Interview: Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby on The Alienist

The writing partnership discuss their Sapphire & Steel/MR James/Doctor Who supernatural science series!

9 months ago

The Edwardian supernatural chiller, The Alienist, is in the middle of its second series in the pages of The Galazy’s Greatest Comic.

Once again, the other-wordly Madelyn Vespertine and her assistant, Professor Sebastian Wetherall (aka unemployed actor Reggie Briggs) are busy investigating the latest extra-dimensional threat to humanity.

This is just the latest in a series of classic 2000 AD series for writers Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby, whose work together also includes Survival Geeks and Judge Dredd.

Emma is famously the first female writer to pen a Dredd tale and has also written Judge Anderson while Rennie is one of 2000 AD's most prolific writers, beginning in earnest in 1993 with the epic 74-episode Missionary Man that ran between the Megazine and 2000 AD. Since then he’s written classic characters such as Mean Machine and Rogue Trooper and created many original series for 2000 AD including Witch World, Rain Dogs, Necronauts, Caballistics Inc., Aquila, and Jaegir.

Richard Bruton sat down with the pair to talk about loving The Alienist...

How did The Alienist come about? I remember reading somewhere in the past that this started life as a pitch elsewhere before finding its natural home at 2000 AD.

Gordon: It was originally going to be for a web comic thing that never ended up happening, my main takeaway from that experience being that people looking to do web comics could probably save themselves a lot of time and effort by simply throwing money out a window instead, and watch it drift gently away in the breeze. I’d always liked the word ‘Alienist’. It was just a matter of waiting for the right idea to come along to match it. Which, in this case, was “let’s do Doctor Who, except it’s the young female companion who’s actually the omniscient alien savant one.”

Emma: Because that would probably never happen, or so we thought at the time. We did a similarly prescient thing in Survival Geeks with in an alternate universe had a Star Wars poster showing a female jedi instead of Luke.

Gordon: There is an MR James/Carnacki the Ghost Finder vibe to The Alienist, but I think we wanted to ground it in science fiction rather than the supernatural. The weird alien being coming to Earth to take on human form and deal with weird eruptions in reality – we’re really looking at Sapphire & Steel rather than MR James and Doctor Who.

With the introduction of the mysterious Professor Edward Praetorius and the “Society”, are we going to be seeing a bigger threat developing as the series continues? Or could that be something for future series following Inhuman Natures?

Gordon: Yeah, we wanted to do some world-building in this story, which included introducing a returning villain. Praetorius – or someone like him – and The Society will definitely be back in the future.

Just as with Gordon’s particularly grumpy old man copper Absalom being absolutely nothing like the author, I’m sure the Madelyn Vespertine, Professor Sebastian Wetherall characters have absolutely nothing in common with you both? You describe them in Hex House as “the learned savant and the spirited ingénue”, but I’m sure that’s absolutely nothing like yourselves, right?

Gordon: Ha. I’d never really thought about it before. (Harry Absalom’s really more based on my dad - first name Harry - who was a miserable old bastard with terminal cancer.) Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off down the pub to guzzle wine, stew on this, and write an annoying journalist called Pritchard Brooton into an episode of Absalom, and then have something horrible happen to him.

Emma: Well, I don’t know about that, but I have found over my years of writing that the best technique as a co-writer is to tap prettily at the keyboard and giggle, wearing a ‘Patriarchy, YAY!’ t-shirt, only pausing to ask questions to the wise, all-knowing, male co-creator.

Finally for The Alienist, time to sing the praises of Mr Coveney.... how's it been working with him on the series?

Gordon: He’s Irish, does what he’s told and – no matter how much abuse I hurl at him, or ridiculously time-consuming things I demand he draws – still comes back for more. He’s like the new PJ Holden for me, really.

Emma: I’ve worked with Eoin on Dredd as well and I love his work, how expressive he makes it, and on the Alienist the techniques he uses, cross-hatching, etc, are perfect for the story.

Emma, you’re the first woman writer to tackle Judge Dredd. Over the course of the comic’s history, 2000 AD has seen probably more than its fair share of female representation, with Halo Jones, Judge Anderson, and Hershey immediately coming to mind. How have you found the response to your work?

Emma: It’s been positive and welcoming. The fans just want to enjoy the stories with the characters they love, and I’ve only ever felt like that’s the standard I’m held to, like any other script-droid.

I’ve been writing four comics, all with female main characters and all very different, from historical to science fiction, over the past few months. I think if someone had told me that would happen when I was starting out I wouldn’t have believed them. But there’s a wider range of acceptable stories and roles for female characters in comics now. And it’s great that the Prog has long had that kind of range.

The first Survival Geeks collection is out right now. Can you tell us a little behind the genesis of that one?

Gordon: I think we were probably looking at stuff like The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory, and noticing that geek culture had now gone mainstream enough to do shows like that. It originally began life as something else; a non-science fictiony thing called Code Monkeys, about nerds with slightly crappy jobs at a slightly crappy computer games developer. We cannibalised some of the characters from that and put them into a dimension-travelling semi-detached house.

Emma: It was going to be a kids’ comic initially, but it wasn’t quite right, it limited our jokes for a start. Adulting it up worked much better, and made it more fun to write. It’s probably my favourite thing to work on for 2000 AD.

Where next for the characters after their latest adventure?

Gordon: They are coming back, for Tharg wills it. We’re planning a big epic called Crisis Of Infinite Nerds, along the lines of the big Marvel and DC crossover events like Secret Wars etc. Except this is with nerds instead of superheroes.

Emma: Or possibly nerd superheroes.

And where can we buy the cuddly Cthulhu soft toy?

Gordon: A Howard? In one of the alternative dimensions yet to be visited by the Geeks.

Emma: I’m sure the 2000 AD marketing and merch people can make this happen…

The Alienist: Inhuman Natures is currently running in 2000 AD, you can catch up on the first series from Prog 1944 onwards and Survival Geeks Volume 1 will be released on 13th September.