Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Interview with John Ferguson, Creator of Saltire, Scotland's Superhero

D Elisabeth Aymett of OLC sat down to talk all things big, blue and ginger with John Ferguson.  John’s lovely wife, Clare, assured me the main man would be very forthcoming and he really was!  Can’t say enough things about how kind and generous Mr. Ferguson was with his time.  Hope you enjoy reading about our chat as much as we enjoyed having it.

OLC:  It’s wonderful to be speaking with you.  It’s wonderful the success you’ve been having. 

John:  Yes, we’re very busy right now. Our books are now within Scotland outselling Avengers, outselling X-Men.  We always thought we’d be successful but didn’t know we’d be that successful.
OLC:  Well, that’s good kind of problem to have, isn’t it?

John:  Yes, well, now if we could just do that on your side of the water, that would be the next step.

OLC:  So many of us in the States are dying to come and see your lovely country because of the Outlander phenomena.  Your novels are deeply rooted in Scottish history and I was wondering when did your interest in history start?

John:  I’ve always had a huge interest in Scottish history, but more interest in Scottish mythology because Scottish mythology is almost unknown.  People quite often know a bit of Irish mythology but when you mention Scottish Mythology they don’t know anything about that.  I thought that odd because Scotland is a country that’s very famous worldwide, has a lot of famous elements to it, but nobody knows our mythology. 

I’d written a couple of articles about Scottish Mythology and then started taking an interest, or should I say a passion about it.  Then I read an article that said that Scotland couldn’t have its own superhero because as a country it was too boring and too drab.  Do you know what the word “dreich” means?

OLC:  No, I don’t.  (Not to worry, John is good at explaining things.)

John:  The word “dreich” means cloudy and rainy and the kind of weather makes you want to stay inside.  That’s what we call dreich.  And this article said Scotland is too dreich and boring.  And at the end this article said, “What would you call a Scottish Superhero anyway? Drunk man?”  And I found that quite offensive. 

So, I didn’t understand that because in my mind, superheroes are the same as mythological characters.  Whether it’s Spiderman, Batman or Superman, they’re all mythological characters a bit like Hercules, Achilles or Beowulf.  So, I thought we could take Scottish mythology and the modern superhero dynamic that is so popular and put them together.
So that’s what we did, took the Scottish mythology and overlaid it with the modern Superhero dynamic.  Then we wondered how to put that into a storyline.  And we came up with, well, don’t reinvent the wheel, just tell the stories of history.  Because Scotland has such a rich history.  As you know from reading the Outlander story!

OLC:  Oh, yes!

John:  And Scotland has a very long, fascinating history, going back to the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, soldiers from Germany came over and the Vikings came and they had to fight with us.  And then the English came and they had to fight with us.  So we’ve had a number of tumultuous battles with these powers.  And that makes for good comic books.

OLC:  Yes, it does!

John:  Because, you can’t just have the heroes, you have to have the villians – give them something to fight against. And Scotland’s story, as I’m sure you know, is one of being the underdog.  We’ve always been fighting for our freedom against these invading entities.  And we’ve always just wanted them to just leave us alone!  So that’s the story we’ve told because all these stories have been told from the other side – you get the Roman perspective, the Viking perspective, the English perspective, but never the Scottish perspective.  So that’s what we’ve done and that’s why we like Outlander so much because it tells the story of the period in history where the British soldiers were very . . . unpleasant.

OLC:  Unpleasant! Is that how you’d describe Black Jack Randall??  Unpleasant? (laughing) You are the king of understatement, sir!  I think Outlander fans may have a few other ways to describe him...

John:  Well, I was being polite. (laughing too) So instead of hearing our story from other perspectives, we thought, we can make a fairy tale for the Scottish people by telling history from our side.  And I have people tell me that this (Saltire) reads like a legend that might’ve been told 2,000 years ago in an old Pictish fort in Scotland. That this is like a tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation.  And that’s exactly the feel we were going for because it sounds like something that might actually have happened, even though it didn’t, it might have.    That’s why we like Outlander so much because it does the same thing! 

OLC:  Well, it seems a wonderful way to reach out to younger people and get them interested in Scottish history.  Was that a goal of yours?

John:  We’ve got the books going into the Scottish education system this year. They’re using the Saltire comic books to get young people reading.  You know I’m sure it’s the same in America, particularly young boys have moved away from reading, whether fact or fiction, because of the internet age.  One of the things they want to use to bring that back is the visual appeal of comic books because they still have to read a comic book but it has the visual element as well. It’s art.

OLC:  It certainly is. 

John: So take something exciting like Superheroes and say to a ten year old boy who maybe doesn’t read very much and who is struggling with illiteracy and say, “try this”.  Give him a superhero who’s from Scotland and the interest level there brings a boy to literacy.  So we’re excited about getting people engaged with Scottish history, with aspects of Scottish mythology, with aspects of learning.
And we’ve got the books being translated into the Scottish language of Gaelic. And that’s great for our culture.  We’re trying to save the language.  People say Gaelic is a dying language but we say no, no, no!  Gaelic is a vibrant language but just hasn’t been portrayed that much.  

OLC:  Well, Ahdamh O’Broin will be absolutely thrilled to hear that!

John:  Yeah!

OLC:  I was wondering if you were told Scottish Mythology stories by your parents or grandparents. 

John:  Well, yes.  You know it’s one of the things in Scotland.  We are a very, very old country. You live in California.  To us, that’s the new world, only about 200 years old, which we see as almost brand new.  You guys are all about the future, new concepts and ideas.  In Scotland, we tend to look more at the past because we do have such a very long history.  We do find that our traditions are, like, “let me tell you the story of…” and you get these great tales of Scottish mythology.  Some of them you may be aware of, like the Loch Ness Monster, which is world famous.

OLC:  The Waterhorse!

John:  Yeah!  And that’s a story that actually comes from the Dark Ages.  Which is 1800 years ago.  Most people think that’s a modern thing, just made up 50 years ago, but it’s a very ancient myth in Scotland as are the tales of dragons in our country.  The last dragon was supposed to be slain by a farmer in Scotland and he died on the banks of the River Tay, just next to where Clare and I live.   And that’s the kind of story you get and my family used to pass down.  You know, “here’s a story for you before you go to bed.”  So that’s how I first heard the myths of Scotland and that’s how they’ve been passed down for generations.

OLC:  I thought you must’ve heard great stories as a kid growing up.

John:  Oh yeah. In Scotland we have fantastic myths. But in Scotland, our myths are quite dark, they’re not all sweetness and light. You know Disney came along and made Tinkerbell and people got the idea that fairies flew around Christmas trees. But our fairies could be quite naughty and do very, very bad things as well.  And you learned when you got a bit older there are versions of Scottish fairy tales that make you think, well, that’s quite worrying.  It really isn’t all sweetness and light and Barbie dolls.

OLC: laughing – I’m not much of a Barbie fan myself.  So I notice in the origin story of Saltire, and please tell me how to pronounce his name correctly. 

John: Like salt for your food and a tire on your car.  Saltire.

OLC:  Thanks, I didn’t want to be mispronouncing it.  So the leaders of the various areas of Scotland come and they’re consumed in the creation process of Saltire. He absorbs the life from them and that is the sacrifice that forms this character.  What inspired you about the various characteristics of those leaders?

John:  Well, I’m quite well traveled throughout Scotland.  My experiences of the different people from the areas of Scotland. It’s the same kind of thing as in America. You know if you meet someone from Texas, they’re very different than the people from New York or Washington, or California. So it’s the same in Scotland, people are very different in the different areas of the country.

You’ll get very different people in Glasgow than from Edinburgh. The people of Glasgow are known for being quite cheeky and funny, outgoing and everything is a joke with them.  Where people from the Islands tend to be reserved and keep themselves to themselves and don’t like messing with people from the mainland. People from the Highlands also tend to be quite reserved and like the solitude of the mountains and are quieter.  So we thought we needed to have bits of something from each of the peoples of the different parts of Scotland.  We wanted people to be aware that Scotland has always had a Clan culture. And the Clans are quite different and have their different personalities. But when Scotland has ever been in trouble, they’ve always banded together to fight for the greater good. And that wasn’t just me making it up for the character of Saltire, it has always been the way of Scotland.

OLC:  I was trying to read a good bit about Scottish history this week to prepare for talking to you.

John:  (laughing) It’s quite vast, isn’t it? That’s a subject that really takes a couple of decades to read through! I’m still not finished. 

OLC:  So here’s my super question for you.  If you could choose just three battles in Scottish history where Saltire could come and make a difference and change the outcome of battle, which would be your top three?

John: Oh, goodness. What a good question. (Significant pause from John where you can tell he’s really thinking about this….)
Well, you know my go-to answer is the obvious go to answer for number one has to be Culloden, which is the one that really sticks in everybody’s craw, as we say here in Scotland.  So we’ll stick that one in there as the sort of obvious one.

Emmmm, now what else?  I think I would possibly say maybe the battle of Falkirk, which was the great battle between Edward II, Longshanks who was known as the Hammer of Scotland and William Wallace that great battle. You know the movie Braveheart, if you’ve ever seen that movie. 

OLC:  I did.

John: So you know that was very sad and everybody dies. So that would’ve been a nice battle for us to stick Saltire in the middle, I think that would be quite cool.  And then I’m going to throw a bit of a curve ball at you and say the third one would be a battle that is now, or yet to come, and would be essentially helping Scotland become an independent country once again.  So whenever that would be required.  Be it right now or in the next ten years, I would love to see Saltire turn up and be the inspiration for Scottish Independence.  So that would be my three.

OLC:  And of course Saltire is immortal and infinite so he gets to show up in time whenever, or wherever you want him to go, which is a very cool super power to have!

John:  Well, we’ll put him whenever and that’s one of the things we’d like to do with him is put him in the future. Scotland is a country with a fascinating past but perhaps has an even more fascinating future with what’s going on with Scotland culturally and politically, we think there’s more to be done with Saltire in the future, probably at least as much as the stories from the history and that would be quite fun.

OLC: Well, we’d love to see that happen for Scotland as well.

John:  Yeah, we’ll get there. I mean, it’s happening.  It’s taking maybe longer than some people would like, but it will happen.  In my lifetime, I believe it’ll happen.  It keeps everyone calm just believing it’s coming, it’s just a matter of when.

OLC:  Well, I’ll go off-script here for a moment and mention those leaked emails between Sony and the Prime Minister’s office where they discussed the delay of airing for Outlander until after the vote on Scottish Independence.

John:  Yeah, that was quite interesting, wasn’t it?

OLC: Wasn’t it just?

John:  That tells you what a difficult place Scotland’s cultural center is.  There’s no Scottish publishing industry, no television industry, no film industry, no newspaper industry, and so everything you hear about us comes from another country.  And that’s why we need our American cousins to help us out because we are filtered through London-based media. So whatever you hear about Scotland doesn’t come from Scotland, it comes from somewhere else.  That’s why Saltire is so popular because we are our own publisher.  No one has control of what we do.  That’s why we’ve become the best-selling graphic novels in the country.  I think we maybe get on the nerves in London because they can’t control what we say, which is good from our point of view.

OLC: It would be essential from your point of view! Good for you!

John: Yeah, we can say what we want and ignore the UK Publishing Industry and go straight to America.  Because, we know this is not going to interest London and that London would try to suppress it.  But we know we can go to Los Angeles and to New York and there will be interest because there’s a huge interest in Scottish history and culture now and the vibrancy of the connection between our two countries.  So that’s what we’re going to try to do is bring Saltire to America and see if we can make friends over there. (Note to John: you’ve just made some new American friends!)

OLC:  Well, we’ll do our part at our wee blog to help you get here!

John:  Love it!

OLC:  We’ll tweet it out to Mr. Ron Moore who may have some ideas on how your franchise could expand.

John:  Fantastic! That would help!

OLC:  We’ll try!

John: Yes, we really do want to break into America, where it’s a much bigger market than just England and Scotland. And there’s also Canada and Australia and the rest of the English-speaking world out there and people who are interested in Scotland.  A lot of them have Scottish heritage.  A lot of people think Scotland is suppressed but it isn’t really true.  There are a lot of Scottish artists who are very active and just want to get their stuff out there. And that would be fantastic for us.

OLC:  We’ll be looking forward to it!  Now, we talked about Culloden, but how do you think Scotland would be different now if that battle hadn’t been lost?  Obviously, Highland culture was all but wiped out, but anything else?

John:  Wow, another really great question…so you see Gaelic culture, Gaelic language would not have died out the way it has.  That language was out-lawed for several generations.  Having been a very vibrant and normal part of Scottish culture, it was ruined, as were a lot of the traditional aspects of Scottish life, like bagpipes, Scottish dress such as the kilt and plaid were outlawed as well.  So that has a massive bearing on any culture.  But you know, Scottish people are sort of naturally rebellious and they fought hard to hang on to their culture and still do to this day.

The change happened I think through WWI and WWII, where there was obviously a greater threat to democracy and civilization from Hitler and the Nazis and that meant that for instance, the UK and Belgium, France, the Dutch along with America and Canada all came together to fight this horrible entity which had taken hold of much of Europe.

So that’s when some Scottish people started to identify a bit more with Britain. So some of it would’ve happened anyway because of the world wars and the post-war industrial revolution.  So it may not have taken as much of a battle with a horrendous outcome as Culloden for the countries to still be a United Kingdom. 
I mean the Industrial Revolution would still have happened so that meant that people wanted land and people were wanted to work in factories.  And the World Wars would still have happened so…I mean, if the Jacobites had won at Culloden, I think we’d still have a somewhat united Kingdom but the Scottish culture would be much stronger than it is today. It’s a really interesting question the way you put it. (Why, thank you, John!)

I think we’d have a much stronger Scottish culture, Gaelic culture and certainly Highland culture.  Especially in the modern cultural industries because as I said we don’t have our own TV or publishing and perhaps we would have had more Scottish culture in the media for longer instead of it just coming round in the last five years or so. And that probably would have made a difference in how our country is perceived.

OLC:  Well, John, you have been extremely forthcoming and generous with your time. And we so appreciate it.  Hope we can help pique interest in Saltire for you over here in the States!   

Our sincere thanks to John for this interview.  Happy Christmas John & Clare!  We look forward to talking with you again and seeing what Saltire is up to next.  

Saltire has a new video out.  Check it out on Facebook!

The Wee Lasses at Outlander Central 

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