Interview: Going Rogue – Matt Badham talks to Brian Ruckley about IDW’s new Rogue Trooper
Brian Ruckley is a successful fantasy author, whose four novels include fascinating historical horror The Edinburgh Dead (a gripping mix of the horror tale and the Great Edinburgh Detective Novel, with some fine Victorian flourishes) and the Godless World trilogy in the form of Winterbirth, Bloodheir and Fall of Thanes, a superb fantasy series which right from the opening seemed to establish itself one way then pull the rug from under you, a refreshingly different approach in a genre that can sometimes become a bit too predictable – not with Brian’s books though!
Now, he’s venturing into comics writing for the first time with IDW‘s Rogue Trooper, as the US-based publisher increases their already successful collaboration with Britain’s legendary 2000 AD comic, which has seen both new and classic tales being introduced to the wider readership beyond 2000 AD’s UK heartland and now expands to take in brand new Rogue Trooper tales. This will see release in February 2014 and follows the adventures of one of science-fiction comic 2000 AD’s most iconic heroes – our own genetically enhanced Matt Badham talked to him about our favourite Soldier Blue, differences between writing prose and comics and how you create a fresh take on a classic while staying true to the source…
Forbidden Planet International: You’re bringing Rogue to a (partially) new audience. If you had to write a ‘back of a book’-style blurb to introduce the character and his world to new readers, what would it say?
Brian Ruckley: Rogue Trooper is the last surviving Genetic Infantryman, a new breed of genetically engineered soldier created to fight in the poisoned environment of Nu-Earth, as part of a galaxy-spanning war. Nu-Earth’s a crazy, toxic hell-hole of a planet, ruined by chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; the worst place you can possibly imagine to try and fight a war. The G.I.s were supposed to be the answer, the ultimate fighting machines for this planet, but something went spectacularly and horribly wrong on their first major deployment; they were ambushed and slaughtered by utterly overwhelming enemy forces, leaving Rogue as the sole survivor – a deserter, trying to find out who betrayed them and how.
Except he’s not quite the sole survivor: he carries the consciousnesses of three other G.I.s on bio-chips in his equipment, ready to be loaded up into new bodies. It means his kit has artificial intelligences running it, effectively, which makes it almost as dangerous as Rogue is himself. I’m sure everyone round here knows, but Rogue Trooper was originally created for 2000 AD in the early 80s by writer Gerry Finley-Day and some artist no-one’s ever heard of called Dave Gibbons. They did a really spectacular job in creating a brutal, fascinating, exciting sandbox that I’m delighted I now get to play in, and re-imagine just a little bit.
FPI: Could you tell a bit about the people you’re working with? Who are they and what have they done before?
BR: Oh, the people I’m working with are the best bit about all this, really. I lucked out; I feel a bit like the shy little kid at school who’s suddenly been invited to play with the big, cool kids. Everyone, from the editor Denton Tipton on down, is totally into the idea of making this the kind of high-octane comic such a good character deserves. Alberto Ponticelli, a seriously good artist who’s done loads of great work – like Unknown Solider, Dial H, Frankenstein – is doing the interiors, and I think people are going to really like what he’s doing here. He’s knocking it out of the park, I reckon.
The colourist, Stephen Downer, brings a ton of experience too and the colours are obviously going to be a big deal on this book, given the nature of Rogue (he’s blue, in case anyone didn’t know!) and Nu-Earth. Glenn Fabry and Ryan Brown are collaborating on the main covers, and they’re producing stuff that’s just beautiful to look at. And I’ve seen what I believe are going to be variant covers on the first issue by James Stokoe (and it would be impossible to exaggerate just how much of a Stokoe fanboy I was, even before all this kicked off), and Colin Wilson (one of my very favourite of the artists on early ‘classic’ Rogue Trooper). I lucked out, like I said.
FPI: How did you get the gig?
BR: Like a lot of these things probably, it’s down to good luck, good timing and (apparently) good pitching. Years ago, I got a fan e-mail from someone who’d enjoyed my novels. It turned out he was on the staff at IDW, which I already thought was kind of an interesting and cool publisher. Some ideas about me writing comics got kicked around a bit back then, but for various reasons nothing concrete came of it. Fast forward to this year and I could see a window of opportunity, in terms of workload, to re-visit the comics thing. So I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I gave those past discussions a kick to see if they still had some life in them. Rogue Trooper was mentioned, I was invited to pitch for it, and two or three weeks later, I was writing the new series. You could have knocked me down with a feather, to be honest. Funny how things turn out.
FPI: When is this ‘new’ Rogue set, in terms of the original strip?
BR: It starts pretty much exactly where the original started: with Rogue on his own, searching for answers, not too long after the massacre of all his fellow Genetic Infantrymen in the Quartz Zone. I reckon Gerry Finley-Day nailed the starting point, from a dramatic point of view, the first time out, so I’m not going to try something different just for the sake of being different. The bad, bad, horrible stuff that happens in the Quartz Zone is ‘structurally’ the beginning of the Rogue Trooper saga in a lot of ways, but not necessarily the most dramatically satisfying place to actually start the adventure. But we will, of course, get back to the Quartz Zone in due time; I’m perversely looking forward to digging into some of that bad, bad, horrible stuff.
FPI: Are you a fan of the original series?
BR: Absolutely. 2000 AD’s deep, deep in my entertainment genetics. I read the very first Prog when I was just a wee chap – possibly too wee for it to be entirely suitable reading material, but as it turns out that was excellent parenting rather than the opposite. Rogue Trooper was not my absolutely favourite strip in 2000 AD back then, but it was certainly in the top handful along with things like Dredd and Slaine (and Harlem Heroes and Inferno, believe it or not, if you go right back to the beginning). What’s not to like, for a kid with an affection for SF and comics and war stories, when you’ve got a lone (blue, no less!) soldier, fighting for vengeance and justice on a ridiculously hostile planet, with only his talking hardware for company? With my slightly more grown-up writer’s head on nowadays, the starting premise of that original series looks like an extremely smart piece of creation by Finley-Day and Gibbons: it’s appealingly distinctive in its setting and visualization, brilliantly clear, simple and evocative as a story engine.
FPI: How do you feel as a writer of prose making the transition to comics? Is this really the first time you’ve written them?
BR: I’m enjoying it enormously. It’s true I’d never written a word of an actual comic script until I sat down to start Rogue Trooper #1, but it’s not hard to find examples of how they’re formatted and structured – they’re all over the internet these days – and I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the basics of scripting over years of reading not only comics themselves but also comics writers discussing what they do, and how. Vast amounts still to learn, of course, but at least I know vaguely what I’m aiming for.
I really enjoy the additional structure inherent in comics compared to prose writing – the architecture of the medium, if you like: the page turns, the strange magic of the whole discrete panels thing, the rhythms of serialised episodic fiction. And the economy of it, where you’re looking for the combination of words and pictures and action to do more than one thing when possible, advancing the narrative, defining character, establishing context all at the same time. Theoretically you try for a similar effect in prose, especially short stories, but it’s more intense in comics and you have the added flexibility of combined text and images.
Plus, there are a lot more e-mails involved in writing comics. And I mean a LOT, like by a factor of a hundred or something. Which is another way of saying I really like the interactive, collaborative, fast-paced nature of the creative process. Writing a 100,000+ word novel is a long, slow, solitary business on the whole. Writing a comic is the precise opposite of that, so it makes for an invigorating change.
FPI: How do you bring your authorial voice to the character and his world while remaining true to the original vision?
BR: Well, the original stuff was written a long time ago, for a different publication format and audience, so this new take is inevitably a little bit different structurally, stylistically, that kind of thing. And what’s a particular authorial voice made up of, anyway? It’s a blend of tone of voice, dialoguing style, thematic preoccupations, narrative instincts, all kinds of things. It tends – for better or worse! – to naturally emerge in the process of writing and/or reading. Mine will show up here gradually, but I don’t think it’ll be at odds with the original vision. Yes, we’ve made some slight changes to one or two aspects of the story and characters, but – I reckon, anyway – they’re logical, plausible changes that don’t conflict with the original conception of the creators so much as sprout from seeds within it.
FPI: How difficult is it to come up with new ideas for Rogue considering the wealth of stories that have already been told?
BR: Ideas are pretty much never the hard bit, to be honest. We live in a constant blizzard of them, all of us, just popping into our heads at random, or being planted there by the media, things people say, things we see. If you’re receptive to that kind of stuff, the difficulty’s not coming up with ideas, it’s picking the ones with the making of decent stories and actually turning them into stories with beginnings, middles and ends. That’s the stuff plenty of writers fret about so much they have to go off and mow the lawn instead of staring at the blank computer screen for another hour.
With this project there’s the added wrinkle of that wealth of previous stories, which I don’t see as a handicap but an opportunity. I don’t want to mechanically re-cycle previous stuff like a blurry copying machine, but there’s scope for taking bits of inspiration from it, echoing it, if I get the urge. I’ve got a possible arc in mind for a little way down the line that old-school Rogue readers might recognise is kind of riffing on a specific 1980s storyline. But it only takes the underlying idea, then interprets it a bit differently and goes different places with it. That sort of approach hopefully makes the whole series something both old and new Rogue readers can enjoy.
FPI: Are you able to say what changes you have made or do you want to surprise readers?
BR: No, can’t tell you anything or you’d have to be liquidated under the not at all authoritarian Spoiler Prevention Act 2013. I guess there are some bits that’ll be obvious pretty quickly, though. Folks who know Rogue Trooper of old will notice a bit of a redesign on Gunnar, Bagman and Helm (and to a lesser extent, Rogue himself). Partly just to freshen things up and modernise them slightly, partly to fit with a few new party tricks I might ask them to perform as the story progresses. And this is probably non-specific enough to share: early Rogue Trooper was, deep down, a two-man show of Rogue vs the Traitor General. That worked pretty well in the 2000 AD environment but I figured that to work in the kind of format and marketplace I’m writing for now, we needed a bit more meat on the bone if we were going to be chewing it for any length of time, so although the underlying conflict driving the story is much the same there are a few more forces, themes and characters in play, on both sides of the game. I’m aiming for something that’ll be accessible and engaging for new readers, as well as feeling both familiar and a bit different, a bit surprising, for long-time Rogue readers.
FPI: How do you feel about writing a war comic? And how does it make a difference that it’s a far future war rather than World War 1, say?
BR: Funny thing about the original Rogue stories: it wasn’t actually a very futuristic war he was fighting. There were bayonets, cavalry, that kind of stuff! I don’t know what a war waged by an interstellar civilization is going to look like, but I kind of doubt it’s going to involve bayonets and cavalry. Now we’re back to the idea of staying true to the original conception: there are good reasons – then and now – for not going overboard on the far future tech. I am updating things a bit (there’ll be quite a few hi-tech gizmos, for example, and I’ll admit up front that bayonets and cavalry aren’t part of my plans), but I want to keep the powerful human element, of real people fighting a real and nasty war face to face. That’s what the original series was about, that’s what I want this series to be about.
And how do I feel in general about writing a war comic? Fine. War’s a long-established setting for stories, for the obvious reason that it puts the characters under extreme, violent pressure and invites heroism, betrayal, growth, all that good character stuff. None of which means you have to celebrate the notion of war itself, of course. We live in an age – in Europe and the US, at least – when people in general are more critical about the notion of fighting wars in the first place, but also I think more sensitive to and appreciative of the physical and psychological price paid by the individuals who actually do the fighting. That’s a zeitgeist into which Rogue Trooper fits rather naturally, given its premise and tone, and given some of the stuff I plan to do with the characters and stories.
FPI: Although this is your first time writing comics it certainly isn’t your first time writing about the medium is it?
BR: Oh, for sure. I’ve been flying the flag of comic enthusiasm on my own blog for ages, but more substantially I’m just about to wrap up a comics column I’ve been writing for a couple of years on the entirely excellent (and indeed award-winning) SF Signal website. It’s a pretty comprehensive site, covering all aspects of science fiction, fantasy and horror – books, films, TV, all sorts – and I really enjoyed the basic principle of treating comics as just another medium, of equal worth but with its own unique strengths, that can deliver that kind of entertainment to an audience.
As we all know, comics remain a decidedly niche medium compared to, say, prose or film, for reasons too complicated and diverse to get into here, so to have a venue where I could at least trumpet the good stuff to a general audience, and make the case that comics are capable of a rather distinctive kind of narrative magic, was enormous fun. I’m only bringing it to a close (either temporary or permanent, not sure which) because it’s evidently time to focus my efforts not on writing about comics, but writing the things themselves (which I have to report, to absolutely no-one’s surprise, is a great deal harder than the experts make it look!).
FPI: Please tell us about your non-comics work and whether we might see any of that adapted into comics?
BR: I’ve got four published novels under my belt. The first three were an epic/heroic fantasy trilogy that started off with Winterbirth; the fourth was a stand-alone historical fantastical horror/crime story about my home city, called The Edinburgh Dead. My fifth novel, called The Free, should be out next year, which could make 2014 a lot of fun if I’ve got a new book and comics on the shelves at the same time.
I’ve written a handful of short stories too, and in a lot of ways they’d be the most fun to try and adapt as comics: self-contained, fast-paced stories that try to pack a lot into a small space are a pretty good fit for comics, I’d think. No plans in that direction at the moment, though. On the whole, and allowing for the fact that there are many exceptions (like Darwyn Cooke’s astonishing Parker adaptations), I think comics work best when the stories they contain are conceived and designed for that medium. They’re their own unique and wonderful thing, and you can sometimes tell – not necessarily in a good way – when their contents started off life in another form, or are glorified pitches for a different medium.
FPI: Do you have any other comics projects coming up?
BR: Nothing in the pipeline at the moment, but I’m absolutely interested in the possibility. If the timings and economics of it all worked out, I’d love to do more comics work. I don’t particularly want to stop writing prose either, so it all has to fit together and make sense, but I don’t see that as being a big problem any time soon. You never know how things are going to turn out, but I do know I’m never going to stop being a big fan of comics, both individual titles and the medium itself, and now that I’ve started I seriously doubt if I’ll ever stop being interested in the possibility of writing them. It’s fun, you know.
FPI would like to thank both Brian and Matt for taking the time to conduct this interview and to our friends at IDW for kindly supplying us with first peeks at the cover artwork. The first issue of IDW’s Rogue Trooper should hit the racks in February 2014. You can follow Brian via his own blog and Twitter, and of course you can keep up with that stalwart of the Brit comics scene Matt Badham via his site and Twitter here, as well as his writings for publications like the Dredd Megazine. You can read a much earlier interview with Brian by Joe Gordon discussing his then new debut novel Winterbirth here on the blog and Brian’s stay on Richard’s Desert Island Comics can be read here.