During the indie comics revolution of the 1980s and early ‘90s, a period when anthropomorphic heroes ventured well beyond the realm of "funny animal" stories, Steve Moncuse's "Fish Police" patrolled the mean streets of Fish City, with Inspector Gill navigating intrigues set by the city's colorful inhabitants - notably, the voluptuous Angelfish - and trying to stay one step ahead of the criminal network S.Q.U.I.D. and its nefarious leader, Hook.
Two parts noir and one part slapstick - or perhaps the other way around - "Fish Police" began as a black and white self-published series before being picked up by Comico and, when Comico faltered, Apple Press, for a total of 26 issues. Marvel later reprinted six issues in color in conjunction with a short-lived "Fish Police" animated series.
In February, IDW Publishing will collect Moncuse's "Fish Police," representing the first time these stories have been readily available in print in 20 years. CBR News spoke with Moncuse about the new editions, and the cartoonist shared exclusive art from a previously-unannounced "New Fish Police" series.
CBR News: Steve, first of all, how does it feel to have your work back in print after all this time?
Steve Moncuse: It hasn't hit me yet, I guess. I have twin nineteen year old daughters, Shanna and Alanna, and they are far more excited about the project - so far - than I am. When my editor at IDW, Scott Dunbier, first approached me about the possibility of reprinting "FP," I had one question: "Why?!" He had to laugh because he'd been getting that sort of answer from all the older artists he'd approached about reprinting their comics. Younger guys were telling Scott that they would sell a million-billion copies for IDW, but the older guys were just complaining about their aches and pains, how young people today dressed funny and trying to talk him out of reprinting their stuff! We old people are just cranky like that.
Still, I've got a feeling when I actually see the darn thing in print and on bookshelves, I'll be almost as excited as my daughters.
So how did the deal with IDW come together?
I'm trying to decide whether to go with the long version or the shorter one. Neither is very exciting so I'll keep it short.
I've been trying to make a little extra money on eBay the past year or so, selling model kits, prepainted statues and original comic art. (Yes, believe it or not, this is gonna be the short version!) One of the pieces I decided to sell was a "Fish Police" character, Hook, drawn by Mike Mignola. Describing the piece, I wrote that many years ago I self-published a little comic book called "Fish Police," and this was from that comic. A very nice fellow, Felix Lu, who knew me even before I started "FP" saw the item. Well, he knew Scott from IDW, contacted him, got us together and in a very short time, the deal was done.
The long version is pretty much the same story, I just use lots more exclamation points!!!
You took the police drama underwater, which necessarily changes the tone of things a bit. What did you enjoy most about the writing and drawing this world you had created?
I don't want to give anything away to readers who might be picking up "FP" for the first time with this collection, but, they were never really underwater. I remember Gill asking early in the series, "If we're underwater, how come the beer stays in the glass?" Or something like that. (Did I mention that I never read my old stuff?)
"The world?" Well, that's a whole different question. These people were real! The place was real! How real? Okay, I'll give away a little more about the "New Fish Police." The way I see it - and some of your readers will roll their eyes at this - even though I haven't been actively thinking about Gill & the gang, they've been up in my head - doin' stuff. Living their lives. Changing. Evolving. So, twenty years later, I looked in on the goings-on in Fish City and said, "Wow! So that's what you've been up to!" Then I just translated it to paper.
Okay, stop with the eye-rolling already! None of this is literal, it's just the best way I can explain it. Artists, writers, poets - you understand.
Was there any particular person or character that was the inspiration for Inspector Gill?
Gill is me. Always has been, always will be. Warts and all. In fact, when any of my friends read the book, they always said they could hear my voice when reading Gill's lines. As far as his look goes, it was really no secret that he was based on Mick Belker from the old Hill Street Blues TV series. Oddly enough, though, Gill and I now have exactly the same hairline.
Have you kept in touch with or followed the work of Sam Kieth, who I believe was an inker in the early days of "Fish Police?"
Loved Sam!!! We were friends for a while, then, as often happens, we drifted apart. Although he actually only inked a single panel and drew a "Next Issue" pin-up - which I still have. Sam had no idea how good he was! He was humble and funny. Now, seeing his stuff on the stands, it looks like he's finally receiving the kind of following he's always deserved. Way to go, Sam! (Wouldn't want to ink him, though!)
Some of the early "Fish Police" stories were reprinted a few times by different publishers. Is the new collection being compiled from one of the existing editions or from your original art? And did you still have all your art at this point or did you have to track it down?
That stupid art sat in my closet, untouched, for years! And, just when I decided that it was finally time to see if anyone else might appreciate it more than I did, I got the call from IDW - about three months after I sold #1. But the guy I sold it to has been nice enough to let us "borrow" it back (Thanks, Stephen!), So we're reprinting it from all original art. Some of the dialog has changed through the years. Back in the ‘90s, Marvel took out most of the "rougher" language. But, the only reason I was using that kind of language in the first place was that I was 24! And, besides, if other people could swear in their comics then, by golly, so could I! (That's about as salty as my language get these days - it's a maturity thing and it's a Christian thing.)
I would imagine that, in putting this collection together, you've had a chance to go back and look over the comics quite a bit. Is there anything about "Fish Police" that surprises you now, or parts of it that you'd forgotten?
I never look at my old stuff! I'm far too critical about art I drew just last month - it would kill me to go back and read something I wrote and drew almost three decades ago! Did DaVinci go back and look at his old art? Well, yeah, but he was a genius.
"Fish Police" was also made into an animated series at one point. What can you tell us about that experience? Will the cartoon ever be made available for purchase?
The less said about the animated series the better. I think I finally got the last knife out of my back about three months ago.
I hear you're also working on a new "Fish Police" series. What can you tell us about your plans there?
It was time. I started "Fish Police" when I was twenty-four and now I'm...a little older. (I started the book in '84 - you do the Math!) Three years ago, one of my daughters came down with a still-undiagnosed (!) illness. Nothing life-threatening, but I had to quit my job as a third-grade teacher and stay home to care for her. Still, I found that I had plenty of time on my hands, and when I started drawing new covers for the IDW collection, I found that I had missed my drawing table more than I ever thought I would! Plus, the new stuff looked pretty good - for someone who hadn't really drawn anything in more than twenty years! (If I quit now, and then take up my pencil again when I'm 75, I'll bet I'll be the next Art Adams! Or dead. Probably dead.) There's not much I can say about the new book, though, without giving anything away, except that it doesn't pick up where the last one left off. It picks up, well, twenty years later. Things in Fish City have definitely changed: Hook is now running the Fish Police with a force made up entirely of Prawns, the Chief is now the Mayor, etc. And Gill is dropped into the middle of all this - as a homeless street-person, living in "Vagrant's Gardens." In the first issue I used the line, "This ain't yer daddy's 'Fish Police.'" Yeah, it's a cliche and it's been beaten to death, but it really speaks to the Fish Police in the comic, and the Fish Police as a comic!
One thing I found that was very interesting was that I still knew these people - their body-language, the way they spoke, their little idiosyncrasies. It's like that friend you haven't seen for years, but when you get back together years and years later, it's as though no time has gone by at all. Weird.
So you were a cartoonist, left comics, became a teacher and now you're back. During the time you were in the classroom, did your students know about your cartooning past?
I had the two best jobs in the world: Cartoonist and teacher. And, yes, I was able to use drawing literally every day in the classroom. But I never really got into my comic book past. To me, once I was done with comics, I was done with comics. But kids are very visual learners and when we talked about anything, Math, History, whatever; I wouldn't just teach it, I would draw it. And to eight-year olds, it's like you were performing magic - all day long. It kept them engaged and excited. Kids are awesome!
One last thing I wanted to mention before finishing is the recent passing of Paul Nagy, my best friend, letterer and sound-effects guy through every issue of "Fish Police." Paul was a source of inspiration through the entire creative process and continued to inspire the days after. And, while drawing each and every page of the new comic, I miss his voice and I miss his guidance.