Interview: Dan Abnett, part 1: Marvel Cosmic

A few weeks ago, noted comic writer Dan Abnett sat down with myself and Spaceman Spiff to chat about his storied comic career. The entirety of that interview appeared in last week’s podcast. This week, we’ll be posting transcripts of the interview in installments. In this first segment, Abnett talks about his long collaboration with Andy Lanning and his popular work on Marvel’s cosmic characters.

Rebel Rikki: Thank you very much for taking the time to join us. You and Andy Lanning have been working on Marvel’s cosmic stories for awhile. How did you get your start with Marvel and as a writer in general, and how did that collaboration start with Andy?

Dan Abnett: It goes back quite a long way; I have to admit that we’ve been doing it for 25 years now. My first job out of college was at Marvel in London, and that was where I started as an editor but also started to freelance as a writer. I used to edit British weekly kids comics like Real Ghostbusters, Transformers, Thundercats and that kind of stuff. Andy was a freelance artist — still is; he’s still an inker — that I used to employ on Ghostbusters. We would go down to the pub after work and sit and chat and realize that we loved the same Marvel comics and the same characters from growing up as kids. We got on well enough to brainstorm ideas together. So although I wrote and still write stuff on my own, that collaboration happened because Andy had these great stories he didn’t feel he could write on his own, and we would write them together.

We did various different bits and pieces which led us to pitching in the — I guess this would be the late ’80s or very early ’90s — a Punisher story to Marvel US, which was accepted, and we ended up writing the Punisher for about two years. And so we’ve always collaborated, particularly on the American comics, ever since then, for Marvel and DC. So it sort of evolved from that very very early simple beginning. And one of the sets of comics we both have this enduring love of from childhood was Marvel’s cosmic characters. So when in about 2004 then-editor in charge of the cosmic books Andy Schmidt asked us if we would like to have a go at Nova as part of the very first Annihilation event we went “Yeah, that would be great” and clearly did a good enough job to be invited back regularly after that point, until they sort of let us run wild with the cosmic characters, which has been an absolute dream come true. I’ve really really enjoyed it, and I’ve loved the opportunity to really make that continuity our own.

Spaceman Spiff: Could you talk a little bit about your process of writing with a partner like that?

DA: Yeah, we write alternate words. Andy’s main area of responsibility is nouns, and I come in for verbs. (laughs) I’m sorry, I’m being facetious. We live about a half-hour’s drive away from each other — Andy’s slightly closer to London than me. So we talk all the time on the phone and we brainstorm ideas and we get together probably once a week for a whole day where we literally spitball ideas together and come up with stuff. And it’s evolved over the years. It used to be very much more we’d brainstorm together, then I would write, putting flesh on the bones of the ideas Andy had worked up with me. Nowadays we brainstorm together and we then divide and conquer; Andy writes a great deal of plots, breakdowns and beat sheets that I then come in and put the scripts to afterwards. In some things it’s divided more equally than others. But we basically generate these stories, to a fairly fine degree, together, and then divide the actual physical work of writing them up. The one thing that always does tend to fall to me is the actual dialog, but quite often I’m dialoging a script that he has otherwise constructed in terms of panel breakdowns. Sometimes there’s more of me. But it is much more a joint effort than it ever was before.

My wife, and when we work at Andy’s Andy’s wife, never thinks we’re actually doing any work because we sound like we’re having too much fun, because it makes us laugh. You’ve got to push into the area of really funny ideas, which you know are ridiculous and won’t work but make you laugh, before you can pull back into the ones that will work, and then you can run with those. I think the best thing about collaboration is the sense that individually you can have a great idea, but it’s somebody else having that great idea that will make you have the even better idea. So quite often I think some of the best things we’ve done is because neither one of us would’ve come up with it on our own, but because one of us has come up with something the other one has run with that. In a small way, it’s the way a writer’s room works on an American comedy show or something, where it’s the competitive bouncing of ideas that gets you where you need to be.

RR: It seems like having a built-in editor.

DA: I have to say, there is an element of that. I’m not saying we never get asked to rewrite stuff by our editors, but yes, we check each other. Whenever either one of us has written something it goes to the other one before it goes to an editor. It’s like when you’re writing a novel having a first reader who looks at it and checks that you’re not making a fool of yourself, essentially checks that you’re not going outdoors naked.

RR: Without spoiling too much, can you give us any hint at where your cosmic series are going? Once Annihilators and Rocky Raccoon wrap up, anything on the horizon?

DA: There’s always a possibility. I’m not at liberty to discuss in any concrete terms, unfortunately. Marvel wants to publicize things in the right order when they announce stuff. But we’ve been very lucky to go as far with the cosmic books as we have, and Marvel’s been very obliging by letting us reach beat points — the Thanos Imperative, for instance, as being a major point of closure, not overall but a nice big piece of punctuation. Annihilators really feels like a fresh start, moving on into a new chapter. The first issue’s out and it seems to be going down very, very well, so I’m hoping that we will get to do and explore more of these things.

I like the fact that with the Annihilators they’ve done this double-ended format, so it’s an extremely good value for money and it’s got two very different stories in there that go from the absolute sublime of the very most highly powered Marvel cosmic heroes to the ridiculous of Rocket and Groot at the other end of the scale. You get a great cross-section of what Marvel Cosmic’s all about.

SS: I really did like how much that first issue changed gears between those two stories. Annihilators has a very different feel from Guardians of the Galaxy. Is that deliberate?

DA: It is deliberate. We’ve got a good reputation for using smaller or secondary characters who aren’t particularly famous; they’re all B- or C-listers really, and that was one of the fun things about it because it meant we could do slightly more radical things with them because they weren’t marquee names and people didn’t know what to expect next. And also when you’re carving out a corner of the universe like that you tend to get the lesser-known characters to play with first. We always wondered what it would be like if we’d been able to come in on day one and start with the really big hitters like Silver Surfer. One of the things we did with Nova himself was to try to make him a bigger hitter, make him seem more impressive and more like a premiere lead character.

There’s actually something slightly off-putting about a team that’s so powerful it could sort of do anything, because you always root for the underdogs, so there is a danger they’d just become too arrogant and too powerful. Starlord built the best team he could with Guardians given the available resources, and they did extraordinary things, but they paid the price. Annihilators is the team he would’ve built if the big guns had answered his call the first time and taken him seriously, and they’ve got that legacy to follow. So that’s kind of the through-line that we’re trying to do with the story itself, the idea that they’ve sort of woken up to the importance of having, as it were, an Avengers-style team in space. And that in itself comes with problems, because most of them are very solo characters, and because of their power level, although space is a much bigger landscape to play in, that’s going to give you problems. There’s going to be much more collateral damage than there would have been with, say, the Guardians, where they simply can’t individually do that much damage.

SS: And you still get the best of both worlds with this double-format, because you have the ultimate underdog with Rocket Raccoon in the back.

DA: Yeah, absolutely. Rocket and Groot, who we love as characters, even surprised us with how popular they were, and the fact that Marvel then said “give them a limited series on their own.” We went “really, seriously?” It’s a raccoon and a talking tree, really. I think it’s nice to get that contrast because I think it really shows the really oddball quality of Marvel Cosmic. And I cannot rate highly enough Tim Green‘s art on that Rocket and Groot series. I think he’s awesome. It’s beautifully drawn stuff anyway, but what I think he does better than an awful lot of people in the industry is [the art's] genuinely funny. We’ve tried to put some quite good gags in there, but when the art was first coming in without the dialog on it the stuff was still funny. I think to mix what is surprising degrees of realism with that comedic body language is just fantastic. I’m very very pleased with it indeed.

Check back Wednesday for segment number two, where we learn more about the pending Abnett/Lanning run on New Mutants!

tags: dan abnett, guardians of the galaxy, interview, the annihilators

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