Lawless returns in Judge Dredd Megazine #415 – out on 18th December!

Dan Abnett and Phil Winslade take us back to Badrock in ‘Boom Town’, where Colonial Marshal Metta Lawson IS the law.

But things have changed, with the events of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (Megazine 400-409) transforming everything and everybody. Badrock is now the Free Town of Badrock, an incorporated free trade settlement zone, something totally new, totally different. We’re into unknown territory with Lawless, but then again… weren’t we always?

So with the beginning of ‘Boom Town’ in the new Megazine, Richard Bruton chatted with Dan Abnett and Phil Winslade about just where things are going in Lawless

Now, after the events of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, things in Marshal Lawson’s world on Badrock and things affecting the Justice Department when it comes to Badrock have changed dramatically. Can you bring readers up to date with things and give us some idea of where you’ll be taking us in this new series?

Dan Abnett: The town of Badrock was established as a ‘service town’ for the mines and corporate developments of Munce Inc. Having survived Munce’s efforts to wipe them off the map, the people of Badrock have won an experimental ‘free trade’ status to help them stand on their own two feet. Lawson is driving that initiative, but it means she has to play by the book a little more and abide by the Justice Department terms and rules. It could be a new ‘lawful’ era for Lawless, which doesn’t quite suit Metta.

So the strip is shifting from ‘frontier survival’ to a new era of growth and stability. Which sounds lovely for the people of Badrock and as dull as ditchwater to for the readers.

But don’t worry… with new characters, the return of some old ones, new problems, and new threats – it will combine to keep things lively and “lawless”.

Again, the title of this one harks back to Westerns, the idea of the Boom Town of gold rushes and the like.

DA: It IS a western, and Phil and I are gleefully and shamelessly exploiting all the western tropes. Though not large scale like the “Alamo” warfare of the Munce fight, this first story may be the most brutal yet, in terms of violence and personal trauma.

Are we going to see major changes in the way Lawson has to deal with things now that she’s distinctly higher profile and under the watchful eye of the SJS and Justice Department?

DA: Some of the main new characters are the SJS watchdogs placed in town to oversee Lawson’s handling of the new status quo. There’s going to be some interpersonal conflict. And though several of the main storylines have come to an end, there are still some ongoing threads. Lawless is a bit of a soap opera, in many ways, and right from the off, all our series leads (Metta, Pettifer, Roy, Rondo, Hetch etc) get interweaving storylines of their own. There’s a lot going on, and some of them are going to go to some surprising, not to say shocking, places.

And whilst we’re talking about the SJS team that have been foisted on Lawson, it strikes me that there’s comedy gold in Lawson’s relationships with these SJS intruders, some of which we’ve already seen.

DA: Indeed. There’s Drury, who seems pretty ‘nice’ for an SJS guy (and he’s a bit of a hunk), and there’s the brittle and severe McLure (BTW – those character names are no accident, as any fan of The Virginian will notice). I am particularly enjoying the Lawson/McLure dynamic.

And the comedy is something that’s always featured throughout Lawless, something that comes out of the characters you’ve fleshed out so well.

DA: For a brutal story, there’s a lot of character comedy. I think it’s vital, otherwise everything gets too grim. But the humour comes from the personalities – and, hopefully, just sometimes from the vernacular. Some of the lines that people say seem to me to be funny not because they’re inherently funny, but because of the way they’re phrased. Each character (including new ones like Tony Dancer) have their own ‘voice’. Humour is an antidote to the bleakness. And there will be some bleakness.

Phil Winslade: And some gunfights!

Oh, yes, the gunfights!

There’s a real sense of the different in Lawless, that sense of collaboration and understanding that’s all through the saga. That idea that this community of humans, meks, uplifts, and mutants have found a way to work and live together, all of it brought about by the different attitude and approach of Lawson.

DA: We’ve always wanted to capture that sense of the immigrant community, very much based on the Old West model – different communities, different ‘ethnicities’, pulling together, each with their own specialisms, and some of them biased against others. Lawson is (for a judge) very much a supporter of equality and things here are somewhat an extension of themes begun back in Insurrection.

It is, I suppose, the cliché of the American ‘melting pot’, that can produce greatness but which can also manufacture prejudice and inequality as a by-product.

PW: I think we both saw more possibilities in quite complex dynamics. Dan’s really good at interweaving emotional or character plotlines, where the layers provoke ideas and interesting twists along with a real emotional punch. (It’s sometimes taken me by surprise when I’m reading the scripts or drawing it.)

We’ve talked of this before, but it bears repeating, the way that Lawless has always been a strip not just featuring strong female characters but one where they drive the story.

DA: I’m glad about that. We don’t plan it that way, but it’s nice to apply it in hindsight and see that we passed.  Right from the start, the characters were just the characters. I didn’t sit down and decide to make the main leads strong female characters.  Actually, that sounds dangerously like a white cis-gender male saying, ‘I don’t really see colour/orientation’, which is a bullshit response.  What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t pursue a consciously ‘woke’ (ugh) agenda. I just came up with some characters and a storyline, and the story went where it went, and the characters were strong enough to react the way they were going to.

I think there’s every reason, in this day and age, for all writers to be more positively discriminating, but there’s a danger when that’s done deliberately of make it seem forced or artificially diverse.

I love Metta, and I adore Nerys. It never occurred to me that they would be anything other than they are. When, long after the strip’s debut, it was pointed out that it was a story lead by strong female characters, I saw what we’d done. And now I’m fully aware that I’m sound smug on top of everything else, so I’ll shut up.

PW: I’ve had the good fortune to work on really good female characters and find myself drawn more to them than anything else. Some artists are really into the grim and gritty or super guys or cheesecake but I’ve always found that stories with strong female leads appeal because of the emotional complexity, nuance and subtlety they can bring, as well as a different kind of strength.

In ‘Ashes to Ashes’, you finally had Lawson come clean to Nerys (of sorts) about the connection between Lawless and Insurrection, between Lawson and Freely. It established, in stone, that connection that was always hinted, glimpsed, there for readers who caught it.

DA: Yes, it’s always been there. I’ve never thought that people should have to read Insurrection first: they are separate entities. But the connections are there to be enjoyed for those who are aware. It’s time to pay that off, or the resonance is meaningless. And so, we’re about to.

Now, let’s talk about one of the big draws of Lawless; the glorious and different look to the art with Phil’s black and white style really making this a strip that stands out.

DA: Phil’s work is, and always has been, mind-blowingly good; the character work, the insane detail, the storytelling. It’s a proper honour to work with him and to develop a long and satisfying run on something with him. We have a rapport (I hope) and pass ideas back and forth, and they evolve. To be honest, I just do what I do – Phil’s the main draw. His work is the reason to follow this strip.

PW: Aw shucks (blushes) – I get really excited every time a new script is due, I cannot wait to read the next part and find out what’s happening to the characters who I see as friends (I certainly spend more time with them than anyone else in my life). It’s the characters that make this strip and Dan’s the lucky guy who hears their voices.

Dan, you work with artists using lush colour schemes, such as Mark Harrison on Grey Area and INJ Culbard on Brink, but you’ve also been involved with two great black and white series in Insurrection, with Colin MacNeil, and Lawless with Phil.

DA: I could myself very lucky to have built ongoing partnerships with such talented artists. As I said, I feel a real rapport with Phil, and I do with Ian and Mark too, but those rapports are all very different. Each collaboration is distinct, and works in a different way, and allows stories to grow individually. Grey Area, Brink and Lawless couldn’t be more different, really. I’m kinda delighted when people express surprise that, say, Brink is written by the same writer as Lawless.

What is it that determines the decision to go bold colour or equally bold black and white?

DA: Publication budget! To be fair, I’ve always loved black and white graphic strips. Buscema and Alcala on Conan is an all-time fave. But Phil’s work doesn’t need colour – it’s there intuitively. I think colour might even spoil the art or diminish his work. Lawless has the perfect look, and it’s the finest showcase of Phil’s work and visual effect I can think of.

PW: I KNOW there are things you can do in black and white and just line work you can’t in colour. I’m still discovering most of it, that’s what’s really fascinating and keeping me on the edge of competence. I learn from every page and see opportunities to constantly evolve, improve and create. One of the great things about a long strip is the chance to take creative risks, play with texture and light, character, mood and tone. Sometimes it’s tricky as you end up in a sort of no man’s land where you feel so far from what comic art is expected to be these days you struggle with confidence but then what I’m doing is hardly as radical as Mike McMahon or Kev O’Neil.

And Phil, if you wouldn’t mind taking us through what your process is for Lawless now, and has it changed much since you first started the strip?

PW: Well I’m annoyingly old school, the drawbacks of digital outweigh the myriad advantages for me – the main being the physical presence of the art. So I read the script a few times and break it down (roughly working out the shape of the layout, which are the bigger panels, etc.) I draw these as 10cm by 8cm thumbnails (it stops you getting too fussy with details), Then I transfer those by eye to an A4 sheet to look at body language and storytelling flow, then roughly make those more refined (usually by way of a lightbox), this is mainly characters, faces, indications of backgrounds etc. Then I put those on a lightbox and ink them (I don’t like erasing out on inks as the ink fades and I can see the inks as they form and can be sure the weights are right (well as right as I make them). I like there to be some drawing in the inks as tracing is boring and loses the spontaneity of line I like. I have done layouts on a few episodes digitally but found that I over-fussed and spent too long on them.

Nothing much has changed in the process since I started but each new episode evokes creative ideas to build on what’s gone before and explore from that to achieve the mood or feeling I get from the script. Sometimes it’s in the finish or the layouts or the character work. It’s very intuitive.

We’ve seen Lawless go through a fair few changes and just as we thought we knew where it was going, you threw us a fake and switched it around to bring us right where we are now, with a whole new set of rules alongside the old ones. It’s a big, bold new future for Lawless… but is this a brand-new direction or the beginning of the end of the saga? Just how many more tales do you have with Lawless?

DA: Right now? A lot!

Phil and I are so happy producing it, we don’t see an ending soon. It’s about the most fun either of us have ever had in comics, and the creative freedom of the long-form is wonderful. To my mind, we’ll stop the day we run out of ideas. When it feels like we’re just doing it for the sake of doing it, and forcing stories, or scraping barrels, then we might step back. I hope that’s not any time soon, and I don’t think it is.

PW: Agreed! I’m working with the best writer on the best strip with the best characters for the best publishers and the best, most supportive readership so as much more of this as they allow, please!

Thank you to both Dan and Phil for their answers and you can find the brand new Lawless series, Boom Town, in Judge Dredd Megazine issue 415 and you can catch up with the Lawless saga with the collections; Welcome to Badrock and Long-Range War.