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Exclusive: Saladin Ahmed opens up about moving to Substack, his Copper Bottle imprint, and debut series 'Terrorwar'

By Matthew Jackson

Earlier this week, Substack announced a major investment in the comics market in the form of new agreements with some of the biggest names in the medium at the moment. Among them was Eisner Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed, best known in the comics world for his work on Marvel titles like Black Bolt, Ms. Marvel, and Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

As part of the wave of Substack announcements, Ahmed revealed that his own Substack would serve as the home base of Copper Bottle, the "first home" for his upcoming creator-owned comics projects, and what he dubbed in his announcement "the biggest project of my professional life."

"I'd been looking to create a centralized home for my creator owned work for a while, and the question was just where that would be," Ahmed told SYFY WIRE when asked why he chose Substack as his new creator-owned home. "Somewhat out of the blue, Substack offered a platform for Copper Bottle on terms that were remarkable [with regard to] freedom, ownership, and support. It was no-brainer."

Ahmed's launch of Copper Bottle arrived alongside similar creator-owned announcements from Batman writer James Tynion IV (who's leaving DC Comics to pursue more creator-owned projects), X-Men writer Jonathan Hickman (who's co-creating an entire "concept universe" via a Substack platform) and more, creating a high-profile shift in the ways in which top creators are pursuing their own stories outside of traditional publishing. Though each creative team will ultimately take their own approach, there's a single concept uniting them all: Build a subscriber base, and give them the comics they want directly in their inbox on a regular basis for a monthly fee.

"There will be more detail on this in the days to come, but essentially paid subscribers to Copper Bottle will receive weekly drops of comics directly in their inbox, readable right in their email browser," Ahmed said of his own comics plans on the platform. "If they prefer, they will be able to read the comics directly on the site. The format is definitely making me think in exciting and new-to-me ways not only about issue breaks, but about everything from page turns to panel count!"

The new format and new delivery system beings, for Ahmed and artist Dave Acosta, with Terrorwar, a new sci-fi comic set in a rough, futuristic environment known as Blue City. In his initial announcement for the book, Ahmed described Blue City as a place where every culture on the planet is "mashed together into the last livable place on Earth," creating a wild melting pot of cultures, but also a city rife with inequality.

It's into this rough and tumble future city that the Terrors, creatures that might be aliens or might be something worse, emerge, threatening everything the people of Blue City have struggled to preserve. The Terrors are deadly, and they're made deadlier because almost no one can hear them coming except for a few people with the gift to sense their presence. Terrorwar will follow one of those gifted people, a "Terrorfighter" named Muhammad Cho, as he fights to save Blue City and "kill your fears."

"Weirdly, the title came to me first," Ahmed said when asked about the origins of Terrorwar. "But as soon as it did I started to picture Muhammad and the future he lives in. I'm self-aware enough to know that Terrorwar bubbles up from all the '70s and '80s sci-fi in my brain - Moebius, Alien(s), Philip K. Dick, etc. But I guess I've refracted that through everything we are living through now – and everything I can see in my kids' future.

"It's a story about fear and what it does to us. A story about continuing on when you're used up. A story about trying to live well in a burnt out world.

"Also: weird tech and cool fight scenes and lots of smack-talk!"

Though Terrorwar is still in the works ahead of its debut on Copper Bottle this fall, Ahmed was able to give us an exclusive look at some of Acosta's concept designs for the series, including sketches of the series' hero, Muhammad Cho.

Check those out in the gallery below:

"Dave and I are fresh off our collaboration on the Ottoman era Dracula graphic novel Dragon, and the creative energy's been off the charts," Ahmed said of his collaborator. "He was the first artist who came to mind for this book. He's a comics veteran with a lot of movie nerd DNA, and there's definitely some '80s cinematic sci-fi baked into Terrorwar, so he immediately and intuitively got the story and ramped it up the next level."

Terrorwar is the beginning of Copper Bottle, but it's far from the end, as Ahmed teased other projects with other collaborators still to come, from other ongoing series to short stories. In terms of the future outside of his new subscription delivery system, Ahmed noted that collected editions of Copper Bottle comics could be on the table "eventually," and also emphasized that his push into more creator-owned work doesn't mean he's ready to leave things like the Marvel Universe behind.

"I absolutely intend to keep writing stories in the Marvel Universe and other fictional worlds," he said. "Have some awesome announcements on that front coming soon!"

The range of creators who announced Substack agreements this week (a number that Substack has teased will continue to grow) has already brought about predictions from comics fans and pundits about what the future holds if this new distribution channel works out. Is it the next big thing? Is it something only certain creators can make work? Is it destined to change comics distribution as we know it? From Ahmed's perspective, though, trying to read the larger future isn't the important part. The important part is the willingness of some of the biggest names in comics to flex their creative muscles in a new way.

"I'm old enough to know that when we think we know what the future looks like we are usually wrong, so I'm not making any grand predictions," he said. "What I do see are a bunch of tremendously talented creators who are super excited to make an en masse push to try new things. That's cool!"

For more information on Copper Bottle, check out Ahmed's Substack newsletter.