Stalwarts of 2000 AD, Ian Edginton and D'Israeli have returned with their latest Steampunk outing, Helium, now being released in the coming Prog publications from Rebellion. Sit down with Interviews Editor, Andrew Irvin, for a closer look at their current title.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Ian, D’Israeli - thanks for joining us in the Yeti Cave! How are things going over in the U.K.?
IAN EDGINTON: They’re going well, thank you for asking! It’s a beautiful autumnal morning. The leaves on the trees outside are turning yellow, and orange and an amazing russet red. The cat is asleep on my desk next to me. All in all, I can’t complain.
D’ISRAELI: I’ve recently been adopted by a lunatic Bengal cat, so all’s good with me too!
CBY: Glad to hear it! Now, Helium represents the latest ongoing title in a decades-long collaboration between you two. I think the only person I’ve interviewed who has a longer running creative partnership is Mark Evanier in his work with Sergio Aragones on Groo, so I’m curious - how did you two meet, begin working together, and how have you cultivated and maintained such a successful working relationship over the years?
IE: Imagine if you will a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, the shops closed on Wednesday afternoons and there were only four TV channels! I was attending a local comic convention in Birmingham where I got talking to Don Melia and Lionel Gracey-Whitman who’d been putting together a couple of, I suppose you’d call them indie publications. There was BLAMM which was a free A3 news sheet sized comic (I think they ran Neil Gaiman’s first
comic story?) and Heartbreak Hotel, a monthly comic art magazine. I wrote a story for BLAMM and they then wanted me to write something for Heartbreak Hotel and paired me with Matt as my artist.
Sadly HH folded before our story saw print (although it did find a new home later on) but Matt and I enjoyed working together and so decided to put something more substantial together which eventually evolved into our first major series, Kingdom of the Wicked.
D: We just seemed to naturally click… Ian and I are of the same age, with a lot of the same enthusiasms (old TV series, weird movies, science) so that helps. We’ll talk on the phone about once every three weeks, and it’s always ten minutes of business followed by an hour of Dr Who and Star Trek…
IE: I think we get along because we share a similar mentality and mind set. We’re both around the same age, read and watched a lot of the same stuff, were only children raised by our mums. Having a like mind, shared interests and life experiences goes a long way to informing a relationship with an artist. We talk quite often about anything and everything (usually books, telly and cats) and I’ll usually test ideas on Matt to gauge his opinion. He’ll make suggestions and we’ll bounce ideas around until we have something that we’re both happy with.
I like to give him plenty of juicy stuff to draw, for example with Helium I hooked him in with talk of giant airships flying over a toxic cloud known as The Poison Belt that has engulfed most of the Earth, with mutants and monsters lurking below the surface. Or with Leviathan which was about a giant ocean liner, a mile long and half a mile high that leaves 1930s Liverpool bound for New York, thirty years later it still hasn’t arrived. We kick off with the high concept then in-fill the details between us. Basically we’re a couple of creaky, grumbly old blokes sitting on a park bench and talking about spaceships.
CBY: I'm glad to have friendships like yours to aspire to! You’ve both found the late Victorian proto-science fiction material of H.G. Wells to be fertile ground to build upon, and have contributed significantly to the Steampunk canon. I think my introduction to the genre came with 2001’s Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and I watched it balloon quickly as a sub-genre of sci-fi/fantasy. As early proponents of the field who’ve drawn directly from the late-19th century source material, can you both share your perspectives on how the whole Steampunk community and media landscape has evolved over the 21st century?
D: I kind of live in a little attic scribbling away, so I’m not a good person to ask… the main difference I’ve noticed in the twenty-odd years since the first Scarlet Traces is that these days most people know what you mean when you say “steampunk.”
IE: In a word… no. I’ve read some Steampunk works, most of it from before the term was even coined, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, Michael Moorcock, Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter, but I’m not immersed in the genre.
I’ve not purposefully written anything to be deliberately Steampunk. I‘ve just come up with a story I’ve liked and gone with it. Scarlet Traces - which I think most people identify myself and Matt with - was an idea I had when I was teenager. I was ill with Glandular Fever for almost a year and to pass the time read everything I could lay my hands on. There was lots of Conan Doyle, M.R. James, Jules Verne, etc., and of course H.G. Wells. After finishing The War of the Worlds, I thought, ‘What happened to all the Martian technology that was left behind?’and that became the core of Scarlet Traces years later.
The same with Helium, I had the thought, ‘What would have happened if the first World War never stopped?’ The Steampunk/Dieselpunk trappings are there to facilitate the story but they’re not the reason for it. The same’s true of Leviathan as well. Despite the ‘set dressing’ they’re commentaries on empire, class, race and prejudice.
This is going to sound a little contentious but Steampunk has become Disneyified in a way. Pop on a top hat, brass goggles and a corset and you’re Steampunk and there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong in having fun with it. However, if you dig a little deeper, go looking for context behind the pseudo-Victorian trappings then things get rather dark. There’s empire, colonialism, exploitation and oppression. Even The War of the Worlds itself was a meditation on empire, that the seemingly unassailable Great Britain could be conquered by an even mightier empire just as it had done to the other nations on Earth.
CBY: No, I don't think it's contentious to distinguish between the superficial elements of Steampunk being adopted without examining the thematic aspects. D’Israeli, the art style you’ve employed throughout Helium is incredibly bold, with a rather heavy line weight and distinctly vibrant colors. Can you both tell our readers about the conversations involved in determining the stylistic approach to the illustrations? What have you intentionally changed to distinguish this project from previous collaborations, and what elements of your process remain the same?
D: Well, the visual style is mostly left to me - Ian, for some reason, trusts me to follow my judgement, despite the enormous shock he must have got when he saw the first series of Stickleback! The heavier line weight on the Helium series was actually a technical accident - I work digitally, and I’d just bought a new Cintiq tablet as I was starting the series. The heavier line weight was mostly due to me not getting the pressure calibration sorted on the new device! I decided I liked the effect and went with it, especially as I’d decided to try and simplify my drawing a bit for the first series. Helium is the only strip where Tharg-in-Residence Matt Smith rejected a page because it looked too crude - you’ll notice that towards the end the line weights become a bit more refined, that’s me starting to fiddle with the settings after that episode.
IE: As we were putting the story together I’d tell Matt the kind of look and feel I’m after - but they’re only ever suggestions, I will always defer to Matt’s genius! I’d send him reference material for airships, weird looking plants, buildings and so on but the final look was always down to Matt. We did agree that anything seen below the Poison Belt, plants and animals and so on, would have high coloured, almost psychedelic hue since you were seeing it filtered through the toxic gas itself. Anything above the Poison Belt would be up in the clean air so would be crisp and sharp. Bright light and blue skies, like something from a Miyazaki movie.
CBY: Ah, yes - we can talk more about Miyazaki momentarily. The lethality of the fugue poison belt in Helium immediately evoked in me a comparison to the proposals for colonization of the habitable altitudes of the atmosphere of Venus. If anything went wrong, it would consequently go horribly, irreconcilably wrong, and I find that conceptual scale of omnipresent threat incredibly terrifying. It’s also not the only threat to your protagonists, so can you both share a bit about what goes into developing conflict in your stories? What fears do you both choose to explore and exploit? How do you know when you’ve achieved the resonance you desire out of concepts when you’re working out your plots and imagery?
IE: The Poison Belt, or the fugue, is an all pervasive threat. It’s like being in deep space or out at sea. If you’re careless or stupid, you’ll die. It’s an environment that doesn’t care about your story and I think that’s what make it more terrifying. There’s a Lovecraftian feel to it in that there’s an indifference to it, you are insignificant. It’ll swallow you whole and they’ll be nothing left to mark your passing. It’s then against this background that our heroes and villains are playing out their stories.
Our protagonist Foundling Hodge is an orphan (hence her name) but she isn’t interested in finding out about her past, she likes the fairly mundane life that she has, she’s content there. However when her past comes looking for her she’s obliged to deal with it for the sake of those around her who will get hurt if she doesn’t. On equal par with her, perhaps more so, is Professor Pontius Bloom. He has a Robert Oppenheimer thing going on, in that he’s created a device that could benefit humanity but using it comes at a terrible cost. The idea then is to take these characters and work them through these looming life events and eventually set them down in a place where they can get on with their lives albeit not in the way they’d imagined.
D: In my case, what I wanted to get across was the idea of humanity being left high and dry in fairly hostile terrain (mountaintops) by the fugue. So I used a lot of design cues from marginal, low-resource communities, mostly Scottish fishing villages; thick stone walls to protect from cold and fugue, thick woollen clothing, family-based patterns on the pullovers so any remains pulled out of the fugue could be identified. In the first episode of series one in particular, I tried to put in lots of hints that we were in a very marginal environment, such as tiny vegetable patches in odd spaces by the road, hinting that every nook and cranny has to be turned over to food production. Even the window ledges in the classrooms are used for growing herbs.
I also find colour very powerful in setting both tone and location. So the daylight scenes in the village are all slightly blue-tinted to suggest a cold, high-altitiude environment; the settings under the fugue get a wildly artificial purple/green treatment to signal a complete change of environment.
CBY: I very much think the rationale you've used comes through with a clear depiction of a distinct culture. Without giving anything away for those who have yet to read it, you mentioned Miyazaki earlier, and I saw some parallels in some of the poison belt mechanics and imagery with Studio Ghibli’s plot and characters in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, in particular. I don’t want to make specious connections, so can you relate for our readers some of your core influences in developing Helium, both from a narrative and a visual standpoint?
D: Well, Miyazaki does cast a long shadow! Though in the case of Helium, the mining community from Laputa (based on the Welsh mining villages) would probably be a better model for what I was trying to do - make a realistically-grounded fantasy setting.
Something it took me a long time to realise is that there are no new ideas under the sun - in fact, the safest way to avoid plagiarism is to knowingly borrow existing concepts and recombine them in your own way.
One thing that permeates my work is a love of environments - I never got over reading the works of Moebius as a teenager, that amazing sense of his that you could peer round the edge of the panels and see more stuff! There’s one panel from L’Incal Noir that has always stuck with me - John DiFool’s sitting on a tram, and in the foreground there’s an ordinary-looking young woman just leaning on her boyfriend’s shoulder. There’s something just so quotidian about it, so right and convincing - it taught me that details like that lend weight to a fantasy setting. Aside from Moebius, you see that in the work of other favourites of mine, like Geof Darrow and Arno.
So when we started Helium, what I actually dug into were memories of my own childhood in the north of England - that sense of cold, of solid, stone architecture, pragmatic working class lives lived within memory of absolute, biting poverty. You can see it best in the market scene from Series 1, Part 3 - the steep hills, the men in their flat caps, the women in headscarves, the municipal architecture (I borrowed Nottingham railway station for the town hall).
Of course, this all sounds very grand, but once you get down to it, half the panels you draw are a balance between fitting in the action and leaving space for all the dialogue, and then you fit what you can into the backgrounds.
IE: Visually yes, there is a link with several Miyazaki films of which Matt and I are huge fans. The scenes below the Poison Belt do have a feel of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind while those above touch on Laputa: Castle in the Sky. That being said, they are only a small part of the influences that feed into our work. For example there’s the amazing silhouette animation, The Mysterious Geography of Jasper Morello, which is a world full of iron airships and then there’s the Hammer film, The Lost Continent, where a ship is marooned in a strange environment of mutants, monsters and killer plants.
We also lean heavily into classic pulp and adventure fiction themes too. We draw on various influences but not so much as they dictate the plot. The idea is to tell a ripping yarn with plenty of spectacle.
CBY: You’ve both done some work with various other publishers over the years (like Dark Horse) but you’ve clearly found a home for the bulk of your work with 2000 AD. What makes the working relationship with Rebellion unique, and what sort of creative opportunities do they avail you that keeps you coming back with successive titles instead of shopping around and taking your books elsewhere?
IE: The key to working for Rebellion is that they are amenable to looking at a wide variety of ideas so long as it’s fundamentally a good story. Working for them, I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, pirate and western tales, mecha and kaiju stories and all points in between. Editor Matt Smith is a man of few words but what he does say is to the point and his feedback is spot on. He will turn around a series pitch in a week, sometimes a few days and in a couple of cases the same day. You’ll either get a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or a ‘yes’ with accompanying notes. After that you just get on with it.
With some other publishers getting a pitch in front of an editor, getting it approved (or not) can take months and that’s just the start of the process.
A series in 2000AD usually runs 10-12 episodes at five pages per episode which means that you have to keep the storytelling pretty tight. That said, a story can run to several series giving you more room in the long run to tell your tale.
D: They they trust you to go off and do your thing. I’ve never had such a long leash in terms of setting visual style as Rebellion have given me, but at the same time, I can always trust Tharg-in-residence Matt Smith to give me reliable feedback if I need it.
CBY: That's awesome to hear - the 2000 AD/Rebellion model seems really distinct within the industry, and it's great to see all the variety it brings to the market. With one volume of Helium collected, and a few additional installments published in the recent Prog anthologies of 2000 AD, what does the timeline for completion of the Helium story arc look like? Do you have the total run blocked out, and are you finding other aspects of the story may require separate digressions into other titles or side-stories after concluding the current plotline centered around Constable Hodge?
IE: I have all of Helium blocked out. I always like to know the starting point and end point - how I get there though may deviate along the way. I plot out the entire story but it’s not written in stone. Things tend to take unexpected turns along the way and that’s when they get interesting. For example in something else I’m working on, I have a character who was little more than a walk on part but as I was writing him it was clear that there was much more to him and so now he’s become a cast regular. I always thought that it was a writer’s affectation when they’d say that certain characters take on lives of their own, but it’s true!
CBY: There’s a fundamental fantasy element to steampunk, in that there’s an alternate set of physics and unconventional set of scientific laws governing how society functions (i.e. - cargo airships carrying mass in excess of aerodynamic/aerostatic lift as we understand it). How fast and loose do you like to play with the design to meet the needs of the plot, or how tightly do you try to govern the internal rules/physical laws of your narrative worlds?
D: From the visual design point of view, it’s really all about looking cool, with a touch of whimsy. For example, the Cinder Horse - the big freighter that appears in the series prologue - is designed to look ship-like, which means balancing a couple of thousand tonnes of cargo on top of a lift bag. There’s no way in hell that could ever balance - it would flip over before it was even fully loaded. The trick is to try and make the design elements look plausible, so that the design looks convincing enough, so long as you don’t think about the actual practicalities too hard.
IE: Oh, the law of physics go well and truly out the window. I try not to stretch credulity too far but I also don’t let it get in the way of telling a fun story. It’s not War and Peace.
CBY: So beyond the influences on your work and other inspirations we’ve discussed thus far, what other media is catching your attention these days in terms of other comics, film, music, literature, art, etc.? What should our readers make sure they check out once they’ve picked up Helium?
D: I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick, so I’ve been reading the reprints of The Trigan Empire from the 1960’s, which contains some eye-wateringly beautiful art by Don Lawrence, as well as some masterful world-building. The drawback is the now-stilted storytelling style, and the heavy doses of imperialism (though kind of hilariously, because the only plotline the writer can think of is “Emperor Trigo gets overthrown, then exiled, where he finds allies and gets his throne back”, the whole series is actually a primer on how unstable absolute monarchy is as a form of government!).
I’ve also been enjoying Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix on Netflix - I’m only part way through it so far, but I like the cynical tone, the LGBTQ inclusivity, and the clever interspersing of mock-gameplay with the regular storytelling.
IE: Matt and I are working on a Scarlet Traces prequel that should be out next year. We’re also putting together a brand new series that will be something of a departure for us, not an airship or Martian in sight! We can’t wait to get started on it!
There’s also the final series of Kingmaker with Leigh Gallagher and Fiends of the Western Front: Wilde West with Tiernan Trevallion which features vampires and Oscar Wilde in the old west. I have a few more things in the works but I can’t say much more at the moment!
CBY: Thank you both for the recommendations and for joining us today. I hope our readers gain as much from this as I did!