I was recently asked by the lovely illustrator John Shelley at Words and Pictures, the online magazine for the SCBWI, to muse on which books had been pivotal in my decision to become an illustrator. Indeed, which book from childhood to now was my go-to, my origin story.
After soul-searching (always good when you’ve got work to avoid) I cam to the conclusion that there wasn’t a single book. Asterix, Tintin, The Hungry Caterpillar, Where The Wild Things Are, Clifford, all beloved from childhood to teenhood to now, er, hood, but did any of them bring me to illustration? Were any of them on my shelf, and reached at for inspiration?
In the end, the way it dominated my reading and imagination for so long, 2000AD simply deserved the title, despite owning just a few soft and spongey copies these days.
Here’s the post in full – but as Words and Pictures is a bit child-friendly, here’s my director’s cut, which – fair warning – uses the word ‘bugger’. Well… it is the anarchists’ comic of choice, surely?
While looking at all of the books on my bookshelves for this article, the memories that emerged gave me a shortlist brimming full of inspiration; dozens of children’s books that inspire me, recent and vintage, and triple the number of illustrators that I’ve discovered and am dumb-struck by. But I kept coming back to a fact that meant I had to diverge a little from the remit of this article.
The title of ‘An illustrated book without which…’ goes to 2000AD, undoubtably the UK’s most influential comic. Hence the divergence — there isn’t one convenient volume, but 40 years of weekly stories and illustrated awe. And that’s part of the joy of comics (not graphic novels – comics) that sequential, episodic drip-feed.
Without comics I wouldn’t have drawn so much as a kid, and without 2000AD I’m certain that my illustration voice would not go to the same quiet emotions that it does. I certainly wouldn’t have the same goal in my illustration — to tell a rip-roaring story through the emotions of a character we love to love or loathe.
So if there’s a thread that runs through my life leading me to this point today as an aspiring illustrator, 2000AD marks the casting on.
As a kid I don’t think I was passionate about books as escape. The books I was excited about came from the village library in Caister-on-Sea that my mum worked part-time in — and it’s thanks to my bit of that library that I read all the Asterix and Tintin’s. Well, all those available to me in Caister, in the 70’s. They were all awesome and I love them deeply to this day. But I don’t, and never have, owned one.
That said, with their incredible adventures and adult locations and characters, Asterix and Tintin kept me reading them alongside weekly funnies like Whizzer and Chips and Buster, and the more sophisticated 2000AD. An anarchic mix of sci-fi and epic fantasy starring incredible characters created by great writers and jaw-dropping illustrators including Alan Moore and Jamie Hewlett, now great mainstream (but never compromised) creative figures.
2000AD launched in the late 70’s, around the same time as other comics for older children were finding success in a market where girls’ comics usually outsold those for boys. Tammy had sales of 250,000 copies a week, unthinkable nowadays, compared to 2000AD’s 220,000. As a legacy of that level of popularity, many of 2000AD’s characters have survived and thrived for well over 30 years; some all 40 and continue to gain deeper relevance in the widestream.
2000AD gave me in the 80’s the confidence to talk about comics as being as valid as any other medium. For me, this might be best illustrated through The Ballad of Halo Jones, a sci-fi saga following a young 50th Century woman across the universe through crappy jobs, war, love and beyond them all.
It’s a true epic, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Ian Gibson from 1984 to 1986. But for legal issues, they would have carried on for another 6 years, taking Halo to old age. What an amazing character she would have become.
Despite her being an incredibly strong woman, my memories of Halo are so much deeper — of sadness, confusion, regret, grief, joy, fear and courage. For me they’re visual memories — borne of how Ian Gibson inked her with such tremendous empathy. If I could just get 10% there.
Judge Dredd even, on the surface a stereotype on steroids, a literal metaphor of justice itself, impassive, unemotional, has had the benefit of 40 years of complexity developed in and around him, enabling him to have dozens of artists render him and his world in their own ways, teasing out parts of Dredd’s character and the Dredd universe in their dozens of ways. It means I can drop in to Dredd at any point, and my version of him can be as much mine as he is seminal artist Brian Bolland’s, and remain 100% Dredd.
Now, as I’m often listening to art directors, publishers and agents on the ingredients for stand-out illustration, I hear the common refrain ‘appealling characters’. My go-to reference point will always be 2000AD. From the lightest of souls to the darkest, if ever I’m stuck on seeing a character from every angle I go back to the yellowed, spongey soft newsprint downstairs and see how it’s done.
|Ian Gibson, 1986, The Ballad of Halo Jones. This speaks for itself.|