Friday, January 18, 2013

Channel Evil – An Interview with Writer Alan Grant

First off I want to thank Alan Grant for agreeing to do this interview. Alan’s work spans decades and includes Judge Dredd, Judge Anderson, Batman, Outcast and many, many other comics. Alan is one of only a handful of writers whose work is as vibrant today as it was when he started.

In doing some research for the interview I stumbled upon this interview of Alan by Andy Diggle. It is a great interview giving a good history on the breadth and depth of Alan’s career. Granted it is from 2004, but any Alan Grant fan should enjoy it. Just click here.

Alan Grant
Jim: Alan, before getting into Channel Evil, can you give a little background of your extensive history in the comic’s medium?
Alan: When Pat Mills and John Wagner were working on ideas and stories for a new science fiction comic (which would become 2000AD), they were unable to meet their existing writing commitments and asked me if I’d like to take over writing Tarzan comics for continental distribution (excluding the UK). While visiting the Tarzan publisher in London, I paid a visit to the 2000AD offices...and left an hour later with a job as sub-editor. I stayed for a couple of years,  and got to know all of the contributors - Ezquerra, Bolland, McMahon, Dave Gibbons, Brett Ewins, Brendan McCarthy etc. But I’m far from being a team worker so I left to become a freelance writer.
John Wagner fell ill about this time, and asked if I’d like to become his co-writer on a number of series...the birth of our 10-year writing partnership. We did Judge Dredd, RoboHunter, Strontium Dog, Hell-Trekkers, Bad City Blue and many others for 2000AD, as well as series such as Doomlord, Computer Warrior and The Fists of Danny Pyke for Eagle, and various other stories for Scream, Roy of the Rovers and any other comic which would employ us.
We had a call from DC’s Denny o’Neil offering us a trial two-issue run on Batman, and although John left after half a dozen issues (the trial was successful, but John was never a fan of American comics) I continued on the various Batman titles (Detective Comics, Batman Monthly, Shadow of the Bat) for around 10 years. For DC I also wrote The Demon, LEGION 89 and Lobo on a regular basis. I did some work for Marvel - the RoboCop comic series, a Silver Surfer story and other odd bits here and there - an Incredible Hulk story, for instance. And for Dark Horse I wrote many of the Terminator mini-series.
Meanwhile, John and I continued to work together on some stories - we created The Bogie Man, which is still (as far as I’m aware) the best-selling independent title ever published in the UK.
I wrote an Evil Ernie series for Boom! Studios, and worked on Jeremiah Harm with my old Lobo pal Keith Giffen. More recently I’ve written The Loxleys and the War of 1812 graphic novel for Renegade of Canada, who have also released Tales of the Buddha (before he was enlightened) as an e-book...and, indeed, Channel Evil.
I’ve written around a dozen novels - mainly based on superheroes - as well as contributing to half-a-dozen short story anthologies. I wrote the Action Man “Robot Attak” movie, a movie version of Dominator (with Tony Luke), and a few others which remain unmade.

Jim: So how did Channel Evil come about?
Alan: I’d long been an admirer of Shane Oakley’s artwork, and we’d talked on a couple of occasions about working together. It had to be on the right story, though - Shane’s horror work is brilliant, so it made sense to angle things from that. I first pitched Channel Evil to Vertigo, but they weren’t looking for horror stories so we approached Renegade instead.
Jim: Why a horror story?
Alan: Mainly because horror is Shane’s strong point. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of horror stories - I’m too squeamish to be able to watch horror movies, though Wagner and I had written several horror series for Scream (including Curse of Daemon, which really unsettled me!) And given the public interest in channelling, I had a ready subject for a story.
Jim: Is there any specific message in the book or was it just about evil?
Alan: I guess the specific message is “it’s too easy to give in to temptation.” I wanted to see what happened when weak, all-too-human characters were given the equivalent of the old “deal with Devil.” How much would they sacrifice in return for fame and riches?
Jim: I like the pacing of the book. So many people tell decompressed stories but I felt like this had a rolling down hill pace, that the closer to the end the fast the story went. In general how do you approach telling a story in chapters?
Alan: Pretty well how you described it there - I like coming up with tales that gather momentum and carry the reader along to the climax. I cut my teeth on single-issue Tarzan stories, so am well aware of the need to ignore all extraneous details and focus on the hero’s various dilemmas.
Jim: As a character I almost felt sorry for Jez, but not his agent. At the end of the story most of the cast cannot be coming back, who was the star of the book? BA’AL?
Alan: Yeah, I almost felt sorry for Jez, too - but his agent was a greedy bastard. I guess the star of the book WAS Ba’al...though maybe we should keep that quiet, because traditionally evil is always defeated by the good.
Jim: Any reason for using BA’AL as you avatar of evil?
Alan: I wanted to use a “demon” who was well-known, rather than creating one especially for the story. Ba’al has a long history of being worshipped in the Middle East, but he dropped out of favour over the centuries as Jehovah took over most of his functions. No wonder he was pissed off!
Jim: You snuck in a fair amount of commentary on the TV entertainment medium. Has past experience made you leery of the medium?
Alan: I’ve had limited experience of working for TV. I was the only UK writer to work on the Alliance Atlantis/BBC Worldwide series “Ace Lightning and the Carnival of Doom”, and though we didn’t make it to a third series, I really enjoyed the experience. So...I’m not wary of the medium at all.
Jim: Do you write full scripts or work more collaborative style (i.e. Marvel style)?
Alan: I work full script, though the artist always has a lot of leeway - if he can think of a way to better tell the story, I encourage him to do it. I’ve tried working plot/pencils/dialog but never had much success with it.
Jim. With writing full scripts how much art direction and panel layout do you dictate?
Alan: Quite a lot - but as I said, if the artist has better ideas he’s welcome to use them. Working with artists I know well - Ezquerra, Arthur Ranson and Cam Kennedy, for instance - I limit myself to only a line of panel description, because I know we’re on the same wavelength and they’ll know exactly how to tell the story.
Jim: Do you know who the artist is before? If yes, how does that impact what you are writing?
Alan: Sometimes you know, sometimes you don’t. If I know in advance who the artist will be, I generally try to build the story around what I think are their strong points.
Jim: Since you started out as an editor I assume you respect what an editor can bring to the table. I have seen a ton of books out of Image by new creators with no editor credit. Often the book suffers from good ideas with poor execution, especially for a first issue. At this stage of your career how do you feel about an editor and what can they bring to the party?
Alan: I think editors are an essential part of the comics mix. Early in my career I worked editorially on a wide range of titles - romance stories, fashion magazine, comics - and in every case it was the editor who bound everything together into the title he/she was editing. I learned the business from old-school editors like George Carr at DC Thomson, and came away with no doubt that the editor was every bit as important as the writer and/or artist.
Denny O’Neil was the best editor I ever worked for - he always kept his involvement to a minimum, but his ideas for strengthening stories/characters were brilliant. I’ve also worked for editors who consider a Batman script to be “excellent” if they can read it sitting on the toilet in the morning - I wouldn’t employ these guys myself.
Jim: This book does not appear to have been thought of as a digital comic first. In the future how would you address making a comic that was only going to be digital with no real thought of printing?
Alan: I can’t answer that. I’m too old-fashioned - I like to hold a comic in my hands, flick back and forward between the pages, so I’m not a big fan of digital comics.
Jim: The lack of actually making the digital experience something more than print has always bothered me. If  a comic is digital why not have a creator commentary optional track, show script side by side with the art, if a color book, give a black and white option. At that point charging the same price makes more senses and each experience becomes its own thing. Where do you see the digital market place going?
Alan: I’ve heard a lot of people saying that it’s the future, but I have my doubts. Perhaps if the technology could turn comics into computer game-like interactive experiences, I could see the future being very bright for them.
Jim: The ending was a slight cliff hanger. Do you have more stories with this theme in mind?
Alan: Yes. There’s a sequel ready to be written, depending on sales of the current release.
Jim: On a personal note, do you still have the sensory deprivation tank? Do you use it and for what?
Alan: Unfortunately it sprang a leak and shorted out all of the electronics. The company which built it for me has gone out of business, so I couldn’t get it repaired. During the years that it was working, I used it almost every day for an hour or thereabouts - it’s extremely relaxing, and every now and then you have hallucinations and spiritual insights.
At first I tried listening to music in it, but even music that I loved (reggae, Captain Beefheart) seemed to be “getting in the way.” So I settled for silence, which was much more invigorating.
Jim: I consider myself an anti-authority type or at least a contrarian as you have sometimes characterized yourself. Personally I hope I always taught my daughters to question everything as just because someone in charge says it, does not mean it is right. Still my attitude has probably meant I ended up on a different road then I may have reached if I towed the line. How much has your views impacted your career?
Alan: Very much! Like I said, I’m not a team player. I was fired from almost every job I ever had (bank clerk, trainee accountant, encyclopaedia salesman, agricultural labourer - because of insubordination. Becoming a freelance writer was like finding the Holy Grail.
Jim: US super hero comics have limited the characters by trying to keep them forever young. My understanding Dredd was allowed to age. Was that something that you and Wagner planned?
Alan: Yes, John and I planned for Judge Dredd to age more or less in real time (Judge Anderson, too) because we felt it kept the stories fresh. Denny O’Neil always used to say that Batman had to be “reinvented” every generation (10-12 years) to accommodate all of the new readers. Personally, I’d never want to see a “new” Batman - we did it with Azrael, and I hated his time in the Bat-suit. I’d rather go with Denny’s judgment.
Jim: What are you currently working on in comics or anything else?
Alan: New Cadet Anderson and Anderson, Psi series for 2000AD and the Megazine. A new 1812 story for Renegade, as well as a new graphic novel. My daughter had her first children’s book published this year; the next is a story I wrote for her as a child 35 years ago, which she has now illustrated; and hopefully the third will be a new character/series I’ve created for her - she’s an illustrator rather than a sequential artist.
So thanks again to Alan for taking the time to answer our questions. I always enjoy doing an interview, especially with a creator who is really one of the few creators who has been a successful story teller for decades and has done some great runs with iconic characters on both sides of the pond.

Channel Evil was a great read and I encourage you to go get the trade paperback. The best way is for people who want to pick up a copy in March is to make sure that your local comic store orders it. It's available in the January 2013 edition of Diamond Previews for March releases and the order code is JAN131257.

1 comment:

  1. Further to the above interview; Alan Grant's first children's book 'The Quite Big Rock' is now available. He genuinely wrote it over 35 years ago and so is the first story he ever wrote, but the tale itself is timeless. His daughter Shalla Gray has illustrated her childhood bed-time story to wonderful effect.