While London may seem to foreigners a magical place of free healthcare, Olympic Games and royal families, stories such as “Great Expectations” and “A Journal of the Plague Year” show a much dirtier past for England’s capital city, filled with crime, disease and corruption.
Working in that vein, and adding in a healthy dose of steampunk, is writer Ian Edginton and D’Israeli’s “Stickleback.” Debuting in “2000 AD” in 2006, the series relates the dirty dealings of a corrupt, deformed, Cockney gangster by the name of Stickleback. A true villain, Stickleback has an extra ribcage on his back that killed his mother as he was born, and it’s been all downhill from there.
Ian Edginton has become one of “2000 AD’s” most prolific contributors, co-creating popular series like “The Red Seas,” “Ampney Crucis” and “Brass Sun.” Edginton recently spoke with Comic Book Resources about the villain’s return in “Number of the Beast,” his apparent death at the end of the last volume, how all of his work fits in to a single universe and the source of inspiration for his unique style.
CBR News: For those who are still unfamiliar with the comic, what’s the basic premise behind “Stickleback?”Ian Edginton: He’s a villain. He’s the Pope of crime who rules the underworld in a fantastical version of London that’s the love-child of Charles Dickens and Mervyn Peake. He’s called Stickleback because he was born with a second, splintered rib cage growing out of his back. He boasts that he came into the world a murderer, as he ripped his mother apart whilst she was giving birth to him. It’s also the name of a little fish that has backwards facing spines growing out of its back to prevent it from being eaten and swallowed by bigger fish!
Stickleback has surrounded himself with an equally eerie and oddball gang. There’s Miss Scarlet, his red-haired brothel keeper who’s covered from top to toe in ornate tattoos. There’s Mr. Peepers and Mr. Lug (slang for eyes and ears — lug holes!) who are conjoined twins; one has phenomenal eyesight and the other, acute hearing. Fiery Jack is a charred, skeletal chap who just happens to be alive and well and able to set fires with a touch. Gay John is a dandy and swordsman. Black Bob is a giant, genial zombie and his good friend Tonga is a deadly, blow-pipe wielding Andeman Islander clad in a fur coat and bowler hat. He’s king of his respective hill but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people and organizations on either side of the law who are eager to take him down.
The last time we saw Stickleback — he was dead! Where does that leave us for the new series?
It did seem that way, didn’t it? He was last seeing plummeting over the side of an airship high over London and there’s no getting up and walking away from that — or is there? It’s been hinted at a number of times that Stickleback is actually a disguise, that he was once someone else altogether, a great man, but something happened to make him the man he is now. After his death, we do see a harness with his Stickleback back bones attached to them, being hauled out of the [River] Thames, the implication being it was a disguise all along. It also means that given the right incentive or motivation, anyone could be Stickleback.
“Stickleback” is just one series from your long-running partnership with D’Israeli. You’ve spoken before about how you bounce ideas off each other, but with so many different projects, how do the two of you decide which ideas should land where?
There’s no hard or fast rule. We just kind of play it by ear. Matt (D’Israeli) will give me feedback on an outline or a script, and we’ll just bounce things around. Funnily enough, the new series of “Stickleback” we’re working on wasn’t the one we started out with. We actually came up with a big story arc that would run over a couple of series, but in the end we decided that we wanted to narrow the focus and just keep this one all about Stickleback’s apparent return. We want to keep it tight and then, over the next couple of series, pull back to reveal a much larger canvas.
While “Stickleback” isn’t as purely steampunk as some of your other fare, I’d say nobody’s worked in the genre as much as you in recent years for “2000 AD,” and certainly nobody’s done it as well since those early Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill “Nemesis” comics. Why are you so drawn to the steampunk genre?
I think it’s because it appeals to my science/detective fiction roots. I had glandular fever when I was young and was laid up for quite a while. During that time, I read and read and read. Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, M.R. James, Edmund Crispin — the list goes on and on. They gave me a literary bedrock that’s fed into my work ever since.
Why has it taken so long for “Stickleback” to return?
It was a simply matter of finding the time. We were both busy on other things. Matt was working on “Low Life” with Rob Williams and “SVK” with Warren Ellis. I was writing a series for Dark Horse as well as adapting all of the “Sherlock Holmes” novels for Self Made Hero.
Where did you get the initial inspiration for Stickleback’s unique character and demeanor?
For a long time, I’d wanted to right a story where the villain was the hero. Way back in the dim and distant days of my childhood, there was a comic book character called “The Spider.” He was a criminal mastermind, and the stories revolved around his crimes and his on-going battles with other criminals, super-villains, etc. There was another strip called “The Black Max,” set during World War I, where the fiendish villain used giant bats against the allied air forces. With that in mind, I wanted to put the bad guy squarely at the center of the story. There are also touches of Bill Sykes, Fagin, Arthur Daley and Moriarty in Stickleback’s make-up.
Where did the visual design for the character come from?
He’s based very loosely on Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies in the film “Cabaret,” Alan Ford’s character Brick Top in “Snatch” with bits of Alec Guinness as Fagin and Beetlejuice thrown in for good measure.
Is it true that “Stickleback” ties-in to your other “2000 AD” series, “The Red Seas?”
There is a shared universe of sorts. In “Red Seas,” I’ve established that there’s a wheel of 13 parallel worlds, but only a secret order known as the Brotherhood of the Book knows of their existence. I’m shorthanding this as it gets a bit convoluted, but basically, the Brotherhood of the Book are the custodians of a vast, hidden library containing the secret history of the world. After the sacking of the great library at Alexandria, the librarians and academics decided such knowledge should no longer be left vulnerable to the blade and boot-heel and so a great, secret repository was established and a librarian set to watch over it. There’s a librarian in each of the 13 worlds, they’re aware of each other and often meet up. There are other worlds beyond the 13 but they’re considered too dangerous to deal with. In fact, the door to the 13th world is barred after it was invaded by these “forces” and became sundered and broken. However, whatever’s behind that door is repeatedly trying to find ways to infiltrate the other worlds. The librarians are the gatekeepers who try to keep this menace at bay; as such they use various unwitting agents in their respective worlds to combat any incursions when they occur.
So far we’ve only seen a handful of these alternate worlds in “Red Seas,” “Stickleback,” “Ampney Crucis” and “Leviathan.” These worlds also have different incarnations of the same characters. For example, Orland Doyle, who’s a villain in “Red Seas,” is actually the Brotherhood librarian in “Stickleback.”
The audience reaction for your new steampunk series “Brass Sun” has been overwhelmingly positive. How exciting has it been to see the readers’ reactions?
It’s been amazing. To come out of the gate to such a positive response is incredibly encouraging. It’s in no small part to Ian [Culbard’s] art. We’ve worked together on the “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations, but this is the first time where we’ve been able to do our own thing and really cut loose, and he’s turned in some stupendous pages. That then feeds back into my writing, because I can see what Ian can do and want to play to those strengths. One of the comments I heard was that the story feels epic, which is great.
“Stickleback: Number of the Beast,” by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli, debuts in “2000 AD” prog 1824, on sale March 20 in UK comics shops and world-wide digitally in the App store.