Al Ewing: Crossing the Pond with Jennifer BloodA comics interview article by: Geoffrey D. Wessel
You might be more familiar with his works than the man himself, but Al Ewing has been making a name for himself via the classic British sci-fi comic 2000 AD for the last few years, including his hit series Zombo. Now Ewing is set to break out in American comics, taking over Jennifer Blood from Garth Ennis starting issue #7. Geoffrey D. Wessel braved time, space, and a laptop theft to talk with Ewing about Jennifer Blood, his upcoming The Zaucer of Zilk with the legendary Brendan McCarthy, and to play a round of Name That Tune…
Geoffrey D. Wessel: Since this is your first foray into American comics, let's start straight up: Who are you and why should we care?
Al Ewing: I'm Al Ewing, I'm a writer of British comics and novels, and you should care because you may already have won $1,000,000 in cash! Yes! Inside every one of my comics is a fabulous prize! It may be big money, or a Caribbean cruise, or even a brand-new Prius. Or it may be some words, written by myself and arranged in a sort of "balloon" format, along with art by a professional artist. You just don't know. Until you buy!
Wessel: And it all starts in Jennifer Blood #7...
Ewing: That's my first American-published comic, yes. Taking over from Garth Ennis.
Wessel: So how did that all come about?
Ewing: Well, I don't know the entire ins and outs of it, but Nick Barrucci at Dynamite Entertainment asked me if I wanted to carry on from #7, and I said yes and proposed a plot. Garth weighed in with some suggested changes, and after an exchange or two we had it all ready for scripting -- and here we are.
Wessel: Were you already on Dynamite's radar for something else? I remember Dynamite was supposed to have been doing something 2000 AD- or Judge Dredd-related at some point.
Ewing: I think either Rob Williams gave them my name or someone else did and then Rob provided a character reference. Either way, I owe him a debt.
Wessel: Of course Rob and PJ Holden are on Robocop v. Terminator at the moment, so there seems to be a door opened for 2000 AD folk at Dynamite.
Ewing: I'd say so. They certainly seem to be interested in seeking out new talent, and the UK is one of the places they're looking. Because of how comics have evolved over here, that probably means 2000 AD more than any of our other surviving comics. (Although having said that, I'd love to see Barney Farmer and Lee Healey work on something in the States. Or Cat Sullivan...)
Wessel: It's not like the ‘80s or ‘90s where there was a set pattern for British talent coming over here -- you break in via 2000 AD or Doctor Who Monthly, get noticed, usually by DC, then comfortably write Vertigo titles and ride off into the sunset.
Ewing: Yeah, times have changed a bit. I don't know if there's a set pattern these days for breaking into American comics from the UK.
Wessel: We'll get back to that. For people unfamiliar with Jennifer Blood, give us the 25-words-or-less-summary and then a bit more detail about what you're bringing to the book taking over for Garth Ennis.
Ewing: By day she's an almost aggressively normal housewife, by night she's on a mission of vengeance against the family of gangsters she used to be part of. Except I take over at the point where the mission is over and the vengeance has been exacted, so I'm concerned with what happens after that.
A lot of people have called Jen the female Punisher, but there are more differences [between the two] than gender alone. For example, while Frank knows he's a damned soul, Jen believes she can put that ruthless, killing-machine side of her away when the time comes and slide effortlessly into the white-picket-fence lifestyle she believes she wants. I'm exploring whether she's able to do that and whether, morally, she should be able to.
Wessel: So what's the situation she finds herself in that will be the exploration ground here?
Ewing: She's trying to put all the worms back in the can, and most of them don't fit any more. For example, during Garth's run, she kills people who I would argue don't deserve to die. (I'd argue most of the people she kills don't deserve to die, in fact, but I have some very wishy-washy views on people deserving to die at all.) Anyway, those people have families, and those families want revenge. So she ends up in a situation where she's the one being hunted down for bloody vengeance.
Also, she's committed some pretty big crimes, and the police are getting closer to catching her. And while these particular cops are flawed and fallible, they're not the bad guys. In their narrative, she's the bad guy. And she's getting worse.
Wessel: Usually when the lead is in a situation like this, though, the body counts tend to escalate. So with that in mind, how much of the dark or gallows humor you tend to bring to your 2000 AD strips like Zombo or Damnation Station are you bringing to Jennifer Blood? Does it change the tone at all?
Ewing: There's plenty of gallows humor to be had, as well as the absurdism I like to bring in where possible, and the body count definitely rises, especially towards the end of my first arc. The tone's not quite as madcap as Zombo, and it's certainly not as dark and grim as Damnation Station was. The fact that it's set in an approximation of the real world -- as opposed to a sci-fi universe -- makes it fairly different than anything I've done before.
Wessel: So probably not as much absurdism as you normally would have then?
Ewing: Not quite as much, but I slip it in where I can. Every time I write a news broadcast or an advert I try and make it all as ridiculous as possible. I've lost an incredible amount of respect for the news media, both at home and abroad. So much of it is so obviously just playing to confirmation bias. No matter how savagely stupid I write it, though, it can't match the reality.
Wessel: That much is truth!! When writing for Jennifer Blood, did you have to adjust your writing structure for writing for a 20-plus-page monthly as opposed to 5-page weekly installments as you would for 2000 AD?
Ewing: Yes. For one thing, I can't have quite as many panels per page, as 2000 AD has a much bigger page size than the average American mag. On the other hand, I'm freed from the necessity of having a cliffhanger every five pages. I think it's still got to be just as dense -- because those 22 pages have to last the reader a whole month -- but I've got a lot more wiggle room.
Wessel: Interesting, because one of the best pieces of advice I ever saw was from Jason Aaron, who said you should have a cliffhanger of some sort at the end of EVERY page, in order to get you to keep turning to the next one.
Ewing: Oh, definitely. Garth Ennis said the same thing, I believe. There's got to be an impetus for the reader to keep reading. If there's no reason to turn the page, you're in serious trouble. We can bring the word cliffhanger into that if you want to make a point, but I'm really talking about cliffhangers in the classic sense of the word -- events and dilemmas that end episodes, after which the audience has no option but to wait for more.
Wessel: Right, there are cliffhangers and there are CLIFFHANGERS. And all of this differs still from writing novels, of which you've written a few as well...
Ewing: Everything's a cliffhanger if you want it to be. Everything's a pie if you want it to be. Novels have their own demands and their own rhythms. Again, you need to provide an impetus to keep reading, but that can come in a lot of ways. And novels are more self-contained than serial fiction.
Wessel: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the majority of the novels you've written to date were for the Pax Brittanica series, and those three formed a trilogy of sorts. So how self-contained is self-contained then?
Ewing: How self-contained is The Sign of Four? It's about that self-contained. In that, yes, one or two characters carry over, but each book is still a unit in its own right and can be enjoyed as such without the reader feeling they need to have read anything else first.
Wessel: You said "this arc" for Jennifer Blood. How many issues is your first one, and how many have you planned at this stage, pending any drastic changes?
Ewing: Well, the first arc is six issues, and after that I'm on the book for the foreseeable future. While I don't want to give away any spoilers, I have plenty of things planned for down the road.
Wessel: The third series of Zombo wrapped up not too long ago, with a 4th entitled "Planet Zombo" promised. How soon ‘til that drops, and what else do you have coming up in 2000 AD and/or the Judge Dredd Megazine?
Ewing: Well, I'm feeling the pressure of success now, in that Zombo 4 kind of has to be the best thing ever, and also I have other stuff pending for Tharg [2000 AD editor Matt Smith] in the meantime, like the second series of Damnation Station, which I've been working on forever, and The Zaucer of Zilk, which I'm doing with Brendan McCarthy. Both of these have been quite time-intensive for various reasons, but I think they'll be worth the wait. And I've got a Dredd story or two coming up as well.
Wessel: Glad to hear about a second series of Damnation Station as I really liked that one, but what can you say about The Zaucer of Zilk?
Ewing: It's like a wild combination of Time Bandits, Doctor Who, Mighty Boosh and The Wizard of Oz, with just a pinch of Entertaining Mister Sloane, and it's got some incredible work by Brendan! I firmly believe it's going to be the hit of next year. In fact, I seem to remember saying in an interview with someone else that it might bring some new and lapsed readers back into the fold all by itself, which isn't something I've felt confident saying about something I've done before. (Although I understand some new readers out there are big fans of Zombo!)
Wessel: Zombo does definitely hit a certain zeitgeist right now.
Ewing: People definitely like it a lot! Or they do once they read it. I was watching a lot of people look it over at the NYCC, and occasionally, you'd get "Oh, Zombies..." comments [from] people tired of the whole phenomenon. Which is fine, as I'm tired of it too! But it looks like the larger culture still has plenty of time for zombies, given the new Walking Dead TV show and so on. Maybe it's that, more often than not, zombies provide a framework for other, more human stories, or maybe we're just living under the shadow of the collapse and the zombie narrative is a way to inoculate ourselves against that fear.
Wessel: Now, Zombo initially was artist Henry Flint's concept, right? You fleshed it out and made it, well, yours, is that correct?
Ewing: Pretty much. I'd call it ours rather than mine, but Henry's happy to let me have my head for the time being. Originally, it was a pitch he wrote for Matt for a ten-episoder. I was called in to bring it down to eight and flesh it out, and since then it's been a team effort.
Wessel: So how much of Henry's concept made it in, and what specifically did you add to it all, at least as far as the first series went?
Ewing: I'll see how much I can remember... Henry had the idea of Zombo, obviously, and also the face-eating fruit. The Stingin’ Wringing Tree was one of mine, but the cannibal hillbillies and the Death Shadow were Henry's -- except I gave it an origin and some motivation. I'm pretty sure I came up with the birds... Henry thought up the agents, but I think it was me who made them the same person. Henry had the idea that they [would] be lovers, but I think I ended up using that a bit differently... You do get to a point where it all melds and merges into one. I suppose the best thing to do for people who are incredibly curious [would be to] publish Henry's original ten-issue pitch in a future trade. Maybe that's one for the Absolute Edition!
Wessel: I can say this as I've worked with him as well: Henry's a wonderful man, isn't he?
Ewing: He's a joy to work with, and to chat with. More than once we've laughed like drains together over a pint or a Cantonese meal, and I can't say that about everyone I've ever made a comic with. And have you heard his music?
Wessel: I have indeed! Day Of The Triffids concept album... I still think it's a bit funny I got to work with him and ended up being in a book with so many names from British comics merely because I was a few seconds quicker than you on Twitter one day.
Ewing: Well, I think you made better use of him than I would have. I had the perfect artist in Gary [Erskine] for what I wanted to say.
Wessel: I'm flattered you think that. Yeah, Henry wanted a samurai in a boat in the water, and I kinda went from there. Are you two going to do anything non-Zombo together, or have you already?
Ewing: We'll probably end up doing some Dredds sooner or later, I'd imagine. In terms of other things, we've not really talked about it, but I can definitely imagine us working together on something else, either after Zombo packs up or outside 2000 AD. The trouble is, there's so much going on.
Wessel: You did say there's another series of Damnation Station coming. I know I might be the only fan of that, but what went into your thought processes for creating it as far as setting it apart from other "future war" series' in 2000 AD? And what's on tap in this coming series?
Ewing: Matt basically gave me a "future war" brief, and I had the idea to do a Space Foreign Legion story. I was very interested in the European way of doing things at the time and went in with this idea of giving it a European flavor, except that quickly went out of the window and ended up being replaced with the "no captions, no translations" idea. I wanted to do something unlike every other future war story and also something exploring some very ugly moral choices. In the second series, the moral choices will get even uglier, the betrayals and heartbreaks even more damaging; it's very bleak stuff.
I've found through doing DS that talking about the things that trouble me personally is easier if I use humor [rather] than if I get serious. Seriousness can come off as mawkish or preachy, but with humor you can get under people's radar and past the automatic barriers they throw up against contrary opinions, and by satirizing a powerful concept, you can quite savagely cut its legs off in a way you couldn't do with a serious story. Which is why Zombo is carrying on and DS is finishing, I suppose. Even in DS, the first episode wrong-footed a lot of people because I couldn't keep satire out of it. A lot of readers through it was a pure comedy.
Wessel: It's funny though, because that first episode painted a picture of the hotshot movie star lead as being a total womanizer, yet down the road we find out he has a same-sex relationship with a fellow soldier. It was presented as "Here it is, no fanfare, it is what it is," but at the same time there was a character who was a very obvious White Supremacist. So what does this say about that microcosmos exactly?
Ewing: Well, an out and proud gay man will get different reactions in Britain than he will in Brazil. I tried to give every country on Earth their own standards, so while America was undergoing a swing to the right in the strip and the culture wars were still very much in progress, I had Switzerland moving very far to the right indeed, becoming almost a fascist enclave. It wasn't one of these future Earths where there's a one-world government and everywhere's America with frills.
I painted Brett as bi from the start, because I wanted to make him a kind of Reuben Flagg archetype, this guy who'll fuck anything. He kind of ends up going for the easy option with Jim. He's not a good person. But because of what happened to Jim, Brett now finds himself dealing with a lot of guilt. He's not the naive stud in series 2 [that] he was in series 1, and we drop the illusion that he's the hero, or even the protagonist.
Wessel: You might say it's not too much a stretch, what you described there, but really, one-world governments seem a little, well, silly these days, I reckon. Or if such a thing ever exists, it won't be a Star Trek-like scenario.
Ewing: Well, I don't think I've worked in a world like that, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a 2000 AD story that is set in a world like that, at least these days. Apart from Zombo! That's got a one-universe government. Or a one-species government.
Wessel: Certainly one of the most endearing things about 2000 AD is the way it does destroy a lot of SF tropes, even those the magazine may have created itself!
Ewing: I think part of the fun of tropes generally is bending and breaking them a little. I'm trying to avoid the temptation to look at that website now...
Wessel: Which one, the SF tropes one or the Turkey City Lexicon?
Ewing: TV Tropes. It's a notorious time hole.
Wessel: Finally, to wrap this up, you are a notorious lover of pop songs, therefore, should you choose to accept this challenge, I am going to give you lines from FIVE songs from yesteryear, and WITHOUT GOOGLING THEM, name those tunes! DO YOU ACCEPT, AL EWING???
Ewing: I have no choice!
Wessel: THEN PREPARE THY LOINS AND BRAINS!
"Yippee yippee ya ya yay yay yay, I had to crucify some brother today"
Ewing: Son, I'm thirty, I only went with your mother 'cos she's dirty, and I don't have a decent bone in me, what you get, it's just what you see, yeah... it's Shaun Thingy. Ryder. Happy Mondays or Black Grape. What's the title? Nope, I've lost it.
Wessel: "Pick out a number / Divide it by two"
Ewing: I have no idea. De La Soul? I'm stuck on maths-related songs.
Wessel: "I hear you singin' in the wire / I can hear you through the whine"
Ewing: I am a HUGE Jimmy Webb fan so I got this immediately. "Wichita Lineman!" I like the Glen Campbell version best, I guess, but I also recommend the versions by Dave Dudley, the Meters, and D*Note.
Wessel: "Don't call a doctor / Don't call her momma / Don't call her preacher"
Ewing: I DON'T NEED NO CURE. "Love Hangover!" I'm going to say the Associates version.
Wessel: "It was only last June when her old man ran away"
Ewing: "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man", by Prince. I used to like Prince a lot more than I do [now], but it sounds like he's turned a wee bit homophobic in his old age, so I've gone off him.
I should, in fairness, quiz you now.
Wessel: You go right ahead, Big Papa! Okay, 3 4 and 5 were totally correct. 1 is "Kinky Afro" by Happy Mondays, I'll give half-credit for that. 2 is "Three Girl Rumba" by Wire, shamelessly ripped off by Elastica for "Connection!" So, 3.5/5.0. I await thy response!
Ewing: Here it comes! There may be some trick questions.
1) "I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables. I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars."
2) "I was there / I've never been wrong."
3) "You want to make something real, you want to make a Yazz record."
4) "Everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know, but have you seen my records?"
5) "Better-looking people with better ideas and more talent -- and they're actually really, really nice."
Wessel: Well, sir, Mr. Al Ewing, you obviously had this song on your brain because they are ALL from "Losing My Edge" from the late lamented LCD Soundsystem!
Ewing: Oh no! You have seen through my clever trick!
Wessel: But it was clever enough! Al Ewing, YOU WIN THE INTERVIEW!
Wessel: Anything else you'd like to tell our studio audience? Jennifer Blood #7 is due out when?
Ewing: I think #6 is out later this month, so it'd be December sometime, I think. A nice holiday gift.
Wessel: "Give the gift of blood… Jennifer Blood." Al Ewing, thank you!
Geoffrey D. Wessel writes the sports thriller Keeper and is a regular contributor to SF anthology webcomic Hadron Colliderscope. He has also contributed to the "community created" (tm!) fantasy television series Bar Karma, did a story with 2000 AD veteran Henry Flint in the Spirit of Hope charity anthology and has a story coming in a TBA Image anthology. His website is at http://gdwessel.com and he can also be found on Twitter as @gdwessel, as well as on Facebook with the same name.