2000 AD Prog 2251 Featured Interviews 

Voyaging to “The Out” with Dan Abnett

By | October 12th, 2021
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

One of the things that we do at Multiversity that not enough sites do is give ample space to the goings on in 2000 AD, the long running British anthology comic. This week’s Prog 2253 sees the fourth chapter of “The Out: Book Two.” The series, written by Dan Abnett (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Aquaman”) and illustrated by Mark Harrison (“Durham Red,” “X-Wing Rogue Squaron”), follows a photographer, Cyd, on a journey of exploration in outer space. The series is an emotional rollercoaster wrapped in a breezy travelogue, with some of the most stunning and impressionistic arc found in comics today.

Abnett was kind enough to make some time on a rainy Monday morning to chat about the series’ origins, his creator process with Harrison, and why he thinks the story is resonating with readers. If you have not yet done so, check out the issues digitally via the 2000 AD online store.

Art from 2000 AD Prog 2188 by Mark Harrison

I want to start by talking about something I noticed last in the first book, which was that it seemed like every chapter recontextualized the story in a major way, when you were plotting it out, did you have the endgame in mind, and you were working towards that end game? Or was it that each week suggested something new, and so you had to adapt your endgame based on what was coming out each chapter?

Dan Abnett: Well, it was sort of halfway between the two because Tharg, let’s call him that, the editor likes to know what he’s getting in advance. And how many episodes its going to be. I always do that, and things like “Brink” and everything else, I plot it out carefully and give him a good idea about what each episode is going to contain, and therefore what the arc will represent, how long the arc is going to be, etc, etc. But “The Out” is unusually fluid in terms of its creativity, because of the nature of the way I work with the artist Mark Harrison. So although it was absolutely plotted out, exactly how we executed the end game was something that we grew organically. So when I knew where I was going, I wasn’t just I would just wasn’t entirely sure exactly how we would do it when we got there because of the way it grows.

So to explain that further: something like “Brink” is a really good example, we have a very tight format, we discuss it a lot as we go along. So there are little tweaks and adjustments that we make to the story as we go, but it is really very carefully plotted out, probably the most carefully plotted thing I do. With “The Out,” Mark is, as you’ve seen, from his artwork, extraordinary. We’ve known each other for a very long time, we’ve worked together many times. He is a constant source of ideas. He will often send me long emails explaining things that he’s thought of which are just great, and we always try to get them in there. So we’ve worked on a number of different things. But comparatively recently, he took over the art responsibilities on “Grey Area,” which has been going for quite a long time. Mark really made it his own; he’d really stamped his imprint on it. We would do the same thing there, go back and forth.

I was talking to him one day, and he said the only thing about working on “Grey Area” that he didn’t like, and it was a minor thing, is that he hadn’t created it in the first place. He said it would be nice to just invent something from the ground up, because everything else we’ve always done has been picking up something else. So I said that’d be great. I said I’m sure Tharg would let us rest “Grey Area” for a while and allow us to do something else in its place, something we can create out of whole cloth together and be co-creators and basically give [Mark] everything he’s ever wanted to draw. In fact, because there are fairly close similarities between the world in “The Out” and the world in “Grey Area,” we almost at one point thought about making a spin off, but we decided to firmly draw the line and make it distinctly different.

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A sample of Chris Foss's artwork

I come back to that we are a similar age, and we both grew up surrounded by the great science fiction paperback covers of the late 60s, the 70s and the 80s. you know, sort of the Chris Foss, people like that amazing artwork, whether it had anything to do with the booking itself or not? Mark said, “I’d like to do something where I get to do that.” And I said, “Well, maybe we let’s make that the point when we should make that the point; almost every episode is another paperback book jacket from an imaginary book of the 1970s come to life in a different way.” So we ended up with this idea, this notion that “The Out” was was a kind of love letter to the art that it inspired us when we were younger, the sort of often incomprehensible things that appeared on jackets just because people were having a great day and being creative. And that was the starting point. So the art is very, very loose. I’ve worked out the storyline, what we’re going to do with the structure is what Cyd is going to do as a character. And then I’ve worked out what each episode; in this episode, she’s going to do this, we introduced this blah, blah, blah, all the basic things. But quite often, I have no idea what the world is that we’re going to set it on.

More often than not, I’ve said, “That’s up to you what you do, you give me a visual, I’ll work the world around it, I can set this story around it.” What do you want to do this week? So he will often say oh, there’s sort of this, you know, mountains and great big walking cities or ice everywhere, or whatever it is. And I go “Okay, that’s the setting.” And I will then work the story through that. So quite often with book one, I wasn’t quite sure, literally quite sure where we were going next. Because he was inventing on the run. It’s a very organic way of doing the story. I think that’s why we get such great art out of him, and possibly why the strip works so well, because we’ve got that basic skeleton of what we’re intending to do. But the meat, the flesh that we put on that evolves with each step we take as as Mark brings his imagination to bear.

It’s interesting you’re wearing a Dungeons and Dragons t-shirt because this to me sounds a lot like plot in a D&D campaign. You know, when you are the DM, you have a basic structure for what you think the game is going to be, but the players can fuck with that and make it something totally different. I’m a musician and so the best collaborations are when you think you know what you want to do, but somebody comes along and challenges you, and you find a new area together. So this sounds like an ideal collaboration.

DA: I would agree with that completely. In fact, in almost everything I do, I think, “right, I’m gonna I’m going to deliver this idea”. But if you can bring it into contact with even just somebody to talk to about it, or an artist or the case of some of the novels I write when I’m talking to other other writers working in the same material, we’ve both got great ideas, both talking away and then something happens that would not happen unless you were having that conversation; some some third thing that is generated simply by that interaction, and that’s that’s where you get the really good things.

And it’s interesting, I happen to be wearing a Dungeons & Dragons t-shirt today; I was an early adopter of role playing games: Dungeon & Dragons, Rune Quest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveler particularly. And weirdly, one of the things going back when I was a kid, basically before I was a professional, I used to read White Dwarf on a regular basis, which was Games Workshop’s house magazine, the in the early days before it became a kind of brochure for what they particularly. In the late 70s, early 80s, Games Workshop was the UK distributor for things like Dungeons & Dragons, so White Dwarf in its early incarnation was a multi-denominational magazine that had articles about all the different games in it, which I loved. And I read it on a regular basis and I was almost always the DM or the referee. So I would do exactly that. I would make stories up on the fly and in fact, I very very seldom crafted stories in detail beforehand because I knew that no plan survives in tact with the enemy and that the players will screw around with it. So I got there. And I wonder whether that’s actually a contributing factor to the reason that I work as much as I do. And I’m as flexible as I am because I’ve got very, very used to that idea.

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And as an ironic coincidence, there was a strip, a one page comic strip in White Dwarf in the early days, called “The Travelers,” which was vaguely based on the Traveler game, but was just a kind of science fiction thing that had full of in jokes, very sort of MAD Magazine style art, full of in jokes, full of what we would now regard as science fiction easter eggs, and that kind of stuff, which I loved. And it was Mark’s first professional work was that strip! And so by the time we got to meet and work together for the first time, I said, “God, you’re the guy who did [“The Travelers”]!” He’d also come from exactly that same tradition, so maybe we’re just good at it; maybe we’re both deploying our role playing gamer habits and techniques that we learned in our early teens that we’re using now to create this story.

A lot of the prog stories are our genre exercises. Now, this is very clearly sci-fi, but there’s such a heart at the center of this. And it’s so refreshing, especially right now that being at the end of the Prog, as you get to the end, and it’s very emotional, even sweet at times. It’s somewhat unusual for the magazine that you find it in. Did you want to tell a story that felt more personal or more emotional? Or was that just, again, a byproduct of the collaboration between yourself and Mark?

Art from 2000 AD Prog 2192 by Mark Harrison

DA:Dare I say it again? Both! Really? There’s two strips that I have pitched in the last few years that that to my surprise, Tharg has accepted, because I was aware pitching both of them that they weren’t really conventional to 2000 AD, and I say that lovingly from the point of somebody who’s read it from Prog one and has contributed for many, many years. It has certain qualities; there is a very distinctive flavor. It’s satirical, it’s wildly imaginative. It’s often very violent. It’s aggressive in its ideas. And every episode should have that content in it, you know, even if it’s part of a multi-part story, and I’ve absolutely observed that in trying to try to observe that in everything I’ve ever done for it. When I pitched “Brink,” I did not think that Tharg would accept it because it was too slow moving and talky; it was a much more sort of thoughtful, conversational thing, where you didn’t get a jolt of action in every episode. So I was delighted when he said yes to it, delighted when he gave us the room to explore it and also delighted when the readership responded to it. With “The Out,” I thought Mark and I had done very action heavy things with with “Grey Area” and “Durham Red,” wouldn’t it be nice to do something where we haven’t got the typical kick ass character, but every episode is about wonder? We could celebrate those science fiction book jackets and appreciate and enjoy the wonder of science fiction without it having to be text all the time.

So we knew we wanted to put a heart in it so we will create this character in Cyd, and she’s just a regular person right? I think what we wanted to do was create a character that is the least likely character you’d expect to find as the lead in 2000 AD strip and once you’ve done that, although we wanted it to be heartfelt. She is scattered, she makes mistakes, she is light hearted. There’s quite a lot of humor in the way she interacts with people. She does things that she knows aren’t necessarily the best thing to do, but she will do them anyway, because she’s a human being. We didn’t want her to…although I think Ripley is a very believable character, we didn’t want her to Ripley her way out of these things and suddenly discovered that secretly, she’s kick ass, and she can build a flamethrower of plastic bottles. No, none of that; she is horrified by it. She is not capable of dealing with this because she’s a regular person. So other things would take place, including her own ingenuity to try and try and avoid having violent conflict and stuff like that. So the nature of it was baked into her as a character once we had to write the beginning.

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When I read the first few chapters, my touchstone for the story was Lost in Translation, the Sofia Coppola/Bill Murray film. In that film, you’re watching somebody from the West go into Tokyo, and you’re seeing what they see, but they don’t really understand everything that’s happening. And so, you fall in love with both the person and the setting because you’re looking at the setting through these eyes that are full of wonder and full of intrigue. And so I have found each of the worlds just very, very charming in that way. Hearing you say that Mark is coming up with some of those as visuals first makes a lot of sense. Is there a setting or a city that you are really waiting to get to get her to this type of area?

DA: It’s interesting, because in the first series, I think, what my only rule was that there should be a lovely contrast between them. I think there’s a two or three episode sequence towards the end of Book One, where the story dictates that she’s gotta stay on the same planet, and I was almost apologetic to Mark and saying, “I’m sorry, we got to stay here a bit longer.”

Art from 2000 AD Prog 2250 by Mark Harrison

There are certain destinations we have in mind for Book Two. She’s now got this little sort of quest where she’s realized that the folks back home are interested in what’s happening to people like her, the ex-pats, the people out there that are human. [The folks back home] got bored of the wonder of the amazing things she’s sending them; they want to see humans in context.

So I’m always intrigued when talking to a writer who has done work in 2000 AD and has done novels, because there’s no more different worlds to write in: a book where you have no limit and then the strict structure of 5 pages in a Prog. And so, when you’re working on this, are the five pages a really nice frame in which to put this story, because you’re forced to move quickly. How different would “The Out” be, if it was a 400 page novel, versus a collection of five page strips?

DA: I honestly think that you’re completely right, it gives it a really nice target area, although I think “The Out” would probably work as a novel. But I think the danger would be that it would get self indulgent. I would go “Oh, this is interesting, I’ll tell you more about it.” I think one of the one of the interesting things is that she’s she’s essentially on a gap year; she’s essentially on holiday, she’s she’s traveling around, she’s got the confidence of the long term tourists, but when she interacts with people, she is competent and friendly and fascinated by them. But nevertheless, she is a visitor. Any of us who’ve ever traveled, you get a kind of hyper real feeling about where you are, no matter where you are, because everything, no matter how much it looks like home, everything is different. And you’re learning and reading and that’s why everybody comes back from holiday with the sense that they have broadened their mind, because everything has been very acute for a moment.

So to do it in those little little episodes with her like that, I think it preserves that sense of it being an acute experience, rather than getting, you know, we could take any one of those worlds and we could have set a whole 10 part episode story in it. And that would have been interesting, but we would have gotten used to the surroundings. In my background in comics in terms of things like working for Marvel and DC. I’ve always been very, very, very willing to be the soldier in the trenches who can fill in when they need an issue. It’s short notice, because something’s run late; here are the ingredients, cook something out of it, we need it tomorrow. And I do that and actually I’ve grown over the years to really love that process of having quite severe limitations, like a five page episode. What’s the best thing I can do in that small container, because it kind of heightens and focuses what you’re up to. And so I don’t think I ever sit down and go “oh, I’ve only got five pages, there’s so much more we could put in,” but I always go in asking what story do I need to add in? What’s the really great moment that I can think of that needs to happen here? I think that’s great because it really really focuses it down, distills it into a great little episode.

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This makes it feel like postcards; when you get a postcard for someone on vacation, they don’t have time to tell you, “I had some really bad sushi one night,” all you see is where they are and get the most important information.

DA:I hadn’t really thought about it that way but that’s perfect.

This is a strip that is now in its second book, and I really hope that you guys have a lot planned for it going down the road, but for folks that haven’t read it yet, is there something that you want people to know about this trip in order to give it a chance?

DA: First of all, we have got long term plans. We’ve got a definite goal in mind in terms of what we’re doing at the moment, but just because the reaction has been so positive, we suddenly, quite recently, went “oh, we could do that too.” The idea of the sort of, slightly maverick traveler just walking through the universe and having experiences and being quite human in the middle of it. But it’s a story about wonder, it’s a story celebrating wonder from a human perspective. It’s also a story celebrating humaneness from that kind of vacation, but also a vacation in which you start to discover more about yourself. I think that very personal story, considering we’ve got the galaxy at our disposal, potentially we can do anything we want. I think the interesting thing is the real frame of reference is the viewfinder of the camera and her learning who she is and what she’s left behind. She’s been enjoying wandering around or seeing the wonders of the universe, sort of like being on board the Enterprise without being on board the Enterprise, you know, that voyage of self discovery. She’s out so far that she doesn’t know where Earth is anymore,and the idea that you can go so far from home that it’s almost impossible to find your way back. So you just keep moving forward. I think that there’s a strangely sort of New Age positive message in that.

It was a weird coincidence that the book debuted around about the time that the pandemic began, and we were actually all penned at home. And so anything like 2000 AD, is obviously great escapism for people; people coud go out and visit alien worlds from the comfort of their own home. But when we finished the first one, and I said to Tharg, “do you want us to do another one, or do you want us to switch back to “Grey Area” and do a series of that?” He said, “No, do some more of this. People want this now because it’s literally about going out.” It was the right thing at the right time, I suppose.

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).