Smash Pages Q&A: Saladin Ahmed on ‘Abbott’

Saladin Ahmed is an award-winning writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, best known for his epic fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon. Last year he began writing comics at Marvel. His series Black Bolt was one of the most acclaimed superhero stories of the year, and he’s writing two new series at Marvel launching this spring including the much anticipated Exiles.

This year Ahmed also has a new comic, Abbott, drawn by Sami Kivela and colored by Jason Wordie. The five-issue miniseries from Boom tells the story of Elena Abbott, a reporter in 1972 Detroit who is dealing with social and political issues of the era in addition to a supernatural threat she’s trying to understand. The series and the lead character are very much a type, the noir influenced supernatural investigator and the series is reminiscent of Jamie Delano’s run on Hellblazer, which like this was a horror/fantasy story that was very political and concerned with social issues. It’s the story of a time and place that has a lot of echoes with today as Ahmed pointed out in our conversation.

The third issue of Abbott is out this week and Ahmed was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

I like to start by asking people, what brought you to comics?

I really started reading via comics. Before I was really tackling any kind of prose novels, it was comics. I didn’t grow up in a particularly well off neighborhood, the schools were not great, so really I was kind of teaching myself to read – and a lot of it via comic books. Marvel especially, but other stuff, too. I’ve published poetry, I’ve published essays and obviously fiction and in all of my work I think I’ve carried with me a lot of elements from those early stories that I read in comics. Coming to this form for me was natural, almost inevitable maybe.

For people who don’t know, what is Abbott?

Abbott is a supernatural detective story starring Elena Abbott. She’s a reporter for a fictional newspaper in Detroit in 1972. She’s a very familiar type – the dogged investigator. She’s my tribute to an archetype that’s a big one in genre fiction, a paranormal investigator who gets a glimpse of the truth because of their unyielding investigations. Elena is solidly in that tradition. The book is very much about her, but it’s also about Detroit in the 1970‘s. It’s a period book and genre-wise it’s equal parts horror and crime with some reporter procedural details thrown in there. Not a lot of comic books are about going to the hall of records, but there’s going to be a pivotal scene involving that. [laughs]

Why did you decide to set the story in 1972?

Part of it is that we’re in a period right now where more than maybe a generation ago, people are ready to hear really complex historical stories, I think. For Detroit, the late sixties and early seventies are very important turning point. Part of it is the aesthetic appeal of the music, the clothes, and both Sami Kivela, the artist on the book, and Jason Wordie, the colorist, have done a really fantastic job of capturing that era. I was born in the mid-seventies so there’s a nostalgic itch there. It’s a time period that has a lot of echoes of things going on right now. It’s a tense period – not just tense race relations, because that’s every period in American history – but specifically a lot of white resentment at black progress. This is the era when some of the hard promises of the Civil Rights era and the Black Power era are starting to play out in terms of people having to go to school together and a lot of people – especially white people – are not reacting very well to that. Detroit was a power keg. We had a corrupt President who was blatantly breaking the law. There’s all sorts of echoes going on. It’s a way to talk about right now without talking about right now.

You write fantasy and you work in different genres and genre and allegory allow people to respond differently to a story. Setting it in 1972 lets you play with these echoes and people respond to them differently.

Sure. For instance Black Bolt, which I was working on before this, is about characters in a space prison. It’s very much a book about incarceration, class, and things like that, but it’s all done in a pretty allegorical way.

You were born and raised in Detroit, even though you were born after when Abbott is set. What’s your relationship to the city?

I was born in Detroit although I grew up mostly across the street from the city limits in the Arab enclave of Dearborn. I was really raised in the city quite a bit in terms of the cultural scene. My father spent a lot of time in Detroit proper and always encouraged me to respect and explore the city. In a way that by the eighties when I was a kid not a lot of parents – especially non-black parents – were doing, unfortunately. There was a lot of paranoia. My friends would go, you’re going to Detroit? It’s so dangerous. And it was a dangerous city. It continues to be in some aspects. I had a gun pointed at me more than once before I turned eighteen. At the same time Detroit is the city that raised me as a writer. Going to poetry readings in Detroit and things like that. Detroit has always been a very tough but loving city – and a battered but welcoming city. I have a lot of love for the city and that’s part of why I wrote this.

You talked before about the art and the color and what was the relationship like with Sami and Jason in terms of finding the right people, but also the right look for the book.

I was very wary of going to someone who was not a Detroiter for art. A couple folks who were native to the city just didn’t work out. Detroit is a very unique city visually and when you see it depicted in film and other media, people do it as a small New York. They don’t have any idea what the physicality of the city is like. I was really impressed – and kind of astonished – to see Sami who’s from Finland and as far as I know he’s never been to Detroit and through consummate professionalism and research, he figured out what the city looked like, what streets looked like, what the buildings are laid out like. He just has this balance of draftsman perfection with this gonzo horror edge and it’s a really great balance and it’s perfect for the book. With the colors I wanted somebody who could do justice to the diversity of skintones that we’d see in Detroit. I wanted somebody who could evoke these earthy seventies colors and also somebody who convey something of the magical, because it’s an occult book. Jason Wordie just delivered on all those fronts. The book would not exist literally without its art so I’m really thankful that I’ve got such talented folks to work with.

You used the word gonzo and the book has this hyperreal feel of the seventies and the supernatural scenes have their own aesthetic. Did you know how you wanted those scenes and elements to look and feel?

To a degree. One of the things you learn writing comics as opposed to being a prose writer is when I’m writing a novel that’s all my job to convey, and when you’re writing comics you step back. I had some notions and Sami and Jason they did what I needed them to do, but part of stepping back is you find out you needed things you didn’t know you needed. I should say that it’s not just the artists but the editors who make that happen. Eric Harburn, my editor at Boom, had thoughts about the visual look of this book, too. It’s always a team effort. I certainly had a vision and I created Elena and this world, but it was this team of folks who really helped to make it real – and make it even better than what was in my head.

You were writing prose before you started working in comics. What about this idea made you interested in telling it as a comic?

I knew that it was a visual story. If I was a screenwriter maybe I’d have gone to writing a screenplay right away – and I’d certainly be open to the story having a home beyond comics – but I knew it had to be visual. I was writing Black Bolt at the time so the mode I was thinking in was comics. It just almost flowed without me making it flow. As soon as I started thinking of the story, whereas once upon a time I’d have thought of chapters in a novel, I was immediately thinking of the story in terms of a visual script.

If the series does well, would you want to do more?

It’s certainly a possibility. I don’t have any hard story lines mapped out in detail beyond this, but when I wrote it I very much considered this book one/chapter one/season one. There are some seeds planted and I’ve got some threads that I know I will pick up if I continue to follow the story. There’ll be a break regardless.

I know you’re working on a few projects right now. Do you want to mention what else you’re writing?

I’m slowly, perpetually working on the sequel to Throne of the Crescent Moon. That’s the work of years rather than months. In the meantime I’m writing a lot of superhero comics. I’m writing a new book for Marvel launching in April called Exiles which is a team book of alternate universe Marvel superheroes. There’s a cartoon Wolverine and a grizzled old Ms. Marvel and characters like that. Then there’s a Quicksilver comic launching in May. Black Bolt has another couple issues coming out, ending with issue #12. And then there’s secret projects in the works. I’m a busy author. [laughs]

For people who have read the first two issues, do you want to tease what’s coming up?

At the end of issue two Abbott has gotten a fuller picture of the supernatural threat that seems to be poised to hurt her city – and her, specifically. She will begin in the next few issues to piece together the ways in which that supernatural threat is intertwined with some of the social threats that she’s concerned about as a journalist. Unfortunately just as she starts to piece this together – as happens to any good noir hero – things will begin to fall apart for her professionally, personally and eventually in terms of physical danger. And there will be lots more cool monsters, too.

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