Al Ewing Steers Brendan McCarthy's "Zaucer of Zilk"

Renowned artist Brendan McCarthy has a long history of bucking trends, from his off-kilter work on "Skin" and "Freakwave" with Peter Milligan in the 80s to designing the first completely CGI TV show "Reboot" in the 90s. After spending years away from the industry, McCarthy recently returned to comics with last year's "Spiderman: Fever" for Marvel and "The Walking Dredd," a zombie-themed Judge Dredd story in "2000AD." The artist's comics renaissance comes full circle this spring with "The Zaucer of Zilk," his first original comics creation in years. "The Zaucer of Zilk," which will be published in the classic British comics anthology "2000AD," follows a young mystic as he travels across space and time on psychedelic adventures.

Joining McCarthy on his trip into the great unknown is writer Al Ewing, who is scripting the ambitious project. Ewing spoke with Comic Book Resources about working with the legendary McCarthy, what "2000AD" fans should expect from "The Zaucer of Zilk" and what it's like to be called the next John Wagner.

CBR News: How did your collaboration with Brendan McCarthy on "The Zaucer of Zilk" come about?

Al Ewing: It's [Brendan's] idea. How it basically came about was that he had the basic idea, and he sent various sketches of various concepts to me. Brendan, he's absolutely packed with ideas. He's this astonishing creative talent. [The initial ideas] were kind of unconnected. They were almost a series of dream images, and over the phone he told me some scenes and basic ideas he had for the plot. I took all that and balled it up in to a ten-episode story. The way we worked was that we went over the plot and pitched it back and forth a lot before we sent it to ["2000AD" Editor-in-Chief] Matt Smith.

I write the scripts and then send them to Ray. We tidy them up a little and then send them to Matt Smith, again, for his take. The result is something that's very different to anything else that's in "2000AD." Most of "2000AD" is this very immediate storytelling, very few captions. ["Zilk"] is an almost esoteric and dream-like story by comparison. It'll leap out at you from the rest of "2000AD." Its very surreal in places, very, well, I've already used dream-like, so a synonym for dream-like. [Laughs]

Can you lay out the general premise for "The Zaucer of Zilk?"

There's this kind of wizard or sorcerer of a realm, a celebrity magician who ends up going on this quest across various other dimensional realms in order to rescue somebody. I don't want to give too much away, but thematically, Brendan would describe it as "Dr. Who" meets the "Wizard of Oz" with a heavy influence from "The Mighty Boosh." I put a little bit of "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" in it, as well.

There's a hint of this god-like, arrogant element in the main characters. He's learning humility. It's almost a classic Dr. Strange story, with the main character starting out as this arrogant, young, full-of-his-own-power person who grows up. He's learning to take responsibility for himself and for other people.

I think we've got something that's very whimsical and witty and fun. There's that "The Mighty Boosh" element of that slightly anarchic sense of humor to it, but at the same time it's got these deeper levels, if you want to look for them. It's the comics equivalent of a Pixar movie.

Did Brendan request you to write this, or did Matt Smith assign you to "The Zaucer of Zilk?"

Well, we've worked together before on a couple of Judge Dredd stories. Again, that was very similar in that [Brendan] came up with the basic ideas and plot and I put it together in to a script. My very first script was from one of his ideas, actually. He designed a new uniform for Dredd, but he couldn't draw it so it ended up being drawn by David Roach. Again, he sent sketches through to me, so I had an images and a couple of words. It's wonderful, because when I'm working, I have these fabulous sketches to look at that get me in to this dream-like state I can write from.

Does McCarthy send you sketches of all the main story beats, or do you guys bat ideas back and forth before you ask him for sketches?

As far as I remember -- I don't have the emails in front of me -- he sent through some very short lines and sketches and then we talked on the phone a bit. He had a few scenes he knew absolutely had to happen, a few other things that absolutely had to be in it and then I worked out the plot based on that.

What was it like, transitioning from working on a story based on one of McCarthy's ideas to working full-on with McCarthy himself? Is it a more daunting task working with him as the story's artist versus just working off one of his ideas?

Well, when I am just working off one of his ideas, I just write the script and then pass it along to Matt Smith, whereas when I am collaborating so heavily with Brendan, there's a lot of back and forth. It's a lot tougher than anything I do with other artists, because there's so much back and forth. I absolutely want to be true to Brendan's original concept, which means I can't just take his idea and run off with it.

I think it's gonna make a huge impact on the "2000AD" readership. I think a lot of people who haven't picked up "2000AD" in a while or haven't tried it yet are gonna check this out. "2000AD" has always pushed the envelope, and this pushes it off in a new direction.

Every five or ten years, "2000AD" tends to go through a stylistic and thematic change, from McMahon to McCarthy to Bisley to Flint. Do you think "The Zaucer of Zilk" will herald the next phase of "2000AD?"

I'm walking a fine line between being very proud of the work I've done and being very excited about it and a little bit boisterous. Not wanting to boast, I think this is gonna be a biggie and this is gonna draw a lot of people in. If you haven't been reading "2000AD" for a while, you'll probably want to read it. To be honest, as a fan of Brendan McCarthy, I've seen the first and second episodes, and getting those pages in my inbox was an astonishing day. I was just sitting there looking at them and being blown away. There are some absolutely astonishing things he is doing.

Why do you think McCarthy has chosen now to return to "2000AD?" The story he wrote with you was pegged as an event, but then we got "The Walking Dredd" with Rob Williams, and now we are getting "The Zaucer of Zilk." It started as a trickle, and now we are getting a full series from him.

I think he's enjoying working with "2000AD," or he wouldn't be coming back to it. Maybe it's the editorial team we have now, or the production value we've got at the minute. Maybe it's nostalgia? I wouldn't want to put words in his mouth. We are seeing a lot of the old crew, the old school, the greats are feeling the call and coming back to "2000AD."

You've got Andy Diggle and Jock coming back to the "Judge Dredd Megazine" with "Snapshot." I know Andy loves "2000AD" and always will. Every so often, you'll get people who walked away in the American arena get that tug to come back because there's really nothing else like "2000AD" out there. I honestly wouldn't know what the American equivalent would be in terms of the amount of freedom you get. I think that the 6-issue trade has become such a force in the American comics industry. However, I'm seeing more [Americans] do one-offs. I think several writers are finding that doing done-in-one or two-parters work well.

What's your favorite Brendan McCarthy work?

This is a tricky one, because he's changed his style so many times that I'm going to have to pick a few from the different eras. My favorite work from when he was starting out is the first book of "The ABC Warriors." Brendan just took that ball and ran with it. Another story of his from "2000AD" is "Sooner or Later" with Peter Milligan. Those were something like 30 or 40 one-page episodes that were on the back page of "2000AD." Those are worth tracking down and buying, just for that back page. More recent stuff? That issue of "Solo" he did [for DC Comics] was a real game-changer. Also, "Spiderman: Fever" was very fun to read.

How many series are planned for "The Zaucer of Zilk?" Do you have an ending in mind?

Well, once we get to the end of this series, we'll step back and take a look at where we want to go from here. Really, I think Brendan has some more ideas in him, and I've got a couple, too. Yeah, I'd say it's very likely to continue. On the other hand, that's in the future, so how it will continue, I don't know yet.

How much input do you get in the world of "The Zaucer of Zilk" after Brendan's original ideas?

The first episode, he very much laid out. Then there was a basic idea of how the Zaucer ends up on his quest, who he's rescuing, how that all comes about. That was pretty much [McCarthy] as well. I was filling in gaps, like how the world operates, how the Zaucer's abilities operate, how he gets from realms to realms.

How does he get from realm to realm?

Brendan came up with this idea called fancy pants. I won't say any more than that. I came up with the royal house. There's also the Zultan and his force of royal guards. The whole way the society's structured and how it works was me. We both come up with things as they are needed and when it comes time to write the script we go over it. There's a lot of back and forth, whereas usually, when I'm working with other artists, it's a lot more distributed. I do the words and they do the art.

I have to ask - what's up with the Z's?

I have no idea. "The Zaucer of Zilk" was Brendan's title, and then I just started sticking Z's in to things. Why not? Let's have everything be a bit zeddy.

It seems "2000AD" is really pushing your work lately, advertising your projects more prominently, bringing you to conventions and making promotional material for your work -- last year's "Zombo" mask comes to mind, in particular. Do you get the impression that you're being set up to be the next John Wagner, Gordon Rennie or Pat Mills?

I don't think John Wagner is going to go anywhere anytime soon. I think if anybody's setting me in that position, it's a few fans who are saying it. There's always somebody who's the next Wagner. It's been Garth Ennis, it's been Gordon Remmy and I've been the next Wagner for a while. Now, I think Michael Carroll is getting pushed. He's really good. He's getting a few people to say they want him to take over "Judge Dredd" when Wagner can no longer write it. There's been all these people, though, and Wagner's still here.

I think "2000AD" has been giving me loads of freedom. They trust me to do things like the third "Zombo" series. The level of trust they put in me for doing jokes and thinking humor will work is absolutely stunning. Their doors are so wide open for me, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm enjoying pitching really exciting stuff like "Damnation Station," my future-war series.

I'm glad you brought up "Damnation Station." Having Simon Davis, who for my money is the best artist regularly working on "2000AD," and Boo Cook rotating main penciling duties is an insane dream team.

Oh, God, yeah. The second series of that is actually going to be the last series. I wanted to do one trade that was a complete story. I wanted to do something that was quite compact. It's going to be 30 episodes, and I've done 15. I left it at this place where Earth is going to war. There's a terrible betrayal in the last episode, and I'm going to pick up from there. With the last 15 episodes, again, it's going to split in to four smaller parts with rotating artists. Almost certainly it will be Davis and Cook again, but you'd have to ask Matt Smith. Ben Willshere might do one too. That is something that Matt Smith will decide. There'll be lots more weird aliens and moral mazes. Quite dark stuff, everything's going to get worse for everybody. Everything is going to come to a head and finish. Hopefully, I'll get all that done by Christmas.

So, you've got "The Zaucer of Zilk," "Zombo" and "Damnation Station" coming up in "2000AD." Anything else you'd like to work on in the prog?

I'd really like to get in to writing more Judge Dredd. I'm doing the Christmas episodes this year, and I've got a couple more at the beginning of next year. There's also something quite huge that's in the pipeline. I'm going to be quite cagey about it at the minute. In the future, a couple of other people are going to be talking to CBR about it, and it's going to be huge.

Is this Judge Dredd story a game-changing Dredd epic like Wagner writes, or is this more a cool, smaller-scale story, like "The Walking Dredd" and "Doctor What?"

This will be a little bit of both. In terms of game changing, I've been building up subplots of my own that I'm going to start knocking down over the course of the year. It's not like a new villain is introduced for Dredd who we never see again. We are gonna be seeing more of the gangster organization he's infiltrating and see that build and come to a climax. I love writing Dredd and playing around in that world. Basically, anything I can do without stepping on John Wagner's toes.

Have you had any contact with Wagner while writing Dredd?

Not much. I've heard feedback, though. I've heard he's very pleased with me, which obviously means an enormous amount to me. It's a huge thing.

When Wagner says, "You write a good Judge Dredd," what goes through your head?

Oh, God -- panic! Seriously, it's a huge thing. You suddenly realize that if he thinks it's good, then the standard you are operating at is huge. There's a little bit of pressure there. At the end of the day, though, you just gotta write your best. It's thanks to him I'm writing the Christmas episodes. I don't want to spoil much, but "Let's Kill Santa" is the name of the story in the "Judge Dredd Megazine."

Who do you rate as the top artists in comics right now?

Straight off the top of my head, Dan Clowes is amazing. I'm cheating here, because he's also a brilliant writer. There's a thing he does that I've been trying to find a way to steal, which is the speech bubble going off the edge of a panel. I'm amazed that everybody hasn't stolen that. I keep trying to get people to do it, but no one thinks it's a good idea. I tell them to look at Dan Clowes, it's a brilliant idea!

Henry Flint, obviously. I've already praised Brendan to the high heavens, so I'll leave him off the list. Carlos Ezquerra is still the greatest. He's still working and still putting out amazing stuff. His Judge Dredd is always absolutely perfect. He has a particular quality that no one else in comics can do. I like the artists that nobody else in comics can draw like. Simon Fraser and Marcos Martin are two more guys like that. Again, nobody else like them. That's the mark of a really great artist, if there's nobody else who looks even remotely similar. I could go on all day. D'Israeli, Richard Davis, Simon Davis, Boo Cook and pretty much everybody working for "2000AD" at the minute is of a really high standard.

Finally, what advice can you offer up-and-coming and aspiring comics creators?

You've got to constantly be putting in this intense effort, to do things you've not done before. That, if possible, nobody's done before. But, don't be ashamed, if you see an amazing idea and think you can do it well, to try it out yourself. The first person to use thought bubbles or the first person to do away with captions entirely are ideas that were really good, and they spread.

You've always gotta keep pushing yourself to advance these ideas and come up with something better, otherwise what are you being paid for? What are you doing? What are you giving the reader? I know, if you're just giving 99%, that the 1% is what holds you back. It kills your work.

"The Zaucer of Zilk" by Brendan McCarthy, Al Ewing and Simon Bowland goes on sale March 21 in "2000AD" Prog 1775.

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