In November, 2000AD released The Ten-Seconders: The American Dream, collecting the first two story arcs of Rob Williams and Mark Harrison's post-apocalyptic humans vs. superhuman serial with additional art from Dom Reardon, Shaun Thomas and Ben Oliver. The title, of course, refers to how long these humans last against the "Gods" that have decimated the Earth's population.
While the subversion of superhero tropes has become both its own genre and a bit cliché in recent years, The Ten-Seconders manages to find a distinctly 2000AD take on the idea, where the damaged, expendable humans are very human and the scary superhumans are very inhuman. Above all, it's a solid action comic in the 2000AD tradition.
Writer Rob Williams and I talked about The Ten-Seconders, the reasons for the gaps between stories and the artist changes and the details of the upcoming third series, which I found out will be illustrated by Indigo Prime's Edmund Bagwell. So that's going to be crazy.
Danny Djeljosevic for Comics Bulletin: What are the origins of The Ten-Seconders? What compelled you to pitch it to 2000AD? As most of us know, it's a publisher that normally doesn't deal with superhero-related comics.
Rob Williams: That was part of the attraction, the fact that 2000AD really doesn't deal with this type of material normally. And also, it's very much a story that is a meta commentary on superheroes, rather than it being just another superhero story. It's about the western comics market, really. In The Ten-Seconders' world, superheroes (Gods, as we call them in the book) have taken over the world and ruined it for everyone. The British resistance in the book are, thematically, 2000AD, fighting against an overwhelming tide from across the Atlantic. And the resistance are drunk and sarcastic and everything that superheroes normally aren't. I suspect that's what appealed to Matt Smith, 2000AD's editor, when I pitched it. The idea that we could take the piss out of the superhero market a bit, whilst also sort of celebrating it. Then in the second series we brought in some Vertigo archetypes too. There's a load of explosions and big action in The Ten-Seconders, but there's a sardonic subtext too.
CB: The Ten-Seconders is, in some ways, a follow-up to your acclaimed Cla$$war with Trevor Hairsine — not a sequel (I don't think?) but a similar subversion of the genre, as you look at superpowered beings from a different angle. How much of that thematic similarity was conscious?
Williams: I wouldn't say it's a sequel to Cla$$war in terms of themes or narrative, but it shares the same aesthetic approach, I guess. Both stories are me going for a widescreen Hollywood action movie approach and throwing in a healthy degree of subversiveness along the way. I've always been a big fan of good superhero books (the "good" bit is the important caveat). I've not really dealt with the big alpha-level powered super characters much in my career, but they're in Cla$$war and they're also present in The Ten-Seconders too. You can blow up a lot of things playing in that sandpit, which is fun.
CB: One of my favorite parts of The Ten-Seconders is how you and artist Mark Harrison devised the "Gods" to be instantly recognizable superhero archetypes — the Superman type, the scientist, the big, bulky guy — but they're distinct characters rather than simple analogues. Can you talk a little about that process?
Williams: We wanted them to be recognizable as being certain Big Two icons but also very different, following the theme. That allowed us the freedom to build these characters up and then rip them down slightly. It's fun to play off archetypes of favorites. Bounce sarcastic British humor off them. The intention of The Ten-Seconders was to create a story that fans of the superhero genre could enjoy and fans of 2000AD could enjoy. There's often a distinction amongst the fanbase. A lot of 2000AD readers would balk at ever buying a superhero book. This dips its toes in both worlds and sets them to war against one another.
CB: Since you've done at least two works that fit in with this, what are your thoughts on the "subverted superhero" sub-genre? In your view, what compels creators to take these tropes and twist them?
Williams: It's the love-hate thing. Unless you're Garth Ennis and you plainly have a "hate hate" relationship with superheroes. I think a lot of British creators love the Big Two icons but also can get a bit frustrated with how po-faced they can be. So we take the piss a bit. But we wouldn't be doing that unless we also have an affection for these characters and that goes back to nostalgia and the comics we read and loved in our childhood.
CB: You're a writer who's done work for 2000AD, which deals in a handful of story pages once a week, as well as American publishers like Dark Horse, Dynamite and Marvel, who serialize at least 20 pages at the time. What are your thoughts on the differences between the two approaches and their respective demands? Do you have a preference?
Williams: They each employ different writing muscles. It's like being an athlete and either running the 100 meters or 1500 meters. I think writing for 2000AD in five-page episodes teaches you a lot. You need to have a start-middle-end and cliffhanger in each episode. So you learn economy of storytelling and to trim away the fat. That's very healthy. I've just done a Judge Dredd with a US artist who said my six-page script would be a three-issue arc if it were a Marvel book. On the downside, characters don't get as much room to breathe in that format. When you're given 20-22 pages you suddenly feel like you have a load of room to play. That gives you more freedom to employ narrative tricks. Splash pages, something as simple as using three panel pages for action sequences – which you can't do in 2000AD. I enjoy both at different times.
CB: I noticed that the two stories comprising The American Dream were serialized in 2000AD nearly 100 progs apart — roughly a couple of years. What was the reason for the big delay?
Williams: I did a lot of work for Marvel in that break and that was giving me my superhero writing fix and then some. I didn't really have the urge to go and write superheroes for 2000AD at that time. It was a nice break for me to write future crime fiction (Low Life) and a supernatural western (The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael) for 2000AD at that time, to get away from the superfolk.
CB: That's interesting — that you were able to take a respite like that. How did that work, that process of saying to 2000AD editorial, "I'd like to stop for a while"? Were you worried about not being able to come back, or potentially losing readers that thought you might not be returning?
Williams: It wasn't a problem, to be honest. Matt Smith and 2000AD have always been pretty relaxed with letting me do what I want. I was writing Low Life and The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael for them, both of which were going down pretty well, I think, so there wasn't the urgency to return to The Ten-Seconders. Returning to The Ten-Seconders actually came about at the Kapow convention this year. I was on the 2000AD panel and a reader asked about its return, I said "maybe" and Matt asked if I'd be interested in bringing it back. Something as "on the spot" as that got the cogs turning. I'd always known the basic spine of the third series. It was just a question of finding an artist for it that I was excited to work with. And fortunately we found one.
CB: There were several artist shifts in the second story arc, "Make Believe," with Dom Reardon, Shaun Thomas and Ben Oliver each doing at least three installments. Was this intentional, or were there other factors at work here?
Williams: Other factors, unfortunately. Dom's fantastic but he had to drop out of drawing "Make Believe." Then Shaun Thomas took over for a few episodes. I live close by to Ben Oliver in Bristol and we meet for coffee sometimes. Ben's an amazing artist, as you'll know if you've seen his work for Marvel and DC. I asked him if he fancied coming onboard and was delighted when he said yes. Some of his work on "Make Believe" is just sensational.
CB: My other favorite part of The Ten-Seconders was the ending — it leaves room for future stories, but I'm a real big fan of the abruptness. To some extent it puts the burden on the reader to decide how things turn out, depending on their outlook of the world. What was the thinking behind that kind of conclusion
Williams: It was the traditional 2000AD cliffhanger, teasing for the next series even though we knew that next series may not be back for a some time, which is a bit naughty, I guess. It seemed a great moral test for Malloy too. Press this button and something EVEN BIGGER than the Gods will come and get rid of the Gods for you. But what that "even bigger" thing might be, you don't know. It's a leap of faith for a character who was once a Priest before the war with the Gods started. But is he saving The Earth or cursing it? A horrible decision to have to make.
CB: Are there any plans to return to this series? Or do you think you've said all you wanted to say about the world of The Ten-Seconders?
Williams: We're working on the third series now, in fact. Answering the questions that Malloy was forced to ask. The Fathers of the Gods are coming to get their errant children. But that's not necessarily a good thing for the human race. I'm delighted that Edmund Bagwell (Cradlegrave, Indigo Prime) is drawing the third series. Edmund's got a real Kirby feel to his work, which just looks amazing, and there's a load of cosmic sci-fi in this series. Very big visuals — that is about as widescreen as you can get. But trying to keep this a very grounded, human story at the same time. It's pretty ambitious.
CB: Wow, Bagwell's style is VERY different from the other artists so far. With that in mind — while the human element is obviously the main thrust of the story — how much of a departure will the third series be from the previous installments? I wasn't expecting anything on a cosmic scale to show up.
Williams: The third series was always intended to be a kind of Kirby homage. First series was Marvel/DC, second series was Vertigo, third Kirby, so we needed someone who could convey that. Edmund's work on Cradlegrave was wonderful and blew me away, but it was horror set on a UK council estate. Very down to earth. Then he did Indigo Prime for 2000AD and that was just an insane Kirby-esque departure. Plainly the guy loves the cosmic visuals and details them wonderfully, and he was obviously very influenced by Kirby. That made him the perfect choice, the ability to combine the down-to-earth with the area of gods. The third series is where the Ten-Seconders go beyond fighting super heroes and villains. This is a story of true "gods."
CB: The last Ten-Seconders story came out in 2008. How difficult was it to return to the story and re-orient yourself to this world?
Williams: Not that difficult, happily. I committed to making the first episode a catch-up "story so far" to bring readers up to speed, which also reveals the past history of Malloy, one of our main characters. But aside from that, the voices of the characters weren't that difficult to regrasp. Especially Harris, who's a bald man obsessed with beer from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. Yes, I did grow up there and, yes, I am bald. But aside from that all, similarities end (burp).
CB: What other work do you have coming up?
Williams: A bunch of things I can't talk about yet. A few Judge Dredds that I'm excited about for different reasons, including having one of my favorite artists in the comics business drawing it. I'm also working on a creator-owned series at the moment, which I'm enjoying hugely. It's called Ordinary and you'll be seeing it in 2013.