For years, Death Race has been something of a favorite film to many who've seen it. Causing several films to come to life. As well as a comic. And now a creative team at BlueWater Productions has brought the world of Death Race to life once more in comic book form. So with that said, let's get to reading!
Interview by: Robert McClelland
Mr. Birch himself!
Rob Wrecks/Indicomix: You are part of the creative team on the Bluewater Productions title The Final Death Race, would you like to introduce yourselves?
Paul H Birch:I’m Paul H Birch and have been gainfully employed as an editor and worked as a freelance writer for various media in my time; my initial brief for The Final Death Race comic book series was to supply dialogue, but my input extended as the project developed.
Gary Crutchley: I’m Gary Crutchley and I’ve been writing and drawing these funny books for more years than I care to remember.
I’ve had stories published by FantaCo, Caliber, in 2000AD and a heap of other places. At the moment I’m working on a supernatural horror western for AccentUK. I was asked by Paul to help out with the layouts for all of The Final Death Race books including covers for #2 & 3 and help any way I can in the art department.
Rob: What was it about Death Race that appealed to you guys enough to want to make a comic?
Paul:It was initiated by Mel Smith as a project, and I agreed to add words based on the visual artwork drawn. It had been years back when I saw the original film on late night Friday TV but it was the kind of 70s film that influenced the original 2000AD, a weekly British sci-fi comic, and I thought if it turned out like one of the support strips that often ran in there I could have some fun with the dialogue - deadpanning in a black comedy style to contrast with the grimmer action visuals - and that might appeal to readers.
Gary:Simple answer is Paul asked me to help. I’ve known him for many years and we’ve worked on a fair few projects together so when he asked for help I said “Yes” straight away.
I hadn’t seen the original movie in years so I got a copy, watched it and thought this could be a lot of fun.
Paul:I eventually got round to buying the film on DVD myself, partly prompted by Gary being with me at the time. It helped clarify a few technical matters, but people had already told me that my gut instincts about the tone of the language seemed to have been about right. I’d still be interested to read Ib Melchior’s short story The Racer that the whole scenario is derived from however.
First issue's cover!
And it's Gary!
Rob: As I haven't seen the original movie - but from what I vaguely remember seeing in one of the later movies with the music rap duo Insane Clown Posse - is the Frankenstein character that's mentioned in the overview the one that many of us tend to learn about growing up? Or is this an entirely different person?
Paul:Afraid the rap duo is unknown to me, as are the latter films. President Frankenstein is essentially the same character fans know and love as the legendary Death Race 2000 champion... But who the man named Frankenstein actually is that we see racing in this series is another matter!
Gary:I’ve seen the 2008 reimagining (there’s no way I’d call it a remake) of Death Race starring Jason Statham and Joan Allen. Can’t say I’ve seen the sequels Death Race 2 and Death Race Inferno, both straight to DVD movies I think, starring Matt Goss. Death Race Inferno is supposed to be a prequel to Statham’s movie. I assume Goss is supposedly the Frankenstein character who’s killed in the first few minutes of Statham’s movie. It’s obvious as soon as you see Frankenstein in The Final Death Race just who Mel and Paul based their character on.
Paul:Well, Mel did.
Gary:And rightly so in my opinion.
Gary:There is only one Frankenstein and he is the one so wonderfully portrayed by David Carradine in the gloriously over-the-top cult action flick Death Race 2000. Directed by Paul Bartel and produced by Roger Corman, it also stars a very young Sly Stallone in an early role as Machine Gun Joe; a perfect adversary for Frankenstein.
Wearing a mask to hide a hideously scarred face, a leather jump suit and sporting a long leather cape, Frankenstein mercilessly mows down pedestrians to rack up as many points as he can in a race that takes him across the open roads of America. A ready-made comic character if ever there was one.
Paul:Totally. You Americans love your masked men and we Brits were pleased to assist in getting Frankenstein suited and rebooted for you.
Gary:For those who don’t know who Roger Corman is I recommend you Google or Wikipedia him and find out: He’s responsible for bringing so many wonderful low-budget exploitation movies to the big screen, including the rarely seen Fantastic Four movie made in 1994 well before these big-budget CGI laden blockbusters of today were ever thought of. In fact he also produced a Death Race comic in 1995 when he created his own short-lived publishing house Cosmic Comics. Entitled Death Race 2020 it was written and drawn by two Brits: Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, and it ran for eight issues.
Paul:I admit to playing up the masked man aspects more than those two giants of the comic book industry would care to in terms of us trying to entice the casual superhero comic purchaser; but I also tried to use the mask as a motif to reinforce duplicity angles being played out, plus have ambiguous moral issues about what’s good and bad inferred by it... In between cars crashing all over the place of course!
Woop Woop! ICP in the house!
Frankenstein's clearly seen better days!
Rob: What can long time fans of the movie expect with this comic adaptation?
Paul: Well, as noted, it takes place after the events of the original film. Frankenstein is now the president and the races were disbanded, by his own instigation. The story starts with civil unrest, rioting in the streets etc, and we learn it’s because the economy’s in dire straits with natural resources running low. Globally, there may be a way to make it through, and even have America come out top dog, but the bait that’s needed is to bring back the Death Races and allow other nations to take part. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes skulduggery going on both politically and personally – Mel brought Machine Gun Joe back from the dead, so there’s bad blood there before you even get to the racing action, and there’s quite some drama involved, both implied and there for all to see on the pages as the issues progress. Personally, I’m happy with how we developed the relationship between Frankenstein and Anne... But then I’m an old romantic!
Gary:Hopefully a fun and exciting read. Mel and Paul have delivered a cracking script that delivers all the thrills, spills and chills that made the original Death Race 2000 movie so unique and entertaining.
Paul: Yeah, but I still got some love scenes in!
Gary:You certainly did, and quite a bit of nudity as well, you dawg.
Paul:Actually, the partial nudity might’ve been in Mel’s original draft, but certainly the way the adult romance is played out is my doing.
Page 1 of #1!
Page 21 of #1!
Page 22 of #1!
Gary:Manuel Martinez and Mats Engesten (penciller and inker respectively) have produced some terrific visuals. It’s loud, brash and in your face, just what a story like this needs. Manuel has taken my rough layouts and bought the race alive with cars literally bursting off the edge of the page in a blaze of eye-blistering colour. Mats is a terrific artist in his own right and he gels wonderfully over Manuel’s pencils. The pair delivered a cinematic tour de force that doesn’t let up from the explosive first page to the last gasoline soaked final panel.
Paul: As I said, the series was devised by Mel Smith, who was also going to draw it, but after an awful long time was still unable to start. Unfortunately, I also had a finite time within which I needed to complete my involvement by because of other commitments, and I suggested we get someone in to supply layouts, and when I brought up Gary’s name Mel agreed totally.
Gary:I think Paul wanted a quick turn around on this project so I stepped in and did the layouts of the first issue so Paul would have a visual reference to work out dialogue, pacing and such.
Paul:My plan for Gary’s involvement was the same as my own: for us to speedily facilitate the completion of the books, and for him to be able to add the series to his CV; however, on reading the first issue’s script breakdown it became apparent Mel had drafted a story for himself to draw where the visual ideas were already in his head, so with his okay I reworked it. They were basically just tweaks: while cars look dynamic tearing up leather on a film, on a printed page it’s harder to convey that sense of movement to I tried to offer more angle and pacing variety for an artist coming anew to the work. Certainly Gary’s layouts did the business of telling the story sequentially.
There were quite long waits between receiving the following scripts, and I can’t remember when it actually happened, but it became apparent that Mel had some health issues that were still preventing him drawing the series, so with his okay, I took a deep breath and decided to see what I could do about pulling it altogether on everyone’s behalf.
Gary:I’d have to say that Paul is the reason these books were completed. He found the art team including the colourist, when it became obvious Mel wouldn’t be doing it. He certainly badgered - I think that’s the right word - Mel, me and everyone else involved to get these books finished even when he was up to his armpits with his own projects.
Paul:I had only recently become aware of Manuel Martinez’s work but thought he had potential and that the project could help him develop as a pencil artist, and you can see his work grow in confidence and style as the issues progress. I also invited Mats Engesten on as inker; like Gary he always gives his all, and in a timely manner - in fact that pairing is so good they also fitted in drawing a four page strip together that I wrote for the British comic Spirit of Hope while all this was going on.
Like I said, I had other things I was supposed to be doing in media-land by then instead of taking on the role of the comic’s editor, so I asked Gary if he’d help comment on the art with me as it came in at various stages to ease my load, and he obliged practically taking on the role of art director.
Gary:When we finally had an art team in place we decided it should have a certain look about it. Paul and I continued to work together to maintain this throughout all three books and luckily Manuel and Mats nailed it from the very first page, making our job a lot easier. Also, because we used two colourists we worked hard to maintain a constant palette throughout all three books.
Paul:It was all moving in a forward direction, but slowly. Manuel could handle pencilling a couple of pages a week, plus we might request some changes here and there, then Antonio Argolo who had been a perfect gentleman suddenly vanished after colouring the first issue – He had commented on the violence of a couple of the scenes and I wondered if we’d offended him, then I became worried he’d become part of some South American military coup (I have a wild enough imagination without needing to work on other people’s scenarios)! – Lo and behold, only a short while back he emailed me, letting me know all was well and in changing his internet server he had lost communication details for several people. While that’s good news now, the series needed a colourist again – We had someone else try out, but that didn’t work, then after another long delay I latched onto Gat Melvyn over in South Africa, making it an international team from three continents all working together on a comic book featuring racers from around the globe that were competing against each other.
Gary:I remember the slight panic we had when we lost Antonio... Scrabbling around for someone else to colour the remaining two books.
Paul:Even with Gary’s input I was still heavily involved, and the one working directly with people in different time zones at different stages of a comic, and I had reworked #3 more extensively than the other issues, so it wasn’t doing my health any good. However, I had invited Owen Watts to letter the series and seeing the words I had signed on to do actually get placed alongside the art do their job was very much a positive because he’s done a cool job!
Please don’t get me wrong, I think everyone’s done great work on this, from Mel’s concept through to the guys taking over visually, it’s just that I was doing so much over this extensive period of time and the fun I’d originally brought in to was hard to find at times although another one of the unexpected rewards was the covers. I understand the original plan was for Ken Hooper (Aquaman, Indiana Jones) to produce finished art over Mel’s pencils but aside from being involved in the layout for the first issue’s cover, the time delays and his other work commitments meant he couldn’t. Fortunately, I knew Roland Bird, an up-and-coming UK talent, had a lengthy schedule on the graphic novel series he was drawing for Markosia, so I was able to get him to pencil them, with Mats inking and Gat colouring, and they turned out great. But the real fun was working with Gary in designing the cover layouts and if you sit them alongside each other you’ll see they also form a partial triptych effect.
Page 6 of #2!
Page 13 of #2!
Page 16 of #2!
Editor's Note:Well good buddies, this concludes the first part of our interview with Paul and Gary. But fear not! We shall return soon with the second portion! And remember to be sure to pick up a copy of The Final Death Race at your nearest Comic Shop!