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

Posted by on February 23rd, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Previously: Part One.

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DAVID ROBERTSON: You said earlier that 2000 AD’s attitude to you around the early/mid ’80s was that you’d have to prove yourself able to work for them, but later on, they came and asked for you. Was that purely down to your profile being boosted by the U.S. work, or was there a personnel changed over at 2000 AD? Was it the very same people inviting you aboard who had previously not been so keen?

JOHN RIDGWAY: Steve McManus was editor when I first approached them. He was still in overall charge when I started to get regular work, but Richard Burton was editor, with Alan McKenzie as sub-editor. Why they chose to approach me is open to conjecture — I didn’t approach them a second time.

ROBERTSON: It’s interesting to hear your attitude to horror in comics. When I think of something like Summer Magic in 2000 AD, your work there proves it can be done very effectively. Do you look back on those stories fondly?

RIDGWAY: Summer Magic was the style of story I had hoped that Hellblazer would be. It was much nearer to the Hammer Films school of horror than the Clive Barker school. The scripts were well written (Alan McKenzie is a close friend of Steve Parkhouse and Steve had given him pointers on how to write). In many ways, the story is like the “Man of Iron” Transformers story I worked on with Steve , also featuring a young boy. While there are elements of horror in the story, the main theme was the boy learning magic against the background of a horror/mystery. The story featured many things I love: creepy trees with twisted roots and branches, rural community (I am not a city-loving person), and likable characters. I never found anyone in Hellblazer to be likable — they were all entirely self-interested, lacking any real human warmth or feeling. If you compare the version of Constantine in Hellblazer with the version in The Trenchcoat Brigade you will see that John Ney Reiber’s version is someone you could grow to like. Delano’s version was someone who would sacrifice his friends to save himself.

ROBERTSON: It’s true there are similarities between Summer Magic and your Transformers story. That hadn’t occurred to me before. It was quite a leap you know, speaking as one of those young readers at the time, between issue 8 of Transformers, which reprinted the U.S. bombastic action style story — at the end of which all the Transformers are blown to pieces. Then moving on to your story, which looked so subdued comparatively, and also had no immediate connection to the storyline that had been running. I don’t know if you’re aware of the effect it had on young readers at the time!

RIDGWAY: Tom DeFalco once explained the difficulties in doing a comic based around licensed products.  Contracts have to be signed and the lead-in to the comic planned long before the comic is seen. In fact, if a toy is not successful, the comic could only start coming out after the toy had left the market. This happened with Zoids, Mask and several other toy lines that did not catch on and lost the comic companies money. It was obvious, however, that the monthly material from Marvel in the States would not be sufficient for a weekly British comic. So Marvel U.K. was going to have to fill the gap.

When Steve and I were asked to produce material for a British version, I had only seen a few pages of the American comic and we had only the barest notion of the background except that the Transformers had come to Earth in the prehistoric past and had lain dormant until the present day, when the second set — the villains — had arrived. I didn’t even see character-reference drawings, so all my Transformers were drawn from the actual toys. We had no idea of the plot lines, so we had to come up with something that did not interfere with Marvel’s plot lines.

I came up with the idea of a second set of Transformers in Britain, having come to Earth to find the first lot and Steve took it from there. Steve’s style of storytelling is nothing like the American style but I was totally unaware of whether the “Man of Iron” story was received any better or any worse than the Americans. As I say, I only saw a few pages of the American version, but I wouldn’t have liked to work on that style of story. Constant battles soon become boring to draw and lack atmosphere. Steve introduced an element of mystery and fantasy, which could have taken the story much further.

Going back to Summer Magic, I’m rather surprised that you considered it a horror story. I don’t consider it to be much different from the Harry Potter stories. Horror is a rather mild element, not a predominant feature as was the case in Hellblazer.

“Summer Magic’ in 2000 AD #576, May 28, 1988, written by Alan McKenzie. ©Fleetway Publications

ROBERTSON: Yes, that’s true. I guess I was thinking mainly of the showdown at the end with the creature. I was struck at the time by just how spooky it looked standing amongst the trees. Summer Magic was really quite out of place and different from everything else in 2000 AD, wasn’t it?

RIDGWAY: It was something I found very enjoyable to draw — I’m sorry it didn’t continue when David Bishop became editor, but he had ideas as to where 2000 AD should be heading, and Luke Kirby didn’t fit in with his ideas. Seeing that it was a forerunner to Books of Magic from DC Comics, and Harry Potter — I think he got it wrong.

ROBERTSON: It is a shame it didn’t go any further. I take it you and Alan McKenzie don’t own Luke Kirby. You wouldn’t be able to start up the story again and publish it yourself?

RIDGWAY: When David Bishop took over 2000 AD, it was apparent that he didn’t want Alan McKenzie or me working on the magazine. Neither of us signed over the rights to Luke Kirby, but part of the contract for other work on the Megazine called for me to sign over my rights. Of course, there is nothing to stop us doing The Fred Kirby Chronicles — but as Alan McKenzie is reported to have said I was unreliable, that is unlikely to happen.

ROBERTSON: Why did he say that?

RIDGWAY: I don’t know. I heard, years later, that he had said it in an interview. As I have always prided myself in my reliability, I found it offensive.

ROBERTSON: Maybe he never said it at all. Or these things sometimes seem worse in print.

RIDGWAY: You may be right. The same thought had occurred to me. But there is no way to prove it one way or the other.

ROBERTSON: Maybe he’ll read the interview and get in touch. I’m interested in the set-up whereby you had to sign over the rights to Luke Kirby in order to get other work. How is that put to you? Bluntly? Give us your character or you don’t get any more work?

RIDGWAY: It was a long-standing tradition in comics that the publisher owns everything you do. D.C. Thomson always asked you to sign and return a form to say that you had received payment and thereby acknowledged that they owned all rights. You don’t get reprint fees or anything. That is fine — you accept it and get on with the next job. I.P.C.  (and that company’s forerunners) didn’t issue any contracts that I am aware of.  It was “accepted” that work done for them was theirs and you didn’t create a fuss. As an engineer, that seemed quite normal to me. I designed an incinerator and was paid for my work. The incinerator was built. If another incinerator was built from that design, I didn’t expect to be paid twice. If a lot were built I didn’t expect royalties.

However, contracts started to be issued on work for 2000 AD to make it compatible with the terms offered by Marvel and DC in the States, who were offering more-regular work with royalties and reprint fees. I should have received contracts for my work, but never did (I didn’t receive any deadlines either — things seemed a bit sloppy in the editorial department).

At the time I was working on “The Night Walker” — the second Luke Kirby story — I was also working on My Name is Chaos for DC Comics (four 48-page books). I had no deadlines for Luke Kirby, but I had agreed to a deadline with DC and had signed a contract with them. I was drawing six pages in black and white per week for DC, followed by three pages per week (in color) for 2000 AD — working alternate weeks. I then fell ill and spent several weeks in hospital over a period of three months, during which I couldn’t work. I was 51 at the time and found this extremely worrying as my father had died when he was 50. Eventually I was diagnosed with pernicious anaemia, which, until it is treated leads to all sorts of effects connected to nervousness — panic attacks, depression etc.

Once the problem was diagnosed, it could be treated (it is not curable). I returned to work with DC pressing me to complete within the agreed deadline. I was forced to give the DC work priority and return to Luke Kirby after I had finished that. You will appreciate that, overall, this did not affect the period needed to complete Luke Kirby (except that there was the extra three-month period when I was incapacitated). However, as there was no deadline, and other artists were taking very long times to complete their work, I thought little of it.

Sometime later, I was asked by Charles Vess (whom I had worked with on a couple of other occasions) to work with him on Prince Valiant for Marvel. This was to be another four 48-page series. Charlie was to write it, I would pencil it, and he would ink it. As we were starting (I had just had designs for plate armor for the characters accepted), I was approached by DC to draw the monthly Books of Magic comic. DC were prepared to wait until I finished Prince Valiant but then press of work forced Charlie to step out of the inking. Having seen what other Marvel inkers had done with my work, I decided to do the inking myself. Unfortunately, DC could not wait the extra time until I could start Magic so I lost that series. About that time, Alan McKenzie approached me about the next Luke Kirby story. He was now coming up with a schedule. (I think there had been a problem with the powers that be about the amount of work being paid for and accumulating in drawers.) There was no way I could keep to that schedule so he asked whether I minded if Steve Parkhouse drew it. I had no objections, but Steve asked that I ink it. I explained that the inking, as far as I was concerned, was the longest part of the job. So Steve did the job on his own. I therefore lost Books of Magic and Luke Kirby due to Charlie dropping out of the inking on Prince Valiant.

I did tell Alan McKenzie that I wanted to do the next Luke Kirby story (the last) but I found that he had also gone to Steve for that. I should point out that was an unwritten agreement at 2000 AD that the original creators of a character are approached first about any new story.

When David Bishop took over 2000 AD I asked him about work. He told me there would be no more Luke Kirby stories, the story by Nick Abadzis would not be continued and there were to be no more Vector 13 stories. In fact, nothing I had been working on. So when I was asked to sign a form saying that they owned Luke Kirby, I didn’t bother.  I didn’t receive any work from 2000 AD while he or Andy Diggle were editors.

I finally received work from Alan Barnes when he took over. By that time Rebellion owned 2000 AD and issued a contract for every job. An addendum of each contract was a list of all the work done by that person on work owned by that company — which included Luke Kirby. I doubt that rebellion ever knew that I hadn’t signed away Kirby, and it no longer seemed worthwhile making a fuss.

ROBERTSON: Interesting. You never did give them the rights to the character, but they assumed them anyway. I see your point with the incinerator design analogy. I do wonder though, because it’s art that you’re involved in, isn’t it different? Your comics work is more akin to a novel or a song than an appliance. You wouldn’t have Stephen King or Paul McCartney being paid nothing each time their work is repackaged.

RIDGWAY: Quite true — but then if Stephen King or Paul McCartney had worked in British comics you would never have heard of them. There is only Eagle that put all the writers’ and artists’ names on the pages. At D.C. Thomson, the only name on work was Dudley D. Watkins. At Fleetway/Odhams/Amalgamated, it was Frank S. Pepper (on Captain Condor).

It was only when Marvel and DC in the States started rustling British creators that the Amalgamated — by that time they were I.P.C. — (and only on 2000 AD) started to realize they had to do something or lose their creators. When I started working for the States, the dollar was nearly 1:1. Rates in the UK started to go up to match the American rates and contracts were introduced. But the dollar started to fall against the pound — to almost 2:1. Rates have remained very much the same for 15 years.

Creators and contributors were largely anonymous in this country until events like Westminster Comic Marts and UKCAC introduced readers to creators. If you are freelance and anonymous you have no protection from exploitation. People today think of Eagle as old-fashioned. It wasn’t. It was well in advance of its time. Decent printing, large format, quality paper, rates of pay and regular work that ensured a livelihood for the creators without them having to seek work elsewhere or “hibernate” when their services were not required. Quality stories and very good artwork. Merchandising from Dan Dare, Riders of the Range, and PC 49. Readers’ page to make readers feel they were part of what was going on. Hulton’s Boys’ and Girls’ Exhibition. Spin-off books. Hulton’s treated their comics as a class act — something other publishers in this country failed to do.

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