John Ferguson is the writer of fantasy superhero comic SALTIRE (reviewed here) and the co-founder of independent publishers DIAMONDSTEEL COMICS. STARBURST caught up with him to chat about the comic and his plans for the continuing series.
STARBURST: Tell us about how Saltire first came about and what the process of developing the concept to realisation and publication was like.
John Ferguson: It first came about because of a quite derogatory online article that suggested it was a daft idea for Scotland to have its own superhero as the country was too boring, dreich and drab, and that if it did it would probably be called Drunk Man. As a Scottish person I thought it was a rather unfair description of what I think is a vibrant country.
I’ve always had a big interest in the superhero genre and mythology, and I thought that comic book superheroes are essentially modern mythology. The Spider-Mans, Batmans, Supermans and Hulks of the world exist because America is such a new country it doesn’t have old myths, an old world or heroes of the past to point to, so they created new ones. Scotland is the oldest country in the Western world and has more mythology, legends and folklore than anywhere else, albeit not very well known. As superheroes are based on mythology, it seems odd to suggest that Scotland couldn’t have one of its own. You just take the two and stick them together! Scottish history is almost a story in itself, so we decided to do a pseudo-history of the country. We don’t know our own history very well; people are aware that the Romans came to Scotland but they aren’t very sure what happened. Same with the Angles and Saxons, or the Vikings. So I thought that’s perfect: stick a giant blue superhero in there and fill in the blanks. Since people don’t know exactly how these victories were achieved we can throw in a fantasy element.
As a brand new publishing company, it was quite an undertaking to actually get the book on the shelves. I spent the best part of six months writing what I thought was a good script, but to create a comic book you also need artists and as someone new to the market, who’s going to want to work with me? Duncan of Jordanstone Art College at Dundee University has a comic book studies course, so we contacted the head of the department for his opinion and decided to have a competition. There were two really good entrants who had actually worked together before and were both very keen on the project, so we ended up using them in conjunction. From there we found high-quality printers and managed to find our way into all aspects of publishing and distribution so we could get the book into places like Waterstones and Forbidden Planet. Since then it’s really taken off.
How much of a challenge was it debuting and promoting an independent comic and carving out a presence for yourself in a crowded market?
To break in on anything other than a real indie level would require a stall at a comic mart, but we decided we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to put it in front of people, have a relationship with the big shops and let the work speak for itself. It was a challenge, but we did enough in the way of marketing and intriguing people with this idea of a Scottish superhero who was a big heroic figure like those Scotland’s had in the past, instead of a typically comedic Scottish character like Super Gran, Desperate Dan or Oor Wullie. We’ve got to give a lot of thanks to people in the social media world, people in comic book shops and people who run independent shops, who got behind the comic and kept on selling out their stock. It grew without us putting in lots of money, while what money we did have we used to pay for the artists, the printings, and the distribution. So it wasn’t through throwing lots of cash around; people liked what they were seeing. It wasn’t easy, but it was good fun. We treated it as a challenge and it’s worked.
After the action of Invasion and the origin of Inception, what can we expect to see from Annihilation?
Invasion is your introduction to this big ginger superhero, which it does in a really dynamic fashion, but Annihilation takes it way past that; it’s a darker and more immersive tale. It’s set in the Dark Ages, the time when the Angles and the Saxons were new to the island of Britain and saw Caledonia as something they would like to have as well. It was a time when Scotland was full of magic and alchemy, and we’ve tied up quite a lot of the history of that period with the darker myths and legends and expanded it into an epic fantasy tale, probably comparable to Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. We see a lot of the different areas of Scotland and meet a lot of the different clans. They’re all very different and some of them don’t trust each other, but they have to come together behind Saltire. It’s in two parts, and next year we’ll bring it out as one individual piece of work, probably with Invasion attached to it as well, so it chronicles the entire first period of Saltire from the Roman invasion right through to the Dark Ages.
Are both volumes coming out at the same time?
No, we’re bringing one out in September and the second one won’t be long behind it, hopefully by Christmas, but if not it won’t be long after. It’s to give people a chance to absorb part one and get excited about part two.
Are you working with the same artists as previously?
The artists from the first book have graduated from their degree at Duncan of Jordanstone and they’re no longer going to be working on the indie circuit, but we’ve gone for just as dynamic a team. Again, graduates of Duncan of Jordanstone, studying comic book studies.
I love it how that’s now an actual thing.
Exactly! Twenty years ago people would have laughed at you, but to me it’s just as valid as any other form of storytelling. The creativity that goes into it is just as important, just as difficult, just as skilled. The new team’s artwork matches the story; it’s slightly more epic, slightly more grand, maybe a wee bit more mainstream, if you take the darker elements of DC Comics like Batman or the Blackest Night series. It’s going to be interesting to see how the finished product comes out, but we think people are going to like it.
Although Saltire is pretty much straight-up fantasy, historical events like the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the construction of Hadrian’s Wall are featured. Will you include other key moments from Scotland’s history in future books?
Absolutely. What we are is a pseudo-history; you don’t read it and think that’s what actually happened, probably because there’s a giant blue superhero in it. But in the Dark Ages there were skirmishes, battles and wars between the Angles, the Saxons and the people of Scotland. The historical elements have actually happened, but are given a completely fresh twist so you’re not just going to be reading a history book and waiting for Willy Wallace and Robert the Bruce to turn up! It’s characters from the folklore of Scotland mixed in with the history and the superheroic element of Saltire and the Guardians. We believe it’s a really good mix, and the fans have really taken to it so we’re going to continue that.
Superheroes are defined by their vulnerabilities as much as their strengths. In Invasion, apart from taking a couple of hits from the avatar of a Roman god, Saltire seemed pretty unstoppable. Does he have any specifically defined weaknesses, a kryptonite if you like?
Let’s just say the answer is definitively yes, and we’ll find out all about it in Annihilation. I can’t say too much without giving away the ending of the book, but it’s a major crux of the story that he’s not completely indestructible. Like all good superheroes there’s a weakness there, and it’s a traditional Scottish weakness that ties into the Scottish psyche. I’ll leave it at that.
Seeing as Saltire has been established as powerful enough to take on deities, will he be encountering members of any other pantheons?
Short answer: yes. He is the immortal protector of Scotland; he was created as something more than a superheroic character who can stop a bank robber or a criminal on the street, he is there to defend the people of the nation and to defend the land itself. So when the threat comes from something bigger, from something mythological, from something like a deity then Saltire can step forward and deal with that. Scotland’s invasions have not always come from the same place: the Romans, the Vikings, the Angles and the Saxons didn’t come from the same part of the world and didn’t have the same belief systems or practices in war, which takes the story into the realms of the pantheons of gods that come from those beliefs.
Heroes are often more engaging when they battle interesting villains. Do you have any plans to include recurring enemies?
Again, without giving too much away from the next book and beyond there will be recurring villains. As you say, the most iconic superheroes quite often remain so because they have the most iconic villains. The reason, I think, that the most popular superheroes are Spider-Man and Batman is because they have the best villains. Everyone knows who the Joker is, the Riddler is, the Penguin is; everyone knows the Green Goblin and the Sinister Six. It was in our head that great superheroes always have great villains. It’s not enough to just have some bloke who’s a baddie, you need something more than that.
As Saltire is immortal and thus can plausibly appear anywhere throughout time, do you have plans for any far-future sci-fi stories?
We’ve actually written the groundwork for a futuristic story. There are some shorts set in different parts of Scotland in the future; one each in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. They haven’t actually been illustrated yet, but it’s something we’d hope to do in the next year or two. They’re the first inkling that Saltire is not just about swords and sandals and things that happened in the past; he can exist in the future, because, as you say, with immortal superheroes that’s one of the benefits of them!
One of my favourite aspects of Invasion was the warriors from the Ten Tribes forming a Pictish Avengers that fights alongside Saltire while battling the Romans. Like Saltire himself, will aspects of the Tribes and their mightiest heroes also remain constant in some form throughout history?
The idea is that the Guardians, the heroes of each clan, will recur through one of the Scottish myths of the Blue Stones, which are essentially lesser-known versions of the Stone of Destiny. There are several throughout Scotland that still exist to this day, and they were revered by a variety of different tribal people and were believed to carry great energy in the same way the Stone of Destiny does. Each of the clans has their own Blue Stone – or Blue Stane as we would call them – and they carry the energy from one Guardian to the next, and so the name and essence of that Guardian will travel up through the ages, meaning that Saltire will always have an affinity with them. While the Guardians from the Lowlands and Highlands came to be a bit separate, they will unite when there’s a cataclysmic event in Scotland, and in Annihilation we start to expand their characters.
So after Saltire was created in Inception, those rocks he was carrying were the Blue Stones?
Yes, they are a real thing.
I’ve never heard of them before.
There’s one in Crail in Fife, there’s one in St Andrews up where the golf is, there are a couple up in the Highlands. The stone footprints, where you step into the Ethereal World and the Otherworld, are also real; there’s one in Fife and there’s one way over on the West Coast. Nobody really knows how long they’ve been there, but they certainly predate the Dark Ages.
That’s part of the reason I really enjoy doing this, bringing out information that’s already there. These are real things in Scotland that people genuinely believed had energies and powers that took you into other realms, and I enjoy the fact that they, like yourself, are going “Oh, I didn’t realise that’s a real thing!” Next time you’re in St Andrews you might go “Oh, there’s a Blue Stone!
Are the immortal inhabitants of the Ethereal World and the Otherworld also going to be recurring?
Yes. They have Blue Stones in their realms that allow them to move between the worlds and they are immortal like Saltire. They don’t live in Scotland as Saltire does, they live in a parallel world, one of which is a lot darker, the other a lot lighter.
People like the darker side of comic books and there is a real element of that in Scottish mythology and folklore. In Annihilation you learn a lot more about the character Sloan from the Otherworld and Riada from the Ethereal World. Eilys, the Oracle of the Fae, is a core character who will be recurring through most of the books, if not all of them. This is the book where people will learn a lot more about the pantheon of characters, the three different realms, and that if you are an immortal, you can connect between them.
Before Saltire’s initial summoning in Invasion the ritual mentioned calling upon the “Thirteenth Tribe,” presumably referring to where Saltire resides when dormant and implying others live there. Is that in any way accurate and are there any intentions to expand upon this?
It doesn’t quite get dealt with in Annihilation, but Saltire is the Thirteenth Tribe. Scotland is split into twelve clans, two of which are in the immortal world and ten of which are in the real world. So when it describes the Thirteenth Tribe, Saltire is the representation of the Thirteenth Tribe. He is, if you like, the perfect creation – or what we think is the perfect creation – to protect the people and the land, and the story will delve into his background and what exactly is this aether he was created out of.
For any readers not familiar with Scottish history and legends, could you explain the mythology and symbolism incorporated into the story?
Some of it is the essence of things that people understand like the Stone of Destiny, from which Saltire was created. It incorporates a lot of the elements of Scottish animal iconography. In most places a national animal is an eagle or a tiger or something like that…
Or a kangaroo! Something you can see. But we picked, goodness knows how far back, a unicorn, which tells you just how mythological our background is! Also, the last dragon that ever existed in history, according to the myths of Northern Europe, was in Scotland and was supposed to have fallen in Dundee, which is why there’s a giant statue of a dragon in the middle of the city. It ties in elements of the animal iconography and our belief in nature, as well as a lot of the aspects of the cultures who invaded us and their belief systems.
We also look at the Picts, the Gaels and the Celts, the tribal people who existed in Scotland and predate the name Scotland. They believed in three realms so we stuck to that. They didn’t believe in heaven and hell, to them the world was a bit more like a yin/yang, where there was a balance to everything: everything light had something dark and everything dark had something light. The story ties to that, both visually and in the characters themselves: every essence of a hero has something slightly more sinister about them and every character that you think is sinister will always have a certain nobility in him as well.
Annihilation takes us into some of the darker elements of the mythology of Scotland, with a character called the baobhan sith who was one of the earliest vampiric characters in folklore and puts it in amongst the mix of this warmongering Saxon/Angle group who really want... Well, it’s called Annihilation; it gives you a pretty good idea of what they’re interested in!
Since Saltire was created as the embodiment of Scotland (or Caledonia), does his personality alter parallel to any change in the nation’s identity?
That’s a good call! Scotland goes through certain changes in its faith and its belief systems; it becomes less tribal and more political and starts to come together more as a nation. Like most parts of the world it grows and develops, it gets different ideologies and different religious practices come in while other religious practices go out the window.
Coming from prehistory, Saltire and his ideology take a bit of changing. The landscape of Scotland doesn’t just remain the same, and by landscape I don’t mean just the scenery, I mean that the idea of the people, the tribes and their belief systems will change as we go. You have centuries between the most iconic things that happened in Scotland; we’ve gone from the Roman era and now we’re in the Dark Ages, so we’re talking about several hundred years, while the story after that is set in the Viking era, hundreds of years past the Dark Ages. Any connections, without giving too much away, will have to be from the immortal element.
The Saltire itself (as in the Scottish flag) has only been in use since the ninth century, whereas our hero made his grand debut during Rome’s invasion of Britain around 700 years beforehand, while his creation occurred even earlier. Should we take this to mean that the name and look of the nation’s flag were taken from the warrior?
Very perceptive of you! Our flag is actually called Saint Andrew’s Cross; saltire is a word of unknown etymology, so that’s why it’s perfect for the name of our legendary guardian! Saltire has a saltire cross because when he was created he was scarred by the Stone of Destiny, which has a matching marking. The flag will be a representation of him from the ninth or tenth century, which actually becomes a little part of a story still to come.
Saltire was recently nominated for Best British Comic (Colour) at the True Believers Comic Awards (congratulations, by the way) where you’re up against the likes of Titan and 2000 AD. How do you feel about that?
Quite chuffed! We’re a very small company and we didn’t expect something like that, but we’ve seen the reaction of publications and critics and also academics. We were just talking about how it’s great to see comics being spoken of as a university subject, we’ve seen the reaction of fans from kids through to real comic book aficionados and the great positivity towards the first book and the idea that there’s a follow up. Our company came into existence in 2013 and here we are in June 2014 talking about being nominated alongside Titan Comics and 2000 AD. I don’t think we could have done better than that.
With Scotland soon to be holding a referendum on independence –
Really? I hadn’t noticed!
– do you have any comment on the timing of publishing a comic containing themes of unabashed patriotism?
Yeah, Saltire’s creating a little bit of controversy, but superheroes generally are patriotic. Any comic book superhero has to stand for something. It’s the old adage: if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. There’s not a particular agenda, just the idea that the graphic novel field in this country should be bigger and better than it is.
Scotland has always had a sense of itself; in my life I’ve certainly never seen it go anywhere. We are patriotic people. We support our football team, we support our rugby team, we’re very proud to have our own songs and our own languages. I’m not fortunate enough to know the Gaelic language but I speak Scots like most people in Scotland. There’s nothing wrong with Scottishness. People have said in conjunction with the referendum that there’s no such thing as Scottishness, and I could not fundamentally disagree more. We don’t have much of a creative industry up here and in a country as educated and as aspirational as Scotland I think we can do a lot better.
Each new book of Saltire is planned to be published simultaneously in English and Gaelic. With the number of Gaelic speakers gradually declining with each passing generation, did you feel it was important to support the language’s survival?
Unequivocally so. Gaelic in Scotland is in a resurgence. We’ve now got a new school in Glasgow that has more submissions for new students than it can handle, and there’s also now a school in Edinburgh. It’s no longer just the language of the Highlands and Islands. It used to be the language of huge parts of Strathclyde; not that long ago there was no real difference between knowing Gaelic, Scots and English, and we feel it’s very important to support people who want to hang on to that language.
We’re also hoping to bring out all the Saltire books in the Scots language. There’s an idea that the Scots language is for the lower classes, which I find absolutely appalling. If we can bring out all our publications in three languages, and it helps people learn Gaelic by having a big blue superhero to relate to then that’s absolutely fantastic. We’ve got the support of the Gaelic Book Council, and the Gaelic schools are very interested in getting their pupils to embrace it because it’s something different; it’s not a staid school text but an exciting, dynamic superhero story. Gaelic is an important part of our history and it should be an important part of our present.
Do you have any plans for the direction the story will take after Annihilation? Do you have an overall narrative planned out or do you intend for the series to carry on indefinitely?
We have it planned out. We’re not just sprawling off into goodness knows where, essentially because Scottish history’s already been written!
I’m just editing the book after Annihilation, which is going to be called Domination and set at the turn of the first millennium where Vikings are the next threat to Scotland. Beyond that, there are one or two things that happened in Scotland in the 14th century that are a wee bit exciting , that I think everybody who ever went to school in this country knows about. So we might touch on that!
We’ll then look at what some people might see as being the most interesting parts of Scottish history, heading towards the last two or three hundred years where we had a period where we lost it for a bit. We’re not going to brush over that and we’re not going to pretend that Scotland didn’t fight amongst itself or that things didn’t get a bit cataclysmic and fall apart; events like Oliver Cromwell and the Battle of Culloden where things became very desperate in Scotland. But that’s several books in the future.
Will you eventually branch out into publishing comics by other writers and artists, or is the plan to stick with Saltire for the time being?
We’d branch out if we could, but Saltire is a big project and we want to see it do well. We will obviously put a lot of our time and effort into that, but we have the channels to market and if we can help other people we will. Certain aspects of the creative side of things just don’t exist in Scotland and you have to leave and go abroad to expand your horizons, and graphic novels and comic book storytelling is one of those. Don’t get me wrong, if you become big and famous and you’re Grant Morrison or Mark Millar you can stay in Scotland and do what you like. It’s with the young folk coming through that we see the quality of artists, the quality of storytelling and the fact that there’s a real Scottish aspect to the stories. I genuinely believe that the people of Scotland would like to read things they can relate to.
If you look at the American market, the superhero comic book genre has become movie franchises worth fortunes. I’m not suggesting that Scotland can turn around and suddenly produce the new Marvel’s Avengers, but we don’t have any access to try. Three out the five nominations for Best British Comic came from Scotland. Now, do you believe any of those three will have access to big name computer game companies, movie companies, or TV shows? No chance; it just doesn’t exist in this country.
I think the creative industries should probably look at modernising themselves. What is it young people want nowadays? Are they wanting to go to the jazz festival and go to the ballet or are they playing Call of Duty and watching Iron Man at the cinema? Now you can say that that’s not art, but you know and I know how much effort goes into making Call of Duty and how much effort goes into making Iron Man the successful franchise that it is. I like opera, but can you make a billion pound franchise out of it? Wouldn’t have thought so. Could you potentially make it out of what Scotland is creating in graphic novels? Just maybe. If you can create something bigger and better you should always give it a shot.
SALTIRE: INVASION is available now and SALTIRE: ANNIHILATION PART 1 is due for publication in September.