Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A chat with...Kenny Penman

This year sees the first releases from new indie publishers Blank Slate. I caught up with Blank Slate's Kenny Penman to ask him about the company and its plans for the future.

Who are Blank Slate?

Blank Slate is basically myself and my original business partner James Hamilton. We've owned Sci Fi Bookshop in Edinburgh since around 1986 (it started in 1975) and later tied up with Mike Lake and Nick Landau to open Forbidden Planet stores in a joint project. Those are now the Forbidden Planet International stores around the country as well as in Dublin.

Alongside us we have Isobel Rips who is doing much of the editing and translated the Mawil book and my friend Duncan Bullimore who is a graphic designer by trade and is handling the look of the books. That's all of us.

What made you decide that there was a need for Blank Slate?

In truth, I'm not sure there is. I think the small press has shown it is capable of getting a lot of good material to consumers on its own - look at the likes of Dave Sim, Sam Hiti, Eleanor Davis in the US - Bob Byrne, David Hitchcock, Simone Lia and many more in the UK. They are all producing excellent comics and producing their own books through self-publishing. I think if you want to do it and can find the financial wherewithal to print it, you can produce great work without a publisher.

I guess Blank Slate is here for those who don't want to go down that route and for some foreign comics unlikely to be translated otherwise. Ultimately though it is really because both James and myself have been comics fans since we were about five, have spent a lot of our adult life around comics, are still big comics readers and fancied having a go at publishing stuff we liked which we hoped others would as well.

What is Blank Slate's objective?

You know, I don't think we really have one as such - except to try and get our books to the widest possible market. We hope to put out as many comics as the company can afford from the revenues each release brings in (the start-up capital has come from our own individual pockets), to print some interesting material, to try and nurture some home grown UK talent into finding a readership.

Of course we'll hope for a 'big' hit amongst it but as we all have other jobs we aren't looking for the publishing initially to pay wages. Any profits will be going back in to print the next project. Hopefully we will be able to establish a big enough titles list to allow us to be seen by book stores and comics stores alike as someone whose books you should be carrying.

I think the slight advantage we have is that we have a lot of connections in the business having both worked in it for over 20 years now and we'd hope to be able to pull some of those strings to get the books a chance they might not get coming from a start-up business where the owners were new to the comics world.

Please tell us about Blank Slate's first two releases.

Slate 1 is a collection of the first three issues of Oliver East's comic Trains are...Mint. Oliver has self-published the first three issues. Both Jim and I were taken by it right away and wanted to collect it. It's being done as a nice-looking hardcover and we think it has a chance of finding an audience outside the comics market.

(Above: art by Oli East)

It should appeal to the local Manchester and surrounding areas market, being it is essentially a travel diary about Oliver's walks in those areas. But I think it has a much greater appeal being both an assured and unusual piece of comic art and a piece of social commentary also. Oliver has become a bit in-demand since we agreed to do the collection, having just provided all the artwork for the latest Elbow album The Seldom Seen Kid. It won't appeal to everyone, but leave your preconceptions of what a comic should be and read it and I'm sure you'll love it. It's 100 pages with a new cover, endpapers and chapter sheets.

Slate 2 is a translation of German cartoonist Mawil's second book, We Can Still Be Friends. He has six books in print in Germany and seems to win their independent comics creator award practically every year. Isobel who did the translation is one of Forbidden Planet's buyers and a huge comics fan. Her normal taste is Spider-Man and superheroes mostly, but she LOVES Mawil. She translated it for us and I thought it was fantastic also, and I was delighted to find a book that appealed to Superhero and non-superhero comics fan alike.

(Above: art by Mawil)

He's a fantastic cartoonist, one of those guys who just looks like he could always draw without having to learn. His comics are funny and charming. We sent a few proof copies out for review and got some great responses from people like Joe Matt and Jeffrey Brown - Isobel met Scott Mcloud at the Frankfurt book fair and he's a big fan - so we know the book has appeal if we can get it to people. Mawil did have a previous book, Beach Safari, published by Top Shelf, many years back, but we think this is a better book with much wider appeal.

If you ever fancied someone who didn't fancy you back then you'll love this. It's a 64 page softcover and if successful we'd hope to do more Mawil in future.

What is the Blank Slate ethos when it comes to new work? Are you open for submissions?

I think we hope that we truly are a 'blank slate' - we'll consider anything, with the possible exception of Superheroes or really out-there avant garde work the likes of which people like Le Dernier Cri might publish (not because we don't like those ourselves - in many cases we do - we just think there are a lot of publishers who can do those sorts of books better justice than we'd be able to).

We are always open to submissions and we have had quite a few already, one of which, from UK artist Richard Cowdry, already has us talking to him about a possible future collection. I can't promise we are the great hope for ignored comics creators but we are certainly interested in new work. I'll reply to every submission though some of those might take me a little while - I owe a couple of people replies right now.

How many titles do you plan to release a year?

I'd like to say, with some certainty, about 12, but it has taken us a fair while to finally get the first two to the printers. Whilst we had printed magazines before printing books was a whole new learning experience; doing a translation was an interesting but quite demanding task and just liasing with the artists to try and get the books as close to their vision as possible all took time. So it might be less, but lets say we hope for 12, probably two books every two months or so. If we fall short it will be due to inexperience or the fact no-one likes or buys the books. If we find we can do more we gradually will.

Do you think that the comics industry in this country is in a better or worse state than it was 10 years ago, and why?

I think in terms of it's finances - comic industry UK PLC if you like - probably a little better. Manga has obviously reached into the wider bookstore market and increased the potential for a widened comics readership. Comics are taken more seriously by 'real' book publishers than before (although I personally have some reservations about some of the stuff they are choosing to print) comics-based movies have supported sales of Superhero comics through the traditional comics shop network.

Tesco seems to have more comics on its racks than ever. Some of them, like Shaun the Sheep and Cartoon Network, providing good new outlets for UK-based cartoonists, which must be a good thing. Most comics fans learnt to read comics as kids, so it's nice to see a new audience being built [through all-ages comics]. I do think where things have suffered is in the adventure/adult market. 2000 AD is still a hot bed for new creators and is still producing some exceptional material but it's power has certainly waned. I see it as showing only 20K in sales these days when at its height it was five or six times that.

There are no major magazine publishers willing to take a risk with older age comics. Certainly no-one looking to produce the next Crisis or Deadline. I don't think this is unique to the UK though. The comics mag has pretty much died out in countries like France and Spain as well. I'm quite excited about things like Self Made Hero and their Manga Shakespeare as a great attempt at building new readership and the new David Fickling comic has some talented creators like Kate Brown working for it and looks like it might be very good.

On the other hand the small press scene seems to me more healthy than it has ever been since the days of Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's Escape. I think there will be many new stars emerge from what is a revitalised do-it-yourself ethos. All in all I'm personally seeing more stuff I want to read year on year (as a guidepost I'd probably rate Love & Rockets as my favourite all-time comic) in both the UK and US markets, in comics generally.

Kenny, thanks for your time.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part one)

(Above: Dead Signal art by PJ Holden)

Earlier this month I interviewed artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing via Google Chat. We were supposed to be talking about Dead Signal, their new series for science fiction comic 2000 AD. Instead, we rambled on like lunatics.


Al Ewing is an up and coming young writer who works mainly for 2000 AD, although he has also written two novels. In this interview he also talks about Tempest, his 'ninja judge' strip that has been running for the last five months in the Judge Dredd Megazine.

PJ Holden is a comic artist who has worked for 2000 AD, Image Comics and Fantagraphics.

MB: Tell me about Dead Signal.

AE: The original idea for Dead Signal was basically as you see in the first episode, televised bounty hunters driven by debt in a world that has a lot of insane and black-humour twists on our own.

MB: What happened?

AE: Matt Smith, editor of 2000 AD, took a look at it and decided it was a bit unoriginal, or it needed something. The original plot was very... it was kind of a buddy movie. He suggested the cliffhanger for the first episode, the debt I was threatening the lead with being called in. At this point I decided that this didn't really go far enough, so without spoilering it I decided to blow up the whole thing.

MB: Do you mean that you rewrote it?

AE: By the end of the first series it'll be at a very different place, and hopefully if the readers like it we'll be launching something more ongoing from that. By episode five you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. I blew it to pieces. Tell him, PJ!

PJ: I can say nothing. Except. I had to laugh when I saw that someone pegged it as a typical 2000 AD bounty hunter series. I thought 'hmm... not nearly by half it isn't...'

MB: OK, chaps. Rewind a bit. Give us a Dead Signal pimp. Why should we read it, in art and script terms? You've gone all postmodern aintcha!?!

AE: It's basically the furthest Matt's allowed me to go so far.

MB: In terms of content/style/both?

AE: He's really let me do whatever I wanted, both in terms of story and art. By which I mean that I've been given PJ, who can do anything and cheerfully agreed to. Best artist I've worked with and I'm not just saying that because he's here.

MB: Are we talking a mix of art styles then, PJ?

PJ: The art. Well, I'm trying my little heart out. I thought long and hard about how I was going to get this series to look unique and how I'd be able to play with the art in the different levels of... well, I can't say too much.

But, you know the flashback panel in the first episode where the series goes from noir to cartoony and back to noir again (drawn in a very weak approximation of the style of Little Nemo in Slumberland)? Expect another change in art to reflect the difference in the story. It was easily the toughest thing I've drawn, and, I think, for a typical 2000 AD reader the episode with that change in will be the most difficult episode.

MB: The first episode is a good set-up. I wanted to read more

AE: I'm a bit paranoid about reader reaction. They like it now, but...

PJ: Al, I don't think there's any point in worrying about it. I've never really managed to peg how readers react (I thought they'd love Warzone*, they didn't).

MB: At first glance Dead Signal looks like a satire on celebrity culture and reality TV, but you're saying that it's going to go off in mad directions.

AE: It is both of those things. There's a lot of satire, but there are other levels that it's going to go to.

MB: And these are formal levels, in terms of how it's presented and the mechanics of a comic strip? In terms of the grammar of comics?

AE: Kind of... it's a bit hard to talk about this without setting up a massive spoiler. But yes, we do play with the formal aspects in a couple of places.

MB: How challenging was that for you as an artist, PJ, or was it fun?

PJ: It's been tough. It's my first completely new thing for 2000 AD, so every part of that world is out of my head, and you make decisions, sometimes, that don't play out as well as you like, but it's allowed me to push myself. There're some interesting things in episode five that on paper were really simple, but, when you go to draw them, are insanely difficult. I think that episode is nearly my favourite because it's so radically different.

AE: What's your actual favourite?

PJ: Looking back over the art, irritatingly episode one, I think, looks the best. Page one, especially. We're looking at a kind of gritty ‘70s New York with a character that's loosely inspired by Brendan McCarthy’s sense of design. The level of grit is about where I'd like every episode to be.

AE: I love the chase in episode two. I thought that came out really well in the black & white art.

PJ: Actually, anything with the city in it I like. I just like this made-up ‘70s New York we’ve got in the strip (not really what it's like, but kind of filtered through the brain of me, age 11).

MB: Given that we risk spoiling Dead Signal, let's talk a bit more generally about 2000 AD and your art and writing? Where do you see yourselves in terms of your comic careers? What has Dead Signal allowed you to do in terms of taking yourselves to the next level? And what's your next career move (horrible term)?

PJ: Well, we're both off to the New York Comic Con and I'm taking about six months off cus of my new baby, so career on short-term pause.

(Above: advert for I, Zombie)

AE: Well, personally it's given me more confidence about what I can pull off, which I'm translating into a Dredd ten-pager at the moment. Next career move is going to be to write another novel, for myself this time - plus I need to talk to Dom Reardon about doing something for Image. We talked at the New Year about that but nothing happened. I need to get some old files off an old computer, and what with writing I, Zombie [a novel] I've not had a chance to dig out all the cables and the old monitor etc.

MB: What's I, Zombie about?

AE: I, Zombie is a bonkers story of a zombie detective learning the mystery behind his origins. It involves shooting, werewolf chases, the end of the world and giant man-eating worms, and one of the characters is very clearly Philip Glenister.

MB: This trip to New York is a bit of a networking opportunity...

PJ: Maybe something will come from the New York trip, maybe it won’t.

AE: It'll be nice just to see the Americans, and their ways. They tip their bar people. It's madness. You eat peanuts right off the bar and drink out of bottles instead of proper pints. Or so I hear.

PJ: Al's emailed me about where he can push the envelope of Dead signal next. So, if it goes down well (and if the website is any indicator it seems to be) there'll be more Dead Signal.

Go to part two, three, four or five of this interview.

*Warzone is a Judge Dredd strip by John Wagner and PJ Holden that received a mixed response.
Here's a review of the first episode (scroll down slightly).

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part two)

(Above: the cover to Fearless issue 1 by PJ Holden)

This is the second part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month. Part one is here.

MB: How frustrating is the lack of domestic markets for new writers and artists? It feels like you've both spent a long time getting this far (for that reason).

PJ: It's more frustrating that, in the past few years, I've only been able to ramp my productivity up to a fairly steady 10/15 pages per month. There're plenty of (non-paying) markets that are non-domestic.

Al: I think to be fair it's more because I started off being rubbish, and I'm still fairly crap at pitching to people who aren't Matt Smith at 2000 AD. To be honest, I'm finding myself doing a lot of non-comics stuff; radio panel shows, that sort of thing. If I could make that pay, that would be nice.

PJ: Work is out there. It's just finding the time to do it. Image comics, especially, I'd spend a great part of my career just drawing creator-owned comics via Image if I could find the time.

Al: There's no shortage of work, it's just unlocking those doors.

MB: But you need to get paid, surely. Aren't you at the stage where you should be paid?

PJ: Well, I approach work in two ways: unpaid? I need to own it. Work for hire? Thank you, I'll take that cheque. But, I think, for the long term (and I mean, 20/60 years) I want to have built a sizable portfolio of creator-owned work, otherwise I'm just gonna be toiling in the trenches in perpetuity making someone else’s comic.

Al: I think Phonogram is probably the big success story with regards to UK folk at Image...

MB: PJ, are you hoping that one of these creator-owned comics might be the next Star Wars/Harry Potter?

PJ: Nope, but I can't help noticing that the happiest creators, the ones enjoying what they do are the ones that have created something totally new that they own - Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Warren Ellis and others. And too many comic artists spent the rest of their lives chained to the drawing table drawing Batman/Superman/whateverman.

MB: Would you prefer to be rich or revered?

PJ: Revered, but it's easy to be revered, just meet lots and lots of people, keep the ones that like you and dispatch the others. As long as I can pay my bills, I'm happy (but then I'm in the enviable position of having a well paid, part time job).

MB: Have you guys left the small press behind?

PJ: I think I've done the small press as much as I can. I don't think I'm reaching anyone new there, at least not in the UK.

MB: PJ, any more of your Image comic, Fearless on the horizon?

PJ: If there is more Fearless it won't be for at least a year (or two). Back to Dead Signal. I have to say - episode one is, I think, he first thing I've been really proud off in some time.

MB: What, in terms of your own work, hasn't been working for you?

PJ: Most of Fearless. The whole thing took too long, and the storytelling suffered because of it. Also, some really crap drawing.

MB: Al, you said earlier you were crap? PJ, you've just said that about Fearless? Why so down on your abilities, or is it to make sure you don't get complacent?

AE: I don't think I am any more. But I am very slow at the moment, which is bad. I need to increase my speed now. I can't rest on my laurels, since I've barely got one leaf of a laurel. And also because I'm being accused in the letters pages of being the boastingest boaster in Boastington Hall.

MB: Ah, our interview for the Meg’...

AE: Well, I was boasting, to be fair. It was the drink. And, frankly, there's nothing wrong with being proud of your work.

PJ: I think I've a fairly realistic opinion of my work, it's hard to be sure, but I do think I know when my art is just not as good as it could be. (And I have drawn other stuff that does look really good. I just haven't finished it yet). Also I did quite like the little Future Shock I did with Alec Worley.

AE: I'd be just as damned if I said something like 'yeah, this is a bit rubbish' because then nobody would bother to read it. You've got to develop a persona and sell it. I think what you've got to do in terms of self-publicity is just be confident about what you do and not flinch or back down from it. Which can make you look very hoity-toity to some people, especially if they don't like what you're doing.

Go to part three, four or five of this interview.

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part three)

(Above: Dead Signal cover for 2000 AD by Nick Percival)

This is the third part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month. Here are parts one and two.

MB: Are you both proud of how far you've come?

AE: Guardedly, yes. What really helps is my brother being proud of me. That was a good moment when I heard that. Mum and Dad are very proud as well, but Tom's the person who got me into 2000 AD and he really understands the significance of me managing to actually achieve what I've wanted to do all my life, whereas my parents are just glad I've made good with my foolish hobby.

PJ :I'm amused at how about 80% of the reviews of my work say 'this is his best work yet' or 'seems to have really improved since the last time'. Which means I'm either fucking great now, or I was really, really shit to begin with! I'm proud of my reputation within 2000 AD of the go-to guy for deadline crunches. And, despite that, the work isn't shite.

AE: PJ's more than just the go-to guy for deadlines - he's the go-to guy when you need something done exactly the way you wanted it. I firmly believe he's our generation's Dave Gibbons.

PJ: Cheers, though I seem to be drawing comparisons to Brett Ewins a lot. Brett Ewins on Rogue was one of my favourite things. The episode with Venus Bluegenes where she's looking down (I have no idea which issue) is just a gorgeous drawing.

Al: Brett on Rogue was absolutely gorgeous...

MB: Is comics a foolish hobby?

AE: I've been advised that what I should really do is become a factory inspector. My Dad came at me with that once. Apparently it's a job with a future.

MB: PJ, Is it tiring being the go-to guy? Presumably, there's no room for error if your guy who pulls everyone's fat out of the fire.

PJ: Not tiring at all, I worry that maybe being a speed freak my art would suffer, but since I'm actually fast (and if I have a six week deadline or a one week deadline the work doesn't look any different) and not just crunching for deadlines I don't think that's the case (in other words: if it's rubbish - it's no reflection on the time it took).

All I really want to do - and the point of my drawing - is to make me at 11 happy. That's it. I figure if I can make me happy at 11 then I'll be doing something similar for others. It's just a shame that the average age of a reader is 30. Not much my artwork can do to help you out of a mid-life crisis. Also, when you have deadline crunches you can do more work and if you do more work, you get paid more and there’s more chance of comics becoming a proper job.

MB: What do you guys think you need to do next to develop as creators?

Al: I need to be doing what I do now in half the time.

PJ: I dunno, I keep hoping something I do will suddenly propel me into the stratosphere (or at least let me leave my day job) but I'm not sure that overnight success really happens to many people. But I've just gotta keep drawing and making sure the next drawing is better than the last.

AE: I'm just slow. I spend hours working out how to do things, and then more hours getting the dialogue into the perfect shape, although it's nowhere near perfect enough for my liking. I'm fine with that very methodical, perfectionist way of working, but I need to organise it more and just improve my working practices and make myself more efficient. Cut down on wanking, for example. Twice a week is enough for any man.

MB: Which is your wanking hand and which is your writing hand? Maybe you can wank and write. Or wank straight onto the page.

AE: That's a set-up I'm not going to dignify with a punchline.

MB: PJ, would you like to carry on doing completely original strips or do you see the benefit of doing Dredd et al?

PJ: I think doing both is best. Warren Ellis has talked before about how he went off to do creator-owned work only, got called in to do some Marvel work and found that the Marvel work was creating a completely new audience for his creator-owned work. The George Clooney idea (I think it's him) of one worthy film to one blockbuster. Besides, who in their right mind would turn down the chance to draw Dredd!?!

MB: Ok, pimp some creators worth watching. Up-and-coming and established. Who should people read/observe artwise if they want to learn their comic craft?

PJ: I have no idea, I rarely get to comic shops, so ... you know, I know no-one.

(Above: Iron Fist 'brings the awesome' courtesy of Brubaker, Fraction and Aja)

AE: I'm loving Matt Fraction right now. I think his Iron Fist is a perfect comic.

MB: What makes it perfect?

AE: It's taking a character and using him or her to the fullest, boiling it down to the basics and then... I mean, you've seen the martial arts sequences.

MB: No.

AE: You have to read it. It was a huge influence on Tempest, in that I decided 'I will make this series as awesome as humanly possible’. In fact, I was going to call the first series 'Bring The Awesome' but Matt Smith wouldn't let me.

PJ: Heh.

MB: Is that an Iron Fist quote?

AE: No, but The Awesome should be brought and Iron Fist does bring it.

PJ: I think that's a quintessentially Al Ewing thing. He ramps everything up to 11.

MB: Will Tempest return?

AE: Yes. Matt is open to more, although not this year. If I can get permission, the next arc will be Tempest vs. The All-New Deathfist.

MB: What would you guys like to do if you broke the States?

PJ: Not sure, I don't have any dream project and I can't think, for the life of me, what my artwork would suit. I figure an obscure ‘70s DC title, resurrected. That's what most 2000 AD droids end up doing, right?


MB: Turn him round or The Reverse Aquaman?

PJ: He he.

AE: Like the Reverse Flash - Reverse Aquaman can control everything that's not in the sea. I want to work on the kids’ titles - Marvel Adventures, the Animated books.

MB: Reverse Aquaman controls everything?

AE: Yes, even Superman. And Aquaman has to fight him with his finny friends.

MB: Why do you want to do the kids’ books?

AE: Because they're unsullied by continuity. They have their own, simpler continuity, which makes them a giant playground for fun ideas. Look at what Jeff Parker's been doing! If I worked on the Hulk, I'd need to get involved with Skrulls and Red Hulk and so on... but if I could work on Adventures Hulk, it'd just be a 24-page one-off full of Hulky fun.

Go to part four or five of this interview.

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part four)

(Above: Tempest cover art for the Judge Dredd Megazine by Jon Davis Hunt)

This is the fourth part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month. Here are parts one, two and three.

MB: You're a bit of a Lee/Kirby/Ditko man aintcha, Al?

AE: Yeah, I do love my Kirby and Ditko. Lee, less so, but he was a vital component. And Lee did do that jazzy True Believer talk that I've got a lot of mileage from pastiching over the years.

PJ: Me and Al on 'Mr A'.

Al: I'd have to read so much Ayn Rand to do that justice.

MB: What can we learn from those '60s Marvel bods?

AE: Three words: Done In One.

MB: Done in one issue? Continuity - lots of fun or the Devil incarnate?

PJ: Continuity - fun when you can keep it fuzzy, otherwise just a giant pain in the ass.

AE: The sheer amount of genius they regularly packed into those very early issues - I'm thinking Fantastic Four around the Galactus period, the Ditko Spidey and Dr. Strange... and it was before they just started recycling their old concepts - which I'm guilty of in the Dreddworld - so it was all new and all mad. And all pretty much done in one issue! Three episodes was an epic. Galactus took fifteen in the Ultimate universe.

(Above: interview with Jack Kirby that I stumbled across while looking for a Galactus image)

PJ: There is /was a sense that anything could happen - new characters exploring new worlds and meeting new giant universe-eating aliens. Now, it feels like the readers already know everything that has/will have happened.

MB: I wondered about that, Al. You reference Dredd continuity a bit in Tempest. Necessary or the fan boy in you?

AE: The thing about Dredd that makes it work is continuity. Barring those early episodes with fat policemen running around it's a really structured world, and it's the only comic universe that operates in real time. Whereas Spidey isn't 100 years old or whatever he would be by now. With Dredd, John Wagner basically created a perfect storytelling machine, and delving back into the past is one of the many, many ways of bringing water up from that well, and it's the one I'm most comfortable with. On the other hand, I'm conscious that that's the exact thing I don't like when a lot of American writers do it with their childhood heroes, so I'm trying to do other things.

MB: How is a Dredd strip the perfect storytelling machine?

AE: Dredd as a whole - the whole world. You can tell any stories with it. It's a beautiful machine made out of a million parts, all of which you can pick up and play with or examine in detail. Although to actually drive the Dreddworld you need to be fully qualified and I'm not that. In fact, a story in itself is a kind of machine - a machine for taking people places. And the variables of the machine are how many people you want to take with you and how far you want to take them.

MB: Tell me about Dead Signal in terms of those variables.

AE: Obviously I'm trying to take as many people as possible as far as possible, but we're taking the machine through some strange territory and we're probably going to lose some people, who will remain drifting forever in idea-space. But with Dead Signal I think getting to that faraway place is the important thing. People can always catch up if they need to.

MB: But that's a sacrifice you're prepared to make for an interesting comic strip?

AE: Yeah, whereas with Dredd I want to drive a big bus to a fun, seaside destination.

MB: Dredd should be familiar?

AE: It should be a fun day out for all the family and not a harrowing trek into the unknown. I think it should be surprising in what it does but familiar in what it is. It's a big, wonderful world, but it has rules. I can't have Dredd be a Skrull.

MB: OK. Some silly questions. Hulk vs. Tharg, chaps. Who wins?

PJ: Easy. Tharg.

AE: Tharg, obviously. He'd just turn his thrill viewer on maximum and make the Hulk fight a miniature Blackhawk.

MB: What's the worst thing about comics?

PJ: The Internet.

MB: PJ, are you referring to message boards?

PJ: Alright, not the Internet, message boards

MB: I agree.

Al: Worst thing is that there aren't enough good comics and too many rubbish ones.

MB: Best thing about comics.

AE: They're still around.

PJ: Blimey, where to start?

AE: You can do anything with comics. Literally anything.

PJ: They can do ANYTHING. They can be ANYTHING. You can create one with thousands of pounds worth of equipment or with a pencil and some paper.

MB: Is that what Dead Signal is about? Pushing the boundaries in terms of comics and 2000 AD?

AE: No, Dead Signal is about people shooting each other. Zarjaz!
Go to part five of this interview.

A chat with...PJ Holden and Al Ewing (part five)

(Above: art by PJ Holden from Dead Signal. NB: The finished strip is in colour)

This is the fifth and final part of an online chat that I had with artist PJ Holden and writer Al Ewing earlier this month.
Go to part one, two, three or four.

MB: Tell us about forthcoming projects, chaps?

PJ: I have to finish a 12-page script called IMAGO that's been on my drawing table for over a year (the shame) and do a six page sample for a series, which hasn't landed a publisher yet. And I'll be doing that when I take six months off starting from the end of Dead Signal. The baby’s due on the 11th of June, but this is our second and it's been the most difficult pregnancy, wife has been off (doctor’s orders) and unable to look after our son, so a lot of looking after both of them has fallen to me and I haven't been able to get back on top of the Dead Signal deadlines since episode 2. So I figure, meet my commitments, take some time off, regroup and start back again.

MB: Al, what are you up to?

AE: 'Odessaland', a murder-mystery set in the Ukraine, but not the one we know. That'll probably take me two years to write, followed by schlepping it around publishers. And more comics, of course.

MB: Tell us about the comics.

AE: For 2000AD... as much Dredd as I can sell, plus a putative five-episoder called 'Disaster 2010'. But that one's not even at the plot stage so by the time it comes out it'll probably be called something completely different. And it'll be about space foetuses or something.

MB: Any plans to try and break America?

AE: Yes - I reckon the best way forward is Image, and I'm freed up enough to start working on that now that I, Zombie's finally done.

MB: Anything else you guys want to say?

PJ: My column for 2000 AD Review will continue - 12 episodes in total, I've written the next couple. I thought I'd find it difficult but I've been tempted to make them a weekly feature. But 12 is a good number, gives me a year of it and then I'll bung them all into a LULU self-published book.

MB: Will that be a sort of how-to book?

PJ: Yeah, take those 12 columns, 500 words a piece, add some more, and then a little how-to, a kind of 'Drawing comics as a professional: what to do in year two' (almost all advice I've ever seen is about getting your foot in the door, this is about keeping it there)

(Above: more art from Dead Signal by PJ Holden)

MB: PJ, should we expect weirder and weirder art from you a la Dead Signal?

PJ: Well, I don't do weird - I can try, but it's just not in me. I'm not Brendan McCarthy, Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave McKean. You get cartoony realism from me. But, with that said, I'm hoping to keep up with where Al is taking us all and the weirdest episode is probably the most straightforward in terms of the way the art is drawn. (In fact, in many respects that's what makes the art in that episode weird)

MB: I'm so confused about Dead Signal.

AE: You say that now...

PJ: Well, Al, Matt Smith and I, I think we're all tentatively prepared for the reaction to be appalling. It's been good, but knowing how it's going to play out means that the only way people will get a sense of how they feel about it will be when the first episode is done and dusted. And, based on the some preliminary ideas Al has sent, if they liked that and feel comfy in that world, well... they shouldn't put their slippers on just yet.

MB: I’m intrigued. I liked the wordplay in episode one a lot. If wordplay is the right term? Debtcopter, abortron. Is wordmash a better word?

AE: 'Abortron' is a pun. If Debtcopter's a pun it's a happy coincidence. Wordplay's as good a word as any, but I'm not as into it as other writers. Si Spurrier loves words. You can tell. I know Alan Moore enjoys a good old-fashioned punfest occasionally.

MB: Al, I know that you’re into the idea of revamping old characters. Any in particular that you’d like to bring back from the Brit’ comics graveyard?

AE: Revamping things... one day I will bring back Harry Angel.

MB: Harry Angel is...?

AE: Harry Angel - a man who crashed an experimental computer plane and had the computer embed in his shoulder. The computer now drives his body, which means he can essentially fly. If you drop him from any height he can 'glide' to earth. Basically he's remembered as this dreadful character, and he's someone I'd like to rehabilitate.

MB: Where would you both like to be in terms of your respective careers in 5 years time?

AE : I'd like to have won an Eagle Award. Too late this year, but maybe next year...

PJ: A 2000AD old hand, who's working for Marvel / DC while forging completely new works for Image while drawing damn well. (Oh yeah, I want some awards too, maybe that'll be the year I win a newcomer award!)

MB: Do the Eagle Awards mean anything?

PJ: Only if I'd been nominated :o).

AE: They do to me. It'd be like winning an Oscar. I can honestly say, because I have no children, that winning an Eagle Award would be the proudest moment of my life.

PJ: Well, to this day, being told I could get some work for 2000AD (even after one child) still ranks up there.

MB: Thanks, fellas, for a fun interview.

PJ: Right, Al, now he's going, let's talk about all the mad things about to happen in Dead Signal. I loved that bit where he turns into a giant radioactive ham sandwich

AE: Hush! I hear breathing at the keyhole.

PJ Holden and Al Ewing's new comic strip Dead Signal is being serialised in science fiction comic 2000 AD now.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Make Mine Manga!

I approached the How Manga Took Over The World exhibition at Manchester’s Urbis museum with some trepidation. I’m not a massive manga and anime fan and certainly don’t know my shonen from my shojo. However, perhaps because I’m not a fan, I found that I got a lot out of this exhibition, which, despite being relatively small, is densely packed with information.

Urbis itself is a massive glass ski-slope of a building that sits just across from Victoria Station. It houses all sorts of exhibitions, from retrospectives on music and street culture to showcases of local graduate work. On the day I attended the museum, the foyer had been given over to a youth information festival with stallholders handing out flyers about subjects as diverse as housing and sexuality. There were also some children doing various arts activities, which, I’m informed, is a regular weekly event. It was nice to see Urbis doing its bit to encourage young people to come into the museum. I hope that as they get older, they’ll visit again.

Anyway, one ride later in Urbis’s rather unique lift*, constructed, I kid you not, by Italian rollercoaster engineers, and I was thrust into world of manga and anime. Fortunately for me, Urbis had come up with some nifty ways of combating my ignorance of both.

The first was a rather stylish comic strip introduction to manga drawn by Dave Siddall, which not only gave a brief history of Japanese comics and animation, but also presented both in terms of their cultural context and their growing impact on other countries’ media. Thanks, Dave, for holding my hand as I took my first faltering steps as a potential mangaphile…

Dave’s comic strip was accompanied by a definition of manga, which, if I were nitpicking, I would say should be the first thing in the exhibition, and some text that gave a potted history of the form. There was also information about Japanese artist Hokusai, who apparently coined the term manga, alongside examples of his work.

The second nifty thing that Urbis had done was to split the exhibition into separate sections that each dealt with different types of manga/anime. Each section was prefaced by a little introduction from Umeko, a manga character specifically created for the show by artist Sonia Leong. Depending on what subject she was introducing, Umeko, or ‘Plum Blossom Child’, was presented as, amongst other things, a vamp, a little girl or an action heroine. The various types of manga and anime covered by the exhibition were adult manga, manga for commercial and educational purposes, action and horror manga, and cute manga. There was also a section in the exhibition about Japanese fashions and trends, a manga lounge where you could read comics and draw, and a mini-cinema playing anime.

And so the first thing that I did was to venture into the adult section (stop sniggering at the back…). To be honest, this was more out of a desire to get this section out of the way. Items inside included a bondage Hello Kitty, a brief guide to love hotels (Google it, actually, maybe not…) and some rather disturbing anime. Suitably sickened, I stumbled back out past the attendants, it’s 18s only, and, journalistic duty done, started to relax and enjoy the rest of the exhibition.

And I really did…

Enjoy it, I mean.

To my mind, a good exhibition is all about context. You don’t just want to know what something is; you want to know its context. So not only did I get information about Naruto and Studio Ghibli, I also got an insight into and information about Tokyo street fashions and cosplay.

And if the above is gibberish to you, then you’ll probably enjoy the exhibition too. However, if you’re a big manga and anime fan, a word of warning, it may well be that everything in the show is old news to you, a snapshot of a sub-culture that you’re already immersed in.

For this old fart though (in his 30s and losing his hair), it was a real eye-opener and a tantalising glimpse of a vibrant medium (or media, perhaps – manga and anime do tend to get shoehorned together) that I've previously failed to appreciate fully.

My highlights were pretty much everything except the adult manga. My lowlights…well, it has to be bondage Hello Kitty (shudder).

But there was so much to take in that I feel the show warrants a second visit and, despite her whips and chains, even Kitty won’t stop me from returning.

*If you want to know why the lift’s unique, then I’m afraid you’ll just have to visit Urbis.

How Manga Took Over The World runs until 27 September 2008. And here are some photos of the show.