William Gibson has imagined the future and the present in his critically acclaimed prose novels, but now he’s looking at the past and using comic books to do it.
In the new miniseries Archangel which debuts this week from IDW, Gibson and veteran illustrator Butch Guice are imagining what if time travelers from a burnt-out Earth essentially migrating back to 1945 to keep their deadly decadence alive. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Gibson and writer/actor Michael St. John Smith, Archangel brings his sometimes prophetic speculative eye (and ear for the human soul) to comic books.
Newsarama spoke to both Gibson and Guice about the series, how they came together with IDW, and how they are dredging the past – including their own – for the alternate history story of Archangel.
Newsarama: Out of all your various published and unpublished work, what made Archangel seem ideal to be adapted into comic books?
William Gibson: I think of myself as a visual writer. Unless I’ve been able to visualize something, I can’t effectively write it. True of anything but characters, anyway; I don’t usually have a very exact sense of what my main characters look like. But I have to visualize scenes, as seen from the point of view of a given character, and I tend to imagine more detail than I might necessarily describe. When Mike and I were dreaming the Archangel scenario up, we were initially thinking in terms of a feature screenplay, so there was a visual element in the structure of from the start. So Archangel seemed to be asking for it, really.
Nrama: Butch, you've worked with a variety of writers in your career, from comics veterans to newcomers and even other first-time comic script writers. How was it with William on this project?
Butch Guice: A delight really. Working with William has been completely trouble free -- a pleasant experience and a genuine honor. His scripts read as if he has been writing comics for decades -- everything as an artist you could want.
Newsarama: Butch what you think of the lead in this, Naomi Givens?
Guice: My favorite scenes are the Naomi Givens scenes. I both really enjoy how William writes the character as she pushes forward through the story -- the pluck, charm, and willful determination he gives her over the course of the story -- and having the opportunity to translate this wonderful character into something visual -- her body posture, her expressions.
Sometimes on occasion, if you are lucky, a character you a drawing sort of takes on a life of their own. You don't really struggle with them anymore, just sort of record the visual narrative. Naomi did that for me over the course of the first issue. I felt like I had drawn her for years instead of days.
She -- and Fritz, her driver and keeper of the coffee thermos -- I could draw a regular series with those two and be quite the happy artist.
Nrama: William, this isn't the first time your words have been translated to comics. In the 1990s, Marvel published an adaptation of Neuromancer. Can you talk about your impressions of comic books, as a reader but also as a writer?
Gibson: It wasn’t Marvel. The publisher was the late Byron Priess, and for some reason the series was never completed. I think they got the first two instalments out, in English, and a third in a German edition, in translation, but that was all it I ever saw. I was interested in the form, but not creatively involved, so when the project faded out, so did I.
Nrama: You've collaborated with others before, for movies, television, and prose such as with Bruce Sterling, but I imagine working with an artist who translates your works into the final published form is quite different. What was it like doing your story as essentially instructions for someone else, in Archangel’s case Butch Guice, to translate into art?
Gibson: I’ve said it before, but I think having an artist at Butch’s level illustrate Archangel may have totally spoiled me. In almost every instance, he’s gotten it on the first try, and I invariably prefer it to how I might imagine it being drawn.
Nrama: Butch, were you familiar with William's work prior to doing Archangel?
Guice: Only by reputation. While I've been an avid reader much of my life, I've only ventured into the science fiction genre a handful of times over the years -- mostly Ray Bradbury, some Arthur C. Clarke in recent years. Andre Norton in my teens. I really need to add more science fiction to my reading pile.
Nrama: So what made you interested in doing Archangel?
Guice: A number of factors helped make it a very easy decision when the offer was made. I greatly enjoyed my previous experience working with IDW editor David Hedgecock on Winter World -- and, I'm very much the World War 2 history buff/junkie. It is also simply a lot of fun for me to indulge any opportunity in comics to draw an historical period project. There is extra work required, a lot more research involved than your average cape and mask super hero assignment, but I enjoy the process -- and this series was loaded with opportunities to draw stuff that I find very fun.
Nrama: For good or for bad, some comic book writers don't communicate directly with the artists who are translating their scripts into comic books. William, did you have the opportunity to speak to Butch while working on this series?
Gibson: We’ve yet to speak, but that’s reminds me of writing parts of a feature film while it’s still shooting. This is more fun, though, because I get to see exactly what they’ve shot as it goes along.
Nrama: Alternate histories is a long-held vein of fiction storytelling, not just in comic books but prose and of course film. Of course it has the possibility of devolving into tropes. Was doing alternate histories something you had been wanting to do on a broader level like this for a while? And did you set any parameters for yourself in where it would go?
Gibson: Alternate history is at once one of the highest modalities of imaginative fiction and one prone to produce some of the crudest tropes. “The Gernsback Continuum,” one of my earliest stories, has an atemporal narrative mechanism suggestive both of time-travel and alternate history, but is actually a sort horror story about tropes and clichés and how we resort to them in imagining the future. The Difference Engine is a strict-rules-of-golf alternate history. Some of my favorite sf novels are alternate histories: The Man in the High Castle, Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration… Actually, I’d be more drawn to it if it weren’t so peculiarly demanding. I find it very difficult to do well. The parameters wind up being established by the particular alternation you’ve chosen to make, and by the broader imaginary mechanics of time in your imagined universe.
Nrama: Was your use of stubs from your recent prose novel The Peripheral inspired by your work on the Splitter here for Archangel?
Gibson: They weren't so far apart, chronologically. We were still working on Archangel drafts as I was starting The Peripheral, which at first I wasn’t thinking of as involving alternate history. For Archangel, I’d gone back to mechanics of time travel Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner had imagined in their 1985 short story “Mozart In Mirrorshades.” When I began to imagine Flynne’s world, in The Peripheral, as that sort of deliberately altered timeline, things really got going. The rules are slightly different, but both mechanisms owe everything to Sterling and Shiner. With Archangel, initially, it was that I get so paralytically bored by conventional time travel paradoxes.
Nrama: Over the years your work has gone from being set in the future but inspired by events in the past (such as the "Dogfight" short story) to be set in the near-future and now in a way, in the past - influenced, paradoxically by a possible future.
Gibson: I don’t think you can write convincing stories set in imagined futures unless you have some reasonably firm grounding in the history of your own day, and some understanding of the extent to which history itself is a speculative discipline, and endlessly subject to revision. The past, in a convincing imaginary future, needs to feel like history. The imaginative tools of historical fiction are in many ways identical to those of fiction set in imagined futures.
Nrama: Butch, you said you’re a WW2 buff, but how did you go about nailing that 1945 setting and also the alternate version of modern
Guice: Well, obviously the 1945 setting required plenty of research, which the internet makes far more easy than it used to be -- not only the settings but for many of the props which need to appear -- phones, automobiles, civilian and military clothing, and all the hundreds of other things you don't think about until you need to actually illustrate them. As an example which stuck in my head, there is a thermos that appears in roughly two, maybe three, panels in the first issue -- not particularly hard to draw, nor important enough most anyone would ever pick up on if I faked it incorrectly -- yet, I did do a quick image search when the time came because I wanted to confirm my own vague mental picture of how a thermos from 1945 might look instead of how they appear today. In doing so, I was lucky enough to find an illustration in an article on the Resistance how they would turn a thermos into a crude bomb. Problem solved and a bit of interesting reading as a reward.
As far as the alternate version of today, it was simple enough to lean into a look that combined a bit of Syd Mead futuristic design sensibility with a feeling of Cold War military decay -- propaganda posters on the wall, damp concrete and cold steel girded bunkers, heavily armed stone faced guards always hovering at edge of everything -- that sort of thing.