Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are most commonly referred to in comic book circles by the name “DnA.” The name fits well for the UK writing pair behind a host of comic series and events as over the past decade-plus, they’ve proven some of the most adept scripters of science fiction in the mainstream comics. As it turns out, cosmic ideas are in their actual DNA.
With a franchise-redefining run on DC Comics “Legion of Super-Heroes” that ran from the blistering “Legion of the Damned” series through “Legion Lost,” “Legion Worlds” and eventually simply “The Legion,” the pair established their ability to juggle a massive cast, establish galactic societies and put humanity into the unknown. The term cosmic started defining their style when they rolled a “Nova” miniseries as part of Marvel’s “Annihilation” event into years of comics that included the birth of “Guardians of the Galaxy” — a misfit team of heroes that will soon star in their own blockbuster movie. Today, DnA are working on their latest cosmic endeavor, the creator-owned “The Hypernaturals” with BOOM! Studios.
In part one of a two-part interview, Abnett and Lanning spoke with CBR about all these projects and the hallmarks of their cosmic style. Below, the pair describe where their interest in superhero sci-fi comes from, what they didn’t know about “Legion of Super-Heroes” when they took on that task years ago, how “Guardians” surprised them with its success and what, if any, involvement they’ll have with the upcoming film.
CBR News: Science fiction has always been a part of your work, no matter what company you’ve been at, though since your run at Marvel from Annihilation on, the term “cosmic” has become the de facto modifier for these big, multi-cast space dramas you’re maybe best known for. Do you have a personal conception of how that style came into being over so many different kinds of comics gigs?
Dan Abnett: I think it’s something that just really appeals to us — that particular combination of elements. We like writing team books, which isn’t to say we don’t like solo books, but team books really appeal because of the dynamics involved. We really, really, really adore Jim Starlin’s work and that cosmic legacy he left at Marvel and also DC, because we put in five years on “Legion of Super-Heroes” which is part of that cosmic legacy.
And we’ve also discussed the notion that the sci-fi-ness of cosmic or the SF-ness or however you want to say it, really appeals to us from our British perspective. The British tradition of comic book heroes is much less modern-day costumed heroes, and they’re much lo more outlandish or extraordinary because of the setting they’re in — like Dan Dare or Judge Dredd. Those comics always had a much darker sci-fi component to them, and I think growing up, Andy and I both always had an appreciation for what Starlin was doing, among others. Obviously, Kirby too invented a lot of this. But really this was a way of blending that very American superhero notion with something British in terms of the science fiction. I think that’s why we are drawn to it particularly.
I think the simplest way of describing it is that all cosmic superheroes wear costumes that could be explained away as uniforms or work clothes. It’s clothing for special purposes rather than just putting on a costume to identify themselves as a superhero. That’s a key we like to play around with. And we’ve also always liked those really, really big concepts that have often dominated our stories.
Andy Lanning: I think Dan’s right that this is something we’ve looked at because we get — not even pigeon-holed, but the style of story we write always has that “cosmic” label put on it. One of the reasons is that Dan and I have discussed what we used to read as kids, and they’re very similar titles — a lot of Marvel stuff like “FF” and the Starlin stuff and “Captain Marvel.” Even with things like “Hulk” and “Spider-Man,” they always used to have a real science fiction background to them. It was, for us, a lot less about the books starring superheroes and more about the sci-fi stories. That was one of the things that Jack and Stan did when they started the Marvel stuff was this sci-fi grounding in their characters, and that really appealed to us. I think that’s been hardwired into us as writers as well as readers.
Strangely enough, it’s really that we’re quite happy to plow away in that area as writers. There’s so much fodder there. There’s really no limit to space and cosmic ideas for what you can play with. Though oddly, our first writing gig was for “The Punisher” for Marvel. [Laughter] We wrote that for three or four years, and you couldn’t get more grounded, gritty and street-level than that. So now we’ve gone from crime writing on the back streets of New York to the furthest reaches of the universe. That’s a hell of a career trajectory.
Early on, you worked for Marvel UK which maybe was a market a little more acceptable to these kinds of stories. Did you build up your craft chops for this stuff in a fictional world that was already well established for you? Was that a big help in getting used to these big stories?
Abnett: I think we did. It’s an extremely interesting task to find the biggest story you can tell within the framework of an already established world like the Marvel Universe or the DCU or at Marvel UK. If you take those stories into space or literally into another dimension, there can be more room to play around in. I think one of the things “Hypernaturals” has given us is our own world where we’re not constrained by what somebody else is doing in another book. In other words, “The Hypernaturals” is not us telling stories we just would have done in “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Legion of Super-Heroes.” These are stories that could not have been told in the DC or Marvel Universe whether in the U.S. or U.K. This is a specially constructed universe with a storyline that takes advantage of that. So I think we’ve often been drawn to the impact of the biggest story we can tell in any environment, and we just made our environment big here.
Lanning: And when you’re drawn to playing with other people’s toys, you want to be true to the stuff that’s gone before in terms of continuity and the character of that hero. But equally, whenever we’ve been given a remit to rework a character in one of the big universes, we’ve always triedÂ – particularly with something like “The Legion” — to take that idea as far from their safe zone or their comfort zone as we could. They really told us at DC to take that ideas as far as we could, and that was very liberating. When you take over a well-known book like that, you want to be so true to what it is that you can find yourself bound up in it and limited by all that continuity. But like I said, particularly in a book like “Legion,” we were told to go for it and be as wild and wacky as we possible could. That led us directly into the “Legion of the Damned” and then the “Legion Lost” stories.
And that’s precisely the same idea we took over to the cosmic books at Marvel. We used that same “no constraints” attitude. We worked better doing that and were very liberated doing that on “Legion” and then had even more fun doing it with “Nova” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” at Marvel. So now to be given your own toys to do that with in “Hypernaturals” and have to create this from whole cloth, it’s a major challenge. But equally, there’s a sense of liberation where you can go anywhere and do anything with the characters.
I wanted to look back at Legion for a moment both because, as you say, it was a foundational book for this style of story for you, but also because you took time to build that franchise back into a recognizable version of the Legion through “Damned” and “Legion Lost” where you decimated earth and sent a chunk of the team out across the galaxy. Were sales just down on those books that they let you do this?
Abnett: I don’t know what the sales were like, but there was definitely a feeling — with all due respect to the people who worked on those books before us — that those books needed a shot in the arm. It needed to be moved out of its safe zone. Obviously they didn’t want us to and they actually didn’t allow us to reboot the book in any way. The one rule they did give us was that we had to stick with the reboot Legion that we were handed. We couldn’t convert them to the classic Legion at that time because of continuity. We had to make the best of what we had. But they tried to get us to inject more science fiction, more high concept and more excitement and tension, I think, into a franchise that had become quite cozy.
And I don’t think they needed to tell us that. We came in and went, “Great! What can we do with this?” and desperately ran with it to see how we could inject into it the major storylines we wanted to play with. And I think we got offered the job because they knew it was a big challenge. We were, dare I say it, slightly naive because Legion has a wonderful following — Legion fans are probably the truest of all fandom everywhere. But they also guard the thing they love so carefully that they’re very wary of people coming in and doing anything to it. With us, they got a couple of British guys blithely coming in and saying, “Oh Legion of Super-Heroes? Yeah, we’ll have a go at that” without realizing the full wrath of fans who would say, “What the hell are you doing to our comic?” [Laughter]
So we ended up making bold decisions before we realized what we were doing. And I think we stuck to them. Our reception was rough at times. We earned the ire of Legion fans a few times — particularly when we made strong choices. But I am enormously gratified — and I think Andy would say this too — that now when we go to conventions all around the world of the number of times we have Legion fans coming up to us and saying that they adored our run, asking us to sign stuff and saying that they consider us a part of Legion history. We’ve been accepted now. Our rather radical and revolutionary stint is now considered one of the classic eras. That’s a very reassuring, rewarding thing.
Lanning: I think Dan’s right with that idea that DC was pushing us. We have to give credit to Mike McAvennie, who was our editor, and Mike Carlin who when we presented our initial ideas said, “This is great stuff, guys, but can you not make it even more radical?” From a company point of view, at that point, they’d tried safe and comfortable with “Legion.” They’d gone two or three years with people writing it who loved it so preciously that they weren’t ever going to go anywhere different with it. It was just going to be the same safe stories. I guess that might imply criticism, but it’s really not. What they were doing was perfectly acceptable stories, but over time, I think sales were sliding, and they needed somebody to come and shake it up.
As Dan said, we went into it very naively thinking we’d just run with it. But with the help of Mike McAvennie and Mike Carlin, they helped us get past any initial rabid responses. And we were also very lucky to have Olivier Coipel as our artist on the book. His approach was very divisive back then because it was his first work, and he was developing his style over the course of two years. He evolved into the artist you know today. But people who liked his stuff loved his stuff, and people who didn’t like it could at least recognize that this guy is a major talent. And then off the back of that great run, we were lucky to get Chris Batista on board who was 100% a Legion fan himself and could get what we were trying to do in the book and helped us in that difficult “third year” after “Legion Lost” and “Legion Worlds” where we could do the Legion as we saw it in “The Legion.” That was really our vision of what a sci-fi superhero comic could be.
Tell me about the hallmarks of your style. A common thread to me seems playing with the Utopian ideal. Legion has always been a Utopia until you made it super dark with the Blight attacking in “Legion of the Damned.” Then the Marvel cosmic stuff always seemed to be about a society at war trying to build back to a Utopian ideas. Do those major societal issues come first to drive the characters where you want them to go?
Abnett: I think they do. One of the things that made the Marvel cosmic stuff work — and indeed it’s the same when you’re building your own world — was that with most books, you know what you’re getting into. For example, if you do “Spider-Man” you know he’s set in a present day world which we might recognize. We understand the context he’s operating in. With cosmic, there have been parts of Marvel’s universe that have been very clearly defined, and some is newer than others, and some parts have been defined more recently. It’s the same in DC where you can use “Legion” or “Annihilation” or “War of Kings” to see how we take all the bits and pieces that were disparately created at different times, tie them together and show how they world alongside each other. Essentially, we have to say “this is the place we’re in” and “this is why a threat against this is a bad idea.” It shows you what the stakes are. Spider-Man battling a villain over New York? We know what’s at stake there.
But cosmic can be such a big, all-encompassing, nebulous nothing of stars and planets we don’t already care about — which is why I think a lot of people shy away from this stuff — so you have to build a galactic culture. That can be the world of the Legion or the Shi’ar Empire or the Kree or now the Quantinuum in “Hypernaturals.” The trick is that you anchor your reader in a place and identify “I understand how this works,” and that way they know what to worry about if something comes under great threat. That’s one thing we always strive to do — make sense of where we are.
Lanning: And also to me, that’s very attractive to the types of stories we do where you strip down your heroes and give them insurmountable odds to fight against. Then you get to see what it is about them that makes them a hero. It’s all well and good showing a Utopian society where everything is fantastic, but unless you put the characters against something that’s an equal or bigger threat than they are themselves, then their adventures are just them by themselves.
The whole idea of the Blight was to drop the reader and the team into something where they were completely out of their depth. Something had gone so completely wrong where you had to then look at the characters and see what it is that makes them heroic. What is it about their ideals that brings them together in the first place? Then, when we did “Legion Lost” the idea was stripping them down to a small core team that we focused on because with the Legion, quite literally, there’s a legion of characters to choose from. Stripping it down to that group gave us a chance to analyze and see what we liked about those characters and what readers like.
In fact, one of the things I love about our Legion run as a sidebar is that going into “Legion Lost” one of the most unpopular characters in the Legion was Monstress. Everyone hated her with a passion! [Laughter] And we made a deliberate, very coldly calculated move to try and make people like that character because we knew we were going to kill her. We said, “If we can kill Monstress and actually make people go ‘Oh no’ then that will be a major thing.” And it was most bizarre how people come up to you now and say, “I used to hate Monstress until you killed her!” So doing that is great fun.
We did that in “Guardians” by taking characters that you don’t know much about and don’t care for and making them important. These are B, C, D and Z-list characters. If we can make you care about those characters, then it’s sort of like giving you a blank slate to work with. There are also more storytelling possibilities because since they’re Z-list, you don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They could actually die. You just don’t know who could survive from one issue to the next. That has great possibilities as a writer. If you’re writing Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, you know they’ll be back the next month. But if you’re writing Groot or Rocket Raccoon or Monstress, who knows who is going to make it to the next issue.
These stories have also evolved like that over time, particularly the Marvel ones. You started on “Annihilation” where Keith Giffen was the primary writer of the event, and you worked on the “Nova” mini. Then you took full control of that line, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” seemed to grow out of a lot of pieces you put into play. It felt like you never sat down early and said, “And eventually we will build to one core team.” How often do you take an assignment not sure where you’ll end up?
Abnett: I think the rules become definite and stable in terms of the landscape, like I said before. We try to define the setting as much as possible, and then we try to get the maximum amount of flexibility in terms of everything else we do. I think our cosmic run at Marvel has a particularly enjoyable thing because it grew organically. We did a “Nova” miniseries, and it worked, so then we did a “Nova” ongoing. We got through “Annihilation” and then discovered “Guardians.” And “Guardians” themselves begat “War of Kings,” and then we got the “Thanos Imperative” and ultimately “Annihilators.” It was a matter of seeding in things to see if they work and then combining them and recombining them until we found what combinations worked the best.
I think in many respects, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic worked so well because it was a sort of accidental cocktail. We needed a team book, we wanted to do a team book, and when we put the team together, it really worked well. It’s like making the best meal in the world because of what was in the fridge when you went to the kitchen. I think you could spend an awful lot of time seeing more calculated, deliberate books that are less satisfying. A lot of things that happened in “Guardians” that worked well in terms of character combinations and story lines that resonated were due to the condition they were in when we found them and what they’d been through together. That gave us an enormous amount of mileage and potential, and as I said, people didn’t care about these characters. It let us run with things and make a big deal out of them.
Andy I’m sure will attest that our trademark when we’re working is to play with every idea we come upon. And even if we don’t know where they’re going to go next, we leave them ready for use.
Lanning: He’s right. It’s one of those things where you play the cards you’re dealt and by happy accident find it’s a winning hand. With the Marvel stuff in particular, it was quite literally us going through old handbooks and seeing who was available and who hadn’t been used in years. We just plucked them out and threw them into the mix, and Marvel gave us carte blanche to do that, which was great, mainly because no one was doing anything in the cosmic playground. Everyone was working on “Civil War” and the earthbound heroes, so we were able to do whatever we wanted to do with that stuff.
We took our lead from what Keith did in the initial “Annihilation.” We were brought on board to do the Nova section of that because we’d previously worked with [editor] Andy Schmidt on a proposed “Nova” series, which he really liked. So when he got a chance to work on “Annihilation,” Keith very generously wrote it into the setup “Here’s where Nova is at the beginning of the series. You guys tell me where he’s at by the end, and I’ll write him back into ‘Annihilation.'” He was very generous to let us do what we wanted there, and we tried to return the favor when we were able to launch the “Nova” ongoing and from there the second “Annihilation” event. Because we were the architects of that series in the same way Keith was with the first, we were able to say to Keith, “Here’s the Guardians of the Galaxy group. Let us know where you’re at by the end of it, and we can take it from there.” It was very much us feeding off of each other.
And now as a testament to the work you guys did there, Marvel is making a “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie which, from the concept art, seems to feature your core team. What was your initial reaction to that happening? Did you expect that they might even make a cartoon of this cast let alone a full Hollywood movie?
Abnett: Not at all. The fact that Marvel has decided that that makes good sense for them to do, it’s a huge compliment. We’re very excited to see what happens, and we’re very excited to see where they go with it. I think anybody — I don’t care how devoted a Star-Lord or Rocket Raccoon fan you were even two years ago — who would have said that this would make a great main movie would have been laughed off. It’s such an unlikely thing to do. So I think it’s lovely to work on something and expose its potential to the point where a company like Marvel will say, “Yes, this makes sense.” We’re very excited. It’s very interesting to look at it happening.
Lanning: And it was one of those things where we were approached to do the Guardians episode of “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” We wrote that story, which was one of those things where you’re thinking, “Wow! They’re taking our guys seriously!” Chris Yost, who contacted us to do that episode, was very generous to let us write it. I think there was a sniff in the air that these characters had potential, but to actually use our cast to make a movie is fantastic. We’ve been on the record saying that as much as anybody, we’re happy to sit back as fans and enjoy the ride. We hope it does this justice and do all the things this idea has the potential to achieve.
And as a follow up, have you been involved at all in the process of the movie whether in terms of consulting on the film or any kind of financial gain?
Abnett: These are Marvel’s characters, and they will develop them as they see fit. Like I said, it’s a huge compliment to us that they’re doing that, but I think it’s only fair to say that we haven’t really been consulted in any way, shape or form. We wrote this stuff essentially as work-for-hire, and if Marvel came to us and said, “Would you like to consult on the movie?” that would be lovely. But for now, our interpretation is there on the page.
Lanning: I think that’s the way the business works sometimes. Sometimes you do get consulted and it’s fantastic, but other times they just do the movies on their own. They’re using the comics as a source material, and what they do with that, they’re at liberty to do. You have to be professional about that and see the fact that they’re using this material as a huge compliment anyway. And if at any point they consult us or we get a ticket to the premier, that’s a cherry on the cake as far as we’re concerned. Of course, we’d be involved at the drop of a hat. Who wouldn’t be? But you’ve also got to be professional about the whole thing.
Stay tuned this week on CBR for more with DnA about their BOOM! Studios series “The Hypernaturals.”