two writers do it the same way. Even now there are people who work Marvel-style – the old Stan Lee method – which is to write the major plot beats, then leave it to the artists to do the visual storytelling. Then there are people like me who prefer to do full scripts and break down every page, you know.
“But even within that set of writers there are big contrasts. Alan Moore will virtually write a page of A4 notes describing a panel. Then you’ve got John Wagner who’ll just
One thing I’ve learned is that you’re only ever as good as your artist
write two words, you know? Different people, different methods.”
CH: Is that how someone like Gail Simone manages to write a zillion books a month?
RW: “Well, maybe. I don’t know how she works. But the Marvel method has come back in fashion a lot more for writers. A lot of them are encouraged to write that way. I mean, I’m doing something now which I can’t talk about yet but…”
CH: There’s always something!
RW: “Yeah, but I’ve been asked to do it Marvel-style when I haven’t done it before. That again makes you think about the balance between writers and artists. It puts a lot more of the onus on the artist; they’re suddenly even more in charge of the visual storytelling. And it can work. I mean, you look at a book like Hawkeye and I’m not privy to the inner workings of that book but I think part of the success of that is plainly the visual storytelling. The fact that David Aja breaks every page down into 24-panel pictures – he can do that and it can still all be clear. If I wrote a 24-panel page for a lot of artists, it’d be a mess. So, yeah, the artist can control the storytelling.” “There was a really amazing issue of
BPRD that I loved, and I tried to break it down mathematically to see if there was
formula behind how it worked: average number of panels on page; how many silent panels etc. I’m not sure you could ever really create that kind of formula, but it’s an interesting exercise that makes you analyse how he’s achieved a certain pace or atmosphere. Oh, I’m getting really heavy on process now… you’re on your way to mental illness if you get your favourite comic and you’re mathematically breaking it down into numbers.”
CH: Have you ever been in the situation where, without naming names because that would be pretty unprofessional, you’ve been partnered with an artist with whom you think “I just can’t make this work”?
RW: “Yeah, but you don’t find out until the end. It’s a train wreck thing where you don’t see what’s round the corner. That’s why I prefer working with people like D’Israeli and other artists who send you their work along the way and who you can get a dialogue going with.
“But part of the ‘industry’ side of the comic book business is that with a lot of publishers, you send in the script and then the first time you see the art is when they’ll send you a lettered proof so you can change dialogue to fit better. Sometimes that’s great and sometimes, when you get it through, you’re just there with your head in your hands because the artist just hasn’t conveyed what you were going for at all and you’re trying to work out how to save it.
“With 2000 AD, usually the first time you see the art is when it’s in the shops. And this is the thing, you’re completely at the whim of the artist. But it works both ways. The things I do that I get the most praise for are always when I’m working with the best visual storytellers. I’m exactly the same writer, but if you work with someone who isn’t as good at visual storytelling, you’ll hear, ‘Oh, the writing on this is terrible.’
“There’s a good Warren Ellis line, which is, ‘Any kind of working relationship between a comic writer and a comic artist is a bit like an arranged marriage; you only find out if they’re an axe murderer once it’s too late and the ceremony’s happened.’
“But, you know, this is a writer’s point of view. Artists will have exactly the same thing; they’ll get certain scripts through and go, ‘This guy hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing,’ and they have to try and fix it.”
CH: What else have you got on the go? Apart from the thing you can’t talk about? RW: “I’m doing a new series of The Journey
Of Ichabod Azrael for 2000 AD. It’s a supernatural Western I’ve done a few series of. Its full title is actually The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael (And The Dead Left In His Wake).”
CH: If that ever features in Comic Review, there won’t be any room for the review after we’ve written the headline!
RW: “Well, all my titles are short and sharp usually, but I thought. ‘This is a really deliberately verbose story – no, let’s have a headline that goes on for about three lines.’”
CH: But The Royals is your big thing… RW: “That and Ordinary for Titan. The
Royals has been in the works for a long
time and there were periods where we wondered if it was ever going to see the light of day. And we felt really strongly about it. If nothing else, it’s an amazing looking book – Simon Coleby killed himself drawing it. He put so much historical reference in it and because we decided we were going to do the World War 2 setting, we wanted everything to look as it should.”
CH: So when did you start working on it? RW: “In 2009, I think. I found the contract the other day and 2009 was on it.”
CH: “Always with the same publisher?”
RW: “Originally it was going to be a Wildstorm book under DC. Then Wildstorm shut down and there was a long period where we didn’t know where it was going to come out. Then fortunately, Vertigo, another imprint of DC Entertainment, liked it enough to publish it. But yeah, there was this period when we’d done all this work on it and Simon had drawn six issues and we were thinking, for all we know, this could be one of those books you hear about that never gets published. But Simon would take his portfolio to show friends at conventions and people would go: ‘Oh, this is amazing!’ Because, as good as it looks in comics, on Bristol board, full size, it looks even more spectacular.
“So yeah, fortunately, finally, it’s out.”
CH: What was the original kernel of the idea?
RW: “Originally I was playing around with doing it in the House of Lords. And it was going to be the members of the Lords who had superpowers; basically it was a very obvious metaphor for the fact that real power is political power. But then I kind of went: ‘That’s really quite an obscure concept, especially for an international audience.’ But I did like the element of class that it introduced. So then I thought, ‘Do it with the Royal Family!’ And I developed that into the whole idea of the bloodline, and the more pure the bloodline the more powerful the individual would be. And that explained a lot about inbreeding in the Royals through the centuries…!
“It just kind of developed from there. And I think the setting is World War 2 just because Simon and I are both big World War 2 geeks. ‘I want to draw World War 2 planes, Rob,’ he says one day and I went: ‘Well, let’s come up with something.’ I wish there was a sophisticated reason, but it was largely down to plane porn I’m afraid.”
CH: The Royals also has a good reason for being a six-part series, doesn’t it?
RW: “We’re setting it one issue per year, throughout the conflict, against these setpieces. It gives the story a real natural spine as well: a structure. It gives a real sense of stakes and an inherent sense of drama. And huge action setpieces. But we want to be vaguely respectful. Yes, we’ve got big superhumans flying around, smashing things up, but you kind of want to be true to the
spirit of the period. You don’t want to be doing it in the wrong way. Which I’m sure would be very easy to do.” CH: You’ve also currently got Ordinary coming out through Titan Comics, but that’s not the first time it’s seen the light of day, is it? RW: “It was first published in the Judge
Dredd Megazine. They do a creator-owned slot but they don’t publicise it, so it’s not on the covers. It’s basically the magazine’s way of doing really cheap content. They pay us a tiny page rate though we retain 100% rights, and then we can reprint it elsewhere.”
CH: So what’s it about?
RW: “The ‘elevator pitch’ is: one day a plague gives everyone on the planet superpowers, apart from one guy. That person, who has always been an ordinary guy, is suddenly the most ordinary person on the planet. It was kind of inspired by watching the origin story in countless
My kids just think I’m some bloke who hangs around the house too often. Which is entirely true
superhero movies. They all have the same basic idea – in an ordinary world, one person becomes extraordinary. We thought it’d be fun to turn that on its head.”
CH: Your artist on that one is D’Israeli. What does he bring to the project?
RW: “D’Israeli’s a bit of a genius and I thank my lucky stars he agreed to draw the book. His imagination and design sense is superb, and together we were able to populate this world with imagery like a giant baseball player smashing a home run and taking out the top of the Empire State Building. He does spectacle brilliantly.
“The really nice thing about working with someone you absolutely trust in terms of storytelling is the freedom it gives you. I know if I write a silent beat or a minimal-dialogue sequence, D’Israeli will absolutely put across what I was going for. That’s not the case with all artists. Similarly, D’Israeli’s storytelling skills – the acting performances he gets from his characters – actually allows me to write subtext at times. Dialogue can be saying one thing, the look a character gives can be saying another. That’s very rare. You’ve got to be an excellent visual storyteller to carry that, and he is.
“With Ordinary being creator-owned, we discussed a lot of the characters and the world before we started, and there was a lot of dual input. Some of the characters, and the powers in the book, came from D’Israeli. Similarly, with a lot of the crowd scenes, where we have a load of people all with disparate powers... well, some of their powers were in the script and some weren’t. So a lot of the writing of those characters, in terms of what their powers say about them as characters, that’s down to him. It’s one of the reasons I was keen to not have traditional ‘script by’ and ‘art by’ credits on
Ordinary. It’s purely ‘by Rob & D’Israeli’. And that suits the creator-owned ethos, I think. This is something that comes from both of us.”
CH: You’ve got a couple of children. How old are they?
RW: “Seven and four.”
CH: What do they think of your job?
RW: “They don’t think anything of it because whatever your dad does is just what your dad does. They don’t go, ‘Oh cool, my dad writes comics!’ They just think I’m some bloke who hangs around the house too often. Which is entirely true. They occasionally get freebies. But it does make you aware, you know, the majority of stuff that I write I wouldn’t give to them.
“I did an Earth’s Mightiest Heroes comic based on the Avengers cartoon. That was kind of nice, to give that to my son and think: ‘I feel completely confident that you can read that.’ I’m not going to give him my Vertigo books or Miss Fury, or social services would probably get involved.”
The Royals: Masters Of War #1 is out now from Vertigo; Ordinary is also out now from Titan Comics.
Above: Dredd tries to work out which way he swings in 2013’s “Closet”.
Opposite: Big boats! A squadron of planes! Coleby heaven.
Above: London during the Blitz: bomb blasts and burning buildings.
Above right: Coleby fills his pages with as much military tech as he can muster.
Top: Cla$$war, Williams’s political thriller, with superheroes.
Above: In Ordinary, the future of humanity rests on a tardy, downtrodden, recently-divorced plumber who dreams about Scarlett Johansson.
Above left: Michael’s late. Like plumbers the world over.
Above: It would appear some superpowers are more appealing than others… “Digit Man”…?
Above: The New York Giants do baseball and the Big Apple shudders.