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

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

ROBERTSON: Right. The other question I wanted to ask was about your use of computer packages, which is certainly very evident in your Commando covers. Which products do you use and what do you use them for?

RIDGWAY: My most regularly used program is Photoshop. I use that program to put together layers containing various elements: sky, sea, land, vehicles. I also use it to paint in details on the various models I create. The models were generally made in a program called Cybermotion (a program created and developed by a friend in Germany). Unfortunately, I cannot get in touch with him now, so I am having to switch to a program called Blender 3D. I used Cybermotion to create simplified models of vehicles I use on a regular basis. Once the model is built, it is a simple matter to position and light it for the picture I am drawing. Some of the vehicles in Commando (such as the German half-track) are difficult to draw because of the angles of the plating on the body. A lot of work getting the scale right can be eliminated using a CGI model. It also ensures that I don’t have to draw parts that are hidden in shadow and all shadows cast (like the shadow of the gun barrel on the body of tank) are correct.

I think I mentioned Eureka, a comic I was helping to create some years ago. My story for that (Frontiers) was going to use a tremendous amount of CGI work. Frontiers is now being drawn by Nick Spender, working from my CGI models. This ensures that the spacecraft, for instance, are consistent and, if merchandised, the spacecraft models can be manufactured accurately. It also ensures that the inside areas (cockpit, cabins, airlocks, etc.) do actually fit inside the hull. For the models, I am using POV-Ray (Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer) and Blender. I have used POV-Ray for many years — mainly for amusement.

Unlike the majority of 3d programs, POV-Ray does not have a visual interface. Everything is described in text form and is based on primitive shapes – sphere, box, cylinder, torus etc. In other cgi construction programs, a sphere is created by a mesh of triangles and made to appear curved by using a special shading feature called Phong shading. In POV-Ray, a sphere is created directly from the mathematical formula of a sphere. A sphere created from a mesh may contain thousands of triangles, each of which has to be processed to produce an image. In POV-Ray only one item has to be processed. A POV-Ray file is, therefore, much smaller than the files in other programs. A sphere in POV-Ray is described as follows:

sphere{<20,10,5>, 3 pigment{rgb<0.2,0.4,0.7>} finish{ambient 0 .3 specular 0.2} normal{ granite 0.4}}

It seems complicated at first, but is easy to use once you are used to it.

I also have Bryce and Vue, two programs used for creating scenes. These programs also use primitive shapes but complex objects are fiddly to assemble. They are mainly for creating scenes rather than objects. Later versions of Vue now have procedural  terrains and this is a big plus for creating landscapes. There are also features for creating entire planets. I find the best program for creating landscapes is Terragen. I am no expert in using Terragen, but you have only to look at the gallery on their site to see pictures that are entirely photorealistic.

Computer art of space station, as yet unpublished.

This space-station was built entirely from primitive shapes. The background was a flat plane with a picture of the Earth composited in Photoshop onto a starry space background  created separately in POV-Ray. The whole scene was rendered in POV-Ray without any post-processing (except that required during compositing the background).

ROBERTSON: When did you begin incorporating computers into your work, and how reticent or keen were you at first?

RIDGWAY: I’ve played around with computers since 1981. That is when Sinclair’s second computer — the ZX81 came out. I went for the Acorn Atom because it had a proper keyboard. After that I had several computers — a Camputers’ Lynx, and an Atari ST — before going onto a PC. I started modeling with POV-Ray and then picked up Bryce and Vue from discs on the covers of computer magazines. I bought Paintshop Pro and started experimenting with a bit of digital painting and then got an early version of Photoshop. That was around the time I was drawing Night Walker for 2000 AD. I had kept in touch with Lovern Kindzierski, who had colored Hellblazer and Agent for me in the States. His company, Digital Chameleon, had started coloring comics digitally — I was amazed that the graphics cards they were using gave them 16 million colors (my graphics card gave me 1,024 colors).

I generally found painting difficult because I have had no formal art training — I am entirely self-taught. Painting became more difficult when Oram and Robinson (who supplied my Academy Line Board ) closed down and I found that the ink I had been using was no longer waterproof. I started producing covers for the Commando books I had been drawing, using a mixture of techniques — part paintings or drawings scanned into the computer, part CGI, part digitally painted. It was far easier to create a sky in Vue or Bryce and use it as a background layer, than paint something in the foreground over a sky. I started coloring old Jeff Hawke strips to see how they could look in color and then colored Syd Jordan’s Hal Starr for Spaceship Away.  It wasn’t until I worked again on the Megazine that I had the opportunity of using it for my own comics pages. I am currently coloring Age of Heroes, which was drawn 15 years ago, for Strip Magazine, and hoping to get Ken Reid’s Fudge stories published in color, together with Frank Bellamy’s work on Garth and Syd Jordan’s work on Earthspace.

“Jeff Hawke” by Sydney Jordan. This version colored by Ridgway, as yet unpublished.

I had no reluctance to moving to digital work — I just want to be good at it. Going digital was a necessity. Art supply shops in my area have vanished, there are now only “craft” shop, selling painting-by-numbers and bits of colored paper to make pretty mosaics. A trip to Manchester involves parking fees and tramping around widely spaced shops only to find that the materials you require are “out of stock” and you will have to spend a small fortune to obtain a job lot when all you require are a dozen sheets of Bristol two-ply. Posting artwork involves packaging to avoid damage, postal charges and the worry that it may get lost. Working digital and sending work by broadband avoids that.

ROBERTSON: You were an early adopter. What was the Eureka comic in general, and the Frontiers story in particular?

RIDGWAY: Eureka was to have been a weekly children’s paper A4 size with 24/36 pages. The concept was by Derek Lord, who was the actual editor of Eagle (Marcus Morris was in overall charge of Eagle, Girl, Swift and Robin, and signed the “editor’s letter” but it was Derek Lord who did the actual editing). Derek had been trying to create something like Eagle since he left Eagle when it was taken over by Fleetway/Odhams. I worked with Derek for five years until he died — that was about 10 years ago. It was only when he died that I found how long he had been trying to get something off the ground. When he died, Eureka died with him. My work on it was unpaid and I was creative/art director.

Eureka was aimed at 8-12-year-olds and was intended to fill the gap between the kiddies comics and 2000 AD. It was to be suitable to be read by both boys and girls. Most of the stories were two-page serials. I was to create Frontiers as a CGI strip. The models of spacecraft would be made available to readers, who could download POV-Ray for free and create their own models. We would have started a club for model-makers with prizes. If suitable, their models could be used in Frontiers with credits and payment. As explained previously, POV-Ray uses a text interface. Models are created from parts, sub-assemblies and general assemblies — exactly as material lists are produced in engineering. It would have taught readers maths, Boolean operations, geometry and trigonometry — all while playing. The stories for Frontiers are not simple space opera; they use current science and, within the concept framework, are technically accurate. Each story features alien creatures that are a product of their environment, showing that people think the way they do because of their background. It would have taught children to see that there are various ways to look at things.

Another story was Ocean Interpol. This was a sort of Stingray/International Rescue setup but with a more realistic background than Stingray. This was to be written and drawn by Martin Baines. There was also Wereworld, a world where many humans were cursed to change into animals, and animals were cursed to change into near-humans. This was a concept of mine but would have been written by Ferg Handley and drawn by John M. Burns. There was also Arrowsmith — a Western created by Harry Bishop. Harry no longer wanted to draw it and I had approached Chris Weston to draw it.

We also had Hadrian’s Heroes — a sort of British version Asterix with Hardian’s army of misfits up against ancient Brits, like two sets of football supporters.  Tim Perkins was to draw Myth-Adventures, his own creation. There would be a cutaway center-spread by Graham Bleathman, preceded by a single-page article on the center-spread’s subject .  There would have been articles about astronomy and horse-riding, cartoons and games. It was intended to have action, adventure, color and fun in weekly doses. Perhaps the concept was old-fashioned. I don’t know.

ROBERTSON: I don’t think any idea can be written off as old-fashioned. Bring back things and do them well is the important thing, I think. Look at Doctor Who. Many people had written that off altogether before it came back on.

RIDGWAY: The big problem today is distribution. Existing comic publishers are not interested in doing new comics. New publishers have to fork out £20,000 before Comag (the main distributor to newsagents and supermarkets) will even consider you. Then there’s their rake for actual distribution of the magazine, and the discount to the shops and the “returns.”

Eppo and DFC are trying postal sales, as does Spaceship Away but this usually means the customer paying postage and forking out for 6-12 month’s issues.

ROBERTSON: What is it that’s changed? I’ve heard things were a lot better when John Menzies were still in business. They’d carry new comics, no problem. Did they charge high sums of money for shelf space?

RIDGWAY: I’m afraid it’s a (probably inevitable) consequence of the Western business system as it operates today. A business is usually started in a small way by an individual who sees an opportunity to make a living for himself and his family. In some form or another he provides a service. If the business is successful, he will expand the business. Eventually he will need capital to expand further. The only way he can get capital is to go to the banks or go public and take on shareholders.

Banks demand a return on their investment in the form of interest. Shareholders demand a return on their investment in the form of dividends otherwise they will take their money elsewhere. The business has now switched, from supplying a service to its customers, to providing a service for the banks and shareholders. So both banks and shareholders add to the costs of the business and contribute nothing to the actual product. The only way that extra can be covered is by increasing the price of the product or by cutting costs. If the business is in competition with another company, it cannot increase prices or lower quality to any great extent without going out of business. The only alternative is “greater efficiency” by cost-cutting (keeping wages to a minimum and mass-production).

If the business is more successful than its competition, the competition will be driven out of existence or absorbed. The business can then increase charges to the maximum. All because of the need to pay banks and shareholders who actually do nothing. With Menzies out of business, WHS have a huge slice of the market. The only competition for Comag — who supply WHS and the supermarkets — is Diamond Distributors and they are only interested in supplying comic shops.

I heard a long time ago that D.C. Thomson only produced comics to keep their presses rolling. Now they have closed down their print works and source the work out. Magazines are far cheaper to produce per page than comics. DCT produce Dandy and Commando and put together comics for Germany. Egmont sold off Dan Dare and Eagle to Colin Fruwen. They sold 2000 AD to Rebellion. Time/Warner/DC own most of the characters and material in Fleetway/Odhams comics.

Marvel and DC in the states keep going, not by selling comics but by virtue of owning characters that form the basis of merchandising and films. Those characters are long established. The only real hope for comics in this country is DFC and Print Media. Ironically Print Media is a Bosnian company run by a man who was an art teacher and runs a family business.

ROBERTSON: Print Media. This is where you’re doing the Age of Heroes and Frontiers stuff. What’s the story behind those projects?

RIDGWAY: There are hundreds of people in this country who want to create their own stuff but, up until now, there has been no place where they can place that stuff. If you try to self-publish you can spend an enormous amount of money, time and effort on something that doesn’t sell — no matter how good it is.

Weekly or monthly comics are only on the shelf until the next issue comes out. Creators get a page rate that is limited by how much the publisher can afford (and they are only working on the characters the publisher owns). In the States, you will get a reprint fee when the comic becomes a trade paperback. In this country you will get sweet FA [fuck all]. And you are still not working on something you can put your heart and soul into. There are few comics on the Continent. Everything is produced as graphic albums and is largely creator-owned. There is a big market there. By guiding creators and paying them upfront to produce stuff, you give British creators the chance to become part of that market.

My own work for Print Media is Age of Heroes and Frontiers. Age of Heroes was originally in black and white and was published by Image in the States. It was a pleasure to work on and I produced some of my best stuff since working on Steve Parkhouse’s Doctor Who stories. Unfortunately, in a market geared to superhero comics in color, it did nothing. Issue 4 earned me $300. Issue 5 earned nothing. Issue 6, which would have completed the first story arc, was never drawn.

Frontiers, I have mentioned before. This is a space exploration series set in the not-too-distant future taking people to the stars. There have to be some liberties taken with science, but they are mainly to do with getting people to the stars and back in time for tea. The main basis of the stories will be about possible planets and creatures. My main interest in science fiction has been Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clements and Robert Forward. All three knew their subjects inside-out and their stories reflect that knowledge.

Today we are discovering new worlds seemingly almost every day. The vast majority may not support life, but if we ever get to study life elsewhere we will find its way of thinking to be shaped by its environment. I am enjoying thinking up new worlds and creatures.

ROBERTSON: What kind of distribution will Strip have, then?

RIDGWAY: Initially, distribution would be the same as the Megazine but with contents more like Eppo.

ROBERTSON: So we will be able to find it. That’s good. And Eppo had humor, fantasy, adventure, science fiction, etc. A mix of genre material. Will everything in Strip be creator-owned?

RIDGWAY: At this stage, I can’t answer that.

ROBERTSON: Are you aware of the previous U.K. comic titled Strip from around 20 years ago? It was the first thing I thought of when I heard about this new venture.

RIDGWAY: I understand that there was a comic called Strip, but I’m not sure that I ever saw it. I remember a comic reprinting Don Lawrence’s Storm, with Thorgal and Akira. I estimated that is would take over 30 years to get through Akira!

ROBERTSON: You mentioned the UKCAC and Westminster Comic Marts. Do you, or have you, attended conventions?

RIDGWAY: I attended a couple of marts at Westminster when I was working on Doctor Who, and several UKCACs in London to meet people from Vertigo, I also went to a UKCAC in Glasgow to meet Janet Jackson from Defiant (Jim Shooter’s company at the time). There was a mini-convention in Bath and one in Leeds. The last convention I went to in this country was UKCAC in Manchester to see Steve Moore from Vertigo, to discuss The Trenchcoat Brigade. I went to a lot of conventions in Germany, one in Luxembourg and one in Spain. I had intended to go to Birmingham this year to meet Ivo Milosovich but he has only just got his visa through and the launch of Strip Magazine was delayed so there was nothing to show.

I don’t see any point to going to conventions unless I’m to be on a panel or discussing a project. Once DC and Marvel stopped coming over here there was nothing to discuss.

ROBERTSON: Do you know Ian Kennedy?

RIDGWAY: I’ve never actually met him, although I nearly met him once, a long time ago. I was troubleshooting an incinerator at St Andrews University and went in to Thomson’s to meet Ian Forbes (the then editor). I found out later that Ian had been in to see George Low who was then a sub-editor. I’ve spoken to Ian several times by phone and I am an admirer of his work. I hoped to use his work for covers on Eureka.

‘Duke Elric’ in Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, promo edition, 1997, writer: Michael Moorcock.

ROBERTSON: How did you come to do Duke Elric with Michael Moorcock?

RIDGWAY: I don’t really know, but I had worked with editor Stuart Moore several times before. It may be because he wanted three artists on the Multiverse with very different styles. He may also have seen my work on Prince Valiant and knew that I liked drawing medieval stuff. There aren’t many American artists in comics who draw anything other than superhero stuff in slam-bam action style.

I enjoyed working with Michael Moorcock. He was editor of Tarzan Adventures when I was young and that’s where I first saw the art of Burne Hogarth.

ROBERTSON: There was a lot of back and forward discussion working with him?

RIDGWAY: No, just one telephone conversation set up by Stuart Moore. We didn’t discuss Duke Elric at all.

ROBERTSON: Did you ever hear if he liked what you drew or not?

RIDGWAY: I only spoke to Mike once and that was before he saw my artwork. According to Stuart Moore, Mike liked what I was doing and his responses in the letters pages seemed positive, but that could have been just diplomacy.

ROBERTSON: I’m intrigued that you’re doing Torchwood. It’s nice that you’ve gone back to the world of Doctor Who. Well, you’ve sort of gone back. Does the story reference anything from your run with Steve Parkhouse?

RIDGWAY: Unfortunately not. It’s just a one-off 11-page story set in 1940s Cardiff. It features Captain Jack (who I found remarkably difficult to draw) and the Hub from that period.

ROBERTSON: But surely you can fit Frobisher in the background of a panel somewhere. Come on!

RIDGWAY: Sorry …

ROBERTSON: Ah, well. Do you keep up with what’s going on in comics? What have you enjoyed recently?

RIDGWAY: I’m afraid there is very little in comics that interests me these days. Over the years, writers of comics seem to have transcended the artists, which, to me, seems odd in a graphical media as an artist should have a better visual imagination than the writer. There needs to be a closer collaboration between writer and artist — the writer coming up with the plot and dialogue and the artist coming up with the settings and visual storytelling including the layout of pages. It is a very long time since I worked closely with a writer. All too often, I get a script with instructions as to what are big pictures, what are small pictures, and how many pictures are on the page. All the pictures are really elaborate frames on which to hang the dialogue. It is far better if the writer and artist talk together around a story outline before the final form of the captions and dialogue is decided — that way the story gets told using the full strengths of the artist’s imagination.

Some of the best superhero comics were produced by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko working from story outlines by Stan Lee. This method of working allowed the artists’ imagination to run at full bore. Unfortunately, people like Jack Kirby are exceptions and the pressures of working to a monthly or weekly schedule means there is no time for the cooperation between artist and writer. The stuff that interests me is mainly European albums — The Chimpanzee Complex, the Thorgal series, Storm, the Scorpion series. None of these are turned out to a tight deadline.

I have reached a point where I want to produce my own stuff. The stuff I see in my own imagination: new worlds, towering mountains, the colors of the sky and clouds, sunsets and sunrises, splendid spired cities, brave heroes and beautiful women, fantastic beasts and amazing machines. These are the things that make films like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones and Star Trek so special.

ROBERTSON: You mentioned earlier retiring and concentrating on your own stuff. What can we look forward to?

RIDGWAY: A lot depends on how well Print Media Publications works out. If Strip Magazine makes only a little money in this country it paves the way for graphic albums to be produced for the European market. Print Media has already produced Keith Page’s Iron Moon and it will be obvious from Strip Magazine’s blog that other projects are under way in similar form.

I am currently working on Age of Heroes.

“Age of Heroes” by John Ridgway. This version colored by Ridgway, as yet unpublished.

I intend to draw the sixth book in the series and then continue into the second story arc of the series. I am also writing Frontiers for Nick Spender to draw. I want to write and draw a three-album series called Alternate Earth – sort of a Flash Gordon/John Carter type series but a bit more realistic — all action and strange locations. Then there is a series called Wereworld and another called Helven. I am also coloring several old strips by other artists — Ken Reid’s Fudge the Elf, Frank Bellamy’s Garth, Ron Turner’s Space Ace and possibly Syd Jordan’s Jeff Hawke.

All of these I would have been working on if I had retired — but now Print Media has given me the market to aim things at and the incentive to get on with it.

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