Getting tapped to interview Dan Abnett put me into a cold sweat.
Not because Abnett is a tough interview; far from it. But to describe the man as a ‘prolific’ writer would be the understatement of the year. Trying to sift through the sheer volume of work coming from his word processor is a herculean task; narrowing it down to just comics makes it slightly easier, but even focusing just on his “2000 AD” stories within that list is still no mean feat. So for the split-second between after finding out I was interviewing him, I was bracing for a TON of research reading. But then my editor reminded me it was specifically for ‘Grey Area’, a “2000 AD” strip I had covered previously in our Multiver-City One column and was returning in tomorrow’s excellent jumping-on issue Prog 1924.
Ahhhhh, crisis averted.
‘Grey Area’ returns to “2000 AD” this week after a finale last year that was explosive, to say the least. But before we get to that, for the benefit of everyone who hasn’t caught up on their Progs, can you tell us what the premise of the strip is and how you came by it?
Dan Abnett: It’s basically an SF take on border control or customs officials. After an accidentally disastrous first contact event, Earth is very wary of its interactions with alien races (during the first contact, for example, alien-technoviruses were released into the Earth’s eco-system which, though essentially benign, altered life on Earth dramatically). So a location known as “Grey Area” has been set up on Earth, a kind of multi-purpose holding area where alien visitors are processed to make sure nothing else disastrous happens. The ETC are the officers who manage the facility, so their day to day life is dealing with the multifarious problems of visitors, refugees, immigrants, traders etc. The ‘gimmick’ is that often, those problems are hard to define in the first place, because of issues with language, culture, biology etc.
Science fiction has traditionally been able to deal with real-world social or political ideas freer than other genres because of allegory. You’ve mentioned before how ‘Grey Area’ seems a particularly well-suited platform for you to do that. Do you still feel that’s the case?
DA: I think so. It’s primarily a strip that is supposed to entertain and amuse, so quite often there’s been a jokey problem or puzzle of the week, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been able to touch on issues of race, discrimination, immigration, xenophobia, gender politics etc. I’d never want it to be didactic or downright preachy, but the themes are there.
Writing a “2000 AD” strip seems to be a weird mix of long- and micro-form storytelling, even more so than a traditional US monthly series. How did (or do) you make that work for you?
DA: In Grey Area, like most of the 2000AD strips I write, it’s a blend of self-contained episodes, a read and done format, and a larger meta-story. I try to make each episode feel ‘complete – to let you in, introduce you to what’s going on, recap and then tell something, even if it is added to a story that will be bigger when read in its complete state. I think every one of my strips has a ‘meta’ story. In some, like Kingdom, it’s very obvious, in others, like Sinister Dexter and Grey Area, it’s less on the nose. Having said that, the new series of Grey Area has a fairly big and obvious ‘meta’ to it.
Speaking of long-form, how far ahead do you have Bulliet & company’s story planned? Or, should I say ‘Grey Area’ planned, as there’s probably no guarantee one would automatically always include the other…
DA: Grey Area was originally much more hand to mouth, in terms of planning it on the basis of having good ideas for individual ‘cases’ and scenarios. But the God Star storyline, which originated in the story of the vile alien ambassador in the first run, has grown and grown and now is leading the whole strip in a specifics direction. For now, at least. And yes, the strip is about Grey Area rather than the nominal stars like Bulliet. Kinda.Continued below
I’m thrilled to see the strip return, but I was extremely skeptical of it coming back after reading the last installment. Was there ever any thought of actually making that last Prog the actual end of the strip?
DA: Sort of, in as much as I wanted a ‘full stop’ story to finish the big threat and storyline, and form a point at which the strip could at least be rested before I figured out if I wanted to do more, and what I would do with it if I did. Almost immediately, however, I saw a cool and odd direction that the story could take next.
DA: Grey Area was created for Karl – we’d worked on a strip called Lone Wolves for Warhammer 40,000 before that, and he wanted to work with me again. When Karl stepped down, we simply wanted to find artists who could do the realistic human tech and environment, but also amazingly inventive aliens. Mark and I go back a long way to our run on Durham Red and I’ve always loved his work, and his ability to create a great look to things, so I was delighted when he came aboard. He’s doing an amazing job.
I’m curious about how the production cycle works for a weekly comic like “2000 AD”. When did you & Mark start working? Is everything done & locked for this run of stories, or are you still working on them?
DA: In general terms, Tharg likes to have a whole series in the drawer and ready to go before a run begins, just to avoid unforeseen delays and slip-ups. A weekly chews through material very very fast. In practise, the team is usually finishing up on a series run as it begins, because there should be enough breathing space for that to happen. Mark and I have a few episodes of this series still to finish, but we’re well ahead.
I hope you don’t mind if we finish up with a few broader process questions. You have to be one of the most prolific & varied writers working in comics (and prose) today. I know you don’t write everything all at the same time, but the number of genres & approaches you keep coming back to is pretty impressive (from space opera to science fiction to fantasy to superheroes to Edwardian horror and more). Is it difficult shifting between so many different projects at the pace you have to work at, and does that pace make it easier or harder staying focused enough to do each project sufficient justice?
DA: I just write in the way that suits me. I feel that I do my best work if I’m slightly under pressure, so having’ too much’ to do is a great driver. I also really enjoy switching between genres and styles and tones, because that also keeps me fresher. I don’t find it especially difficult, but that’s the way I’m wired and that’s the way I’ve chosen to work.. I’ve sometimes found that when I’ve focused on one thing for a long period, at the exclusion of everything else, I stagnate.
A large part of your comics career has involved collaborating with other writers, either directly in the case of your partnership with Andy Lanning, or working as an editor to other writers at Marvel UK. What’s something you learned from either those collaborations that’s helped you the most in your own writing?
“2000 AD” has always had a way with puns and turns-of-phrase in their titles or cover copy that seems JUST this side of being too much. A ‘Sinister/Dexter’ one in particular (‘In Plain Shite’) always makes me chuckle no matter how many times I see it. You’ve professed to having a pun-centric sense of humor yourself. When you have to come up with those type of double-entendre titles/references, do you have any type of process or barometer for knowing what’ll make it work, or is just completely instinctual?
DA: Puns do make me laugh. Too much, probably. Sinister Dexter is the usual and best place for them, as they work there. The strip, despite moments of seriousness and gravity, is predicated on that kind of fooling around. So I probably go much further with it there than anywhere else. It does crop up in other strips, but more usually – and Kingdom and Grey Area would be good examples of this – when it’s in keeping with the world. For example, the character names in Kingdom are often the most awful or outrageous puns or gags, but that is entirely and reasonably explained in the set up of the world. When I think of a gag or pun that really tickles me, I know it’s usually destined for Sinister Dexter.
Have you had a chance to check out any of the other returning strips?
DA: It’s a great issue. Dredd is always enjoyable, and this story looks very promising, with ever-wonderful art from Henry Flint. Slaine too – artist Simon Davis was my old partner in crime on a long run of Sinister Dexter and it’s a real pleasure to see this work, and to see him handling a very different type of story. Orlock is good fun. I guess my top thrill is Strontium Dog, with John [Wagner] and Carlos [Ezquerra] because it’s Strontium Dog with John and Carlos. A lovely call back to the classic era of 2000AD, packed with nostalgic feeling, but it also stands up superbly well and effortlessly holds its own. And the prog has quite a nice cover too… 🙂
You can find out more about Dan Abnett’s returning ‘Grey Area’ and all the other perfect-for-jumping-on stories in Prog 1924, including the best way to read it no matter where you are, in tomorrow’s Multiver-City One column.