Steve Pugh: Move Over Ghost Busters and Say Hello to Alice Hotwire

A comics interview article by: Alex Rodrik
I recently got the chance to sit down with Steve Pugh and pick his brain about his writing debut with Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead.

Alex Rodrik: To get our reader’s up to speed. Can you give us an overview of what Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead is about and who exactly is Alice Hotwire?

Steve Pugh: Well, the pitch was “Ghost CSI.” The one gimme that you’re always allowed is that ghosts exist and they’ve always existed, but about 50 years ago they started to appear in masses. They started wandering into cities across the world, creating a sort of infestation, and people freaked out at first but it turned out they were just a bit sad, and a bit creepy, and a bit lonely, and they just hung out where people weren’t. Then it became a problem and they needed a division of the police to deal with the ghosts. But Alice hates the departments in the city we’re dealing with; they’re highly underfunded and they’ve got no resources because usually the ghosts aren’t that much of a problem.

As for Alice, she’s based on someone I met in a Linux support forum. Her basic attitude is, “if you’re not as smart as me, it’s not my fault your stupid.” She’s entirely obnoxious, self-righteous, arrogant, she’s “always right” and “nobody ever listens to her.” She is over-educated, over qualified and really doing the job because she wanted access to really cool gadgets. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, she thinks it’s all a load of rubbish and she’s determined to find out the real scientific explanation for all this stuff. In Britain we tend to like our heroes flawed, so Alice gets drunk and falls over and if she wins a fight it’s because she’s hit somebody with her helmet not because she knows super ninja tricks. And most of the time she spends running screaming. Throwing stuff over her shoulder that explodes. She’s expeditious. She’s just getting along with her job; she doesn’t consider herself a hero at all. And everyone else is completely unimpressed with her -- her boss thinks that the blue light problem should be taken care of by city sanitation not by the police force, she considers it more like a rat problem.

Alice is also slightly autistic about following rules. So, you know, heroes always have to “break the rules” and break down the doors, and get the job done in that way. Alice is sort of obsessional about rules and it kind of gets her into trouble. I mean, there’s a riot going on in the city because these cops beat up some kids and everyone thinks it was her who leaked the footage of it. That’s the kind of backdrop to the whole story and partly the reason why she can’t get any backup for her investigation, even from her colleagues. So Mobey only ends up working with her because he’s already been suspended, well not exactly suspended, but rather sent home without assignment, ‘cause he got into a rumble in the riot and hit a kid. He didn’t know it was a kid -- he was wearing a mask. And the only reason Mobey helps Alice is because he’s stuck at home with his wife and his kid and he’s just driving everybody crazy -- he’s just sitting there. And his wife and his kid are really just glad that he leaves the house. I mean they love him, but they’re glad to see him doing something.

I’ve also tried to make Alice interesting in herself. Sometimes, main characters can become bland and they’re facing these super-interesting villains, and the reader ends up wanting the bad guy to win. So what I wanted to do was make Alice interesting without the need of the villains to make her so.

AR: What about the story of Hotwire inspired your love for it, driving you to reinvent the story and bring Alice back to life?

SP: Well it was very much unfinished business as far as I was concerned. I’d just been offered a regular run on Animal Man for DC and it was my first big run for an American monthly, but Warren [Ellis] got the opportunity to do this story with Tundra and I was really, really keen to work with Warren because he’d been really kind of coming up through the ranks and there was a lot of buzz about him and I thought, “yeah, well I’d better take this chance…” So I took a lot of time out and I got this like really nice paper and I got these dip pens and I really went for it. I tried to make it as lush as I could. And I was really, really pleased with it, and when it didn’t come out I was kind of disappointed but, you know, being involved with Animal Man kind of took mind off of it. Then Alice just became this character that I kept coming back to because I don’t get the chance to do a lot of drawing in my spare time -- I’m mainly about the work. But because I co-created Alice, it wasn’t like I was drawing Batman or something, I was drawing my own girl, so every time I came up with a new art technique or a new style that I wanted to try out I always did a drawing of Alice or a little test thing with Alice. When I tried some CG stuff, I tried to build an Alice.

The character was just always there and it really did feel like unfinished business. I tried a couple of times to persuade Warren to let me revive it. We had an effort to finish it and print it, but he’s quite rightly, very protective of what goes out with his name on it and he didn’t want old work coming back to kind of haunt him. Eventually we kind of hammered out a deal where I would rewrite it [laughs] …yeah, rewrite it, it’s only Warren Ellis… [laughs] …and I was just going to do it in my own time and release it as like a web-comic or something. But the opportunity came up when Dave [Elliott], who’d originally commissioned the story, was in the position to re-commission it for Radical and all the pieces fell into place and we went for it.

AR: What do you hope for the series? Would you have any intention of making it a monthly?

SP: Well, that depends on the publisher. I’d be very happy to keep on with Hotwire forever -- I love the character. But, I can’t do a monthly. The artwork is too elaborate to do a monthly, so it would have to be a miniseries anyways. And, you know, I’m not interested in doing a book because it has to be there every month, I want to just do good work and not squeeze one out because it needs to be on the shelves. The whole reason I left the kind of “rat run” of the monthly books was that I’d just had enough of not being as good as I thought I could be.

The way I prefer to work is, I like to throw everything I’ve got at the page, work as hard as I can, collapse, have a regroup and then do another project. I’m not a marathon runner. I’m more a sprinter and collapser. To do a monthly book you have to have a sort of cooperative spirit, you know, you have to work with other people well and work with thinkers and be a team player and I’m just a control freak who can’t possibly have anybody else touch my work, so… [laughs] It’s not that I don’t think anybody’s as good as me -- they're just not thinking what I’m thinking so it’s not always right on with what I had intended.

AR: I know that you adapted this Alice Hotwire from Warren’s original concept of Alice, what license did you take when reshaping the character into a version that met the needs you have for shaping this story of Alice?

SP: Her design has gone through quite a few changes. When she was originally drawn she was, [laughs] …I was having this Aeon Flux phase so she had this sort of PVC cat suit, black fetish bob, oh god…she had an Uzi on her hip, black shoulder pads, and she had a utility tail -- a series of like equipment packs that hung down like a tail so that when she leapt between buildings and things you could see it. She was also a far more capable character. Warren wrote her very much in a kind of Jenny Sparks sort of capable -- a commanding woman who walks into a room stubs out a cigarette on somebody and takes charge. I kind of upped her obnoxiousness but made her powerless. She’s short and nobody ever listens to her which makes her obnoxiousness more funny than obnoxious. So, because she has no power her obnoxiousness isn’t offensive -- the sting is taken out of it because she has no power. And she’s partnered up with this cop who quite reasonably, doesn’t like her very much. He’s sort of the age where he could be her dad and a sort of strange sort of pseudo father/daughter relationship starts up between them as the story progresses.

AR: What can you tell us about the ghosts in Hotwire?

SP: In the story the ghosts are called “blue-lights.” The scientific community doesn’t really acknowledge them since they don’t believe in ghosts and life after death and all that stuff. So there’s a kind of dichotomy between the science and the supernatural. But we’ve got different kinds of ghosts.

We’ve got a rolling, gamboling, foot-high fog that rolls over the streets at nights and takes hobos for joyrides. And depending on which they get taken over by depends on what their experience is -- some get to make-out, some get into fights, some start dancing. It’s a rolling fog of different souls/spirits/blue-lights and a lot of them [the hobos], like to let it happen ‘cause it’s like entertainment. It’s not quite a drug but it’s just like this thing they do. And most of the ghosts don’t come back right. They’re more based around a central idea like, they come back for revenge or to protect somebody they’d left behind. They’re kind of half formed and bothersome and they’re not particularly scary, they’re just disturbing -- people don’t like looking at them. There’s almost a line drawn between the ghosts and mental illness…it’s that kind of attitude. People just don’t like talking about them, they don’t like looking them in the eye, and they know they’re there but they don’t really interact with them, they just stay away from them. But then somebody starts messing with the ghosts and they turn particularly dangerous. Which everyone is unprepared for because they hadn’t been taken seriously until then.

They basically represent a whole bunch of things throughout the story. They represent fears, immigrant populations… There’s a weirdness and an otherness about the ghosts. They’re just wrong, it’s this thing that they use to be people but they’re not quite right and they just put people on edge. And the idea that you can live on in the afterlife, that there is hope that this isn’t all there is, is completely undercut by how disturbing these things are. They just cast an appall over all the areas where they inhabit and they’re kept out of the main areas of the city by these huge suppresser towers that radiate this kind of signal that keeps them pushed into the corners of the city -- into the dark corners.

So, I mean that’s the overall view but, individual ghosts can represent whatever they need to within the story. I know that sounds like an obvious thing but in the original Warren story the ghosts were a byproduct of an experiment to bring the dead back to life. It was a specific phenomenon caused by scientific experiments and it was limited to this one city, which in the original story was London. But for this one I thought, well, why can’t the ghosts just be ghosts? That is the simplest explanation for them -- that they are just really ghosts and they’ve wandered into the cities because of some pseudo scientific phenomena that they feed off of electromagnetic energy put out by all these wifi gadgets. In the past the electromagnetic field of the Earth was only strong enough to kind of sustain for a couple of hours so you never really saw ghosts but now that the cities are these sort of electromagnetic soups of signals, they thrive on it and are attracted to it and they kind of hang around and make nuisances of themselves.

AR: So, what, if any, part has Warren played in this incarnation of Alice? Did you seek out his input when readapting Alice or did you just try to avoid him at all costs?

SP: He’s been very much hands off. He doesn’t want people to think he wrote it, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to take his name off it. But no, I mean I’ve shown him what I’ve done and he’s seemed quite happy with it, but other than that…not really. I keep him in the loop as to what’s happening and he likes to know…so…

AR: In a previous interview you said that “Alice’s journey is to avoid change…” Can you elaborate on this concept and why you found this to be so compelling?

SP: Well, everybody wants to know, when you’re writing a character, “What is the character’s journey? Where do they start from and where do they end?” You know? They start off the farm boy and they end up the Jedi Master, and Alice doesn’t do that at all. She doesn’t want to change, she doesn’t want to go anywhere, and she wants to be who she is. She’s fine, completely happy with whom she is and everybody around her is trying to change her and make her less obnoxious. They also try to make her think, “Well, you know, maybe these ghost things are real.” Everyone’s trying to make her kind of give up on her sort of view and this kind of autism she’s got because she was kind of hot-housed and she grew up with two genius parents who kept her away from the other kids. She grew up in this kind of community of scientists.

She just really doesn’t want to come out of this experience wiser or more intelligent, she more so just wants to live through it. There is no journey for her character. She’s not looking for enlightenment, you know, not every character has to do that. The cops at the beginning of Law & Order are the same cops that leave the episode of Law & Order -- they're not growing, they’re just sort of dealing with crap they have to deal with everyday. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Alice -- trying to keep this character honest and not try and do any of that stuff that seems to kind of get in the way of -- you know, nobody dies and then comes back in the final act.

There are all these little cheats, all these little rules that you seem to have to have in these contained miniseries stories. I mean, everybody’s read the “hero’s story” and everybody knows the gags, everybody’s seen Star Wars and they’re just a bit worn. I think going back to basics, where you just have a character and you get to learn how that character works and thinks, so that you can enjoy that character reacting to something -- to situations -- I think that’s enough. The character doesn’t have to reinvent themselves -- maybe two or three stories down the line, but within the context of like two or three days, in which this story is set, it would just be forced in there. It wouldn’t be what it’s about.

AR: What inspired the look of the world of Hotwire and why did you choose to tell this story surrounded by this specific landscape?

SP: I wanted it to be a generic sort of city. It’s not really clear if it’s set in America or Canada or Britain. They drive on the wrong side of the road for Britain, so I guess it’s not Britain but the police uniforms are kind of British and some of the structure of the police force is kind of British but it’s sort of a generic city. As far as I can figure it, everybody talks with an American accent except Alice. But I wanted it to be very recognizable, I wanted it to be familiar and comfortable so that it would throw into contrast the weirdness of the ghosts. Also there’s an area of the town that’s called “Old Town” and in this area there was some sort of natural disaster, an earthquake or something, and it’s become abandoned because the city was able to expand westward. So the “Old Town” hasn’t been claimed yet and no business is moving there because all the fiber links and all the broadband and all those things -- none of them work over there. It’s become this kind of haven for the hobos and derelicts and the ghosts. So it lets me move from kind of shiny high-tech buildings right over to Victorian tenement buildings and brown stones. I really like spooky brick work and moss growing out of overgrown tunnels and stuff like that. But I couldn’t do it all that way because it would look too gothic, too exurban England. There’s also the city and cars and buses and trucks, just a lot of different textures to set everything against, really.

AR: What was your writing process when tackling a project such as Hotwire, especially considering the amount of times you’ve thrown around the character of Alice in your head?

SP: Yeah, well…that’s a very good question and that’s exactly what happened. What I did was; I didn’t write scripts at all. The good thing about working for an independent was that I was allowed to write the whole thing as storyboards -- lettered storyboards. And submit it as lettered storyboards, so I didn’t have to write a full script. This allowed me to play around with the scenes, move some things. And I did have to drop a lot of stuff out, because you know, when you run through it in your head, at least when I run through it in my head, I see it as a kind of movie or miniseries or something. And a lot of the scenes just weren’t going to fit into the space available. So I hadn’t learned the discipline that other writers have of condensing stuff into the available space. So I cheated a bit on the first issue and got them to give me 28 pages just so I could get the world established but there are a few nuances and scenes and things which didn’t make the cut. I was going to do a whole shtick with Alice’s dad only appearing as an avatar, and that he lived as an avatar in this kind of scientific community, a bit like Second Life and things but, it was all sort of incidental stuff that would have been nice to have in, but that you didn’t really lose anything by losing it.

AR: What was your philosophy for putting together the structure of the book?

SP: Well, when I was little, I didn’t use to live near a comic shop, so I never saw American monthlies except, my dad was a train driver and he use to every night pick up all the newspapers and comic books that people had left on the train. So once in a while I'd get the odd issue of Thor or the odd issue of X-men, and it would always start in the fight scene that was the resolution to the cliffhanger to the issue before it. So we start Hotwire, issue one, straight in the middle of an action scene, and quickly begin to start establishing people as they’re shouting abuse at each other.

AR: Considering they say that every writer places themselves as one of the characters in their work, what character in Hotwire is Steve Pugh? Who would you find yourself most closely relating to?

SP: I suppose, I mean embarrassingly, it’d have to be Alice. Because she rants about all the stuff I rant about. Although a lot of her rants have kind of been scaled back because she had this whole background of growing up with this really educated background and she’s got a real thing about people being stupid, people being ignorant, she just hates people who are happy in their ignorance. And I know writers shouldn’t do it but it’s inevitable that they do, they talk through their principle characters. But the further into the book I get the more I’ve started to side with Mobey, who’s the cop that has to put up with her. It’s funny because I didn’t think I would because he’s quite low brow straight down the line, he just wants to get through the day. But I’m quite enjoying Mobey’s stoicism and his ability to put up with this awful kid -- this child woman who’s been given all this technology to fight the blue-lights. But I think all the exorcists tend to be quite unstable anyways -- I think it just goes with the job.

AR: Well, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me and letting me pick your brain on Hotwire. Can’t wait to read it!

SP: Not a problem, anytime. Enjoy!

Community Discussion