‘Forty-Five’ delivers as a bold graphic novel about heroes, villains…and fatherhood?

April 17, 2010 | 12:33 a.m.


Andi Ewington

This is the era of the subverted superhero — instead of two-dimensional do-gooders, the costumed heroes we see today are flawed, sometimes deranged and often dragged down from the sky by the gravity of real-world settings.

The film “Kick-Ass” has just opened with an audacious story of young people pulling on masks and looking to the streets for bad guys they can punch (or kick . . . or stab . . . or shoot).

The film’s lineage can be traced clearly to “Watchmen,” the landmark 1986 comics epic that created a cynical template that has been used in memorable works such as “Marvels,” “Powers,” “Wanted,” “Incognito” and, now, “Forty-Five,” the bold debut effort by British writer Andi Ewington.

The new release from Com.X Comics jettisons the most the elemental structure of the traditional comics page — sequential storytelling in panels — and creates a powerful collage of characters with a clever construct: The book is a collection of “interviews” with 45 super-powered humans by a journalist who is trying to reach a deeper truth about their existence — a quest that is pressing because of the impending birth of his first child, who might just be a meta-human.

Each interview transcript is accompanied by the work of a different artist and, with its blocks of text, it comes closer in a way to living up to the term “graphic novel” then the familiar works lumped under that term.

The approach is not unlike that of the working-journalist construction of “Citizen Kane,” where the interlocking information from all of the interviews isn’t as revealing as the spaces between them, the voids and the unspoken emotion hanging between fact and memory. It’s an intriguing book and I caught up with Ewington, by phone and e-mail, not long ago, to talk about the project:

Impending fatherhood stirs up a lot of emotions and internal questions; how did the approach of parenthood inspire this particular project?

45 Jock

The critical point came about 12 weeks into my own wife’s pregnancy. We had just returned from our first ultrasound and it suddenly became “real” that I was going to become a father. I became awash with differing emotions from elation and hope all that way through to anguish and fear. I also found my brain scrambling across a plethora of questions: “What sex will my unborn child be? “Will I be a good father?”

Never one to bow to conventional thinking, I began pondering how cool it would be if my son or daughter was born with a super power, and this was the spark that ignited the “Forty-Five” universe in me. I presented the concept to both Eddie Deighton and Ben Shahrabani of Com.x and I’m pleased to say they loved it, which brings us to where we are now.

The format of the book is as interesting as the characters it presents. How did you arrive at the structure and concept?

There was simply too much emotion in the stories and there was no way I was going to get the detail I needed by using traditional panel form. The Q&A approach meant that there would have been a huge number of panels just of my interviewer, journalist James Stanley, just sitting, listening or reacting to what was being said. This could have posed a major problem for not only would that have meant extremely tedious repetition of the character, but it also could have been financially catastrophic as the book would have swelled from 132 pages to anything up to four times that size! Presenting the story as a transcript account simply made the most sense.

I drew inspiration from “World War Z” by Max Brooks, and saw that I could push this format further by fusing art and dialogue together to create a hybrid. I like to think of it as the ultimate definition of a graphic novel. It was Com.x that suggested getting a different comic artist to illustrate just one page. I’m a graphic designer by trade, so absolutely loved the idea of the artists being given free rein to capture the essence of each interview.

45 Matt Timson

How did you hold on to a sense of story arc with such a modular sort of construction?

 I wanted it to follow a life span chronologically. Even though each age is represented by a different character you still feel as if you are journeying through life from birth to death. With each age came differing emotions, and themes that I had already asked myself as I sat watching my then-unborn son. I had to ask some searching questions and I didn’t always like the answers I found, but I guess that’s part and parcel of life.

The contributions of so many different artists adds a lot of energy to the pages. Explain a bit about reaching out to the different illustrators and how you presented the project to them.

Initially I contacted several artists that already had a good relationship with Com.x (John Higgins, Trevor Hairsine, Liam Sharp, Sean Phillips). Once I had this nucleus of talent attached, it was a matter of sourcing other well-established artists (Jock, Charlie Adlard, Dan Brereton, Frazer Irving, Boo Cook) then pitching the idea to them. Others were recommended to me by already-involved artists, and several of the newer artists we found either via on-line art sites like deviantart.com or by looking through portfolios at the conventions I attended with Com.x.

I would explain the low level of commitment to each artist — it’s just one page remember — and that they had almost creative freedom to interpret the piece as they see fit. The only constraints were the look of James Stanley, and the transcript interview itself, the rest was completely free-form and up to them. I think the openness of the brief was a huge pull for them. I also like to think the writing also helped in some small way to commit them to the project. I feel very fortunate and humbled that so many talented people dedicated their time to my book.

45 Calum Alexander

It must be interesting for you to see the way your words blend and shift when paired up with visuals by such an eclectic group of artists?

Of course, the art helped flesh out the world I had seen in my head. I tried hard not to have any predetermined look or feel for the characters as I wanted the illustrations to be as much as a surprise to me as it would be for someone else looking at the art for the first time. In some cases the artists would add little details that I hadn’t even considered. Jock for example, added the “jigsaw” effect to the “Amy” page. I hadn’t mentioned a jigsaw in the interview.

During the interview the character was originally seen playing with building blocks, but I saw the potential of what Jock had drawn so adapted my transcript accordingly. Same again for Simon Coleby, he had his character with a huge Claymore, something I hadn’t originally included, so I wrote it into my next draft. In parts it was almost a role reversal to how an artist and writer work together and there’s something fun about that.

This is your first project in comics, how exciting was it to open the box with the first batch of finished copies?

It probably sounds wrong to say, but I compare it to the day my son was born. The elation I felt holding him for the first time was comparable to the day I held the very first copy of  “Forty-Five.” I have dreamed of becoming a published writer since about the age of 9 when I wrote and drew my own little “Dungeons and Dragons” magazine and tried to sell it at the newsagents across the road. I had tried numerous times to get published since then and to finally achieve my dream was pretty overwhelming. I did have a bit of a lump in my throat, but managed to — thankfully — hold it together.

45 Dan Brereton

Talk about a few of the artists — and whose work did you find most surprising?

There’s so much to cover that it’s hard for me to pick out in detail without giving too much away — all of them did a fantastic job, so I’ve listed a few tasters that took me personally by surprise. Boo Cook’s page was one that had little hidden clues to the character’s power dotted about it. Gary Erskine came up with a photographic solution that was creative genius. Jordan Raskin’s piece captured the emotion of the interview perfectly. Matt Timson chose perhaps the darkest of all the interviews and has done a fantastic job with it. Dom Reardon used the opportunity to paint something a little more personal to his own situation. Ross Dearsley designed a truly awesome costume with some inspirational touches. Finally, Lee Garbett’s page which included a drawing of my son, Zack!

“Watchmen” seems to be the increasingly important pivot point in modern comics — the redefining classic that set up all the subverted superhero tales of today. Would you agree?

I think what “Watchmen” did was make people aware that there is just as much potential to explore in the “human” part of being “superhuman.” Superhumans aren’t necessarily demi-gods that battle it out with little regard to mortal life, but are personalities who have moral obligations that comes with the job. But it’s a poisoned chalice because underneath it all they are still human — or at least started that way. I feel “Watchmen” was the tipping point into this world of faults, and its Alan Moore’s writing of these characters that makes it both so accessible and real to us. He wrote his superheroes controversial, and more importantly flawed, just like us. Without “Watchmen,” would we be where we are today?

I think so, if Watchmen hadn’t done it then something else would have, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from “Jurassic Park“: “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.”

45 Cover

How is fatherhood treating you? Have you noticed any super powers with young Zack?

Probably better than motherhood is treating my wife, Natasha. I tend to get the fun things, currently I am the climbing frame, the punch bag and the pusher for the swing. I still muck in with feeds, bath-time and nappies, but it’s a small two-day contribution while my wife deals with that the rest of the week. But I’m loving it, and still maintain it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Nothing prepares you for the love you have for your own child. I thought I knew and understood love, but I was completely wrong. Zack’s face when he sees me as I get in is priceless. Sure there are difficult times, especially when he hurts himself falling over but it’s all part of being a parent and helping him grow into his childhood, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

There are a couple powers he’s managed to attain. Last week he gained the wonderful ability to shove peas up his nose; this power ended up with Zack visiting the Accident & Emergency Room. And he can hear when I’m sneaking into the fridge to eat a piece of chocolate, even when he’s a room away. I think he gets the super-hearing from Natasha.

— Geoff Boucher


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CREDITS: Top, photo of Andi Ewington (courtesy of Andi Ewington); Four pages from “45” by, in order, Jock, Matt Timson, Calum Alexander and Dan Brereton (Com.X); the cover of “45”; and, at bottom, an image from “The Hunter” by Darwyn Cooke (Cooke and IDAW Publishing).

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