The Middle Ages of Europe were hard on the average man, but when you throw aliens into the mix, things will get downright gruesome in Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard’s new Dark Horse Comics series “Dark Ages.”
Announced this weekend at WonderCon in Anaheim and set for later in the summer, “Dark Ages” sees the team behind Vertigo’s “New Deadwardians” taking a much meatier, action-oriented approach to history by twisting a team of mercenaries from the early Middle Ages with alien monsters they can only perceive as demons from Hell. The resulting story is a mix of classical horror imagery and existential soul-searching with a heavy dose of swordplay thrown in.
CBR News spoke with Abnett about how the collaboration with Culbard continued on beyond Vertigo, what new historical angles will make this more than a typical fantasy series, how deeper themes grew in the telling of an action story and why readers should expect more creator-owned work from him in the years ahead.
CBR News: Dan, “Dark Ages” marks your second collaboration with artist I.N.J. Culbard after your Vertigo series “New Deadwardians.” Was this project more or less born out a desire to keep the collaboration going?
Dan Abnett: Ian and I worked together on “Deadwardians” without ever actually meeting, but I knew his work and we corresponded and ended up getting on so well that I felt the work he did was amazing. That Vertigo series is something we were both very proud of indeed, so we’re continuing as a writer/artist unit on various things. There’s another one even that I can’t discuss yet, but our next project out of the blocks is “Dark Ages” which we’re having a ball with. What we’re tending to do with each project is coming up with a very distinct flavor. “New Deadwardians” had its own flavor, and “Dark Ages” has a distinct flavor, and then the next thing we’re doing is completely different yet still. He’s a fantastic artist and because he also writes, he can interpret scripts and do wonderful things with storytelling that I never saw coming. I write in full script, but I send it to him open to interpretation, and he’ll often get back to me saying, “What if we did this?” It’s a nice synergy.
One thing “Dark Ages” may share with “New Deadwardians” in terms of DNA is that it takes an actual historical period and then spins it out into a completely different area via genre storytelling. What’s the appeal to that kind of story approach?
There’s a number of different things, really. You may remember that I’m a novelist as well as doing comics. I write a lot of books for Warhammer and Doctor Who, but one of my original novels was a book called “Triumph” which was a take on a world where the Elizabethan Age never ended in England and was still being carried on today. Then through the industrial age, a rediscovery of magic had given the British Empire some power as the succession of royalty continued on past Queen Elizabeth. So that idea of exploring history and playing with it has always appealed to me.
What Ian and I are doing here is attempting to tell stories that you don’t normally do in the remit of mainstream superheroes. I love writing for DC and Marvel, but to play with historical themes and big ideas and mash them up a bit is fantastic. When you pitch a project like this to Dark Horse — who said “yes” immediately — it’s a matter of thinking not about what works for a character like Batman or whatever. It’s about concept — finding a place where the world is created to give you something new.
The other way to look at stories like this is in those high concept terms. With “New Deadwardians,” it was “The Walking Dead meets Downton Abbey.” Thanks for that line, Vertigo! [Laughs] But for “Dark Ages” we’ve been talking about it by saying it’s “Kingdom of Heaven meets Starship Troopers.” It’s a story that takes place in a real, researched, authentic historical place and then finding a way to spin it around completely. This is set in the very early Middle Ages at the start of the Hundred Year War, and it’s about a war band who are essentially mercenaries who are traveling across Europe and become involved in what the reader understands to be an extraterrestrial invasion. But of course, they have no idea what that is. As far as they’re concerned, these are demons and they’re facing the end of days. The earth has split open, and God has decided that it’s time for man to face his final days on earth.
From the outside view of the reader, you’ll be going, “Those are spaceships!” But the monsters and everything on the page is seen through the lens of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder and the artists of the era. That’s the frame of reference they would have. If you see a painting like Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” there are some amazing creatures in it which are extrapolations of how he imagined monsters would be in the mindset of the 14th Century. So we didn’t want to put in little green men from Mars or our conception of what an alien might look like. We wanted to use theirs. So one of the selling points is that Medieval mindset, so it’ll not have monsters like you’ve seen anywhere else unless you’ve studied the art of the Middle Ages. And that’s fun. I hope the reader will enjoy a sense of raising the dialogue — that the story is framed by the reference point of the people living in it while we understand something different.
And it’s an adventure! Let’s face it, the point of all this is a horror thriller with lots of action and adventure. But there is a subtext of what people perceive things to be.
I think one thing that may surprise people about that period and those characters is that, at least in America, our direct reference for Medieval Europe is usually the High Middle Ages with their knights in armor and chivalry and all the tropes classical fantasy is built upon. From what I’m hearing, this book seems like it will traffic in an earlier period which is almost more gritty than we’d typically imagine for a Medieval fantasy. Has that shift in tone become a focus?
Absolutely. We didn’t live in the Middle Ages so we don’t know, but I think there is a definite difference here. You use the word “gritty,” and I don’t think that’s a bad way to look at it. There’s a dirty authenticity to it. It’s not a “Monty Python’s Holy Grail” in a muddy field sort of thing. It’s working men who fight for a living. Everything is hard. This is a difficult life where they’re ruled by the decrees of the land. They can only go to war when somebody who’s noble or a prince hires them, but everything else is a meager scraping by. It’s a hard time. They’re actually hoping for a war. Today everyone dreads when a war starts, but these men were hoping for war because it gave them the opportunity to make their living off what they do very well. So there’s a reality to it. It’s not gaudy knights on wonderful horses jousting for the hand of a fair maiden. This is down and dirty, blue collar Middle Ages living, and they’re caught up in something that escalates past anything they’ve ever imagined.
One of the things I found writing this is that since these men would perceive these aliens as demons, there would obviously be a strong religious undertone. In that era, everything was seen through the lens of faith and belief. But these characters are really nonbelievers who have led hard lives and dealt in blood. War was all they knew. It’s not so much that they didn’t believe in God, but they felt that God had turned his back on them. So in writing it and pulling out those themes in the narratives, I found a really strong statement about what people believe and what they almost believe. In the course of this, these men kind of find their faith because of the immensity of what they’re facing.
I love any time when I’m writing a novel or a comic and the dialogue starts to come out of the characters, and you go, “Yes, this is exactly what they would say.” I found that with this series. Some of the digressions into belief and prayer which I wasn’t expecting to write happened spontaneously because that’s what would concern them. It’s a project where you have one idea, but when you start writing it, it turns out even bigger than it was in the first place.
And from Ian’s point of view, I feel like this must be an adjustment from “New Deadwardians” because it seems so much more action-focused.
Oh yes. This is a much more vigorous story. He’s got such a wonderfully distinctive style, but I think like it translates easily into any historical era. I don’t think there’s anything he couldn’t draw. He could do whatever. If you’re not familiar with his graphic novel adaptations of the Lovecraft novels like “At The Mountains of Madness,” I urge you to seek them out. He did a beautiful job there.
But with this, we had essentially an action story. It’s Medieval “Die Hard.” [Laughs] You’ve got a group of people caught in a situation and trying to survive against terrible odds with a narrative subtext of “What’s it all about?” and a visual subtext of very strong violence. Some of the set pieces he’s drawn I didn’t choreograph so much as I said, “These are the things that need to happen, and this is the outcome.” And he’s just come back with stuff that I think is properly shocking. It’s gruesome action that’s credible. I’ve looked at some of what he’s come up with and said, “Oh God!” If he can come back with a story I’m familiar with and shock me like that, I feel it’s a good sign.
As I said, I usually write full script, but I said to him, “If you have anything you want to do differently, let’s discuss it.” And we’ve had long talks on the phone about things where he’ll send me multiple sketches of a page and say, “Which one works best?” That’s a wonderful way of working with an artist who’s that enthusiastic of getting the best possible result.
Overall, you’ve done a lot of writing on series that are franchises for other companies, but “Dark Ages” is only the latest push for you into more creator-owned work. Is that something that’s grown more important to you at this point in your career?
I have loved working on the monthly licenses at Marvel and DC, and I’ll continue to do that. I’m writing “Infinite Crisis” for DC based on the new video game, which is full of Elseworld characters, and I’m enjoying the hell out of writing alternate versions of Batman and Wonder Woman. But I think I’ve reached the point in my career with creator-owned where I’m saying, “Why haven’t I done this earlier?” I’ve carried this notebook around where I jot down any stories ideas that come to me, and I’ve studied those notebooks where some of those ideas lend themselves to franchises. “That’s a great idea for a Superman story” or “That’s great for a Warhammer novel.” But over the years, there have always been those 15 or 20% of ideas where I go, “That’s a great idea… I have no idea what to do with it.” Now that I’ve found Ian who I collaborate with particularly well, it allows me to take those ideas and say, “Where do these belong?” That’s given me this impetus for creator-owned — to deliver those ideas where they don’t fit anywhere else. And that’s really liberating. “New Deadwardians” was a wake-up call for me, really. And this is a second flourish of this, and you’ll be seeing even more of that.
“Dark Ages” begins later this year from Dark Horse Comics.