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

Posted by on February 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE, PART TWO

©1998 DC Comics.

WOLK: There was a period between Secret Tribunal and “Law in Hell” where about four years went by and there wasn’t much in the way of comics by you coming out. What were you doing in the mid-’90s?

O’NEILL: I did a couple of film projects, some design work — also Lobo and Batmite. I also did a story for Negative Burn called “The Abyss Also Grasps,” written by Aldyth Beltane, which I really enjoyed. It was only a six-page black-and-white thing, but I remember thinking that was a departure when I was working on that — the drawing style was very free-form and wild and expressionistic. And something a lot of people never saw were strips I did in Penthouse Comics, called Bitchcraft, written by Tony Skinner, who used to work with Pat Mills. At least one or two of those episodes were never published for legal reasons, because they were printed in Canada, and there were all these laws about what kind of imagery and content you can have crossing over the border to America.

WOLK: You were still having trouble with censors when you were working for Penthouse?

O’NEILL: [Laughs.] It’s dogged me like an unfortunate shadow.

WOLK: What sort of things were they having trouble with?

O’NEILL: There might have been an adult female character dressed as a schoolgirl. The Penthouse lawyers thought it could actually be sold in America, but not B.C., printed and shipped from their Canadian printers, without falling foul of Canadian customs. They were decadent sexy occult-themed strips — a lot of fun to do. I also finally got to do a Bizarro World strip for an Adventure Comics annual which I loved doing. That was written by Tom Peyer.

Me and Alan [Moore] were going to do a Bizarro series many years ago for DC — that’s one of several things we almost did together. We were talking about the Bizarros, and it was all ready to go for Julius Schwartz, when John Byrne was brought in and revamped Superman. So that went right out the window. And before that we were doing the Spectre, and that didn’t happen, and a book for Mike Gold way, way back at the beginning — I should’ve mentioned this — for First Comics, when Mike Gold was first writing about 2000 AD, he approached us — I was going to do the front half of the book, it was going to be two different strips like the old Tales of Suspense or something. Mike McMahon was going to draw the second story, both of them were going to be written by Alan, and it was called Dodgem Logic. But Mike Gold said — we had a letter from him saying as a fan, he’s saying yes, but as an editor with financial responsibilities he sadly had to say no. So that never happened — it was never reactivated, that one.

WOLK: That title, Dodgem Logic — for a lot of the ’80s it kept turning up in conjunction with Alan’s name in all sorts of different contexts. I believe for a while it was going to be an anthology series for Fantagraphics, as well.

O’NEILL: Oh, yeah — Alan has reactivated it as a magazine. It was an interesting project — I think First Comics just weren’t set up to accommodate it. It was a bit outré, a bit on the edge commercially.

WOLK: What was it going to be?

O’NEILL: I had a story where — you were condemned to hell if you’d had your tonsils removed, so it was as arbitrary as that. I just wanted to do a story set in hell. There were extra feature things, there would’ve been a contemporary story, and — it’s like what Alan was doing in Supreme, where you had these 1960s versions of the characters and stuff like that, but way before that. It was interesting, but they couldn’t really see a market for it.

There was another one we were going to do many years ago — Titan Books were thinking of doing a comic anthology, and they had a lot of people connected and circling it: it was Alan, they asked Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland, Frank Miller, those people — and that foundered. Me and Alan were going to do a kind of Fighting American-type strip.

WOLK: That 50th birthday card that you drew for Alan, “The League of Lost Projects”…

O’NEILL: That’s very much on the nose, yes!

Also in the mid-’90s, there was another Marshal Law film project with a company in Britain — I was doing some development work on that, and Pat was writing the screenplay. And then we did the Death Race stuff — I think that was sometime in the late-ish ’90s. And I did a story in one of the Clive Barker books at Epic, written by Dwayne McDuffie. It’s called “Writer’s Lament,” and I thought that was a terrific story — Dwayne did a stunning job. It is rather excessive, but I guess it was the ’90s …

WOLK: And it was a Clive Barker comic.

O’NEILL: It was Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Also, there was Blackball Comics, which like Toxic was one of those startup company things — Dave Elliott put it together with Keith Giffen, and I did a strip in there called John Pain, which was kind of a riff on superheroes and the occult, having a bit of fun. It got caught up in the giant comics slump, and it got buried, which was a pity. In those days, Pat was working a lot for Europe, so we weren’t synchronized to work on Marshal Law stuff. We found it very hard — we couldn’t find a publisher, and thought it was a good time to do other things for a while. I was doing bits of design work, and odds and ends.

©1991 Clive Barker.

It probably wasn’t too long after that when I spoke to Alan Moore, when the League stuff kicked off — that was in the late ’90s. And again, it’s one of those odd things where I’m glad I made this phone call. Where I heard about League was from Paul Hudson, from the London comic shop Comic Showcase, which is now closed but was a fantastic comic store in town — I went in there one day and he said “I hear you’re doing a project with Alan Moore.” And I said “No, no, I’m not…” and he said “Oh, really? I heard something about it on some Web site or something.”

I ended up speaking to Alan later in the week — we were having a conversation about something else entirely — and at the end of that, as we were signing off, he said, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got this idea you might be interested in,” and he ran down the outline of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And I thought, Jesus, that is fantastic. It’s just completely different to what I’ve been working on, and it’s got all these major characters in a period I’m very interested in — I’ve got a lot of books, and kind of grew up in a part of South London which is very Sax Rohmer, if you know what I mean. I thought it was terrific, and it gave me a chance to sit down and rethink my style — I knew it’d be a completely different look to what I’d done before.

WOLK: Your style on the last few Marshal Law projects looked very different from the earlier ones, and some of them look like they were done very quickly — did you want to try something different, or did you feel like it had run its course?

O’NEILL: I think it was the money. The exchange rate was terrible for the dollar — we were getting the best we could, but compared to what it was when it started out in 1987, it was getting tough. We felt like we were bashing our head against a brick wall — it was getting tougher and tougher to find an audience, and the whole marketplace was shifting and changing. I needed a major change in what I was doing — I’d drawn an awful lot of people being killed in interesting ways, but it was becoming just a thing you do. I didn’t want to be that guy any more. Some people laughed when I said I was doing a new strip with a central character who was a female, because I’d done all these strips with way too much testosterone!

When I started on League, it was very tough for numerous reasons, but it’s Alan, and his scripts are thick as a phone book. With every series of League, it takes me about 10 pages to get into it. When I did the first few pages, I wasn’t quite sure. Then I found a pace for it, and I realized the fascination of it is not just the exotic nature of the characters and settings but the body language of them. I love the Mina character; she’s one of my favorites. Over the arc of the stories, there’s a lot of subtlety to it, which I certainly wasn’t known for in the past — with my long history of robots and aliens and people slaughtering superheroes!

The other thing is I love the pen-work of the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Charles Dana Gibsons and their English counterparts — it’s fascinating to me. I drew it so it could possibly work in black and white if need be, and then Ben Dimagmaliw, who colors the book, has got the most perfect color palette — we love the atmosphere he layers on it. Bill Oakley sadly passed away after the “Black Dossiers” first chapter, but from the second series we’ve had Todd Klein involved on design and later Century lettering. It’s the four of us working from series to series. We were wondering what was going to happen after the Invisible Man was killed, after Hyde is gone, Mina has quit — is the audience going to be gone as well? Can we carry this forward? And the new one, 1910, has probably done better than any of the previous ones — it’s got a very kind of robust audience. We have far more women than I’ve ever encountered at signings before — Mina is very, very popular. And the shift in time periods is exciting — we’ve gotten to do the whole 1950s period, I’m working on the 1969 book at the moment. It’s really big shifts, but carrying Allan and Mina forward from the earlier series — Mina’s very much a constant. And they work: I like them shifting through time like that!

Hyde being as gigantic as he is is not in the Stevenson book — he’s actually smaller than Jekyll, but Hyde being so big was almost a complete accident. The back cover design, with all the hands resting atop each other: Alan wanted a Three Musketeers, end of the first issue of Fantastic Four kind of thing, where you’ve got Ben Grimm’s giant hand with all the other hands resting on it. I drew a hand which was so huge, as a promo piece — that was originally a promo piece, as a teaser — when I came to draw the strip, I thought, Jesus, this guy is huge! He’s just colossal! And this is really the origin of the Hulk, and all those giant characters who transform from a weakling into a monster. And Hyde’s coloring being different-colored skin was an accident — on his first appearance, Ben colored him like he was in the shadows, and that was maintained throughout and we just didn’t say anything about it — it was interesting!

WOLK: Tell me a bit more about designing the look of Mina — that’s such a striking, gorgeous character design.

O’NEILL: Most of the characters were from books I’m familiar with — I’m a big fan of H.G. Wells. Some authors are not too helpful with character descriptions, if you know what I mean. From Bram Stoker, we knew Mina’s age, the color of her hair, color of her eyes, music teacher — there’s not a great deal there. I just thought she should look very fragile. But with a very powerful presence, and she can control these raging characters — she kind of binds them together. Obviously, it’s the sort of thing the movie had no faith in … [Laughs.]

WOLK: Well, the movie had no faith in a lot of things.

O’NEILL: Yeah, they couldn’t make that one fly, could they? With Mina I found a look for her, which I liked, and over the years I’ve become more comfortable with her. I like the way she does small glances in the more recent stuff when she’s talking with Orlando. Some of my favorite scenes have been with her — when she’s sitting with Mr. Hyde in a tavern having a conversation, I love that scene with the two of them together, and when he crosses the bridge with the tripods and touches her breast — there’ve been some wonderful scenes for her: and her being beaten by the Invisible Man, which was a very strange scene. A lot of people think she was raped — that’s a lot of projection going on. She wasn’t, she was just given a very bad beating … which didn’t stop Hyde exacting a terrible revenge. She’s a fascinating character to draw. A lot of people love Captain Nemo, they love Mr. Hyde because he’s big and powerful, but I think Mina is probably the single most popular character in the series.

WOLK: Was there a point when you were drawing the first series that you really connected with it — when you really felt comfortable drawing it?

O’NEILL: I think it was the Paris sequence — there was something about that where I thought, “Yeah, this is working.” Likewise, the — well, we can’t call him Fu Manchu, can we? We have to call him the Doctor — those scenes. It was really the atmosphere of the flophouse, and Quatermain stealing the cavorite: I thought we’re really onto something, it’s firing away. And on the second series we kind of came straight hard in on that Martian stuff, which was wild and threw a lot of people, because they weren’t expecting flying carpets and Martians and that kind of thing, but I got to go crazy with Martian fantasies. That was cool.

WOLK: When was the first time you worked with Alan?

O’NEILL: Apart from the abortive projects, I think it was a story called “Brief Lives,” in the Omega Men. And I contributed to a Clause 28 project — an anti-gay bill that was being proposed by the Thatcher government, and I think the idea was “let’s put these people in camps.” It was getting extremely right-wing over here, and Alan and his first wife organized a lot of contributors for an anti-Clause-28 project.

WOLK: So, for these four-page stories, would he give you a phone-book-sized script?

O’NEILL: They were always very detailed! Pat Mills was notorious for that as well — some artists wouldn’t work with Pat because he gave them too much detail — but Alan was even more so. It’s always horribly fascinating to me to look at the people who ignore his descriptions, because they end up with this disconnected artwork, like that Woody Allen film where he did new subtitles for a Japanese film. It’s just odd. It very rarely happens with Alan’s stuff. Alan’s scripts are, I’ve said many times before, incredible blueprints, but there’s room to maneuver and design. Alan draws anyway, so he’s very pictorial in his descriptions.

We did the Green Lantern Corps stuff, a few odds and ends — that Green Lantern Corps story “Tygers” that had the Comics Code problems.

WOLK: Which is to say that Green Lantern Corps story that half the Green Lantern comics being published right now are riffing off of. [O’Neill laughs.] It’s become this major canonical story that everything refers to.

O’NEILL: It’s a curious one, that — Alan’s part of DC whether he wants to be or not, isn’t he?

WOLK: For the benefit of Comics Journal readers at home who haven’t heard the story before, can you tell the story of the Comics Code’s problems with it?

O’NEILL: The “Tygers” story was going to be part of the Green Lantern Corps backup series — it was about the temptation of Abin Sur, the Lantern who gave Hal Jordan his ring. It’s a fantastic story, with sinister whispers and half-truths and so on. I drew it, sent it in, and the editor of the book Andy Helfer rang me up and said, “There’s a problem with your Green Lantern Corps artwork.”

I said, “What am I going to have to change, then?”

He said “Well, there’s a problem with the Comics Code — I asked them what could be changed, and they said ‘there’s nothing you can change — the style is unsuitable!’” [Laughs.] He said “we can’t do it without a Code sticker,” and it was briefly spiked.

I rang up Alan and told him, and he was actually jealous! (laughs) They published it in an annual, some time later, without a Code sticker. The Code was on the wane by then. A few years later I went up to the DC offices in New York — I was curious to see an actual copy of the Comics Code. I’d never actually seen one. I’d asked Archie Goodwin, and he said he’d look around, but he couldn’t find it — which is pretty funny, actually! Eventually, he found a very old one, it had some stuff like “no werewolves, no vampires” etc. They did have a phone number on it for the Code, and I rang them up, and this woman answered — I said I was a British comic-book artist visiting New York, and I’d heard so much about the Comics Code, could I come up and visit the offices? And she said, “There’s nothing to see here,” — and hung the phone up!

My vision of the Comics Code was always a bunch of old ladies rubber-stamping the back of artwork — I gather it’s probably a skeleton crew, financed pretty much entirely by the Archie Comics people. There’s no British equivalent of that: Taste and sensibilities just shift with society. There was an act of Parliament when American horror comics were coming in in the ‘50s, motivated by a lobby group who saw them as having a pernicious effect on British youth, pretty similar to what was happening in America. There was an embargo on publishing horror material, and no one did for years and years. But back in the early part of my career I did the poster magazine we were talking about, Legend Horror Classics, and someone who bought a copy for their kid complained to their local MP, and the distributor we were doing it for got cold feet and decided to pull the plug on the thing. And that was that. But it wasn’t a censorship thing, it was a distribution thing — and I should’ve mentioned this with Marshal Law, really: One of the early issues of Law, issue 2, the original Epic series, again there was a woman whose son had bought a copy in one of the American bookstore chains, and she thought it was a Superman comic because of the cover — but it’s the rape issue. I got a disgruntled call from Epic saying they’d actually lost distribution to this particular chain. They said it only takes one serious complaint, and they say, Oh, Christ, this isn’t what we thought we were selling.

Continue Reading: PART FOUR, PART FIVE

Image Credits:
Bizarro Must Think written by Tom Peyer, drawn by Kevin O’Neill
Bitchcraft written by Tony Skinner, drawn by Kevin O’Neill, lettered by Kenny Lopez
Hellraiser: Writer’s Lament written by Dwayne McDuffy, drawn by Kevin O’Neill, lettered by Jim Novak
Green Lantern: Tygers written by Alan Moore, Drawn by Kevin O’Neill, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Anthony Tollin
Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.