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

Posted by on February 16th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Click to view larger image (done for the Journal by Kevin O'Neill)

Occasionally, the parts of the comics industry that are designed to produce mass entertainment nurture an artist who’s not just a first-rate entertainer but genuinely freaky. It helps if that artist has as much of a taste for baiting censors as Kevin O’Neill does. O’Neill was hired by the British publisher IPC at the age of 16, and worked there as an art director in the early days of the long-running weekly sci-fi anthology 2000 A.D. He quickly developed an explosively weird style, all jagged lines and beveled edges, and with his longtime collaborator, writer Pat Mills, devised an appropriately bizarre showcase for it: “Nemesis the Warlock,” whose hero was a demonic, horse-headed alien.

Mills and O’Neill continued their association with 1986’s “Metalzoic” — essentially an extended excuse for O’Neill to draw gigantic robot dinosaurs, published around the time O’Neill had the curious honor of being the only artist ever to have his drawing style decreed unacceptable by the Comics Code. There had always been a touch of comedy about his work, which flowered in his next collaboration with Mills: Marshal Law was a bloody, bloodthirsty satire of superhero tropes, set in a dystopian future San Francisco. Initially an Epic Comics miniseries, Marshal Law appeared between 1987 and 1998 in various serials and one-shots. (The long-promised Marshal Law compendium is currently scheduled to be published by Top Shelf in December of this year.)

For most of the past decade, O’Neill’s been drawing a series that shows off his gifts for dramatic pacing, fuming caricature, stylistic pastiche and outlandish invention: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a cracked rampage through the history of pulp fiction. Written by Alan Moore, it’s run intermittently since 1999 (and inspired a disastrous 2003 movie), and has featured some of O’Neill’s most uproarious and thrilling artwork. (As with his idol Will Elder’s work, every reading reveals new details to giggle over.) The 2007 League volume The Black Dossier, in particular, is a visual tour de force, with its narrative sequences punctuated by spot-on parodies of vintage British boys’ comics, Art Deco, Tijuana bibles and more, culminating in a flabbergasting psychedelic 3-D freakout. O’Neill is currently working on a League project called Century, whose three volumes are set in 1910, 1968 and the present day; the second volume is due from Top Shelf in October. I spoke to him via phone in August, 2009.

DOUGLAS WOLK: Tell me a little about the comics you read in your early years — you’ve mentioned looking at a lot of Ken Reid stuff.

KEVIN O’NEILL: When I was a small child, I was mainly reading the popular British comics like The Beano and Dandy — the D.C. Thompson-published comics. They were the most vibrant. There were a lot of exciting artists — Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Davey Law, and Dudley Watkins. They did the principal strips in those two comics. I was a huge fan, as well, of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons. This was long before I ever saw the strip, but — there’s kind of a theme here — I was a fan of the offbeat-looking characters. Then I stumbled into American comic books — this would’ve been in the late ’50s or early ’60s, when they were very patchily distributed in Britain. They’d come over as ballast, essentially. So you could never follow a complete run of anything; you’d just get these odd outcrops of DC and very early Marvel stuff. There was all of that, and we had this weird holdover from the Fawcett comics period, when they were reprinting Captain Marvel in black-and-white comics, and Tarzan strips, as well, and they were still being distributed long after they effectively went out of business. There must have been warehouses of them, offloading them into London shops near where I lived. So I was seeing all that stuff. I think people of my generation — I was born in ’53, but me and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, we all grew up in a strange patchwork of British and American material. It was an interesting time. You had to kind of search around to find it — it was kind of a treasure hunt, looking for material. All that made me want to draw, and I suppose what I really wanted to do was grow up and draw Batman. I read the Batman stuff in those old 80-Page Giants — the Dick Sprang stuff, which I liked a lot: the distorted or expressionistic material.

But I think the big thing in my life, and I think for a lot of people of a similar age to me, was seeing Mad paperbacks, reprints of the early comic-book Mad stuff. I absolutely adored them and went to great lengths to find the other books in the series, all that fantastic Bill Elder and Jack Davis and Wally Wood art. I went to a strict Catholic school: all comics were effectively banned, but American comics were seen as particularly pernicious. Mad, by title alone, at a Catholic school — you got beaten if you were caught with a copy. It was a serious offense. It did make it all the more beguiling, like anything with a prohibition on it. I’ve talked to friends who grew up on this stuff, a lot of Mad we didn’t understand, because by its nature it was a Jewish sense of humor. But it was a kind of window into a fascinating, cynical adult world. There was no British equivalent to that, really. Our comics were bizarre or featured teachers and park-keepers and those kind of authority figures who were the butt of jokes. I’m not sure there’s exactly an American equivalent to that — there’s not quite the same loathing of teachers and headmasters, and the conceit of the mortarboards and the spats and the gowns and all that, decades after they’d vanished from regular schools. But it became iconic imagery, and the caning and all that corporal punishment stuff was a big part of British humor comics. All the spanking and caning — there’s almost a logic to it that leads ultimately to Judge Dredd, in a way. It’s a very important moment when you’re a kid to see the pomposity of adults punctured — it’s every child’s fantasy. But it got me excited about comics, all these different styles, and principally in the early days it would’ve been the humor material I loved a lot.

WOLK: I’ve seen some pages of a horror comic you must have drawn in the early ’70s.

O’NEILL: I worked for a poster magazine series called Legend Horror Classics, back in the ’70s, before 2000 AD — one of the things I showed to Pat Mills to get a job at 2000 AD was a Jaws rip-off I did. The poster magazine format was a big poster with a comic on the back — pretty primitive, but I liked horror material, and I liked humor. By the time I was doing that, I’d been on staff from the age of 16 at IPC Magazines, as an office boy and gofer. I’d worked for the art department, and coloring department, and so on, doing a lot of paste-ups and stuff like that. It was very difficult in those days to break into comics, because British comics before 2000 AD had these very rigid house styles. If an artist’s style was popular, it was replicated by many imitators. No one signed their work. One of my first jobs in comics was whiting out artists’ signatures. I did ask why I was doing this — it used to frustrate me as a kid not knowing who did certain strips. And I was told, in all seriousness, that if the reader saw a signature on a page they wouldn’t believe it was real. It’s like a director’s name floating across the corner of a cinema screen or something.

The real reason was credits gave the creators tremendous power. And they were worried about their rival, D.C. Thompson, poaching artists and writers. They did treat their contributors like … rather tall children, if you know what I mean.

This kind of house style look was very commonplace. Leo Baxendale, who was one of the most popular humor artists, had numerous imitators throughout all the different stages of his career — they were imitating Leo Baxendale in his 20s, or Leo Baxendale in his 40s. Likewise, the adventure stuff — there were many, many imitators of the popular adventure artists, but occasionally you’d get people like Frank Bellamy, who would just do work that no one could credibly imitate. We had these fantastic artists. Often the writing was a little on the poor side, shall we say. We hit a wall early on with 2000 AD — you were told your target audience was no older than 12, but their idea of a 12-year-old was a kind of Enid Blyton 12-year-old, this kind of kid who hadn’t really seen anything or done anything much and lived in a narrow, small world. There were lots of serials that ran on for months and months, with bigger and bigger recaps every week — it was well overdue for a change. When Pat Mills and John Wagner came along and did Action and ultimately 2000 AD, it kind of changed everything. There wasn’t anyone else with their talent to carry what logically should’ve been an expansion of British comics, and now most British talent goes to America to look for work. It’s a shame, because we had this fantastic industry once — the newsstands were full of British comics, and it was quite fascinating, as a kid, to see the variety. It’s such a different world now.

WOLK: You were the second art director of 2000 AD, right?

O’NEILL: Yeah, the original art editor was in fact the person who taught me a lot when I went in there as a 16-year-old — I was in my 20s when 2000 AD started, but when I went for a job at IPC and saw managing editor Jack Le Grand, and Valiant editor Sid Bicknell. They introduced me to art editor, Janet Shepherd, and she was a brilliant art editor. In fact, she designed a lot of logos for Valiant and other comics — she designed Judge Dredd’s original logo. I learned a lot working with her — she was the safe pair of hands on 2000 AD who could fix anything. When she was transferred to Starlord, which was a kind of 2000 AD doing a rip off of itself, her job was offered to me, so I became the art editor. By this point, Pat Mills had left. Me and Nick Landau, Colin Wyatt and Roy Preston had it to ourselves to play with — there weren’t many eyes on us. The relationship with management when we were doing 2000 AD was kind of cat-and-mouse — we had to sneak stuff through. They knew what we were up to; they weren’t too happy about Judge Dredd saying “drokking” and all that kind of stuff. They knew they didn’t like it, but they couldn’t quite pinpoint why they didn’t like it. As long as it was making some money, they were happy enough. But eventually there was someone put in place to censor us — that led to head games, trying to get stuff over on him. We knew we had an older audience than 12-year-olds at 2000 AD, but we were constantly hammered with “it’s for kids, it’s for kids, it’s for kids.” It was kind of frustrating, and ultimately why I went freelance. I’d been doing bits and pieces of artwork for 2000 AD, but I decided to go freelance.

written by TB Gover, drawn by Kevin O'Neill for 2000AD June 17, 1986 ©1986 IPC Magzines Ltd. Click to view larger image

WOLK: When would that have been?

O’NEILL: 2000 AD was in preparation in 1976, but came out in 1977. I think ’78 was when I started freelancing for 2000 AD, doing Ro-Busters, the robot strip that me and Pat Mills worked on. That was great. We had a fantastic time — we could more or less do what we wanted. I’d do a couple of episodes, then Mike McMahon would do some episodes, then Dave Gibbons would do some episodes. That eventually grew a spin-off, the ABC Warriors, which was much more popular. I did a couple of episodes of that, and then there was a lot of trouble in the office with censorship and aggravation. And I’d been offered a job at Pinewood Studios doing storyboards for a Gerry Anderson film that actually ended up never getting made, called Five Star Five, so I worked there briefly on that. Which was … an experience, but storyboarding was not my favorite thing. I preferred design work.

Eventually I went back to freelancing for 2000 AD, and Pat and I created Nemesis the Warlock, which was probably the most fun I had on 2000 AD. We just went crazy — Pat’s an ex-Catholic like me — a Catholic upbringing, with all the nuns and the beating — in a way, Nemesis is a natural outpouring of bile against all that. When we were preparing it, there was an alien hero, and the villains were human. To make them transparently obvious that they were evil, we decided they should be in Klansmen and Inquisition robes. We had a lot of fun, but a lot more in the way of censorship problems with IPC.

That was a strip they really didn’t like — and probably with just cause, because we were always up to no good. It’s very very cruel — it’s poisonous, in a way, and bizarre as well. I’ve been looking over reprints of that stuff, and seeing Nemesis ride around on his wife’s back, who’s like a centaur, is pretty strange. It’d be strange in a Vertigo comic! But it was pretty strange back in the early ’80s. It was incredibly popular; as long as it’s popular they kind of leave you alone. They were never happy about it: there was always a feeling on the floor of IPC that this was kind of rocking a boat. We were constantly, in the early days of 2000 AD, experimenting and trying different things; some things worked, some things didn’t. We had terrible printing — the paper was absolutely godawful in those days, and color repro was shocking, but we worked as hard as we could to make it lively. When Pat and Kelvin Gosnell were preparing 2000 AD, they were using — (because at the time they couldn’t find British artists to do many of the strips) more and more foreign artists, but they still couldn’t quite get the look they wanted. When I started, I made them aware that there were people like Dave Gibbons out there. I knew Dave from a bit earlier — most of us had been doing fanzine work when we started. And we got Dave, we got Brian Bolland, we got Mike McMahon — a lot of people walked in the door. It was right place, right time — the planets lined up and we got all these incredibly talented people. And it worked out beautifully, I think.

from 2000AD Nov. 5, 1983 written by Pat Mills, drawn by Kevin O'Neill ©1983 IPC Magazines Ltd.

WOLK: Looking at your 2000 AD work, as soon as you started drawing Nemesis, from that very first story, the “Terror Tube” story, your artwork really became very much its own thing.

O’NEILL: The big breakthrough for me was that with the earlier stuff, you were very aware that you were sharing these characters with other artists. It was a shared experience. But with Nemesis, they were going to give me enough time to draw it all, and I kind of hit the ground running. I just loved it. I loved the idea of what we were doing. By that point, 2000 AD was very popular — if I went out with my wife anywhere, to parties and things, it was quite astonishing how many adults were reading it. They always said the same thing: They didn’t buy the first three issues, because the free gifts attached to the front cover made it way too embarrassing, but they picked it up later and it had this kind of interesting cult following. Judge Dredd was, of course, hugely popular … but yeah, it was great.

There just came a point later on where it suddenly became not so much fun any more dealing with all the management issues. They did seem inclined to want to kill the golden goose — there were lots of threats, and the knockoff Starlord, which was a kind of better-printed imitation of 2000 AD that Kelvin Gosnell edited. It had some great stuff, and Ro-Busters began in there, and Strontium Dog began in Starlord. In British tradition, when something folds, it folds into another publication, and becomes a double title for a few months — it was “2000 AD and Starlord.” But the rumor was that the management hated 2000 AD so much that they were going to do it the other way around, and crush 2000 AD into Starlord. I think the bottom line was our printing was cheaper than Starlord’s. And I think, secretly, we did sell more copies. It was an exciting period. Pat had another strip which he showed me notes for, and that was Metalzoic.

WOLK: That would have been ’82, ’83?

O’NEILL: Yeah! He showed it to his wife at the time, and she said “this is too good to give to them,” because it was one of those all-rights situations back then, with no royalties, no nothing. And IPC had often reneged on deals — I think Pat was promised a cut from the creation of 2000 AD, which he never got, et cetera. So he sent me a synopsis, and I thought it was fantastic. What had happened was that 2000 AD had caught some Americans’ eyes. I think Mike Gold might’ve been the first person to write anything about 2000 AD in the fan press, and Marv Wolfman and Len Wein noticed it as well. DC were looking to poach Brian Bolland, who was a huge Silver Age DC fan, and also Dave Gibbons. That was going on, and then they sent Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando to London to look for artists — I think they were looking for artists for Superman. They interviewed a whole bunch of us, and I started doing filler strips, Green Lantern Corps stories, the Omega Men, stuff like that. And Andy Helfer was editing the Green Lantern book, I think; they didn’t quite know what to do with me, because when they asked me “what characters would you like to draw,” I gave them a list of things like Blackhawk and Plastic Man. They said, “How about anything we still publish?” I think the Spectre was another one.

And Pat and I were doing Metalzoic — it was going to go into a new British publication under a different title, a comic/magazine hybrid called Look Alive. That folded after, I think, just three or six months, before we got anywhere with it. So we offered it to DC when they were doing those odd-format graphic-novel European-style books — The Medusa Chain, The Hunger Dogs

WOLK: Me and Joe Priest

O’NEILL: It must’ve seemed like a great idea at the time to do European-style format, but I think it didn’t actually fit on any American shelves! We had the misfortune that when ours came out, it was within weeks of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, and I think Dark Knight became the format of choice. We had this very very weird robot book which did horribly — it didn’t do anything — I think it’s better known for its later reprint in 2000 AD. Oddly enough, whenever people ask me about that book, they say when are you going to reprint it? And DC will never allow it to be reprinted. It’s one of those things that’s completely fallen off the radar. There’s a few hardy souls who liked it.

WOLK: Do you own any of the rights to it?

O’NEILL: That’s the first book we ever had a contract on, so back in those days it seemed very exciting — we would have gotten a royalty over a certain number of copies, and we got guaranteed credits, and the artwork was returned — many things which weren’t anything like the way British publishing treated us. But the underlying contract in those days was so primitive — effectively, DC own the book, so we can’t take it anywhere else or do anything else with it. It’s in DC limbo. Which is a shame — it’s one of those things that I’d like to see out there again.



Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , ,

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

  1. Wesley says:

    Is there some reason we can’t have the entire interview on a single page? It’s a huge pain in the neck having to track down and manage multiple posts to read one article, and the longer and more substantial the article, the worse it is.

  2. Kristy Valenti says:

    This is a 30,000 word interview, so we are running it in five parts. Each part will have the previous posts linked to at the top, and now on the homepage as well.