An Interview with Rob Williams, on 2000AD‘s Ichabod Azrael and Comics Storytelling in General

I gave up on 2000AD in the early 1990s. Not only did it seem to have lost much of its sharpness and satirical edge, but it often appeared complacent, sloppy and even, on occasion, smug too. So great was my disillusionment that I didn’t even think of returning to the fold for almost 20 years, and when I did, it was the writing of Rob Williams as much as the work of any other creator which convinced me that I’d been missing out. In Williams’ case, I was immediately taken by the mixture of ambition and populism in his work, a fusion of qualities which only the best of comics writers can successfully express. The strips he was writing, such as “Low Life” and “The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael”, were entirely distinct from each other, rigorously crafted and, most importantly, highly enjoyable. (Tellingly, the styles he’s adopted for subsequent projects, such as The Iron Age and Daken for Marvel, have been notably and appropriately different too.) Despite the obvious care that he takes with his craft, there was never once been a hint of pretension or self-indulgence. In short, his writing’s both entertaining and markedly bright-minded all at the same time.

So strong are his scripts that I’ve even ended up enjoying books where the art might not, for whatever reason, have been of the highest quality. (I can think of one particular comic – no names, no finger-pointing – which featured art working directly against the content and spirit of Williams’ writing, and I still thoroughly enjoyed the tale if not the visual telling of it.) With the recent return of Ichabod Azrael to 2000AD, I chanced my luck and asked the writer if he’d mind my asking a few questions about how he approached the strip. Luckily for me, he was gracious in his response and generous with his time and ideas.

For those who haven’t come across Ichabod Azrael, its first series fell, for want of brevity, within the borders of what’s often called “Weird Western”, although its particular brew of mythology and frontier life worked as a unique and compelling hybrid. It can be a particularly grim tale at moments, and yet it frequently succeeds in expressing a wry sense of humour too. Set partly in a distinctly unpleasant, demon-dominated afterworld, rendered in black and white, and partly in what appears to be the post-Civil War frontier, presented in colour, it follows the efforts of the psychopathic Azrael to return to the side of the living woman he regards as his true love. Both celebration and deconstruction of the out-there Western, Ichabod Azrael also works to snare the reader’s fascination with a string of enigmas concerning what is and what isn’t real on the pages before them. The second series has followed the despicable Azrael through a series of different incarnations in separate time-periods, and, just like its predecessor strip, succeeds in beguiling without ever intimating how the events at hand are going to be resolved.

My sincere thanks to Mr Williams for his time and candour.

COLIN SMITH: Even more than the first book, IA2 seems to express a loathing for violence. Yet it doesn’t do so by either tub-thumping or suppressing the entertainment on the page. What challenges have you faced in creating a long-running series about a psychopathic gunman which avoids celebrating such a dubious figure and the “virtuous” violence associated with the cult of the lone vigilante? How important has it been for you to do so?

ROB WILLIAMS: I’m not sure I can say that Ichabod as a series expresses a loathing for violence. It’s still a story where our heroes use violence to ‘fight the good fight’. And I suspect we’d all be lying if we said that we didn’t find the image of the lone gunfighter as a ‘cool’ one. I wanted the story to have a kind of moral tone – to be responsible about its use of violence, I guess. I certainly didn’t want to portray him as anything other than what he is – a despicable killer, someone who’s murdered innocents and it’s not bothered him a jot. It’s a redemption tale to an extent, in as much as love does set him on his goal, and he does sort of learn to sacrifice himself for his companions as a result – but even that’s conflicted as the love that he feels is false and engineered to set him on a certain path. He remains a horrible killer throughout. It’s simply who he is. “Some people are just born bad” I think the narrator says, or words to that effect.

The challenge, and when I started writing Ichabod I did this deliberately as a way of testing myself, was in writing a protagonist who’s the bad guy. I think we need our protagonist to be the good guy/girl. As Erik Larson said recently on twitter (paraphrasing): “I don’t need to know backstory, I just need to know who the good guys are.” That’s a pretty astute storytelling note, I think. But Ichabod isn’t the good guy. So the way I hoped people would stick with him is if he’s fighting against something far worse than him. Suddenly he’s the underdog. I did the same thing on my run with Daken for Marvel, I think. Daken may be a sociopathic killer, but when he comes up against a far more powerful sociopathic killer, Daken’s our underdog. And we’ll follow the underdog.

SMITH: You knew, I believe, that you’d be working with Dom Reardon again on Book 2, and you’ve described his work – accurately, I must say – as feeling “kind of ethereal and odd”. How does it affect a writer to know who their creative partner will be on a project like IA2 during the writing process? Where has he taken something in IA2 and not just fulfilled your intentions, but surprised you too?

WILLIAMS: It’s a huge help. When you know in advance who you’re working with, and you know their storytelling style and capabilities, you can tailor a script to their strengths. That’s something I definitely do with D’israeli on Low Life too. I’ll make definite narrative decisions based on who I’m working with, which helps the end book. It also helps if there’s open and friendly communication on a story. When I work with Laurence Campbell, who’s one of my best friends, we’ll talk back and fore on pretty much every aspect of a book, to the point where he’ll make story suggestions and I’ll do the same with his breakdowns etc. The opposite example of that – and no names here – is where you’re teamed with an artist, you have zero communication, you’re not aware of their prior work, and the first time you see the art is either at lettered proof stage or even when the book is published. I’ve written silent beats in scripts before that the artist just plainly hasn’t got or their storytelling isn’t capable of carrying it, and it just looks confusing in the end book. Having confidence in your collaborator is huge. And, more and more as I work in comics, I’m aware that you’re only as good as your artist. It’s a visual medium first and foremost. The best script in the world can be butchered by a bad artist and a great artist can make an ordinary script seem way better than it is.

As for how Dom surprises me. I think he gives Ichabod a kind of haunted, staccato rhythm. The action set-pieces, when they’re written, have a fast pace. Some artists would convey that. Dom’s art kind of has its own pacing. It slows things down. You marry the two styles and it’s got quite a unique feel. Considering the afterlife setting of Ichabod, I think Dom’s art suits it perfectly. It feels kind of odd and dreamlike at times. Removed from the real world. And he doesn’t draw Ichabod as a big muscled cliché. He feels a wiry, rat-like character. I appreciate a protagonist that doesn’t feel clichéd.

To be concluded.

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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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