Red Thorn Scribe David Baillie on Celtic Lore, Sex and his "Demonic Dangerous Dreamboat of a Character"

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<i>Red Thorn</i> Scribe David Baillie on Celtic Lore, Sex and his "Demonic Dangerous Dreamboat of a Character"

It’s been a hell of a year for Scottish love stories, and a wild ride for Vertigo Comics and its recent spate of debut titles. Red Thorn offers the perfect fusion of both, a modern myth-meets-adult romp set in Glasgow. Vertigo was also the first home to many of comics’ great “British Invasion” writers during the ‘80s, and Red Thorn scribe David Baillie continues that legacy. A Scottish native with a run at Anglo comics giant (and Judge Dredd publisher) 2000 AD, Baillie has also served as artist-in-residence at visual arts gallery Firstsite.

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With its first arc wrapped, and this Wednesday’s Red Thorn #7 promising a look back into the Glasgow of 1991, Paste was lucky enough to take a peek at some exclusive pages featuring guest artist Steve Pugh’s art as series regular Meghan Hetrick takes a one-issue break. In the following email correspondence, Baillie took the time to discuss sex, writing, rock’n’roll and why a demigod needs perfect abs.
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Paste: Red Thorn seems to fit right in at Vertigo. In the great tradition of books like The Sandman and Fables, Red Thorn has a great modern-mythology feel to it. Was Red Thorn always intended to follow in those great Vertigo footsteps?

David Baillie: I’ve been a Vertigo nerd since I was a teenager, and I think almost everything I’ve written (with the exception of a few all-ages comics on this side of the pond) has been colored by that early love. There’s definitely a little Preacher, Sandman, The Invisibles, The Unwritten and Shade the Changing Man in Red Thorn’s DNA.

I’d be worried that those influences might be too blatant if Meghan wasn’t scorching acres of Earth with every new page she’s drawn. As one very famous comics writer once told me, “The only advice I have is to make sure you’re paired with an incredible artist. In fact, threaten to walk if that’s ever not that case.”

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Red Thorn #7 Interior Art by Steve Pugh

Paste: Artist Meghan Hetrick has left big shoes for Steve Pugh to fill—specifically, with her amazing portrayal of sexuality in the book. Thorn, Isla, Alec (aww) and company are all unabashedly sexy and sexual characters. Can you tell us a little about working with Meghan, who is known for her babely drawings?

Baillie: Meghan has a black belt in a number of martial arts, so I’d never describe her drawings as “babely.” (But I totally know what you mean and wholeheartedly agree.) She has an incredible knack for drawing real people that are so damned easy to fall in love with. It breaks my heart to then have to do my job and put those people in horrible situations.

Steve is also great at that, but has a whole other set of strengths. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager and I was marvelling over his work on Strontium Dog with Garth Ennis in 2000 AD. I was a little starstruck when I met him at a convention in England last year, but then snapped back into business mode quickly enough to ask if he’d be interested in drawing a guest artist issue for Red Thorn. I’m delighted to say he was bang-up for it.

I wasn’t worried about Steve filling Meghan’s shoes, because this issue is so different in tone, and deals with a whole new cast (for the most part, anyway—no spoilers here!). I hadn’t really thought about it, but this chapter is actually quite asexual compared with the “Glasgow Kiss” arc.

Although I’d already figured out what had to happen in Steve’s issue, I did ask if there was anything he’d particularly like to draw. Luckily he said “girls and monsters,” which is what I was going to write about anyway!

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Red Thorn #7 Interior Art by Steve Pugh

Paste: “Hairspray Queen,” the story’s next arc, takes us back to 1991 Glasgow. What can we expect to see? Young Isla? More fairy magic? …Steve Pugh drawing more Thorn in his awesome, visceral style?

Baillie: “Hairspray Queen” is only a single-issue flashback, before we zoom back to the present day when Meghan will break everyone’s hearts all over again with our regular cast. That arc has a name but it won’t be revealed until the very last page, so we’ll be using individual chapter titles—such as issue eight’s “Wicked Garden.”

I don’t want to spoil too much about “Hairspray Queen,” other than to say that our main character is someone we’ve mentioned a lot but haven’t actually met yet. We’ll also be introduced to someone who’ll play a huge part in our second arc.

But don’t worry—Thorn is in there too, and I think you’ll like what Steve has done with him!

I also invite you to marvel over how fabulously Steve has managed to captured Glasgow of the early ‘90s, including authentic gig posters, fashions, bus designs and even a legally approved appearance of the Sub Pop logo on a t-shirt!

He’s also very good at drawing girls and monsters.

Paste: Oh, sorry, I guess that last question clued you in—like everyone else in every realm, I have a massive crush on Thorn. What’s it like, writing such a sex symbol? What do you draw from to keep him from being a cheesy fantasy?

Baillie: Yeah—we figured out very early on that Thorn was going to be a demonic dangerous dreamboat of a character. And again, so much of that is down to Meghan’s portrayal, I feel disingenuous taking any credit for it at all. As soon as the sketches came in we all knew that we’d have to carefully ration his appearances, or else people might catch fire. And we can’t afford to be sued.

I think avoiding cheesy fantasy has been important though—it’s been a really interesting balancing act to maintain Thorn’s dangerous side, without gambling away the likability that keeps him in the fantasy-material zone. He’s a really fun character to write—as well as being ruthless and calculating, he is genuinely funny and has these rare moments of warmth. Or that’s what they seem like, anyway. I strongly believe that a demigod should be largely inscrutable, while also, for the sake of the story, still having clear motivations. He has a lot of rage buried deep, which he hides behind that wall of charm. And his abs.

I hear that Isla and Alec have also set hearts fluttering, and I’ll be honest—that’s everything I wanted to achieve with this series. I couldn’t be happier.

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Red Thorn #7 Interior Art by Steve Pugh

Paste: It’s a sexy book, so I’m asking about a lot of sexy stuff. You’ve tapped into something that’s present in great romance novels, and even classic episodes of Buffy—my friends and I read each issue and giggle like we’re teenagers. What’s your angle, anyway? Is it to make everyone giggle, because it’s working.

Baillie: First, can I just say how happy that makes me? Mission accomplished!

This is new territory for me—I haven’t usually made readers giggle in the past. Perhaps I’ve been possessed by the (fictional) spirit of Thorn, which is actually what it feels like when I’m at the keyboard.

It’s funny because I’ve sometimes steered away from portraying sex, sexuality or sexiness in my writing, but for this story those elements were so obviously vital I’d have been a fool to ignore them. It’s been incredibly freeing, and seems to have been appreciated by the readers, which I am so, so grateful for.

One of my favorite things I’ve ever written is Red Thorn’s first issue: the love story of Isla and Alec, their meeting, hooking up, getting drunk and trying to steal that Nirvana setlist. Even though it’s not based on anything at all from my own life, it just felt really true.

As did Thorn’s orgy in issue three, which again I did no personal research for. But it’s totally him, right? I also remember the day when it struck me that of course Thorn and the Loch Ness Monster would be lovers. Rather than coming up with a plot point, it was like I’d uncovered a secret or solved a mystery.

Paste: Celtic myth has been tread and retread in so many works of fantasy, but Red Thorn always feels fresh. Is it just your inherent Scottish-ness that keeps things feeling real? How do you make sure to keep things separate from other, er, less accurate media with hot Scottish protagonists?

Baillie: Yeah, hot Scottish heroes seem to be in this year. A few people asked how I managed to predict this trend, but the truth is I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. I knew it had to happen at some point, but when we started work on Red Thorn nearly three years ago, Scotsmen were still thought of as pale and largely incomprehensible.

Keeping the myths fresh and naturalistic was our goal from day one. I sat for weeks in a library in The Gorbals (in Glasgow) and tried to find weird angles on half-remembered folklore from my childhood. If something had been explored in other works I’d seen or read, it was instantly discarded. And if there was anything odd, unsettling and open to complete misinterpretation, that was promoted to the top of my list.

As with all things that are so nerdily researched, Red Thorn is full of Easter eggs that only I am ever going to appreciate. Or someone who’s read all of the same dusty, out-of-print books.

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Red Thorn #7 Interior Art by Steve Pugh

Paste: You’ve done something really interesting in the story, where artistic creation is a paradigm by which one can create magic. Thorn’s drumming, Isla’s drawing (and the many like her!). It’s something that I’ve always believed in, though maybe not in the literal ways it’s presented in Red Thorn. Is that something that resonates with you, thematically?

Baillie: Absolutely—creating something new is the closest we’ll ever get to being gods. In writing Red Thorn I get to build and control a whole world full of people, and I’m lucky enough that real people in the real world have fallen in love with that wholly imagined cast.

And then Meghan and Steve literally build a new world with their hands: they make walls, streets and temples and then decide what the people living in those places look like. They give them expressions, bodies, body languages, tics and quirks.

If you write a song or a story, draw a picture or bang a drum then you are, for the duration of that moment, divine. You’re a god in charge of your own universe. And it’s wonderful not because of any notion of power or control, but because if it wasn’t for you then that thing, that moment wouldn’t exist.

That amazes me every day.

Paste: Are you a wherever, whenever kind of guy, or do you need flowers and candles to make the mood right? (Er, I’m asking about writing, this question actually isn’t about sexy stuff.) Do you have a special setup when you work?

Baillie: I’ve been told that only amateurs wait for everything to be perfect before working—professionals show up and do the job regardless. But that’s not me. I’m a wimp, and need to be comfortable, fed, watered, not too warm or too cold, well-rested and happy. The trick is making sure all of that happens every day, and I’m blessed that it’s usually achievable.

I don’t actually have a special set up though. I end up writing all over the place, in hotels and relatives’ homes, on trains and aeroplanes. I have a portable keyboard that I hook up to my phone, a stack of notebooks and a nice fountain pen. As long as you add good coffee to that inventory, that’s more than enough than anyone needs to write.

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Red Thorn #7 Interior Art by Steve Pugh

Paste: What’s next for you? More Red Thorn, we hope. Anything else in the works?

Baillie: I’ve been concentrating almost exclusively on Red Thorn for the last year or so. I’ve ended up turning down a lot of cool stuff. It’s been a glorious experience but, being a freelance writer, it probably hasn’t been very smart. Luckily Red Thorn has gone down really well, we’ve had some incredible reviews, and if anything the offers that are coming my way now are even more interesting.

But yes, I have lots of Red Thorn in my future. Meghan is back on board next month, when we’ll be exploring the world of the Stepping Orc and visiting my hometown, then issue nine features a character introduced in “Hairspray Queen” and we’ll also find out what Tarek and Isla have been up to during our “break.”

When I get a moment to take a breath from that excitement, I’ve been working on an occult thriller miniseries with my friend Conor Boyle, which hasn’t been announced yet, and I should have some stuff happening back over at my alma mater 2000 AD later in the year.

Apart from that I’ll mostly be working on my abs. #ThornEnvy