David Roberston: An Interview with John Ridgway (Part One of Two)

Posted by on February 22nd, 2011 at 9:00 AM

John Ridgway’s art confused me when I was a child. His old-school, scratchy ink lines look almost as if they are not strong enough to support the characters and environments they portray, as if they are about to cave in on themselves. When his art was trailed in the “Next Issue …” blurb in issue #8 of Marvel U.K.’s Transformers, I thought it looked pretty weak. Up to this point, the comic had been reprinting the bombastic artwork from the U.S. comic, all crash bang wallop. This Ridgway panel showed a subdued image of a robot … strolling out from under a tree. His work should be the least suited to depicting the science-fiction worlds of Doctor Who, Transformers or Zoids, but inexplicably it works — perfectly.

Before I became aware of his work in these comics, Ridgway had already been drawing for more than a decade on titles such as Warrior and Commando. (His work continues to appear in the latter to this day.) With his expertise in creating atmospheres to the fore, his style also lends itself to fantasy tales, such as Summer Magic (a proto-Harry Potter type story published in the 1980s). His unique take on Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk, and establishing the template for DC’s Hellblazer made his reputation in American comics.

I found Ridgway extremely open as an interviewee. He surprised me on a few occasions with his opinions and how forthright he was with them. It made for an interesting chat.

David Robertson

Click to view larger image. “Hunger” in Hellblazer #1 (January 1988), written by Jamie Delano. ©1988 DC Comics Inc.

DAVID ROBERTSON: How did the Hellblazer job come about? It was really your big break into U.S. comics. It had a big launch, being a spin-off from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

JOHN RIDGWAY: Jamie Delano was a close friend of Alan Moore’s, and I had worked with them both — Delano had written a Doctor Who story. Carl Potts at Marvel U.S. had already got me working for Marvel in the States. I had a long background of drawing comics for Commando, and I had shown I could produce a variety of work, both realistic and fantasy. At that time I was probably the highest-profile artist at Marvel U.K. after Alan Davis. Alan Davis was altering all Delano’s scripts for Captain Britain and had fallen out with Alan Moore. So, I suppose I was a natural choice.

Click to view larger image. “The Evil That Men Do” in The Incredible Hulk #335 (September 1987,), written by Peter David. ©1987 Marvel Characters Inc.

ROBERTSON: Ah, now your work for Marvel. I must ask about your issue of The Hulk, which has gone down as somewhat of a cult classic. They’ve reprinted it at least a few times that I know of.  That story was really creepy, and quite a change of tone for The Hulk. How did you enjoy drawing that one?

RIDGWAY: If I remember, it was a full script. Peter David is a good writer with a lot of experience. He didn’t over-write picture descriptions and left a lot to the reader’s own imagination. I have no problem doing creepy, but I think horror in a comic is a waste of time — the reader is too remote. It’s the same with a big-budget film seen on a small TV screen — the impact is lost. The only slight problem I had was with police uniforms and had to modify them after they sent me ref for the correct uniform for that particular state. I enjoyed it quite a lot and Peter David told me he liked what I had done. Unfortunately, it was only a fill-in to give the regular artist a breathing space. I would have enjoyed doing some more.

ROBERTSON: It certainly made an impact. I imagine that the Hulk and Hellblazer stuff is what the readers in the U.S. recognize you for most. Would that be true to say?

RIDGWAY: Yes, I should think that’s right.

ROBERTSON: What are you working on right now, as we speak?

RIDGWAY: I’m currently working on an 11-page Torchwood story — don’t know which issue it will go in. Also have another Commando story on the go — this one about a giant French submarine (it really existed), large enough to carry a floatplane in a hanger. Also coloring up a series I drew about 15 years ago, called Age of Heroes for the new Strip Magazine and writing a science-fiction series called Frontiers for the same Bosnian publisher. In my spare time, I am coloring Ken Reid’s Fudge the Elf, Syd Jordan’s Earthspace/Lance McLane/Jeff Hawke and Ron Turner’s Space Ace, all for possible collections for graphic albums. Apart from that, nothing much …

ROBERTSON: Wow, so you’re as busy as ever, if not busier. Do you see it as an aim for yourself to get involved with creator-owned work?

RIDGWAY: Essentially. I had planned to retire this year and concentrate on my own stuff.

ROBERTSON: Oh! OK, I’ll ask you what that entails later, but first I’d like to ask how you got into comics.  I believe you were established in another field before starting in the business.

RIDGWAY: I went to engineering college rather than art school, so I went into an engineering drawing office when I was 17 — drawing and eventually designing ventilation schemes and air-conditioning plants. At the same time, I was drawing up ideas for comics with a vague idea of sometime drawing comics. One of the men I worked with had a sister who worked for the Daily Mirror and he sent her a strip I had drawn — a Western. The main character was drawn from a photo of Rock Hudson. The Mirror said that if I lived in the London area they would have taken me on. (That could have been a get-out without putting me down). The plant section at the H & V company closed down and I went to work in the DO at Dunlops in Manchester, working on the design of rubber lifeboats, submarine escape suits, etc. Then, as Dunlops were moving to Skelmersdale, I went to work for a company making radiators for commercial vehicles. I specialized there on the closed-circuit cooling equipment and taught myself to design and draw wiring diagrams for the equipment. At that time, I had also started drawing Commando stories for D.C. Thomsons, more or less as a paid hobby. I then went on to an engineering company building coal-fired stokers, conveyors for the coal prep plants and incinerators. I specialized on the incinerators, learning the physics and chemistry of the combustion processes, refractory engineering and more complex electrical design. With the decline in the coal industry, and the increasing percentage of plastic material in the waste being handled by incinerators, it became no longer viable for the company to design new incineration plants. At that time, I had started work on Warrior magazine which led to Doctor Who and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. The security of that work gave me the opportunity to move out of engineering and become a full-time freelance artist.

ROBERTSON: So you’ve always been using your design and drawing skills in your jobs along the way. Interesting that you were drawing ideas for comics from the age of 17. I take it you were reading comics from a young age?

RIDGWAY: I started with Tiger Tim and Chicks’ Own then progressed to Dandy and Beano. I was 10 when the Eagle came out, and that was a great incentive to draw. After Lion came out I created a comic on a pad of writing paper called (imaginatively enough) Tiger. It lasted for about half an issue. I grew up on TV21, Junior Express and Junior Mirror.

I should add that technical knowledge is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps me fill in details and understand precisely what I am seeing on a photograph when drawing Commando stuff. On the other hand, I find it almost impossible to draw something I know could not work. If I design a spacecraft, for instance, it is usually a lot smoother and more streamlined than those that have been created since the first Star Wars films. This is not because streamlining is not necessary in space, but rather because sharp edges on a spacecraft would lead to different temperatures on the edges joined by the edge. One side would be more brightly lit than the other, therefore having a higher temperature than the darker face and this would lead to different amounts of expansion, resulting in stresses on the joint, metal fatigue and, eventually, fracture. In terms of expansion, a refractory firebrick, for instance, would have expanded by 1.5 mm at a temp of 1000 deg C.

ROBERTSON: Ah … OK. I’ll take your word for it, John. Your technical knowledge outstrips mine. You can’t just throw caution to the wind and draw something that looks nice if it’s too improbable. Did you have favourite stories in the comics you read growing up? Any particular writers and/or artists?

RIDGWAY: In those days, very few artists and writers were given credits. I think Frank S. Pepper, writing Captain Condor was the the only writer I was aware of, but i thought Captain Condor was too meandering a story to be really interesting. I loved Dan Dare, but it was only with Operation Saturn that I took notice of who was drawing it. Burne Hogarth was an artist I admired. His work on Tarzan, appearing in Mike Moorcock’s Tarzan Adventures was beautifully drawn after his first few weeks’ work. Mike Moorcock made sure that readers knew all the artists — Bob Lubbers, John Celardo, etc. There was also Alden McWilliams drawing Twin Earths (which appeared in various formats) and WDL’s Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,  Syd Jordan’s Jeff Hawke, Ray Bailey’s Tom Corbett, Space Cadet newpaper strip, Mac Raboy on Captain Marvel Jr. and Flash Gordon, Graham Cotton drawing Air Ace stories and lots of stories in Tiger, Arturo Del Castillo on The Three Musketeers, Wayne Boring’s Superman (Australian black-and-white reprints), Ken Reid’s Fudge the Elf (before he went to D.C. Thomson and created Jonah). There were many artists, few writers.

ROBERTSON: It’s amazing how many great artists have been forgotten, just because they weren’t credited. Kids grew up loving the particular style of one artist but didn’t know who they were. Now, you said your first published work was for D.C. Thomson’s and Commando. When was this, and was it a case of sending stuff to their office on spec? I assume that stuff was uncredited on publication?

RIDGWAY: Actually, my first published work was for War Picture Library, Air Ace Library and an annual for WDL, Manchester about 12 months after I got married. I married Rita in 1975; we are still going strong. The War and Air Ace stuff was eight-page fillers; the annual was just a couple of illustrations. The War and Air stuff was uncredited. The annual stuff was credited to the wrong guy. From there I went to D.C. Thomson and started drawing Commando stories, evenings and weekends for extra cash to furnish the house and pay for holidays. My first son, Martin was born 18 months after we were married, and my youngest son, Ian, came 18 months after that.

ROBERTSON: Of all your Commando stories, do any come to mind as a favorite for you?

RIDGWAY: I’ve drawn so many Commando stories that they all tend to run together in my mind.

One thing I do remember is the very first story I drew: Mustang Ace. One of the characters was named Olaf and there seemed to be several close-ups of him with the description “Close-up of Olaf looking grim.” Now, whenever my wife sees me drawing a close-up, she says “Close-up of Olaf looking grim.”

Click to view larger image. “Mustang Ace” in Commando #546  ©1971 D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.

The stories I most enjoy are the historical ones – Romans or Vikings or Ancient Greeks. They often give me the chance to distinguish between characters as there can be a wide variety of costumes. Those stories often give me a chance to draw some atmospheric scenes and also draw scenery. I also love horses and these stories often allow me to draw them. Stories like Journey’s End 3928, Army of Heroes 3413 and Seek the Sword 3640 come to mind.

Click to view larger image. “Army of Heroes” in Commando #3413 (March 2001), D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.

Click to view larger image. “Seek the Sword” in Commando #3640, ©2003 D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.

ROBERTSON: Do you prefer drawing scenery or people?

RIDGWAY: That’s a difficult question to answer. Rather like “do I prefer eating to drinking?” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like to go for long without either.

A film director will spend ages finding the right location for a scene, but it’s not much good without actors. Scenery adds atmosphere and variety to a story, especially where you have color available and the page shape and picture layout allows you to vary the picture shape to suit the scene as you see it.

A close-up of a character is often interesting to draw, but if it’s a character you know you will never see again after you finish that book, what’s the interest in developing that character in your own mind? The character becomes a casual acquaintance rather than someone you know well — little more than someone you pass in the street. The first time you draw a German Tiger tank from WWII you will probably copy a photograph. Draw it again and you will probably have to construct it — complete with all the wheels and suspension, hatches spades strapped on the side etc. etc. Draw it a hundred times and it’s just another chore.

One thing I hate drawing is skyscrapers. All the windows are slightly different in size due to perspective. Finish that building and go on to the one next door. Thousands of windows again. And so on down the street. Then start the next picture with its skyscrapers — and the next picture, and the next.

Probably, this is why I want to draw my own stuff. I can tell the stories in my own way, in my own terms. If I want to draw a sorcerer’s tower on a high crag, I can arrange a tall picture. I can add pictures and combine pictures and do the same with dialogue.

So it’s not a case of whether I prefer drawing scenery or people, it’s a case of story itself, the characters and drama of the locations. It’s a question of context.

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5 Responses to “David Roberston: An Interview with John Ridgway (Part One of Two)”

  1. vollsticks says:

    Thanks for a wonderful trip down memory lane! I, too grew up with Mr. Ridgeway’s art on all those old Marvel UK titles and 2000ad and had to “grow into” his work…I think he’s one of the most under-rated comics artists England has ever produced. Thanks for a great interview!

    Ant

  2. steve block says:

    Not a bad interview, and it’s nice to see an artist as assured of his opinions as Ridgway is, he comes across a bit like Geoffry Boycott, although being from Lancashire he may not forgive me that comment. Incidentally, it’s Patrick Troughton, not Traughton.

  3. steve block says:

    Geoffrey Boycott…!

  4. […] John Ridgeway, interviewed in the Comics Journal and curently working on a Torchwood comic, is frank, open and honest about the current comics […]

  5. Excellent interview, it’s great to see such an opinionated artist speaking his mind!