When Being Normal Is A Super Power -An Extra Ordinary Interview With Rob Williams
By Alasdair Stuart
Rob Williams has been making a name for himself on both sides of the pond for a while now. His work on 2000AD is exemplary where, with Simon Spurrier and Al Ewing he's the writer of Trifecta, one of the best Judge Dredd stories ever told. On the other side of the Atlantic he's the writer of The Royals, wrote a good chunk of the really fun parts of Revolutionary War and just wrapped a delirious, temporal noir take on Miss Fury. He's very busy, he's very good and I talked to him about Ordinary, his new series from Titan.
Alasdair Stuart: Rob, what led you to Ordinary? Was the idea a reaction to something in superhero comics or just an idea whose time in your brain had arrived?'
Rob Williams: It was movies, actually. The recent influx of superhero movies all delivering origin tales. They all have the same basic setup – 'in an ordinary world, one person becomes extraordinary.' I thought it'd be a fun thing to twist that. In an extraordinary world, one person becomes ordinary. That presented lots of ideas. If a plague gives everyone on planet Earth superpowers, for one thing that's a huge, spectacle and action-filled canvas to play with, but also that makes your protagonist the ultimate underdog, really. And then you add the human element. He's a divorced plumber who drinks too much and never sees his kid. Suddenly he's got a strong emotional arc. Plus, thematically, the idea of finding the extraordinary in the most ordinary individual – that really appealed.
AS: The idea of being normal as a 'superpower' seems to be distinctly pragmatic, British sort of one. Why the New York setting out of interest?
RW: Well, this is largely a book about people getting superpowers, and New York is the home of superpowers, really, Plus, part of the fun of Ordinary is undercutting the masks and capes genre. Even though everyone gets powers no one puts on a costume and goes to fight crime. People deal with powers in the selfish, mundane, stupid, nasty way that I imagine most real people would handle getting superpowers. Setting it in New York is sort of a nod to the concept's influences before we end up going in very different directions. Our finale, and Michael's end journey, takes places in a very different place from the hi-rise glamor of Manhattan, for example.
AS:The book feels really well defined and fleshed out. What sort of planning has gone into it?
RW: Thanks. One of the challenges of the book, and one of its strengths, I think, is that every individual in the book gains a distinctive power that says something about their personality. So we had to come up with a little armchair psychology for every character and try and come up with an inventive visual for them etc. And this with the 'no costumes' rule. This is where D'israeli's a genius. He's a master at character design, I think. And a lot of the characters' powers were in the script but a lot of the background easter eggs is from him, and they're brilliant. You look at the crowd scenes and there's all these disparate powers and looks. People with slugs for hair, two Pentagon generals, one of whom is a hawk, one is a dove. It's a colorful, fun world. And a lot of work's gone into that.
AS:You've developed a deserved reputation through the Royals, Miss Fury and others as being a writer able to find a unique slant on the idea of the superhero. What attracts you to it as a concept? And what would you like to fix about it?
RW: Thanks! Well, I feel honor-bound to point out with Ordinary that it's NOT a superhero book. There's no superheroes or super-villians. It's more 'imagine a Walking Dead-style plague, but everyone gets powers instead of going zombie.' And while that immediately feels like a golden age for humanity, suddenly any petty argument or trouble spot or war zone in the world is going to result in incredible amounts of damage and, potentially, loss of life. As Tara McDonald, one of our leads, a genome scientist, says, 'human beings shouldn't be this powerful. We'll abuse it.' Then it quickly becomes about trying to find a cure before the whole world goes nuclear.
I think one of the reasons why the superhero lends itself to comics is it's colorful and filled with spectacle, and comics does that very well. For the most part comics struggles with books featuring a cast of 'ordinary' people – although the best artists and writers pull this off and make their characters distinctive. In Ordinary, for example, the powers allow myself and D'israeli to go as far as our imaginations take us. A giant baseball player knocking the top off the Empire State Building or a Pakistani taxi driver able to create star nurseries within his newly cosmic cab? These ideas are bright and vivid and fun.
As for what I'd fix about superheroes. That could be an essay in itself. But as long as they're strong stories with human themes and a genuine feeling of stakes – superhero stories can be great. I get frustrated with some of the cynical tropes, sure, but I still love them. As I get older I seem to become more of a sucker for the pure altruism and heroism of a Superman or Spider-Man.
AS: And finally, are there plans for a sequel to Ordinary? Also what other projects do you have on deck?
RW: There could be a sequel to Ordinary. One of the fun things I did with the project is consult a PhD in Evolutionary Biology. he advised me on the plague, what a cure would need, and also the limitations of delivering the cure… So we'll see. It'll depend on sales, as with anything in publishing.
As for what else I'm currently up to. The Royals: Masters of War by Si Coleby and myself is currently running from Vertigo, I'm writing the new Eleventh Doctor Doctor Who series for Titan, along with Al Ewing, with art by Simon Fraser, and I'm a regular with 2000AD on Judge Dredd, Low Life and others. I'm currently writing the final series of The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azreal. There's a few other things in the works I can't talk about at the moment.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Rob. Ordinary issue 1 is out in the US right now and the UK next week, priced £2.99.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance journalist. He's currently writing the 10th Doctor RPG sourcebook for Cubicle 7 Games and is genuinely amazed how much better the weaker bits of the 10th Doctor's run are with a few years distance. The Martha season is legitimately really blood good. Yes even the Dalek episode. No not including the Dalek prostheses but the spats? The Dalek Spats? THOSE RULE. Follow him on twitter at @AlasdairStuart (URL:www.twitter.com/alasdairstuart)