‘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.
I’ve heard successful authors talk about how they struggled through numerous drafts over several years before they were happy with their final book. I would submit this was because they weren’t totally in touch with their muse and therefore not following her directions.
I’ve noticed that many writers deny they’re motivated by anything other than just the desire to make money. In British comics (certainly pre-2000AD), speed-writing was the norm and you were seen as a freak if you took time and care over your storytelling. Payment rates were deliberately kept low by publishers, to encourage writers to knock out stories as fast as possible.
Theme is everything in a story. It’s what drives the character and the plot. If the theme of Judge Dredd changed and he suddenly veered off in an entirely new direction, there would be uproar from fans. Yes, he can change location: space; the world of the Dark Judges; the moon – but he has to remain true to the theme of grim, monosyllabic, future justice. Sláine is pagan, but if he suddenly became ‘New Agey’, my readers would hate it.
In the late 1970s, there must have been some twenty or more adventure comics for boys and girls. But some of them were so over the top and so bad they were inadvertently very funny, even though they were written dead straight. For example, Bunty ran a story called Pogo Stick Patsy about a girl in World War Two. She is living in German occupied Poland with her rocket scientist father. He hides the plans for a secret formula in her pogo stick and she has to pogo her way across Nazi Europe to France. There, a British light plane is waiting to pick her up. But as the plane takes off, a wing support strut breaks off, and it looks like the aircraft will crash. But plucky Patsy leans out of the cockpit and uses her pogo stick to replace it and save the day.