Writer Saladin Ahmed has been making waves from his critically acclaimed ongoing Black Bolt with Christian Ward at Marvel and with his background in fiction through the Crescent Moon series. Now Ahmed is venturing into the world of creator-owned comics for the first time with a supernaturally-tinged horror, noir period piece Abbott published by Boom Studios with art from Sami Kivelä. We had a chance to talk the writer just ahead of the series’ debut!
Alexander Jones: What was the inspiration behind Abbott?
Saladin Ahmed: When you write a story, you have the ideas of the story or some pieces of the narrative floating around in the back of your head for years. This is my first creator-owned comic and I’m sort of drawing on stuff that I have been thinking about for a long time. The real inspiration is a type of paranormal investigator that we have seen in movies, comics and television in various eras spanning from the X-Files to Hellblazer–going back further, the main inspiration for Abbott is Kolchak: The Night Stalker which was an inspiration from back in the ‘70s. I have been watching, reading and thinking about adventures of this type starring a dogged investigator who uncovers a glimpse of something unnatural.
It is a central idea in my work to take those stories that I enjoyed and put other people at the center of them rather than the people that are usually at the center of them. I start to think ‘what if we had a character like this hailing from a different demographic or different profile than what we usually see and what kind of challenges she encounters.’ I have been thinking about Detroit a lot recently and currently write comics set in outer space, I’m writing a dimension-hopping comic right now and my fiction is often set in fantasy worlds–I wanted to set an adventure in a city that I grew up with and put all these threads to come together which is where that idea came from.
Jones: Did you have any difficulty approaching such a different genre of comics by grounding the story in a different time period and setting then you may have encountered in some of your previous comics-focused work?
Ahmed: There’s a whole different set of challenges when you are trying to establish suspense or unravel a mystery you see in superhero comics. While Abbott has its noir edges, it is also a dark fantasy book. I think the series has a different tone than superhero comics where you are just talking about punching a monster–you have to approach the storytelling from a pretty different place.
Jones: Was it difficult to integrate so many different genres together?
Ahmed: For me, I’m a fantasy writer by nature and every story I tell whether it’s superheroes, westerns, or even a novel usually has a magical or unexplainable quality about it and it would have been pretty unlikely for me to tell a straight historical story. I like monsters, I like magic and those are the things that work really well in comics. At the same time, while I’m a fantasy writer and an adventure kind of writer–I always try to tell a fun story about magic, monsters, and superheroes. I am always thinking about the political climate and not just for its own sake or just to make a political point–I think any good story is going to take the time and place that it is set in and interpret what it means for people and how people relate to each other. For me, the early ‘70s is a really interesting period in American history and in Detroit history in particular and has a lot of echoes to our own time and setting something in that period and adding monsters is all great.
Jones: That’s interesting, have you been going through the history of the city in the book itself, also what kind of time period does the story span?
Ahmed: Abbott is a limited story that is five issues–it takes place over a pretty complicated week or so, it does not span a lot of time and centers around the set of murders and our main character’s investigation of them. I did a fair amount of research, I always try to do that, I’m from Detroit originally and I moved just outside of Detroit. You can go too far with research and it is always a facade–if you grew up in the ‘80s and squint hard enough at Stranger Things you can find some things that they got ‘wrong.’ What you learn as a storyteller is that it is about a story first and foremost along with the period detail and authenticity and then when it doesn’t work you just kind of resign yourself to that fact.
Jones: Can you talk about some of the aspects that Sami Kivelä brings to the series?
Ahmed: Yeah, Sami is fantastic. He’s amazed me with his ability to evoke Detroit because I don’t know that he’s ever been there, he’s Finnish. [Detroit] is a city that isn’t like other cities. A lot of times when they try and draw or film Detroit It is a different feel physically and Sami’s art evoked a range of citizens and he does a fantastic job with a gritty, neo-pulp style. Also, readers won’t get a glimpse of this until the second issue, but he just draws these wonderful monsters. The monsters he draws are actually scary and freaky looking and they kind of break from the rest of the comic–it is great stuff.
Jones: How much can you tell me at this point about the supernatural elements of the comic blending with aspects weaved into Elena’s life as a journalist?
Ahmed: Essentially, we join Abbott as Elena is working at a tabloid paper. She is a pretty brilliant investigator and for both social and other reasons she is sort of stuck working on a paper that she is better than. Part of this is because she is kind of a haunted woman living life on automatic in a kind of melancholy way since the death of her husband that was murdered before her eyes. Elena doesn’t believe what she saw. When we join her in the debut issue of Abbott it is because the bodies have started to show up around Detroit. They cause her to suspect that whatever took her husband from her is back and we get a glimpse around the beginning in some of the sorts of supernatural aspects.
Jones: Is Elena reluctant to fight some of the monsters back at first or can you divulge or tease that information?
Ahmed: Elena has held herself together pretty well considering what she has witnessed thus far and she is not a character whoever unravels completely. She has kind of a noir core to her amid all the bleak chaos around the city. She is that figure but she will be tested in ways that are hard to talk about without spoiling the book. That core won’t save her from what’s to come I would say.
Jones: How did you start to shape Elena as a character? This question also kind of ties into some of the racism and opposition that she faces within the time period. I’m also curious as to how she navigates that in her career and her personal life.
Ahmed: Elena is a different character than me, both in demographic ways (I’m not a black woman) and she is very different from me personality-wise. She is a very organized person. She holds onto the world around her by a very tight sense of order. She is a little bit uptight and it was fun to try and get into that space. I’m a little more hippie than she is. As far as the kind of social obstacles, that is to a degree a big part of the story, the era she lives in makes everything a bit more of an uphill battle for her. She draws some resources which a traditional hero might not have.
Jones: I noticed in the press release that you mentioned Detroit as a city is one of the characters in the story–I know a lot of people tend to say that but not fulfill the promise–I’m curious to know if some of the ways in which you plan on following through with that where others haven’t.
Ahmed: That was probably marketing [laughs], I do think Detroit is a unique place with racial drama. Gentrification and all these sorts of dramas have played out in Detroit. Detroit is a very weird city because it has got this balance which is bustle and intimate and I’m looking at this moment where Detroit is the largest city and it is much, much smaller now. I’m also looking at how the city was captured then. It is a unique city in terms of a rustbelt grit that it kind of has in terms of being a black cultural mecca. Detroit is either a really tiny city or a really huge town–I hope to have captured some of those things in this book.
Jones: Can you say anything about some of the supporting characters in Abbott and how they interact with Elena?
Ahmed: This really is a book that is about monsters and dark magic but is also very much about relationships and Elena is sort of surrounded by this colorful cast. She’s got her grumpy editor friend who is sort of a Perry White to her Superman. She’s got her ex-husband James who is one of the few prominent black cops in the Detroit Police Department and she calls him the only honest Policeman in Detroit. On the other side of the law, there is her ex-girlfriend Amelia, who is basically a professional criminal. Amelia works with organized crime and is a femme fatale for Abbott. Rounding out the cast is a magical advisory, who is a person who identities her into this world and is a stoner hippy named Sebastian Crow. Crow is very much an artifact of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Jones: It sounds like this story is going to be more serialized as opposed to having a one-and-done storyline being a mini-series?
Ahmed: This is a self-contained five-issue kind of season of television–It will tell a complete story. Whether other stories are going to be told after that sort of remains to be seen, but this has a beginning, middle, and end that people will find satisfying.
Abbott #1 is on-sale this upcoming Wednesday digitally and in print.