My life in Comics
A piece about myself that I wrote for a talk I did.
My interest in science fiction and my interest in comics books and graphic novels have run in tandem throughout my life, so I thought I’d talk to you about how the two have run into and nurtured each other over the years.
The Sixties was a great time to grow up in the UK. We still had a flourishing comic book industry with sales figures that put todays to shame. There were a whole raft of boys adventure comics with titles like Valiant, Eagle or Lion. These black and white weekly anthologies would feature six or seven paged serialised stories. A lot of these were war stories, but in amongst the tales of plucky Tommies fighting beastly Nazis you’d find gems like Kelly’s Eye, Robot Archie, Adam Eterno and The Steel Claw and of course Dan Dare.
Dan Dare created by Frank Hampson was the UK’s first science fiction comic strip of any significance. Readers were thrilled by the square-jawed British spaceman’s weekly exploits, and his struggles with The Mekon.
I also enjoyed the ongoing adventures of The Trigan Empire which appeared in Look and Learn. It boasted full colour artwork by the
excellent Don Lawrence. Another favourite was the Garth strip drawn by Frank Bellamy that appeared in the Daily Mirror and often featured science fiction elements.
Another early influence was film and TV. Our generation didn’t realise it at the time but we were receiving a great education the history of film via the (mostly) American movies shown on the BBC. They threw anything on in the afternoon to fill the scheduling. I was drawn to the more fantastical or science fiction based movies, so have fond memories of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Fantastic Planet”. Of course there was home grown science fiction on the TV. First Quatermass and then Doctor Who. Best viewed from behind the sofa and somehow always scarier in black and white.
I was also a voracious reader. I devoured Edgar Rice Burroghs, Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, JG Ballard and Michael Moorcock. If it had a weird alien our garishly painted spaceship on the cover I’d probably at least give it a go. In the mid sixties I discovered Marvel comics via the black and white reprints in Smash! and Fantastic. A door was opened onto a world of gamma bomb irradiated monsters, radioactive spider bites and super-powered teenage mutants.
These showcased the early work of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. I tracked down full colour American imports and discovered John Buscema, Gene Colan and Gil Kane. There was no going back.
1970’s Marvel come to London
Forward to 1972, and Marvel UK open up an office in London. Drawing comic books for a living always seemed like an impossible dream before. For a start, don’t most comic artists live in New York? Having an office down the road in London made the whole thing seem more accessible.
I decided to give it a serious shot and started sending drawings off to comic fanzines. You have to understand. This is before the internet and web comics. Back in the olden days budding comic book writers and artists would actually publish their own work on paper and send it to people via something called ‘the post”. Unbelievable I know.
In these early stories I battled with composition, anatomy, lighting, storytelling, inking, lettering. Everything you need to have a handle on to draw a comic book. When I told a lecturer on my Foundation Year at Art College a few years layer that I wanted to draw comics he said I should give up because it was just waaay too difficult. That seemed to be rather a defeatist attitude, so I kept plugging away. 2000 AD launched in 1977 and injected a much needed shot in the arm to UK comics. I discovered the work of Carlos Esquerra, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland and Mick McMahon. I also managed to get a fan illustration published on the letters page not once, but twice! I was a very happy Earthlet!
In my second year at art school Warrior launched, and with it the careers of Alan Moore, David Lloyd and a host of others. The so called UK invasion of American comics was about to happen. It seemed my dream of working in comics might just be possible. In the same year I got work published in the “Mighty World of Marvel”.
On finishing my degree I managed to get a job in the graphics department of Yorkshire Television. It sounds glamorous, but the work was mostly Letrasetting the titles for kids TV programs. I decided that my future wasn’t in TV and headed back south. I ended up sharing a house with Richard Starkings, now well known for his Comicraft Lettering fonts and his Elephantmen comic book. Then he’d just got a job as an editor/designer at Marvel UK, his first paying comics gig. I’d got to know Richard a couple of years before via fanzines.
Into the 80s with comics
Marvel UK were looking for artists to draw a four-page weekly story called “Zoids” to go in the Spiderman comic. It was a toy tie-in similar to Transformers, but featuring robot dinosaurs rather than mutating trucks. Richard kindly put my hat in the ring and I got my first regular comics gig! Just goes to show, that in comics, like in most things, you need to be able to do the work but you also need to know the right people, be in the right place at the right time and be just plain lucky.
I’ve got fond memories of those times. This was before the internet, so I’d finish the four pages of that week’s episode in my studio in Brixton and physically take my artwork to Marvel’s offices in Bayswater, just in time for Friday night drinks, almost like I’d planned it. Pretty soon my studio filled up Zoids toys that I used as reference.
The early Eighties was a good time to be in comics. We had a bit of a comics scene going on in Brixton. I was sharing studios with Andy Lanning, best known as the co-writer on the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book. Also in our crew was John Tomlinson, writer and one-time assistant editor on 2000 AD, Steve Cook, now working at DC Comics, editor Steve White and pencillers Brian Williamson, Anthony Williams and Doug Braithwaite. In the studios upstairs we had cartoonists Ed Hilya, Woodrow Phoenix and Carl Flint.
We also had the Acme Comic shop round the corner on Coldharbour Lane, who used to host rather good parties. One of my favorite memories from that time is when Stan Lee came to visit Marvel UK’s offices. We’re all grinning like loons. Hell, it’s Stan Lee. He immediately quips: “You all look really happy. We must be paying you too much.”
I spent a year drawing Zoids, then swapped the Zoids toys in the studio for Action Force toys when I went on to that book which was just starting up. It was about this time that I drew a couple of “Future Shocks” for 2000 AD. These are short “try-out” stories for assessing new talent. I heard that the verdict from the Mighty Tharg at the time was that “Kev’s just about usable…”
One of my last jobs at Marvel UK was a three part Doctor Who story written by Mike Collins (now better known as a storyboard artist on the Doctor Who TV show) and inked by Dave Hine. Both John Tomlinson and Steve Cook, who I was still sharing a studio with and moved from Marvel UK to 2000 AD, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when I got the call from Tharg and was offered a job with them. TO BE CONTINUED…