From a super-powered King all the way down to the most ordinary guy on the planet, writer Rob Williams (“Daken,” “Low Life,” “Trifecta”) tackles both ends of the superhero storytelling spectrum this spring. In “The Royals: Masters of War” from Vertigo, on sale now, Williams and artist Simon Coleby present an alternate-history tale where the British Royal family becomes imbued with super-powers during World War II.
On the other end, “Ordinary,” featuring Williams’ long-time collaborator D’Israeli on art, is about a world where every single person gains superpowers — except for one ordinary guy whose life is about to become anything but. “Ordinary,” originally serialized in Rebellion‘s “Judge Dredd Megazine,” is coming out in a single-issue format from Titan Comics this April.
Williams spoke with CBR News about both new projects, revealing why he feels “Ordinary” is best suited for a US audience, teasing a new series of “Low Life,” and explaining why he thinks the current royal family is “showbiz, pure and simple.”
CBR News: Rob, what’s the concept behind “Ordinary?”
Rob Williams: It came from looking at superhero origin stories and realizing they all have the same set-up. In an ordinary world, one person becomes extraordinary. I thought it’d be fun to turn that on its head. So, one day divorced plumber Michael Fisher wakes up, goes to work, and finds that a “Walking Dead”-style plague has given every person on the planet super-powers. Apart from him. He was already a very ordinary guy, now he’s officially the most ordinary man alive.
From there, it’s Michael’s journey to try and rescue his estranged son, travelling from Queens into Manhattan, even though all the bridges and tunnels have been shut down. And every single person he meets now has the ability to kill him in a second through some of the more unusual super-powers you’ll see in a comic. There’s no spandex here. We wanted to give every individual a different power that is unique to their personality. That makes it a challenge both for Michael (to survive as he’s not the typical action hero) and for D’Israeli and I (not going crazy trying to populate this world with so many different, unique characters). It’s a fun book.
You describe it as a challenge, so how exactly did you and D’Israeli develop all the unique super-powered characters seen in “Ordinary?”
The core characters, their powers really came through the plotting and scripting process. There were certain characters that D’Israeli suggested their powers, sent through sketches. But the vast majority of the background characters — and there’s a lot of fun Easter eggs there in terms of spotting the disparate powers in crowd scenes — they were done by D’israeli during the drawing process. That’s one of the reasons the book is credited to Rob Williams and D’Israeli and not the traditional “script by, art by” credits. To me that’s part of the ownership of creator-owned. This is a book that belongs to both of us.
What has fan reaction been like for “Ordinary” in its serialized version?
It seems to have gone down very well with the UK readership thus far, having initially been serialized in the “Judge Dredd Megazine’s” creator-owned slot. But the story is largely set in the States, featuring predominantly American characters. This was always a story that was intended for the US market. D’Israeli and I have worked together for “2000 AD” for several years now on “Low Life” and one of the driving forces for doing this was to show what we can do together in the American market.
How much of yourself did you put into “Ordinary” protagonist Michael Fisher?
A friend of ours, the artist Alison Sampson, remarked that Michael looks like a physical meld of myself and D’Israeli, which is something neither of us had noticed. But it’s there. Michael’s kind of like me in certain ways and not in others. He sort of embodies that part of every man who struggles at times to hold down a marriage and being a father. But Michael is, when we meet him, a good deal more selfish than me, I hope. He’s got a way to go. His friend Brian, who may or may not turn into a bear during the course of the series, sums him up. He says ‘you’re a nice guy but you just let people down. It’s what you do.’ There are certain emotional beats in the course of the story that are surprisingly personal to me, but they’re small and easily missed. It’s weird that you can tell this huge, wild imaginative story but it can also feel quite small and personal at times.
Do you think there could ever again be a status quo again in the world of “Ordinary?” So far, readers have only seen Michael react to the immediate after-effects of the superhuman outbreak and things have been hectic to say the least.
Well, without wanting to give the ending away, there’s a big world out there, and the “cure” for “Ordinary’s” plague may get found and it may not. And there’s no guarantee that any cure would be widespread or permanent. How would they go about ensure that every person around the world is vaccinated? And, as we see, there are a lot of very powerful people out there who have no desire to be cured. They are going to fight it, which means they come looking for Michael when it’s discovered that he’s the only person on the world unaffected. His blood suddenly becomes a very valuable thing. The most ordinary person in the world becoming the most extraordinary.
Any plans for future series of “Ordinary?”
There could be more, there’s certainly scope in the world we created, and I have a bit of a plan. But as with any series these days, it’ll depend on sales. If the book does well, you’ll see more I’m sure.
Do you and D’Israeli have any other creator-owned projects cooking at the moment?
Not right now. We’ve talked about returning to Dirty Frank and “Low Life” next. We both have a big soft spot for the character, and the end of “Trifecta” left Frank with some troubling details about his past — it’d be good to do some more creator-owned with D’Israeli in the future though.
Can we take that as confirmation of at least one more series of “Low Life” that might delve into Dirty Frank’s past?
I don’t want to give away too much about that right now. But things came to light in “Trifecta” that Frank can’t let go. They’re going to have to be dealt with.
Moving over to your new Vertigo book, tell us a bit about “Royals” and bringing superpowers to the highborn.
I’ve been using the high concept line that it’s “Downton Abbey” with superpowers. This is a world, very close to our own, where the only people with superpowers are royalty. And the purer the bloodline, the more powerful the individual. So a King or Queen would be your Supermans and Wonder Womans, while a Duke or a Count may only be able to put on a pretty light show at parties. And we’re telling our story against the backdrop of World War II.
Our main core characters are the British Royal family and their three siblings — the idealistic Prince Henry, his older, drunken, cynical brother Arthur, and their sister, Rose. But you meet other Royals along the way. The Imperial House of Japan, prominently, including the most powerful superhuman on the planet — the immortal Emperor Jimmu, the original Emperor of Japan. German Royals. Some low-powered American WASPS (in this world, having no Royal family isn’t an advantage). And there’s a few surprises along the way too.
Where did the idea for a super-powered monarchy originate?
Originally I was thinking of doing it for the House of Lords in the UK. I liked the thought of this really very old super-powered ruling class being in charge of the ordinary folk. There’s lots of fun to be had with the class system there. But I realized that the House of Lords was a bit obscure for an wider audience, and then the idea of making it royalty seemed perfect. The Divine Rule of Kings came down from God himself — that was the belief in ancient times. And these days the royals are on the front pages of every newspaper. There’s a huge worldwide fascination with them. It’s pure soap opera. Hopefully that opens the book up to a wider audience.
How would “Royals” play out with today’s royal family?
The Queen would probably have the power to mentally control a pack of killer cyborg corgis, The Duke of Edinburgh would have a shotgun that could shoot animals from a continent away, Prince Charles’ ears would allow him the power of flight and Kate Middleton would smile and beguile all in her path. So none of that is remotely different from reality, then.
Do you think the British royal family serves an important role today?
No. It’s showbiz, pure and simple. Personally, I’d rather the taxpayers’ money was used on better schools and hospitals but there you go. I don’t have any kind of personal enmity towards them. Quite like Prince Charles, actually. But them turning up and asking a queue of people ‘what do you do?’ hardly seems the best use of our cash in times of austerity.
What’s your working relationship like with “Royals” artist Simon Coleby?
He hates me now because I asked him to massed draw battle scenes and to reference loads of World War II aircraft, ships and uniforms. (I exaggerate). We’re good friends, and part of the genesis of this story was Simon and I chatting about our mutual love of WWII aircraft and moaning about how they’re rarely depicted accurately in comics. We decided we wanted to do a book where it looks like the real thing on the page. That involves a load of reference that is very, very time-consuming for the artist. The book looks absolutely amazing and I genuinely think Simon’s going to make a lot of noise when people see his pages here. He said to me at the end that he’d not do such a heavily referenced book again. But you can see the labor of love in the pages. It’s spectacular work.
“Ordinary” from Titan Comics is out April 23. “Royals” #1 from Vertigo is available now.