Gordon Rennie is one of the most versatile, prolific and respected writers in British Comics having not only created such much-loved Missionary Man, Necronauts and Caballistics Inc. but also having gained plaudits for writing such graveyards for the reputations of writers as Rogue Trooper and above all Judge Dredd, where he is has gain a reputation secondly only to the character’s creator John Wagner for consistently delivering the goods with the character. He kindly took time out from his holiday (!) to answer our questions.
411: Thanks for agreeing to an interview with us Gordon. Could you just introduce yourself for those unfamiliar with you and your work?
Gordon: Hmmm, I’m a miserable, taciturn git who never fails to pass up any opportunity to shamelessly pimp myself and my work.
411: So far this has been a busy year for you; firstly with your first multi-part Judge Dredd story for 2000AD being published. Judge Dredd is a near graveyard for the reputation of writers with the three biggest 2000AD exports to America of the nineties Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Garth Ennis all being judged as having failed to nail the character whilst Warren Ellis refuses to even have a go. Why do you think you’ve succeeded where so many bigger names have failed?
Gordon: I don’t know. Maybe because of I’ve got more of a respect for the character and the strip and their history? Also, and I know I’ve said it before, but for such a supposedly one-dimensional, one-note character, Dredd doesn’t half seem to be hard to get right. If you just do him as a hard-as-nails, violent, soulless fascist bastard with maybe a neat line in pithy one-liners, then I think you’re missing the point of him by maybe a million miles. I know for a fact that one of the names you mentioned had nothing but contempt for the strip and character, fact that seems shiningly clear in most of the Dredd stories they produced. I know Garth’s a big Dredd fan and understands where he’s supposed to be coming from, and I liked some of his run on the strip, but by the end of it he had a lot of other work coming in from US publishers and had taken his eye off the ball.
Basically, I think being a miserable, awkward Scottish git is the real key to trying to do Dredd as he’s supposed to be done
411: You’ve also recently had to chance with “superstar” artists D’Israeli and John Mcrea on comedy Dredd one-offs, how did the process/experience of working with these higher-profile artists differ from working with regular Dredd/2000AD artists?
Gordon: To be honest, it didn’t differ in the slightest. As far as I remember, it wasn’t even confirmed that Matt or John were doing those stories until after I’d written the scripts, so as far as I was concerned, it was just another pair of Dredd one-offs. That said, I’ve known Matt and John for years, so it was good to finally do something for them, especially Matt. He and I were supposed to do a Vertigo mini-series together years ago, but it fell through, for various unfortunate reasons beyond our control.
411: You’ve worked with many artists during your career who is your favorite and who would you like to work with but haven’t yet got the chance?
Gordon: Working with Carlos Ezquerra on Dredd and Koburn has been a real treat, and a bit of a personal thrill. I’ve also really enjoyed working with guys like Roger Langridge, Cliff Robinson, Wayne Reynolds, Woodrow Phoenix, Fraser Irving and Colin MacNeil. My favorite artist, though, is Martin Emond, who very sadly died earlier this year. Martin and I started our comics’ careers at the same time, working together on a book called White Trash. We also did a years-ahead-of-its-time Punisher one-off special for Marvel, which ultimately never saw print. I still miss him.
The artist I’d probably most like to work with is Jock. I’m sure he’ll come to his senses one day and realize he’s the best Dredd artist to have come along in years.
411: How did you find working with Frank Quitely? What do you make of his success in America in recent years?
Gordon: I’m pleased that he’s doing well, since he’s such a talented artist. When was working with him, I think I always suspected he wouldn’t be hanging around the UK comics industry for very long. Other than some of his Authority stuff (and very early work like Lobo and Flex Mentallo) I’ve not actually seen much of his other Stateside stuff.
411: This year saw you conclude your run on legendary 2000AD character Rogue Trooper with what is widely regarded as your best story on the character. How do you think your run holds up when viewed together? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Gordon: I’m tempted to say I maybe wouldn’t have done it at all. Rogue Trooper’s always been an artist-driven strip, producing top-quality talents like Dave Gibbons and Cam Kennedy, while generally also proving to be a bit of a writers’ graveyard. I tried to do the best with the brief I was given. If I could have been allowed to do anything different, I would probably have messed about with some of the backstory and character set-up, although other writers did that too, with not necessarily very happy results.
I’ve finished my run on the strip, but I’m not finished with Rogue and his world yet. I’ve written a Rogue book for the new line of 2000AD novels, I’m currently doing script work for the Rogue Trooper computer game and there’s a new Rogue Trooper universe strip for 2000AD in the works, so perhaps I can’t complain that much.
411: To my mind P.J. Holden’s art was the best of the run and gelled well with your writing helping you establish a personality for the script that wasn’t tied up with the character’s heyday. Not wishing to slight the other artists but do you wish he’d been available for your whole run?
Gordon: Well, Staz Johnson did some really good work in the first story of the first series, before he jumped ship to go work for DC. I was also very happy with the stories done by Mike Collins, Dylan Teague and Simon Colby.
PJ was the only artist that had a complete run on one of the series, which obviously always helps a lot in terms of art continuity. The fact that we’d worked together before on several Dredd stories was a real bonus too. I thought he did a great job on Rogue, especially considering he had to deal with a close family bereavement halfway through the series and had to work doubly hard to make his deadlines on the last few episodes. For services above and beyond the call of duty…
411: In a recent interview with 2000adreview.co.uk, you mentioned the possibility of doing a Rogue Trooper spin-off called The Eighty-Sixers, focusing on the wider Nort-Souther conflict. Can you go into any more detail about your proposal and the editorial response you’ve had so far?
Gordon: The Nort-Souther war is supposed to be a galaxy-wide conflict, but all we’ve only ever really seen of it is the war on Nu Earth. The Eighty-Sixers are a squadron of deep-space fighter pilots fighting the war in a place that’s supposed to be the ass-end of the galaxy. To be eighty-sixed means to be written off or wiped out, so the squadron’s the dumping ground for all the misfits, losers and freaks that no-one else in the Souther military wants. The main character is Rafaela Blue, a female G.I pilot that I first introduced in a Rogue Trooper story, and who plays a major role in my forthcoming Rogue Trooper novel.
Basically, I want to show there’s more to the war than Nu Earth, and that there are other alien races out there with agendas of their own. Expect lots of deep-space dog fighting, strange alien environments, backstory conspiracies and inter-character backbiting.
The editorial response has been positive so far, and there’s a specific artist pencilled in for it, but it’s basically been on the backburner because I’ve been busy for the last few months on The Thing I’m Not Allowed To Talk About. All things going well, and pending other frankly far more lucrative work commitments, The Eighty-Sixers will hopefully be appearing sometime next year.
411: You were also the driving force behind a series of one-offs that explored what had happened to various supporting characters in the Dredd Universe. What were you trying to achieve with these stories and do you think you succeeded?
Gordon: I wasn’t really trying to achieve anything other than, y’know, trying to write entertaining stories. I was reasonably happy with three out of the four finished articles.
As people noticed at the time, two of the stories are about the deaths of characters who were in the comic right from almost the very beginning. My father’s been terminally ill for the last two years, but I’m not sure how much that influenced the stories I chose to do. Maybe it did with the one about John ‘Giant’ Clay, which I couldn’t help but notice turned out to be about the awkward relationship between a younger man and a dying older father figure.
411: Recently we’ve seen John Wagner return to Mean Machine Angel and ignore your entire run on the character. What did you make of his return and how did it compare to your run?
Gordon: I didn’t read it, to he honest. Should I admit that? John created the character, so he’s entitled to ignore what he wants. Mean’s one of these characters that the writers seem to enjoy writing – there’s nothing like a chance to do some really dumb violent comedy – but which the readers aren’t so keen on.
I suppose, if you wanted to keep the continuity going, you could always fudge it so that John’s story was set before Mean escaped out into the Cursed Earth. I may get my own back and do a Koburn story featuring Mean back out in the Cursed Earth.
411: Moving onto your current work, we’ve just seen the first part published off the Cursed Earth Koburn spin off series to a positive reaction. When you originally wrote the character in a cameo appearance in last year’s Judge Dredd story “Sturm Und Dang” did you ever think he’d get his own series?
Gordon: I don’t remember Alan Barnes or I ever specifically discussing it, but I think there was always the intention that the character might be strong enough to carry his own strip. Once I finished the scripts for Sturm Und Dang I definitely wanted to do more Koburn, and by the time Carlos handed in the pages for the first episode the decision became kind of a no-brainer, because he was clearly having a lot of fun semi-revisiting what was always one of his most favorite characters of all the ones he helped create.
411: Carlos Ezquerra is a legend in the British comics scene being responsible for the creation of (among others) aforementioned Major Easy, Judge Dredd, Johnny Alpha and Durham Red. What was it like working with him?
Gordon: Like I said, it was great to have a chance to work with Carlos, whose work I’ve been reading and enjoying since I was a kid. I was kind in fanboy awe of him, but he’s been really enthusiastic and friendly, and is keen to more stories featuring the character. I’m looking forward to it, in as much as I ever really look forward to anything.
411: This is the third major series of yours set in the nuclear wasteland known as the Cursed Earth that surrounds Mega-City One. What is the area’s appeal to you as a setting for your stories?
Gordon: It’s not Mega-City One, hence you can do all sorts of crazy weird stuff there without Dredd and half the Justice Department turning up to stop it before it can really begin at the first radio message from Control. It’s also got this really funky Old Testament puritanical fire and brimstone vibe about it that seems to firer up my imagination.
411: Also in around a month’s time we’ll be seeing the return of the smash hit Caballistics. Inc to pages of 2000AD with Prog 1400. How pleased have you been with its progress so far?
Gordon: I’ve been very pleased. As I’ve said before, conventional wisdom says that team stories don’t work in 2000AD. Add in the fact that it’s a horror/occult conspiracy story running in a comic that’s barely ever featured that kind of genre and that none of the characters started with obvious 2000AD type character hooks, and the odds always looked to be stacked against it.
Along with White Trash and Necronauts, it’s one of the self-created things I’ve done that I’m most pleased with.
411: I believe that your frequent collaborator Frazier Irving was offered the chance to draw Caballistics Inc. before Dom Reardon. How different do you think the series would’ve been with Irving on board?
Gordon: It would have been a lot different. To be honest, I’m probably glad now that Frazer dropped out at an early stage to go and do an Authority project for Wildstorm. His versions of the characters were great, but were maybe too much on the glam side of things than what I really had in mind. Dom’s are a lot more scratchy and very much anglo-centric, and have very much influenced the developing feel of the strip – all the references to UK-specific horror and science fiction.
My – and, judging by the amount of sketches Dom’s asked to do at conventions, everyone else’s too – favorite character is Hannah Chapter. I think she would have been very much a different character based on Frazer’s version of her, but we’ll never really know. It’s like casting a movie – how different would Star Wars have been if Han Solo had been played by Christopher Walken instead of Harrison Ford, as apparently nearly happened?
411: You have mentioned the possibility of doing a spin-off series for Caballistics Inc. You seem to have a liking for spin-off series. Is there a sense of premeditation on your part when introducing a new character/concept to an established series i.e. if this takes off I’ll have a new series to write or is it just an organic process of you looking at the character/concept and realizing there’s more you want to write about them/it?
Gordon: It was never a conscious thing with Caballistics. The backstory kept developing, and I began to think about doing a spin-off series once it became established that the British government had operated other teams of occult-busters in the past. The proposed story’s called Defenders of the Realm, and would be very different in style to Caballistics, much more genteel and pulp-orientated, featuring a 1920s team of occult investigators and gleefully raiding everything from Bulldog Drummond and Biggles to the works of Sax Rohmer, Lesley Charteris, Agatha Christie and Dennis Wheatley.
Nothing happening with it yet, but there’s still time.
411: Your career has seen you tackle franchise characters and original creations with equal success. Do you have a preference between the two and is there a difference in your approach when tackling a franchise character like Rogue Trooper or working on your own baby like Caballistics. Inc?
Gordon: An ex-editor of 2000AD once told me he tends to divide writers into John Wagners and Alan Grants. John tends to be good at coming up with original ideas for new strips and characters – a talent he very much shares with Pat Mills – while Alan’s main strength is with fresh original twists to existing characters and formats. Of course, John’s done some great work on franchise projects – hell, he even managed to make the Star Wars line of comics seem interesting – while, away from his work on Dredd, Batman, Lobo etc – Alan’s done plenty of good stuff of his own, but I think the theory generally holds true. The editor never told me what side of the equation I fall into, but I suspect I’m more of an Alan Grant. Call me up and ask me for a brand new series or character and you’ll get three weeks of pain-filled pencil chewing. Ask me for some ideas for Dredd or Batman, or for a reboot of a specific old 2000AD character, and I’ll have something on your desk by Monday morning.
411: You’ve been writing a regular column for the Megazine, what do you get out of it and what do you hope the reader gets from it?
Gordon: Well, what I get out of it is a meager monthly cheque and a few moments of cruel sniggering pleasure at the howls of outrage from the peanut gallery. What I hope the rest of the more sensible readers get from it are a few harmless laughs and the knowledge that nothing I say should be taken too seriously.
411: From these and other writings it clearly comes across that you’re a highly opinionated and political man yet this doesn’t often come through in your work. Do you actively try to leave your own politics at the door and try to write a story that anyone can enjoy? Do you see a place for polarising political commentary in mainstream comics?
Gordon: I generally think you tend to sound like a bit of a twat if you loudly expound strong political opinion of any kind in your work, no matter how heartfelt it might be. Telling a good story should come way before the tub-thumping. And if you do want to get to get up on your soapbox and use it to vault on up onto your high horse, well, that’s why God invented subtext…
411: A quick search on amazon.co.uk reveals the following collections of your 2000AD work are still available. Can you in a sentence tell us why we should buy:
Missionary Man with Frank Quitely and Gary Marshall
Glimmer Rats with Mark Harrison
Rain Dogs with Colin Wilson
Necronauts with Frazier Irving
Gordon: I’m a miserable, taciturn git who never fails to pass up any opportunity to shamelessly pimp myself and my work. If you’re going to buy any of them, I’d recommend Necronauts or, failing that, Glimmer Rats.
411: You’ve recently said that you read very few comics at the moment. What effect do you think this has on your writing?
Gordon: No idea. Either it means I’m not consciously ripping off whatever else is out there in the marketplace or I’m completely out of touch with the rest of the industry and what people are currently wanting to read. Take your pick.
411: Finally, many (myself included) see you as being the perfect fit for the American market yet you yourself seem unsure as whether its an avenue that you want to go down. Is there no interest on your part in working for one of the American Big Two? If so why?
Gordon: I’ve worked for these people before. I’m not saying I won’t again, but in the case of one of the specific ‘Big Two’, it’s not something I’m in a big rush to repeat. Cheapskates though they may sometimes be, UK comics editors aren’t habitual liars and bullshitters. I’ve always found the well-trodden UK to US comics industry career trajectory vaguely depressing, as if that’s what you’ve got to do, because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Besides, at the moment, I’ve got enough work coming in from other media besides comics, UK or US.
411: Thanks for sharing your time with us Gordon. Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
Gordon: Yes. I’m writing this in a bar in Spain, and a few hours ago, I discovered that some thieving bastard has broken into my safe deposit box and helped themselves to the stash of traveller’s cheques in there. In the highly unlikely event that said thieving bastard is reading this, I’d just like to say I hope they get their balls chewed off by starving rabid wolves.
You can read the adventures of Cursed Earth Koburn in Judge Dredd Megazine every fourth Wednesday. You can read Caballistics Inc. in 2000AD every Wednesday. Both are available from all good British newsagents and worldwide through airmail subscription. Check Previews for American Direct Market listings.