Exclusive first look and interview with the creators of Punks Not Dead

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Jul 21, 2017

IDW's creator-owned Black Crown is making big waves at Comic-Con International. Curated by editor extraordinaire Shelly Bond, this imprint promises to be constructed of high-concept, high-energy stories full of oddities, guitar licks, slamming artwork and clever execution. The imprint's first title, Kid Lobotomy, is co-created by Peter Milligan and Tess Fowler and about a young hotelier who has endured countless traumas, surgeries and therapies and starts performing his own lobotomies. That is due out in October.

Just announced in San Diego, Tini Howard (The Skeptics) and Gilbert Hernandez (Love and Rockets, Twilight Children) will co-create Black Crown's second title, a six-issue mini-series about an ex-hit woman who is forced out of retirement to pay for her son's ride to college, recruiting him and his boyfriend to be the next generation of Assassinistas.

There will also be a 48-page Black Crown Quarterly comic that looks like a mix-tape of anthology comics, music, and cutting-edge. Interestingly, all of these Black Crown titles exist within the same universe, because the Black Crown Pub is a common thread in each of these books. See previews of all of these at the bottom of this article in the gallery section.

Finally, there was the third announcement, which SYFY Wire got an exclusive preview of, called Punks Not Dead. It's written by UK novelist and journalist David Barnett (Calling Major Tom), with painted art by fellow countryman Martin Simmonds (Death Sentence: London, Limbo) and features a bullied teenager named Fergie who sets off on a mission to find his father. Oddly, he is being tailed by a remote division of MI5 and what appears to him as the ghost of the late Sex Pistol Sid Vicious.

Punks Not Dead comes out this January and will be an ongoing series, and hey, just take a look at that two-page spread above. I got an exclusive interview with co-creators Barnett and Simmonds, and Bond, who is editing the series, as well as a first look at the interior pages of the book.

David and Martin, The Sex Pistols are such a pivotal band and inspirational band for many rock and punk rockers, but also guys like Tony Wilson. What was it about The Sex Pistols that was a touchstone for you and/or this series?

David Barnett: I think the interesting thing about the Pistols was the duality of them, the dichotomy of the fact they were essentially a manufactured boy band, in today's terminology, but rather than being just a cog in the corporate music machine they were on a mission to rip up the rule book and burn down the establishment. They gave hope to a jilted generation and lit a fire under the disenfranchised youth; today we freely refer to things as having a "punk rock sensibility" if they're ad-hoc and edgy and thrown together and raw, and that's thanks to the Pistols and their peers who showed people, especially Britain's disaffected youth, that you didn't have to be some art school prog-rocker or flash disco outfit to make music, you just had to pick up a guitar, learn three chords, and get very, very angry. I think that feeds into Punks Not Dead because we're in the same state now as we were in the '70s … in fact, have we ever not been? But we live in what feels like a uniquely weird and disturbing time, and perhaps we've never needed the Sex Pistols more than we do now.

Martin Simmonds: When I was little, I bought a bootleg cassette of Never Mind The Bollocks from a market stall, and I became obsessed by it right from the off! I was really into thrash metal at the time – Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, etc., so a band like the Sex Pistols offered something that was rougher and exciting. The cassette inlay didn't even include the track listings, so it was a while before I got to know the names of most of the songs! At the very heart of it, it's good old-fashioned rock and roll, but there was that added rawness and aggression that totally grabbed my attention. Along with the Ramones, the Sex Pistols were my introduction to punk, then hardcore and subsequently loads of other cool music!

The concept of a kid being attached to a musician's ghost sounds like a fun idea that you could run with, and depending on what musician you chose, could form a very different story. What elements did Vicious bring specifically that no other musician bring, and were heightened in his supernatural state?

DB: Sid's a pretty complex character, really. He was an outsider and a rebel and had a genuine interest in anarchism rather than as just a motif for posturing on stage with, but he also seemed, even at the end of his short life, like a lost little kid who loved his mum. Sid's important to the story because he has a lot in common with Fergie, the 15-year-old British kid he gets stuck to. Fergie's an outsider too, but not with the street-smart cool of Sid, and they both had absent fathers and troubled mothers. Sid's been stuck as a ghost in London's Heathrow Airport since 1979, and his knowledge of the wider modern world is limited. Fergie can educate him about what he's missed, and Sid's anarchic, crazy side can help Fergie basically not be such a loser. Maybe it could have been any dead rock star — and we might see some of those in the future of Punks Not Dead — but Sid's got that almost childlike approach to life and unstarry outlook that he's not going to sit around moaning, "Hey, I'm a dead superstar, I shouldn't be hanging around some working-class kid in the North of England." His lust for life — even when 40 years dead — helps cement their relationship.

MS: I think visually, Sid has a kind of bumbling, shambolic way of carrying himself, which is what I latched onto when it came to drawing him. That, and him not really giving a f**k, I guess! If there's any musician who wouldn't really care about being a ghost, I'd put money on it being Sid.

Heathrow airport is a significant place for the story, but some may not know about his ashes and his mother Anne Beverly. Does that story feed into this story?

DB: Well, the story goes, and I'm not sure how apocryphal it all is, is that after Sid died from a heroin overdose in February 1979 he was cremated in the U.S. and his mother Anne Beverley decided to return his ashes to Britain. She is said to have tripped over upon arriving at Heathrow and dropped the urn, scattering his ashes in the airport which were then sucked up into the ventilation system. I read this, which might well be an urban myth, a few years ago, and thought that if the ghost of Sid Vicious was going to be anywhere, maybe he was stuck to his earthly remains, forever circulating around this vast airport complex. So that's why Sid's stuck at Heathrow when we, and Fergie, first meet him in issue #1. But the situation doesn't stay that way for too long ...

Let's talk about our protagonist, Fearful "Fergie" Ferguson, who's had a rough childhood, and that's painted him in a rough corner when we meet him. Talk about some of his struggles and why some readers might identify with him, or perhaps David, why you were drawn to write about him.

DB: I like Fergie a lot. He's a good kid, I think, and he's not got the most orthodox of lifestyles. His mother Julie is a bit of a drifter, though she loves her only son very much, and Fergie loves her back, though perhaps wishes he didn't have to spend so much time looking out for her. Fergie's never known his father, and Julie doesn't talk about him very much, if at all. But they get by. Problem is, one of Julie's main sources of income is guesting on daytime TV shows and peddling outrageous lies to the tabloids, dragging Fergie along with her to take part in these increasingly outrageous scenarios she dreams up to turn a fast buck. As a result, Fergie's a pretty lonely kid, doesn't have any real friends and suffers the attentions of bullies who scent that he's different to the rest of them. Although he and his mum scrape by, Fergie can't stop thinking about the dad he never knew. Maybe he needs a father figure, who knows? The father figure he probably doesn't need is Sid Vicious, though.

We see a lot of his first-person voice whether he's talking to the reader or to Sid. David, what was it about his voice and the narrative choice you enjoyed exploring the most?

DB: I think I most enjoyed getting to know Fergie as we put the first couple of issues together. It's all very well having a checklist and saying, right, lonely kid, tick, bullied, tick, no success with girls, tick, but it's the nuances of character, the stuff that happens in the spaces between these broad-brush and well-worn traits, that you discover as you write and which really make a kid like Fergie come alive. And it's these nuances that are messy and not neat and make us, as human beings, the complicated, illogical, inconsistent wonders we are.

So Fergie's a loser kid with no friends, but someone as achingly, effortlessly cool as Sid Vicious actually likes him. He's a geek and a nerd and awkward and gangly, but does the fittest girl in school secretly think he's not too bad? He's bright and clever but gets tongue-tied and sullen, especially around other people — he's a working-class teenager after all. It's fun to get in Fergie's head and keep learning more about him.

Will Sid's attachment be a constant mystery in the story, or will that be answered shortly? Will we be seeing the story through Fergie? Or will we have dual protagonists since Sid has his own motives, does he not?

DB: It's no accident that Sid, after being trapped in Heathrow for 40 years, gets stuck to Fergie as he and his mum are passing through the airport. It's like Fergie is an even more powerful magnet than the strange, unseen forces and rules that meant Sid's spirit was anchored at Heathrow, and the attraction from this geeky teenage kid is impossible for Sid to fight against. The reasons for that form part of the storyline … what seems a pretty cool novelty at first, having the ghost of Sid Vicious hanging around, is going to pale pretty quickly.

Is this going to be forever? Is Sid going to be following Fergie to college and his first job, hanging around when he has his first kiss? And Sid's finally free from Heathrow, so he has a world to explore and a lot of catching up to do. Going to school every day alongside a kid with no social life isn't exactly at the top of his long-term agenda. We're predominantly seeing the story through Fergie's eyes, but we've got a lot to explore with Sid as well. Why is he a ghost in the first place? Why is he still hanging around? Does he have, in the style of an old Victorian ghost story, unfinished business before he can seek his eternal rest? On top of that, while Sid and Fergie's unlikely friendship is the story we're initially exploring, this isn't just a tale of boy-meets-ghost.

There's much bigger business going on here, which we see unfold via the Department of Extra-Usual Affairs, a division of the British secret service that is so covert only a handful of people even know about it, and most of those that do really wish they didn't. So we've also got DfEUA boss Dorothy Culpepper, the most kick-ass senior citizen you'll ever meet, and her new recruit Asif Baig, slowly uncovering something that's going to have repercussions for everybody. How Fergie and Sid fit into this is part of the journey.

Supernatural ghost stories are a long-favorite genre, tell me which ones either influenced you or made an impression on Punks Not Dead or just stood out as a high bar to inspire you.

DB: I don't think there's anything that directly influenced Punks Not Dead. Having said that, I've always been a big fan of ghost stories. I only relatively discovered the work of Robert Aickman, who doesn't really write ghost stories but rather weird, unsettling fiction. I'm a huge fan of Shirley Jackson's work, for the same reasons. I think if I absolutely had to pinpoint something that possibly planted the seed for this, I might kind of tip my hat towards the first issue of The Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, where Dane sees a vision of John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. Then again, it should be pointed out that only Fergie can see or hear Sid. Is any of this stuff actually happening? Maybe this is all influenced by one of those sorts of stories. Maybe Patrick Duffy is going to step out of the shower while Fergie's sitting on the toilet. Anything can happen in Punks Not Dead.

MS: I love M.R. James ghost stories, and equally the British TV adaptions of them. They aren't directly related to how I approach working on Punks Not Dead, but certainly a highlight of the genre in my opinion. At the other end of the scale, and purely from a nostalgia point of view, I'd have to say Rent-A-Ghost, which is a BBC TV children's comedy show from the late '70s/early '80s. Growing up, I loved that show and thinking about it, the early episodes were from about the same time as when the Sex Pistols were hitting the headlines. I always found it creepy, even though it wasn't meant to be at all!

Martin, what were the choices for defining the look of Sid, he was obviously going to be a constant fixture in the series and you could have went a lot of ways, (or maybe you didn't) with his clothes, whether or not to make him transparent, etc. Were there logistical reasons for his look that worked with the story or painted style of the art?

MS: Well Sid had a pretty distinct look anyway. In fact, I'd say he defined the British punk look, so designing his appearance was a fairly simple process. We went with a ‘classic Sid' look, so black jeans, black T-shirt, padlock necklace and brothel creepers with the addition of fluorescent socks. A few years back, I owned a pair of brothel creepers in exactly the same style, which I loved, but somewhere along the line I lost them, so adding them is probably part of the grieving process for me! His hair's really distinct, so that's a good reference point too.

Sid didn't look healthy at the best of times, but giving him a slightly blue/grey skin tone adds to his deathly appearance, and sets him apart from everyone else to some extent. I did consider making him transparent, but it occurred to me that when Fergie encounters Sid for the first time, it isn't immediately apparent to Fergie that there's something unearthly about Sid, or at least, not until he phases through a wall!

The covers also have a wonderful album cover feel to them or are reminiscent of the design of '80s rock journalism articles, what was some of the thoughts that went behind the covers?

MS: Shelly and I talked at length about how we should approach the covers, and as it turned out, we both had very similar opinions on how they should look. Publications like Blah Blah Blah, i-D and Raygun were big influences, and more broadly, the designs/typography of David Carson. Jamie Reid's Never Mind the Bollocks couldn't be ignored either, as it's so iconic, so there's certainly echoes of that in the Punks Not Dead covers. That, combined with the rough-around-the-edges photocopy/DIY approach that was so common with the punk scene flyers and fanzines, and also the classic British music papers of the day (NME, Melody Maker and Sounds) all add up to how we got to the look we have.

Shelly, with Kid Lobotomy being written by Peter Milligan kicking off the Black Crown imprint and now Punks Not Dead with David, you've obviously have your fingerprints on these first two titles and your long history and strong championing of UK talent and culture. There is a distinct taste and flavor with British writers. Talk about any significance of Black Crown getting lift off with these two titles.

Shelly Bond: First let's talk about Milligan. He's always been a writer to be reckoned with because, like many Londoners, his love of the city always resonates in his work, often as a character itself. This translates extremely well into Kid Lobotomy. Home base is a hotel called "The Suites," which may or may not be inhabited by warped spirits and demented writers and artists. It could all be in Kid's head or it could be the 50 mental states of Milligan. You'll have to read the book and decide for yourself.

As for Punks Not Dead, the music connection was hard to resist. David Barnett is a journalist, a novelist and a comics aficionado. Although PND is his first comic book series as a co-creator/writer, he's a natural. The idea of having the ghost of Sid Vicious as a father figure when you've never had a dad? The self-effacing, absurdist humor was hard to resist. Clearly there's something about England. The British culture hasn't survived as long as it has without being able to take harsh criticism -- or having it roll off its back. We could certainly learn from that. A discerning editor appreciates these fine attributes. In addition to the obvious, the ensemble cast of PND is so diverse in age and ethnicity. We're as likely to cover what happened to Fergie's mom at a Smith's concert in 1986 as we are to wreak havoc in Swinging London and Camden Town in present day.