An Interview with Rob Williams, on 2000AD‘s Ichabod Azrael and Comics Storytelling in General (Part 2)

Continued from last week.

COLIN SMITH: I may well be very wrong here, but it seems from the outside as if you’re determined not just to tell a good story, but to push your own boundaries at the same time as a writer. Not by developing some terrifically obvious grab-bag of showy techniques, but by approaching each story as a new and different challenge. IA2 is, for example, very much not the same beast as the first book. But is there a conscious fascination with story and finding new ways to tell compelling stories at work in Ichabod, or is that just how you express yourself in your work anyway? If it’s the first, what opportunities did IA2 offer you in extending your approach?

ROB WILLIAMS: The first series of Ichabod that was definitely the case. I wanted to write with a narrator, which is something I don’t normally do. I wanted to write period prose – something I’ve never done before or since. And I wanted to challenge myself in terms of writing a story where the bad guy is the protagonist, as I said earlier. The second series of Ichabod has been looser, more action set-piece driven and less reliant on mood. The narrator’s faded somewhat. I think, in retrospect, maybe that was a mistake and his voice was integral to the feel of the initial series and the mood of the initial series gave it a somewhat unique feel. But you’re in different places in your life when you write different series’, your influences are different. They’re never going to be the same.

SMITH: One of the aspects I most enjoy about IA2 is the fact that each weekly chapter works in its own right. The reader can parachute into part 5, for example, and there’s more than enough there to both inform them and make them want to read on to the next chapter. How much of a challenge is it, when you’re using the inciting incident/progressive complications/conclusion model in just 5 pages, to also hook casual/neophyte readers on top of everything else.

WILLIAMS: I probably don’t worry about the neophyte as much as I should. That said, I try and break down every 2000AD episode – if it’s five pages or six – into a three act structure. So, page/page-and-a-half of opening act and inciting incident, loosely three pages of our protagonist wanting something, obstacles preventing them getting it, then a page or so of final act resolution and cliffhanger. I stuck to this pretty rigidly with Low Life: The Deal, and I think it works. Every story in 2000AD has to have a start-middle-end, even if it’s in an ongoing story. Of course it’s difficult to do that in just five pages but that’s the trick. And if you do that, then I guess the casual reader can follow that episode alone pretty clearly.

SMITH: You keep burning through intriguing scenarios in Book 2 – the trenches, prohibition, the Left Bank, WWII – which I suspect some writers and would-be writers would be more than happy to keep running for far longer than you do. Is there ever a tension in your mind between what’s best for the story and a sense that you might have hit upon a comfortably productive status quo that could be used and re-used? Why not keep IA2 in the trenches and delay the longer arc, for example?

WILLIAMS: Initially Ichabod series two was all going to be set in the era of Prohibition and Capone’s club. And that would’ve been fun, but I thought it’d be cooler to have the action flit between different realities/time zones. All of which are natural homes for a battle between killers. Visually it offers more. I guess if I’d planned Ichabod out as a Dante-style 15-year series I could’ve stuck with one timezone per series. But I suspect Ichabod is a three-series and out story. So the more we can cram in the better.

SMITH: I know from your Twitter feed how interested you are in reading about theories of storytelling from a variety of disciplines which are grounded in practical experience. (For example, you linked to 3 tips from the splendid Vince Gilligan.) Are there any particular examples which you can remember reading and thinking “I will certainly put that to use!”. Have any of them had a specific bearing on IA2?

WILLIAMS: Not so much on Ichabod series two. In general terms: Robert McKee’s Story had a big effect on my writing several years ago, both reading the book and going to one of this four day lecture series’ in London. I’m a sucker for reading articles from writers I admire about process and structure. Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, for instance, is excellent but King saying he doesn’t know what the theme is until the final act isn’t a way I can work. Al Ewing teases me about my grasping onto theme when I write. I’m aware that you don’t want to do that so firmly as to bludgeon the reader over the head with it, but for want of a wanky metaphor theme is like a lighthouse through the narrative fog, I think. When you set out to write something you’ve got a million different ways you can go, and that’ll drive you bonkers – the crazy talents can navigate that way by instinct. The mortals amongst us need some kind of lead. I think theme, for me at least, influences your major narrative choices. Your story is either going to prove your theme correct or incorrect. When you’re starting out trying to write for a living it’s easy to see it as just being about talent and to expect stories to appear from the ether. That’s a mix of very rare and bollocks. Writing’s a craft. You can learn how to do it better via structure and storytelling tricks.

As for particular structure systems influencing storylines – I very deliberately planned Low Life: The Deal using Dan Harmon’s 8-point circular structure and that worked very well. I was watching How To Train Your Dragon recently – which is a great movie – and I could see Harmon’s 8-point structure there. Really effective.

I often discover that the stories I most admire have been informed by a significant number of influences which have then been whittled down to serve the narrative without that being made obvious to the reader. I’m not a fan of tales which show how well-read/influenced a writer has been, but I do love the richness that a host of influences can bring. I don’t mean “research” here, but those things which inspire an aspect of the narrative, from atmosphere to specific moments. Do you search out influences before you write? Are there specific examples in IA2 where a particular song, for example, informed what you were doing?

Ichabod series one, and in general, had very strong influences – Andrew Dominik’s brilliant The Assassination Of Jesse James (By The Coward Robert Ford) – long title, parenthesis – Daniel Woodrell’s Woe To Live On really gave me the narrator’s voice and a sense of what I wanted to do there. But mostly it was music. I was listening to a lot of alt-country at the time and, more than anything, I wanted to put the recurring themes and language of alt-country into a comic. Gram Parsons’ Return Of The Grievous Angel was a strong influence. I don’t put together influences as a jigsaw puzzle to create a story generally, but with the first series of Ichabod, that was definitely the case. Series two was really just continuing that journey. An apocalyptic,end-of-the-world western with angels and demons and a strong and pure sense of love at its heart. There’s a Steve Earle song called The Unrepentant which tells the story of a lone figure taking on the devil in a gunfight. But it’s not just the lyrics. Musically that song’s got this great air of mean and attitude. Earle’s voice sounds like the real thing too – he sounds like he’s been to hell and back – and that sells it. All that kind of seeps into what you end up writing.

Thanks again to Rob Williams, and also to Michael Molcher at 2000AD for his info/advice about RW’s various contributions to the world of Tharg.

There’s a host of comics coming from Mr Williams, and if I take a moment to mention some of his projects, it’s because I find the whole matter of matching productivity to quality fascinating. Ichabod Azrael Book II is currently running in 2000AD, with several Judge Dredd tales to come, including a collaboration with Laurence Campbell. There’s also the much-anticipated next book of Low Life to come, entitled Saudade. (*) For Marvel, there’s two collections of Dakken to come this year, as well as Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes # 6 in September and Avenging Spider-Man Annual #1 in October, a month which will also see National Comics: Madame X coming from DC. January 2013 will see the publication of Ten Seconders: American Dream and May Ichabod Azrael, both from 2000AD. The first month of 2013 will also bring RoboCop: Road Trip from Dynamite.

* 2000AD also recommends his graphic novels Asylum, Family, and the two volumes of Mega-City Undercover, the second of which was given four stars by some comics reviewer in Q earlier this year.

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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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