Rob Williams’s Ordinary was one of the funniest graphic novels that I’ve read recentlly so I had to jump at the chance to talk to Williams about the genesis of our “ordinary man in a world where everyone has powers” and much more from his career.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I love the unique premise of Ordinary. Tell our readers what the book is about.
Rob Williams: Ordinary flips the superhero origin tale on its head. In every Spidey origin or the like, the setup is: “in an ordinary world, one person becomes extraordinary.” In our story it’s “in an extraordinary world, one man is ordinary.” Michael Fisher is a divorced plumber when a plague hits that gives every person on Planet Earth super powers, apart from him. This guy was already a loser, now he’s officially the planet’s biggest loser. But Michael has to find something heroic in himself, or the human race is doomed. It’s a story about finding something special in yourself, no matter what your situation, really.
CB: I gotta admit, there were a few scenes that had me giggling like crazy. Do you have a background in comedy writing?
Williams: Thanks. No, not particularly. I’ve always enjoyed comedic writing. A large bulk of my work for 2000AD in “Low Life”, with “Dirty Frank”, includes a lot of comedic writing, lined up with some pathos amidst the action. I like to try and tick a number of boxes with a story. I’m hopeful that Ordinary will excite you, make you laugh and maybe make you shed a tear at the end.
CB: How do you approach writing a comedy series differently from a serious series?
Williams: You really don’t in many ways. The spine and the plot are really the same, the comedy comes from the reactions of the characters to what happens in the plot. Some characters are comedic, some aren’t. Ordinary is filled with threat and action set-pieces and tension building moments. Certain characters would react to those moments with a terse no nonsense approach, some are going to be terrified, and some are going to make wisecracks.
CB: I gotta ask: musical comedy in the middle of a super-hero comic?!
Williams: A Busby Berkeley dance number. Yeah. Myself and D’Israeli’s attitude to this book was to throw the kitchen sink at it. Make it as creatively open as we could. And that’s the joy of working with someone like D’Israeli. He’s hugely talented at depicting incredible visuals and retaining the storytelling heart within it. Working with a lot of artists I’d not dare include a set-piece like that. But I know D’Israeli will pull it off, and he did. We wanted this to be a comic that’s not just ticking the same old tired boxes.
CB: The transformation scene early in the book is a funny twist on the way that companies like Marvel usually create them; how did you approach creating that scene and did you plan to satirize stuff like Marvel’s Inhumanity?
Williams: No, not overt thoughts on satirising specific books. It’s just pushing yourself to try and think – ok, this is the moment when a plague activates that gives everyone super powers. How can we make that different and fun and not some cliché? Hopefully we achieved that.
CB: How did you approach working with D’Israeli on this project?
Williams: We’ve worked together many times in the past so there’s a great deal of confidence there. I know he can deliver on the big widescreen visuals, the wildly creative powers and crowd scenes etc. But also I know he can do the small, personal characters moments. The sadness, the sarcasm. D’Israeli allows me to write subtext, which is a godsend and very rare. I can have a character be sad and deliver a line of dialogue that tries to hide it etc. I love working with him.
CB: Do you have a favorite character in Ordinary?
Williams: Everyone seems to love Brian the Bear. But I love Michael. There’s a lot of me in Michael, so I kind of empathise with his challenges.
CB: Do you think it would be a blessing or a curse for everyone on the planet to have super powers?
Williams: It would probably go the way it does in Ordinary, sadly. It should be a great blessing but some assholes would abuse it and cause mass suffering as a result. We’re kind of a messed up race.
CB: How do you approach your own projects as opposed to work for Marvel or your work on Doctor Who or 2000 AD?
Williams: Working creator-owned, the process is really exactly the same. You’re just less constrained. You are the final say editor, you can choose your characters as opposed to the lead being a Spider-Man or a Doctor Who. And you can end a story however you want to. There’s no being beholden to the status quo. That allows a lot more freedom.
CB: Do you ever dream of going back to some of your older projects like The Ten-Seconders?
Williams: The Ten-Seconders really concluded this past year with the series I did with Edmund Bagwell. There’s characters there that we could return to, but I suspect if we did so it would be a few years down the line.
CB: It seems you love taking a meta-commentary on super-heroes; do you love them? Hate them? Both?
Williams: Oh, I love them far more than hate them. If there is a meta commentary it’s more about the way they’re handled by companies or creators at times. But the older I get, the more I love a character like a Superman for his pure altruism. I love bad guy as leads shows like Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad but I’m a total sucker for heroism and altruism in a character. I think we all are. It’s the easiest, most direct way to get readers to like a character – have them do a kindness. Superheroes should be, first and foremost, altruists. If people forget that then they’re missing the point.
CB: In my search on your work I ran into a series called The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (And The Dead Left In His Wake); did I read correctly that it’s an Old West zombie story?
Williams: No, no zombies. It’s a supernatural western that’s just returned to 2000AD in recent weeks for its final series. It’s the Old West’s greatest killer, who finds himself murdered and in purgatory, then decides to kill his way out of purgatory and back to the living world. But no one’s ever managed that. Can he be the first?
CB: I was a big fan of your Cla$$war back in the day; how do you see your work on that when you look back at it now?
Williams: Very passionate and enthusiastic, which carries it, I think. But in terms of structure and nuance and all those things, I was kind of a naive neophyte. I kind of compare my work on Cla$$war to a three-chord garage band banging away loudly but being pretty limited in their skillset. But there’s an innocence about that. I’ve written better things since but I’m not sure any had that immediacy. It was a right place, right time thing too. I’m still very fond of it. And it looked amazing thanks to Trev Hairsine and Travel Foreman covering my sins.
CB: Did I read that you’re also writing Doctor Who? Tell me about that series.
Williams: I’m co-writing the new 11th Doctor series of Doctor Who along with Al Ewing (Loki) with Si Fraser on art for Titan Comics. It’s a huge amount of fun. We’re all big fans of the Doctor and the Matt Smith Doctor, so telling tales of the TARDIS’ voyages is a treat.