Kyle Higgins has made his creative mark first with THE LEAGUE, a short film inspired by superheroes and then actual turns writing for both Marvel and DC Comics. The publication of C.O.W.L., an Image title inspired by the short film in 2014 allowed Higgins, c0-writer Alec Siegel and artist Rod Reis expand w life. Now, the same creative team is back with Hadrian’s Wall, a science fiction story that is a mix of Outland meets Blade Runner wrapped up in the signature style fans of C.O.W.L. will recognize immediately. Naturally, I had to talk with Higgins about this new project.
I feel like you have a distinctive voice as a creator. Part of that voice hinges on world building that is at once distinctive and accessible. What do you think helps you cultivate that approach? How much of your film school training and production experience with Richard Donner still resonates through your work?
Kyle: That’s a really good question. I think, probably, the stories I grew up with as a kid– everything from Batman and Spider-Man comics, to the Anamorphs novels, to Gargoyles, to games like Quest for Glory… they all rubbed off on me in one way or another. I was always really attracted to subtle world building. Not to say that something like Lord of the Rings doesn’t amaze me, but the idea of the Yeerk’s hierarchy and power structure within their secret Earth invasion– in the Anamorphs books– was super fascinating to me. Like, “oh, yeah. This IS how they would do it.”
As I build worlds, I tend to approach things from a “how might this work or exist in the real world” mentality, as well as “does this best serve the concept?” In Hadrian’s Wall, for example, the idea of American/Russian joint-colonized space as a result of nuclear detonations in Moscow and New York felt new and unique to me. Almost like, Russia and the United States were having a baby to save the marriage. And since the book is so much about the idea of broken relationships, it thematically connected… particularly as things are starting to go to shit again, and Earth and one of their colonies are in the throes of a new interstellar Cold War.
As for the Donner connection, I don’t know. I mean, I knew Dick a little bit, and he watched my superhero noir THE LEAGUE, but I didn’t have a close relationship with him like, say Geoff Johns did. Geoff worked for Dick for years– on and off set. I can only imagine what he picked up from him during that time. I was only in the office, for like, four months. However, what did come out of that time was an understanding of how to carry yourself. Dick is the sweetest, funniest man who treats everyone he meets with respect. On my first day, he came right up to me– recognizing that I was a new intern– asked my name, and spoke to me like I was the only person in the room. That had a big effect on me as I got into comics and started interacting with readers and fans.
Hadrian’s Wall opens with a murder mystery (for lack of better description), what can you say to fans of that genre that may not have read comics before about picking up this book? What makes Hadrian’s Wall stand out for readers?
Kyle: If you like films like Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens, The Abyss… dark, 70’s and 80’s sc-fi… this one’s for you. It’s a locked-room murder mystery in space, with drugs, sex, corruption, and all the backstabbing you’d expect in your favorite noir. Simon Moore, our main character, heads out to this survey ship– Hadrian’s Wall– initially out of schadenfreude, to make money off the rubber-stamp investigation of an astronaut who died. How is this schadenfreude? Well, the astronaut is an ex-friend of Simon’s, who shot Simon four times and married Simon’s ex-wife, Annabelle. But when the case clearly becomes much more than a rubber stamper, Simon will have to navigate his own failed marriage to Annabelle… who is not only on the ship, but also a suspect.
The other big thing I want to talk about is the unbelievable talent that is our artist, Rod Reis. at this point, it’s hard to imagine NOT doing a book with Rod. When we were looking for a new project to work on together after C.O.W.L., I had the basic concept for this book, but not much more than that. However, it was the idea of Rod bringing this world to life in a retro-futuristic 80’s-inspired comic that was so exciting, it got me to dive in. Mark my words– Rod is going to explode into a superstar talent. I can’t wait for people to see how incredible his work here is.
You take some of the conventions in hard-boiled detective stories and re-shape and update them. How did you think through the futurescape for Hadrian’s Wall?
Kyle: Well, the book started as our love letter to 1970’s and 1980’s sci-fi films. From there, keeping in mind some of those hard-boiled detective tropes, we started to look for ways to subvert and tweak them within the new setting. But at the end of the day, this is a character study. Of Simon, of his ex-wife Annabelle, of the crew on the ship. And really, most murder mysteries are just that.
There’s Captain Drekker, who’s skeptical of Simon and the whole investigation. But is it because he’s hiding facts? Or because he doesn’t trust the company? There’s Franklin, the geologist, who resents the investigation, and also hated the victim, Edward. There’s Dr. Kharlamov, the ship’s physician, who didn’t carry out a proper autopsy, and Selina, the ship’s astrophysicist. They’re both willing to help Simon, but he’s not sure where their allegiances really lie. And, of course, there’s Annabelle… who’s dealing with the fact that her husband died and her ex-husband is the one investigating. She’s a bit dodgy– understandably so– but is that out of grief or guilt?
So, building these characters and figuring out what brings them to a survey ship in the far reaches of space is where a lot of the “futurescape” building comes from.
Just like C.O.W.L., Hadrian’s Wall creates a world that could be a backdrop for many stories. Is this the beginning of a wider series of events that you have planned out?
Kyle: The world is definitely interesting to us. So, without giving anything away… it’s a possibility. But, you know, murder mysteries are pretty finite. We embarked on a singular journey to tell this story, against this backdrop. Anything beyond that… you’ll just have to wait and see.
You have established a career in comics first working on Marvel and DC books and then transitioning to creator owned work. You are a filmmaker as well and The League set the creative template for C.O.W.L. your Image project from 2014. What is the connection between ideas in that work and Hadrian’s Wall? What are some of the inspirations the reader should look for in this new project?
Kyle: Oh man, that’s a really tough question. I know that Alec and I are both really interested in political structures as vehicles for exploring moral ambiguity and “grey” areas. We also love characters who are a little bit muddy. We play with ambiguity and subtext as much as humanly possible on the page, with relationships between characters being the crux of the stories we write. I think that was certainly evident in C.O.W.L., and readers will definitely see more of that in Hadrian’s Wall.
From an influence standpoint, certainly the movies I mentioned, plus things like The Fifth Element, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Heavy Metal, Azzarello and Risso’s Spaceman, Brubaker and Phillips’ work… there’s a lot.
Hadrian’s Wall drops this week from Image Comics.