“It’s Britain’s Vietnam On Mars”: Interviewing Ian Edginton On HG Wells Homage, Scarlet Traces Vol. 2

by Oliver MacNamee

A couple of weeks ago now, I was fortunate to meet up with writer Ian Edington to discuss the new collection of his decades-spanning, and over a decade in the making, HG Wells homage and Easter egg-filled graphic novel, Scarlet Traces Vol.2. We sat down over a nice cup of tea while shooting the breeze about the series’ inspiration and inception, his partnership with the ridiculously talented artist D’Israeli, as wells the political allegory within, and the glorious nods to many a different text from yesteryear that we both grew up with and that litter this huge graphic novel. There’s even a Dalek kettle too! Just right for making a brew.

Olly MacNamee: This has been a saga over a decade in the making – so far – but what inspired this sequel, if you like, to HG Wells’ War of The Worlds?

Ian Edginton: It’s one of the oldest ideas I’ve ever had, asking ‘What happens next?’ after the end of the novel, which seems such an obvious question. Then, years later, I was thinking ‘What if those industrious Victorians had reversed engineered this alien technology and what would be the knock on from that?’ It would have cemented the position of the British Empire and strengthened it.

As a result of this, there would never have been a World War I because Britain would be this huge, unchallenged superpower and pretty much rule the way. That was the concept, so then I considered how to fit a story in around that. How did they learn to reverse engineer? Because they captured a live Martian. A live Martian that needs to be fed with blood. They lived on pure protein, like bats, so to do this, people were kidnapped of the streets of Britain and over the years, the government spooks have become careless and bodies have started turning up. And that’s how it starts: as a murder mystery that expands and becomes wider in scope, and becomes  more of a political story.

OM: Yes, there is a lot of political allegory in there, Ian. And, before we discuss that some more, what about the century spanning saga it has become by Scarlet Traces: Volume 2? Was that always the plan?

IE: No. We did the first story and it ended quite nicely, albeit not so happily for the hero. When you go up against this unwieldy establishment machine that is the British Empire emboldened by alien engineering, you’re not going to win! It ended on a pessimistic note, which a lot of people didn’t like. Only later did another idea come up. Eventually this system would break down; the technology would be pirated by other countries so Britain has to do something and take the war to Mars. It’s kind of like Britain’s Vietnam on Mars but mixed in with Leslie Thomas’s The Virgin Soldiers (1966): guys in their late 50s and 60s being conscripted to go and fight in a foreign war.

It’s also got echoes of The Falklands War in that Britain needs a ‘good war’ to deflect from problems at home. We also have the investigative journalist, Charlotte Hemmingway, who we didn’t use in the first story, and so were able to use in this second story, Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, who unravels the mysteries behind this push to Mars.

OM: And then, you have another time shift, from what would have been post-WWII in our reality, to the late 60’s, the Summer of Love and all that, man. It seems that, your partner in crime, D’Israeli, adapted hs style a bit. Was that to evoke the era and the comics, such as Dan Dare in The Eagle, that were dominate in that time?

IE: Yes, I put a lot of references in my script. The space rocket that crashes in Lake Windermere, it’s a cross between the Tintin spacecraft (from Destination Moon) and the space craft from 20 Million Miles To Earth. There are lots of visual echoes and Matt (Brooks/D’Isaraeli) will do his own hybrid. There’s lots of references and nods to stuff we both grew up with and enjoyed.

OM: Yes, it’s packed full of gems. So, which came first, the story or the list of references you want to include? For example, Robert Autumn, is hiding away in Hobbs End, a references to Quatermass and The Pit.

IE: Robert Autumn’s secret HQ just HAD to be Hobbs End, it just had to be. It’s also the place were the Resistance are in Dalek: Invasion Earth

OM: Of course. There’s Dalek kettle, which is a bit of a giveaway!

IE: Yes, and even more Easter Eggs too. There’s a poster for The Grace Brothers (a reference to the UK sit-com, Are You Being Served, set in a superstore – Olly). And, sometimes I’ll throw them over and Matt will bat back another reference for inclusion too. When Robert Autumn’s dog is fighting a cat, the cat is Bagpuss (another UK TV references to a much loved children’ programme of the same name – Olly). If you’ve got to put a cat in there, make it something from a well loved show. And that goes for as much as possible. There’s an influence of Kim Newman and his Anno Dracula books. They are so meta, and I just love that kind of shared universe stuff.

OM: Who doesn’t? Half the fun is in looking out for it all!

IE: Growing up in the 70’s, watching Ray Harryhausen films, Doctor Who; all that kind of wonderful, awe inspiring stuff. It’s all informed me. So, when we do move the action to 1968, we have a lot of references to Leslie Thomas’s book and other media from that time.

OM: I do like the reference to the TV show, UFO, on the first page of this story (Scarlet Traces: Cold War I)…

IE: … also, there’s the guy –Ahron Shakespeare’s Sikh friend at the airbase– and there were actually Sikh engineers in the original Dan Dare strip, so we used the same cap badge for him. That’s what can take the most time sometimes, fitting in all these references.

OM: It’s a lot of fun for you and the reader. But, let’s talk about about the political echoes you include, particularly in the bulk of this collection. The era in which you set the Scarlet Traces: The Cold War parts 1 and 2–the late 60’s–seems to be an era reflective somewhat of today’s own politically charged climate, where right winger voters feel they can have a voice once again, and a despicable voice too. I suppose what I’m asking is whether there IS a place for political discourse in comics?

IE: I don’t deliberately shoehorn it in, otherwise it can gets in the way of the story. Unless that is the story. I grew up in Smethwick in that era (in the Midlands, and a place where once Malcolm X visited too), and it was as multicultural as it comes. The highstreet was a real melting pot. And, that was my life back then, and that was my norm. But, at the time and as a child, you were never conscious of the privilege you had. I do now! I just remember going round Smethwick on a Saturday afternoon, with my grandma, taking it all in and it was great; the saris, the exotic fruits and foods, everything.

I wanted to put that in [the comic] because if you don’t have this, you’re shutting yourself off. And so, when the Venusians arrive, they are clearly allegorical of people fleeing from warfare in the 70’s–Idi Amin and Uganda, for example–and I grew up with my best friend, Sean, who came from a big Irish family at a time when the Irish, because of the Birmingham pub bombings, were persecuted for IRA atrocities. He was spat on at school, just for being Irish. And, yes, it does feed into what the world is like today. If feels like we’ve come full circle. It seemed the right time to add a political dimension to it all.

OM: And, it adds context to Ahron as a character and the background he’s come from. So, the obvious last question is, surely there are more Scarlet Traces’ stories to come, right?

IE: Yes, there’s definitely more to come. I do want to explore Ahron’s mum’s story. She doesn’t want him to go back to Venus because she finds herself on the wrong side of history, supporting the bad guys. What do you do when you find yourself on the wrong side of history? That’s quite interesting to me, that the hero doesn’t always come from a heroic family. Things aren’t always black and white. We’ll pick up from where we left of with the ‘Martians’ having another crack at an Earth invasion again, but this time on a global scale.

And, we’re going to reintroduce Charlotte Hemming, as an older woman, of course, because I like heroes that aren’t too obvious. No Arnies here because when you read history it’s not usually the muscle bound, six-pack guys who change history. They’re the ones that usually get you killed! My protagonists are more ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things, because it’s the right thing to do.

Scarlet Traces Vol. 2 By Ian Edginton and D’Isreali is out now from Rebellion (2000AD) in both the UK and the Colonies. It’s a mammoth read but certainly worth your time.