INTERVIEW: born to be bad with Durham Red!

The 2000 AD blog talks to Alec Worley, Ben Willsher, and Lee Carter about the new Durham Red series, Born Bad!

1 year ago

The vamp with the Strontium dog tags and a lust for blood is back!

She's travelled the galaxy, hunting down her prey, for blood and cold, hard cash, in Strontium Dog, Strontium Dogs, and her own Durham Red strip. Now Durham Red returns to the pages of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic in a new, eight-part series in Prog 2082, out now!

This mutant bounty hunter with a lust for blood has long been a staple of Strontium Dog tales, since she bust out of the Milton Keynes ghetto courtesy of creators John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Carlos Ezquerra back in 1987. Richard Bruton sat down with the creative team to chat (re)vamps, blood, and what the future holds for Durham Red in Born Bad!

First of all, can you get straight into things by telling us just what you have in store for this latest tale of the female bounty hunter with a bite?

Alec Worley: Struggling to find work on the fringes of the galaxy, Durham Red is flat broke, with nothing but a ship and a pistol to her name. Her fearful reputation as a bloodsucking vamp has frightened off every reputable employer and now she’s forced to take whatever job comes her way. In Born Bad, Red gets a call from Monkey Harris, a terminally ill mutant gangster desperate to make peace with his long-lost mother. But Monkey’s mom is a woman with a very specific set of skills and no intention of being found.

You describe this as Durham Red revamped, a brand new take on the classic, complete with a new direction and new costume. How difficult has it been to deliver something new with such an established character?

AW: If I’m honest, it was pretty straightforward. You just dig into the character and figure out how she works. How does she think? How does the world treat her and how does she respond? What’s her pathology? How does she maintain a moral compass when her mutant metabolism forces her to attack people and drink their blood?

While sticking to the Wagner/Ezquerra version (rather than the Abnett/Harrison one), the angle I wanted to bring to bear here was, I dunno what you’d call it: ‘vampire ethics’? Kim Newman once made a point about vampire fiction often taking pains to avoid the very tension that makes these characters so appealing in the first place: the fact that they must murder people in order to survive. Durham is essentially half-gunslinger, half-serial killer! I’ve done away with all the usual excuses. Can she drink from ethically-sourced bloodbags? Nope. Can she feed from animals? No way. But she’s a good person, right? Maybe...

The strip was meant to premiere in Prog 2073, but there's been a small tap-related mishap involving Ben Willsher and one of those posh boiling water things. This meant that the strips had to be delayed till Prog 2082, and from part five, you're drafting in the talented Lee Carter to complete the strip. What advice can you give to readers about a) how to deal with a bloody bad burn and b) how not to lose it when your brilliant artist is stretchered off halfway through a project?

Ben Willsher: NEVER, EVER put ice on a burn. This is what I did. Unfortunately this is an old wives tale bit of advice I was given. It can seal in the burn and do more internal damage. Run burn under cool water for 20 minutes and probably seek medical attention.

AW: a.) NEVER PUT ICE ON A BURN! Run under lukewarm water instead and seek either medical advice or a healing potion.

b.) I was more concerned about Ben’s livelihood, to be honest! But he’s all well and good and healed up now. Other than that there was no panic on my part when Tharg explained that Lee would be joining the team. Seriously, I’m not butt-kissing here, but Lee Carter is an amazing artist and has been on my want-to-work-with list for yonks!

Has Lee Carter coming on board changed things in the story at all?

AW: Not at all. I wrote the script with Ben in mind, so there’s elements within certain panel descriptions that have probably gone unwritten because we’d planned out certain sequences between us. But that’s easily sorted by talking it through with Lee. I’ve learned it’s always good to talk to artists. Not to demand redraws or be a pain in the arse, but just to get a healthy back and forth going and finesse things. I know from working with Pye Parr that tight collaboration always leads to a tighter story.

The whole history of Durham Red is complicated. Her future did seem to be mapped out in the Dan Abnett and Mark Harrison's Saint Scarlet stories where she awoke from voluntary suspended animation a thousand years past Strontium Dog continuity. But after Wagner resurrected Johnny Alpha, all of the tales of old became somewhat difficult in the whole continuity. So, where are you setting this latest Durham Red?

AW: This was really just a case of re-reading every single one of Red’s stories and making a thorough set of notes. The revival-era Stront may have rendered everything before it apocryphal, but this wasn’t a problem as I could just pick and choose the stuff I wanted to make ‘real’. But all this is below-the-waterline stuff. My intention here was to write a brand-new no-baggage Durham that honoured the old but appealed to the new.

Continuity-wise, Born Bad is set after 1996’s Epicedium (Dan Abnett’s first work on Durham Red), which was a single-episode conclusion to the Hogan/Harrison stories and ends with her walking off into the proverbial sunset prior to her eventual cryo-sleep and reawakening a zillion years in the future. Tharg is an authority on the Stronti-verse, and has yet to pick me up on anything, so I must be doing something right.

Continuity has to be flexible anyway. So long as you’re sticking to the essentials of a character, whether that’s Spider-Man or Judge Dredd, then the details can fly, frankly. Story and character have to take priority over whether or not the cosmetic details match up to a wiki entry!

Will we be seeing any other familiar characters from the world of the Strontium Dogs in this latest Durham Red?

AW: No plans as yet. I want this to be her series, exploring her isolation and loneliness and everything else about her, and not have her leaning on Johnny, being the sassy one in a group as she was in Hogan and Harrison’s Strontium Dogs, or this reluctant goddess like she was in the Scarlet trilogy. Like with my Judge Anderson books, I want this to explore Red’s character from as many angles as possible.

BW: Not as such, but with most of my art, there are usually some easter eggs in there, especially at the space port in part two.

One issue that's always been talked of when it comes to Durham Red is the whole sexy vamp look. How have you all approached this is terms of story and art?

AW: Here’s a true story I’ve been itching to tell. Ben and I spent WEEKS working on the new design. Ben drew up a kind of paper doll, which we gradually layered with a physique, a hairdo, underwear, clothes, weapons, etc. The boob armour issue. Oh my God. How many times we went over the boob armour issue! Of course, next to the issues of pay equality, birth control, political/corporate/artistic representation, and rape culture, the issue of boob armour in funnybooks shouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s feminist to-do list. But still.

Anyway, we were 90% there, and it occurred to me that we’d been working on this in isolation for so long maybe I could show some friends and get some outside feedback. The first person I showed it too looked at the design and let out a long sigh. Her feedback was essentially as follows: ‘This is what happens when you commission two straight guys to rework a female character. You’ve completely over-sexualised her. All I can see are her boobs. This is terrible. It’s everything that’s wrong with comics today and you need to go back and think about what you’ve done.’

That was a real blow! There was me thinking I’d done my homework and instead I’d got it horribly, horribly wrong. I got home and started making some notes about how I could fix it when I got a note from elsewhere, which fed back on exactly the same design and said essentially this: ‘This is what happens when you commission two SJWs to rework a female character. You’ve completely de-sexualised her. She looks like a bloke. This is terrible. It’s everything that’s wrong with comics today and you need to go back and think about what you’ve done.’

The lesson to be learned from this is, of course, to just concentrate on doing your job; be aware, do your homework, listen to the characters, and write what they need.

My Durham Red is a scuzzy out-of-work bounty hunter, so if I want the reader to take that concept seriously then I can’t have her flashing her knickers or popping out of her bra in every panel! That said, sensuality and sexual tension is integral to the character. So, if you’re creating a sexual female character, it really needs to serve the story or be an expression of that character. I have no problem with cheesecake or erotica per se; the problem is that cheesecake and erotica have been the predominant influence when it comes to representations of female sexuality – and that’s down to lazy, horny male writers, probably with a deadline bearing down on them.

My angle on Durham Red builds on John Wagner’s reading of her in the original Strontium Dog strips: she’s a femme fatale and a vampire. The genius of Wagner’s concept is that the two archetypes are naturally intertwined. In classic '40s noir, the femme fatale embodied all these wartime male fears of female independence, and the femme usually gets punished for it in the end. But what if the author didn’t punish her? What if you let her revel in who she is? On one level Durham Red is a monster and in this I really wanted to ramp up the horror angle and show exactly why everyone in the original strip is so terrified of her. I also didn’t want to shame or punish her for being who she is. I want a woman behaving badly, or at least interestingly. Lestat in Interview With The Vampire and Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction were big influences in this regard.

BW: Yes, it is fair to say that Red over the years has had some interesting wardrobes. Especially in the '90s when she was wore not so much a strapless dress, but a dressless strap. Alec and I did spend an inordinate amount of time in the construction of her look and I we are both very pleased with the end result. We know some fans will be disappointed that she has changed her look, but that is the beauty of the Strontium Dog universe that Carlos brilliantly set up: the fact that no one wears a single fixed 'uniform'. Their clothes and hardware etc do change and that is what is fundamental with what we have done with Red.

She’s still the same Durham, but with a different haircut and different clothes. For us, it was a matter of practicality, and this story had a real dusty and dirty spaghetti western feel to it, and it genuinely didn't feel the right setting for a more revealing costume, she needed clothes to match the environment. Johnny Alpha can bounty hunt without wearing arseless chaps, so Red can put her bum away too from time to time.

We certainly didn't want to lose her identity, or the key elements that makes Red, well... Red! So it was important that we kept her trademark features, such as her vibrant two-tone hair and chainmail, not to mention her utter badassery.

Ultimately this wasn't about reinventing her completely, or destroying her legacy; otherwise we would have come up with a brand new character. We have too much respect for her as character and to John, Alan and Carlos to do that, and I truly hope they know this and like the end result. And we hope you do, too.

Ben, it's such a shame that you've been stretchered off after just four episodes. What were your thoughts when drawing/designing this new strip? And how gutted are you at having to put it aside?

BW: I can’t put into words how hard it was to leave this strip. Not just because I had put my heart and soul into the art, but because Red means so much to me as a character. I love the Stronty universe, and even to get to play in it for a bit is a dream come true. I'd been looking forward to doing this strip so long, so having to step away from a dream job is extremely tough, but unfortunately I had no choice, the show must go on, and thankfully you will be in for a treat when Lee takes over. I can't wait to see what he does with the second half of the story.

How’s the injury now?

BW: I am almost healed now, which is good, and hopefully it is looking like I won't be permanently scarred either. I am extremely grateful for the medical attention I received, and despite having to spend weeks recuperating and not being able to be at the drawing table, it did mean I got to catch up on a lot of Netflix series I hadn't managed before, so silver cloud, and all that!

Hopefully it won’t be too long before we see your excellent art in the pages of a Prog again!

BW: Thank you, yes, Fingers crossed... Ouch, no, can't cross them yet, still a bit tender!

Lee, you came onto Durham Red halfway through, due to Ben's injury. How do you approach coming onto a project like this at short notice? Did you work closely with Alec and Ben to make sure there was some transition in art styles, or was it simply a case of dropping into Durham Red with your own, unique style?

Lee Carter: I love Ben's take on Judge Dredd and was expecting his usual style on Durham Red. But after Matt had sent me the pages he had completed I could see he had gone for a more realistic take on Durham. Which was great as it meant my work wouldnt look so out of place when it did drop in.


Lee, tell us about getting into 2000 AD, what route did you take?

LC: Ive been reading 2000 AD since around prog 350 and I still head to the paper shop to collect each week and it has been the main inspiration to be a artist throughout my life. I did the whole 6 years in art education, HND and a degree in illustration etc. and once I had finshed I really wanted to work for 2000 AD. Unfortunately real life kicked in and I had to find a job. Thankfully I managed to hold real life back and worked for Bizarre Creations was a Liverpool based games company. So I had a good 13 years in games. After a few years I started doing illustrations on my free time. Working on small press books like Liam Sharp's Event Horizon and games workshop illustrations, eventually I heard from Tharg!

Lee, your art is rather striking, very different from others in 2000 AD. It's something characterised by thin lines, high brightness, almost a bleached out look at times, with a use of computer that really marks it out from other artists. Can you talk us through your style, process, and evolution of your art?

LC: It's funny that my style is different as Im pretty much comic inspired, I have no idea what happened! My early art illustrations are all traditional, it wasn’t until I started working in games that I used computers. I had a good few years of trying to reproduce how I drew and painted traditionally but using the computer, but after awhile you start to make the most of what traditional materials can’t do. After Indigo Prime: Perfect Day I realised that if I continue with a very rendered style I wouldn’t be able to feed my kids so I try to keep things simple now, Line work, grey tone, flat colours and a bit of polish at the end. It’s always a balance of what you can do in the time you have.

Are there plans in place for more Durham Red tales after this? If so, where will you be taking her?

AW: Plans afoot for more and there’s another pitch in preparation, but I can’t say any more than that.

Finally, what dream 2000 AD project would you love to tackle?

AW: I’ve written my two faves, Judge Anderson and Durham Red. I’d love a crack at Hook Jaw, or failing that there’s an old IPC heroine I’ve got my eye on...

BW: For me, I always wanted to have a go at Robo-Hunter. I love that character, and wish he'd make a bit more of a permanent come back. Alec has written a couple of tales, which were great fun, and he really captured the feel of the old stories. I see Stoogie every time I walk down the road, John Wagner and Ian Gibson invented vaping- I am sure they are owed a few quid on the patent.