Comics Anonymous


On a freezing cold and yet strangely sunny day, Team Comics Anonymous made the impressive trek from Glasgow to Dundee for the 5th Annual Dundee Literary Festival Comics Day event organised by Dr Chris Murray. Chris is also behind the new Mlitt in Comic Studies currently running for postgraduate students at Dundee University. Held in the Tower building of the University we were treated to an exhibition of cover and interior art from old Commando’s and other war comics.

Chris Murray was chairing the first session and introduced the theme of the day as ‘Wot Comics Taught Me’ which is highly appropriate since many of today’s guests and speakers began their careers at the city’s legendary DC Thomson and are now returning as stalwarts of the industry to impart their stories and anecdotes to eager listeners. ‘Wot Comics Taught Me’ is a theme that helped to personalise the day and put fans and creators on a level footing amid the sharing of origin stories, of how we all got into comics.

First up in session one was Paul Gravett, author of the newly published ‘1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die’, who has also recently published the Pleece Bros ‘The Great Unwashed’ and organises London’s excellent Comica Festival. Gravett’s presentation was essentially a super-fast run through some of the major highlights of his book ‘1001 Comics’ which, squeezed into 20 minutes was quite an achievement. Some of the more notable creators included Rodolphe Topffer (1799-1846) whom he describes as the ‘father of comics’, Winsor McCay who’s animation stills from Little Nemo, Adventures in Slumberland (1911) we were also shown. My taste in comics tends to run a little to the ‘low brow’ side and I was disappointed not to hear Gravett mention the likes of Ditko, Kane, Siegel and Schuster although I’m sure they must be mentioned in the book.

“In the sixties you had Salvador Dali proclaiming that comics would be the culture of the year 3794. He was right, he just got the year wrong, it’s actually 2011, it’s happening right now” – Paul Gravett

Despite my favourite creators not being discussed it wasn’t hard for even a ‘daft super hero’ comic reader like me to spot some of the ways in which these individuals have influenced not just comics, but popular culture as a whole. For example, the tomato soup lake and celery forest is remarkably similar to the tomato soup river and broccoli forest of my favourite Muppet Babies book of my childhood.

One thing we can be quite guilty of, and I’m talking about English speaking comic fans of the Western world in general, is assuming comics aren’t produced anywhere other than North America or the UK. Whilst we lament the falling sales in a declining industry, over the water in Europe comics continue to perform well. I have heard it said on several occasions that the best comics today are not written in English. Don’t worry if you can’t read another language, excellent companies like Cinebook Ltd translate and publish many European comics in English.

Although Gravett’s talk was extremely rushed it was clear that he is a man who is passionate about comics. His book ‘1001’ comics should be an interesting and educational read, however he did point out that from 70 contributers to the project, less than 1/2 of them were women. It is not for this reason alone that I would always caution anyone picking up the book to use as a guide to the existance of comics and to form their own opinions on creators work as of course different comics teach different things to different people. You can find out more about Paul Gravett here

Part two of session one saw Will Pickering and Martin Connaghan discussing their graphic novel ‘Burke & Hare’. Initially published over 2 years ago most Scottish comic fans and event goers will have encountered the book, its creators and be aware of its subject matter. You can read about the trials of getting the book published on their website here.

Fast forward to today and the book has mow been scheduled for release in America after winning an Scottish Independent Comic Book Award for best writer at the 2011 awards. The two creators gave us an insight into how they worked on the book, both in terms of historical research and panel direction. Connaghan likened their process to that on Alan Moore’s on his seminal work, ‘From Hell’.

For the final installment of session one Montynero, concept artist and comic book crreator told us about his career to date and his background in comics. His talk was really interesting and it is noteworthy that Monty (along with Robbie Morrison) was one of the few individuals who spoke at Dundee Comics Day who didn’t think that enjoying DC or Marvel comics was a dirty habit

“There’s absolutely no point creating comics for money, which is just as well because there’s very little money in comics.  It seems to me that comics are like althetics – you’ve got about a thousand people running around earning good money, and that’s fantastic that you can do that, but everyone else that you see doing it (like 90% of the comics you see in previews) they aren’t making any money out of that. They’re just doing it because they love making comics, which is very noble.” – Montynero

Monty spoke in detail about the compulsion to make comics and write. He linked the success of British comics writers to that old tradition of short story writing which most begin at school. He also spoke to us about one of his current projects, his comic ‘Death Scentence’ on which art duties are carried out by Michael Dowling who draws Frankie Boyle’s Rex Royd which is serialised in Clint Magazine. Death Scentence is a modern sounding comic with an interesting idea. You can expect a full review of it here at Comics Anonymous shortly. You can find out more about Montynero here.

Following in these presentations Paul Gravett, Martin Connaghan, Will Pickering and Montynero all took to the floor for a lively question and answer session covering a range of topics. Popular amongst many comic fans and creators at the moment is the paper/ digital debate. Montynero doesn’t see this as an either/ or question but rather sees digital comics being read on devices such as the iPAD being used in conjunction with print comics. He hopes this might help comics appeal to the mainstream market and thereby reverse the ‘ghettoisation’ of comic shops.

Martin Connaghan brought up internet piracy and wonders if the recently introduced DC Combo Pack’s might go some way to lessen its negative effects. He also brought up the idea that there is perhaps a more inventive and innovative way for comic creators and publishers to make better use of the digital platforms. At this point Will Pickering interjects to state that the number of people who are reading web comics but would never buy a paper comic is an untapped market. Paul Gravett sees less single issues and more trades and collected editions in the future of comics.

“The biggest issue is that people are doing on digital comics what they did on paper comics; they’re just drawing the comics, scanning them and putting them online. What needs to happen is people’s approach to the digital medium, you’re effectivley working in a 3D environment, which isn’t very different to working in games and you need to come up with something that takes advantage of this and the fact that people are touching it and doing things with it.” – Martin Connaghan

Montynero makes a valid point about the future of comics being in the hands of the creators. This is most likely to be the indie creators and goes back to what he was discussing earlier about certain people simply having a compulsion to make comics.

The conversation then drifts on to allow Martin Connaghan to bring up the mystical pyramid, oft discussed by musicians and footballers the world over. The very few at the top, the Wayne Rooneys’ and the Bob Dylans’ are of course, making vast sums of money, and for every one of them there are a million others scraping by or engaging only as hobbyists. Being at the lower end of the pyramid however doesn’t make anyone’s contribution to their chosen field less meaningful. As stated previously, for many people this is something they must do, regardless of the financial reward.

Session Two of Dundee Comics Day brought out some real legends of the British comic book scene and this session was chaired by Phil Vaughn, lecturer at Duncan Jordanstone College. First up, Vaughn was to introduce John Wagner, most famous for his work with Alan Grant, 2000ad, The Bogie Man series and the graphic novels ‘Button Man’ and ‘A History of Violence’ which was recently made into a movie starring ‘The Lord of The Rings’ Viggo Mortensen.

Some what bizarrely Wagner began his talk by showing us a picture of an old garden shed. The master writer knew exactly which path he was taking us down though, as he spoke about his early career, freelancing on crass, obvious cartoon strips from that very garden shed in Dundee.

“I started freelancing with Pat Mills in his house in Wormit across the water….in fact in his shed. I went along yesterday and knocked on the door and ask ‘Would you mind if I photographed your shed?’. I didn’t know if it would be there but in fact it was in better condition than the house” – John Wagner

Wagner maintained an excellent deadpan delivery throughout his talk as he told us that ‘Wot Comics Taught Him’ was how to write comics and the ‘art of story telling’. He describes those crude, early jobs in a laughable manner but is concretely aware of how they allowed him to develop as a writer, recognising a story’s basic structure and how to form a strong and entertaining ‘beginning, middle and end’

Wagner then went on to discuss how good stories must be filtered through strong, well crafted characters. Most of what he learned in this regard was as an editor at Valiant and cites a strip ‘One Eyed Jack’ as a particular learning experience. In those days they would often conduct polls to find out which characters were favourites among the readers and it often transpired that the characters with the most straight forward, upright and honest attributes were the most popular. However, as good as it is to have a strong hero, its even better to have a strong villain.

Writing skills learned and craft honed during this period allowed Wagner to successfully co-create Dredd. Wagner states that the successful mixture of good and bad in Dress was the key to his enduring popularity. The same rules apply here to Button Man, an inherently villainous character whom readers are sympathetic towards. On the subject of Button Man, Wagner confirms that it has been optioned by Dreamworks although they have had difficulties in sorting out a script.

“What I learned writing ‘One Eyed Jack’ adapted to Judge Dredd. This was taken to extremes, this was a character you could see as a villain, you could see him as a genuine hero. In fact I tried to make sure that he did something of each in every story, he could be a hero and he was also a villain and that really accounts for Dredd’s popularity I think.” – John Wagner

No talk without John Wagner would be complete without some discussion of those successfull partnerships he’s had over the years. He cites one of the many benefits of working with another writer as having an ‘instant editor’, someone to discuss ideas with and tell you when your idea is rubbish and to stop wasting time. The obvious downside is the inevitable coming to blows when to individuals are doing the same job and both have different ideas about how to attain the same goal. He also states that he finds it difficult to put true emotion into his writing when working with another writer as it is such a personal endeavour.

Crucially Wagner also says that he would love to do a new ‘Bogie Man’ but would find the distance between himself and Alan Grant a difficulty. They would also have to find someone who wanted to publish it. Comics Anonymous spoke with Alan Grant at Glasgow Comic Con this year who said the same. We can but hope a publisher will set in to make this happen. You can find out more about John Wagner here.

Robbie Morrison was next to take the lectern and delivered an entertaining, if not thoroughly well prepared talk about his discovery of the true dullness of real life when compared to the stories of Spider-Man and the Hulk. Robbie’s first success in writing came when he sold a script to DC Thomson for use in a sci-fi digest called ‘Starblazer’. Sadly the book was cancelled before any of Robbie’s work could be printed. However, it gave him enough encouragement to give a futureshock script to Alan Grant at a signing Glasgow which resulted in his first 2000ad work.

“The first Dredd story I managed to sell was called ‘Kinky Boot’, in which two boot fetishists, one called John Speed and one was called Mrs Peeler (not subtle obviously) try to steal Judge Dredd’s boots. It finished with Dredd leaving on his bike with Mrs Peeler lying across the front of it and he says ‘There’s nothing kinky about the law!’ – and they bought it!” – Robbie Morrison

Morrison is probably best known for his work on Shakara, Shimura and of course, his own creation, Nikolai Dante. Robbie comes across as a man who loves to write but writes science fiction because 2000ad pay him to. He does however, think the world would be a better place if everyone read more comics. I tend to agree.

The question of creator owned work tends to raise its head more often than not at conventions these days. Fans are excited by the prospect of new characters and getting to see their favourite creators cut loose. The benifits to the creators themselves are of course, well publicised. Frank Quitely asked Robbie if he would continue working on the soon to finish Dante if he owned the character but he doubts this would be the case. I spoke to Robbie after his talk and creator owned projects are definitely on the horizon for him but has nothing concrete just yet.

To find out more about Robbie Morrison visit here.

The final part of Session two was an open forum from former student of Duncan Jordanstone College, comic art legend Colin MacNeil. Colin’s turn on the floor was characteristically chaotic but involving and enjoyable, as just like most of his audience he claims that comics are a natural part of life, just like water or air. Growing up in Inverness on a diet of the Victor and Warlord he grew to have a healthy appreciation of his father and grandfather’s generation.

Colin is currently involved in a project borne out of the above mentioned appreciation which is quite staggering in its size and scale. McNeil’s vision for his Magnum Opus is a graphic novel set during the 1916 Battle of the Somme where all the characters and events are real. He has been working on the project for years and foresees another 2-3 years of research before he can get started. We can hopefully expect to see the book, featuring Colin’s grandfather sometime in 2016.

“It’s been quite a long time since a read a comic to be honest. Very much like many other professionals who have been in the business for several years there comes a point where you stop reading comics. It’s like a plumber, where all week he’s fixing pipes and this and that, so what does he want to do when he gets some time off? Do more plumbing? I don’t think so.” – Colin MacNeil

While Colin doesn’t read comics, he says he does enjoy what the medium has to offer particularly by comparison to TV or radio as the possibilities for creation are only limited by your imagination. He doesn’t see himself as a comics artist either, rather an artist who happens to draw comics. Colin also told us about his biggest artistic influence as Rembrant’s Nightwatch which he saw on a trip to Amsterdam in 1975 when he was 9.

Like mostly everyone we met at Dundee Comics Day Colin MacNeil is a lovely guy, happy to chat to anyone. You can find out more about him here.

Overall the day was a success, enjoyable and informative. You can find out more about the greater Dundee Literary Festival here, and the MLitt at Dundee University here.

As always, the photos for this post come from Comics Anon. favourite Fiona Watson, who’s site is right here.

5 Comments so far
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Makes me wonder whether I’d rather go to events like this and sit through the shitty stuff to gather the little gems of delight myself, or just let Linsay go – I’m more entertained with her take on things. Really good write-up guys. Cracking wee photo of Frank, Fi.

Totally disagree with Connaghan’s comments on digital comics. 3D interactivity didn’t work in the cinema, lets not allow it to ruin comics. I just want to have an entire comics library in one portable tablet with a bright shiny screen. Spotify style, maybe. If I want to ‘own’ things (and get them signed) I can buy paper copies. There’s still a place for them, but maybe, like Gravett said, more trade paperbacks and less single issues.

ps. Holly Unlikely was robbed!

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