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

Posted by on February 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


WOLK: How much design work went into League before you started drawing the story itself?

O’NEILL: Quite a bit, actually. The original drawings I sent to Alan still had a trace of 2000 AD about them — slogans and stuff on walls, lots of very odd machines and stuff like that. He was very, very polite, but he said, “Drop the slogans and stuff,” and when I looked at it more closely, I could see: Yeah, he’s right. I designed it from the ground up — if there had been anyone else’s version around, it would’ve put me off. The great thing about Nemesis and Marshal Law was it was virgin territory. That was important. I started reading all the original novels and novellas, rooting out details about the characters, like Nemo being Prince Dakkar in The Mysterious Island — all the engravings of him were of this Caucasian, white-bearded, white-haired character, but we ran with the Indian look for him and the Nautilus. The Invisible Man was a lot of fun, funnily enough. I used to lightly pencil him in — his early appearances had balloon tails on his balloons, but I erased that later on, so you don’t quite know where he is.

On the second series, when we got to Hyde’s revenge on the Invisible Man, I had a phone call from Scott Dunbier, who was the editor of the book, and he said, “Have you got the latest script?”

I said, “Yeah, it’s terrific, it’s incredible.”

And he said, “Well, could you be really careful?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Well, you know.”

And I said: “He’s invisible!” But there’s something very strange about it — it’s the utter politeness of Hyde and what he’s doing. He’s such a monster, and his revenge is so monstrous — I thought that’s a fantastic sequence. And the blood on the tablecloth — that was cool. I think that’s the only area where they were bugged by potential censorship problems.

Oddly enough, in Greece, when they were reprinting that strip, I got a call saying could they extend the shirttail over Hyde’s buttocks? And I said, “No!” They ended up publishing as it was — I don’t think there was any trouble over any issue of League, apart from the advert, the Marvel advert. Which was a genuine Victorian unaltered ad. Which didn’t bother Marvel — nothing seems to bother Marvel!

WOLK: Tell me about your collaboration with Ben Dimagmaliw. You’ve worked with some colorists before, but you’ve also colored a lot of your own work.

O’NEILL: I’ve seen some good coloring, some bad coloring and some stuff that was done very quickly — it almost always bugged me how things looked. It was Scott who suggested Ben, and when I saw it I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I sent him very detailed color notes in the beginning, and the only detailed notes I sent him after that were for the covers — I’d just color a Photostat and send it to him. Now I’ll just color in a dress or the color of a uniform or something he might not recognized. It became more and more notes rather than color notes, because Ben really got it from day one, and contributed a lot to the atmosphere of the book. One thing he does that amazes me is that Ben’s blue skies are informed by someone who’s spent a lot of time in California — our blue skies are never as blue as that! I suppose in our alternate universe, a better Britain, we have a Britain with slightly bluer and nicer skies. And we’ve had superb letterrers on the series, Bill Oakley and Todd Klein. It’s often the case or used to be that people only noticed lettering when they saw bad lettering — misplaced balloons, perverse balloon placement. That’s something I learned working at IPC, I always sent balloon overlays with the artwork, just an old habit. I don’t need to with Todd these days, but it’s one of these muscle memory things.

WOLK: When you were heading into the second League series, was the feeling different from what it was at the beginning?

O’NEILL: Right before the first series came out, Alan told me he’d had a conversation with Alex Ross, who asked him what the new book was he was doing, and Alan told him “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” I’m probably misquoting him, but Alex said “Oh, it’ll never be successful with a title like that!” I was surprised at how successful the book was — it wasn’t as complex at the very beginning as it’s become now, but when we were working on the early parts of the book, we realized that we were having so much fun dropping in other fictional realities beyond the fictional characters and the villains that this thing could go in all sorts of directions, and it didn’t actually matter if you didn’t get all of it — it’s not there to exclude people.

On the second book, I think we were aware that we had, perhaps, greater latitude with content, and by the Black Dossier, it’d become fairly combustible with DC … the book was originally for Wildstorm before they were bought out by DC. I might have been working on the first issue when someone rang me up and said, “Wildstorm’s been bought by DC,” and I thought, “Oh, Jesus, that’ll be the end of that, then,” knowing how Alan felt about DC. But Jim Lee and Scott Dunbier flew to Britain and visited Alan personally, and I think Alan felt that so many of the ABC books had artists he’d committed to, Alan naturally felt the honorable thing to do was to continue on those books, but made very, very certain that the books were firewalled — there’s no mention of DC in any of the books, they’re completely separate, the payments come from Wildstorm … we’ve kept as far as humanly possible from DC. Of course, what happens as the years go by is that Wildstorm, I guess, has become more subsumed by DC. Jim Lee has always been a champion of the book. Jim is doing his stuff at DC, and it’s inevitable that the two companies have merged closer and closer. We did begin to notice that payments at a certain point shifted from Wildstorm’s offices to being paid out from New York, and so on. And also there were these pressures on Alan, like the Cobweb story which was knocked back, and he spent hours and hours on the phone with the legal people, and the Marvel ad, which caused issue 5 of the original series to be pulped … and that seemed a kind of arbitrary thing. We felt very aware of DC’s presence in things.

After the second series finished — we were very successful, and Scott expressed it in a way that perhaps he may have regretted years later: “You guys can have anything you want.”

Alan was going to take a break then, and he said maybe in a year or so he’d think about doing a third series — I guess he just took pity on me, leaving me as a hobo or something, and he rang me up one day and said, “How about we do a sourcebook?” Just a 48-page thing, with some backstory — a better-quality sourcebook, since most sourcebooks are pretty poor. Inevitably, that led to working out a story connecting up all the information, and it grew from 48 to 64 and then exponentially up — they finally put a cap on it around the 200-page mark, or quite possibly we’d still be working on it now. And when they said, “You guys can have anything you want,” we thought, well, great, we’re doing a story set in 1958, we can have a 3-D section, and there was going to be a record and a Fanny Hill section on different paper, and it was going to be sealed like an old book where you had to cut the pages apart — that idea got dropped later. So we were doing all these things and it was going to be very elaborate, and it was taking ages and ages. The 3-D section — I’ve never read a more complicated script in my life. It makes perfect sense, but it is kind of a headfuck. So we were working on this thing and chaos was created by the problems with DC.

Ultimately, what happened was I was very aware that Alan had all these problems with the V for Vendetta movie — and a collected edition came out with some text wrong on the back cover, all kinds of stuff was going on. Alan is one of the most charming gentlemen you can meet, but you don’t want to cross him. And then there was pressure to get the book out a year or so earlier than it ever appeared, for financial reasons and stuff like that, but it was taking as long as it took — it was just very complicated. Lawyers got involved and looked it over, with dozens and dozens of characters, and it’s set in a more modern period than the previous two books — it was all going fine, it was all approved by the lawyers, it was print-ready, everything was set up, the record was going to be pressed, I designed a label for the record.

And then all the trouble with Scott Dunbier started, where suddenly the book wasn’t right, and — We’re on tricky ground here! A Hollywood film producer insisted on seeing the book, long before publication, in the early part of the year it was finally published. He was putting a lot of pressure on DC, and if I understand the story correctly — I’ll try to keep names out of this — someone important at DC flew out, showed the assembled book to the guy, who was flicking through the pages going, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, you guys are going to be sued out of existence, oh my God, what are you doing, what are you thinking …” And the guy flew back to New York — we never knew any of this at the time, of course — and things settled down. But suddenly the book was delayed from being relatively quick, like the spring of that year, to being put off to that summer. And I thought oh, Jesus — the royalties from these books really support us, you know? The advance was so small and the exchange rate so poor that the greater the delay the more financially problematic it became.

Then, unfortunately, the same producer was at a book fair in New York, and met someone from DC and said, “Jeez, you’re not still publishing that thing?” It panicked them, and they started taking the book apart. I got a phone call saying — (this was when Scott Dunbier was euphemistically working at home) — because they’re not allowed to ring Alan, you understand, Scott and his assistant Kristy Quinn were the only ones who were allowed to ring Alan — I got a phone call saying, “The book’s got legal problems, we might have to change a bunch of things.”  And I said, “Oh, Jesus Christ,” this is like a year after it’s all been approved, people have known the content of this book for literally years, they’ve read the scripts, there’s been lots of artwork finished for a long time. And this is where Jim Lee performed a kind of intervention on the thing, because he wanted the book to come out and he wanted us to be happy with it. So there were minor changes, a few words here and there.

And it was odd, because we’d used Billy Bunter, the Greyfriars character. I pointed out that several years earlier, Time Warner bought IPC — they actually own all that IPC stuff. They own Billy Bunter! So within the company, it’d be easy enough to clear the use of it. But one of the changes made is we couldn’t use his full name, so he’s simply William. Bizarrely, when the book came out, the indicia has a permission thanks for the IPC people for using his full name — which we couldn’t use in the book! When Kristy asked if we could put the name back in, she was told, “No, you can’t touch it.” The whole thing was a legal rat’s nest, and Jim and I were talking almost every day about it for several weeks. He said he wouldn’t send me the complete list of things they wanted altered, because it’d freak me out, which I’m sure it would’ve done. We got it whittled down, and now I had to ring Alan and relay these ghastly fucking changes they want made. There was one final change — to the P.G. Wodehouse-meets-H.P. Lovecraft pastiche in the book, which was very funny. Ever since P.G. Wodehouse was first published, people have been parodying his work and using the names of the characters. But DC decided to dig their heels in on this and say, “We can use the character names in America, but we can’t use them in Britain or Europe, and indeed can’t print the book in Canada for legal reasons,” so it had to be printed in the U.S.A., which also threw things into disarray.

So that’s what happened. That was the final straw. After saying there’s only one thing left to change, some minor color change, equally absurd … I think Alan felt like you kind of prod someone long enough and they’re going to snap. We thought: This will lose a lot of money for us, but fuck it. The book will come out as we want it to come out, but we guess only in America. And of course, what happened is that bootleg copies appeared via all sorts of sources almost straightaway. At that point, we had decided we’d switch publishers. Because even if we changed things they could always come back with one more petty alteration — it was like having a boot on our neck. As it turned out if not for the intervention of Jim Lee the Black Dossier may never have been published. Which would’ve been a complete fucking disaster for many reasons.

WOLK: I believe League is the only one of the America’s Best books that the creators own the rights to. How did that happen?

O’NEILL: I think originally when Alan mentioned it to me, it was going to be a stand-alone, creator-owned book, and then its becoming the first of the books under Alan’s imprint happened later. But I think it’s more of a case of the movie rights were sold almost before I’d finished drawing the first issue. Again, I think Jim kept his eye on the contracts on Alan’s behalf — the book was a creator-owned book, and I’m not quite sure why the other ABC books were not. It could be as simple as the artists on them would get a higher advance rate. There’s always a risk doing a creator-owned book — you get very low advance money and take a chance on royalties, which aren’t always there; in fact very often not. I’m not sure; I’ll have to ask Alan that. But we were saying that between us we only own a handful of things after all these years in the business. The shift to Top Shelf and Knockabout was effortless and straightforward. I think Chris Staros thought long and hard about taking this thing on, but after Black Dossier, we wanted to work with grown-ups. Top Shelf had done a fantastic job with Lost Girls, and fielded all the flack and all the aggravation and everything, and it seemed like a natural home. It’s worked out well. We’ve had no dropoff of readers.

WOLK: I wanted to ask you about the stylistic range that you got to play around with in the text pieces in Volume 2 and in the Black Dossier.

O’NEILL: In the first book, we decided we like comic books that are designed cover to cover — Marshal Law, in its comic-book form, was mostly advertisement-free. I used to be on the mailing lists for these things; I’m not any more, but I get so fucking annoyed when you’re reading a comics story and you’ve got some Adidas ad or Lethal Weapon on Home Box Office ad interrupting the flow of a story. It just destroys it for you. So we were responsible for filling the book from cover to cover. In the first one, it was the Victorian advertisements, which I searched high and low and assembled as many as I could — there are only a few fake ones in there. And the letters pages, which Alan did — I sent him a whole bunch of Boys’ Own letters as an example, because they’re poisonous, those old Boys’ Own letters pages. I’m almost sorry we didn’t reprint his letters pages in the books, because Alan’s replies are always very funny and in the spirit of the time.

In the second one, Alan decided on the Almanac — that was a lot of work, more work for Alan than for me, but it was a chance to draw lots of different things. It was fun, and Todd Klein, when he was assembling the final thing, he’s a brilliant designer, so we got the kind of text and picture integration that we wanted. I think some people skip it — we’re aware of that — and some of the sniffy reviews of the Black Dossier ask why it isn’t all comics. It’s an odd kind of snobbishness, really — if you read the text, you do get a lot of hints about the future of the series as well.

WOLK: Looking at your artwork in that section, there’s the beautiful fake Doré engraving, the medical illustrations, all these styles that you tackle …

O’NEILL: We’re both huge admirers of Mad in its heyday — Bill Elder’s art was stunning. Bill Elder, I worship at his altar. He could really adopt any style — it was just dazzling. I remember looking at it as a kid: You could fall into those pictures and go back and find new things in them, they’re so layered and textured with material. We were trying to get some of that energy, which, looking around, falls into an area where there’s not much in it for people who are actually doing it, you know? You make just as much royalties leaving space for house ads … but we felt, in the long run, the readers would appreciate it, and we control the look of the book. But the Almanac almost certainly led to the derangement of the Black Dossier, where “you guys can have anything you want,” so — we thought we’d have everything. And ultimately we found we couldn’t have a gatefold, which would’ve been nice for the Nautilus — we had a gatefold in the second collection, which was the game, which was a lot of fun. But they started to pull back from giving us everything. We got the 3-D, which was great, and the glasses. The record’s another thing, where at the last minute — they designed special boxes to ship the Black Dossier in, which were designed to keep the record intact, and at the very, very last minute, they pulled the plug on it. I know people were disappointed.

WOLK: I was disappointed!

O’NEILL: I’ve been talking in interviews for a good couple of years about it. As if we needed any more final straws, that really was it … it was very frustrating. But I’m very proud of the Black Dossier book. I think some people didn’t know what to make of it when it came out, but it did sell very well. I think it’s grown on people.

WOLK: I was always curious: what was up with the Golliwog’s appearance in there? How did he come into the picture?

O’NEILL: That was a curious one! Going back some years before the Dossier, when we were doing the first series, I saw an article about the Golliwogg books, Florence Upton’s original Golliwogg books, which end with an O double G rather than OG. They were hugely popular, they were published every Christmas — it wasn’t so much a racist icon, a minstrel-suited kind of image. He had a curious relationship with the Dutch dolls, they often walk around naked. They’re very odd books. The text was written by Florence Upton’s mother. I was talking to Alan and I said, “This is very interesting: She never trademarked the Golliwogg, so as soon as the character became popular, people just changed the spelling a bit and ripped her off.” So all the Golliwogs that my sisters had when I was a kid, the whole industry of Golliwogs comes from her just not protecting her rights. We’d been talking about doing the Dr. Moreau stuff, and integrating various Beatrix Potter characters and stuff. When we got around to the Dossier, I’d got a reprint of one of the Golliwogg books, and there’s some strange bit of text in there where he’s described as the King of Panky-Wank. It was very odd language. So Alan devised this whole new language for the Golliwog; and his relationship with the Dutch dolls is … well, it is what it is. I think the guy’s making out like gangbusters in Toyland.

We had no problems with Wildstorm — no one said anything about it. I did a signing at Golden Apple, and a black photographer said how much she liked the book, “but I have one problem” — and I knew immediately what she was going to say. I think she called it the Polliwog, I don’t know if that’s an American variation or a slang term, but I told her what I just told you. He’s possibly the only black figure in that period of children’s publishing — there’s nothing comparable. In Enid Blyton, Golliwogs are evil characters, they’re stealing Noddy’s car and clothes! But the original was quite a swashbuckling character. She was kind of happy to hear that — she didn’t know any of the history, where he had come from, only how he had been subject to grand larceny from publishers and toy manufacturers. We are going to use the Golliwogg again. He’ll come back — we liked him a lot. Some people thought it was going too far.

WOLK: He turns up on a portrait on the wall in 1910.

O’NEILL: Yes, he does. He will appear later. Looking back, when I was a kid I was always a fan of Arthur Rackham’s work … there’s an incredible amount of suggestion in Rackham’s work, the nymphs and the mermaids and the casual nudity. We accept it when he did it, even in reprint form, but we wouldn’t have had that in contemporary books when I was growing up. They’re very sexy books — I think even to kids they were probably sexy. It’s probably an uncomfortable thing for educators to talk about, but it’s there, running through it. We will use the character again.

WOLK: You mentioned that the 3-D section was incredibly complicated. What went into drawing that?

O’NEILL: The first thing we talked about was we wanted a 3-D section for a ’50s flavor — I think 3-D comics only lasted a year or so, ’54, ’55, that period. We were thinking about how they mostly don’t work — they’re just kind of a crappy “poking spears at you” kind of thing. When I was a kid, I looked at them but I didn’t really read them. Alan thought there must be a way of doing a story in 3-D, so he thought of the Blazing World, and the characters in the story wear the glasses I designed for the readers to look at that section in. And when we got rolling on it, we were talking about all kinds of things we liked — Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, that sort of thing, and all the characters we could fit in, and fairies flitting in and out of things. But I should’ve guessed what I was getting into when I got the script. It was people walking through layers, and I’d been looking at the old ’50s blinky effects where you look through one eye at one picture and through the other at another picture, so Alan integrated that in, and we used pretty much everything we could. We knew Ray Zone was going to be doing the separations, and he’s the best. I think the most complicated thing I’ve ever done was designing it to accommodate the balloons with the characters walking through the different frames through a party, all the dialogue fitting just right — it was incredibly complicated. And when it’s finished, I think it’s just taken for granted. The big spectacle scenes of airships and things, which possibly to people are more memorable, are far, far easier to do than straightforward people standing at a party in 3-D. That was hellishly complicated. And I think we ran out of room as well — the page count had been set — and the Just So Animals sequence, which really deserved a couple of pages, I think, we had to fit that into a page. But I’m very, very pleased with it — if you read it, it’s actually about something rather than just about 3-D effects. We are going to revisit the Blazing World, so there’ll be another 3-D section in the future. Probably more complicated than this one — who knows?

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