Douglas Wolk interviews Kevin O’Neill Part Five (of Five)

Posted by on February 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE, PART FOUR

WOLK: Did you get a break between Black Dossier and Century, or did you just plunge straight from one project into the next?

O’NEILL: We went straight into it. I was working on Century while we were trying to negotiate our way through the white-water rapids and all the aggravation of Black Dossier. Alan had started writing it before I finished the Black Dossier. Alan phoned me — we had a number of alternate stories we could’ve done at this point as a third series — and we were keen on the 1910 period when we have Nemo’s daughter active. The idea of doing three stories over a century, in 1910, 1969 and the present — it’s very complicated, and the other thing we wanted to do was singing. Which again was one of those things where, before it came out, there was this “is this going to work, are people going recoil?” We were talking about how when we were growing up, it was commonplace for people to sing. Pre-karaoke. People sang all the time — it was a pre-television amusement, people sitting around a piano, singing a song, not that unusual. But we thought people might think it was like “Blue Hawaii” or something — people singing a song for no good reason — but the songs were completely integrated. I loved it. And I love the dockside setting and the opportunity to draw these Breughelesque characters in the Cuttlefish Hotel — that was a lot of fun for me. I grew up in South London, and it was very, very Sax Rohmer when I was growing up — rusting old cranes, rusting ships, faded bizarre tattoo parlors. Just fantastic. I wanted to get some of that atmosphere into it.

And, of course, we’ve got Raffles and Carnacki, the new group members running side by side with the occult story that underpins the whole series. It was great going wild with it, and knowing there’s not going to be a boot on our neck about content — we don’t have to worry about that stuff, content, language, visuals — it’s going where it’s going. I think the series is going to be more extreme, it’s going to get wilder. Mina’s the vital component: As everything else shifts around her, she’ll still be there. We love her a lot.

In the future, beyond this series, we’re not quite sure what we’ll do next — there might be a much earlier series set in the ’60s, which is hinted at in the backup story in Century, or we might go into the past with the original League, the Prospero group. As the whim takes us, I think.

WOLK: You’ve mentioned that there’s a “huge” story that might happen at some point.

O’NEILL: Yeah — we were talking about The Wire, the television series, and how that’s clearly constructed to have a story, a completely thought-out arc with a natural ending. It’s not like one of these things like Lost which is clearly made up as it goes along and they retro-fit stuff in. We wanted to have a very clear ending, which wouldn’t actually preclude going back and doing stories from earlier, but there’ll be an ending for the whole Mina arc. Any more than that, I can’t really say, but it’s … apocalyptic. It’ll probably be the most insane one. It’s fun to think of it in terms of — it’s not going to go on forever, any more than … I’m sure there’s lots of people out there who’d like to see the Victorian group having adventures all the time, but I don’t think they realize how tired they might become of that, and we’d certainly get tired of it before they were. And it’s being true to the characters. As Alan said, the ending to the second series was the ending of the second series — that group could never have held together any longer than it did. It was built to implode, really.

WOLK: What keeps a project a pleasure for you to work on if you’ve been working on it for 10 years?

O’NEILL: I think it’s the constant shifting and changing. The one I’m doing now, 1969 — when we did Black Dossier, the principal story is 1958. We were both born in ’53, so we have memories of what it was like in Britain in ’58. Our British ’50s was very different to an American ’50s, because we had the undertow of the Second World War, which was still very much present when we were growing up. We were both born into an era of rationing in Britain — Britain was bankrupt, essentially, bankrupted by the Second World War. France had both the misfortune and the good fortune to be completely flattened by bombing, Allied and German — principally Allied, I think — so they were rebuilt, the factories rebuilt, the fantastic railway system built from scratch. What we had was a bombed Britain with a rickety rail system. Everything was falling to bits. Clothes were very badly made. Furniture was shabby. It was a shabby world. It was a lot of fun doing that in the street scenes in the Black Dossier — kids playing football in the street and all that kind of stuff. There’s a guy walking through one of the Dossier scenes, and he’s got a bag thrown over his shoulder, and it’s an old gas-mask case. Which you saw a lot of after the war when we were growing up — gas-mask cases being used as lunch bags and things, work bags. It’s that kind of detail.

And 1969 — here’s our fictional 1969 layered onto what we really recall 1969 being like, which wasn’t terribly Austin Powers. A lot of it still looked like the bloody ’50s. There were pretty poorly cut clothes, even for people who thought they were stylish. It just appeared a little bit sexier. We’re doing all that, we’ve got Soho in the 1960s, which again the whole grubby red light district is interesting — it’s mostly been swept away now, but we both remember what it used to be like, and how tawdry and fascinating and dangerous and gangster-ridden it was.

So all these things keep you going. I think if I were working on a company character, it could get wearying. I had one friend say not long ago he thought that comics was a young man’s game, which I thought was an interesting comment. When you become that weary, I think you need to shift onto something else.

I think the other thing is that Britain didn’t really have much of an underground-comic movement — nothing like the American movement — but we were all very affected by what was happening in America. The Crumb stuff and Spain and Greg Irons: It was absolutely mesmerizing, and I showed a lot of that stuff from my collection to Pat Mills when we were starting 2000 AD, because he’d never, ever seen them before. It was just a breath of fresh air, completely liberating. In light of that, we’re trying to keep the counterculture spirit in what we’re working on. It keeps it fresh — it stops it from being just commerce. I’ll be 56 in a few weeks’ time, so you start to think about where you’re going and what you’re doing and what more there is to be done, I guess, and some people do have incredible careers  — maintain their vitality and spark right the way through. I think back in the ’70s, you had great things, like Wally Wood was doing Witzend, which was incredible, everyone was rising to the challenge, trying to break out and do new things — Gil Kane and His Name Is Savage — but there were a bunch of other guys, possibly of a similar generation, and their liberation was not to do different or vibrant material, it was tits. It was pretty much just down to that. It was topless. Kind of not dissimilar to where movies were going. If you saw an Indian squaw in a Western movie, you knew 20 minutes later she’d be bathing in a pool … it was a very ’70s phenomenon, with a slightly middle-aged feeling about it, a bit grubby. I find all of that stuff interesting: where peoples’ noses lead them so to speak.

And I’m a huge lover of American newspaper strips, the earlier ones. I certainly don’t believe in a linear narrative of things getting better — I think some things get lost and some things by way of American newspapers changing and shrinking things down has changed the nature of them. And certainly the incredible spirit of adventure in the early days of the American newspaper strip, Elzie Segar’s Popeye and Herriman’s stuff — you look at these things, and you think “they were reaching a mass audience!” This material, which now seems incredibly alternative! You can see why the underground movement of the ’60s and’70s latched onto Herriman and Feininger and all those guys: It was picking up a baton. They were going along in a certain direction, and racing along, and it just didn’t get picked up by anyone for some years. And you had this odd thing happening, where — Britain has had a few great newspaper strips, but we certainly didn’t have anything comparable to the Sunday newspaper strips, where you could see Gasoline Alley or Little Nemo or anything like that. But then you see these newspaper-strip collections from the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s all just head shots. It’s kind of like primitive television or something. I wonder if that’s the underlying corrosive element on some comics: TV. Head shot, head shot, head shot, head shot, a bit of a long shot to let you know where you are.

WOLK: Are there any cartoonists working right now that you really like, or things that you think are interesting right now?

O’NEILL: When I started League, I had myself taken off the DC/Wildstorm comp list. I didn’t actually want to look at superhero comics any more, because the obligation when you get sent that stuff is “I’ve got to flick through Aquaman before I give it to a friend’s kid,” or something. And I got fed up with that: I thought I’d stay in character if I stayed in the Victorian period. I was quite happy there, looking at a lot of old stuff. So the last time I was really in touch with what was going on was really when Dan Clowes was doing his thing, and occasionally people recommend stuff, but I don’t actually see much of it now unless someone recommends it or points it out. I know through friends of friends who’s doing what on the Marvel or DC books, but all my interest in those characters I left behind when I was considerably younger. The writer Michael Fleischer told me something many years ago — back when I was interested in drawing Batman and Plastic Man and all those things and they wouldn’t let me, he said “the day you lose interest in them is when they’ll offer them to you.” And, do you know, by God, he was absolutely right! A few years ago, I was told I could do anything I wanted for them — and I didn’t want to do anything! I wanted to do what I was doing. It was like a fading lover or something. I didn’t want to be a Batman artist — I played with the toy box a bit way back when, and that’s really it. I’m pretty out of touch. I read the Journal, and people give me fanzines and things — I like to think I have a rough idea of what’s generally going on out there, but none of the Webcomics or any of that stuff. I don’t have a computer, so I don’t see any of that. I have no e-mail. Alan describes me and him as the Amish of the comics scene. He’s got a word processor, and I’ve got a fax, and that’s about as technological as it gets.

I do, perversely, keep up with the reprints of the older material, which I’m always drawn to when I go to a comic store. It’s not really nostalgic, because that stuff was drawn by guys who were dead when I was a kid. It’s just a fascination with how incredible things once were. I like that, and I like looking back on people you can really, really look up to.

WOLK: Moving up to the near future, how did the Marshal Law reprint project come about?

O’NEILL: Way back when Marshal Law was first published in ’87, the first review we ever saw of Marshal Law was in the Staros Report, so Chris Staros — the really great review he gave us — was the first one I saw. Many years later, I hadn’t met him, but I knew he was doing Lost Girls, and when he talked about doing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he also said he liked Marshal Law. I said look, we’ve got the rights back to the material — it’d been in print for a couple of years from Titan Books — and Chris suggested doing this huge edition of everything, nearly 600 pages of all of it. That’s where that started. Then we figured out that all the material we’ve got was pre-digital age, so it’s film, and we have to scan everything — it’s taken a while to assemble. Chris has been great on clearing the rights on the Savage Dragon, the Mask, the Pinhead crossover … Pat and I were talking about it, looking at it again, and laughing at our excess, really! [Laughs.] I look at “Secret Tribunal,” and it surprises me — we were really running with scissors on that one, because we just didn’t care. I think we were setting out to deliberately antagonize everybody. [Laughs.] Since then, there’s been a Marshal Law illustrated paperback — that was an offshoot of a website thing, text and illustrations at the Cool Beans website, which is long since defunct now, but we got the rights back to that and Titan put that out. At first it was a landscape-format color book, and then we had it reformatted with all the material into a black-and-white paperback, with a pulpy feel to it that seems to suit the character.

WOLK: Finally: How is Century: 1969 going?

O’NEILL: It’s taking a devil of an age to come out right now, but I think it’ll have quite a long shelf life for people who are patient with me. It’ll be out [in 2010], and by then, I’ll be on the final part of it, which Alan is well into writing right now. It’s going really well — I’m really pleased. Getting to draw Alan, Mina and Orlando in ’60s clothes — it really suits Mina, going from the kind of Victorian woman we first met to a ’60s girl in a miniskirt. And the Soho sequences, with a lot of fictional Soho characters, and things I’d forgotten about, like how dirty London streets once were … the garbage wasn’t picked up that often, there were strikes, lots of dirt and garbage in the streets. It gives it its own sense of reality. And it tends to get forgotten. When they do ’60s films, they often make everything in them from the ’60s, which it wasn’t like. Most things were from decades earlier, and the people looked like they were from decades earlier, and they dressed old-fashioned. It’s only the films from the ’60s themselves where you get people dressed like the oddest-looking hippies you ever saw in your life. Century: 1969 is shaping up to be a classic League book: one we will be proud of.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with only the very best people who also became very close friends. [In 2010], I will celebrate 40 years in comics and am as enthusiastic now as my 16-year-old self was back then — all despite being a cynical bastard!

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2 Responses to “Douglas Wolk interviews Kevin O’Neill Part Five (of Five)”

  1. steve block says:

    Thank you, a very entertaining read, particularly liked the light shone upon aspects of the British industry, especially the failure of Toxic!, which had vast potential but just fizzled out. Enlightening to know it suffered from “creative differences”. Nice to see Kevin managed to get back on DC’s comp list.