So far in British Comics Month we’ve looked at new works and we have looked at classic titles. Today we combine the new with the classic as we join top comics scribes Leah Moore and John Reppion to discuss their latest work, Albion. In some ways Albion itself is almost a microcosm of what we have been celebrating here the last few weeks: we have top established Brit talent from the man widely regarded as the best writer in comics, Alan Moore, plotting out the series, while we have exciting, fresh talent writing Albion in the form of John and Leah.
The story itself involves classic British comics characters such as Robot Archie and yet it is no mere nostalgia trip, neither is it a reboot of an old strip; instead it manages to incorporate elements of old and new while drawing in elements from current events to create something quite brilliant. Albion is almost a contradiction; it has respectful nostalgia for past British characters and yet it is a very contemporary tale (not an easy trick to pull off). Like the revamped Doctor Who it will appeal to the new fan and those who remember the original characters as well.
Despite featuring British comics characters who many under the age of 30 will know little of and American readers may never have heard of, it has managed to garner excellent critical and fan responses on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield). How do you get people to read a series based around characters they may never have heard of? Imagination and damned good writing and art – that’s how you do it, that’s what readers respond to more than almost anything else. The sixth and final issue of the Albion mini-series is due in August while the trade paperback collection should arrive in October. Ladies, gentlemen and meta-humans, I’m delighted to present you with Leah Moore and John Reppion:
FPI: Thanks for taking some time out to chat to us about Albion. I remember being quite excited on hearing about this project when my friend Pádraig posted news of it on The Alien Online last year, along with the convoluted legal problems on character ownership. Is it true one of the spurs to getting the project started was because Shane Oakley was already interested in working with these characters again? How did you both become involved?
LM: Yes Shane was the main instigator of the whole project as far as the creative team goes. We understand that Bob Wayne at DC and Andrew Sumner of IPC magazines were already talking about possibilities, at the same time as Shane was talking to Dad about the characters. Shane has such a passion for the comics and the characters. He really got us all excited about it from the start. We certainly wouldn’t have been able put so much into it if he hadn’t given it such a lot of momentum at the outset. We got involved simply because Dad was winding up his comic writing, fulfilling all his obligations at ABC etc, and he still wanted Shane to be able to have a crack at the characters. He figured that if he plotted it and we scripted it then it would be the best for everyone.
FPI: I remember some of these characters from my childhood, although I suspect some of those were reprints in 70s annuals and the like. Were you familiar with them yourselves or did you have to do a bit of research?
LM: We were both familiar with the humour characters that had kept going into the early eighties. The Buster and the Beezer and Whizzer and Chips and Cor! and all that were still about, so we knew the ones that were in those comics. The adventure stories like Janus Stark, The Spider and The Steel Claw were a bit before our time, but Shane bombarded us with old comics, masses of photocopies and emails about the various characters. We also found an invaluable resource in the International Hero site which catalogues comic characters from all over the world fairly exhaustively. We could go on and find out someone’s nemesis quick as a flash, which is what you need for Albion.
JR: I had a small, tattered collection of old comics like Valiant and Vulcan that I’d bought for pennies from a market stall when I was a kid so I had a kind of peripheral awareness of some of strips like Kelly’s Eye and Mytek the Mighty. Unfortunately, I flogged the lot of them on eBay only about a month before the whole idea of us doing Albion came up; “What use could these knackered old British comics possibly be to me?” I believe the expression is “Doh!”
FPI: Were the characters, like Robot Archie (I still have memories of the 80s ‘acid’ Archie), the ones you wanted to work with, or were there others who either couldn’t be used for copyright reasons, or simply because they didn’t fit the plot?
LM: They were the ones that Dad and Shane were most familiar with, and so they got plotted in at the outset. The ones we remembered were often not owned by IPC or were still in Buster quite late on which meant we couldn’t use them. The plot is quite elastic, so we can pretty much throw in who we want within reason, and also Shane has been quite busy filling the backgrounds with people who might in a certain light be a character you remember well. We wanted Albion to give the feeling that it involves a lot more people and characters than we actually have in speaking roles.
JR: It was all a bit up in the air to start with and we ended up having to re-write issue one several times in order to make the whole thing copyright safe. There are a couple of characters who we ended up leaving out all together in the end but mostly we managed to cram stuff in one way or another.
FPI: Many comics readers will be too young to remember much of these character’s exploits, while most American readers have probably never come across them before. Was this a big worry for you as you scripted the story and were you concerned this lack of knowledge might make it more difficult for readers to understand what was going on, who was who and to empathise with characters? Or did you see the two young protagonists as a key to introduce readers to what was happening and who these people were?
LM: We thought the obscure characters might annoy some readers, but really excite others. When I was little I used to read Dads Mad comics, which were full of American pop culture references that I as a seven year old British girl had no hope of ‘getting’. They’d have movie stars and politicians and beatnik poets and musicians and famous writers and I still found the stories funny, I still wanted to read more. Most importantly, I found it almost intoxicating to know there was this whole wealth of really cool stuff I could get to know about, and then I’d know exactly why it was funny. If Albion gives American readers or younger readers that feeling then we’ll have done our job. If people are annoyed about Albion, then there’s a whole world of more familiar comic characters out there for them to continue reading.
JR: Danny is very much the everyman character through whom the reader learns about what’s going on in the series and I think that works pretty well throughout; he voices the reader’s own doubts but, as he begins to trust and believe Penny and Charlie, so do they.
We didn’t write Albion with the idea of excluding people who weren’t familiar with the original comics or to just appeal to an elite minority; we tried to do it so that even if we weren’t using pre-existing characters the whole thing would still make sense. I suppose the whole “re-launch” thing is kind of a double edged sword and you’re bound to get people saying that they find certain aspects of it frustrating but you can’t please everyone can you?
FPI: I thought treating the vanished superheroes as real was a nice move – in some ways it pre-empts Marvel’s current Civil War and hero registration act – but since Alan and Dave had treated superheroes as ‘real’ in Watchmen were you worried about comparisons? Or was it more a case of knowing some people may make these comparisons regardless, so you may as well just get on with telling the story you want and let it stand for itself?
LM: Well I suppose we are treating them as real but not in the same way as Dad and Dave did in Watchmen. Watchmen was about the idea that people in power and people we look up to are often corrupt or evil. Heroes and villains and how fine the line between them is, what a mask means and what violence means. Comparisons between our work and Dad’s are going to be made, so we try not to worry about it too much.
Albion is more about the decline of British comics. Why don’t the British people read these anymore? What has have happened to the wealth of talent and ideas? We tried to weave the real reason into the fantastical story. We wanted the artists and writers of the comics to be present in the story, we wanted the characters to be sent comp issues too. If the characters felt real to us when we first read them, then why assume we were wrong?
FPI: The secret Scottish prison was a nice touch, as was the American visitor and his obviously different take on matters. Was there a conscious decision to create parallels between these events and the real world of being held without trial, rendition, Guantanamo and the general you’re with us or against us mentality or it is more a case of being influenced by such current events and finding they just naturally find their way into your work?
LM: The series was obviously going to provide opportunities to have a dig at modern life. You can’t make a nostalgic work like Albion without in some way saying that things were better in the old days. What we are trying to do with the prison and the political undertones is say that the British sensibility from those times has been imprisoned too. The anarchic silliness and weirdness of the comics was just part of the way we saw the world back then. Sadly we’ve lost that, along with some of our civil liberties.
JR: Of course, it was the proliferation of American comics that ultimately killed the once thriving UK comics industry (or at least put an end to books like Vulcan, Hotspur, etc) and so Nolan’s presence in Albion kind of represents that too. Here he is, this cynical old yank, forced into this wacky English world of oddballs and freaks and he doesn’t like it. He wants to change it into something more palatable; more safe.
FPI: Was the remote Scottish castle prison for supervillains and heroes also a bit of a nod to the (in)famous Arkham Asylum?
LM: Its just too cool a thing…imagine everyone all locked up together…imagine what it’d be like if something went wrong. Arkham asylum is such a gem of an idea it’d be mad not to nod wildly at it.
JR: If Norman Stanley Fletcher had been doing porridge in Arkham Asylum that would have been pretty close to the prison in Albion I suppose (now there’s an image! – Joe).
FPI: Leah and John, you scripted Albion, but Alan was involved in a plotting capacity; how did you find plot and character development worked out between you? You’re obviously used to working together already, but with such a large cast did any of you have a particular attachment to certain characters and would this help or hinder the process?
LM: None of us were really responsible for certain characters, Dad made sure the story moved along at the right pace and made sure the events happened in the right places. We found characterisation happened as we went along. We didn’t know what a weirdo Penny was until we’d written quite a few scenes with her. We didn’t realise how dry Eagleton’s sense of humour was until he’d been in a few scenes. Shane was our reality check. He has the biggest attachment to the characters so we’d find out if we made them do stuff that was too far out, or too upsetting to the fans.
JR: Alan’s plotting of the series had only very basic characterisation in it to begin with but as the series moved on we all got to know more about how each character would react to certain situations. Because there are so many different characters in the series and so much going on a lot of the character development just kind of happened organically; we just sort of knew what would be right.
FPI: We’re still waiting for the grand finale to Albion this summer; obviously you can’t give away the ending, but as a major event with Captain Hurricane looms are there any hints you can tantalise us with?
LM: Look forward to a ‘Raging Fury’, some revolting romance and several different flavours of comeuppance.
FPI: Again you don’t want to give anything away before the sixth issue comes out, but without mentioning who is still standing at the end of issue six, is there any likelihood of future tales spinning off from Albion and would you like to be involved if there are?
LM: Well Dave Gibbons has been doing a brilliant job with Thunderbolt Jaxon, and Issue one of Battler Briton is already out, so I think the Albion idea has legs enough to get a few old characters back out there. We’ve submitted a few proposals of our own, but until we know how the trade sells we won’t know whether they want us to do more. It’s the normal thing for comics, wait till the last minute to see if there’s any point in doing something and then do it really quick before the buyer loses interest.
JR: We’ve got tonnes of ideas for stuff we’d love to do with the characters but so, I suspect, have a lot of other people.
FPI: What’s next for you both? I believe you have a hand in the Dark Horse Book of Monsters this winter?
JR: Yeah, and we were lucky enough to get Timothy Green (Swamp Thing) as our artist too. Being asked to write something for the book and share shelf space with people like Jill Thompson and Mike Mignola is an absolute honour.
LM: We’re really pleased with being asked to contribute to it. Dark Horse really set the standard for the industry in terms of the different styles of writing, of artwork, of interesting ideas, and production values.
JR: At the moment we’re about halfway through scripting our first mini series for Dynamite Entertainment, the first issue of which should be out before the end of the year. That’s coming on nicely but there’s a few different people involved so we have to keep waiting for approvals and doing minor re-writes and stuff. Luckily, Albion has got us used to all that type of thing already. As well as that, we’ve got an 11 page story in Th3rd World Studios flagship “Space Doubles” series which should hit the stands in the next few months.
LM: I also have a secret surprise project that will be available in November. Shh.
FPI: Oohhh! Now most intrigued! What books and/or comics are you reading at the moment? Assuming you get a chance to read many!
LM: We don’t get much chance to be honest, but I always get my paws on “Strangehaven” when I’m at conventions, I really enjoyed reading “Freakshow” after the con in Dublin in March and I loved “Malcolm Magic” which we got hold of at Bristol, the artwork is amazing!
JR: Our good mate Dwight MacPherson, who wrote “Dead Men Tell No Tales” for Arcana, recently sent us a PDF preview version of the first issue of his “Abra Cadaver” series which looks amazing; can’t wait to get a hold of it. I still haven’t read issue five of Thunderbolt Jaxon either which I’m really looking forward to.
FPI: Not everyone reading this will be an out and out comics geek – care to offer any recommendations for titles which would be good to start with for people who don’t read many comics?
LM: If you don’t read many comics then get “Blankets” by Craig Thompson (gorgeous book – Joe) (Top Shelf), any Hernandez Bros “Love and Rockets” collection, although “Heartbreak Soup” is my personal favourite (Fantagraphics), and anything by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics). If you fail to like at least one of those three then your brain must be on the blink.
JR: I’m going to sound like a broken record here but I think that “Strangehaven” is a comic with real mass appeal; it’s “The Prisoner”, it’s “Emmerdale”, it’s an old BBC Christmas ghost story, it’s “Twin Peaks”, it’s just brilliant (totally agree, one of my favourites too – Joe).
FPI: Leah Moore and John Reppion, thank you very much for talking to us – we’re looking forward to your next work already.