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

Posted by on February 17th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE

Image ©2002 Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill

WOLK: Between ’83, when you sort of tailed off work on Nemesis, and ’86, when Metalzoic came out, were there other projects you were working on?

O’NEILL: My way of working with Pat Mills on 2000 AD was kind of free-form — the editor would have an outline of what we wanted to do, and if it occurred to us we’d go off on a tangent and take it somewhere else. Working with DC, they wanted a very rigid plot, and it had to be what it had to be. We did Metalzoic, and then we did a thing for IPC called Dice Man — which was a role-playing book, which was a colossal amount of work, more work than we’d really anticipated. But we did that, and it drove us nuts. Everything about it was a pain in the arse. By this time, Metalzoic had come out and flopped, and Dice Man didn’t work either, so we were heading for a three-strikes-you’re-out kind of feeling. That’s when I said to Pat: well, I’ve doodled these notes and sketches for Marshal Law — just a character design, nothing else.

We could’ve offered it to DC, but by this point I’d met Archie Goodwin. Archie was one of the nicest people in the whole industry, a fantastic character who did a lot of great work, much admired by us. The Epic comics thing was going on, and that seemed like a good fit. The Marshal Law we offered Archie was much more Road Warrior, much more Mad Max. He warned us that Marvel famously takes a long time to do paperwork, and so a year went by. Which was a lot of time to think about this, and Pat, who didn’t grow up with superheroes and has no affection for them, was looking at what we’d done, and he said, “Well, why don’t we make the character a superhero hunter?” And that was really the turning point. We offered that to Archie, and he was terrific — he just let us do it. It came out in ’87, and Marshal Law was a hit, thank God. We got the same kind of kick that we got off Nemesis the Warlock — we were just laughing all the time. The more cruel we were, the more we laughed. It did cause occasional friction … but Marvel were astonishingly good-natured! They didn’t mind at all what we did with their characters in pastiche or parody form.

DC seemed a little bit more priggish, shall we say. The one that caused the most problem for me was the Secret Tribunal book — I rang up Pat, we were about to embark on a new adventure, and I said, “I’ve just been sent the DC Archive of the Legion of Super-Heroes, who I always fucking hated as a kid. I absolutely loathed them. I loathe all that Silver Age kind of good-for-you … I liked the Kirby and Ditko stuff, but I couldn’t get into the silver age DC stuff. But I was a fan of Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino and a huge fan of the old Bizzaro World series.” So I was looking at this, and I thought “this is appalling”, and I sent it to Pat and he laughed his head off at it. So we did our Legion of Super-Heroes, and I was very surprised when we were taken immediately off the DC comp list! “If we’re going to send up anything else of theirs, we have to buy it.”

WOLK: I want to go back a little bit to the beginning of Marshal Law and how you worked up the look of it and the setting of it. Had you visited San Francisco?

O’NEILL: No! At that point, I’d only been to America once — I went to New York and met Archie Goodwin. That was about it. Why did we choose San Francisco? It just seemed like a visually exciting city which was kind of underused in comic books. The look was partly because Epic comics were on such good paper — they had such great repro that there was a possibility of doing painted full-color artwork. One of the beefs with Metalzoic, which I colored, and the color was absolutely terrible, was the way it was done, which was blue-line. I had to resort to something I’d been taught back in my old IPC coloring department days: mixing paint with soap to get it to stick to a surface of a blue-line. It was time-consuming, and it was absolutely terrible. Jesus, it was an embarrassment. Ugly as sin. So for Marshal Law, I thought “I’m going to color the original artwork and get proper reproduction.” That determined part of the look, and I was working with marker pens to get some sort of speed and some sort of output on the book. I think the early ones are pretty primitive, but by the time we did “Kingdom of the Blind” I was confident with the finished result.

When I look back on it, it seems slightly demented — it’s so bombastic and operatic, it’s hard to know what to make of it. I know some people liked it a lot when it came out, and some people in the industry detested it and didn’t like the way it treated iconic superhero images and so on. Not that we cared! [Laughs.] But it was tremendous fun. I think in the Epic period there was only one page you’d call censored. They asked me to alter what we liked to call the “flying fuck” sequence, which featured the Public Spirit and his girlfriend — they were originally naked, and it was either Archie or Dan Chichester, the editor, who said the women in the office were very unhappy with it. So I pasted a cape over them. I did it to myself on that one. There’s only one other example in Law I can think of which was censored, one of the Dark Horse books — I think it’s the Mask crossover. We often refer back to the red light district in San Futuro, and on my original I had in the background, one of the shop fronts with “Pussy Palace” on it. But someone in the office changed it to “Pushy Palace.”

Image ©2003 Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill, The Mask™ ©2003 Dark Horse Comics Inc.

WOLK: Yeah, I remember seeing that and thinking “that doesn’t seem right …”

O’NEILL: It kind of scans in some sort of bizarro way. The spirit is there. It’s a very odd thing to do — I guess somebody was uncomfortable with the word, but they didn’t say anything to us. But given that there must be 600 pages of Marshal Law, and those are the only two examples, it’s a very low rate of attrition compared to our previous experiences. [laughs].It got more and more difficult with Marshal Law to find a publisher who was prepared to pay for full-color artwork. The last couple we did were the black-and-white ones, the Savage Dragon, which was great — Erik Larsen’s a terrific guy, he let us do those books and we had a lot of fun.

WOLK: It looks like Law In Hell actually came out between the two issues of Secret Tribunal.

O’NEILL: Law In Hell was the Pinhead crossover. Me and Pat did a signing tour of America in the era of multiple covers and embossed covers, and the whole industry seemed set to collapse. We were crossing America, and it felt like there were waves of comics stores folding all around us — we thought, Jesus, things are pretty rough out there. By the time we got to the Savage Dragon crossover, they couldn’t justify doing color, which was a shame. But I believe it’s going to be colored up for the Top Shelf reprint.

Marshal has a strange trajectory through our work. We always loved doing it — the people who like it like a lot and the people who hate it hate it a lot, and we get just as much out of hearing the people who hate it complain about it! [laughs]. But they often won’t rise to the bait if they know we’re enjoying it, you know what I mean?

WOLK: There were a few of the Marshal Law books where you were turning over some of the work to other people — Marshal Law Takes Manhattan is the first time I’d seen you inked by somebody else.

O’NEILL: Originally that was going to be a legitimate Marshal Law/Punisher crossover. Pat kind of balked at being hemmed in by it being the real Punisher, and Marvel said, “You can do your own version of the Punisher, we don’t mind!” So we did the Persecutor, which we had a great time with. But they wanted a book out very, very quickly, so they got someone to ink it and a colorist. I think originally it was going to be Tom Palmer, but Tom was busy. They also asked Al Williamson, curiously enough, Archie was going to call in a favor. I think it turned out well with Mark Nelson, but I always prefer inking my own stuff. I’ve only been inked by other people twice — Bill Sienkiewicz inked something I did for the Epic superhero line, Critical Mass. I did some covers for them as well, but there’s only one issue where I penciled it. It was a very weird, mondo bizarro combination. I always prefer inking my own stuff, because it seems like the amount of work it would take to do detailed pencils for someone else to understand, I might as well ink it anyway!

WOLK: What happened with Apocalypse? The Hateful Dead ended on a cliffhanger, and then Dark Horse took over a year later.

O’NEILL: That was a British publisher, Geoff Fry — his dream was to do a British weekly like 2000 AD. I did a cover for a fanzine that Geoff was publishing, and it sold rather well — he got in touch with me and asked, “Is there any chance of doing a Marshal Law book?” That was when things were going a bit wonky at Epic — by this point Archie had left. We looked at our contract, and we could take it back, and Marvel were cool on it — we got the rights back in a straightforward manner. We wanted to do a monthly anthology comic — we kept saying to Geoff, “A weekly’s a nightmare beast of a thing for a startup publisher to do.” But he had his heart set on it.

The Marshal Law one-shot “Kingdom of the Blind” was a prelude to the launch of the weekly comic Toxic! Our royalty money from Law was pumped into the weekly and so began a fucking nightmare. The principal creators were all friends from 2000 AD and between disagreements on content, payment slowdowns, work being late and Pat and I having to run interference to hold the thing together as best we could, factions began falling out with each other. Never — never go into business with friends — especially on a creator-owned project where anyone can withhold work and wreck everything.

Image ©2003 Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill

It was a kind of mesmerizing shambles. It had a fairly good run — it was interesting, and we would’ve loved it to have worked — a lot of energy went into it. It was a period of a lot of new comics coming out in Britain, the last big gasp, really: we had Revolver, Blast, Crisis — all these things where people were trying to find new ways into the market. They ended up bombing — just fell apart. Again, we had the rights back to Law, and we finished the second half of the Toxic! story with Dark Horse.

We did offer Law to DC once — in fact, we offered it to them twice, and the first time the person we offered it to … I once described it to someone as “like putting toxic waste on their desk.” The reaction couldn’t have been more horrified, frankly. [Laughs.] We’ve had lots of interest from movie people over the years, and last year it got probably closer than it’s ever gotten before — McG. was interested in doing it after he finished up Terminator Salvation, and Rich Wilkes, the screenwriter, who’s been talking to us over a number of years, said he’d like to do Marshal Law. By coincidence, I was in California on holiday, and this thing had blown up, George Clooney’s company were interested, and the Rock, and Disney of all places, which was the most bizarre one to us — we did kind of toy with the idea of Marshal Law going to the land of Mickey Mouse. The McG. thing was advancing, and I’d stayed on a few days to attend this meeting in the Warner Bros. presidential boardroom. And I thought, “If DC knew this, they’d be mortified.” Then the whole thing fell apart — this was just before last Christmas — and the underlying theme I got was that they’d made all this money off Dark Knight, and Christopher Nolan’s a golden boy, and they’ve got a substantial investment in Watchmen, and they owned their own line of comics, and why did they need this outside thing? They didn’t want the costumes, I don’t think they wanted the black humor, or pretty much anything that’s Marshal Law in it. I said to Pat: if they take all that away, pretty much all you’ve got is a guy with some fucking guns — they can really do that themselves, can’t they?

Over the years, people say they want to do it, they love it — but really what they mean is they want to strip-mine it. For anyone who likes it, the logical stuff is the black humor and the excess. They don’t leave much standing, do they, Hollywood people? They filter and filter and filter. In the end, it’s probably just as well that it fell to pieces. I’m not a big fan, frankly, of the Dark Knight movie and this kind of faux-reality … it’s an odd thing, when you layer in so much reality. That particular film is like a sub-Michael Mann film or something. The earnestness of it — I found it very boring.

WOLK: Maybe what people want from a Marshal Law movie is the same situation as “Shok!” and “Hardware”: they see something in it they want, but they don’t want to get sued.

O’NEILL: Almost certainly. It is a minefield, and that’s the problem with all these things.

WOLK: Did you ever end up seeing any money from Hardware?

O’NEILL: Hardware was a very strange experience. Someone who worked for Time Out, when it was being previewed, said, “It looks very much like the story you did in the Annual.” I contacted 2000 AD and asked if they knew anything about it, and Steve MacManus, who I did the story for, said he’d actually seen the film … and then I started getting phone calls from lawyers saying if I didn’t sign off on this, I’d be sued! And I said, “Well, I haven’t actually done anything. Why is anybody suing me?” It was a bit of a mess. I liked Richard Stanley’s film. As far as I’m aware, he’s never commented on it. They did come to a settlement — I got a small amount of money, I’m sure IPC took the lion’s share, and I never saw the credits on it. They reprinted the comic strip in the DVD, so maybe that means I’m in there.

I think the more pronounced act of larceny was really Robocop — what Robocop did by beating Judge Dredd to the screen was it stole the best of Judge Dredd, and when they made the Dredd movie, they were then worried about being compared with Robocop! So they took out all the black humor and all the satire, and their emasculated movie was almost a Judge Dredd movie, but not quite. Robocop was a more energetic movie. We did hear there were piles of 2000 ADs in the production offices. That does kind of show, doesn’t it?

Continue Reading: PART THREE, PART FOUR, PART FIVE

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