Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Breaking into British comics

Got interviewed by emailed yesterday about how I came to work in comics, and the joys and jerks you meet while looking for new creative talents. Here's the Q&A in full, as I doubt the feature will run all of my endless ramblings...

Q: Did you read 2000 AD as a kid - did you want to go into comics as a result of reading it?
A: I was born and grew up in New Zealand, where supplies of British comics were not always reliable and certainly weren’t cheap. I tended to buy Marvel comics from America – they were colour, they were monthly and so didn’t seem to cost as much. I did read some early issues of 2000 AD – I distinctly remember Visible Man made a big impression on me as a nipper, as did Ant Wars. One image stuck in my head, the junk pharaoh in early episodes of The Judge Child who had a coat made of ring-pull tabs from Coke cans. The idea that something so disposable and common could be valuable in the future fired my imagination, as did Ron Smith’s wonderful double-page spread of the Cursed Earth slaves.

So, no, reading 2000 AD as a kid didn’t inspire me to go into comics, but it wasn’t a realistic option for a kid in New Zealand. The country was too small to support its own comics industry and for a long time I didn’t really pay any attention to why I liked certain stories or their artwork ahead of others. I think it was Frank Miller’s first run Daredevil in, I guess, 1979 that first made me pay attention to creator credits. I watched out for his stuff after that. I think New Zealand didn’t get its first specialist comics store until 1984. I was lucky to live in the country’s biggest city, Auckland, where Mark One Comics opened. They got me into things like Cerebus and Love and Rockets. When I moved away to start my first job as a daily newspaper journalist, I opened a mail order account with Mark One. They would send me the latest issues.

In the late 1980s I moved back to Auckland and a colleague at work discovered I was into comics. He kept pushing me to try a British comic called Crisis but it wasn’t really my thing. Little did I realise I’d be putting together letters pages for Crisis within a couple of years, in between early issues of the Meg.

Q: How did you come to be Tharg?
A: I emigrated to London in 1990 – January 25th, to be precise. A few weeks later some kindly soul told me if I wanted a job, I should buy the Guardian newspaper on Mondays and apply for every job in it, no matter how unqualified or inexperienced I might be – so I did. In those halcyon days the Guardian had up to 30 pages of ads on Monday. [Still waiting to hear if I’m on the shortlist to present Channel 4’s exciting new gardening show, Dig.] From that I started getting freelance sub-editing work. Among the job I applied for in the Guardian was an assistant editor position at the 2000 AD Group. That was to be Peter Hogan’s assistant on new launch Revolver. I didn’t get the job, but Steve MacManus told me afterwards he would be launching another new monthly called Judge Dredd The Megazine and he’d keep me in mind for that. A few months later the TV listings mag where I was working offered me a full-time job, while Steve was offering me 3 days a week freelancing for £65 a day - £20 a day less than I was getting on the listings mag. I decided working in comics sounded more exciting and creatively challenging than TV listings, even if the money was much worse, so I took Steve’s offer. I started on the Megazine July 25th, 1990 – six months to day after arriving in the UK.

Within a year I was working five days a week, still freelance, but now editor of the Megazine. Revolver had folded, the TV listings mag had folded and the recession was biting hard in Britain. [The Guardian’s media jobs section - always a fair barometer of the country’s economic health - was down to two pages on Mondays.] So I guess I made the right decision.

Fast forward to November 1995. I’ve had my fill of the Megazine, the Dredd film has failed to catapult the character into a massive global brand and the future looks bleak. I decide to start looking elsewhere for work, realising that five years in comics has trained me to get work as a comics editor and little else. 2000 AD’s publisher got a new managing director and he asked me to stick around, indicating I’d be offered the job of editing 2000 AD if I did. I had been gagging to get my grubby mitts on the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic and was determined to reverse what I saw as the failings of my predecessors, so I stuck around and became Tharg on December 18, 1995. I quickly discovered how tough editing 2000 AD really is and gained a newfound respect for my predecessors. It’s very easy to snipe at whomever is Tharg and criticise their choices, but until you’ve sat in the big chair you have no idea how tough that job is. It’s a bit of a bastard, frankly.

I was Tharg for four years, seven months and five days, before resigning to become a freelance writer in June 2000.

Q: What's it like being bombarded with scripts and portfolios to view? Is the slush pile as terrifying as it sounds and, as Tharg, did you ever encourage readers to try and be droids like your predecessors had?
A: On the Megazine I actively sought to encourage new writers and artists. Steve MacManus told me that was my job, to find the Meg a new generation of talent to take it forward and help differentiate it from 2000 AD. Every month or so I would clamber through the slush pile, searching for promising, latent talents. Finding and nurturing new artists is relatively easy, assuming you’ve got the time. You see a spark of talent in their unsolicited submission, you send them a spec script and ask them to do some sample pages from that. It will quickly become apparent if they can tell a story, draw existing and popular characters, work to anything resembling a deadline and are not a total nut job. If they’re close but not close enough yet, you give them another spec script to sample. If they’re just not getting there, you say thanks for trying and goodbye – it’s harsh, but it’s also necessary. If I believed an artist had latent talent, I’d keep feeding them spec scripts until they got better or gave up. Jim Murray went through 18 months of spec scripts before he got his first commission, but it was worth it. Even then, I showed his first commission to another editor and they weren’t fussed – but I could see Jim was a star in the making.

Something about his art appealed to me, and I wanted to keep giving him chances.
Even when somebody got that first commission, often it was also their last commission. They didn’t step up, they didn’t improve on their last spec job, they just weren’t good enough. Look in the Mega-Specials from 1994 and 1995 and you’ll find plenty of one-hit wonders who didn’t make the cut. Others got that little bit better and did enough to be given another chance. Some prospered and some didn’t. That’s the nature of the profession. In all honesty, an artist needs to get a hundred published pages under their belt before they start being much good. If they’re managing only two pages a week, that means they need to find steady work for a year before they start producing their best work. There’s a lot of artists who can’t deliver year in, year out, and they fall by the wayside. They go into character design for videogames or something else. Comics is a tough profession and British artists who make their fortune from it are one in a thousand, at best. Most can make a decent living, but only by working their arses off. It is a profession, it is job – it is not for dabblers.

Finding new writers is much, much harder than finding new artists. It is hard to impress with a synopsis, hard to show what a great writer you are via a five-page script. You can prove that you’re competent, that you have a grasp of the craft and you have a decent idea – but not much more. Writers prove themselves by the length of their careers, their ability to generate a great idea week in and out. I believe anyone can write one decent Future Shock. A good comics writer is the person who can write a decent Future Shock , with a beginning, middle and end, with a compelling central character and a fresh, utterly original twist ending – and do all of that every bloody week. It is so, so hard. Writers start every story with an empty sheet of paper, they have to overcome the tyranny of the blank page.

There’s no easy or obvious system for training comic writers in the craft of the medium. Artists can learn by do sample pages from spec scripts, by taking life drawing classes. It’s much harder for writers – you can only sit in your room practising your panel descriptions for so long before your parents call the police, or get you sectioned. Writers learn by doing, like artists, but writers are also dependent upon finding artists who will draw their scripts. As with screenplays for films, scripts for comics are merely blueprints for the construction of a narrative. It needs other people, talented collaborators to turn those blueprints into a story told in pictures and some words. The best things would-be writers can do is get involved with small press projects, start their own with a mate or an acquaintance, get themselves published and keep trying, But it’s a long, long, long hard road, with bugger all rewards at the end. To become a comics writers and to make a career from it, you’ve got to be talented, able to listen and single-minded beyond belief.

I have to admit, once I went on to 2000 AD I quickly stopped having the time to find and nurture new talents. It did happen on a few, rare occasions, but mostly I entrusted that to others – work experience people until I had an assistant, and then Andy Diggle when he joined as my assistant in 1997. Tharg simply doesn’t have enough hours in the day to be cosseting wannabes, alas. In the early days of 2000 AD, there was an art editor whose job it was to nurture wannabe artists. That left the assistant editor to deal with the slush pile. Alan Grant was a demon for dong that in his time as Steve MacManus’s assistant on 2000 AD, he got so many people their start. [He still does it now, covertly, even though he’s been freelance for quarter of a century.] By my time, the art editor was effectively a designer, leaving the assistant editor to deal with both wannabe writers and artists.

When Andy joined 2000 AD, I gave him total control of the slush pile. He was diligent about it and he found plenty of new people, many of whom I had previously rejected – Jock, Simon Spurrier, Rob Williams, Dom Reardon, Fraser Irving. [Most of them have since told me I was right to reject them at the time, they weren’t ready, but a rejection is still painful when it happens. Later on, you can rationalise it as a learning experience, but at the time it’s a paper cut on your creative soul and your memory keeps reopening the wound and squeezing lemon juice inside it.]

The slush pile is daunting because there is so much of it and, even if you make a concerted effort to clear that pile, there’ll be a new pile a week later. When an obvious talent appears as if by magic in the pile, you dance a little inward gig of joy. Mostly, you regard the pile with a sick, stomach-churning dread.

Q: Are there any artists/writers that you're proud to have discovered, are there any that you aren't or that you rejected, only for them to go elsewhere? And do you have any humorous/horror stories about artists/writers who couldn't get the message?
A: Lots of artists got a break thanks to the Megazine in my time, a few on 2000 AD and a couple on the short-lived Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future. This list isn’t exhaustive and several of these people have done some work elsewhere beforehand, but the Megazine made a big difference to their careers: Dean Ormston, Peter Doherty Steve Sampson, Charlie Gillespie, Frank Quitely, Trevor Hairsine, Jim Murray, Jason Brashill, Simon Davis, Alex Ronald, Simon Fraser, Dylan Teague, I’m probably forgetting quite a few. Not so many writers, alas. On average, I’d say one great British writer emerges each year – but you can only tell they are great years later. Robbie Morrison was probably my best success among the many, many writers had got a break on the Meg.

Nobody has threatened my life after being turned away [unlike my time in newspapers], but I have had a few people go crazy monkey ape shit. My favourite was the writer who decided to try driving me nuts. As his vengeance, he went through the colour supplement of some Sunday newspaper like the Telegraph and sent away for everything advertised in the back pages – in my name. You name it, it got delivered to the editorial office for me. Letters telling me I was buying a stair lift, letters telling me about the Saga cruise I was booked on and how much I owed them as my deposit. A porcelain figurine of Cleopatra turned up, the first in a 100-piece series, each one costing close to £100. My favourite was the fact this nutter enrolled me in a correspondence course with a language school. His course of the perfect language for me? Welsh. At least I could a laugh out of that. Come to think of it, I wish I’d accepted that course now – it might come in useful if I ever get the chance to work on Doctor Who in Cardiff… Eventually the police were called in and I think they paid a visit to the suspected culprit. By an incredible coincidence, the mysterious parcels stopped after that.

I’ve had people try to show me their portfolio in the toilets at conventions. It takes a supreme effort of will not to piss on their pencilled pages in such circumstances, but I try not to hang around in the toilets at conventions any longer than I have to. It’s not the most hygienic place to host an impromptu portfolio review panel.

Q: What's it like giving people their big break?
A: It’s great. You feel proud to see their talent blossomed. Of course, you feel pissed off when their blossoming talent is vacuumed off to work for DC or Marvel, but such is life. More to the point, how come Trevor Hairsine can draw a monthly 22-page book for Marvel when he couldn’t finish eight pages in a month for me? Lazy sod! [Just kidding, Big T!]

Q: Why do you think 2000 AD's readers get so inspired to try and work for it?
A: It’s a natural reaction to anything that inspires you, particularly as a child. My lifelong love of time travel stories was fired by the likes of Doctor Who, Timeslip and Sapphire & Steel when I was a nipper. Then again, as a six-year-old I used to fantasise about being kidnapped and having adventures after reading too many Famous Five books, so these things aren’t always a positive influence. Ban Enid Blyton now, before she perverts the minds of any more impressionable youngsters!


1 comment:

Danny Stack said...

What a great Q&A, cheers!