Dan Abnett is one of those remarkably busy writers who seems able to flit between crafting tales from established series and characters, in prose or comics form, as effectively as he is making his own unique stories and characters up from whole cloth, frequently throwing a good curve ball so the narrative takes a left turn you didn’t see coming, creating fan-favourite work for the Black Library, Marvel, DC, 2000 AD and more. His and Ian Culbard’s current New Deadwardians (for DC) has been impressing the blog crew in recent weeks and his Sinister Dexter is a perennial favourite. That man Matt Badham has been chatting to Dan about his work, inspirations and career, and we’re delighted to present the first part today (stay tuned for part two tomorrow); over to Matt and Dan:
Dan Abnett is a prolific writer of genre fiction often working in shared universe settings, such as Doctor Who and Warhammer. In this first part of a two-part interview for the Forbidden Planet International blog, he talks with Matt Badham about getting started as a writer and Sinister Dexter, his long-running comic strip for 2000 AD. NB: This interview was conducted by email.
Matt Badham: What’s your educational background?
Dan Abnett: I went to Grammar School in Maidstone, and then University.
MB: I seem to remember reading you were at Oxford?
DA: Yes. St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
MB: And what was your degree?
DA: English Language and Literature. The ‘Language’ part of that probably explains why so much quasi-Anglo Saxon masquerades as alien languages in my novels. My Anglo Saxon tutor was the world expert, wrote the definitive text book. Sadly, he died a few years ago. He was an Australian called Bruce, which seems unlikely for an Old English specialist, and he’d also taught it to Terry Jones back when Terry Jones was reading the same course at the same college. Allegedly, our Bruce was the origin of the Monty Python ‘Bruce’ sketch.
MB: Did your love of language come from studying English or did you study English because of a love of language?
DA: Can it not be both? I had always thought I’d go to art college. Art was the other big subject for me, and my parents were both art teachers (and are both artists). Somewhere along the line, my English teacher pointed out that while I was good at art, I really ought to consider pursuing English. I used to write and draw my own comics as a kid, and favouring the English/writing side made sense: by my teens, I couldn’t draw the comics fast enough to keep up with the stories :)
MB: In what ways has studying English to that level helped/hindered you as a writer?
DA: I honestly can’t imagine how it might have hindered me. Plus, I learned me how two right proper, and spel fings.
MB: In terms of the study of literature as opposed to language: how did that benefit your writing?
DA: I think the more you learn about other writers and how they work, and what it is they do, and how it worked in the circumstances of their era, the more it helps. It’s also been very handy for referencing outside my chosen field, and for doing a passable imitation of various styles and periods from time to time.
MB: And who are the writers whose influence you can see in your work?
DA: In my work? Bradbury, Lovecraft, Buchan, Jack Vance… I’m sure there are very many I don’t even notice. Every now and then I’ll read an old favourite after many years and go, ‘Gah! I so imitate that without realising it!’
(artwork from the popular Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novel by Dan for The Black Library)
MB: How did you end up in comics?
DA: I used to write and draw my own comics as a kid, as I think I said, and then did some drawings and cartoons at uni when I worked on the college magazine. Someone suggested I should get a job in comics. I had not previously thought about this being something you could ‘get’ a job ‘in’. I was going to be a teacher. I’d have been very happy doing that. I wrote to Marvel in London on the off-chance, thinking it might be interesting to see what sort of reply I got, and was offered a chance to visit. I hadn’t realised that they were, at the time, advertising for two editorial trainees, and therefore assumed I was applying for one of the positions. I went along, discovered it was an interview, and got the job. A happy accident for me.
MB: You’ve edited comics. Did that help you when you became a writer? And how did it help, if it did?
DA: Yes, I think it did. Back in the very early days at Marvel UK, when most of the work was on junior and nursery licensed comics, the editorial staff were actively encouraged to write at least some stories so that we could better understand the dynamics and requirements of the license, and of general storytelling. I think it was immensely useful. My editorial experiences have certainly stood me in very good stead, both in the macro sense of understanding how IPs (intellectual properties) and licenses work, and how to tackle working on them. But also on the micro level of learning and understanding the nuances of panel-to-panel storytelling.
MB: What was your worst experience as an editor? (I’m not asking you to name names, of course) Conversely, what was your best? And what makes a good comics editor?
DA: I did have one very bad experience, editorially, but I’m afraid that’s not for sharing. Even that experience was useful, though. I learned a lot from it. Like how shitty things could be sometimes, and who never to hire again ;) My best experience was undoubtedly at Marvel UK – that was a great place to work, at a great time. What makes a good editor? Patience, sympathy, attention to detail… but strength to know what is wanted or needed, to ask for it, and to keep pushing until it’s there. The best editors I’ve ever worked for have been smart, hard working, and firm but fair. They’ve known exactly what they’ve wanted, and been happy to express admiration when expectations have been exceeded.
MB: How important has 2000 AD been to you, both as a writer and a reader?
DA: Very. As a reader, it hugely influenced both the way I thought about comics and the way I thought about SF. I think I was exactly the right age for it. As a writer, it’s given me a mainstream platform to create some very individual and idiosyncratic stories – I’m thinking especially of Sinister Dexter, Kingdom and Grey Area – plus a chance to work on classic parts of the 2K cannon, such as Dredd (in Insurrection) and Strontium Dog (In the Durham Red books), and The V.C.s (In… The V.C.s). The V.C.s was always my fave strip as a reader.
(cover to the Dredd universe-set Insurrection by Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil, published Rebellion; reviewed here on the blog)
MB: You’ve been writing Sinister Dexter since 1996. What particular writing lessons has that strip taught you?
DA: That the short form (5 pages) is the most liberating, yet the long form (16 years, running like a violent soap opera) is the most majestic. SinDex is a very personal strip, in as much as it’s the most fun thing I do. Liberating. Totally stupid, most of the time. It’s just a place to air the daftest gags and puns that fill my head, all cunningly disguised with stuff like stories, character and plot. After 16 years, the characters are real people to me. I actually love and respect soap operas, and I think there is something quite sublime about the way the longevity of a long-running series or drama builds a historical continuity with a sense of weight, of a real life. Any individual episode of SinDex, like any individual episode of Corrie or The Archers, is supposed to be fun and disposable, but collectively, they carry enough dramatic mass to create a far less disposable effect.
MB: I wondered why there were never any Sinister Dexter books under the Black Flame imprint the Black Library produced. Any thoughts on that? Do you think your ‘dynamic duo’ would suit prose and would you like to see that happen one day?
DA: I was going to write one. It was all planned and outlined, ready to go, then Black Flame lost the license back to Rebellion. I’d love to have done it. It would have been a really cracking, foolish, silly, funny novel. I think my Angry Robot novel, Triumff, is the closest example of what a SinDex novel would have read like, in terms of form, structure and idiocy.
MB: Could that Sin/Dex novel have been turned into a comic strip or are your ideas so wed to their eventual form that this would be an impossible task?
DA: Not impossible, but largely pointless. The things that I had planned for the novel would have exploited the novel’s form in terms of gags and ideas and so on. Adapt it into comic form and you lose the bite. Better to replace with comic-oriented ideas than bowdlerise the novel-orientated ones. I’m not anti adaptation wholesale, you understand. There are, for instance, many, many great examples of movies or TV series adapted from books. But they tend to be good because they’re good movies or TV series rather than good adaptations, per se. Stephen King is a great example here: almost everything he’s ever written has been filmed. Some of the results are good, some bad. None of them, not even the good ones, capture what’s great about his best work, which is the language. The best ones (let’s say Stand By Me, Shawshank or The Shining) work because the film-makers have found something wonderfully filmic to get hold of and exploit in each story. Misery is a pretty good film, but it’s wise enough to entirely leave out the book within a book thing that made Misery the novel work.
MB: Are you surprised by Sinister Dexter’s longevity and to what do you attribute its success?
DA: I don’t know if I’m surprised. Delighted is a better word. I love SinDex. If I’m not sick of it after all this time (and if anyone’s going to be, it’s going to be me), then I don’t see why anyone else would be. We rest it from time to time to make sure no one really starts to hate it. I also shift the rules now and then, and embark on ‘internal epics’ to change the mood of the strip, trying to keep it fresh and mix up the status quo. The arc Malone (SinDex in disguise) is probably the best and most extreme example of that. That’s going to happen again, with the big story I’m planning now. It’s going to be a whole new lease of life.
MB: If you’d known that Sinister Dexter was going to turn into such a sprawling epic, would you have changed anything about its conception/the way you wrote its early strips?
DA: I don’t necessarily think so. I’d actually pitched five ideas at 2K, and SinDex was the fifth idea, the one that I just threw in. Naturally, that’s the one they picked. I think they liked the fact that it sounded similar to Pulp Fiction, which was zeitgeisty at the time, though I had intended it to be something rather different. The initial document I drafted once they’d shown an interest was immensely detailed, and established much of the atmosphere and tone of the setting and characters. I think I was trying to create something that was big and textured and flexible, and could take almost any story you wanted to put through it. Like a woodchipper.
MB: Do you have an end-point in mind for Sinister Dexter? A ‘final scene’ that you’ve already written for when the time comes.
DA: Again, no. I know how I could stop, or how I would put it on hiatus, or how I would reboot it if it needed refreshing. But as I said above, I was (blindly) trying to create a flexible format that would take any story. Some stories, like – say – Dredd are open format like that. Others – let’s say Halo Jones, or (my own) Atavar – are definitely singular. They have one story to tell, and when it’s told, it’s done. SinDex was intended to be more of a Dredd-style vehicle for stories. I’m sure John has an idea how he’d end-stop Dredd, and there is a wonderful sense of maturation and progression in Dredd, but it’s still a strip in which you could start a brand new story, a new case, and it would fit. Dante is another example of a strip like that: some stories are essential, spinal parts of the ongoing meta-story arc, and others are just enjoyable incidental stories along the way. I like long form stories… long running strips, long running TV shows, long novel series, soap operas. The point of Neighbours or The Archers is never supposed to be what happens in the very last episode.
MB: I have heard you describe Sinister Dexter as a marmite strip. Why do you think that is?
DA: The love it or hate it thing? I think it’s a very tight, very character-driven story, with a very distinct sense of humour and language. If you’re into that, and it makes you laugh, and you connect with the ongoing story of those characters, then you probably appreciate it or even love it. If you don’t, you may be a little lost or even… I dunno, wonder what the point it. The point is the conversation and the friendship.
MB: Quote: ‘I think they liked the fact that it sounded similar to Pulp Fiction, which was zeitgeisty at the time, though I had intended it to be something rather different.’ What was the something different you intended Sinister Dexter to be?
DA: The Tharg at the time picked up on the very obvious Pulp Fiction connection: it was about two hitmen, partners, who had conversations… and the conversations were rather more of the point than the stories. But it was never pitched as an SF rip-off of Pulp Fiction. I wanted to do a story that was hard-boiled, about crime, about friendship, about SF ideas, and which had a conversation language all of its own. It was as much inspired by, say Elmore Leonard or David Mamet, and by the Arkady Renko thrillers (like “Gorky Park”) of Martin Cruz Smith. It was also a deliberate vehicle for my own, incorrigible pun-centric sense of humour. I think I imagined there to be three main characters: Finny, Ray and Downlode, and that Downlode was the most interesting and textured, a properly detailed and realised setting. If you look at my fantasy novel Triumff, it does a very similar thing with humour and with the place (London) as a character. It’s something I clearly like to do.
FPI would like to thank Dan and Matt for taking the time to share their thoughts with us on the blog. You can keep up with the latest news from Dan via his blog and his Twitter stream. The second and concluding part of this interview will be on the blog tomorrow.