“I wanted the reader to have the rug under them before I pulled it out.” Dan Butcher on building up the major events in his Brit superhero comic Vanguard
Dan Butcher’s Vanguard started life as a twice-weekly webcomic about a team of British superheros. But in recent months it has morphed into a devastatingly bleak, highly self aware, post-modern take on the superhero genre that is a million miles away from where it began. With a lot fewer characters too! We caught up with Dan to discuss his influences, self-publishing, and how Vanguard has evolved into the book it is today and how it has turned into the book Dan always wanted it to be.
(SPOILERS AHEAD! Be warned this interview contains HUGE spoilers for any new readers!)
Tell us about the origins of Vanguard, where did you come with the ideas from and what inspired you to create the characters?
DB: The idea for Vanguard came to me when I was working on the story which is starting now within the comic. I found as I worked up the back story to that part of the comic, it became apparent that it wasn’t something I really wanted to skip over. It felt like it needed to be opened up and actually explored.
I had the end point to work towards. All, well most, of this team were going to die and the ‘bad guys’ were going to come out on top. Taking it from there, I worked backwards, starting with a pretty basic/formulaic starter issue. I wanted the reader to have the rug under them before I pulled it out. From there, it would all go downhill for the team, as they are taken apart by an unseen enemy in a variety of ways.
The plot essentially formed the characters. Each had a role to play out. KingSword was always going to fall battling MaXtreme. Ophelia was due to get killed at the end of issue five, but her death would have caused too many problems story-wise with regard to how Pendragon and the team would get to Downing Street and have their epic last stand.
Were you ever concerned about inevitable comparisons that a Brit superhero team might have to Excalibur and Captain Britain?
DB: …that was intentional. The team’s costumes would have been designed by an established fashion designer to make them look like the superheroes people would expect. In issue two, when they drop into Burma, those costumes are redundant, as they are essentially just for show. I figured that the costumes for the superheroes would contain symbols that invoked nationalism, patriotism including flags, etc.
Vanguard starts out as a fairly traditional superhero book but soon morphs into something much more complex. Would it be fair to say you were inspired by ’90s Image books likeThe Authority and Stormwatch and Garth Ennis’ The Boys when it came to creating Vanguard?
DB: Vanguard has been compared to books by Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis. I’m flattered by the comparison. If I were to point to an influence for the story, I’d have to say it was Pat Mills’ work on Marshall Law. The idea of a corrupt Superman (MaXtreme) was heavily influenced by the character The Public Spirit who goes up against Marshall Law in his first story arc.
And visually there is a pretty obvious link to ’90s Image with Team X-Treme…
DB: Without a doubt, Image has had an influence on Vanguard. I was collecting comics in the 90s and the whole Youngblood/WildCATS/Wetworks helped me fashion Team Xtreme, as they are all essentially ’90’s Image characters taken to the ‘extreme’.
You haven’t shied away from some heavy story-telling, from global war and civil unrest to full on bloody superhero action. How important was it for your heroes not to be the usual squeaky clean characters we might see in the Big Two?
DB: The bleak setting is really all set-up for the world that the characters in the story inhabit now. It’s a world that’s become like a dark parody of our own, where societies have gone through mass upheavals and civil wars. As the team reforms, we’ll travel through this world with them as they try to right the wrongs that have befallen them. I wanted to instil a dread that something terrible is going to happen to the team. All through the first nine issues, things never really go right for them. Soon they are fractured and divided and only really get a slight glimpse of the force that has been set against them, by which time it’s far too late.
You’ve been releasing updates twice weekly via your website for some time now, why did you chose to start releasing it in this way?
I would love to release an issue per month, but given that I can’t produce it full-time (yet! Ha ha!), I update twice a week.
When you’re working on large scale storylines and major scenes, such as the battle between the Vanguard and team X-Treme, do you find yourself wanting to complete all the pages at once to get the story told or do you still pace yourself to 2 pages a week?
DB: I keep it as focused as I can. I’ve been on the two pages a week updates for a number of years now. I’ve recently dropped to one a week, but this is a temporary measure and should be back to normal shortly. I never really worry about running out of momentum. There’s always something interesting coming up within the story that I look forward to depicting. That’s one of the things that keep me going.
Your books are now being released via ComiXology, is it important for you to be relasing the collected editions in this way? Did you make any amends for these versions and which do you consider the definitive versions, the collected versions or the web comics?
DB: I’ve had to change the content for ComiXology, specifically with regard to curse words. ComiXology has a limit on their use, so I had to edit the text all the way through. Several characters, notably Woden and Gradlon, swear heavily. I feel they lose a bit of their character by altering this, but hey, it has to be done to get on the app. I personally like the web-comic format, as more pages are annotated with little insights into characters or sketches and the like. I’m currently working on a new print version, which will include a lot more ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, as well as unseen artwork and fan art, which I’m happy to say I receive a fair bit of!
How do you think your art style has developed and evolved as a result of working on Vanguard in such a structured way? One obvious way would perhaps be the sophistication of the colouring which seems to have come on leaps and bounds in the new volume?
DB: I’m constantly trying to improve what I do and how I do it. I think as an artist, well even as a person, one should always try and better oneself. I’ve sunk a fair bit of time into trying to improve what I do and I’m still pushing myself.
Speaking of recent volumes, you are also now working with a co-writer, how do you think that has benefitted the process of working on Vanguard? Does it give you more time to work on the art and how does it feel letting go of the reins of the characters and story?
DB: Gary Cohen, writer of the awesome Mallville Rules, has been helping me out for a while now. He jumped on board with issue six and has been a script editor since. With issue ten, both Gary and I plot an issue, with him fleshing it out.
Events in the world of The Vanguard have taken quite a major leap in the last few issues, can you tell us how much of the upcoming story you have planned out and will we be seeing any more time shifts in future episodes?
DB: There’s a very specific point that the second arc of the story is aiming at. It will take us a fair bit of time to get there… and how we get there is still a little up in the air. With new ideas changing the flow of the tale as we proceed, it’s hard to say what exactly happen in between. Suffice to say, Gary and I have a lot planned and it’s great to see so many people enjoying what we’ve done so far!
You can read the latest pages from Dan via the Vanguard Comic website. Or purchase volumes 1-4 from ComiXology for £0.69 per issue.