Scotland has been missing some good superheroes recently, and especially giant hulking shirtless ginger ones. Luckily that’s all changed thanks to Saltire, a new character created by writer John Ferguson, who’ll be the star of a series of graphic novels over the next few years. A proud Scot, Saltire is a centuries-spanning hero who starts in Roman times and fights for Scottish pride from then onwards.
Drawn by Gary Welsh and Tone Julskjaer, the first graphic novel ‘Invasion’ is out now in the UK, and will be arriving in the US later this year. A best-selling title in Scotland, Saltire marks a creator-owned attempt to revitalise superheroes, and a follow up called Saltire: Annihilation is promised for the near future. I spoke to John recently about the series – and more specifically, about the character himself. Who is Saltire? Is the World ready for a Ginger superhero? Read on to find out!
Steve: What is the basic concept of Saltire? What is the book about?
John: Saltire is the immortal protector of Scotland and Invasion is the first in a graphic novel series set in a pseudo history of the country that takes the reader through some of the great legends and myths, and the most climatic moments of it’s past. He’s big, he’s blue and he’s ginger, with quite an iconic superhero visual.
The first book is set in ancient history and tells of the famous Roman Ninth Legion, who have had many books and films in the last few years, championing their heroism. This however, comes from the Scottish perspective of an invading Imperial force to a peaceful land. The book also includes the origin story of Saltire, “Inception”, which explains the background to his creation and his reason for being.
Steve: To that regard, the book starts in post-Roman times. How did you decide the timeframe for the series? Without spoiling anything, the character *is* immortal.
John: To be honest, the history of Scotland dictated the time frame. So many amazing events have happened in its past that we wanted Saltire to cover them all, so we had to make him immortal.
Steve: There’s been a slight misreporting of the character – you call him “the first Scottish hero” and so people have raced to the internet to write about pre-existing characters like Wolfsbane and Ghost Girl (no? just me on that one?) Yet what you’re actually saying is that the book goes back in time chronologically before any other Scottish hero existed – Saltire is the first superhero in Scottish recorded history. Is that about right? I just wanted to clear that up!
John: Actually there has never been a lead comic book superhero from Scotland or a series set in Scotland, only comic strips, or characters who are supplanted into America like Wolfsbane or Fantastic Four’s Caledonia. So Saltire is first in a few ways. We know comic book fans like a good debate and I’m sure it will carry on for a while yet.
The World of Saltire
Steve: The book is full of Scottish mythology, both real and (I think!) invented. Scottish mythology is not a subject which has been explored in comics, particularly. Was that part of the appeal of writing the story: that you could delve into this dense mythology?
John: Actually none of the mythology is invented. It is all based in some sort of belief or legend from the Picts, Scots or Gaels, with just a little tweaking to fit it all together as a cohesive world. Telling the story of Scotland’s legends and folklore in a modern, dynamic way is a huge undertaking, but it’s hugely enjoyable and the first book has been selling out all over the country.
Steve: Were there any particular myths or folk stories that you knew you particularly wanted to touch upon? It would have been tempting, I imagine, to immediately throw in Nessie and The Stone of Destiny and all the most famous references, but you hold back here.
John: Absolutely. The tale of Scotland’s otherworld (the spirit world) and the folk tales of the Blue Stones are central to the Saltire series. The records of Scotland’s history were destroyed twice, so our own past quite often reads like mythology because it is fairly unknown. This is not the story of tartan, bagpipes and haggis.
Steve: So what defines Saltire as a character? What’s his personality, what’s his ambition – what is he looking to achieve?
John: In a word, Scottishness. He’s aggressive, protective, believes in liberty and freedom but he has his flaws and one major weakness, one that Scotland is famous for. His ambition and purpose is to see the people of Scotland live in freedom and peace. Saltire will hibernate for centuries in times of peace, meditating under the mountains, to be called upon through the ancient Stone of Destiny, when a threat to the nation is at hand.
Steve: Am I right in thinking the design for the character was run as a competition, and that artists Gary Welsh and Tone Julskjaer won said competition? What was it about their art which appealed to your sense of the character?
John: The prestigious Duncan of Jordanstone Art College in Dundee produces many of Scotland’s finest artists and also champion’s comic books and animation, so running a competition through them seemed logical. Gary and Tone have a great mix of dynamics and artistry and they have really captured the feel of Scotland and its scenery. It is a very beautiful style and looks different to the traditional Marvel and DC superhero style.
Steve: Did you deliberately want to find emerging talent from Dundee University – which hosted the competition – to help design the concept of Saltire? To make him contemporary as well as rooted in Scottish history?
John: We want Saltire to become quite iconic and recognisable, particularly in Scotland but also into the rest of the English speaking world. We don’t want Saltire to be seen as an old fashioned sword and sandals comic. Our artists will always look to bring a contemporary feel to all the books.
Steve: How did you pick the name for the character – ‘Saltire’?
John: “Saltire” is the name of the national flag but its etymology is ambiguous so we like to think the flag was named after the character in our pseudo history.
Steve: What are your plans with the character following Saltire: Invasion? Will you be continuing on for more stories with him?
John: Yes, the next book Saltire Annihilation is our later this year and is a bit of an epic, set in the dark ages of Scotland and Saltire has to deal with the threat of the Anglo Saxons and the legendary Ban Sith. We have four or five books in development. The script of the third book is almost complete.
Steve: How can people find copies of the book? Are there plans to make it available for a US audience?
John: The book is widely available in book shops and comic book shops in the UK, and is one of the bestselling graphic novels in Scotland. We are looking forward to getting Saltire Invasion released in the US later this year along with a digital version for those unable to pick up a hard copy. Invasion and Annihilation may end up with consecutive releases for the international market. Currently the book is available online worldwide on Amazon and directly from Diamondsteel Comics.
Steve: Do you have anything else coming up? Where can we find you – and Saltire – online?
John: We’ll be releasing the first book in Scots and Gaelic language editions later in the year, which allows people in Scotland to read the book in all of the countries languages. A lot of people with Scottish ancestry, particularly in North America, are keen to read new material in these languages, so it’s creating a bit of a buzz.
Many thanks to John for his time! And thanks also to Clare, for arranging the interview! Saltire Invasion is available in UK stores right now.