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

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

ROBERTSON: And Eagle was a success for a long time. So why do you think other publishers didn’t follow their model?

RIDGWAY: Other publishers thought in terms of “cheap and cheerful.” They had been producing children’s papers (they weren’t called comics) successfully for a long time. Why change? Even when the Mirror Group decided they wanted to do a paper similar to Eagle (to be called Bulldog), they seemed to think only in terms of poaching Frank Hampson — not his entire team. When they later took over Eagle they dismantled the studio Frank Hampson set up and set about cheapening the entire paper — losing much of the staff in the process.

Hulton Press’ approach to Eagle was the same as to their other papers — they produced quality magazines. Their Picture Post used the best photographers and journalists available. It was published on high-quality paper and in photogravure. Picture Post was a class act all round. When you are working for something like that, you are working for the best and it inspires you to produce your best work. Hulton’s saw Eagle as another magazine and resourced it accordingly. Marcus Morris saw it as a means to educate children in Christian values. Frank Hampson, looked at the top American Sunday newspaper strips — Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon — and wanted to produce something as good. Frank Hampson was paid a salary, was part of a pension scheme and given facilities and staff to produce what is possibly the best strip in the world. Hulton’s sold advertising in Eagle — Derek Lord (who was Eagle editor under Marcus Morris) told me that Walls ice cream paid £1,000 per week for the Tommy Walls strip near the back page of Eagle. £1,000 was worth far more in the 1950s than it is today — it would probably have paid the wages of every artist and writer on Eagle.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Hulton’s is the fact that it was a family-owned business. As such it would have been built up by people who cared about their business and had invested loving care in what they did. The other publishers were probably in the hands of accountants — whose idea of making money is greater efficiency and cost-cutting — if one man can produce artwork in a comic that parents will buy for their kids, why do you need a team?

Eagle thinking was Rolls Royce. Other comics from the major publishers were Model T Fords. They didn’t follow Eagle’s way because they “knew better” — they were trying to maximize profits for company shareholders.

ROBERTSON: What about original art? Which companies let you keep your artwork, or do they all keep it?

RIDGWAY: All the companies I have worked with — with the exception of D.C.Thomson – return the artwork. This wasn’t always so. It is generally considered that the companies only own the copyright, not the artwork itself. In cases where there is a penciller and an inker, two-thirds of the work is returned to the penciller, one third to the inker.

Nowadays, artwork can easily be sent electronically, so it doesn’t apply to the same extent.

ROBERTSON: So if possible you’d want to avoid sending your artwork to D.C. Thomson. Did you e-mail in, for instance, the recent Commando story you did, “Sea Clash”?

“Sea Clash” cover of Commando #4338, written by writer: Alan Hebden. ©2010 D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.

RIDGWAY: I always send covers for Commando on CD. I checked with George Low, when he was editor of Commando, whether I could send pages on CD and he had no objection to that but the process department wanted them at 600 dpi which would make every page between three and six megabytes. At that time I didn’t have broadband so I considered putting the pages on CD, but I always find that scanning pages is a chore, so, having sent pages by post for many years, I continue to send pages that way. I have drawn thousands of pages for Commando and have no sentimental connection with them. To keep them, with the hope of selling one or two of them to a collector, would occupy a lot of space and would require cataloguing in order to find a particular page. It isn’t worth the effort.

ROBERTSON: I want to ask you a couple of things regarding your Commando artwork. Firstly, the stories are usually pretty strictly limited to two panels a page throughout. However, I notice — taking “Sea Clash” as an example again — that your pages do vary up the layout a little bit within the confines of the format.  How important is that to you in terms of the storytelling?

RIDGWAY: Whether there are one, two, or three panels to a page is largely up to the editor as is the size of the pictures. As I understand it, the writer produces a script that will have more pictures than the standard 140 pictures per book. The editor goes through the story and whittles it down to suit, deciding what will go on each page and editing the text to suit. The whole thing is then typed up in Commando’s standard script format.

Having drawn Commando stories for so long, I have been given the facility to break up pictures and combine other pictures as I think fit, but what can be done is severely limited by captions across the top and bottom of the picture and the fact if you increase the size of one picture, it is at the expense of the rest of the page. Unfortunately, the captions are necessary to enable the stories to be compressed into the 63 pages. The captions also mean that the available space in a picture is limited, the pictures are virtually like a Cinemascope shape, with everything compressed into an area that is quite wide compared to the height. This means that the angle at which the scene can be drawn (especially with crowd scenes) can only be horizontal. It also means that a close-up of a face will leave glaringly empty space on either side.

In an American comic (based around a grid of six pictures per page), there is far more that can be done with picture shape and arrangement. If you study the work of Al Williamson on comic books, you will see how he used overlapping pictures to give an illusion of larger pictures. He also did the same in the Star Wars newspaper strip (especially the Sunday strip which had to accommodate full-page, half-page and third-page formats). Frank Bellamy used picture shape for impact. This is particularly noticeable in his Heroes and Thunderbirds work. He also carried it into the Garth newspaper strip.

With both artists, it is noticeable that there is very little by way of captions in their work, and where there are captions they have clearly marked boxes. If I draw a gutter on a Commando page running at an angle across the page, the caption at the top of the lower picture cuts a sizable chunk off the space available to that picture — either that, or it is unclear which picture the caption is for. It could also interfere with the caption at the bottom of the upper picture. So, picture shape can be a great help in giving pages impact and variety. Unfortunately, Commando stories allow very little variation.

ROBERTSON: Just to pin this down further; taking page 14 here from “Sea Clash.” You have three panels — one that can be seen to take up the whole page, a second with a jagged border and the third is circular and looks like it’s floating deep in the ocean. It’s a particularly creative layout for a Commando story. Would all these choices have been down to you or your editor?

“Sea Clash”

RIDGWAY: The script called for one half-page pic and two quarter-page pics. The decision to make one pic appear to take up the entire page, and to inset the others as unusual shapes is mine.

ROBERTSON: And when would you have drawn this? I’m interested in the time delay between you doing it and publication.

RIDGWAY: It was published roughly three months after I finished it.

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