Dan Abnett has made a living telling stories of aliens, wars and conflict, but in an upcoming new original series from Boom! Studios he’s going to the animals. Good thing he has experience with that sort of thing, with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket Raccoon.
This September, Boom!will launch Wild’s End – a six-part miniseries by Abnett and frequent collaborator I.N.J. Culbard that will see them mash-up the classic stories of War of the Worlds with the Wind in the Willows with a bit of low-brow English camaraderie. Taking place in 1930s rural England, Wild’s End sees H.G. Wells-esque aliens descent on the quaint hamlet of Lower Crowchurch, and it’s up to a group of anthromorphized men – a fox, a rabbit, a dog, and more – to save their piece of the world.
Newsarama: Dan, what’s the story of Wild’s End?
Dan Abnett: Here’s the elevator pitch. Two guys are stuck in an elevator... oh, no, not that one. Right.... here we go - War of the Worlds meets the Wind in the Willows. A genre mash. A decent, idyllic “English” village, populated by very safe 1930’s characters, who happen to be animals (we’ll worry about that later), gets invaded by cold, hard, calculating and utterly lethal aliens. And they have to fight back.
Nrama: I’ll ask you about the aliens later -- what can you tell us about those animals?
Abnett: Well, they’re not animals. Ian and I chose the anthropomorphic route because it gave the series context. All the safe and comfortable children’s stories we’d grown up with, like Rupert the Bear and Winnie the Pooh. We asked ourselves... what happens when a cozy world like that is broken open? The “animal” thing is just a conceit. These are really human characters, and that how I’m writing them, and that’s how Ian’s drawing them. I actually hope that, within a few pages, you’ll forget that one is a dog and another is a rabbit, and just bond with them. That’s what the story does. The fact that Fawkes is, say, a fox, and Clive a dog is nothing more than saying Captain America wears a blue, full-head mask, and Nightwing wears a domino mask. Just guises. I guess... it’s about situation. It’s about establishing the idea that the stories that gave us comfort in childhood could be wrong. If Kenneth Grahame had been writing The Wind in the Willows, leaning in his punt on a balmy summer’s day, and H.P. Lovecraft had come along with a notebook and sat down next to him... and they’d worked together... “comfy” would have gone out the window... but, as Ian and I believe, “comfy” would also have fought back.
Nrama: What types of aliens are these, invading Wild’s End’s world?
Abnett: Implacable, ruthless, unknown. Totally insidious. Totally deadly.
Nrama: I.N.J., when it came to designing the world of Wild's End, how did you determine what it would look like?
I.N.J. Culbard: Well, I live in Nottinghamshire. Way back in 1914, J.R.R Tolkien visited his aunt who lived not too far from where I live as it happens, and during his visit he wrote a poem. A poem that would herald the creation of Middle-Earth, a poem inspired not only by his studies but by the landscape around him. So the environment and the characters in Wild's End live in is not at all far from my own front door. So I'm surrounded by inspiration.
As for the characters, it was really a matter of deciding just how anthropomorphized they would be, and how much of their animal aspect they would each retain. What it boiled down to was a question of whether they walked on hind legs or not. And, for the sake of bell-bottoms and plus-fours, I opted for human bodies and animal heads. Oh, and they have tails, of course, so, an interesting problem for their tailors.
Nrama: The title of this – Wild’s End – what does that refer to, exactly? Is that the town the animals live in, that the aliens invade?
Abnett:The town is actually a village, and it’s called Lower Crowchurch. “Wild’s End” more refers to the scope and tone of the series... the end of something comfortable. The end of the cozy bedtime story. We might as well have called it The War in the Willows or The Wind in the Worlds.
Nrama: So what is Lower Crowchurch like before the aliens come down?
Abnett: Lovely. Sweet, quiet, idyllic. Like Hobbiton, or the Hundred Acre Wood, or Nutwood. It’s where everyone wants to live, insulated from anything bad.
Nrama: H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and The Wind in the Willows made an impact on a wide variety of people – what do they mean to you, as a fan and someone now taking it someplace new with a twist?
Nrama: H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds made an impact on a wide variety of people – what’s it mean to you, as a fan and someone now taking it someplace new with a twist?
Abnett: It’s immense. It sits there in the canon like a giant.. thing... that’s sitting there in the canon.. and can’t be ignored. But then, so is The Wind in the Willows. This is a head-on collision of classic styles. I like to think that both Herbert and Kenneth would have got a kick out of it.
Culbard: I think The Wind in the Willows had a greater impact on me, perhaps, than War of the Worlds.
I grew up bilingual in South-East London and I spent my summers and occasional winters as a child in Poland. I took forever to get my head around reading and writing in English which is partly why I draw, because if I wanted to communicate a story it came in panels of drawings rather than actual words. My mother had me sitting down at weekends and copying from books in English (so I'd read and write) and the book she chose for me to do that from was The Wind in the Willows. And, fortunately, I adored it. The opening of the book, on the inside of the jacket, had this beautiful map and then the story itself. "There is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." It was such a beautiful England. Not the real England, but one set to the music of Vaughn Williams. When I was overseas I'd tune into the BBC World Service and listen to the shipping forecast and I'd hear the music of Ronald Binge, a piece called Sailing By, and that to me was England. Sort of a romantic notion of it. A certain innocence. And then a certain sadness too.
If you read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, when Pippin talks to Gandalf and talks of death, Gandalf speaks of the rain-curtain of their world rolling back and all turning to silver glass and then "white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise". It's that that is England, lost forever. It was even lamented in our Olympics opening ceremony, showing the rural idyll being torn apart by the industrial revolution.
The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, before the outbreak of the Great War. Something I've always wondered about is what it would have been like if Kenneth Grahame had sat down to write Willows or a sequel to it, after the Great War. A War in the Willows, if you like, with Badger organizing the troops in the trenches and Toad flying a biplane into a dogfight shouting 'poop poop' but only before his first fight, and not after. The tranquility of a green and pleasant land invaded by true horrors. Horrors that would shape anyone into something new.
Nrama: Anthromorphic animal tales have a long history, in comics like Blacksad and Mouse Guard as well as in fiction like Animal Farm and the aforementioned The Wind in the Willows. What do you think it adds when telling a story?
Abnett: As I said (love both Blacksad and Mouse Guard by the way) we’re portraying animals that aren’t animals. Just people. I really don’t think of them like that. Actually, I have no idea what other authors of the anthropomorphic think. I reckon I just did them a huge disservice. Sorry, people.
Nrama: I.N.J., what's it like illustrating a story with animals as the main characters as opposed to people -- how does that change what you do as a storyteller?
Culbard: Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Grahame after he read The Wind in the Willows saying he had "read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends."
Anthropomorphism has generally been used to magnifying human characteristics or behavior and illustrate the principles of life. Survival stories, be they stories about people escaping alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, have also focused on such things, scrutinizing our qualities under certain pressures. So, in a way, it's a marriage of the two. Fundamentally, they're people. Especially the way Dan writes them. They're incredibly human.
The advantage of anthropomorphism is you can exaggerate to a greater extent without it becoming farcical. I did at first have some trepidation, slight nerves, but as it turns out its enormous fun and strangely comfortable to draw! I absolutely love this book and leaves me with this strange appetite to make everything I work on anthropomorphic. There is something about this book that takes me back, back to where I started and it feels a lot like home.
Nrama: Dan, last question: Wild’s End will debut near the same time as the movie adaptation of your work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy does. From one animal to another, how would Rocket Raccoon rate in Wild’s End’s alien invasion? After all, he’s both an anthromorphic person and an alien.
Abnett: If Rocket fired off at the mouth like he usually does, Clive would put him in a headlock and punch him in the snout. But they’d end up fighting on the same side. Anthropomorphic heroes have to stick together.