The final portion of the Paul Birch/Gary Crutchley Mind Meld has arrived! In the last part, it gets said that everything is not always for everyone, differences in comic culture across the waters gets talked about, and their advice to new folks to the industry is given!
Interview by: Robert McClelland
Pg. 10 of Dead Ahead #1
Rob: It certainly seems you two have all sorts of goodies ready to soon be unleashed to the masses!
Paul:Well, there’s the thing, Rob; as far as I’m concerned not everything should be intended for the masses: if a restaurant asks me to proofread their menu and write an appetising intro for it even if I’ve helped someone try a different dish for a change, that establishment can still only fill so many seats. They could expand, but what if their gourmet chef couldn’t cope with the added workload? It could be detrimental to the business. Not everything has to rock the world and be awesome, and most things can’t be, but they can fulfil certain people in particular, maybe even only for the time they experience them... In publishing there are niche markets, boutique publishers, limited edition options, also simply doing things for the fun of it, and they can all be called successful in one shape or another if done right.
As a mercenary journeyman I have edited newsstand magazines that have successfully sold to the masses in their particular field, whereas I’ve got a backlog of comics-related stuff I’m still involved with that I’ve always perceived as being intended on a smaller scale, some for the fun and experience of doing so, others for financial recompense.
There’s European interest in the Dead Ahead series (originally published by Image Comics) so a second series, Series Deux, is being co-written by me with Mel Smith, then I’m due to write Dead Ahead: Full Speed solo. There are assorted anthologies that I’m placing strips with, and that’s often fun working with new artists. British publisher Time Bomb and I have discussed collecting my Carter’s Column sci-fi comic strip series and that will feature some new exclusive art by Gary in the first volume. Various things, writing or editing, nothing major, but I think they can entertain their intended readerships if done right.
Gary:Like I mentioned earlier Rob, working on WESTERNoir pretty much limits me at the moment on what I can work on. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t had a bit of time here and there to do a couple of horror short stories for two new anthologies.
The first is a five-pager titled The Job written by Mark Cowling, art by me and coloured by Nathan Ashworth that will be published in Mike Garley’sDead Roots anthology (www.deadroots.co.uk). There is talk that these books (there’s four of them) will be funded by Kickstarter later this year. The second tale is one written by a friend of mine who I’ve worked with before on a couple of shorts, John Halfpenny. Titled Lord of the Flies (with apologies to William Golding of course), this four-page tale will appear in Adam Cheal’s British Showcase Anthology published by Markosia and released on the 26th October at SCARdiff 2013 horror festival.
Apart from those two terror tales, there were a couple of bigger projects that I had to put on hold when I agreed to work on WESTERNoir. One is Hard Country, a supernatural western that Paul has already mentioned, the second is a six part tale titled Six Months. Written byJim OHara, I’ve already completed four parts (88 pages) and it’s something I really want to see completed. It’s a cracker of a story and I think it has resonance into today’s world.
Required High School reading!
Pg. 15 of Dead Ahead #1
Once they are done and dusted I’m working with a young novelist who wants to turn his story into a graphic novel. His name is Steven Deighan, the title is Gravemaker, and it takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland set over 300 years from the 18th century’s to the present day.
After that there are a couple of tales that I’ve written that I’d like to see completed. The first is a pulpy horror tale set in WW2 with all sorts of strange goings on and the other a story set in ancient Japan about a Ronin who has to kill one thousand demons to find his true name. And that’s not including the two projects Paul’s already mentioned: - Carter’s Column and G.B.H.or indeed the plans Dave and I have for Josiah Black in WESTERNoir. Busy times ahead I think.
Rob: As you two are essentially across the pond, how different is the comic book culture there compared to America?
Paul: A lot less so now than it used to be. I grew up on British comics that came out every week, all anthologies with adventure and humour sitting on facing pages. Strips might have only run a couple of pages but the serials would end on a cliff-hanger and keep you excited until the following Saturday or Tuesday when the next one arrived. Our comics industry used to be more strongly associated to our newspaper and magazine ones and I believe they profited editorially from that for several decades. With us being a relatively small country national distribution was much more effective, and to have a 100,000 copies of a weekly comic sold in a week was seen as doing badly. But things changed. There was the inevitable battle for kid’s pocket money with computer games and the like but the comics themselves did become staid; creative and financial investments weren’t made to alter that or were done too radically in some cases.
What a pretty Pond!
Before I started school, I read about four of what were then called nursery comics every week – mainly funny animal and fairy story type things (In fact I’ve got an original Teddy Bear comic page hanging on my office wall); these days toddlers have the latest TV licensed character glaring back at them every three weeks, in a plastic bag with a free toy, with only a few comic strip pages within but plenty of stock photo images, and often bearing a picture of a female editor inside to reinforce a stereotyped message to mothers that they are safe reading material. Safe, but often not very good.
One of the best things about comics for British kids used to be that it was reading matter you chose yourself, not your parents, nor the educational authorities. It lead to great characters like Dennis the Menace (created the same year as America’s newspaper strip version) in The Beano that is still going to this day (although alas its fellow comedy comic The Dandy is only now on sale as a digital edition), and while the main appeal was it was funny reading Dennis be naughty but having to pay the consequences when found out, he was also an anti-establishment character that questioned authority and on some gut level I think that’s as important as some of the work of Shakespeare. There are now very few comics aimed at say the average ten year old and I wonder if the 2000AD of today appeals to teenagers or rather young adults but at least it’s still going, as is a newish comic called Strip Magazine. Titan and Panini produce a number of titles, several reprinting American superhero comics that have become popular over here now, not least because of the films’ successes.
British book publishers are taking graphic novels seriously these days – some of the work Bryan Talbot is producing in this format is absolutely brilliant not least because he’s still experimenting and expanding comics as a medium within it. We also have Cinebook who publish some terrific European material in the English language and in recent years a handful of independent publishers who if they continue to develop – not just expand – have promising futures. As the major UK comic publishers’ traditional distribution network has shrunk (due to supermarket chains putting many local newsagents out of business, then initiating charges for promoting comics in their shops) its helped speed the demise of the more traditional British comic, but largely thanks to the way the original Bristol Expo and Birmingham’s comic show (BICS) lead the way, similar conventions have taken off up and down the county and that’s helped the independents find a place for their wares to be sold, maybe not in great amounts, but ones where small profits can be accrued and that’s a plus in my books.
It’s a very different comics publishing landscape to the one I was raised on, but there are still some great potential opportunities. They need financial investment, publishing experience but also some determined thinking outside the box. Those kind of challenges are ones that British comics share with American ones, and while there are similar goals and ways we can try and overcome them we also have to remember our cultures are different too, as are we both to mainland Europe and elsewhere – the internet bridges gaps but one size does not fit all.
My apologies, Rob. Most of your readers will think “Who the hell does this nobody think he is pontificating and ranting on like a madman?” and I agree, I know my lowly place in the scheme of things as far as the comics field goes – I’m content to move in the background scenes for the most part of anything I do, but if you ask me a question I tend to give you the facts or at least an opinion that’s near as damn honest.
Gary: I’d have to agree with Paul, although I would add that because of the numerous conventions springing up all over the country it’s a good time for small-press and independent publishers. There was a time, not that too long ago when there was only one convention in Britain (and I’m including Wales and Scotland in this). This was UKCAC; held once a year in the middle of London. Not really accessible for everyone. Now they’re springing up everywhere which is great to see and not just that, most of them attract guests from your side of the pond, Rob, some really big named guests. Stan Lee visited our shores last year, Neal Adams this year much to everyone’s delight. With all these outlets the small press are creating more books than ever before, and with such a variety of styles and genres, this can only be a good thing for the industry in the long run.
What is disappointing is seeing the decline of the traditional British kid’s comic. I remember tales of wonderful original characters told in gloriously over the top tales that were on par with any Roald Dahl creation. Billy the Cat, Colonel Jumbo, Billy Whizz and the Q Bikes, characters that were naughty and edgy with anarchic and even anti-establishment overtones and I wanted to be just like them, but never dared to be. It really was like a secret just for us kids with the adults being the butt of the joke. There were also characters from the TV: The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Tomorrow People, Thunderbirds brought to life by the very best artists and writers of the time, glorious days. Or maybe it’s just how I remember them.
Paul:No. A lot of quality material was produced, a lot of dross too because we produced so many comics, but the good stuff still stands the test of time.
Gary:The kids’ comics today are safe, soppy and sanitised, badly written caricatures of licensed characters that the main appeal to buy the comic is the free gift taped to the cover.
Kids are reading the books of Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, Eoin Colfer, Jill Murphy and JK Rowling, so they know good writing; they have discerning tastes that won’t be fobbed off with sub-standard comics. No wonder sales are at an all time low.
Not all doom and gloom though, there are small publishers filling the gaps, printing little gems like The Phoenix published by David Fickling Books and Strip Magazineby Print Media Productions. So there’s hope yet.
Well that looks all kinds of pleasant!
A page from #2 of Creepy Kofy Movie Time!
Rob: Considering the amount of experience between the two of you, what kind of advice would the two of you give for someone who's just starting out in the world of comics?
Paul:Do comics because you love them, not because you want a career in the field. If you’re an artist draw continuity not pin-ups, if you’re a writer find an artist who can draw continuity then the both of you go and do a fanzine or an online strip together. Start small, learn and enjoy, then if you’re good enough and are in the right place at the right time who knows you could land a career you enjoy and make some pretty decent money into the bargain if you’re able to meet deadlines.
That’s how people like Mark Buckingham (Fables), Shane Oakley (Albion), D’Israeli (Sandman), Gary and others started when they began contributing to Hardware, an amateur comic anthology, or stripzine as they used to be called. And coming full circle, one of the projects I am involved with is a new version of it. Hardware will be a professionally produced quality periodical version that will feature some of the illustrious individuals who were involved in the original version, plus others of a similar standing, and then we’ll see if quality can still count in this modern world.
Gary: Be patient, and have the determination to see it through to the end. Creating a comic is not a quick process nor is it an easy one. It’s time consuming, frustrating, annoying and repetitive but the moment when your finished book is on sale it all seems worth it. Case in point: It takes just over five months to complete an issue of WESTERNoir. That’s from the time Dave and I sit down to discuss what we want to happen (usually over a beer in a pub somewhere) to Andy putting the finishing flourishes to the PDF that we send to the printers.
There is a craft in creating comics, like most things, so it pays to take some time in mastering it: If you’re a writer, it’s not just about writing a story, it’s about pacing and layout and creating memorable characters. Take the time to discuss plots, ideas and thoughts with the artist. Have some awareness of balloon placement within the panel, no point in having a beautifully drawn eight panel page where the first seven panels are blank and you have to place a 50-odd word explanation in a small eight panel. Study captions and word balloons in your comics, see where they’re placed and how big they are and understand just how much space a balloon or caption takes up in a panel. If you’re an artist: Learn to visualise a story through sequential art. Pretty pin-ups or splash pages are all well and good but it won’t tell the story. Anatomy is important and there are loads of books on the subject: study all you can on the body and how it moves. Once you learn something, you’ll never unlearn it, study layout, pacing and design anything that helps you achieve the desired result: a cracking good comic. Don’t try to be flashy at the cost of storytelling. If in doubt keep it simple.
Creating a comic, more often than not is all about teamwork. The secret to a good comic is all about it being a complete package… the story and art, the lettering, the editing, the colouring if it’s in colour, even the tone if that’s what you plan to use. One part cannot outshine the rest; it just becomes a distraction if it does. There are loads of professional artist out there that are terrific illustrators, producing pages of intricate detailed pin-ups but they can’t tell a story.
Above all do it because it’s a comic you would buy if you saw it in a comic shop or on a convention table, because if it’s something you wouldn’t even think about buying then why expect anyone else to purchase it? Never try to second guess the readers because that never works.
The creator of the web comic Axe Cop was a five year old boy when he had the idea for this character. It’s been going three years and His 32 year brother is the artist and now it’s a graphic novel and it’s been solicited as a cartoon series. Who could have predicted that? Like anything that’s worth doing well, it takes practice, dedication and determination. Oh yes, and lots of patience.
Editor's Note: A big huge thanks to the both of you for this interview. I rather think I personally learned quite a bit by the time all was said and done! To see about grabbing yourself a copy of The Final Death Race, check out the Bluewater website for more information! And don't forget to check out all the other great titles Paul and Gary mentioned!