When it comes to updating classic characters, the task is never easy. What do you retain that made the original popular while tailoring the character to modern sensibilities?
Luckily, Dynamite Entertainment selected prolific writer Dan Abnett for the task of writing the recent Dejah Thoris series and the just released first issue of Dejah Thoris Versus John Carter. Abnett’s experience with a wide variety of superhero, science fiction, and fantasy stories made him a perfect choice for an updated trip to Barsoom.
We were able to talk to the writer about his approach to Burroughs’ characters and his recent work with two other iconic characters, Red Sonja and Vampirella, as well as his long history with 2000AD and a particular band of space heroes that you may have heard of before in this exclusive Conskipper interview.
Dejah Thoris is one of the most recognizable characters that emerges from early Science Fiction. What aspects of the character that are found in the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories did you focus on and what characteristics did you amplify for modern readers?
Dan Abnett: First off, I am a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and I read all of the stories as a young kid. They were just such evocative and creative landscapes for stories. I am aware that they are over a century old and many things from the heroic fantasy of that time, or planet stories, look a little bit dated somehow now, and she was in ways a proudly defiant character, and in some ways, like Jane in Tarzan really, she was there often to supply someone in jeopardy that the hero could rescue, which was stock and trade for stories of that era.
But she is strong and she has certainly had her moments, and is not only a helpless damsel, so when I was looking at it and doing the twelve issue series where she was the main character, I deliberately left John out, partly to give here agency as a character, and possibly to steer it away from a legacy of very entertaining, but possibly away from the perception of her as a “cheesecake” character that is best known for her sexy appearance, so as not to objectify her. Now she is beautiful and she should be all those things, and I did not want in any way to take away from what Burroughs did, even if it is outmoded. I didn’t want to reboot it completely, because if you do, you should probably just create something new. But at the same time, there is no reason why she can’t be strong and clever, why she can’t have purpose, why she can’t have huge agency of her own.
That’s why in the Dejah Thoris series she is pivotal in bringing Barsoom back together, and through cleverness, through science, politics and diplomacy, and through physical action, she manages to stabilize the planet, all without the need for John Carter. Although there are times when she is the classic Barsoomian Princess in the chain-mail bikini, there are also various scenes where she is dressed in Ice Age attire, so she is still an incredibly alluring, attractive character but it is not all put out on display or gratuitous.
With John Carter vs. Dejah Thoris, the series is self-contained in as much as you don’t have to have read anything that has gone before. I make a significant effort to explain anything that you need to know to understand where they are starting from and what the characters are doing. If you have read the Dejah Thoris series, you will see it as a sequel to that and the grand conclusion and finale. At the end of the Dejah series, John did return (in very strange ways) and there was sort of an estrangement between them because he had been away for a very long time and he sort of came back as almost an enemy. And that is what the title is about, as I wanted to have them both doing their things in their own ways which sometimes brings them into confrontation with each other.
What I didn’t want to do was bring John Carter back into the story and have Dejah get demoted to the “princess in distress” role. So this is very much about her going “Right, well I’ve gotten this far as Queen of Mars and defeated the main threat.” And John’s back and he’s thinking “Look at all she has done while I’ve been gone, maybe I’m a spare part, and should go back to Virginia. She doesn’t need me anymore, look at how incredibly capable she is.”
When in the first issue she appears to get into danger, he immediately defaults to the Burrough’s trope of “I have to save her”, but as the story unfolds, that may not necessarily be the right thing to do. It is about them, side-by-side together facing a serious threat, bringing everything that they’ve got to bear, yet at the same time, slightly tripping each other up, because they are both strong characters who could sort of get in each other’s way. That was my idea. Having given agency back to her, I didn’t want to take it away, and I wanted to figure out how to put her next to someone like Carter, who is literally that strong male hero. It is actually quite tricky to do because I don’t want her to look diminished in any way and I don’t want him to look like a deconstructed patsy whose time has passed. He is still John Carter who is an amazing hero, so you need a balance so you don’t let the characters down and betray the legacy.
How was it working with Alessandro Miracolo on the series?
Abnett: He is extraordinary. Not only is he an amazing artist, but he captures the spirit of Burroughs, although it is a modern style and it doesn’t look in any way dated, he absolutely sticks in the pantheon of the great artists who worked on the stories when they first appeared. So I’ve very much adjusted what I am doing to bring the best out of him and I want Dejah to look like Dejah, so she is the warrior queen in a bikini, because we are going back to almost the classic setting. Dejah doesn’t behave like that, but I wanted him to be able to draw John Carter as John Carter and not in any way qualified by modern conventions. And he does the scenery and landscape beautifully as well.
Credit should also go to Dearbhla Kelly the colorist, because he lays down these fabulous images and she brings this Barsoomian glow to everything. There are so many panels in that first issue that could easily be the cover of a John Carter book. There is an exotic feeling to it with these great colors and creatures and strange ruins; all of that kind of stuff. I couldn’t be happier.
You’ve also been working on two other iconic characters for Dynamite in the form of Red Sonja and Vampirella and bringing them into a superhero setting with The Project. They are both characters that are famous for being loners and coming from a fantasy and horror genre. What was that process like in terms of bringing them into a more traditional superhero universe?
Abnett: Well, it was deliberately set as a challenge. My editor said to me we’ve got strong properties in Red Sonja, Vampirella, and Dejah; strong female characters that help them sell books. We’ve also got other properties like The Project, which is a modern revision of Golden Age, original characters. He said, “If you have Red Sonja and Vampirella and The Project, what would you do with that?” It was almost like, what recipe would you cook? These were things that normally wouldn’t go together. So I came back to him with the outline for what we did, which was leaning into the incompatibility. The fact that these things don’t fit together, that’s what the story is.
You’re absolutely right, they are both loner characters and they both come from utterly different genres. So I said, what if The Project is not just like the Justice League or Avengers in terms of their global outlook, what if they are actually a pandimensional one and they recruit a metahuman from every dimension that they discover. And for reasons that they are not completely sure of, The Project finds two earths, one which is very much 1960s Earth where the only metahuman is Vampirella, and one that is the Hyperborean version of Earth that has Red Sonja, who isn’t even super-powered. And by process of deduction they go “we’ve made contact with these worlds now, so we need representatives, so we will put them on probation and see if they work out.”
And neither Red Sonja or Vampirella want to do it, and the very fact that they are misfits and outsiders to that mentality and genre is part of the story because they are the only people who can do something about it. I found that very fun to do because then you build it on the characters. Vampirella doesn’t like it because she is cynical and she knows that they are all wary of her because she is a vampire, so she must be supernatural and she must be inherently dangerous and they treat her as if she is outrageous and obscene, although she shouldn’t be cast as that. With Sonja, she comes from a low-tech world, is much more of the innocent who is amazed by these things, but doesn’t understand them, so there were two different levels of disconnect in the stories.
One of things that I was pleased with with the Red Sonja one was to have them use translators to talk to her. So her internal narrative is the regular Red Sonja voice that we are familiar with; perfectly articulate and sensible. But when she speaks to them, it sounds like she is speaking a foreign language with a strong foreign accent because that is how they are rendering her speech, which allows for some great moments of humor and she doesn’t take any nonsense from anybody. One is sort of rebellious and the other is sort of stubborn, and now they are set up for something that I hope we do in the future which is to bring them together for a third series, that ties up where we left them. They were both really great fun to do and an intellectual, conceptual challenge where the point of the story is that they don’t fit.
You obviously have a long history with 2000AD, which has produced dozens or writers and artists over the years that have written for publications all over the world. Why do you think that 2000AD is still producing a great amount of talent for the comic industry?
Abnett: I don’t know for sure. My reflections on it are from when it was launched in 1977 and I was a kid buying it as a reader and now I have been writing for it longer than it was running before I was writing for it, so that freaks me out every time I think about it.
To understand its importance, and it really is an important publication both in terms of the British comics industry, but more particularly in terms of the world’s comics industry as a sort of nursery and launchpad for talent. I can’t think of another one title that has ever produced that amount of talent. It is a British institution, you’ve got to understand that unlike the States, even in this day and age, but certainly back in the 70s and 80s, there are not a lot of homegrown comics published. We don’t have DC and Marvel putting out loads and loads of books a month. There is quite a lot of reprint and junior stuff, but there are very few comics aimed at its age group, and it has survived ever since. It is also large format, so it is much bigger than a US comic, so that means that the art is showcased a great deal more, which is why so many great science fiction artists have come out of it. It has also been principally science fiction and fantasy stories with a very, very strong satirical overtone. It’s very dark and very iconoclastic. It has a political content and a breeding ground for unusual science fiction ideas, not constrained by the usual limits of a mainstream superhero universe.
But the most important thing about it is the fact that it is published weekly. It is a weekly anthology comic; it is a very British thing. It is out on newsstands and every week there are 5 or 6 different stories to read by different creative teams, wildly different art styles, concepts, characters; a constant rotation of what you’ll find in it.. Judge Dredd is in it almost every week, but when you open it up, you find classic characters, new ones, and that’s why 2000AD is a hungry beast. It eats material at a terrifying rate and there is a sort of experimental quality to it. If an editor commissions a story, and it doesn’t work, it’s gone in a couple of weeks. It doesn’t drag out for six months as a mini-series. So it is meant to have that chocolate box feel, so it allows creators to try things out and see if they work. And if they don’t work, they are forgotten. It is like an ideas mill.
In the 25 years that I have been working for them, I started out by doing guest scripts on things like Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper and the classic characters because we always need stories for those characters and then they said to invent some stories. So I came up with Sinister Dexter, which is still running today after 25 years. The interesting thing about Sinister Dexter is they asked me to pitch for an original series, and I pitched five ideas, four of which were really strong and for the fifth one I wanted to put another idea in there so they had more to reject. To my astonishment, they liked that one, and 25 years later, I’m still writing it. I don’t know how many episodes there have been, I’ve written them all, and it is one of the longest running strips. It came out as an also-ran and became a hit. There was another one that I thought would be great and it lasted one story because everybody hated it, so you just don’t know.
In recent years I’ve worked on a strip with Inj Culbard called Brink which is available in the States in trade form and they have just done a brilliant audio version of it by Penguin Books with Richard Armitage and David Warner and it’s terrific. Basically, it is a police procedural set in space. It’s kind of Outland meets True Detective. And when we pitched it to 2000AD we didn’t think that they would like it because it is principally conversational, and when the action comes it is infrequent and brief and we thought “This is not a 2000AD strip”. It has got to be five pages a week and has to hit some action each week, really too TV, and the editor took a chance and now it is on its fifth series and was voted the most popular strip in 2000AD.
The reason I’m telling you that is that you never know and that’s why you try. You invent something that you think will be fun and after a few weeks, you know whether it is going to work or not. I think that’s why so many writers have come out of 2000AD and moved on to the American market because it is an incubator or boot camp to get your brain working. And so many artists have come out of it, because 2000AD has always been so good at finding raw talent since the amazing images are always the main selling point. Long may it last, as it is almost exclusively the British comics industry, but it is secretly such an important thing for the American comics industry as a nursery school for talents who have made such a big difference. Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Al Ewing; so many people have come through that book.
And that is one respect where I am really unusual because I worked for Marvel UK and DC before I started writing for 2000AD, whereas most other writers went the other way around.
That’s true! Do you think that the weekly format helped you hone your writing skills due to the fact that you had to constantly produce new material and work on a strict deadline?
Abnett: Yes, in terms of a discipline, it is incredibly useful because you’ve got to write things fast and get them in because 2000AD never runs late and the last thing an editor would want to do is bump a strip. It also teaches you how to compress to get a great amount of story into five pages, since every episode should be enjoyable in and of itself. Some of the greatest Judge Dredd stories have been five pages; just a simple case and they are fantastic.
You learn to write fast and dirty basically. You just get in there and get the job done and you are on to the next week’s issue. That is invaluable. I think a lot of young writers and artists try to ease their way in and take things at their own pace and build their confidence and such. While there is a lot to be said for that because you don’t want to rush, but by the same token, just being thrown in, as I said, like a boot camp, after a couple of weeks you realize that you can do that. Although there is immense pressure on a monthly American book, and I know that because I’ve had a lot of runs on many books, and there is always that sense of pressure, weirdly it sometimes seems like the process is glacially slow. A few months later you say, “I vaguely remember this story.” With 2000AD, it goes past in a blur.
Speaking of some of those runs, I also wanted to touch on your work with Andy Lanning on Guardians of the Galaxy and the Marvel cosmic characters. What were your thoughts when you first started on those comics? Today everyone knows the Guardians, but when it came out, you had to be a really hardcore Marvel fan to even recognize that title an it is your team that is the one people recognize around the world as the Guardians, but what was it like starting it?
Abnett: I think because I am British and I grew up reading things like 2000AD, I’ve always been a very science fiction-oriented person. I love superheroes and I love the American superhero traditions but they also look slightly silly from a British perspective. A guy in tights vs British heroes like Judge Dredd, they wore a costume, but it was a uniform. So there was always a science fictional explanation for why they were dressed the way they were and why they were doing the things that they were doing.
Like I said before, 2000AD also brings with it that strong sense of satire where you have your tongue planted firmly in your cheek all the way through, and I find it interesting that a lot of British writers who have gone on to do work for Marvel and DC have gravitated towards the more science fiction-based characters. When I started working in the Marvel Universe, I was happy to write anything that anyone gave me, but I remembered that my favorite characters growing up were those more obscure science fiction characters. I loved Captain Marvel, Warlock, and Surfer, but I also loved the less well-known ones. I loved Starlord in those early stories by Claremont and Byrne. And they were not popular; they were those slightly damaged toys at the bottom of the toy box that Marvel really didn’t care much about because they had really important characters like Thor and Iron Man.
It goes in waves. There have been periods in history where Marvel was not interested in doing anything cosmic at all. We had an editor who was keen on doing some cosmic stuff, and the high brass at Marvel said, “Give it a go, but just keep them in space and stay out of our way”, and that’s how we got to do Nova first and the original Annihilation. Nova was an on-going book, so we reinvented him in a way that people said “Oh, Nova is kinda cool”, and that’s when the editor said maybe we can do a team book which then grew out of the second Annihilation event.
And that’s where we basically cannibalized everything in site. We took the name from a previous book, we took some of the broken toys from the bottom of the box, and slightly shook them out and cleaned them up and said this is Starlord, but this is the version of Starlord that we are going to use, we are putting Groot and Rocket together as a sort of double act, and Marvel didn’t care about them so we could do what we wanted with them. If we were to start a run on Iron Man, we would have been very restricted in what we could do, because I would have had to look after the property. So the stories with the Guardians were very inventive. It was a great time, I loved it a lot, and it was a dream to work with Marvel cosmic and on these characters that I had loved since childhood.
And with Andy, he was an artist, an inker, and we became friends in the early days of Marvel UK because we actually like the same Marvel comics and we both loved that era of sort of fourth rate cosmic heroes. Andy is not a writer, but we would brainstorm ideas and throw these ideas around together, and then I would write up the results and that would be the script, and we just split the credit because it was the easiest way of doing it. By the time we were on Guardians, we did a lot of that, but there were parts of that series where Andy was so busy with inking that I just said “Remember that conversation that we had two months ago about that storyline? I’m doing that.” and I’d go off and send him the script and say “Is that all right?”, and Andy would say “Yeah” and I’d say “Good, because it is getting your name on it.” A lot of that was teamwork and a lot of that was just meeting the deadlines.
It got kind of a cult following, but I didn’t expect it to break any records. Then suddenly one day my editor rang me up and said “You’ll never guess what the next Marvel movie is going to be” and we just couldn’t believe it. It was also incredibly touching to see, and there were all sorts of tactical reasons why Marvel Studios did it. They wanted a science fiction film, they wanted to possibly see what they would do with lesser known characters, but ultimately, it was so great to see these characters that I felt like I was one of the few people in the world who remembered them, which was why I was writing them with such enthusiasm, suddenly become international icons.
I have to say it was also a fun time because it was filmed over here, I got to go to the set, and to the premiere, and meet the cast and all that stuff. That was terrific. James Gunn included us in it and gave us guided tours of the ship, introduced us to Chris Pratt; I am gratified.
I think the success of the movie was because the first one was just a damn good movie, played with wit and invention, and it sorted of proved that it didn’t matter who the characters were, that Marvel fans wanted to see Marvel stuff on the screen, and it could be the very famous stuff, or the quite obscure stuff. I love the fact that they have become significant characters now. You know, Drax, in both his modern and traditional incarnations, has been a favorite character of mine for years, but he was not, as you said, you would have to be a proper Marvel fan to know who Drax the Destroyer was, so yes, fantastic stuff.
You’re always very busy, so what do you have coming up?
Abnett: I’m working on the Dejah stuff and I have about three weekly strips for 2000AD right now. I have a couple of comic projects that haven’t been announced yet. Almost invisibly over the last ten years, apart from the comic books, I also write novels, and in the last year I’ve written two major novels for the Warhammer imprint, and I’m writing one of those now, and I love to be able to switch from comics to prose, and it has been great.
I also work in the games industry, usually world building or doing storylines, and there has been a lot of game work and I am working on the just announced Warhammer game Dark Tide which should be out in the next four months. I’ve spent the last year and a half world building this hive city that the game takes place in. It’s the sort of stuff that I write about in my novels all the time and I’ve created these places and landscapes in words and now I’ve got a company saying “Can you do that for us and give us these descriptions?” It is almost like walking on to the set of Guardians and meeting Gamora or Starlord in full costume, and going, “Wait a minute, you were an idea I had!”. The locations that they have built for the game are astonishing, they are three dimensional, and you can walk around in them, and they are the sort of stuff that I have been imagining for the past twenty years in my Warhammer novels. That’s been very exciting and bizarre, because when you are writing a novel, you can be selective about what you are saying and not saying, but when it is a game, you’ve got to work out what is in every drawer and every cupboard, you know what I mean?
During lockdown, one of the oddest things I did was, I also write for 2000AD’s sister magazine, The Judge Dredd Megazine which is the monthly Dredd universe comic, and I write a strip in there called Lawless about a female Judge. And we reached 50 episodes of that last year and on a complete whim, we decided to make the 50th episode double length and a musical. It’s kind of a space western and I wrote a dozen songs which they sing over the course of the story. It was just a conceit and for the fun of doing it. And during the lockdown, myself and my daughter and whoever else was around in our isolated bubble, we recorded versions of the songs, so if people were interested in hearing what they sounded like, we could put them up on the website. We ended up doing much more professional versions of them than I expected by calling in favors from some of my daughter’s (who was a drama grad) friends who had been working in London’s West End and stage musicals who were unable to work. So we put it together over Skype, and now you can listen to the whole thing and read the comic at the same time. It was one of those weird things that happened due to the circumstances, and the readers appreciated it as well because they were also stuck at home.
So it has been a very creative time, and I think it has reminded a lot of people about the the pleasures of reading, the escape of reading, and it’s reminding a lot of creators like myself about the escape of writing, and it has been great being connected to people through the stories.
Dejah Thoris Versus John Carter of Mars #1 is currently available in stores. Vampirella: The Dark Powers trade paperback will be available on August 25. Red Sonja: The Superpowers just wrapped up in May, and will soon be available as a trade as well. 2000AD is available on a weekly basis, in print and digitally.