Steve Pugh has written and illustrated some of the more adventurous comics of the last couple of decades, constantly experimenting in ways generally legal and/or moral. His current return to DC’s Animal Man was something that many fans have been dreaming of for far too long. The graphic innovator and closet Care Bears supporter was kind enough to open up with the LP as we walked down the intraweb’d beach, talking of things more discerning than feminine hygiene products. Honestly, Pugh is too nice to work in comics. Read on and see.
I understand one of your only non-comics day jobs was one time selling toys. Were comics the result of a lost bet then, or do you consider yours a charmed life? Had you grown up a fan?
Yeah, growing up I was a huge comics fan. I was a sickly kid, home from school a lot and had a voracious media appetite, but back then there was only 3 tv channels, and one video game (pitfall on the atari 2600) so most of my time was occupied with reading and drawing my own comic strips. For some reason where we lived didn’t seem to have many US ones up for grabs, so they were mainly British anarchic Leo Baxandale type stuff, and later the war and sci-fi comics like 2000ad.
The pages I drew were mainly astronauts being eaten by aliens- grosser the better, and a smattering of nudies too, the usual weird kid stuff. My dad worked as a train driver, and he’d snag comics and newspapers people had left behind, so I’d get the odd issue of Thor or Iron-Man, but I came verrrry late to US comics. I guess the gateway drug was the UK black and white Star Wars weekly reprints which were giving away cool free gifts taped to the covers. I came for the cardboard tie fighter and I stayed for the reprints of Deathlok the demolisher (and I was insanely happy to finally draw him for real in the Earth-X stuff).
This means I still have huge holes in my comic history though. I dunno which Spider-Man girlfriend is which, and back when I got hold of an X-Men comic for the first time, I thought the big robots trying to kill them were the “heroes”- I guess the 2000ad punk sci-fi had trained me to side against the puny humans.
Anyway, as far as ambitions went, I intended to just leave school and draw killer robots for 2000ad. My mum thought it would probably be a good idea to go to art college though.
Sounds like Tharg has done his job well in perverting the minds of our youth then. So had you ever apprenticed or studied at university? Because, you’ve displayed some truly ranging styles over the years, and I just don’t see that strong spirit of experimentation being fostered enough.
Yeah, I totally wanted to be an art-droid, but I did go to college in the end and took a graphic design course. It wasn’t much direct use, but I did get to mix with a bunch of artists and get exposed to a lot of new ideas. I met Phil Winslade there and ruined his life- he was going to be a book illustrator!
I do change styles a lot. I get bored, and maybe the reason I’ve always been a bit of a slow burn was I didn’t try to push one identifiable style on every story, but tried to come up with something sympathetic to the material. I remember trying to come up with a chunky, manly, faux Kirby style for a Jaime Delano Darkseid story, and doing my best to be graceful with the Paradise- X characters. I’m also a big experimenter with materials, frankensteining pens and painting art boards with white house paint to increase the tooth. I used to go straight in with ink and white out thickly anything that went bad so I had “seagulls nesting in the fight scenes” as Warren commented. Of course my ongoing battles with computer colourists meant I had a period where my inking was getting thicker and thicker to compete for dominance on the page- ha, yeah, that was a battle I couldn’t win. I’m a massive control freak, that’s probably worth mentioning. I won’t let anyone help or do stuff for me. I’m very much unsuited to such a collaborative medium. I’ve had a few editors try and use me as a penciler, but it didn’t go well.
Your pages on the Doom Force special way back were also dark inked and left of the norm, and my favorite in that whole crazy collection of great artists. But you mentioned Delano- you’ve had a few strong partnerships with certain writers over the years. I especially liked your collaboration with Christopher Hinz on the Helix mini Dead Corps. Is it especially difficult for writers to break through your natural resistance to collaborations? And might the more recent writing you’ve done be some kinda subconscious statement on that relationship?
Oh, heh, I didn’t mean I’m a dick with everyone on a project, ha that’d be awful, no. I was just raised with the British artist mentality, where you’re responsible for the whole look of a page, the distinctions between pencil’s inks, colour often merge.
When a reader sees a comic page, the most eye catching elements are the white balloon placements, they lead the eye through the structure, then the eye sees the colour, that determines the mood and the contrast levels of the art, lighting and shading too, and then the black line work, and finally the underlying drawing. It feels very alien to be only responsible for that last bit and leave everything else to other artists.
The writer is really who I’m trying to please, I’m trying to get as close to their vision as possible, that’s why I change styles, I’m trying to fit their “voice”. Generally I always work from a full script, and try not to change anything unless it’s for page construction practicalities.
Doom Force was a riot, I’m quite a controlled, slow artist. I worry a lot, go back and fix stuff- but this was an excuse to do everything I felt I shouldn’t- crazy anatomy, cheap sexy composition, the implication that the “badder” the art the better, the sense of freedom was amazing. It was like running through the office naked. I actually had to re-draw a page because a senior editor found my female anatomy “disturbing, and made him feel weird”. I was quiet proud of that.
Chris Hinz I like a lot, and Dead Corps was great, because it was science fiction, and up to that point I’d done mostly horror, and I got to design the whole thing. He has quite a peculiar sense of humor so I let the characters slip into a more cartooned style so they sold his gags. I actually really love those characters. We worked together again on Blade, but I don’t think management really “got” what he was doing and had hoped for something more gritty and grim. One of those scowl face books. Jaime is probably the writer I’ve worked with most often, I love him, I love his work.
Are you asking if Hotwire is a rail against writers? Nah, it’s just a book I wanted to see exist, and I figured no-one else would bother. It was designed to take advantage of the single creator method, some gags were utterly dependent on me knowing I could nail a facial expression. Another gag was built from two word balloons overlapping. Generally writers who put that stuff in their scripts find balls are often dropped, and subtleties that would make you love a character are the first things that are lost to simplify a job. So… I have this theory, that writers don’t get along with each other because their currency is shocks and plot twists. Easily swiped, easily copied. I tried to build Hotwire with as few plot twists as possible, and where they would have been used in a traditional story as a beat I instead added a new element, or you found out something new about their world, to keep a sense of “where the hell is he going with this?” as I hate stories that use misdirection to fill up time. We all know the tropes by now, that lawyer character is going to turn evil, who cares, get back to the good stuff!
Some of your earliest work was for First Comics, towards the end of that publisher’s time, on Grimjack- who still has such a cult following IDW is working on slowly reprinting the material. How did you mix up with them? Did it smell like the end was near? I always felt that their demise was caused, no offense, but by too many of their original roster of vet creators moving on, and the company not replenishing its stock of creator-owned properties but instead passing work onto talents less experienced. I know others, like Kevin VanHook got their start at that time too, and he went on to be veep of Valiant and now makes movies. So the new bloods did have talent and potential, but might the company have lasted longer if they’d let that new blood create its own? And from your perspective as a freelancer, do you think other publishers dealing in creator-owned properties, like the Vertigo imprint (which we’ll get much more into next) and Image have learned much from those mistakes?
“Less experienced talents”‘ heh. Yeah, Grimjack was my first paid work. I didn’t know any US publishers so a guy called Paul Duncan, who was a big comic fan and ran a semi-pro fanzine called arkensword was acting as my sort of agent. He mailed out a bunch of photocopies to First and they gave me the job. I think I did do a couple of sketches of the Tim Truman original version of Grimjack from ref they sent me and they asked if I could draw 22 pages a month and I said “sure” but I had to get my shit together pretty fast. I was just “oh cool, Americans- that’s exciting”.
Grimjack was a very cool book. I loved the setting with demons, cowboys, and hi tech stuff all co-existing. They sent me a ton of back issues, and the Truman ones were really dark and gothic. First itself was just a voice at the other end of the phone (which actually turned out to be the glamorous Anina Bennett). They sent me cheques, I fed-ex’d them art. It was very abstract, I don’t think I ever saw an issue for sale, I just sent ‘em off and they’d send five printed ones back. I do remember thinking they must be pretty upscale, because they used blueline painted colouring, which looked great and I knew was expensive. I didn’t really become aware of the “comics industry” until I started working with Pat Mills on Crisis, and also around that time John Ostrander made the introduction to Karen Berger- who was scouting for Brits. I’m guessing John knew the end was coming and helped me out.
I think in retrospect, the big players were realizing the game was changing and were sucking the talent from the indies, I do remember there being a lot of work around back then and not enough creators to do it.
And the Berger connection led you to Vertigo- the earliest days of the line. Man, those first few years of Vertigo were my favorite time for comics ever. Especially here in the states where not everyone had steady access to 2000AD or Deadline, there was just that explosion of incredible talent doing very mature, grownup stories. Less actual violence than the capes, and so much glorious mindfuck! Did it feel as electric behind the scenes? Do you feel that your first go on Animal Man was a particularly big stepping stone for you?
It was every bit as incredible as you imagine it. Of course Alan Moore and the gang had been tearing it up long before I arrived, but there seemed to be a huge wave of artists who’d been stuck drawing Transformers or Zoids for Marvel UK (because two-thou only had so many pages) who smelled the blood in the water. And there was so much new thinking going on. Bisley was doing that thing that he does for the very first time, and making an impact as big as Bill Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants stuff. Brendan McCarthey and Brett Ewins were declaring the death of the brush and the rise of the fineliner, and that’s when Ewins was experimenting with xeroxs. He had a strip called Bad Company where the idea was to only draw an image once, so everything that had already been seen in the strip was a photocopy and by the end of the story it would all be paste up, he was fighting a one man war on “busy work”! Meanwhile Glenn Fabry was going the other way, with ever more intricate and ridiculously beautiful Slaine stuff. He came late to the US party though, due to a hilariously misjudged prank at a DC reception.
The overriding feeling was that anything was possible. I’d done a few Hellblazers with Jaime, and Karen offered Animal-Man to me as a regular book, and incredibly, instead of biting her arm off, I asked her if she’d wait six months because I’d promised a writer friend of mine I’d draw his comic in the UK. I think Karen was pretty boggled by that, but god bless her she held it open for me and that lack of lead time screwed me for the rest of the run, HA! Yeah, that “writer friend” was a jittery skinny bloke, full of caffeine and enthusiasm, Warren Ellis I think he called himself. I often wondered what became of him.
Animal-man was wild, Jaime just pored in the crazy and I tried to keep up. I remember they showed that page at the end of our first issue- the one with A-man run over by a truck and his arm missing, and the bones chicken winging, to a distributors’ meeting and they had a meltdown thinking it was a cover. Funnily enough, the same distributors were hassling DC later, complaining that Animal-Man was a “girls comic” because of all the family stuff. Anecdotally it was the first comic the wives and girlfriends used to pull out of the complementary boxes that all the creators used to be sent.
Looking back, of course Animal-Man was incredibly important in establishing me, but at the time everything seemed so vital and alive, there didn’t seem to be any bad jobs. Deadline was huge, Tank Girl, (or really Jaime Hewlett) was exploding, and IPC was putting out Revolver and Crisis. And although in reality their readership wasn’t as big, they seemed just as relevant and perhaps even more exciting than the American comics. I’d tried to straddle both markets for awhile. I’d been working on Crisis and Hellblazer at the same time, working a 22 hour day with my flat mates physically shaking me awake, but I was going a little strange, and so was the art, so I eventually had to choose.
You and Warren did work again, on the X-stuff- was that your first Marvel work? And I know you’ve batted back and forth between DC and Marvel a bit, with a stopover at Dark Horse, but the backmatter in the first Hotwire trade showed how the girl really had been with you for a spell. Was there a specific point when you knew you’d be the one to finally put words in her mouth? And how much of that first series was in the can before the deal with Radical came to pass? And is Alice based on anyone in particular? (and is she single?)
Yeah, actually my first Marvel work was with warren on Doom 2099. Karen had heard a rumor that Jaime was planning on leaving Animal-Man, and when she asked him, for some reason he said “yeah, I am”. Later he told me it was a completely spur of the moment decision. Anyways, I wasn’t staying without him, I’d invested a lot in those characters and I wasn’t going to hang around while some other writer killed ‘em off to establish his rep (as was the fashion in those days). So off to Marvel I went, and started working for Joey Cavalieri (who’s my current editor on A-man!). It wasn’t a great fit actually, I was being inked, and the atmosphere was A LOT more regimented than Vertigo. But the actual story, and the people I was working with were great. In the end it was obvious I wasn’t happy with the work I was producing, and Warren and Garth Ennis co-conspired to get me back to Vertigo to draw Saint of Killers.
That six months I took out before Animal-man? That was the original Hotwire. She was originally a 48(?) page graphic novel, which I was originally going to paint, but we stepped it down to blue-line colouring and the vast majority of it was done. Then came the phone call from Warren, “ stop drawing, Pugh- you probably won’t get paid”! I’d heavily invested in the story, both emotionally and art wise- I’d gone crazy on the boards using this glossy stock that I could cut back into with scalpel blades to create these fine lined hatches. For a long time the black and white Hotwire pages were my go-to art samples, and I continued refining them and working on the character between jobs as a sort of hobby. The truth of it though, was Warren is every bit the control freak that I am- no matter how much I worked on those original pages, there was no way he’d let me release his old work into a market where he had carefully established himself as a serious player.
The idea of writing it myself wasn’t really crystallized until Dave Elliott suggested it. I’d done some script rationalization on a comic we were working on called Shark-Man, and it turned out I could turn my hand to scripting. I put it to Warren, but I made it clear I wanted full creative control, and thus if it all went down in flames no shame would be reflected back on him. I was as surprised as hell he actually let me try it. Actually creating “Requiem for the Dead” (title chosen for us by the way, we wanted something a bit more punk) was a wildly erratic process. I’d had the big set-pieces rolling around my head for years but stitching them together, and getting the characters to crackle was nuts. I basically just started penciling out these stick figure layouts and those were submitted as the script. Most of the dialog was written as I painted the panels, and the stuff about the “ghost bombs” was made up on the spot, because I felt issue one had a weak ending. The great thing about it, obviously, was that if something was working in the story, I could pursue it, and if it wasn’t I could drop it, so long as I kept to the right beats in the story it all felt deliberate.
Alice herself is based on a bunch of people, the initial inspiration was from a linux help forum. I’d been toying with a driver issue and I read one reply, which was so contemptuous of anyone who knew less than him, that it was actually hilarious. I’d also had this idea, that I’d have a very attractive character, who was placed in a story that made no mention of it. Point of fact Alice isn’t actually supposed to be beautiful, rather she’s supposed to be an odd looking girl who’s found a “look” that really works for her. Short, not especially busty, pug nosed, sort of bratty. If she’d have been tall and conventionally beautiful, she could never have gotten away with being so bad natured- there has to be an element of the underdog. Ha, a lot of people think she looks like the girl in Primeval if you fancy your chances. I imagined someone a bit more like Shirley Manson or Pixie Geldof, someone with a few rough edges still.
Everything about Hotwire is seamless. I know Radical has gone through some…roster changes in the last couple of years, but will we see that world again? Was it feasible for you personally, whether financially or aesthetically, in just finally getting the story out there to the masses after so long a gestation?
Hotwire has been pretty much a voyage into the unknown for me. I mean I joke around that I don’t know what I’m doing, but going in I had no idea if I could write anything more than unconnected scenes, I had no idea if I could produce that many pages in the style I was aiming for. It’s sort of like a series of small victories, with the publication of the first collection as a really big accomplishment for me. Probably the most satisfying moment in my career. Getting to do a second story was a whole new set of challenges; it could easily have been that “ difficult “ second album that one hit wonder bands put out. I wasn’t using set pieces that I’d been thinking about for years any more, I had to grow the world. Giving Alice the “bad boyfriend” was something I’d avoided in the first story because I was pretty sure I hadn’t the experience to handle it, but I needed to round out her life. It would have been safer to not risk breaking the character by knowing too much about Alice, but there was that design philosophy again, that I didn’t want to use mystery or misdirection to keep the reader interested, I wanted to just show them as much interesting stuff as I could in the pages I was given.
I guess the root of that is never knowing if I’ll get the chance to do more.
In an ideal world, I’d do a Hotwire album a year, like the Europeans do with their characters. That’d be a pretty sweet gig, and her story world is interesting enough to support that.
It’s not an ideal world though, so who knows. The final nails are being put in a deal for a 3rd party publisher to actually get the second collection, “Deep Cut” released in English, together with a new printing of “Requiem, so there’s another small victory in getting Alice back on the shelves. There’s definite interest in doing more stories, though not with Radical, who hilariously kept me sitting on my arse through 2011 waiting for a go-ahead that never came for the third series, “Cold Alice”.
You mentioned Shark-Man earlier- that was a fun premise as well. But I have to say I hadn’t even known of it until after the fact, going through Dave Elliott’s DeviantArt gallery. How did that character originate? Was it some sort of grand experiment? And might there be a reappearance in the reformulated A1/Atomeka, or elsewhere?
Yeah, Shark-Man’s an odd one. Y’know how Dave Elliott’s a bit of a fixer- people come to him wanting to put some project together, and he knows what levers to pull, and what direction needs taking?
Shark-man was very much like that. A lovely fella named Michael Towns had a long standing dream to get a comic made of his shark themed superhero, but because he didn’t have any experience in writing per-se, his outline for what he wanted was in danger of being a collage of bits from his favourite comics. Dave came on board to pull the original ideas together from his outline, add a few zingers of his own, and get an artist on board.
Around this time I was pretty much burned out with mainstream comics. I didn’t like the way colouring was swamping the line work, I wasn’t very excited by the material that was being offered me, and I was seriously thinking about throwing it all in and getting a proper job and my weekends off. But there was something about Shark-Man that interested me- I thought it was one of those ideas that could come off as either car-crash terrible, or actually top-grade awesome. So I said that I’d do the art if it could use this painted style I’d been playing with. I figured that’d give the character a bit of gravity. I thought, if we make this look like we’re taking it absolutely seriously, but go absolutely nuts with the content then it’ll work, but if there’s a hint of being deliberately camp it’ll go down in flames. The project had some problems though, there were four distinct opinions in the mix about how things should be done, and the compromises meant the script was a bit schizophrenic in places so I ended up rescripting as I drew it, adding in background story when things needed a little more depth or emotion. It was a prototype of how I worked on Hotwire really. Getting things done by committee was probably the hardest part of the job- like early on, when one of the creative inputs, who was instrumental in the original “Alien” movie, was concerned about a toothy Shark-Man helmet looking too much like the alien, and he didn’t want to be thought of as a one trick pony. So that meant a lot of time on sketches and designs and horse-trading to persuade everyone that, yeah, teeth were actually pretty central to a shark based design.
The actual comic was awesome to work on though. There’s a certain conservatism in my work when I’m dealing with other peoples characters and stories. I feel on uncertain ground. But with Shark-Man I realized I was writing the rules, I could cut loose and really enjoy finding out what the guy was about and how far you could push him and his world.
Another factor, which I guess you wouldn’t think about, was the technology. All my stuff has been drawn in photoshop for about 8 years now, but at the time of Shark-Man, the tech I had was only just capable of what I was asking of it. I had a Toshiba hackintosh (homemade mac) linked by Ethernet to an older g5 mac, which I was running as a remote ram disk for photoshop’s scratch file. Cables everywhere, and even then I could only work on half a page at a time. I’d written some natural media brushes for photoshop, and was making it do things I’d never seen anyone else manage to wring from it. I wanted something with a more classical art look rather than the plastic, airbrushy crud that the comic factories were turning out. Something more like the epic Ron Embleton paintings that were in classic Brit comics. A lot of people assumed I was using Painter, which is built to create more natural looking art, but I can’t get along with its interface, and I was lettering the pages as I went along, so it was much easier to stay with photoshop.
Anyway Shark-Man’s on the table for a collection, and hopefully a re-edit to add art and tie it all together and round out the story.
We should just start referring to Dave as Mister Wolf, for Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction. But that’s what always amazes me about comics, such behind the scenes action. Looking at the final product of Shark-Man one would never know there were any counter-productive measures in the making of. But speaking of comics by committee, is your current run working with Animal-Man like an alternate reality of your prior time with the character? It seems like we cannot go a week without someone from the NU52 quitting or getting fired. I gather there is immense pressure, but has your corner at least been good to you? And is there anything particularly different here (other than having a new dance partner on scripts) that makes the project extra worth your time now?
Yeah, it’s definitely a high-pressure environment. I wasn’t around for the start of the relaunch so I didn’t get the orientation day, and I’m having to learn the rules as I run into them. Generally the plan seems to be turning every dial up to eleven. Cut off all the fat, no talky pages, no empty backgrounds- give the readers as much value possible for their cover price. The down side of that is it’s more difficult to budget time. You could, with a regular comic, save time on the quieter pages and use it on the “event” pages, but the new style comics run full-on all the way through. I’d guess it’s harder to keep a creative team, because you either burn out the artist or have to split the art between a studio to keep the book on schedule.
But for the readers, it’s only the final comic that counts, isn’t it? And can you argue against a system that creates books as genuinely beautiful as Swamp Thing and Batwoman are?
That’s the job you’re being paid for, in the mainstream, and I think it’s important, for your own sanity, to remember that this is commercial art and other people’s toys. Sure, a considerate writer will try and play to your strengths as an artist, and you’ll seek out something to focus your love on in his pages, but you do have to maintain a distance from the work, because that drawing you’re so pleased with may be killed off in re-writes or need to be butchered for some inter-office reason.
And this chaotic creative process is how it’s always been. As soon as Jaime and I got Animal-Man the first time around, and we were trying to establish the new vibe, we ran straight into the Vertigo big “Children’s Crusade” event, which stole Maxine from the book. Jaime handled it beautifully, but it was still a pain in the ass. In contrast, the crossover I’m involved in now is writer lead, not something that was dropped on them, and it’s nice when you can get that lift off the writer’s enthusiasm for the project.
Thinking about it, nothing’s really changed. There’s never enough hours in the day, and the whole thing is still held together by writers, artists, colourists, editors and staff working late, pissing off loved ones and making the books as good as they possibly can every twenty-something days, every single freaking month, forever..ha..until you jump or are pushed.
A very well measured response! So when you do get the rare break in a schedule, what is your idea of fun? How do you decompress?
Ha, well I’m an artist- it’s writers that have all the industry horror stories. Artists tend not to get screwed over by companies because of the way the rights thing is, we don’t really have anything that they want to do us out of. If shit does happen it’s usually the artist getting screwed by his writer because “creator-owned” actually means “writer-owned”, which is bullshit for a collaborative medium, and you’re totally dependent on their strength of character once you’re away from the protective environment of the company.
Free time? I try to avoid it. Most work expands to fill the day anyway. I’m not a particularly gifted artist and I have to gouge something usable out of the pages by throwing long hours at them. I have an interest in computer building and nerdy stuff, and I wish I still had time to game. I think the height of my ambition is really beers with mates. I have a girlfriend who’s a constant good influence on me. Reminds me to leave the house now and then, eat more than marmite and toast.
Ha. And in what atmosphere do you like to spend those long hours hunched over the drafting board? Do you play movies for ambiance, or jam particular music? I very briefly assisted a professional inker, and he loved for guests to pop into his home studio and just chat up a storm.
Ah, well that’s tracers for you. One of the only times I penciled, I had an inker boast to me how much money he was making off my pages. I’d worked on the art boards with different grades of pencil to get all these effects and line qualities and he was rattling off 5 pages in an afternoon with a sharpie and going back into the office to ask for more!
Ha, fuck that guy!
But it depends on the work, if I’m drawing a subtle face or working out a tricky pose, sometimes I just work in silence. I do a lot of thinking, working up story ideas, future projects. If I’m just doing the busy-work on a double page splash then I can have the TV on. I like half hour sitcoms, Parks and Recreation, Community, that sort of thing. It’s a sliding scale I guess moving from silence to movie sound tracks, to trance, to vocals, to radio shows, to TV. The BBC is killer for science documentaries, love me some astronomy and physics. I work with the barest of layouts, and go straight in with the inks, so there isn’t a tracing stage where I’m just considering the line work, I’m thinking about the construction throughout.
You do generally ink your own work, though have you ever toyed with inking over somebody else? And in the same vein, could you ever see yourself writing a story for another artist to illustrate, or do you prefer to be a one-man show wherever plausible?
(shrugs) I just “do art”, it’s common in Brit comics to do all the art and even the colouring yourself, like pretty much every type of illustration besides monthly comics. The division of the tasks is a totally artificial thing originally created for the production line monthly schedule. The idea is if a penciler or an inker or a colourist gets hit by a bus, you can replace them on the fly.
There are advantages to both systems, I guess, but as I said I’m a control freak, and when I’m collaborating with other people on the art it tends to make me less ambitious, I pencil defensively, I lose subtlety. Even drawing in ink to be coloured by someone else forces me to finish off every line, complete every shape, spell out everything. I’ve never inked someone else; I don’t think I’d like the responsibility. Though I’d very happily work off someone’s layouts, I feel I’m faking my way through American books, because I didn’t grow up with the visual language.
I’d write for another artist, sure. That might be fun. But to be honest if it got to that, I’d probably just cut out the middle man and write a prose story.
You mentioned earlier about mainstream comics being essentially commercial art- something I never considered but is a very rightful description. But have you ever thought of taking your show on the road and looking for other opportunities? Like storyboards, or toy designs, or guerrilla poster art for the revolution?
Agh, well the trouble is, I’m a bit institutionalized now. I have done other stuff, design work on tv adverts, packaging art, toy turnarounds for sculpting and a national poster campaign in the UK, but I think sequential stuff is what I’m best at. I’m actually not even that keen on doing covers or splash pages.
If I had an independent income, I’d do a web comic for my own amusement. Probably something a lot more cartoony. When I actually do get to draw for pleasure I use a very different style to the “proper comics”.
Another factor is ego. The advertising stuff is well paid, but it’s massively restrictive artistically, and a lot of the people you have to deal with are, uh, plainly repellant actually. Despite mainstream comics thinking they’re a grown-up business now, there’s still a surprising amount of heart left in it, which you don’t realize until you deal with “real” magazine and advertising institutions. Also, I hold my hands up, here’s a part of me that’s mad needy. I guess I just need the feedback from readers, good or bad, to know I’m communicating.
I started to have problems drawing in public a few years ago, it’s why I’m not much of a conventioneer. The last time I tried I nearly had a meltdown sketching a Doctor Strange for some poor kid, so I wouldn’t make much of a beach artist.
Would your current contract with DC allow you to do any of these other things, time pending, like writing prose or making webcomics or whatever, or is bringing Buddy Baker to life it for the time being? And since you are “good enough” for all the mainstream work you can stomach, are there any characters from the big two you’ve yet to tackle that you might fancy working on?
Good enough for the mainstream? Heh. I don’t have a contract with DC, I’m strictly freelance and I’ve only very briefly ever been under an exclusivity deal, but that’s mostly by choice. I could probably squeeze in a book, as a casual hobby project, but a webcomic is a proper job, not a hobby. I know a few creators and they work damn hard for their page views, and I’m not blind to the privileged position I’m in working for the big two.
I’ve a couple of favorite characters that I’ve already had a go at, Deathlok and Killraven, but I guess if I had to name one it’d be Starlord, if anyone remembers. Oh, I just realized they’re ALL backup strips in the 70s Star Wars weekly UK reprint comic. Ha, okay, Starlord or the Micronauts then! Unless Jaime Delano wants to write me some more Darkseid stuff!
I was talking to Phil Winslade about this sort of thing. Really when you reel out characters you want to work on, you’re actually talking about the character you loved as a kid not the current reimagination with all the seam lines on the boots and irrelevant crap all over them. That’s not going to happen, so it’s better to look to living in the present and concentrate your creativity on making the stuff you’re given work.
Now that’s really interesting. I’ve had several creators admit to me that their working in comics nowadays, and in particular the willingness to put up with whatever bumps in the road, all essentially boil surreptitiously down to wanting to live out vicariously the epics of their younger fanboy days. Like X-men artists who don’t want to compete with the Clarement/Byrne stuff, they want to BE Claremont/Byrne producing those specific epics from way back. They don’t want to create the next Watchmen, they want to capture themselves what Moore and Gibbons were creating way back. They want to vicariously relive Frank Miller creating the Dark Knight Returns that everyone knows. Which of course can never happen. Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel but once. But with you not really having grown up drenched in four colors, I guess you don’t feel that overwhelming draw to keep a foot in yesterday. You are lacking a real inner geek. So if the properties do not have you pussy-whipped, who are some fellow creators that astound you? Who are some fellow creators you wish would drop out of the game and apply online for a degree in accounting or bridal consulting?
There’s a long list, but I’ll check Brendan McCarthy, Brian Bolland, Tanino Liberatore, John M Burns, Ron Embleton, those last two especially. Actually most of those guys work in full colour. Maybe that’s why I was always so shaky about my line work? Phil Winslade has been a constant thorn in my side. Very intimidating art. Rich and illustrative. Recently I’ve been having my arse handed to me on a monthly basis by Yanick Paquette- again an astounding quality of draftsmanship on incredibly tight deadlines. Bruce Timm of course. Bruce Timm makes everything better. Masamune Shirow…just wow.
And I finally, at last, I get Kirby. Finally I understand what he was doing after dismissing him as some dude from the ‘60s who couldn’t draw girls (I know, I know…)
All of those names are verifiable powerhouses, totally. Are you the sort to collect original art yourself, or do you go the Steve Ditko cutting board route?
I’ve a few pages I’ve swapped with friends. I don’t tend to sell or buy art, but every now and then I’ll swap with a creator- in fact I owe Jeff Lemire some pages I had from the original animal-man run. I have an odd relationship with my own art boards, sometimes the work is so grinding they’re the only record I have of a year actually passing, like a weird diary. Now I’m digital it’s even more abstract.
I’m a mad collector of images tho, thousands of jpgs of artists I admire- I recently came across a blog full of Robert McGinnis paintings- right click “save”
I guess I don’t want the responsibility of owning art. I take property very seriously, I’d feel awful if I damaged someone’s work- I mean it’s never really yours is it? The shark-man guys had a sharksub made by Martin Bower- he’s a model making hero of mine who worked on Space 1999 and Alien. They wanted to ship it to me, let me have it between trade shows. The thing cost thousands- I flat refused! I do have a very early Garry Leach line and wash piece- that’s probably the one that means the most to me.
What has you hopeful for the future of comic books?
Did I say I was?
There’s plenty of life out there outside the bubble, certainly several genuinely beautiful webcomics. I think print has to go, or at least print monthlies. I’m so tired of being it’s bitch. It’s ridiculous to have two thirds of your cover price eaten up by printing and distribution. And distribution has an unfair say in what reaches the reader, cancelling reorders and pushing the indies off the island. I’m struck how beautiful the art is in several of the marvel books. Art I never thought I’d see in the mainstream. Comics have never had such high quality offerings, and I think making them easier to get, easier to collect and enjoy is obviously the way forward. For now I see digital monthlies and print trades as the immediate future, that feels the most natural fit for both formats. I’ll not be sorry to see the back of Mylar bags and backboards.
I’ve been big on the idea that if we don’t think outside the box, then what’s it there for? But Steve, thanks for chatting with the LP. I have loved your work for twenty years, and your current Animal Man is some of the best under the DC label in years and years more. Can’t wait to see what you do next!
Yeah, of course Richard- thanks for caring man!
For more Steve Pugh, scope out his website.