The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.
At the annual Literary Festival in Dundee, amongst all the authors and book signings lies an event of particular interest to the comics enthusiast: Dundee Comics Day. Historically, this event has attracted a wonderful guest list, from Warren Ellis to Bryan Talbot, and this year was no exception, featuring a remarkable line-up including John Wagner, Frank Quitely, Paul Gravett, Cam Kennedy, Colin MacNeil, Robbie Morrison and the editors of "Commando" comic, a long running and popular British war comic.
The loose theme of this years event was "Wot comics taught me...," which nods to Dundee University's new MLitt in Comics, as well as the modules on creating comics at the neighboring Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. But while comics are breaking into the university curriculum in this city, the medium is also becoming of significant academic value across the whole of the UK. The Thought Bubble festival in Leeds later this month celebrates all sequential art and has a Comics Forum as part of its program.
Who better, then, to open the event than Paul Gravett, noted comics historian and prolific author of books about comics, most recently "1001 Comics to Read Before You Die." Introduced by Dr. Chris Murray, founder and lecturer of the Comic Studies MLitt, Gravett based his talk on his personal favorites of comics history and the influence they had had on later creators.
Gravett started with a note about his book and an observation of the audience. Of the 1001 comics listed in his book, around 60 entries were written by himself, the rest pooled from over 70 contributors in around 30 countries. 21 of the contributors, Gravett said, are women. "I point that out because we've got quite a nice gender mix in this audience, not all blokes. Although you'll have noticed, perhaps, that the program today is all blokes. Which is not entirely right, actually, I think -- never mind!"
It's a fact that most dedicated comic festivals and events in the UK's guest lists remain incredibly dominated by men, partially of this is due to slightly smaller numbers of creators as a whole. If one or two invited women can't make it, you're left with a sausage fest, but I'm relieved to say that Dundee has, in the past, attracted many female guests. Larger events, perhaps, have less excuses, and Thought Bubble seems to have broken the mold. London, take note!
Gravett is an irrepressible speaker, squeezing in everyone from Rodolphe Töpffer to Osamu Tezuka in his run down of comic greats, and struggled to pick between Winsor McCay, George McManus, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman as his other favorites. What I took away from Gravett's talk, and indeed, what his book heavily promotes, is the internationality of comics. Comics are far more than their US and UK representatives, more than the European flavor; they are truly a worldwide from of art and literature, something my own studies on women in comics should broaden to include.
Next up were Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering, creators of the historical comic "Burke & Hare" which will shortly be released in the US after success in the UK. Conaghan was spurred to write the comic to correct the many persistent myths that surround Burke and Hare -- namely the belief that they were Scottish grave diggers as opposed to their real history as Irish serial killers.
The strongest influence on both creators was "From Hell" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which is fairly self-evident when you read the comic. If you've seen the movie and would like to read the whole story, pick this one up!
Jimmy O'Ready (aka Montynero), author of "Death Sentence," an independently produced comic, had some words of wisdom for an audience made up of would-be comic creators. "[There's] no point creating comics for money...It seems to me that comics is like athletics; you've got about a thousand people running around earning good money or in some cases earning fortunes, and that's a fantastic thing...but 90% of the comics you see in previews or whatever, people really aren't making any money out of that."
Digital distribution and format dominated the first Q&A session of the day, with everyone agreeing that the distribution was sluggish and that no one had yet created a breakthrough comic that really made use of the freedom that the digital format has. As Dr. Chris Murray said, "We're all waiting for that 'Watchmen' moment, where everyone starts telling you. 'You must read this, you must read this!'"
The second part of the day was hosted by Phil Vaughan, a freelance animator/game designer and lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Accompanying the introduction of the great John Wagner, a large picture of a shed appeared on the overhead projector. Wagner is, of course, the creator of "Judge Dredd," "Strontium Dog," "Button Man" and "History of Violence" amongst many others. Along with his frequent creative partner Alan Grant, Wagner is the godfather of British comics. And the shed, of course, was his first office where he sat with Pat Mills and bashed out those early funnies. The photo was a new one as, on his way to the Dundee Comics Day, he'd stopped in at Mills' house to take a quick snap.
Wagner had some great advice for young writers. "If you're going to make a success of it, you have to do something to get yourself noticed," he instructed, explaining many editors have no time to read through unsolicited submissions. Mills' idea had been to choose an IPC title and they'd write every single comic in it for submission. A full envelope of strips is hard to ignore, and of the 23 submitted, 12 were bought. Once their foot was in the door, a steady stream of work began.
After getting noticed, Wagner said a great lesson comics taught him was, "everything depends on character." His popular character One-Eyed Jack, the precursor to Judge Dredd, was born out of a realization that, "although it's great to have a good hero, it's also great to have a good baddie. When you can combine them in one character, bad and good working together, it's always a strong character."
"The most important lesson I've learned is [to] work with good artists," Wagner said, pointing to a Dredd image illustrated by Brian Bolland. Wagner claimed to be somewhat of a lazy writer, but he sounded more like a great collaborator: "I like to leave a lot of room for the artist to use his own imagination, his own vision, because I don't actually think very visually myself. I think in terms of plot developments, dialogue. I have little conversations in my head, but if you ask me, even now, how many links Dredd has on his badge chain or what's on his left shoulder, I couldn't tell you."
Pointing to two artists in the audience he has worked with many times, Cam Kennedy and Colin McNeil, Wagner said: "I could say to them, picture 1 -- take a full page for this, universe explodes, do us something nice."
Asked by an audience member about the acclaimed film adaptation of "History of Violence" and whether he approved of the changes made to the story, Wagner replied, "I thought they'd made a bad mistake, although I really enjoyed the film. I was still pretty pleased with it, because the previous one, the Judge Dredd film, had been such a disaster in terms of portraying the character...I was sad that they changed it, but maybe they thought my ending had been a bit too gruesome. I dunno -- you wouldn't think that Cronenberg would be put off!"
Wagner was unable to say much about the upcoming new Dredd film, explaining, "the trouble about this is, I've signed a non-disclosure. I would tell you a lot, but I'm never sure what I'm allowed to say." After some thought, he added, "I think the story is better. I wish, perhaps, that the budget had been a little greater. I'm going up to see the final cut next week and I'm hoping that they've corrected some of the problems that existed in the first cut. I can't really say more than that, but in terms of the plot, the structure of the story, it's much more representative of Dredd as he is"
Asked whether Wagner dreams of retiring, the creator responded with a laugh, "I would like to! I would like to retire, but at the moment I can't afford to. I'm still enjoying it, but things take longer. I've done so many Dredds now, what do I do that's new? Yes, I'd like to quit, but I probably won't."
"I hope to be dead when they have to decide [ho Dredd's story ends]," Wagner deadpanned. "When we started the comic, our idea in the way of DC Thompson's comics, [was] that no character should feature permanently...but it was the IPC way, if you've got a winner, keep it going. So when Dredd was created, I never envisioned there would be a problem with the year on year aging. And in actual fact, in terms of writing, I prefer it that way, because much of the character development [that] has come in Dredd has been through his aging and through his maturing as he's getting near retirement, I suppose. It won't happen in my lifetime."
Asked about the possibility of a Button Man film, Wagner responded, "Well, Button Man has been optioned to DreamWorks for 4 or 5 years now, and they've had trouble getting the script. I think they have difficulty getting out of the Hollywood cliché machine. The good thing about Spielberg is that he won't accept that, he's kept it on, he's determined to get something that reflects the darkness of the book and I'm glad of that, but I think this may be the last renewal. But there are several other people who want to run it. In fact, DNA, the people who are doing the Judge Dredd film, would like to do Button Man as well. Eventually it will come, when we get the right script."
Known for his frequent collaborations with other writers, most notably Alan Grant, Wagner was asked about the pros and cons of that approach. "Collaborations with writers are interesting because you have an instant editor and it stops you wasting time going up blind alleys" Wagner answered, "but the drawback of it is, eventually, you'll come to blows. I imagine some people can get along collaborating for a lifetime, like a writer and an artist where you don't cross each others territory too much, but with writers -- Pat and I split up. Over one-page funnies, we started chesting up to each other! Alan and I split up when we would spend a week on one picture, just arguing it back and forth and back and forth."
Asked about his influences and favorites, Wagner heaped praise upon Dundee's finest, DC Thompson. "In terms of comics, my main influences were DC Thompson's comics of the 60s and 70s, and they remain my favorite comics, the old three-page format, because there was sometimes such imagination and cleverness displayed in these stories, and they were nice short sharp little bites that you could read and wait for next weeks installment. I used to have a paper round, and I'd walk along reading the stories. So they're my favorite comics. Once I really got into a comic career, I stopped reading comics, I don't really read them, anymore. It's just because, at the end of the day, I've had enough of them! But DC Thompson -- they influence so much of what I do, just in the way I approach a story, and the self-critical aspect. Because nothing you ever did was good enough for DC Thompson. It's a good rule that you always look at what you do and always criticize yourself. Otherwise, you'll become complacent and you'll think everything you do is perfect -- and it's always far from perfect."
Another of Wagner's successful creations with Grant was "The Bogie Man," and fans are keen for a new installment. "We were talking about this the other day," Wagner mused. "I don't think the last one we did was very successful, I don't think it was as good as the earlier ones. The trouble is that Alan and I no longer live close together, so in order to work together, we either do it by phone or e-mail, or I have to travel up from England to the Borders and sit and do work for a couple of days, and then a few weeks later come up again. It's difficult. I'd like to do another one, but that's something we'll have to see. If we could get back to the standard of the first book and "Chinatoon," well, I'd be glad to do more."
Similarly, Wagner is pondering the idea of a sequel to "The Last American." "We're considering it. It's just in the wind at the moment. But I'd love to see where Mike McMahon [the artist] is now. I'd love to see him do another 'Last American' and see how it came out. We'll see. It's actually more a problem of finding a publisher. If we could find a publisher, then we'd do it."
Finally, Wagner was asked about the political aspect of Judge Dredd stories and whether that was something that gradually increased as the series went on. "Well, he was a character of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. I think the authoritarian mood then was where Dredd sprang from," Wagner explained. "Of course Alan and I are both fairly left-wing, and so we combined elements of right-wing and left-wing. The worst problem for us was when we realized that kids were reading this story uncritically, and they were regarding Dredd as a real genuine hero. So we started writing stories more to portray him as the villain, as a man with bad politics. It's always been an essential part of Dredd, the satire and the politics and reflecting today's world in tomorrow."
With that, Wagner took leave of the dias and writer of the sci-fi swashbuckler "Nikolai Dante," along with "Shakara" and "Shimura" -- two very different comics despite the similar names! -- Robbie Morrison took to the stage. Morrison, also known for writing Batman and Spider-Man, immediately shared an important lesson: "Comics have taught me that if you get bit by a spider then you will develop the powers of a spider!"
Morrison explained that he first broke into comics when he managed to sell a script to DC Thompson, after a year of sending out unsolicited submissions. Sadly, the strip he wrote for, "Starblazer," was cancelled only a month before his script was due to go to press! Confidence bolstered, Morrison kept chipping away and soon sold some scripts to "Judge Dredd," including the well known "Kinky Boots" story.
Explaining that he'd written Dante for 13 years, now, Morrison claimed he would soon be bringing the book to a finale. When asked how he'd feel about someone else writing his characters once he's finished with them, Morrison joked, "Oh, outraged! Hopefully they'll leave Dante as it is. I can't say that, because obviously, I've written Dredd, I've written stuff that has other people's characters, so obviously ,they've given that their blessing. Or not, as the case may be! I probably wouldn't be that happy if somebody else [carried on Dante], but technically, yeah, they can, I suppose. Grrr!"
Speaking about the declining comics industry, Morrison backed the idea of comics that weren't just created for adults: "I'd love to see comics that were aimed at a, maybe not so much a younger audience, but just a more general audience...I think it'd be far healthier for the industry if there was comics aimed at younger audiences or just a general audience, just have a greater range of stories or genres."
Prolific artist Colin MacNeil was next to be introduced, both as a former student of the local art college where he also worked for 2000 AD at the same time, and as a longtime artist for that publisher. A quiet and charming man, MacNeil was incredibly modest about his speaking skills in comparison with the previous guests, but in fact gave a wonderful talk.
The comics of MacNeil's youth, which were primarily British war comics, taught him a "sense of history, and a sense of my place within that." As for comics as a whole, he stated that what they had given him was unmistakeable: "A damned good life. Because most people in their day to day lives, they get up at some ungodly hour in the morning, so they get a bus, so they get a train, so they can go to an office, which they hate, with people that they hate, go for lunch at a place which they hate, go back to the office again, and then eventually, at the end of the day, they get to go home, eventually, after they finish commuting. For me, in the morning -- well, I say 'Morning!'"
"There was actually one other thing which I did think that comics has taught me, and that was bitterness," MacNeil deadpanned. "Mainly directed towards younger, more talented, generally handsome artists who tend to arrive on the scene and, five minutes later, they're top of their game, and I'm still here. Sigh. But apart from that, I'm very well-adjusted!"
Asked by an audience member if he had any projects coming up, MacNeil replied with huge enthusiasm: "[I'm] currently researching a book which I hope to be, in the same way that 'Judge Dredd America' is my magnum opus, as it were of normal comics, let us say, I'm writing a project that I hope will be my greatest work. It will be a book all about the Battle of the Somme in 1916. I've spent about four years so far researching this book, digging through archives and old papers and books and all that, and I've probably got another two years or three years of research before I put pen to paper. It'll be 2016 before the book actually comes out...so you can ask your comic shop about that right now!"
MacNeil explained that, unlike many other war comics, his will be entirely factual, with every character on the page a representation of a real person who was there on that day.
Dr. Chris Murray took the chair for the third and final part of the day, first introducing the "Commando" boys -- editor Callum Laird, deputy editor Scott Montgomery and former editor George Low. The team were there to celebrate 50 years of "Commando" comics, a British war comic which still enjoys strong sales today.
An audience member asked the team why they thought "Commando" had survived so long: "Because it's brilliant!" Laird joked. "I think the fact that they're complete, self-contained stories has quite a lot to do with that. The anthology model definitely died a death. We continued quietly, in our own way, with strong storylines throughout. It's a unique product [with] the size, the digest size. It's so many different things. But we'd like to think it's because we're brilliant."
Cam Kennedy, star artist of "Judge Dredd," "Rogue Trooper," "Star Wars," "Boba Fett" and many others, went straight to questions, obviously having huge fun talking about his prolific career in comics.
Aside from his comics work, Kennedy is a much sought after painter, which is an on and off career for him, and has travelled widely with many friends within the industry all over the world. The artist has an incredibly dry sense of humor, more so even than John Wagner(!), and so much is lost in the translation from words to text, but I highly recommend Cam for any upcoming comic convention as he had the audience in absolute stitches.
Asked whether more Star Wars would be on the cards for him, Kennedy was firm. "No, I've got vision problems now. And, I get fed up with Star Wars," he said to laughter from the audience.
When Kennedy first walked away from Star Wars, tired of drawing "a carpet and a dustbin," he was asked if there was any character from the Star Wars Universe with which he would like to continue. "The only one that makes sense to me is Boba Fett, the bounty hunter." Asked whether he'd want to write it as well, Kennedy replied, "'No, no, no -- John Wagner will write it.' At this time, John had never seen Star Wars."
Adding to MacNeil's earlier assertion that being a comics artist was a fantastic job, Kennedy said, "You just sit in your house, and it's raining so you draw. And somebody eventually sends you money for it," he grinned. "Then, if it's nice, you don't draw; you go fishing."
The last guest of the day was Frank Quitely, who was keen to help out aspiring artists and writers in the audience, and to talk about what he had learned from comics. "Comics really suited me when I was younger, because I was terribly lazy and didn't really like reading words," he began. "I don't know what age I was, but I had been reading comics for years and years and years before I ever actually started reading the words. I only ever read the pictures."
Reflecting on his earliest work for "Electric Soup," a strip called "The Greens," Quitely recalled, "I loved The Broons, so I thought, I'll just do a Broons spoof!" The other artists loved his work but told him that he'd have to change it to avoid copyright infringement. Quitely, remembering his naivete, said, "But obviously everyone will know it's no' the real Broons, so would that not be okay? That's how dumb I was!"
Quitely spoke a little about an upcoming project he hopes to work on in his spare time, one which came about during his last break from drawing due to a recurring back problem. "During this period of convalescence, I started writing short stories of things that I fancied drawing. And most of them weren't really stories as such; they were just scenarios or scenes or some wee sequence that I quite fancied drawing that wasn't really part of anything else. Once I started doing that, I had loads and loads of ideas, but nearly all the ideas took place in a house -- it's probably going back to The Broons again. So I ended up working out a thing where it was like a tenement block. You've got the close in the middle, you've got all these houses, and it's like a doll's house, with the front of it, you can see all the different houses -- this would be like when you open it up at first, and then you go in and you get all these stories that are taking place in all the different flats. So it's all thumbnailed out, it's 40-plus pages, which seems quite daunting to try and actually start the artwork in my spare time."
Quitely also revealed that in addition to working on a number of silent strips, he would like to turn his attention to an autobiographical comic of some sort in the future, but feels he should start small when it comes to writing.
One of the first questioners asked about Grant Morrison, a frequent creative partner of Quitely. "He seems mental," said the audience member. "Is he?"
To big laughs from the audience, Quitely replied, "He thinks about things a lot. He's got some really interesting ideas and things...he can be very animated and enthusiastic about putting his point across. But he's also perfectly ordinary. He's actually a very pleasant and easy to get on with kind of guy." Quitely added, whether it's due to Morrison being so popular, or perhaps slightly nervous, that he does put on a public face which can throw people a little.
The next question involved Morrison's "Batman & Robin," for which Quitely illustrated the first three issues, before he had to step aside from the following three due to his recurring back problem. Asked whether he would have done anything different with the three remaining issues, Quitely responded, "I haven't actually finished reading Grant's 'Batman & Robin' run yet -- for shame! I did the same with 'X-Men.' Once I stopped drawing it, I stopped reading it! It's terrible! It shows a desperate lack of interest ,but there you go!
"I do deliberately try not to think, 'How would I have drawn that?'" he continued. "I've got enough to do, and I'm always far enough behind without actually looking at other people's comics, going, 'Well if I was drawing that...!'"
Asked whether he had finished "Multiversity" and started his project with Mark Millar, Quitely said, "No. And no. The Multiversity thing -- this is another thing that Grant's written -- I know nothing about it. It's a bunch of different books, maybe 8 books, maybe more, and one of them is called 'Pax Americana.' That's the one I'm drawing, and it's the Charlton characters. It's a 38-page one-shot. I have 8 pages of script, and those 8 pages are drawn...if I do the cover next, there'll be more script for me by the time I've finished the cover.
"The thing I'm doing with Mark Millar, I also still don't know anything about," Quitely continued. "I saw Mark the weekend before last. All I know about it, he said it's like Lord of the Rings for superheroes, and it's like Star Wars for superheroes. And this is after me asking him to do something short and with a small cast, something set in the real world, not with superpowers. He just gave me the opposite of everything I asked for!"
One audience member asked who was a good person to look at for not only good art, but good storytelling. "Dave Gibbons is a brilliant storyteller. You never need to go back a page to work out how this character got in this situation." Quitely stated. "He's actually a really good guy to look at because you don't notice the storytelling. You pick up 'Watchmen' to have a look at how he does his storytelling, and between him and Alan Moore, five minutes have passed and you've just read a chapter. You're like, 'God, I wasn't actually paying any attention to the storytelling there,' and it's because it just drags you in."
The final question was about the artist's pen name, and whether he thought a pen name was something an aspiring artist or writer should consider. Quitely, whose real name is Vincent Deighan, responded, "The name Frank Quitely is a spoonerism of quite frankly. When I was 19 or 20, that seemed really clever! We were doing this comic, 'Electric Soup,' and as I say, my stuff was hardly in good taste, but there was other stuff in it that was a bit sexist and a bit predictable...and I didn't want my mum and dad to find out I was doing this type of comic. So other people in the comic were making up funny names for themselves, anyway, and I actually quite liked the idea. I thought, that sounds quite like a name, and also, it'll give me some kind of distance from this. And I just stuck with it, and I don't really think about it. I suppose because Quitely's not a real name, if you Google it, you don't get loads of other names...so I suppose it's good, from that point of view. Maybe if you're gonna make up a name for yourself, just Google loads of stuff, and whatever doesn't come up with any results, make that your name!"
Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.