Chatting “Abbott” with Saladin Ahmed
We love Abbott here at Comics Now, so when I had the chance to chat with writer Saladin Ahmed, I knew I was going to make it work. So early on a Monday afternoon, I took a lunch break from my day job and hopped on the phone. What followed was a fun, fascinating, and informative chat with a super-nice creator. I hope you enjoy.
Brian Warshaw: I first encountered you, probably like a lot of people, with Black Bolt last year. And even though I haven’t finished the whole series yet, I really enjoyed the first arc, and when Jay mentioned this book Abbott from Boom!, and that he wanted to talk about it on one of our podcast episodes, and I saw who wrote it, I was like oh, this is going to be pretty good!
Elena is such a great character, and fairly well-developed in a short space. And what I mean by that is even in the first issue—probably by the middle of the issue—you have a very strong sense of who she is. There doesn’t appear to be any ambiguity in who you want her to be. That got me thinking: is there a real-life inspiration that you’re drawing from for Elena?
Saladin Ahmed: No, not one particular person. I mean, she’s sort of...parts of her backstory are inspired by reading accounts of journalists, of black journalists in the era. My own great-grandmother was a private detective, a woman doing that back in the 60’s. So there are these little bits and pieces historically that contribute. But she’s not modeled, directly, on anyone. But she’s definitely a type. I’m leaning pretty heavily into the occult investigator, this kind of figure that we know from The X-Files, or, in the comics world, from Hellblazer. The main inspiration for the book is a 70’s show called Kolchak the Night Stalker, which in turn was the inspiration for The X-Files. In TV and comics and movies, there’s this figure of this character who is haunted by this glimpse they have of the occult, of the underworld, in a way that the rest of the people around them don’t seem to have, and kind of it’s messing them up. But typically, it’s always a guy—usually a white guy—so telling this story with a different kind of person at the center of it, I think instantly it kind of becomes this unique figure. If you take different types of backstories for folks and put them in these familiar molds, you come up with something a little more unique, I think. Part of that’s just the accident of the alchemy of what’s gone in to the book, rather than any skill in writing I have.
BW: You mentioned that—I think you said it was a great-grandmother, or was it your grandmother, who was a private detective?
SA: Yeah, my great-grandmother actually.
BW: Did knowing that dispel the romanticism of that kind of a job for you? Or did it just sort of enhance how cool you thought it was?
SA: Well, it's sort of like on the one hand it's just...to see her—like I have her actual license, her P.I. license from New York in 1968, and she was a 58 year-old woman at that time, right? And it's just, there's no denying the coolness of it. On the other hand, she had some little adventures—some guy tried to stab her. But, she was mostly working for department stores and stuff like that.
You know, like low-rent jobs, like most people with a P.I. license. It's not Mickey Spillane, you know?
BW: Sure. I used to work in a Walmart, and they have dedicated people who do "Loss Prevention".
SA: Yeah, and back in the day in, department stores in New York, that was a big thing.
BW: So, I interviewed Sami by email recently, as well—and I guess I'm taking for granted how I pronounce his name. I hope I'm doing that right—is it Sami [sounds like “Sammy”]?
SA: As far as I know. We've never actually spoken. We've only exchanged stuff online.
SA: I've never heard the man's voice.
BW: Well, he said that at least in terms of...aesthetically, you had a very particular person or look in mind for Elena's appearance. He didn't say who that was—are you able to share who that was?
SA: Well, I sent him a kind of composite of folks—it wasn't just one person. Probably the main inspiration was...Aisha Tyler was one. But what we ended up with, with the design for Elena, doesn't look like her. She was more like kind of the inspiration that we started with, the actress Aisha Tyler—was fairly recently on Criminal Minds and had been in other stuff. You know, she's a very...handsome woman—strong-jawed woman. Pretty, but also tough-looking, you know. And so Elena was sort of in that mold. But Sami's an artist. You know, it's funny, because so often in comics, I feel like there's some celebrity that inspires a character's initial look. But very rarely, unless the writer's insisting upon it, is it just that person. The artist transforms and infuses the design with other characters and other influences and you get this character that's just something very different. So Elena's got a couple inspirations, including Aisha Tyler, but she's really kind of her own woman.
BW: Sure, yeah. You know, writing an independent black woman in the 70's, it's completely natural, especially in Detroit, that she would rub against the system, and that she'd be bullied, and just, sort of, disregarded by people in power—though I guess at her newspaper, she's not disregarded, as much as despised, by the folks above her boss. It seems like it would also be easy in a story like this for her friction with the system to consume everything, and that her identity would be reduced to her interactions with this society that doesn't really value her, but you managed to avoid falling into that trap, I think. Even before the supernatural stuff comes in and necessarily shifts a lot of the focus toward that, she's a lot deeper, and yet you still never downplay the racial or gender issues. Can you talk a little bit about finding that balance? It seems like it's a knife's edge, you know?
SA: I really appreciate that insight, because it's definitely something I strive for. Not just here, but my Marvel work—anywhere. To me, I always want to tell a character's whole story, and tell the whole story of the world that they live in. And every setting, and with every character you have, the social place they occupy is part of that. And if we're talking about America, race is a massive part of that. And we're talking most of human history, gender is a pretty massive part of that, right? So, to kind of just not have that be part of what effects a character's life is absurd. On the other hand, to make it all about that, it doesn't reflect the way people of color live. I'm a man, so I don't know how women live, but certainly, the ways in which I consider myself a marginalized person are not the only things that determine my life. So, these characters, to me—it's important to both observe their particularity, and to also just make them these cool, universal, archetypal characters that people like reading in comic books. It is always a balancing act.
BW: Yeah, I mean, I guess what I was thinking about, too, is that—and this is true of everything in comics, for me and my taste, it's true of the artwork as well—you have to sort of develop the alternate reality of the story. Because, in truth, you could take the story of a black woman in Detroit, and you could accurately capture instances of marginalization or rough treatment—you could capture event after event after event, and be 100% accurate to real-life experience; but in the context of story, it could start to feel one-note, even though it is technically accurate. It's fascinating to me how you can find that balance.
SA: Yeah, and for me it's also that, in this particular story, it's a reflection of historical reality. Because there's a lot of stories about Detroit in the 70's—particularly here amongst the suburbs, amongst white people in particular, of how that was sort of the beginning of the end—the beginning of decline. And even nationally, when people talk about Detroit, there were riots, and then everything went to hell. In reality, there's a really complex story of Detroit in the 70s, in terms of always tentative, but interesting moments of black empowerment. People being able to take office in a way that they'd been prevented from, people just moving into institutions in a way that was still always incomplete...something like reconstruction was like this radical moment...so it is both this moment of still intense—and then there's intense reaction against that, right? So you know, one of the moments in the first issue, Elena's publishers are reacting to bussing. So this is a real thing that was happening. Integration was being pushed, but then people are reacting against it. It was just a kind of cauldron of a time, and not this one note in any direction.
SA: And so I think it's both accurate and, in terms of drama, really fun and powerful to try and capture some of that mix.
BW: Sure, yeah. I think one of the things that really stuck out to me in the first issue, and subsequently, that I just really loved, is that Elena is such a great detective. And I confess that almost immediately, I found myself longing for a more detective-focused Batman again, because that's pretty much been absent from Batman books for a little while now, except on the occasional one-off. And I'm the one that wrote that article that DC should give you a crack at Batman, by the way.
SA: [Laughs] I did see that and appreciate it very much. It's always funny, because you can never quite fully comment on this stuff, because there's always behind-the-scenes...once upon a time, when somebody would say something like “you should write Batman,” I could get on Twitter and say “yeah! That’d be awesome!”, but now it feels like a professional audition, you know, there are stakes involved. I just go “thank you.”
BW: I think what I really like with Abbott that really made me think about that, too is...I suspect that if enough people complain that Batman is not a detective anymore, that what DC might initially do is work in a few detective elements—make Batman do a little more investigation, put a fresh coat of paint on the character, or something like that? Or I guess in this case, it would be stripping the new paint off and letting the original shine through. But what really impressed me in Abbott with Elena, is sort of the process of discovery that you had. I guess it was in issue #2 when she had the confrontation, or at least the conclusion of the confrontation with the centaur man. And just the evidence for what that centaur man was—that it was the splicing of the horse victim and the human victim—the evidence was there, but the way that you scripted that, and just the way that it ultimately came out in the issues—I was discovering it maybe a step or two behind Elena, so that when Elena had that realization, I immmediately was able to say “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense.” I wasn't ten steps behind her where I had to stop and catch up. And just as problematic, I wasn't ahead of her and figuring it out long before she did. So, did you write that methodically, with an eye toward where you wanted to lead her? Or was it more an intuitive thing?
SA: [Laughs] Part of that is having a good editor. Editors are kind of the great, unsung co-creators in comics. Eric Harburn and his assistant Chris Rosa at BOOM! are fantastic. It's just really gratifying to hear that, because actually, that kind of mystery and misdirection is not my forté at all. I'm a pretty linear thinker, so any time any degree of that works in my plots, I'm kind of astonished. But it really helps having a second and third set of eyes. You have it in fiction—you know, I come to comics from fiction—but in comics, it's...they just read a lot closer. In Big Two comics, there's continuity stuff, but even in indie comics, there's this meticulousness to the reading that really is helpful for someone like me who...the plot probably started out much more jumbled than what you ended up with, but I'm glad it worked.
BW: It's probably more important in indie comics, because in the big two, at some point, somebody's going to come and wallpaper over what you did anyway, but with something like this, you're not going to go back and erase what you did in Abbott and redo it in twenty years.
SA: Yeah, I'm just now...I'm kind of a year and change out from doing my first Marvel work, so it's just starting to get to the point where things I've set up are, as inevitably happens—and I don't say this with any bitterness—but are then dismantled, and people do other things, and it's bizarre to watch. [LAUGHS] So it is nice to have this thing that I know nobody else can touch.
BW: For sure, yeah. I think these characters—Elena of course, but a lot of the other characters that she encounters—I think they could have worked in a book that didn't even feature the supernatural elements, but as it is, you've done a great job of fusing together this story of 70's Detroit and the occult stuff. How was this born? How did you come to decide that this sort of fusion might make for a good book?
SA: You know, it's funny. I'm really at heart a fantasy writer. Even when I write superheroes, it's kind of a subset of fantasy for me. Even when I come to historical stuff, I guess because I know that it gives me license to break the rules, I automatically go to fantasy. If I'm writing—I've written in the fiction world, westerns, short stories, but there's always magic or zombies or something in it. I don't know, it's got to do with the way I see the world. I think in kind of magical terms, I think. So when I came to tell this story, I knew that there was going to be this aspect of sorcery, which will become more pronounced in the last couple issues of the book. In #4 and #5, or at least this chapter of the book. It's going to come more to the fore, and we'll see this as much as a dark fantasy as it is a sort of mystery story.
BW: I was a lit major in college, so that means that I trained for four years to find more in a story than the author put there.
SA: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
BW: My question is, were you thinking on any level about the juxtaposition of these two things, that Elena...I wouldn't say Elena's life is a horror story already because of her station and status and how people treat her, but it's not as pleasant as it ought to be for somebody who works hard and tries to help people. Did you give any thought to that juxtaposition of this person whose life is already a unique kind of struggle being the one who winds up dealing with this even more unique kind of struggle?
SA: Yeah, absolutely, and it will...hopefully without ever hitting people over the head, that will become pretty explicit when we get to the big fireworks climax of the thing. This conflation of human monsters and supernatural monsters, and this question of a hero's journey, and who that hero is supposed to be, and all that stuff—that all gets staged, I hope, in an exciting way in the big finale.
BW: Well, I'm anxious to see how you guys wrap that up for sure.
Speaking of the characters, the supporting cast, especially, I loved. I thought that even those with fairly limited on-page time...they're very distinct. Even Wardell. Issue #4 is already out right?
SA: It is.
BW: I get the advanced copies, and I don't want to spoil anything for something that's not out, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which that BOOM! would probably stop sending me the advanced reviews.
BW: When I see Wardell at the end of issue #4, even though I've only gotten a little bit of him...the way that you wrote him in that little bit of time, and I think especially his father, because we see his father a little more before that point...just, out loud, when I read it, I'm like, OH NO, WARDELL!SA: Aww. yay! [Laughs]
BW: So, yeah, I love the supporting cast, so again, I've got to ask, are any of these folks ghosts of your real life?
SA: Oh gosh, yeah, everybody is. Every character I write has probably got a little bit of somebody I’ve known in there. Again, there's no sort of one-to-one correspondences, but there's everything from some of the names to some of the amalgamations of characters—but sort of like a magician, I'm never going to tell what exactly the trick is.
BW: Well yeah, that could be necessary for the preservation of those real-life relationships.
SA: Yes, exactly.
BW: I really thought that Sami's aesthetic was perfect for this book, and I could probably guess after the way that you answered an earlier question, but did you know of him before this, and request to work with him, or did Eric or someobody else at BOOM! point you in his direction?
SA: Well, Eric laid out a number of artists, saying what do you think of this, what do you think of this, and as soon as I saw Sami's stuff on Beautiful Canvas in particular, it stood out from the pack. Just, both kind of how he...his figures, but how he understood sequential storytelling, which is a thing that's kind of invisible for a lot of comics readers
SA: But if you're looking for someone to work with, you think about how paneling works. It's not just DOES THIS PERSON DRAW A REALLY COOL WOLVERINE, or whatever, it's: do they know how to get from this first panel on the page to the last panel on the page in a way that's going to help me tell this story? So Sami had both of those kinds of sets of skills. Even so, though, I wasn't really ready for how good he was going to be. He just really threw himself into it. I'm amazed at how well he captured Detroit. I don't know that he's ever been here, but I don't think so. He's from Finland. So many Detroiters are like, “oh yeah! He got the look of the place!,” and the 70's aesthetic.
SA: Which is also on Jason Wordie...
BW: Yes, yes yes!
SA: ...who’s just stunning, with both the muted, funky, sometimes slightly sleazy 70’s colors, right, and then also just this amazing set of colors for the magical effects. I just feel very lucky working with all these guys, so. You know, that's the thing—you can have the best story in the world, but if you don't have somebody who's really good at what they do helping you execute it, then the story doesn't come through. But, on every level, these guys have been great.
BW: Yeah, we talked about Sami's storytelling, when Jay and I discussed this on the podcast a few weeks ago. In particular, one of the sequences that really wowed us is—I think it's at the start of #3—it's when the poor horse man is coming after Elena after she's crashed her car at the end of the previous issue...and the way that Sami does the paneling there, where as he gets closer—the horse man—as he gets closer to Elena's car, the panels, which start out very skewed, they start to skew less—it never gets quite to a perfectly squared off...you know, four 90-degree angle square, but the panels become larger and closer to that squared-off shape. Totally love that, and I also—and I asked Sami about this one—showing the ash tray filling up in one of the issues to illustrate the elapsing of time...amazing stuff—that's just great.
SA: Yeah, he knocked it out of the park. Again, it's funny, we've never met, never actually spoken, but the wonder of the internet—these collaborations. It just clicked.
BW: Yeah, and that an artist from Finland could make Detroiters convinced about their own city. Awesome stuff.
What are you working on after Abbott? I know you're doing Exiles right now—that just started at Marvel. Anything else in the pipeline?
SA: Yeah, I've got another miniseries at Marvel—a Quicksilver miniseries. And I...you know, for now, Elena's story is done. It's certainly left open-ended with the idea that I'd be surprised if I didn't come back to her some day. I don't know when that will be. In the meantime, it's all kind of top-secret stuff, and nothing official or anything, but I do have some other creator-owned ideas in the back pocket here.
BW: Well that's great. I'm definitely going to be following along and seeing what you're doing.
My great thanks to Saladin for an absolutely delightful interview. He’s a talented writer, but also a warm, funny person, and a blast to talk with. Abbott wraps up in a few weeks, so be sure to get caught up if you haven’t been reading!