I’d struggle to overstate 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.
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 super-hero 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.
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;
COLIN SMITH: Ridiculous, obvious, break the ice question, I know, but why a writer of comics? What’s the point of being a writer of comics?
AL EWING: 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.
SMITH: 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?
EWING: 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.
SMITH: 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?
EWING: 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.
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.
SMITH: 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?
EWING: 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.
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 super-hero comics up to the mid nineties or so..
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.
On the critical front: David Brothers is brilliant on all subjects, David Uzumeri’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.
To be concluded.