This week’s 2000 AD sees the returns of Grey Area and Durham Red creative team Dan Abnett and Mark Harrison to the pages of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic with a brand new cosmic adventure – The Out!

The furthest edge of the universe, far into the future. Cyd Finlea is photojournalist working for the publishers Global Neographic, travelling deep into outer space — otherwise known as THE OUT — and cataloguing the sights and alien societies that she encounters. She’s been doing this for so long, she can’t remember how far she is now from Earth, but regardless she keeps going — just her and her camera…

The 2000 AD news blog’s Richard Bruton talked to Dan and Mark about this brand new series…

I suppose the most important thing to ask you about The Out is what it’s about?

Dan Abnett: The Out is a cosmic odyssey, really. The story of human beings (well, one in particular) wandering out in the far-flung reaches of space, encountering a galactic milieu of alien species. SF is chock full of stories about mankind reaching the stars and becoming an important, or THE important, species, but what if we’re just a minor footnote no one’s ever heard of? Little more than tourists on the greatest Grand Tour/gap year ever?

The character, Cyd, has gone so far into “The Out” that she’s forgotten where Earth is and hasn’t seen another human for years. It’s a story (regular 2K length, not sure when it starts) about what happens when the ‘wonder’ of the endless holiday starts to pale. What does it mean (to her) to be human? Has humanity made any impact at all? It’s a bit quirky, character-driven, and very alien.

When we’ve previously chatted, we talked of the top line of a series, the simple pitch version of a strip, with New Deadwardians as “The Walking Dead meets Downton Abbey”, Wild’s End as “The War of the Worlds meets the Wind in the Willows”, and I went with “True Detective meets Outland” for Brink. Given this, how would you describe The Out?

DA: Mark and I called The Out “A love letter to the SF book-jacket art” we grew up with.

Did you have a plan of working together with Mark Harrison again on The Out after you wrapped up Grey Area?

DA: I have good, long-standing working relationships with Mark, as I have with Ian (Culbard) on Brink, Phil (Winslade) on Lawless, and Richard (Elson) on Kingdom and Feral & Foe. The Out was created specifically FOR Mark. We discussed what he was dying to draw, what interested him, and how that could become a story. Lots of collaboration and brainstorming, which I think makes for a strong strip.

Mark’s delighted me with the ideas thrown back in response to my outlines and The Out has grown way beyond initial imaginings because of that brainstorming.

Mark Harrison: Yes, this was a conscious effort to work together on creating a new strip co-created by myself and Dan that would take us back to the distant reaches of space opera once again.

It was born out of a mutual love of sci-fi book cover art as teenagers; artists like Chris Foss, Peter Elson, or Jim Burns, wondering what the stories might have been behind those covers. 

The idea to have a main image and write the story around it was an early idea and starting point. 

A brief synopsis was presented to Tharg and he had some valuable input regarding our heroine’s direction and focus; the idea of a space-faring Marie Colvin type.

So, when you’re developing new series such as these, how much thought do you give to writing for a particular artist’s style?

DA: It’s about what will excite them, and what will keep them inspired over the months a strip takes to produce. Mark and I had worked on Grey Area (and Durham Red long before that), and Grey Area was a real hit.  It’s not over, either. We intend to return to the series once we’ve rested it for a few months. We both still love it and there’s more to do. But Mark, though he loves Grey Area, wasn’t the original strip creator, and he fancied doing something he could put his imprint on from day one. So we decided, after the end of the last GA run, to rest it for a ‘season’ and do something new instead, as a change of pace and as a way to freshen up.

The Out came out of what Mark wanted to draw. He was citing all these great artists and images from the seventies and eighties, stuff I’d grown up with and loved too, and I said “why don’t we just make that the point of the strip?” Rather than create a story that would allow him to homage those things, why not make it the entire driver of the plot? What we ended up with is fairly unconventional – I won’t say ‘non-action’, because there is adventure, but much less action-driven than 2K strips usually are. It’s more about wonder and oddness and awe, with a strong human sensibility (small in comparison to the scale) at the heart of it.

Grey Area isn’t done, it’s just resting. I think when we do, in time, return to them, they’ll be better for the creative hiatus, fresher.

The Out has been in the works for a long time, maybe two years. Long term gestation, talking it over and waiting for a good moment to press pause on Grey Area and do The Out. So The Out is, for me and Mark, like an exotic holiday we’ve been planning and saving up for and looking forward to for a long time, and is a real pleasure.

Mark, as with most people, you’ve already worked with Dan (the most prolific writer around perhaps?). Mark, you’ve recently finished the epic Grey Area. How does this successful collaboration work for all concerned?

MH: Well Dan’s just this guy… you know? He wakes up, types a few words like “Epic”, and  “Huge”  and “Impossible to contemplate” and “massive crowd scene”  and then falls asleep again.

Then I wake up, read it, cry, drink spectacular amounts of caffeine and just draw the whole thing like a bloody hero almost to a deadline. 

Truly, working with Dan is always a joy as we’re on the same page, have the same likes and pop references. Work-wise as he trusts me to get on with it with just the right amount of concise direction but at the same time with incredible freedom to be creative.

Whatever I come up with he’ll work with and work back into the next episode. I actually want to please him and Tharg, I still want to impress. Which is always good for an artist.

The alternative is, of course, Mek Quake. (Although he maybe he’s retired now, or deemed “inappropriate”.) #Mektoo

Is it a different sort of process given that you’ve worked together before?

MH: There was talk of a more American process; to give broad strokes of a scene (full dialogue) which I would interpret and then Dan would go back in and tweak it further based on what I’ve done. It’s a good system and involves the artist much more in the story process.  

How much involvement do you have as an artist in the creative process?

MH: Super involved. But then I always have been with Dan. It’s the best part of the job, bashing out ideas in the early stages. The Out story went through a couple of very different versions in the very early stages.

But then you hit on something different to hang it all on and you get really excited.

I love the brainstorming. I don’t think I’d get that freedom with another writer, or if they would be that accommodating. Dan can take a throwaway comment and weave it into something clever and different that you couldn’t see coming and build on it to make it serve the story so much better.

If there was a downside it’s that so much falls by the wayside. Losing so many good ideas. It’s heartbreaking sometimes to truncate particular storylines or forgo beloved ideas and concepts that I’ve already envisaged being so cool.

In terms of the look for the strips, is it tempting with a new series to go in a new artistic direction?

MH: I’m doing that. I took nearly two (unpaid)  months out to prep for this new direction, gathering tons of sci-fi reference, watching concept artists at work.

Learning new processes and writing new Photoshop actions to speed up parts of an already cumbersome process… all the time trying to simplify, expedite and maximise the intent of the final artwork.

All in service of what it is hoped will be seen as a love letter (of sorts) to sci-fi book cover art but also to the British and European comic strip artists we grew up with in the ’70s and ’80s.

I’ll, of course, add my own cinematic stylings and knowing nods that will hopefully layer in extra thrill power content for those with a keen eye and extensive (and possibly useless!) knowledge of popular science fiction and art. (I’d like to think it would spawn a drinking game!)

Finally, what are your future plans The Out? Have you set them up as something that has the potential to go to second or more series?

DA: Oh yes, it could easily return for new ‘seasons’. Let’s see what people think of it 🙂

MH: Well if things go according to THE PLAN… The Out could definitely have potential for a second, even third book.

The intent is to start small,  go big, go small again( but with big significance)… then wing it. We’ve got down notes on how to get The Out done for the most part. How to get back and IF we should get back is another thing. It depends of which story thread Dan wants to follow. And if we get the chance.

Speaking for myself, as a co-creator and artist, it has great potential and I hope it can fulfil that. Hell, it’s a strip I would have loved to have read in the ’70s! It’s early days but I’m getting into my stride now. The exhaust port is locked in. I’ll certainly be putting maximum effort into it.  Only time will tell.

The Out begins in 2000 AD Prog 2187 – out on 21 June!

[EDIT -26 June – after clarifying with Mark Harrison, The Out is a co-creation of Dan Abnett and Mark Harrison rather than a creator-owned strip as initially included in the interview.]