A brief chat with Edmund Bagwell about 'The Ten-Seconders'

Like many, I first encountered the art of Edmund Bagwell in 2005, in the first issue of Liam Sharp's extremely short-lived but influential anthology Event Horizon. Sharp introduced lots of new talent in those two issues, but it seemed that Bagwell was to be the book's breakout star. Here was an artist with many strings to his bow, producing lushly rendered digital paintings and linework to accompany prose short stories in the first volume, and also illustrating Rich Johnson's role-playing satire "Chase Variant" in the second.

U.K. comics history is full of instances of well-intentioned anthologies eventually failing, leaving that great survivor 2000AD to cherry-pick their best talent. This was again the case, with Bagwell soon working on some memorable short stories with writers Al Ewing and Arthur Wyatt. Short one-offs such as "Future Shocks" and "Terror Tales" are usually seen as dues-paying exercises by the editorial staff at 2000AD, and Bagwell was rewarded by being commissioned to draw the series "Cradlegrave," written by John Smith.

Smith is something of a maverick figure in U.K. comics, one of the few writers of his generation who didn't parlay his work at 2000AD in the late 1980s into a prolific transatlantic career. He's also a clear influence on many near-peers, starting with Warren Ellis and working forward to Si Spurrier or Al Ewing. "Cradlegrave" blew many pundits away: 23 years into writing for 2000AD, Smith had arrived at a point where he could marry his deft touch for body horror to real human warmth, something that had earlier eluded him. It was also the strip that returned clever social commentary to 2000AD, something the anthology was once regularly known for. All the while, it was drawn by Bagwell in a style the strip required: grounded, realistic, but with occasional outbreaks of maddening weirdness.

Here was an artist who could render modern British urban life as well as he could the furthest-out alternate reality, as he frequently would have to with his next assignment partnered with Smith, "Indigo Prime." It was a relaunch of a classic strip that forms something of a through-line in Smith's career, even outside of his work at 2000AD, the concept of an agency that polices the multiverse. Bagwell managed to make a strip returning after a two-decade hiatus seem fresh. Gone was the DayGlo-Hieronymus Bosch-goes-steampunk flavor from the days when it was illustrated by Chris Weston. The feature was just as apocalyptic as before, only now it was an apocalypse imagined by an artist brought up on Gerry Anderson's 1970s output, and both Kubrick and Kirby's takes on 2001 (there's an extended sequence, sans text, to see at Bad Librarianship: Bagwell's lines have a slickness that could be compared to masters like Michael Golden, Chris Sprouse or Duncan Fegredo).

Now Bagwell has returned as the new artist for "The Ten-Seconders." He now may be 2000AD's artist of choice for relaunching strips reactivated after long hiatuses: Rob Williams' post-apocalyptic take on classic superhero tropes last featured in the anthology in 2008. It's a fine strip that has been ill-served by artists in the past. Originally drawn by Mark Harrison, the digital-art pioneer chose to draw the first few installments in a traditionally inked style reminiscent of his approach for the role-playing game satire "The Travellers." After criticism of this style, Harrison reverted more to the digital painting techniques he's received acclaim for, leading to an inconsistent whole. The second arc was shared between three artists, again leading to an unsatisfying inconsistency. They had radically differing styles, and equally differing ideas as to just what the central cast should look like. Reading the collected edition of what has gone before Bagwell's debut is frustrating.

Williams' concept is solid gold: A plucky band of cynical Brits (so far, so 2000AD) are the last human resistance to an all-conquering invasion of aliens, who all just happen to resemble assorted superheroic archetypes. At least two of the previous four artists were (let's be diplomatic and say) less-than-clear storytellers. If you can't tell what's happening, and to whom, or why, it's hard to care. Williams is one of my favorite mainstream writers around right now. His Com.X book Class War was another fine deconstructionist commentary on American foreign policy via the medium of superhero comics (and, to bring things full circle, clearly influenced by Smith's "New Statesmen," from 2000AD's long-defunct "grown-up" companion title Crisis). His recurring strip in 2000AD set in the Dredd universe, "Low Life," is a constant delight, each new chapter a moral maze as twisty as Polanski's Chinatown, only starring a mentally ill tramp who's also an undercover Judge, frequently drawn as basically Alan Moore wearing an eye patch.

It's great to see Bagwell bring some much-needed clarity to "The Ten-Seconders" after the murkiness of his predecessors; it's like a new day has dawned on these characters. Unfortunately, it's a new dawn that's bringing with it an invasion of gigantic humanoid aliens, The Fathers, akin to The Fantastic Four's Galactus or The Eternals' Celestials. Bagwell tends to restrict his most Kirby-influenced drawing to the pieces he produces for his own amusement at his blog, otherwise it affects his published work in more subtle ways — some Kirby krackle in the skies, the occasional squared-off fingertip, a shared sense of cosmic scale. Again, Bagwell is bringing modernity and sleekness to the strip, too: his The Fathers resemble Maximilian from The Black Hole redesigned by Jonny Ives or Adi Granov.

Talking with Bagwell is problematic, to say the least, as he's based in Seoul, South Korea. I'm a few time zones farther east than any of the other ROBOT 6 contributors, but even I found the time gap between the United Kingdom and the Korean peninsula discombobulating. Face to face, I may have given him a grilling, demanding follow-up answers to some leading statements left dangling. But still, even a fleeting interview with Bagwell is an opportunity to talk with one of the most elusive figures in comics today. I asked him about his chosen homeland, his artistic influences and about working for 2000AD.

Robot 6: Edmund, can I start with asking about the time difference we're working with here as we conduct this interview: You're still based in South Korea, right? What's it like living in the shadow of a rogue state, and what brought you there?

Edmund Bagwell: This time of year the difference is nine hours. Came over here to be closer to family. It's an amazing country and an amazing people. As for the northerners, well, it's a chilling reminder that you're only ever one dictator away from a feudal state.

The first time I encountered your art was in Liam Sharp's Event Horizon anthology. I loved those couple of issues Liam put together, and was rather pissed off when the market didn't support it.

Event Horizon was definitely the year zero. I will never be able to thank Liam enough for pushing me to keep going.

You've been working at 2000AD for a few years now. How did that come about?

I'm sure it was the work in Event Horizon that led to that.

Did you grow up as a 2000AD reader? If so, what were your favorite strips? Any strips there you'd harbor ambitions at getting a go at? And if not, what were your formative comic experiences? Your influences? For starters, your Kirby-love is regularly on display.

Absolutely, I started getting 2000AD when the Supercover Sagas began. So I was in comics heaven, McCarthy, Ewins, O'Neill, Bolland, McMahon, Gibbons, Belardinelli, Ezquerra, Smith, I could go on.

I became a Byrne victim the instant I laid eyes on his Spider-Man/Man-Thing team-up, and on that same same trip to WH Smiths I picked up the Doctor Strange treasury, sheer bliss. Soon after that there was the Marvel UK reprints of Infantino's Star Wars coming through the letter box every week. My first Kirby was Black Panther.<

I would love to do something mad like Ace Trucking Co.

A lot of your work there has been with John Smith, and now you're partnered up with Rob Williams. Both great, but very different writers. How's Rob been treating you?

Rob and John are fantastic, so enthusiastic about the work. I love working with them both.

"The Ten-Seconders" has maybe been 2000AD's darkest take yet on superhero themes. You're the third artist or so to work on the strip, how's your approach differing to the previous guys?

I think I might actually be the fourth. I just have to try and tell Rob's story the best I can; it's his baby.

(Checks BARNEY) You're right! The second "Ten-Seconders" arc was divided between three artists. Reading the first installment of the new arc (and that's available free right here at Robot 6 right now), and seeing that cover to go with it, it looks like there's some very Kirby-esque characters coming to join the plot. Did Rob know you were the strip's new artist and write to your tastes and strengths, or is it a happy coincidence?

I think Rob had had me in mind from the get-go, I could be wrong on that.

(I asked Williams this very question, just to check; indeed, this strip was always written with Bagwell in mind: "I knew it was going to be big Kirby-esque gods, and when I saw his work on "Indigo Prime," I thought he'd be perfect. Plus, I was really impressed by "Cradlegrave," one of the best things 2000AD has done in recent years.")

Thanks to Edmund for agreeing to this brief chat. I think the answers he gave reveals a modest man more comfortable talking about the work of the creators he admires than his own. I think his work in the last few years has been stellar, and has deservedly elevated him to the ranks of 2000AD's all-time greats, alongside the names he reveres.

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