Monday, September 16, 2013

2000AD: Doug Church talks

Doug Church is one of British comics' unsung heroes for his work as an art editor and visualiser, contributing to titles like 2000AD and Battle Picture Weekly. I interviewed him in 2003 and some extracts from that made it into THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, my big history of 2000AD's first thirty years. Here's an extended version of that material...
Doug Church began drawing comics as a boy. He liked Hotspur and Wizard, the written stories with illustrations. Doug worked in display companies producing advertising material, but in his mid-20s went for a job at Odhams [a forerunner of Fleetway]. He got shown art by Don Lawrence and Ron Embleton, and tried to build a career for himself as a comics artist. He eventually got work on war library digest comics.

After about a year Doug was offered a staff job at Fleetway as a visualizer, conceiving and designing covers and splash pages. He was given the war library covers, and told to look more like modern paperbacks. Doug also worked on Lion and Tiger comics as a visualiser. Both titles had as art editor who used to design the first page of stories and titles for them.

Doug was drafted on to Look and Learn where John Sanders was editor. It was more a magazine than a comic, but it gave him greater enthusiasm for creating interesting layouts and using typography. He continued doing freelance work for rival publisher DC Thomson.

After five years on Look and Learn, Doug was on other educational title for two years before Sanders (by then publisher) had him producing dummies. Doug worked on a dummy for a proposed revival of The Eagle under Jack Le Grand, a long-serving comics professional who had written scripts for Film Fun before WWII and served at Arnhem during the war.

“Jack wanted Joe Colquhoun to do Dan Dare,” Doug recalls, “I wanted Frank Bellamy. Jack wasn’t interested in that, although I did manage to get Bellamy to do a cover for the dummy.” When Doug complained about parts of the dummy, Le Grand came out with a classic remark: “It’s only a fucking comic, chum!” Doug insists Le Grand’s was born of objectivity, not laziness. “Jack had been editing comics when they sold millions every week.”

Doug believes his first encounter with Pat Mills and John Wagner was on a new launch when Fleetway was still at the Amalgamated Press building in Faringdon Street. “All I can remember really is the amount of alterations that were being made after artwork had been done according to a script. I found this all a bit tedious.” Editorial moved to King’s Reach Tower in 1976.

“I think John Wagner was working on Valiant,” Doug says. “I remember him asking me to help. I used to visualise the pages on anything new. Possibly drawing something in pencils, a heading picture, or some small pictures round a large circular one – certainly getting away from the straight up and down. It made the pages look superficially more attractive, but there’s always the problem about whether the pictures read very well.”

Meanwhile Pat Mills was busy developing 2000 AD. “He called on my help for visualising scripts and things,” Doug says, “anything you could put into the pot. Half the time I worked up at a holiday home I had up in Essex. We had a lot of fun. I can remember Judge Dredd being almost turned into a fascist by the way the layout was done. Whether John Wagner had him as a fascist, I don’t know. I think we had in mind a Witchfinder General or a Clint Eastwood ‘For a Few Dollars More’ – I think I probably did some rough sketches at different times. A guy in a flat hat and a cape was one of them.”

Church believes it was artist Carlos Ezquerra who put Dredd on a motorbike. “I didn’t like the art. To me it looked a bit puddingy, everything I didn’t like about artwork. I probably made that known at the time, but other people liked it. One young artist who I was trying to help along with technique, he said does Ezquerra use a brush? I said yes, but I don’t know which end. Nevertheless it came out.” Church grew to love Ezquerra’s work in time.

Church says Mega-City One was partially inspired by photographs from his personal files. “They were from Life magazine, infra-red satellite shots of the eastern seaboard of America, and they showed literally the whole eastern seaboard was joining up into one big metropolis. I showed this to Pat and said why not have a city that is massive – that’s how Mega-City One was born. I assume Pat had the title, probably said it on the spot.

“I wasn’t too happy with the funny-looking buildings Ezquerra produced,” Doug says. “But when you look at City Hall in London now, the Gerkin and some of the other buildings, maybe Ezquerra was right!”

Church’s filing system also provided visual reference for characters in early 2000AD strips. “I had very large sets of photographs of film stars. When the idea of Invasion came up, I suggested we have a guy – Bill Savage he became – look like Stanley Baker, the Welsh actor. He was still alive at the time. I had whole sets of photographs of Stanley which were given to an artist I picked. Blasco was his name, a foreign artist, I’d never met the guy. But I’d seen his work years before in Valiant and been very impressed. He had the sort of style that suited me. Visuals for page layouts were sent to him and he produced some fairly zazzy stuff.”

Church believe he dreamed up the name for the MACH 1 strip, based on the actor Lee Majors visually. “I remember when the name was uttered between me and Pat, he come out right away with Man Activated by Computer Hyper-power. He was very fast, that Pat.”

The revival of Dan Dare from The Eagle was always intended to be in the centre pages of the new comic. Church wanted the character to look like David Bowie, but didn’t have any photographs he could supply at the time. “I was away on holiday and when I came back they had artwork done by Belardinelli. It has very impressive spaceships, but unfortunately Dan Dare looked like the usual stock comic hero. I was very disappointed about that. I had hoped the comic might get mentions in the press about everybody in it looking like somebody famous.”

Church did strip art layouts for the 2000AD dummy, such as the Trigo art on Harlem Heroes, but was not directly involved with assembling the dummy or designing the cover. “I was doing dummies for John Sanders, football and things like that. I’d have said Gordon Wesley did the 2000AD dummy. I had nothing to do with the first cover, but I did design the two-page splurge that went into the other weeklies to promote launch of 2000AD.”

2000AD went through several changes of leadership in its first year and a half before Steve MacManus was made editor, something which pleased Church. “I think the appointment of Steve was the best thing that could have ever happened to 2000 AD. I always got the impression that Steve and the staff he had working for him, the writers and the artists, were all on 100% for quality. If Steve hadn’t been made editor, 2000 AD would have passed to people who’d come off a failed title, it wouldn’t be with us today. Let’s face it, it’s the only adventure title left.”

Church’s love of big set pieces from James Bond films and Hitchcock stood him in good stead. “Pat used to come to me sometimes with a script that mentioned car crashes, and I would suggest other ways of doing things. Pat used to lounge around, with his feet up on the desk, throwing his pencil up into the air. Every time I came up with a reason for wanting to change something he’d say, ‘Isn’t it big deal enough for you Doug?’ I really like working with Pat and John, even though I was of the old school.”

Despite an initial antipathy, Church later developed a great appreciation for the Carlos Ezquerra: “I really got to love his work. It was very, very good. It had humour, it was excellently drawn with loads and loads of detail of its own kind. He charicatured people casually but very skillfully. His colour work – a lot of it was symbolic colours, they reminded me of Gauguin. But I liked him just as much as anybody else who worked with more detail. Good old Carlos, I’m glad to see he was mentioned on the Dredd film credits.”

Church rated two other creators in particular. “Dave Gibbons was another very strong, marvelous artist. Brian Bolland – his black and white artwork was absolutely fabulous, as good as anything I’d ever seen in my life.”

But Church doesn’t think much of his own work for 2000AD. “A lot of the things I did for Steve were nowhere near as good as I did for Battle. I think I treated them with a bit of reverence. Compared to anything else that was being done in the boys’ group, 2000 AD was just in another league.”

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