The Roy­als

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

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

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.

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