The Unfollow and Martian Manhunter writer tells Will Salmon about his recently republished Ichabod Azrael and ongoing work with Judge Dredd and the Martian Manhunter...
Rob tells us about Ichabod Azrael and Dredd.
Comic Heroes: Ichabod Azrael has just been published in the States. Any idea how it’s been received?
Rob Williams: Not really. I find, with the US market, that if you do a DC or a Marvel book then Twitter tends to give you a tonne of feedback. Everything else, you really only get a snippet here and there. It seems to have gone down well with the few reviews I’ve seen.
CH: Does it feel a bit like bringing it home, given that it’s a Western, the most American of genres?
RW: I guess so, but 2000 AD, where
Ichabod was first printed, has a long history of British creators telling stories about the American experience, most famously Judge
Dredd. Granted Dredd was cocreated by John Wagner, who was born in the States, but... All the books and songs and movies that inspired Ichabod are Americana.
Ichabod was largely written as a result of my interest in alt-country music. It’s a story of America if not specifically about it.
CH: What was your starting point for the series? It grows into something very strange...
RW: Yes, we go through different times in series two. The supernatural is part of it from the start, but it’s always a Western, really. The idea of this great mythical killer who dies and then decides to kill his way out of the afterlife and return to the living lands. And he does it for love. These are all themes that kind of grew out of my listening to songs like Gram Parsons’ “The Return Of The Grievous Angel”, Steve Earle’s “Unrepentant”, the songs of Townes Van Zandt. That’s the music I was listening to at the time. And I loved a book by Daniel Woodrell called Woe To Live On, which is set in the US Civil War. They all kickstarted the story.
CH: Did you have the complex, reality-breaking, time-hopping structure planned out in advance?
RW: That kind of progressed as I worked through the first book. The macguffin there was pretty
Above: Williams came to fame with “Asylum” in 2000AD and followed up with the “Low Life” series and work on StarWars. simple: Ichabod is murdered, goes to Purgatory, decides to come back to the living world. But is that possible? And then, if he could do that, the walls of reality would crumble, and that prompted the idea of Ichabod coming back but skipping through time. So, he’s a gangster in Capone’s Chicago, a B29 pilot in the Pacific, a WW1 soldier. That all opened the book up to a lot of creative options. But he had to come back home in the final book.
CH: He is an unrepentant killer. How do you make someone like that a sympathetic protagonist?
RW: You give him someone even worse to battle. So suddenly he’s the underdog. And also, the reason he comes back to the living worlds is love. And then you get into themes of redemption. Can this horrific killer be redeemed?
CH: Speaking of Dredd, the recent “Enceladus” really felt like a highstakes story. How much freedom do you get with the character?
RW: There’s a great deal of freedom within the confines of it being John Wagner’s creation and John still occasionally writes the character. So, if I suggest killing one of his characters, say, it’s only right that it’s run past John and he has the
Dredd doesn’t see himself as a fascist or even as the good guy. It’s just the job.
opportunity to say “No, I had plans for them”. But there’s a balance too. Matt Smith, 2000 AD’s editor, and I talked at the start of the “Titan”/ ”Enceladus” story, and I said that unless there’s real dramatic stakes, unless the status quo changes as a result of the story, it all means nothing. And Matt agrees. As a writer, you have to push the world forward. We’ve definitely done that with “Titan” and “Enceladus”.
CH: Where do you see Dredd on the hero/villain axis now? Is every positive action he makes tainted by the fact that he is a fascist?
RW: He doesn’t see himself as a fascist. He’s upholding the law, protecting the citizens, often from themselves. I’m not even sure he sees himself as the good guy – it’s just the job. The fact that he is a fascist is something that, I think, the strip needs to confront again in the near future.
CH: Your Martian Manhunter is taking the character in a very different direction from the New 52. Were you unhappy with J’onn J’onzz’s plight in recent years?
RW: No, I simply pitched what I thought was a fun, fresh take on the character. DC wanted to make him more three-dimensional and so I thought the best way to do that would be to split him into these new, very disparate characters. He’s not just a shape shifter. He’s very malleable, you know. And the idea that he can “just” be one alter-ego is very human. I wanted a sense that he is truly alien. That he doesn’t think the way that we do. And his different sides having their own personalities makes for some dramatic internal conflict as well as the external threat of this covert Martian invasion.
CH: How do you make a superhero death feel like it has some genuine consequences?
RW: You put the character’s soul at risk. Superfolk die and return to life all the time. So, as you say, it’s tough to make such an event feel like it resonates. But a wise bit of writing advice is that it’s not enough to put a character’s life at risk, you have to put their soul at risk. If it truly matters to them, it’ll matter to the readers.
High Cla$$war, Ordinary
Now Martian Manhunter
More www.robwilliams comics.co.uk
Above: Williams is
currently writing Judge Dredd in 2000AD, DoctorWho:The EleventhDoctor, and MartianManhunter.