Alumnus publishes new series through Image Comics, including “underground Michigan element”
HFC alumnus and Eisner Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed’s latest comic book project, TerrorWar, has significant Michigan and Dearborn ties.
Ahmed is a Dearborn native who graduated from Fordson High School and subsequently HFC (then called Henry Ford Community College) where he earned his associate degree in general education.
“We’re all Metro Detroiters. It’s cool to work with them,” said Ahmed, of Oakland County. “Even though we’re mostly working remotely, it’s certainly cool to have that connection. I didn’t necessarily grow up thinking Michigan is the place people made comic books; that was New York City.”
After graduating from HFC, Ahmed transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, earning his undergraduate degree in American Culture. He later earned an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College in New York City and a master’s degree in English from Rutgers University.
“It’s cool to be a Michigan writer working with a Michigan artist and a Michigan-bred editor,” said Ahmed. “There’s a surprising number of comics pros who are either still living here or grew up here. It’s kinda like this secret – this underground Michigan element. It’s cool to tap into that.”
Green Brain signing May 24
Ahmed and Acosta, who promoted the first issue of TerrorWar at C2E2 in Chicago in April, will sign copies of the second issue on Wednesday, May 24, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. at Green Brain, 13936 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn. Green Brain is owned by HFC alumni Dan and Katie Merritt.
“It’s so wild, but we are all connected through Green Brain!” said Acosta, of West Bloomfield. “That was my local comic shop for years, and they are the ones who recommended me to Saladin. Heather worked there for years, so I have to assume we crossed paths at some point. It’s a testament to all of the great work Dan and Katie have put in to fostering the comics community surrounding their shop.”
Working for Image: A dream come true
TerrorWar marks Ahmed’s second collaboration with Acosta, with whom he worked on 2022’s crowd-funded graphic novel, DRAGON, which is their take on the legend of Dracula. TerrorWar is also their first comic book published by Image Comics. It is a dream come true for them both.
“It’s very exciting,” said Ahmed. “People have been asking me for years when I would do a book for Image with its reputation for creator friendliness and envelope-pushing books. I didn’t have an answer then, but it’s cool to finally have something published there. I have a second Image book coming out in May called Star Signs.”
Founded in 1992, Image is the third-largest comic book publisher in the industry. What makes Image different from Marvel and DC Comics is that creators own their intellectual property. In this case, co-creators Ahmed and Acosta co-own TerrorWar.
“Image was formed back when I was a kid. I lined up at the Motor City Comic Con to get all of the original seven founders’ autographs,” recalled Acosta. “It’s such a great company. Image works almost like a non-profit. Creators own their material, which is unfortunately very rare in comics. So, yes, I’ve been wanting to have a book published by Image for more than 30 years.”
“They’re just a great home for being able to do what you want as a creator. Work-for-hire is always constrained, which is fine; you know that when you’re doing it,” he explained. “To able to let loose and have a story become what it is and then have Image help you take that story out into the world and get it into (comic) shops and in front of readers is just great.”
Writing working-class heroes
TerrorWar occurs in the not-so-distant future in the fictional Blue City. Once the last inhabitable place on Earth, Blue City is now crawling with Terrors, which are creatures from people’s worst nightmares come to life. Humanity’s last hope is Muhammad Cho and his overworked, underpaid crew of freelance Terror fighters.
Ahmed spoke about creating Muhammad Cho.
“Part of what I wanted to do is imagine the far future where maybe some ethnicities, nations, and cultures have been scrambled and mixed up together, which is what happens across time,” he said. “Muhammad is a product of my own Lebanese heritage and the idea that somehow in one of these big neighborhoods in this big futuristic city, it got smashed together with Korean culture.”
Ahmed continued: “He's also the kind of hero I enjoy writing: A working class guy, he’s scrappy but not endlessly strong; we see his weaknesses. That kind of character is always appealing to me. Even when I’m writing trademarked heroes for Marvel, DC, or Star Wars, that appeal of somebody who’s a hero yet has many flaws and weaknesses, that’s something I always come back to.”
Fighting fear itself
He also spoke about the impetus to create TerrorWar.
“The beginning of it started with the title as a play on the War on Terror,” explained Ahmed. “I’m Arab-American. I grew up in Dearborn. I was in New York City on 9/11. I grew up with the War on Terror around me. I always thought it was such a funny phrase – you’re fighting terror. Of course, we’re fighting people.”
Still, he always held on to that idea of what if you fought fear? Fear itself?
“As a science-fiction idea, I started to spin this idea of our fears coming to life and what it would be to make war against them,” said Ahmed. “The idea went from there. Who would fight that war? What setting would this war be fought in? What would it look like to have these fears come to life? Slowly, the world of Blue City and Muhammad Cho and his teammates started to come together in my mind.”
“It’s all your imagination”
After finishing DRAGON, Ahmed and Acosta spoke broadly about creating a comic book series occurring in the future.
“About a week later, I got a call from Saladin about the opportunity to do TerrorWar, so we’ve been working together for the last three years straight, pretty much,” recalled Acosta. “I love working with my friend Saladin, not only for his writing talent, but he’s just a great dude and partner. When you are working together on a creator-owned comic, it’s like a marriage. You are tied to the other person. I’m very grateful that we found each other.”
TerrorWar is also Ahmed and Acosta’s love letter to 1980s science-fiction movies, including Blade Runner (1982) and Aliens (1986). It’s the comic book Acosta has been waiting to draw his entire career.
“There’s far-out sci-fi, terrifying creatures, social commentary, and a bit of humor. I’m super thankful to be partnering with Saladin again. I think the fans will be shocked when they see what we’ve been cooking,” said Acosta. “I’m a horror fanatic, so TerrorWar is a perfect fit. I also love drawing sci-fi, because you can make up all the costumes and props; nothing has to have photo reference. It’s all just your imagination.”
Like a feedback loop
Ahmed sees Acosta's artwork as an incredible treat.
“Dave is absolutely brilliant in terms of the references he draws on, in terms of his storytelling ability, and in terms of his straight-up skills as an artist. Prior to this, we worked on a horror project (DRAGON) that was very different in terms of era, style, even different in the approach he used,” explained Ahmed. “With* TerrorWar*, he came with a more conventional comic book art style... It’s night-and-day from our last project together, but he has that range. It’s awesome to know that I can come to Dave with a story idea, and I know he has a toolbox that fits it.”
Acosta sees Ahmed's work as opening up his canvas.
“We’ve developed a great shorthand. His scripts leave me a lot of room to spread out artistically. Some writers like to over-explain each panel, which as penciller, can be dispiriting. But Saladin is great at giving me the emotional beat for each page, which is how I like it,” he said. “It’s much more nebulous than a typical writer/artist relationship. For a while, there wasn’t a script, just notes from Saladin. I would work on concept art, which in turn would affect what ended up later in the script, like a feedback loop. I drew the cover to the first issue before it was even written!”
So far, they have completed seven issues of TerrorWar, which is an ongoing series.
“We’ll see where the story takes us. That’s the joy of working with Image. It feels good to have an open run,” said Ahmed. “When we feel like it’s time to close it, we’ll have the freedom to close it. Any time I write a story, I think it could end here, or it could end there, or it could end there. In comics, you have to do that to a degree because month-to-month, you don’t know when it will end. I’ve got a couple of off-ramps, but it’s still a process of figuring that out. The nice thing about this not being controlled by other people is that it’s determined by the creative team.”