The Write Stuff: Dan Abnett

An image of a tabletop strewn with old-school D&D material helps explain how Dan Abnett became the writer he is today. Dragon+ went behind the photo to find out more.

by Matt Chapman

(photo by James K. Barnett)

Some are born to write, some achieve the status of a writer, while others have the position thrust upon them. Comic-book creator and novelist Dan Abnett (Guardians of the Galaxy, Justice League) falls into that first category. He started off as a writer at Marvel UK working on The Real Ghostbusters, before writing comics for Marvel US, DC and 2000 AD and adding fifty-plus tie-in novels and a handful of video games to his portfolio. His childhood interests fueled his imagination from an early age, and as he began to embrace those passions, they helped mold him into the man he is today.

“There are a few pivotal things that guided my childhood. One was 2000 AD, a comic-book I’ve now spent decades writing for. Another is Forbidden Planet, the store where I got access to all the comics that I wanted to read,” Abnett recalls, aware that he now holds the record for the most signings at the company’s flagship London store. “And the other was Games Workshop because it sold roleplaying games.”

“I’ve spent the past three decades as a freelance writer and I’m quite prolific. I firmly believe the reason I’m able to think on my feet and generate ideas very quickly comes from that childhood love of comics and roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons in particular,” he continues.

“My two favorite things were writing and drawing, so when I discovered comics around the age of eight or nine I realized I could do both at the same time. That misspent youth creating my own comics inevitably led to a life working with them. I was also the Dungeon Master for D&D, and we seldom followed set scenarios. Instead I would build things and tailor them to the players, sometimes entirely spontaneously. I got used to making up stories on the fly and keeping track of all the characters and the things we were inventing so I could build plots around them. That was an invaluable grounding for a writing career. I look at Dungeon Mastering as part of my apprenticeship.”

Improvisation is still a big part of Abnett’s work. Although he might be commissioned to write anything from Aquaman to a Doctor Who comic book, he can’t begin that task until he’s provided a multi-issue arc of the story he’s proposing to tell. Even within that framework, there’s still room for interpretation.

“You know that the finer points aren’t set. You’ve got your overall structure, which in D&D terms is your dungeon, then along the way you’ll throw in lots of little extras. Every editor I’ve ever worked for has been given the basics they need to know so they can approve the storyline, with an often-unspoken understanding that a certain amount of improvisation will happen,” he explains.

“Back in the day you might be asked to come up with plots for twelve issues or more, and my argument was always that I’m not going to have all the great ideas for a Punisher storyline in one afternoon. Instead, here’s a basic shape but I reserve the right to develop and possibly even leave that plotline. Some of the best things I’ve written I’ve been halfway through knowing exactly what my destination is and suddenly realized, ‘Wow, I could do this instead!’ Because the idea is spontaneous and is usually even better than the one I’d been working towards I know the novelty of it will have an immediacy and come across as fresh. I’m always open to that.”

BREAKING COMIC CONVENTIONS

(Guardians of the Galaxy #1)

One of Abnett’s biggest claims to fame is that he wrote the Guardians of the Galaxy comic which was turned into the Marvel movie (“It was a great film and I got to go on set and meet the cast”) but that’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his output. His notable work for DC includes Legion of Super-Heroes, Aquaman (“I wrote the fifty issues that finished just before the movie came out”), Titans, and currently Justice League: Odyssey (“science fiction is my thing and that’s a cosmic adventure”). He’s also writing Dynamite’s John Carter series, centered on a female lead, and Valiant’s futuristic samurai Rai.

“I grew up reading John Carter, Warlord of Mars so when I got a call from Dynamite asking if I’d like to write a comic based on Dejah Thoris, I was thrilled! Working on Barsoom is like being asked to do Tolkien, that’s a really big deal. And there was excitement when I realized within moments of thinking about it that I could remember all of the continuity of that series, like the notes of some long-lost D&D campaign that I’d been running. I could remember Barsoom almost better than I could Tolkien or Frank Herbert’s works.”

2000 AD: A USER GUIDE

2000 AD is a peculiarly British thing. It’s a completely different tradition of comic book. It’s quite satirical in places and its DNA is closer to the great bande dessineé comics from France and Belgium. Launched in 1977, it tended to be weekly and be full of anthology stories, as opposed to the American format of being monthly and containing a single story,” Dan Abnett explains. “It’s the birthplace of Judge Dredd but also many other classic characters such as Sláine, Strontium Dog, and Rogue Trooper. 2000 AD presents five or six strips every week and one of them almost always features Judge Dredd. These strips are five-page installments that are ongoing science fiction stories. They tend not be very superhero focused, although there have been notable exceptions to that. I first read it as a kid and I realize that I’ve now been writing for 2000 AD for longer than I was a reader of it.”

Some of Abnett’s most interesting work has appeared in the pages of British science fiction comic 2000 AD. Having written strips for its major characters, he earned the chance to create his own strips for the weekly anthology comic and embraced the opportunity. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sinister Dexter (following the exploits of two futuristic hit men), while his strips Kingdom (a sword and sorcery tale that is actually post-apocalyptic, featuring Conan-esque warriors genetically created using dogs), Grey Area (set in the Arizona hub where aliens are processed before they’re allowed anywhere else on Earth), and Lawless (a space western appearing in Judge Dredd Megazine, following a female judge acting as Marshall in a colonial town on an alien colony) are all still running.

(Sinister Dexter #1)

“I try to never do the same thing twice. If you removed the credits from 2000 AD people wouldn’t be able to guess that all the things I’ve written were by the same person, because I write them in a different voice. I’m always trying to find a different thing, and 2000 AD provides that opportunity to experiment. Sinister Dexter is very silly, a flippant, semi-humor strip, sitting alongside other really serious strips,” Abnett tells Dragon+.

“About three years ago I created a 2000 AD strip called Brink with the artist Ian Culbard. Our pitch was that it’s a gritty police procedural set in a space station—True Detective meets Outland. We almost hesitated pitching it to 2000 AD because it’s very slow, atmospheric and talky, and didn’t have the usual 2000 AD in-your-face excitement. When things did happen in the strip, they happened quickly and were very brief. We’re about to start work on the fifth series of Brink and for the past two years it’s been voted the most popular strip in 2000 AD. It’s has an immense atmosphere and the readers have obviously taken to it.”

MANY DANS MAKE LIGHT WORK

Given Abnett’s diverse workload, variety is very much the spice of life. With so much on his plate at any one time it’s surprising there’s enough of him to go around, although if his fans are to be believed there might already be a few Manshoon-style clones wandering the Earth.

“One of the things I’ve always done is worked on lots of things at the same time. That way I never get bored. I love writing novels, I’ve written video games such as Alien: Isolation, I’ve got several things brewing for television… but I couldn’t ever walk away from comics because I love them so much,” he says.

(Alien Isolation)

“As my work is so wide-ranging, I’d go to signings and cons and meet a Marvel fan wanting to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy, a fan of my Warhammer novels, and a 2000 AD fan keen to talk about Sinister Dexter and Kingdom, and none of them had read any of the other things I wrote. I’ve even had people come up to me and say, ‘I love your work on Superman, did you know there’s also a Dan Abnett who writes for Marvel?’ Yes, it’s me!”

Aside from the few years he was signed exclusively to DC, Abnett’s always been allowed to write for both major comic companies as a freelancer. That ability to work for the world’s two largest comic publishers has occasionally given him incredible, money-can’t-buy access to major in-world events.

“About a decade ago, I knew big, fundamental secrets about Marvel’s publishing plans for the next year because I was working on the company’s huge event at the time and I was involved in script conferences. I then got a call from an agent working with DC who said they had some work. I told them I was working for Marvel and all they asked was, ‘Can you fit it in?’ I said I could and suddenly I was roped into Marvel’s big Flashpoint event. I was probably one of the few people in the world who knew the big reveals of both of the Marvel and DC events at the same time!”

D&DAN

“I used to say that the only two significant franchises I’ve never written for are Star Wars and The Simpsons,” Abnett jokes, although he can add Dungeons & Dragons to that list. What’s surprising about that omission is Abnett’s deep experience with the tabletop roleplaying game. He first played close to the time D&D originally appeared in the UK, estimating 1979 or 1980 as the year he initially rolled a dice. Having moved schools he made a new friend in class who had the D&D White Box and the pair taught themselves to play using that small, original edition.

“I was hooked immediately and I bought the UK licensed version from Games Workshop as soon as I was able to. It was a blue book in a dragon-covered box—which I still have! I was a very enthusiastic player all through my school days, which is where all my supplements, my dungeon floor plans, and my appallingly painted figure collection came from. I also had a few prepared dungeons, although we preferred to make stuff up and didn’t follow that many written scenarios.”

The roleplaying bug followed Abnett to university but became more sporadic as time went on. A familiar path back into the game was opened up when he taught his young daughters to play, buying the 1983 Red Box Starter Set to play with them. In more recent times, he’s run games for a good friend and his friend’s two boys, aged 11 and 13.

“For a laugh one day my friend said, ‘Let’s play D&D’, so we started playing again. We’ve now had quite a few sessions where the four of us are playing and we’re creating this very silly campaign. It’s silly as much as all early games are when you’re teaching people to play. The names the kids picked for their characters were very funny to begin with,” he says.

“Inevitably the clichés abound. I took them to a tavern and they helped the owner clean out his basement, which had rats in it. But once we got going, they started to revise their characters and believe in them more. Although neither of the boys changed their names, they wrote backstories to explain that their silly names were actually nicknames. Their refinement and sophistication grew the more these characters became real.”

Away from the basement room where Abnett keeps file copies of his work (but no rats!), he’s always creating. Wherever he goes, he carries a notebook to write things down, no matter where that inspiration might eventually find a home.

“I’m a professional gun-for-hire writer rather than a fiction novelist, but I still believe in that flow of imagination and that you should follow wherever the muse takes you. The world is full of wonderful synchronicities and once you start thinking about something, another really odd thing may pop into your head and you’ll realize that’s a great connection you can use.

“When I note something down it could be used in the next Justice League comic, in 2000 AD or the next time I play D&D. But it’ll be a good idea and eventually it’ll go pop and you’ll know where it fits. That’s about being receptive to the readership in the same way you’d be receptive to your players in D&D. When something captures their imagination, you put a little bit more of it in there.”

TABLETOP TALES

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and it was a single image that brought Abnett to Dragon+’s attention: his tabletop filled with classic D&D publications. Lead miniatures, an original Monster Manual, paper character sheets, DM map sketches, boxed dungeon floor plan tiles—it was a vision of old-school gaming. The only issue internet onlookers raised was in the placement of that Monster Manual, which lay open and faced-down on the table.

“When I meet people and they hand me something to sign and they say, ‘I’m sorry it’s a bit scruffy,’ I take that as a compliment if it’s because it’s been well-read. But I’m surrounded by books and I’m ridiculously respectful of them,” he says.

“I have an impressive RPG shelf containing all of the different editions I’ve collected over the years. My placement of the Monster Manual was purely because we were in the middle of a game and I hadn’t brought my DM screen with me. I had all my maps out and I didn’t want to let my players see, so boom I put that book down to cover them. It was only like that for a few seconds while I took the photograph. Someone left a comment on Facebook saying, ‘That is a terrible way to leave that book’ and Gary Gygax’s son Luke agreed! I appreciate that, and that was my bad.”

“However, I do know of one instance where I can forgive such behavior. I was at a signing in Toronto and I met the crew of a Canadian Army tank who had been deployed in Afghanistan. It had come under heavy fire and had gone hull-down to half-bury itself and sit out the bombardment. The four-man crew were in there for hours waiting for it to be over. The Commander pulled a copy of one of my Gaunt’s Ghosts books out of his pocket and started to read.

“When he got a quarter of the way through the book he tore the front quarter off and gave it to the gunner so there were two of them reading. Eventually the book was in four pieces and all four of the crew were reading, making this unpleasant experience go a lot faster. They came to see me to say thank you for getting them through a tough moment and presented me with the Canadian flag that had been flying on the radio mast of the tank. It was such a cool thing to hear I completely forgive everything they did to the book.”

You can connect with Dan Abnett and see more of his work by following him on Facebook or Instagram.