Hadrian's Wall co-writer explains how he built a sci-fi murder mystery
Locked-room murder mysteries are hard enough as they are, and that difficulty level only goes up in outer space. Such is the set-up in Hadrian’s Wall, the new Image Comics miniseries from co-writers Kyle Higgins and Alec Seigel with artist Rod Reis that finds an investigator named Simon sent to a mining ship on the outer fringes of space to examine a crew member’s untimely death. As always, the mystery is harder than it looks: One of the crew members is Simon’s ex-wife Annabelle, who left him for the now-deceased victim. At the same time, Simon’s struggling with a pill addiction while mysterious forces move against him and an interstellar cold war brews between Earth and its first colony.
Higgins, who previously worked with Seigel and Reis on the Image series C.O.W.L., recently talked to EW about the genesis of Hadrian’s Wall and the process of creating a credible lineup of suspects. Simon’s files on each crew member can be seen below. Hadrian’s Wall #1 hits stores Sep. 14.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a murder mystery set in outer space, Hadrian’s Wall is one of those cool stories that flirts with multiple genres. How did the idea come about?
KYLE HIGGINS: The idea of a murder mystery on a spaceship is one that I’ve had for a really long time. But I didn’t have a story or anything specific that I wanted to explore within that framework, so it was kind of just there in one of my notebooks, basically. When Alec, Rod, and I were wrapping up C.O.W.L., we all felt like we’d caught lightning in a bottle creatively and we wanted to continue working together, so it became a matter of finding something that would entice us but was also different from C.O.W.L., but could be in the same kind of genre space, based off Rod’s work and what he likes to do. We feel like we write really well for him. So this idea pops back up on my radar. Honestly, the thought of Rod exploring visually this kind of alt-future world was enough for me to commit and dive in to figure out what’s the story and what interests me in the framework. As I’m sure you know, in a lot of murder mysteries, characters are one-note, the plot is paramount, they often can feel empty or hollow. So coming across this idea of a new interstellar cold war between Earth and it biggest colony on Theta, plus an investigator who’s investigating his own kind of failed marriage, kind of frames things around the idea of broken relationships, and that was my way in. That was the genesis of it.
Hadrian’s Wall has been on my mind recently because of the Wall in Game of Thrones. Why did you decide to name both the series and the ship after it?
Hadrian’s Wall was the furthest outpost in the Roman Empire, and I have to assume it wasn’t a stellar place to go work. Very isolated, very lonely. Alec and I are both big history guys. We wanted both the name of the ship and the name of the book to convey that feeling of isolation. The ship in our book is a survey ship that goes out to unexplored space. They’re the ship that goes out into the furthest reaches of space looking for resources the company can exploit, so it definitely is a very isolating experience. This nine-person crew is all alone. We didn’t want to be on the nose and call the ship “Spaceship Lonely” or something; we wanted that historical resonance. The question of how the ship was named comes up later in the series, which is kind of a fun nod to the past.
Here we’ve got Simon’s files on each of the crew members. How did you design the crew in order to make them parts of a self-contained ecosystem but also full of individual motives that make for a compelling murder mystery?
Murder mystery stories like this, when they’re done really well, are character study pieces. The investigation is a vehicle to explore these people, their pasts, their histories, and their secrets. Our book is no different in that regard. So the crew of Hadrian’s Wall, I’ll start first and foremost with Annabelle Madigan. Annabelle is really why Simon took this job in the first place. She is the deceased’s widow, she is a chemist aboard Hadrian’s Wall, and she’s also Simon’s ex-wife. So there’s a history there between Simon and Annabelle that would create some biases potentially, but is she frosty to him because she’s hiding something, or is she frosty because of their past relationship? Then there’s the captain, who is not for this job whatsoever. We’ve got Selina and Franklin. Franklin clearly did not like Edward, the deceased, but again, is that motive enough to kill? So there are all these different dynamics going on there, but what it takes to bring someone to the point of going out on a survey ship this far into space is different for each person. But everyone has kind of a sordid past, everyone has mistakes they’ve made, and every one of our crew members, in one way or another, is running from something. This case and this investigation will bring a lot of those stories to light.
The interrogation scene, where Simon’s interviews with the crew members all bleed into each other through overlapping dialogue, reminds me of a similar episode of Firefly. What were some of your favorite inspirations for this comic?
It’s funny, I love Firefly but haven’t seen it in years. I remember what you’re talking about now, so maybe there was a subconscious influence. Alec and I come from a screenwriting background, so oftentimes the way that I present information and pace out a story, I can’t get away from my film training. Presenting those investigations in that way came naturally to me. I thought it was interesting not only to get through a lot of information but to also show the monotony of something like this. As far as influences, this book is really kind of our love letter to ’70s and ’80s sci-fi films: Alien and Aliens, Blade Runner, The Abyss. Rod was very inspired by Dune, as well as Jodorowsky’s ideas for Dune, as shown in that amazing documentary from a few years ago that had a lot of great Mobius designs. I know Rod was heavily influenced by those.
I just want to talk about Rod for a second. This guy is incredible. He is a superstar, and this is only his second book as an illustrator. To see the way he’s grown between C.O.W.L. and Hadrian’s Wall is incredibly inspiring. We’re all really excited for people to see him cut loose and show what he’s capable of. This is a creative dynamic that we all just want to keep perpetuating. We want to do more books together. We want to grow together, and Hadrian’s Wall is just the second of many projects to come.
What did you guys learn from working on C.O.W.L. that helped with this?
Alec and I have been writing together for a very long time. We’ve become more refined in our pacing, and also in our tastes. Any book is really a relationship between you and your collaborators. A relationship grows and changes, and that’s been the case here. Learning what Rod likes, and Rod learning what we like to write, has created some really interesting creative surprises on this book, where we trust him implicitly so there’s a lot more freedom for Rod to be Rod. That means writing in a hybrid Marvel-style way, where we’re leaving more of the breakdowns to Rod and then scripting dialogue based on what excites Rod. In a book like this where there’s a lot of talking and a procedural element, if you’re not careful it can become boring visually. It can be just a lot of talking heads. So working with someone as talented as Rod is a godsend. Even in those interrogation scenes, he finds a way to find them visually captivating. I don’t think you’re ever bored reading the book.
What are you most excited for people to see?
I don’t want to talk too much about the case, but I would say that things take a turn at the midpoint, and we think it’s gonna be pretty unexpected. Just when you think you know where the story’s headed, there’s a big left turn in issue 4 that reframes some things and I think that’s the issue in particular we’re all excited for people to get to.