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

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

ROBERTSON: Your work on Doctor Who is very well regarded. Were you a fan of that show before drawing the comic?

Click to view larger image. “War-Game” in Doctor Who Magazine #100 (May 1985), written by Alan McKenzie. Marvel Comics Ltd.

RIDGWAY: I don’t like the word “fan.” It’s short for fanatic — like a football fan who will support his team and the players on that team can do no wrong no-matter how many times they foul the opposition. I watched Doctor Who almost from the start (I missed the very first story, and came in with the Daleks). I lost interest during the last few William Hartnell stories, which seemed to be getting sillier, but regained interest when Patrick Traughton became the Doctor. Patrick Traughton had acted in a number of serials on BBC, often in action roles. He was a swashbuckling swordsman in Kidnapped and another serial (I forget which) where he fought Jack Douglass [Family at War]. He also played St. Paul.

Doctor Who replaced an American series called Men into Space starring William Lundigan, which was more serious science fiction and had space concepts by Chesley Bonestell, the famous space science artist who had worked on the films Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, The Conquest of Space and When Worlds Collide. Men into Space was far closer to what I enjoy in science-fiction because it was trying to be technically accurate.

I enjoyed Doctor Who, but I stopped watching it when Colin Baker (who I regarded as my Doctor) was replaced by Sylvester McCoy. Colin was so enthusiastic about his role and could have done a lot more. He was also a much finer actor.

ROBERTSON: You drew a meeting between Dan Dare and the Doctor for the Comic Relief Comic in the early 90s. How did that come about? Was it a thrill?

Click to view larger image. Comic Relief Comic (March 1991), writers: Dan Abnett et al. © Fleetway Publications.

RIDGWAY: Basically, the publishers of Comic Relief Comic asked me if I would be interested. They knew of my love for Dan Dare and my connection to Doctor Who so I must have been an obvious choice. It was fun to do and gave me the opportunity to add bits in the background – I think I got Tin Tin’s spaceship in there, also Space Kingley’s ship. I suppose Dave Gibbons could have also drawn it, although I always preferred the original Dan and Digby.

ROBERTSON: I have to ask how Frobisher came about. You’re obviously proud of him — using him as a profile pic on Facebook.

RIDGWAY: Frobisher was a shape-shifting alien who Steve decided to make a companion for Doctor Who. At first, he could change into anything — even a man complete with a working ray-gun. In the second story, Steve decided he would be a penguin — this fitted in with the story line, which opened in the Arctic. Frobisher was a King penguin — even Frobisher thought Emperor penguin was too ostentatious. I drew Frobisher fairly realistically at first, but the necessity of conveying expressions meant he gradually evolved into his more anthropomorphic form. It was Steve’s idea that Frobisher should develop “monomorphia” — an inability to change shape. A couple of the writers who followed Steve chose to ignore that feature which meant that him returning to penguin form didn’t make much sense. Steve is, by far, the best writer I have ever worked with. His stories had an epic, cosmic quality yet managed to have a humanity that is missing from others.

ROBERTSON: A great artist too, of course. His artwork always reminds me of yours a bit. There are similarities. Have you seen his Sex Pistols comic?

RIDGWAY: I never saw a similarity in our work. I haven’t seen his Sex Pistols comic.

ROBERTSON: It’s really good! It’s your inking his pencils back in Warrior that created a link in my mind between both your work.  It’s interesting that you had less admiration for the seventh Doctor. You did some nice looking strips with that character.

RIDGWAY: I don’t know whether you are an artist or not, but I have never had any trouble telling one artist’s work from another’s. In the Eagle times, a few years ago, there were people telling readers who had drawn what on Dan dare. I could always spot the difference between work by Frank Hampson, Don Harley, Harold Johns, Bruce Cornwell and Desmond Walduck.

I thought that Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor was a bit silly compared with Colin Baker’s. I think Colin is a fine actor who deserved a lot better than the shoddy treatment he received from Michael Grade and the BBC. I don’t think he has ever appeared on BBC since he was dismissed from Doctor Who. His only “crime” seemed to be to try to keep the program from being canceled. I know if I had been an actor and asked to replace Colin, I would have turned it down.

ROBERTSON: Do you know Colin Baker personally?

RIDGWAY: I met Colin Baker a couple of times and spoke to him on the phone on several occasions.

I first met him at a small Doctor Who convention in Bath, where he was a surprise guest. I was impressed by his obvious enthusiasm for the part. He really loved the role and the opportunity it gave him to publicize the Cot Death Syndrome charity — he had lost a son to that. I think he was very badly treated and is a fine actor. I met him again at a Manchester convention when I was working for Defiant and got him interested in writing for Defiant Comics. Unfortunately, Defiant closed down.

Colin thought his fortunes would change when he turned 50 and became eligible for character roles. I don’t know if it has. I think Colin could have made the best Doctor Who ever — given the right material. He could have returned the role to more like that of John Pertwee — more action and with a harder alien edge. He never liked the costume he was forced to wear and would have preferred to be dressed in black. I think, rather than trying to close the series, the BBC should have gone for a more action-based, grittier series that would have appealed more to American audiences (where the show was losing ground). This, basically, is what has been done with the new series — particularly with Christopher Eccleston’s season.

ROBERTSON: What about Steve Parkhouse?

RIDGWAY: Yes, I know Steve although we’ve not been in touch for a long time.

When I started working on Warrior, Steve asked me what sort of things I like to draw. I sent him a sketch of a tall building very like the sort of thing Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel drew for futuristic cities. Steve came up with The Shroud, the Spire and the Stars. The idea of cloning Jesus from DNA on the Shroud of Turin was a terrifically original idea. I wanted Steve to write a follow-up story where the Church intended to provide every planet with a copy of Jesus — to be replaced when the old one wore out. Unfortunately, it never happened.

Click to view larger image. “Home is the Sailor” in Warrior #17 (March 1984), written by Steve Parkhouse. ©Quality Communications Ltd.

When he wrote Home is the Sailor, he wrote it as a bitter tirade against war. I suggested that I saw it as tragedy and waste of a young life full of dreams and promise. Steve re-wrote it.

There are not many writers I have worked with who are prepared to listen to, and work with the artist. Too many writers seem to regard the artist merely as a pen to draw the pictures they can’t themselves draw. As an artist, himself, Steve probably understood both sides of the coin. I met up with Steve twice — once in Morecambe and once in the Lake District. I also visited him when my eldest son, Martin, was at art college in Carlisle.

When we were working on Doctor Who, Steve often didn’t write a script. He phoned me and told me what he needed on each page and picture, and I jotted down notes to draw from. The finished pages went up to Annie Parkhouse, who is now Steve’s wife, and Steve created the dialogue. When I saw it in print, it was the first time I knew what the characters were saying! I think Steve’s work on Doctor Who was absolutely brilliant.

ROBERTSON: Ah, the Marvel method! And Home is the Sailor – that was a powerful little strip. I think your drawing it, a bona fide Commando artist, added to the power of that story. All those lines about “The War comics didn’t show the blood, the pain, the fear.” I’m paraphrasing, probably very badly. But those were the very same comics you had earlier drawn.

RIDGWAY: Two points here:

The Marvel method ranged from a general description of the story with the story requiring breaking down by the artist into pages and then into pictures, to full scripts, with every variation in between. In many cases it was a good way of working because it gave the artist a lot of scope for innovation and creativity. In other cases, it required a complex story to be fitted into the pages that were available.

Commando books are very underrated. The story is extremely compressed to fit what is often a very complex plot into 63 pages. This is done by the use of captions to propel the story along. You can see this same technique in the American Sunday adventure strips of the ’40s and ’50s — Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon. Except for dialog­ue included in the captions, there was no dialogue — certainly no speech balloons. This allowed the story to move along at a very rapid pace — no talking-head shots (well, very few, and only to introduce characters or provide a break between action shots). Too often nowadays, the writer relies on dialog to tell the story — he thinks in terms of a film or play rather than in terms of a novel. Yet an artist, left to his own devices, will use all large action pictures and spread the story so thin that it becomes merely a showcase for his art. The best way is for the writer and artist to work together as a team, bouncing ideas off one another, each adding something to the story telling. One thing that seems to be forgotten is that the artist studies the script and works on the story for considerably longer than the writer and spends far more time on each page than any reader. The artist will see many plot faults that the writer will not have noticed.

ROBERTSON: It’s interesting how different artists react to the Marvel method. It definitely puts a lot of the storytelling into the hands of the artist — which is probably best in comics. However, you then had Gil Kane who appeared disgruntled at writers taking more credit than he felt they deserved, as opposed to John Romita, who seemed to revel in the freedom it gave him to dictate the pacing and layout of stories. Now, the example you give with Commando, specifically regarding captions, do you think that that type of comics veer toward being illustrated stories rather than using the vocabulary of comics? The blending of text and image to tell the story is not as apparent therein? That’s certainly a criticism I’ve seen levelled at Prince Valiant, to the extent that people debate if those even are comics at all.

RIDGWAY: It depends on your perspective and on how far you are willing to go back in history. The first comics were a collection of newspaper strips.  So do you start with newspaper strips? If so, the first newspaper strips were humorous. However, the adventure comics we read today started with newspaper adventure strips. The first newspaper adventure strip was Tarzan of the Apes taken directly from ERB’s novel and had an abbreviated version of the story as a caption inside each picture. That was drawn by Harold Foster who carried on that tradition in Prince Valiant. Flash Gordon used the same format. Buck Rogers, appearing at the same time used dialog balloons, a format followed by the majority of strips. The adventure strips in D.C. Thomson’s early comics — Dandy, Beano and Adventure — all had captions under the pictures and no word balloons, as did the collected version of Rupert and Ken Reid’s Fudge the Elf.

The moment you start to try to define something, your definition stands to become so rigid that it will exclude many things other people would have included and becomes meaningless. You can argue that Prince Valiant is not a comic because of the way text is arranged. You could also say that it is not a comic because it was never intended to be in a comic. You can also argue that the term “comic” comes from collections of humorous newspaper strips, therefore, a story that isn’t humorous isn’t a comic. Perhaps the old term of “a paper” is better.

Click to view larger image. “Fudge the Elf” by Ken Reid. This version colored by Ridgway, as yet unpublished.

I have been coloring Ken Reid’s Fudge with the intention of getting into print with Ken’s son Tony. These are three books — Fudge and the Dragon, Speck’s Inventions, and Fudge in Bubbleville.

ROBERTSON: Well, that work (the Fudge books) is squarely in the vein I was talking about, so you obviously have no compunctions about doing stories in that format. You mentioned Al Williamson. Did you ever meet him?

RIDGWAY: No, I never met him. I got his phone number from Paul Neary and talked to Al on the phone several times. When I was going to draw Hellblazer I went across to New York and had arranged to meet him at Marvel’s offices, but he didn’t turn up. Carl Potts arranged a phone call from Marvel to him and we had a long chat. For a long time, I thought that he hadn’t made the trip because he regarded me as just another fan, but I found out later that it was about the time that his son had been killed in a car crash.

I pencilled a Solomon Kane story and he inked it but he thought my pencils were too skimpy. I talked to Al several other times. He was a very great artist and it’s a pity that he’s known amongst a younger generation as only an inker. He wanted to get Frank Bellamy working in American comics, and was a big fan of Frank Hampson’s work. He used to get Eagle in the States. He said he and Roy Krenkell opened up an issue of Eagle where Dan Dare had landed on Cryptos and they both said, “Wow!” I really liked Al. He and Archie Goodwin made a great team. I’ve just bought Vol. 1 of Secret Agent Corrigan and will be buying the rest when they come out.

ROBERTSON: I was probably one of the last lot kids to be introduced to his work as a penciler. When I was growing up he was doing all his Star Wars stuff.

RIDGWAY: One thing I should like to say about Al is that he was very close to his friends and colleagues.  I have a collection of Al’s stories: Al Williamson Adventures.  One of the stories in there — “Relic” — is dedicated to the memory of Roy Krenkel. I don’t know of many people who have done that sort of thing. Another story in that book — “Out of Phase” — has Roy’s initials on the fins of spacecraft taking off. I also know that he was upset when Alden McWilliams died.

ROBERTSON: I want to briefly talk about the Zoids comics you did in the mid-’80s. More toy-related material, and this time with Grant Morrison — before he’d really made his name. How did that come about?

RIDGWAY: I must have got the work on Zoids due to all the other work I had been doing for Marvel U.K. — Doctor Who, CYRIL, Transformers. I remember meeting Tom DeFalco at their offices. I had also met Jim Shooter when we were both in Birmingham at Phil Clarke’s Nostalgia and Comics shop.

ROBERTSON: Did you draw from the actual toys again (as with Transformers)?

RIDGWAY: I was supplied with all the Zoid models I was using and I drew only two episodes (I think) of the story running in the magazine. I remember one was rather like a stegosaurus and was battery operated. As it walked, its hind leg kept dropping off — not very well constructed!

ROBERTSON: Did you spot the future superstar in Morrison’s script?

Click to view larger image.‘The Liberators” in Warrior #26 (February 1985), written by Grant Morrison. ©Quality Communications Ltd.

I had worked before with Grant Morrison — on Warrior. He seemed to take a delight in killing people as a shock tactic. At the end of the work I did, he had a woman thrown out of the window of a skyscraper — presumably she was killed.

Click to view larger image.”Zoids: in Spider-Man and Zoids #37 ( Nov. 15, 1986) written by Grant Morrison. ©Marvel Comics Ltd.

As the character had been central to an earlier story, I thought it was unsuitable for a children’s comic. A lot of Grant Morrison’s stuff is like that. I’m rather pleased that the only work I did with him for America made a point of no swearing. I think, with a lot of other British writers, he is responsible for comics being produced for an older audience (erroneously labelled “mature”) to the extent that the vast majority of comics are no longer suitable for younger readers. Frankly I deplore the side-lining of the Comics Code Authority.

ROBERTSON: You had misgivings about the murder scene in the Zoids story, but drew it anyway. Have you ever refused to depict anything for moral or other reasons?

RIDGWAY: I didn’t have misgivings about the Zoids story, I merely thought that it was a shock tactic that was inappropriate for what was essentially a kids’ comic. Morrison had no reputation to speak of at that time, so it was up to the editor to make him chance it if they thought it was necessary. I have never actually turned down a script. Until I started work on Hellblazer there would have been no cause. Until that point, the Comics Code Authority was still in operation, which ensured that nothing of an objectionable nature appeared in comics. While I knew Hellblazer was to be a horror comic, I had fully expected it to be horror along the lines of Tomb of Dracula or some such — which I would have found fun. Instead, I found it to be a series set in a seedy, sordid, grimy world that was boring to draw in the extreme. When I read the first script I told Delano I wasn’t sure I wanted to draw it, but he begged me to do it on the basis that if there was anything in the stories I didn’t like we could discuss it. In issue 7 there was a scene in a cinema where Constantine takes the flesh of his girlfriend and sits kissing the blood-dripping skeleton. I told Delano that I didn’t want to draw that sort of thing. Note that was not a refusal to draw in the scene — just an expression of distaste. However, this came back through Karen Berger, the editor, that they would have someone else draw that particular scene. That was OK by me. But Karen said that, while they would accommodate me in this instance, if something was in the scripts, I had to draw it or leave the book. So I left the book. I am not being told I must draw something, or have anyone decide my boundaries for me. Since then, I have made it clear that I will not draw anything with swearing or gratuitous violence in it. I am not opposed to horror as an element of a story, but horror as the main feature does not interest me.

As an incineration engineer, I worked on a incinerator at Wrightington Hospital — which specializes in hip replacements. There I loaded half a human leg into the incinerator to be burnt. That is something real, but it’s not horror — it’s a thing of sadness. What did the loss of that limb mean to its owner? That was just one incident that impressed on me that bits of human beings are not a source of entertainment.

ROBERTSON: Well, I appreciate that. But were you 100% behind everything the comics code authority did (and still does)? It’s taken a lot of criticism for neutering the art form, and making any kind of really mature work difficult to do.

RIDGWAY: I have a copy of the Comics Code (in Reitberger and Fuchs’ book Comics: The Anatomy of a Mass Media) and I think the Comics Code gets a lot of undue criticism. While an emphasis on the sanctity of marriage would appear to be out of place in today’s society, the main emphasis of the Code is to promote the idea that crime does not pay and should not appear glamorous, and that swearing or the use of profanity should be avoided.  I think criticism of the Code comes from people who believe they are sufficiently adult to do without restraint from outside forces. They believe there should be no control or censorship, that they are mature enough to decide what is best for them and therefore what is best for society. I think they are wrong in that belief. Without guidance, rules and control, the only thing that emerges is self-interest — the only consideration is whether it makes money for them.

To me, the only things that should prevent young people reading a comic is that they do not find it interesting or do not have the intellectual background to follow the story line. I recall that Jamie Delano told me that the reason Alan Moore refused to work for DC Comics was the introduction of the label “Suggested for Mature Readers” on the cover of comics. He believed that comics should be suitable to be read by all ages and that the label would lead away from that. It has. Is it mature to swear? I don’t think so. Do comics need graphic violence, perversion and drugs? I don’t think so. The only reason it is there is to add a new twist to an old idea.

The major comic companies in the States are locked into their own multitude of superheroes. Their plots are superhero fights supervillain — end of story. Years ago, TV was locked into Westerns. There was every type of Western imaginable — deadly serious Gunsmoke, family saga Monroes, comedy Loredo. Eventually people got bored and Westerns vanished — replaced by something else.  Perhaps it’s time the superheroes went the same way and we got comics that were not endlessly recycled monthly product, and started to get something that was well-crafted art.

ROBERTSON: I agree of course that the big U.S. companies are almost completely concerned with superheroes, and those comics have increasingly moved away from the code. Now we have sex, violence and swearing in the context of a superhero story, which can be considered pretty ridiculous and possibly offensive. But where is the code’s place in much of the most enjoyable truly “mature” comics of the past few decades: the translated European material, the undergrounds, the alternatives, etc? This stuff displays the variety you are looking for, and was all created without the Comics Code Authority’s approval. Some work is purely for adults and surely that is only good and proper?

RIDGWAY: The Comics Code was brought in by the comic companies themselves, to circumvent the possibility of legislation being brought in to enforce standards to protect children. The American comic scene is built around characters suitable for children. By all means produce comics for a mature market — but is that what is being produced? And is that with the loss of the comics suitable for children? What is “mature”? Sex, violence and swearing only means that it should be kept out of the hands of children — but I, for one, do not class those elements as indications of maturity. There are very few American comics that have any indication of any real depth of feeling or any emotional content other than anger expressed as violence. Any finer human qualities are ignored as being not macho, and it this emphasis that is dangerous as it is teaching that finer human values are weaknesses and are to be ignored.

There are vast differences between the American comic scene and the European scene. Basically, the Americans think in terms of mass production, marketing and product. The Europeans think in terms of an art form, craft and individuality. If you are familiar with how the brain works, you will see that this is the difference between left-brain and right-brain thinking.

The American companies own their characters. Creators are just workers employed to produce stories built around those characters.  If times are good, why risk reducing profits by publishing something completely new that may lose money? If times are hard, they haven’t the money to try anything new. The Americans think in terms of monthly product — largely throwaway. The collections, the trade paperbacks and graphic novels are merely a means of extending the sales of those monthly items — just as DVDs are a means of increasing profits on a cinema film.

In Europe, there are few regular comics — stories are produced as albums and the characters are largely creator-owned. This leads to an expression of individuality, and a care and love for the creator’s own creation like it is their own child. This has resulted in an immensely wide variety of carefully crafted stories published across all Europe. A French creation (like Tintin or Asterix ) will be taken up by various publishers, publishing in their own language. It will stand alongside a science-fiction album from Spain, or a Western from Italy. To a far greater extent than in America, it is the creators’ craft that determines the popularity of the creation. The arrival of a new album is an eagerly awaited event, rather than a monthly ritual. — like going to see the latest Indiana Jones film compared with watching the latest episode of Coronation Street.

Tomorrow: Ridgeway ponders the writer/artist relationship and more.

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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!


  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!