By ‘artist collaborations’ I don’t mean where the artist simply draws a writer’s story, including some details and designs of their own, but is essentially following the script. I’m talking about where the artist is keen to be involved in the storytelling process and adds significantly to the story with their own ideas and potentially changes its direction and tone. With the right team-up it can be a very positive thing. The writer’s muse gets fired up by amazing new ideas contributed by the artist. With the wrong team-up it can be very problematic. It’s for this reason that many writers are very strict about not involving the artist in the writing process, because they rightly feel the artist’s extra ideas – no matter how good – will skew the story.
There are no rules here. Sometimes one system works, sometimes another. Thus, I never discussed any aspect of Charley’s War with artist Joe Colquhoun. We spoke on the phone just three or four times. Instead, he stuck to his side of the fence and did a brilliant job of interpreting my storyline. The same applied to John Armstrong on my Moonchild in Misty, which John regarded as his best work. But I can think of other examples where the artist is just following the brief and his art can seem lacklustre and empty, either because he doesn’t feel emotionally engaged, doesn’t care about the story, or he’s just doing the work to pay the bills. When that happens, I try to drop the artist as quickly as possible, because dull artwork suggests the script is dull, too.
Charley’s War ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT © REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Certainly any new writer is very likely to face this problem, so it’s worth discussing. On balance, if an artist has specialist knowledge or story insights, I’ll make space for their input and I’ll welcome it. Because it’s another form of creative jamming and it can be as much fun as writing scripts with a partner in bars. But there are very real dangers. For instance, if the artist is the dominant figure in the relationship, the writer can end up as their typist. The tone of the story can be altered from the writer’s original vision. Or it can end up as ‘creative cramming’ – where there’s too much material and the writer’s and artist’s ideas are fighting with each other for space. I’ve managed to avoid this for the most part, but the risk of it all ending acrimoniously is high. Nevertheless, it’s still better to take a chance and involve the artist, rather than risk boring artwork where the artist’s heart is not really in what he’s doing.
Here are some examples of positive story collaborations with artists, albeit with various challenges. Firstly, a Joe Pineapples and Ro-Jaws robot story with artist Simon Bisley. Simon came up with the basic story idea. It’s really superb and I love it. It has masses of potential. It fired up my muse so I simply had to write and develop it. The challenge? Once I’d written the story, it’s taken Simon years to get started and so far he’s only drawn two episodes (which look excellent).
That’s certainly a problem for new and established writers to watch out for. You write a story, the editor accepts it, and then the artist holds onto it for years. And I mean years. This has actually happened to me five times recently! It’s one of the major reasons I’ve moved over to writing text novels where I only have to rely on myself. But in a way those five artists did me a favour, because I’d probably never have made the move over to writing novels if they’d delivered on time.
How can you avoid the problem? You can’t. The era of talented and reliable artists like Dave Gibbons, Joe Colquhoun and John Armstrong is largely over and, in any event, the possibility of finding artists of that stature are slim. You can be a good judge of character, think very carefully about the artist you’re working with, look at their track record, and still come unstuck. They can be very plausible, especially when you want to believe them because you’re so keen to work together. But you need to be ruthless to protect your own interests and your own story. Clearly I haven’t always been ruthless enough!
Requiem Vampire Knight Volume 1: Resurrection
A second example of artist collaboration is Requiem with artist Olivier Ledroit. This series involved a lot of creative jamming. I’d go over to the publisher’s house in Paris or Olivier’s house in Britanny, or he’d come to Britain to talk through each volume. It was a lot of fun talking late into the night with Olivier and the publisher Jacques Collin about the characters and the plot progression. I’d say our muses have a great deal in common.
Olivier really set the tone for the series – taking my initial story outline and making it much darker and more vampiric. For example, he insisted that the opening scene to every album should always be at night or when it’s raining or gloomy, to create the mood. In this he was absolutely right. Also, when I self-censored the scene featuring a ghoulish Mother Theresa, he wanted it put back. Again, he was right.
Claudia and Torquemada, cropped to keep this post SFW
Requiem Vampire Knight Volume 9: City of Pirates
Finally, there’s Marshal Law and Kevin O’Neill. Kevin has always added story ideas and he surpassed himself on Law, where his graffiti adds a unique dimension to the strip. He also knows so much more about superheroes than I do, so he’s an invaluable source of reference. He did send me several books on the history of superheroes, which I forced myself to read, but it’s not quite the same as growing up with them. From Takes Manhattan, the stories became ever more humorous with Kevin’s input. Notably, the ending where the various lunatic superheroes fall to their deaths from the top of a skyscraper. A Termite Man superhero hurtles towards the ground. He sees the tiny figures of people far, far below and thinks they are actually ants! ‘Ah! I see my faithful Termites waiting for me below… Come, little brothers… Come in your millions to form a trampoline.’ That’s pure Kevin!
Marshal Law Published by DC Comics © 2014 Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.
We built on Kevin’s writing skills and sense of humour in Read ‘Em And Weep with our character The Caning Commando. The Commando is the kind of ludicrous hero that really used to exist in British comics. As we explain: ‘Because of his legendary caning skills, the War Office recruited schoolmaster Victor Grabham to be – THE CANING COMMANDO.’ Here the Commando and his plucky young assistant, Alf Mast, have been captured by the Germans and thrown into a dungeon.
‘What’ll they do to us, Sir?’ asked Alf. ‘Will they thrash us in a Hunnish way, Sir? I can take it, Sir.’
‘Don’t worry, lad. If they make the caning unbearable for you, I’ll throw myself in front of the seat of your pants and take the striping for you.’
‘Will you, Sir? You’d do that for me? You’re a hero, Sir. A real toff.’
‘It will require split second timing. We’d better practise now. Bend over.’ Alf duly bent over a chair. The Caning Commando bent over Alf.
Suddenly, a section of the stone wall slid open, revealing a secret corridor beyond.
‘A secret corridor!’ exclaimed Alf Mast.
Yvette, a beautiful French Resistance fighter in a tight-fitting sweater, appeared. ‘I am Yvette of the French Resistance.’
She took in the sight of the two of them bent over. ‘You British have different ways. But moving on, you must come quickly. You are to be caned at dawn. There’s a caning squad waiting and I am sorry to say it’s a dishonourable caning. How you say? “Strides down”. ’
‘The swine!’ muttered the Caning Commando.
Alf could not keep his eyes off Yvette. ‘Who’s that Bumpy Man, Sir? Why is he speaking funny, Sir? The Bumpy Man, Sir. He’s giving me a tingle, Sir. Is that right, Sir? Is it, Sir?’
‘You young scamp,’ scowled Grabham. ‘If I had my cane with me, I’d make you tingle.’
(Read ‘Em And Weep 1: Serial Killer)
So the spirit and dark comedy of Nemesis and Marshal Law lives on in our latest collaboration.
If artist story collaborations are not for you, then you’re probably being sensible, given the kind of risks I’ve described. One last suggestion: if it’s practical, consider finding a foreign artist – Spanish, Italian or South American – who is more likely than British artists to ‘stay on their side of the fence’. So you can write without interference and achieve your unique vision. It’s no coincidence that in the boom era of comics, so many comic artists were Spanish, Italian or South American. There was a reason, rarely written about or acknowledged today, and it wasn’t just about the exchange rate being in their favour. They are, generally, very professional and have a Latin style which is very accessible to readers.
Of course collaborations begs the question – what about the writer staying on their side of the fence? What about the artist drawing without interference by the writer? Where the artist is experienced and successful, I rarely do so and would not recommend it. But with a newcomer, it’s often essential to raise the final product to the necessary commercial standard. Because writer and artist sink or swim together. This means new artists may go through a baptism of fire, which is not to their liking and isn’t much fun for the writer either. Assuming you know what you’re talking about and you put your criticisms across in a reasonable manner, if your suggestions are not accepted by the newcomer, then you only have one sensible option: walk away. Correction: finish the job then walk away. A writer or artist walking off a job in mid-story is unprofessional and they should be discouraged from doing so.
But there are other ways to inspire your storytelling. An important means is research, which doesn’t always have to be as dull and dusty as it sounds. There’s a fun way, too, as you’ll see next week.