An Interview with 2000AD‘s Al Ewing, Part 2

In which the interview with Al Ewing — begun last week — is concluded.

COLIN SMITH: To what degree does the writer of fantastical fiction have a political responsibility, and who’s that responsibility to? To put it another way, to what degree is a comics writer responsible for not being political in their work, however that’s supposed to work, as a great many folks evidently believe?

AL EWING: It’s impossible for a writer not to be political in their work. The decision to avoid being “political” is itself a political decision – by avoiding the questions, you’re giving an answer to them. If you exist in the world, your view of the world is going to filter into your work one way or the other – that’s your politics shaping the story. Even if you try to avoid it, everything in the story is going to be informed by your societal views, even if it’s in very tiny, subconscious ways. So given that you’re going to be political whatever you do, you might as well shrug your shoulders and face that head on. That way you can look where you’re going.

On the question of responsibility – I feel like there are two main responsibilities a writer should take on. One is to constantly question yourself, not to get complacent with the idea that you’re a good or worthwhile person or your work is good – everybody’s a good person in their own head. It doesn’t necessarily mean your views are the right ones. Self-improvement and self-examination is an ongoing process. There’s never a point when you can stop – as soon as you stop trying to improve yourself, you start turning into a worse human being. That’s not so much a political responsibility as a personal one, although the personal feeds into the political.

The other responsibility, as I see it, is to recognise the power of narrative in the world and acknowledge your contribution to shaping that narrative. I’m of the opinion that narratives have a frightening amount of power when it comes to shaping and controlling human behaviour. Every Presidential race is a narrative. We go to war based on narratives. Currently, narrative seems to be waging a war against empirical evidence, and narrative is winning. We think we’re immune to these stories, but all the time they’re working on us on very deep, subconscious levels that can be very difficult to notice or admit to ourselves. So I think there’s an argument to be made that it’s worth keeping an eye on which narratives you choose to throw your weight behind, whether it’s the weight of a massive global media empire or just the weight of a single comic story.

I’m not saying that the narratives I choose to believe and support are the only narratives that should be believed and supported, although obviously as a fallible meat beast I do secretly think that. But it’s important, when you say something in print, to consider everything you’re saying. Because if you don’t give your work that sort of consideration – if you’re thoughtless, in other words – then you end up putting things into print that can perhaps come back to gnaw at you later. I’ve seen that happen more than once recently – I’ll be reading a story I’m loving, by people I love, and there’ll be a sudden swerve into something that makes me deeply uncomfortable in a way that doesn’t seem to have been intended.

As in, to create a very basic example: we have a story about Hero X – Hero X does something unconscionable – nothing at all comes of it and we leave the story feeling as though we’re expected to applaud Hero X. As opposed to: story about Hero Y – Hero Y does something unconscionable – we leave the story presented with a clear understanding that Hero Y has sinned and as such we do not feel obliged to feel the same way about them as when we started. Option 1 tends to be the result of people either having different definitions of what’s ‘unconscionable’ or – and this is the point I’m making – not thinking.

(Sometimes the line between the two blurs a little – a creator might intend option 2, but end up doing something that smells of option 1 because they couldn’t pull it off. Or the creator does option 1 but the reader sees option 2, or vice versa. Sometimes a creator will do option 1 and then another creator will take over and turn it into option 2, or vice versa. Intent is a complex creature (but not a magic one.))

Obviously, I’ve done this myself. It’s so easy to do. All you have to do is not think for five minutes in the middle of a nasty deadline and suddenly you’re bullying Susan Boyle in print. Suddenly you’ve accidentally made an artistic statement to the effect that the entire concept of penal rehabilitation is a load of politically correct wank for useless hippies. (Both crimes I feel I’ve committed, and which I could have caught earlier and done something about.) There will always be things that slip through, but it’s best to be as in control as you can be of what your story ends up saying.

And one more thing – “it’s only a comic” is bullshit. If nothing else, I’ve got too much respect for the medium to denigrate it just to cover my own ass, as a reader or a writer.

SMITH: I remain fascinated by “Damnation Station”, and I’ve missed the strip since the first book concluded. Were you pleased with it? What did you learn from the process, and is it a strip which you’d like to do more of?

EWING: I wasn’t pleased with myself about it at the time – I felt like I’d let myself down and hadn’t hit the lofty target I’d painted for myself, which was to do something on the level of a great European bande dessinee. And of course, at the same time I was straining to make this amazing thing that would change comics, I was also having fun with Zombo, and obviously Zombo became the big thing because I was grooving rather than straining. (And now, with Zombo 4, I’m straining. Sigh. I should learn something.)

Anyway, I’m actually sitting down now and writing the first episodes of the second (and final) book, and I’ve read back through the first series for the first time since it came out – and suddenly, I’m really happy with it. I think it’s great. All the little things that made me fall out with myself the first time around just don’t seem to matter so much. There are still some problems with it. It’s not my best work in terms of storytelling – June’s story is told entirely in hints and background, and while that’s nice in a way, there were better ways to do that.

In the end, I’m proud of it. There are a lot of nice touches – the alien language I invented and never translated, which is maybe a bit of cleverness I relied on too much in place of actual characterisation, but it made for some nice sequences where I had to think out how to tell the story without any dialogue that a reader could possibly comprehend without effectively breaking a secret code. (Based on what I learned there, the next major Dredd strip I do will probably have a lot of untranslated French.) The sex-positivity, I’m very proud of – the way characters fell in love and into bed without really announcing it to the reader. The way Brett’s betrayal of Jim was as important, as large a catastrophe, as the station being blown up. I feel like people felt real in a way they hadn’t so much before in my work.

I suppose looking at the work I’ve done since, I was trying out a lot of ideas and techniques that I got a lot more proficient with after the fact, which is good news for Series II – I’ve included the fact that there was such a long gap in the continuity, so hopefully the divide between the me of now and the me of then won’t seem so huge and odd.

SMITH: You’ve worked with the superhero’s pulp predecessors in your novels, and referenced aspects of the super-book’s tradition there too. (Or at least I think you have!) Does the super-hero interest you as a writer? Part of what I enjoy about your work is the diversity of forms you work in, but is there a place for a super-hero in your work?

EWING: I’d love to do super-hero work sometime. I think it’s a fine genre, and one that seems to mingle fairly well with others. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it – I’m not one of those people who hates super-heroes, although I like Batman better when he’s solving strange Borges-inspired mysteries with his friends in the Club Of Heroes, as opposed to just being really rude to people and torturing them and talking in a silly voice about how “the Occupy movement is awful, just awful, why don’t these people have jobs. Hhhh. I’m Batman.”

But that’s the nice thing about Batman – it’s a character that can be anything. I’m a Batman: The Brave And The Bold sort of person myself.

That said, I’m still working out how I feel about the way super-heroes have been farmed over the years. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that. Right now, if it was up to me, I’d probably rather work with either a public domain super-hero – for the historical heft – or build one out of whole cloth. (Is there any whole cloth left with superheroes? Would it be a Frankenstein of a thousand different analogues? Whatever, that could be fun.) I think I’d have more freedom that way. And if I invented it, I could own it. Which would mean working outside the established structures.

What I’ve been increasingly thinking of is a super-hero universe in a bottle. One comic, anthology format, all in the same continuity. If I could find a way to get Henry Flint and Boo Cook involved, that would be ideal. Henry Flint inked and coloured by Boo Cook. Can you imagine? Can you conceive of what that might look like? I can’t, but I know it’d be good.

Tom Scioli seems to be moving in this direction at the moment, but I definitely think there’s room for more people to be thinking like this, and I feel like it’s an approach to the genre that makes sense.

SMITH: Jennifer Blood seems to me to be a minefield of a property, in that it plays with taboos which some folks will, I fear, inevitably perceive in a facile if not hostile way. How do you approach such a project? Where do the boundaries lie as regards the things which you will and won’t show? (What would be an example of eyeball popping, for example, which wouldn’t get into your scripts?)

EWING: Good question. There’s not much I won’t show in terms of physical violence. There are ways to make violent scenes very comedic, or very disturbing, and I’ll go for whichever one suits the intent of the story. For Zombo, the violence is very Tom and Jerry, very comedic, but as JB is set in a much more reality-based world, the violence there should be harder to take. Any chuckles coming from that direction are very dark. Whistling past the graveyard.

Violence against women I try to be a lot more careful with – I don’t want to titillate people with that, or play it for laughs, and I’m very conscious that I need a story in place that’s going to be able to take the weight of it. Again – there are things you don’t want to accidentally imply are okay, and that’s one of them.

By the time it crops up in Jennifer Blood #15, everything’s taken a much more serious turn – I kind of wanted the reader to get more and more uncomfortable with Jen as the series went on, and maybe question a couple of the things that they’d cheered her on about before, so Emily’s death is particularly unpleasant and undeserved. I don’t tell any jokes about it, or imply that it’s a good thing. It’s something horrific and deeply traumatic for anyone in the book who isn’t seriously damaged. Anyone who can read Jennifer Blood #15 and think that Emily got what was coming to her is getting that from their own twisted impulses, not from my writing. So I feel like I’ve done my job in that regard.

My feeling when I read Garth’s original scripts – and he was probably much more subtle about putting this across than I have been – is that Jen wasn’t really any better than her evil Uncles. I mean, her uncles were so horrible, so utterly irredeemable, that it was relatively easy to think of her as the heroine, or at least not the villain, while she was up against them. But as soon as that battle is over, and all the loose ends of that tied up, we find ourselves left with the story of this… sociopath, this woman who drugs her own five-year-old, six-year-old children in ways that could seriously hurt them, so she can run off and make letters out of intestines. Even during Garth’s run, Jen was a monster. I just made that part of her more obvious, and waited for the readers to see her as I did. I don’t think she’s ever acted out of character – the way I read her character from Garth’s original run, at least. Writers coming after me might disagree, but we’ll see what happens when that happens.

SMITH: Finally, what can I help plug for you?

EWING: Glad you asked! I have a new Dredd story coming up in 2000AD that is a must-read for everyone. Jennifer Blood is still ongoing and moving further into new territory, and I’m currently hard at work on a novel, The Fictional Man, that will be out from Solaris in 2013.

SMITH: Thank you!

Of course, the plugging ought to be far more comprehensive than that. IDW will be publishing The Zaucer of Zilk in two issues in October 2012, while Dynamite’s Jennifer Blood: Beautiful People is just out, with The Ninjettes scheduled for a collected edition in December. Rebellion published the first Zombo collection – Can I eat you please – in 2010, with the next one – You Smell Of Crime And I’m The Deodorant – scheduled for late 2013. There is also a Ewing tale in Judge Dredd: Tour Of Duty – The Backlash, while Abbadon Books, who’ve published seven of Mr Ewing’s books, have a look at his author page here.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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