I’m taking a three-week break now, but there are a number of topics I hope to cover when I come back, or in a future collected edition of Storyteller. I feel they are important, so I can’t resist giving a few pointers on each of them just now.
I can still remember the exact moment on 2000AD when I knew I would have to change my writing style and adapt for an older, vocal fan market that Tharg was increasingly favoring, rather than the core comic audience. It was on Sláine: The King and it’s probably one of the reasons why that story is particularly popular with fans today. Yet I felt uneasy at the change of direction and where the comic was going. But the alternative was that I would have been slowly phased out, as were other writers from that era who were increasingly seen as ‘old school’ and not cool enough for fans.
I do think there is a case for knowing your villain personally or at least carefully researching him. An obvious villain was/is Aleister Crowley. But great writers have beaten us to him. He appears as Mocata in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. And Oliver Haddo in The Magician by Somerset Maughan. And doubtless many more novels beside. But he does feature in Requiem as Black Sabbat and I think Olivier, has depicted him beautifully. I read a lot of Crowley’s life and writings to characterise him, focussing especially on his relationship with Leah Hirsig, the ‘Ape of Thoth’.
Bishop Winnington-Ingram is far worse than any of the villains I featured in Charley’s War. Here’s part of his sermon in Westminster Abbey in 1915:
‘To save the freedom of the world, to save Liberty’s own self, to save the honour of women and the innocence of children […] everyone that loves freedom and honour, […] are banded in a great crusade – we cannot deny it – to kill Germans. To kill them, not for the sake of killing but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well as the old’
‘How to’ books invariably tell you the principles of writing and then assure you that if you follow them, publishing doors will open for you. They won’t. How to actually sell your work is invariably neglected, so new writers have to figure it out for themselves and all too often they get it horribly wrong because they don’t really understand the current state of the market and how it works.
Girls’ comics are tremendously important: they were hugely successful and are fondly remembered today so I really should write down what they were all about. Writing them was a craft and sometimes even an art – usually learnt by trial and error – and I guess I’m concerned (and certainly my muse is) that the somewhat specialised knowledge of how they were produced could be lost.
What kind of villains are you interested in and where do you find them? In 2000AD, the greatest villains are undoubtedly Judge Death and Torquemada. Creating a dark version of a hero, like Dredd, is definitely a good way to go. Not only Judge Death but also Rico Dredd came from flipping a hero over to his dark side. In a similar way Blue Eyes and Grim Reaper are dark versions of my hero American Reaper, who appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine.
Of all the forms of writing and editing, comics are often the toughest. At first glance, this sounds most unlikely, given their downmarket origins and their often low standard, but it’s absolutely true. The reason is twofold. Firstly, there are considerable restrictions of space. In British comics particularly, weekly episodes often featured over two, three or six pages. Six-page, self-contained stories are still commonplace. For a story to make sense, to be paced correctly, and to appeal to the reader sufficiently for him or her to buy the next episode means it must have an excellent and tight structure.
Several readers have asked me about world-building and how I go about it. I guess this is because my stories in 2000 AD and elsewhere are known for having fully realised worlds. Judge Dredd was one of my first challenges. Carlos’s magical Mega-City One in its first visualisation in Prog 2 has never been beaten. I don’t know if anyone else feels the same way, but I think that’s a great pity.
Research in comics was a dirty word. It was seen as largely unnecessary, an indulgence, and an obstacle to the high-speed method of writing comics, which was the only way writers could make money – as they had no rights to their own creations. When I started 2000AD, I needed a library of science fiction: books on space, the latest inventions, visions of the future such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, illustrated histories of SF, plus classic SF novels by Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke et al. To reclaim my expenses, I had to get them signed off by the managing editor and went through a time-consuming, form-filling procedure. He looked at my various book claims with barely concealed hostility and scepticism, like I was pulling some kind of scam.
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 his own ideas and potentially changes its direction and tone. With the right team-up it can be a very positive thing.
From the day John Wagner – the writer-creator of Judge Dredd – and I worked together on Romeo at D.C. Thomson, Dundee, I knew we were kindred spirits. We shared the same cynical and satirical sense of humour. Thus we used to wander the corridors of D. C. Thomson wearing green visors, on which was emblazoned in white Letraset the word ‘Hack’.
Working with a collaborator – ‘creative jamming’ – can kick start your muse. It certainly did mine. I thoroughly recommend it as a way of getting started, particularly if your solo career is faltering. Nearly every comic and magazine John and I submitted stories to accepted them straight away. These included Lover magazine, Cor!!, Tammy and Battle Picture Library. I went freelance first, working out of a garden shed, with John joining me in evenings and at the weekend. Soon we were so overloaded with work, John went freelance, too, and joined me in the shed.