Interviews: David Baillie talks Chopper with Matt Badham
Dave Baillie has been making comics for over a decade. Originally a stalwart of this country’s thriving small-press scene, he’s since turned professional with work for Vertigo Comics as well as 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, amongst others, and even featured at the prestigious Edinburgh International Comics Festival to discuss his work. His new comic strip Wandering Soul, featuring Chopper, the anarchistic “king scrawler” turned sky-surfer from Judge Dredd, makes its debut in the Judge Dredd Megazine this month, and boasts art from the great Brendan McCarthy, so we sent roving reporter Splash Braham (a furtive character and denizen of underground Shuggy halls, well known to Justice Department) along to chat with him about his work…
(Cover art to the Judge Dredd Megazine #395, art by the one and only Bren McCarthy, published Rebellion)
Matt Badham: How did this new series of Chopper come about?
Dave Baillie: I had just spoken to Tharg [alien editor of 2000 AD] about a short when he asked if I’d be interested in writing a new Chopper story. I of course pinched myself to check if I was dreaming. (If I was I still am!) Chopper is probably my favourite character in the history of 2000 AD, so there was no way I was going to say no.
He’d already talked to Brendan McCarthy [on art duties] about some elements that they’d both like to use and so I spent a couple of weeks coming up with the most detailed pitch I ever wrote, weaving the ideas that arose from their conversation with my own and forming what is hopefully a new story worthy of such an epic character.
Matt Badham:: What are the pros and cons of working in shared universe settings?
Dave Baillie: The only downside is the research time often required to get even the simple stuff right. I’ve written comics based on, I think, four or five iterations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) franchise. Even after all the reading and cartoon-watching that work required, when IDW asked me to pitch TMNT ideas to them a couple of years ago I got loads of stuff wrong. (Their universe is an amalgamation of various reboots, so maybe I thought I could wing it. I could not.)
The great thing about working with Dredd is that a lot of the continuity is indelibly stamped on my brain from decades of reading 2000AD. Failing that, Tharg himself has an even better memory and there are loads of fans and other writers on the internet who are often kind enough to lend a hand. (I emailed Mike Carroll about a Mega-City One law question last month and he gave me a far more detailed answer than I expected or deserved!) And re-reading old progs is no chore at all.
It’s so much quicker to write a story if you’re not also creating the whole universe it takes place in. I really enjoy how creative you sometimes have to be to get around the constraints of working within an already existing continuity. For example, you can’t fudge setting details to fit a storytelling solution.
It’s also nice to have decades of old stories to draw upon, whether you’re dropping nerdy Easter eggs or adding to some already-rich narrative tapestry.
Matt Badham:: What’s the hook for this new Chopper tale?
Dave Baillie:My favourite chapter of Chopper’s life is actually the mostly unseen and mysterious months/years that he spent with Old Smokie in the Radback between the stories Oz and Soul on Fire. I always wished that we’d seen more of that time, how he survived out there, how it changed him. Taking him back to that place, and that kind of life was one of my goals with this story. Visually and thematically that was just really exciting to me.
I’d have been happy having him just surfing megathermals, looking for water in increasingly interesting ways and eating barbecue lizards, but of course that’s not how drama works.
Instead Wandering Soul kicks off when Wally, the cleverman for the wandering Aboriginal tribe of which Smokie was once a member, has an apocalyptic vision, featuring the end of the world, lumbering cosmic horrors and Chopper, in amongst it all, risking his life to try and halt the chaos.
From thereon in it’s a rollercoaster ride of rampaging mutants, smashed powerboards, a war between science and magic and a threat to the whole fabric of creation.
Matt Badham: Please tell us about Brendan’s contribution.
Dave Baillie: [As mentioned,] Brendan and Matt (Smith, the Megazine editor) had already discussed bringing back Chopper and some big visual plot-points before I came on board. It was a bit like being handed a few ingredients and then being tasked with coming up with a menu worthy of a legendary chef.
I met up with Brendan in a café in Ireland and over a few flat whites we discussed all the things that we thought might be interesting for the story, including his interests in Aboriginal culture and spiritual beliefs. My job was then to go off and wrangle it into something that made sense and was hopefully an exciting read.
It was an interesting way of working, and I loved it – although it was probably more time-consuming than any other story I’ve written for 2000 AD or the Megazine. Not that I’m complaining – it was more than worth it! (Have I mentioned already how much I love Chopper?)
Matt Badham: And what about his art? Have you seen it and what approach is he taking?
Dave Baillie: All the hallmarks of classic McCarthy are there in [this new story,] Wandering Soul: his fabulous design sense, composition skills and expressive, inky lines. The early chapters are reminiscent of his work on Mad Max: Fury Road, with magnificent Radback vistas and villainous muties. Later on (spoilers) we spend more time in urban Oz and that harks back to some of his classic-era Dredd stuff.
Hopefully the fans will love it, because we’re both really proud of the finished story. We both pulled out all of the stops to do right by Chop.
Matt Badham: And, slightly out of leftfield but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time, I wanted to ask… Is there a utility to stories? Does society need them and, if so, why?
Dave Baillie: That’s a brilliant question and my answer (‘Yes! Absolutely!’) is something I actually had to convince myself of years ago when I was in the process of deciding that I wanted to be a writer rather than something more obviously useful like an engineer, pastry chef or doctor. It just seemed so self-indulgent. Did the world really need another writer? I went to a Clive Barker reading in Edinburgh when I was at university and in a typical fit of self-important teenage self-doubt asked him pretty much that. He explained something that now actually seems pretty obvious: that stories have power and real, measurable, observable effects on those who read them.
The stories we consume shape our lives, show us what’s possible and inspire us to live our lives in new ways. I have a whole bunch of theories about the effects that crappy storytelling clichés and tropes have had on Western society in the last few decades and I honestly think being a good storyteller is just as important as engineering, making pastries or doctoring up people’s bodies.
There’s evidence that storytelling existed in human culture way before the advent of formal writing systems: ancient story-beat reminders painted on Aboriginal Australian cave walls, plot points carved in European trees and maybe even tattooed on the skin of a shaman. To have persisted in human culture for so long storytelling must serve a fundamental purpose because anything that didn’t would have been abandoned in favour of efforts to find shelter, warmth, food or sunbathing.
(I like Scott McCloud’s definition of art as anything that we do that doesn’t involve us trying to secure shelter, food or sex. Of course writing has been used for all three, but is still definitely, or at least occasionally, art; something I think he himself notes in Understanding Comics, although I’d have to go back and re-read it to be sure.)
It seems that important ideas and, for want of a much better phrase, life lessons have always been encoded in stories and fictions and there must be some reason for that. Why do we crave novels and TV shows, computer games and radio plays? Why is binging on box-sets so ubiquitous? It’s more than just the dopamine hit you experience from a well-told story. I think it’s something hard coded in our make-up.
I take both comfort and strength from my favourite stories. Maybe it’s a combination of being reassured that other human beings have lived the same life I have and seeing how they overcome challenges that are similar to the ones I face. Even if the people aren’t real, the situations entirely fabricated, it still does the job.
So in answer to your question: Yes! Absolutely!
The Forbidden Planet Blog would like to thank both David and Matt for taking the time to share their words and thoughts on here. David and Brendan’s new Chopper series starts in the Judge Dredd Megazine #395, published Wednesday 18th of April.