Ichabod Azrael has had a rough couple of lifetimes. After being shot down in the streets of a desert town by a demon-possessed child, the outlaw stormed his way across the afterlife, killing demons and angels alike in order to get back to the land of the living and reunite with his one true love. Along the way, he discovered that he may have been reincarnated in to other lives and that nothing during his lifetime was how it seemed.
"The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the Dead Left in His Wake," by fan-favorite writer Rob Williams ("Ghost Rider"), artist Dom Reardon and colorist Pete Doherty, debuted last year in British comic anthology "2000 AD" and concluded with all the main characters being tossed about in the dissolving barrier between life and death. The second series, entitled "Manhunt," begins in "2000 AD" prog 1789 this June.
Williams spoke to CBR News about returning to the supernatural western series, working with artists Dom Reardon ("Caballistics Inc.") and Pete Doherty ("Flex Mentallo"), and teased an upcoming arc of "Low Life," his popular Judge Dredd spinoff with artist D'Israeli.
CBR News: For those that didn't read the original series, what is "The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the Dead Left in His Wake)" about?
Rob Williams: "The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael (and The Dead Left In His Wake)" is the story of one of the nastiest characters of the American west, who killed more men than marriage, or so his legend goes. But eventually Ichabod gets his comeuppance and is shot and killed during an ambush by a gang of mercenaries. And that's where our story starts. Here is a man mean enough to take one look at the afterlife and go "screw this." He then proceeds to try and do what he's told is impossible -- fight his way back to the living world in order to return to his one true love. It's a bloody, romantic supernatural alt-country western with wonderful moody art by Dom Reardon.
What inspired the character? He seems to owe a lot to both Clint Eastwood's old movies as well as Saint of Killers from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's "Preacher." Neither of those things, really. The ultimate killer of the old west is hardly an original character, I'll admit. But the split of the story between the living world and the afterlife gave us an interesting twist, and as you'll see as the story progresses, we don't stay in the old west. But Ichabod was really inspired by a lot of the music I was listening to at the time. I wanted to do something with alt-country iconography -- the music of people like Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Nick Cave, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons. "Return Of The Grievous Angel" was a big inspiration -- the lyrical journey that character goes on, meeting weird characters like the king with the amphetamine crown. There was a Wilco song too -- "Via Chicago" -- which prompted the series. "Dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me..." And the idea of a character trying to come home to his love even though he was dead. That's a pretty epic quest. "Woe To Live On," a great Civil War novel by Daniel Woodrell -- that was a big inspiration for Ichabod too.
Where did you get the idea to alternate between color and black and white throughout the story? The use of spot color to differentiate the living world and the black and white of the afterlife is something "Ichabod" did really effectively, I think. That was a "Wizard Of Oz" idea, and we got Pete Doherty to color the living scenes. Pete's one of my favorite colorists. He's just done the "Flex Mentallo" reprint with Frank Quitely. Dom sold it though. He does black and white moody visuals wonderfully well. It's a beautiful looking book. If Charon the Ferryman, who thwarted Ichabod in the afterlife, is now mortal, how will he continue to be a threat to Ichabod?
That's part of the story we're telling in series two, which we're just finishing up now. Charon no longer being in the afterlife to transport souls across the River Styx won't just make him a threat to Ichabod, but a threat to all reality. If Charon's not there, the entire system of reality crumbles. The quest for series two is to find Charon and take him back to his rickety boat before everything splinters and falls to pieces. Will antagonist The Hunter also find a way in to the land of the living? The Hunter's such a fun, simple concept. He hunts and kills, that's it. And he can't be stopped. After Ichabod defies him and hurts him in series one he finds himself adrift in time and the only thing left for him to do is go looking for Ichabod so he can kill him over and over again, in innumerable realities. He's our Terminator, basically.
You use a writing style that is vastly different from your other work here. Did writing in a "western" style take a lot of research?
Not hugely. The language of Woodrell's 'Woe To Live On' was an influence. I thought it would be fun to go against recognized thinking about brevity in comics and go for a narration style that was stylistically deliberately verbose and prose-like. I've really written very little prose in the past 20 years, but Ichabod was me stretching my muscles in that regard, I guess. I wanted to make it lyrically romantic. But it has to remain visual, of course. This is a comic. I liked the trick of having this unreliable narrator too, where he tells you something about Ichabod's legend and the panel's visual may well be showing you something that contradicts that legend. The truth, rather than the myth. Your description of series two only mentions one of Ichabod's helpers, Deputy Crow. Does this mean Ichabod's other ally, General Nathaniel M. Beauregard, really did meet his end at the end of series one? General Beauregard's back for series two. Kind of. Weird things happened to Crow, Ichabod, The Hunter and the General in the tumult at the end of series one. They've come back in different shapes and sizes. Will we see more time anachronisms, like the WWII fighter plane glimpsed in series one? Yeah, that's a big part of series two. The B29 bomber in the desert was a hint to what we'll see in series two as Ichabod is chased through different time periods. World War I, 1920s Chicago, the Pacific Theatre in WWII and more. Do all people see the Wild West when they die, or does the afterlife change depending on who dies and when? I always had the idea that the landscape changes to show you the reality you can deal with. For Ichabod the afterlife is an askew version of his Wild West. But that would change for each individual.
What are some of the other versions of the afterlife you mentioned? Will we see any of them during the course of this story?
Not in series two, which is predominantly set in the living world, and is colored by "Flex Mentallo's" Pete Doherty as a result. But the same visual hook holds -- the afterlife is black and white. I think the majority of the third series would be set in the afterlife, going on what I currently have in mind. We'll see.
Can you explain the genesis of the title itself? It's really unique and really long. What were some of the rejected title names?
No rejected names, I'm happy to say. I pitched it to Matt Smith ("2000 AD's" editor and full-time Tharg) and he went for it. It's kind of an amalgam of Gram Parson's "Return Of The Grievous Angel" and "You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead." So many stories and series go for the sharp, punchy title, I fancied going in the opposite direction to try and make it stand out.
Your art team of artist Dom Reardon and colorist Pete Doherty return from the first series for "Ichabod Azrael: Manhunt." What was it like retiming with them again? Dom's brilliant. There's a real unusual energy about his work and he does the horror and the supernatural so well. There's a lot of similarities between his work and Jock's, which shouldn't be a surprise when you consider they're long time friends. Dom's visual voice suited what I was going for with the Ichabod scripts perfectly. It feels kind of ethereal and odd. And Pete's simply one of my favorite colorists in comics. We've worked together previously on a strip called "Breathing Space" for "2000 AD" and on "Judge Dredd." Two top blokes too, Dom and Pete. That helps, when you can put a series together with people you like.
You said the other day you were finishing up the next installment of your massively popular series "Low Life." "Low Life," for those that don't know, features undercover judges in the world of Judge Dredd, dubbed the Wally Squad. Dirty Frank, who leads the squad, is either completely insane or completely brilliant. Can you tease the new story at all?
Yeah, finishing up "Low Life: Saudade" at the moment, with the brilliant D'israeli on art once again. It's a complete joy for me to work with an artist like D'izzy, and he's kind of made Dirty Frank his own over the past few years. And I've had some great artists on "Low Life" over the years, as you'll see in the new "Mega City Undercover" volume 2 TPB that's just come out. I think we both feel a sense of ownership of the character now. And the great thing about Matt [Brooker, D'Israeli's real name,] is, apart from this absolute world-class world-building that he brings to a series, especially when it comes to sci-fi architecture, he's equally great at storytelling and pulling amazing acting performances from his characters. Matt really gives Dirty Frank that sense of pathos and occasional nobility that really lifts the series out of just being silly fun.
I don't want to say too much about "Low Life: Saudade" for fear of spoilers but it's one of the most ambitious things I've been involved with. There's definitely more to it than first appears on the surface and, hopefully, it should provide a pretty major shock for "2000 AD" readers at its end.
"The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael II: Manhunt" by Rob Williams, Dom Reardon and Pete Doherty begins in "2000 AD" prog 1789, on sale in the UK on June 27 and in North America on July 11. Available world-wide digitally at 2000adonline.com>a? on June 29.