Last week, Marvel Comics announced that writer Rob Williams was their latest exclusive creator. Not entirely surprising news, given how busy the publisher's been keeping him — he's currently writing the Skaar: King of the Savage Land miniseries, plus launching a new Ghost Rider this summer, taking over as the ongoing scribe of Daken: Dark Wolverine, penning three issues of Fear Itself: Uncanny X-Force, and writing much of the upcoming The Iron Age.
But you don't just get that much work from a company like Marvel coming from nowhere. Williams has honed his craft for years in his native Great Britian, specifically the long-running anthology 2000AD. His serial Low Life, set in the same world as Judge Dredd and starring a group of quirky undercover judges (including an adult stuck in a baby's body), is seeing print in the United States for the first time with the 160-page collection Low Life: Paranoia.
To find out a good deal more about this series, Newsarama talked with Williams over email about combining bizarre humor with serious character moments, the contributions of the book's artists (Henry Flint, Simon Coleby,[ Rufus Dayglo and D'Israeli) and in what ways Deadpool is similar to Low Life's main protagonist. (It always comes to back to Deadpool, somehow.) Plus, courtesy of Rebellion, a six-page preview of Low Life: Paranoia.
Newsarama: Rob, Low Life has run as a serial for years in the UK. How much of the story is found in this collection?
Rob Williams: Everything bar a one-off Christmas special we did, I think. Low Life started running in 2000AD back in 2004 and has been a regular since with three main artists. So collected in Paranoia you have the initial Henry Flint (Haunted Tank) stories, then the Simon Coleby (The Authority) stories, Rufus Dayglo (Tank Girl) did one storyline and finally the most recent D'israeli (Scarlet Traces) stories. I've been incredibly lucky to have three quite brilliant artists on Low Life throughout its run. Even without my words, this is just an incredible looking collection. You're talking about the best artists that the 2000AD stable have to offer.
Nrama: It's set in the world of Judge Dredd, who is known to American audiences, but stars an entirely different group of judges. What can you tell us about the crop of characters who star in Low Life?
Williams: Justice Department has 'Wally Squad' undercover Judges who tend to be one level of unbalanced or other. Mega City One is a VERY crazy city, so to go undercover with the bad guys takes a certain individual.
When Low Life started I was really into The Shield and that was an initial influence, but over the years it's developed into something all of its own with a very distinct, and often quite bizarre, sense of humor. The main two players are Aimee Nixon, a very nuanced female judge who happens to be the best liar that Justice Department has ever developed. Initially one of her co-stars was a mentally unusual veteran judge named Dirty Frank, but he kind of immediately demanded more page time and eventually developed into the series' star. Dirty Frank refers to himself in the third person and he loves all babies. Except the Nazi ones.
Nrama: Tone-wise, given the nature of the judges — including an adult baby — is it fair to say that this has a hefty amount of dark humor?
Williams: Very much. We've got adult brains mindswapped into babies' bodies, a drug that makes Biblical visions become real, a convention for hired killers and much more. It kind of started out as being a grim and gritty crime drama but there's always some humor in my work, and the humor just grew bigger and bigger in Low Life as we developed. Mega City One is a rich, bizarre setting filled with the weird and the OTT. Dirty Frank and company reflect that.
There's been quite a few times over the years where writing Low Life has made me laugh out loud, which sounds pretty sad. But if you're feeling like you're laughing independently as a reader while you're writing dialogue, that's usually a good sign. But the spine has to remain that of a serious drama. There's always a crime that needs solving, you know?
Nrama: What elements in your current Marvel work can readers see reflected in Low Life: Paranoia? And conversely, what might surprise people who are only familiar with your current output?
Williams: The two Deadpool Team-Up issues I wrote were pretty similar in tone to Dirty Frank. Deadpool and Dirty Frank both have that verbal diarrhea thing that leads to some funny lines. They're also both plainly unhinged. I've just finished writing Deadpool again for the Fear Itself: Uncanny X-Force mini-series and was struck again by how much I enjoy writing those two characters and how similar they are. They allow some comedy to lift what could otherwise be po-faced or navel-gazing stories.
You can deal with serious themes but make them fun, eh? As for what might surprise people. I guess it's a way to watch my writing develop over the years. And these are five page episodes being collected, as per the 2000AD form. The pacing should be interesting for people who only know my American work.
Nrama: You started Low Life back in 2004. How has your writing style changed and evolved in that time?
Williams: I think I've improved a lot. I have far more control over structure, etc., now than I did back then, when I was flailing in the wind at times. A lot of good stuff came out of that — the initial Low Life stories are a lot of fun — but I think you can see my writing develop with Low Life. Having fun with Dirty Frank was probably a bit of a tipping point for me. Getting my comedic voice on the page for the first time. Having the confidence to be downright silly at times but learning the control and the spine of developing serious character arcs within that. That's a pretty potent mix, I think — if you can make people laugh and care about these characters at the same time.
By the most recent Dirty Frank stories we've got crime, action, comedy and pathos sitting very close together, which I love. Low Life is me learning to do that. By the time we get to the latter stories like "Creation" and "Hostile Takeover," I think I'm in control of that switch in a way that I'm very proud of. They're cracking stories, I think.
Nrama: You're clearly quite proud of your artistic collaborators on Low Life — what does each of them bring to the table that's unique?
Williams: They all share that larger-than-life energy that 2000AD and Mega City One develops and needs. Henry co-created these characters with me, and the man's something of a crazed, imaginative genius with superb storytelling skills. It's amazing to me that the US market hasn't fully tapped into his work yet.
Simon — people know his work from The Authority, and he's been stuck working on a project with me for the last year or so which we're waiting to release and it looks simply phenomenal. We were at the Kapow con a few weeks back and he was showing his pages to some big name artists who were near falling off their chairs at the quality. Simon's going to be a big star, I think.
Rufus brings more of that classic old school 2000AD punk edge to his work. he's been doing great things with Tank Girl since.
And D'israeli is another frightening genius (and I don't use that word lightly). His combination of insanely detailed Mega City One, Blade Runner-esque architecture, sci-fi design plus the most brilliant storytelling is such an amazing mix. People in the states may know his work from Lazarus Churchyard or Scarlet Traces (which he won an Eisner for). People rave about D'israeli's detailed pages but I don't think I've worked with an artist who gets better performances from his "actors," if that makes sense. D'israeli's characters really act. That's an absolute gift for a writer. Low Life: Paranoia's simply a terrific looking book.Visit Newsarama on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and tell us what you think!