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Δευτέρα, 25 Νοεμβρίου 2013

RotR artist Joe Colquhoun Interview

The Kommissar thanks Comrade Jane Colquhoun for providing the Politburo with her copy of this rare 1982 interview with her father. Comrade Joe talks about his history in comics and about Charley’s War in particular. Sadly, Joe’s comments about his own future were never to come true. A modest man, Joe rarely spoke to the press, so this is one of the only interviews he undertook:

Joe Colquhoun is perhaps the ultimate British comics artist. His career has covered the period from the first boom in adventure comic strips in the early 1950s to the present day, yet it was not until recently, with the addition of credit lines in Battle, that he was able to gain proper recognition for his work. Over the past 30 years, he has been working solidly, producing strips of the highest quality across the entire range of juvenile adventure. Though he has suffered the anonymity of all British comic artists, there can be few who are not familiar with his work, be it on Football Family Robinson, Zarga, Man of Mystery, Zip Nolan or many others. He is currently producing, in conjunction with Pat Mills, some of his best work ever, on Charley’s War for Battle. Colquhoun is a true professional, and is held in high esteem by his colleagues, the staff at IPC and the young lads who write to Battle praising his work. The following interview with Joe was conducted early in 1982. The interviewer is Stephen Oldman.

How did you enter the comics field?

I’d always wanted to draw, ever since I was old enough to pick up a pencil, and of course I spent all of my spare time drawing. In fact I got hold of an old ledger when I was pretty young, and used to draw page after page of stories I’d made up, mostly in the adventure line, Desert Island, war, which I suppose, even in that early stage, served me in good stead for what was to come. I was brought up on the usual diet most kids had in those days, Comic Cuts we used to call them. Then there were the “Tu’penny Bloods”, Magnet, Champion, Triumph, Wizard, Hotspur, which were all written stories, and very well written for what you paid, with one-off illustrations. I always remember a chap called Simmons in Champion and Triumph, and a chap called Chapman, who stood out to me as very good artists.
Kids with above-average drawing ability were often lionised at school, and one got a false sense of one’s capabilities at the time because there was no competition. Though I was interested in the comic strips in its very minor form, it wasn’t really my ambition to be an artist. The war was about to start and we didn’t think too much about the future. I managed to get into a local art school, Kingston-upon-Thames, about halfway through the war, and did a short spell before joining the Navy.
I came out of the Navy about 1947, when I went back to the art school on a more prolonged course, in book illustration. This knocked a lot of the rough edges and crudities from my work. I still had a dormant hankering for the comic strip field, but the field was very, very limited at the time. Eagle had just come out, but at my present stage of development I realised I hadn’t a hope in hell of getting in there. Then suddenly I saw an advert in a trade magazine, for artists to submit samples for a new project, publishing independent comics and I jumped at this with alacrity. I met with a couple of ex-GI’s and they seemed quite pleased with the samples I had from art school, though as I subsequently found out, with the fees they paid, they’d have been glad to get anybody. They paid the princely sum of £1.50 per page.
Our work was crude and rushed, it had to be. The printing was atrocious, and although we had a foothold in the market, we rarely saw our work in print. The very first publication I saw of my own work, gave me the most euphoric feeling I ever had. It’s like riding a bike, or having your first woman, I suppose, never to be repeated. We were doing one-off stories, covering war, westerns space stuff, espionage, very American orientated, pretty well written, all done by the Yanks. I was there for 7 or 8 months, and certainly didn’t earn a fortune, though I learned speed and a certain amount of slickness. However, the general consensus was that the outfit was done for. We hadn’t been paid for a hell of a time. I’d just got married and thing were pretty grim. With nothing to lose I managed to get an interview with the editor of Eagle. I showed him the specimens I’d managed to salvage from the Americans, and he was very compassionate, but obviously it wasn’t quite what he wanted. He said, “why don’t you go across to Amalgamated Press? They’ve just brought out a new comic called Lion“. So I thought “What’s to lose?”
I saw there another nice chap called Stan Boddington. Lion was a bit more downmarket than Eagle and he seemed quite impressed. Unfortunately all the stories were tied up in Lion, so in desperation I said “of course I write scripts as well.” In truth I’d never done anything in my life. He pricked his ears up at that, and sent me away to do a specimen adventure strip. So, very influenced by my US debut, I flogged out a story about the Navy in the Pacific War. My synopsis produced an epic of 100 instalments, ranging from a fairly logical beginning to a rambling climax. It didn’t go down too well. They ironed it out at a story conference, and we thrashed it out and condensed it down to quite a neat four story job. Then they relegated me to the struggling Champion, which was still mainly written stories. They did have a two page centre spread and they got me to write and draw another epic, which ran for 44 instalments called Legionnaire Terry’s Desert Quest, which was all very much my own work with very little interference from the sub-editors who subsequently became the bane of my life in scriptwriting.

How did this scriptwriter/artist arrangement work in practice?

Just for the record, the first four instalments of Roy of the Rovers were written by Frank S Pepper, and I was relieved to think I’d finished with scriptwriting, but unfortunately Pep, I suppose was getting on a bit and couldn’t cope. I was asked to carry on the series. I had some great reservations about this, as I knew damn-all about soccer really, but they said they’d help with the technical detail and strategy. We had endless story conferences which necessitated me going up to the office, dry-mouthed, month after month. it wasn’t a terribly happy time. Other than those four instalments, up to the end of the first five year stint on Roy of the Rovers I wrote and illustrated all the stories I did. I never wrote any scripts for any other artist, but I consider myself an artist first and a writer second. The writing was a happy expedient to get into AP. Writing never came terribly naturally to me, compared to the drawing. They seemed to like it quite well, though it got progressively more that a hell of a lot of it was edited out, until I got so frustrated I eventually hurled the scriptwriting in.

So how were the payments arranged?

Despite the writing coming less naturally than the artwork, it didn’t take as long. A two page script for Roy certainly didn’t take as long as two pages of artwork, but the ratio of pay was less although I think it was proportionally about right per hours work.

In those days, what were your artistic influences?

The artist that influenced me most in this field was good old Alex Raymond of Rip Kirby fame. I thought he was a genius. His distinct style, economy, a super ratio of black and white, a minimum of hatching…it was the quintessence of what I felt I’d be happy to emulate and this influence stayed with me a long time until my own technique and style developed. If the influence still showed I’d be bloody happy.

Have you ever been affected by the changes in ownership and organisation at AP/IPC/Fleetway?

Yes, two or three times, I can’t recall exactly whether it was the changes from AP to Fleetway, or Fleetway to IPC, and there have been several changes in the hierarchy, but a few heads have rolled from time to time, which was very disconcerting. The changes affected me adversely initially, though in the end I came off better financially. At the time of the change from AP to Fleetway, a lot of strange new faces appeared in the editorials, and caused upheavals in an attempt to modernise and update what were becoming rather pedestrian publications. As freelancers, we worked, in varying degrees, far away from the office and didn’t know what the hell was going on. I, at the time, was working on Paddy Payne for my second or third year and I never realised anything was in the offing until suddenly I was told to belay my last work and stop the instalment I was doing, and that was it. No explanation, I was out of work! Finally, what we were told, due to the reconstruction of Lion and Tiger they were calling in, as trouble shooters, a lot of continental artists. I presume the new regime thought these guys a lot slicker and technically superior to us, and possibly they were, though ultimately I was returned to Paddy Payne with a slight increase in fees. It caused a fair amount of resentment amongst the British guys. We thought these guys were pretty good, but they didn’t seem to offer much more than we were able to supply, and they were being paid less, the rate of exchange being favourable to us at the time. Thereafter I felt pretty insecure, I was shaken out of my complacency. It has never occurred to that degree since, though I’ve had other upsets. Though the new faces never intentionally did the dirty on me, they weren’t adverse to insisting I drop a steady job. Case in point, The Football Family Robinson, which I really enjoyed. They asked me to drop that, and pilot a great new project, and in time this “great new story” would be shelved indefinitely. There I was, no job, and no apologies. In the end I made my feelings known. I told them “this is bloody ridiculous, this is jeopardizing my career”. I came to a good agreement with them, but no contract. They never signed any contract. Since then I’ve never had any trouble.

How do you view the realism in the present day Roy of the Rovers?

I must admit I haven’t kept in touch with the storyline of Roy, though I think Barrie Tomlinson, who was the group editor until very recently, influenced the tendency of Roy to progress to a more realistic and sophisticated level. I have an open mind about it. Barrie did a lot to liven up the storyline, but I don’t think it would hold much sway with the average reader. All I know is that it wouldn’t have been allowed to happen in my day, due to the policy at the time.

Were you then, subjected to a lot of editorial pressures?

Yes, we were really limited. A lot of it was sub-edited. Perhaps they played down to the readers too much then, and perhaps they play up too high above the readers now. Perhaps a compromise is the thing. I got very frustrated, because I think its awfully difficult for an adult writer to relate to the mind of a youngster. At the time there was almost a boarding school, monastic mentality in the strict censorship. You were never allowed to mention women. Once, I managed to bring in Roy’s landlady and even that was suspect. It’s unbelievable in this day and age, but that’s just how it was.

Have the weekly schedules caused you many problems?

From the beginning. Serialisation is one of the world’s worst ways to make a living. The deadlines and pressure become pretty punitive from time to time. The worst thing is when you’re trying to get ahead for a holiday, and up comes bloody Easter and the office rings up to say you’ve got to gain another four days. When you’re working six or seven days a week it’s practically impossible, but you do it somehow. There were periods when I was a bit more ambitious, or needed to earn a bit more money, that I took on annual jobs as well, and even though you could be a bit more slapdash, it was still a hell of a grind. Now, I take on as little work as I can do and still remain solvent. I try to work Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, but it just depends. If there’s a cast of thousands in the strip, with the 5th Ablutions going over the top it takes me a lot longer.

Does your attitude to your work vary with the job you’re doing?

I think I can say with a certain satisfaction that I’ve always tried to do the best I can in any job. You know there’s a readership out there somewhere, so you feel you want to do the best for your own pride, as well as to justify your wages. Of course, bad scripts do have a depressing effect. I feel happier when I know I have a rapport with the author, even if I have never met the guy. The time when I was least interested in my work was when I ended up on Buster. I enjoyed Zarga very much but this was rather short-lived and I was relegated to a rather childish script, The Ski-Board Squad and The Runaway Robinsons, a little Orphan Annie type of thing which wasn’t quite my line. This was no fault of the author, it just wasn’t my scene.
I think I’ve always tended to put a bit more into my work than a few of my colleagues. I think they’re wiser, they seem to have learnt the economy of line. Omission is always more difficult than over working. I think my main failing in this type of artwork is that I tens to put in everything AND the kitchen sink. A lot of it gets lost in the reproduction, therefore in strict terms it’s a waste of time, and, in this game, time is money. I’ve been a bit of a mug in that respect, but the leopard can’t change its spots.

You obviously put a lot of care into your colour strips, Football Family Robinson and Kid Chameleon, would you like to do more?

I really enjoyed doing the colour work. in some respects it’s a lot more fulfilling than black and white. the next best thing is line and wash, which I was able to do for a fair time in Tiger because of the litho printing. With letterpress it’s a very limited medium, with the cross-hatching and moulding. I’m not as happy with that as I am with colour wash or line and wash techniques, but again it’s the old, old story of economics. Even if there were an opportunity to go back to colour work, I would like to do it, but only if they paid a justifiable fee for the considerable extra work and expertise involved.

Do you have a lot of difficulty getting a change of jobs, when you’re becoming bored with the strip you’re working on?

Since I’ve worked on Battle, I’ve felt no desire to change but I found the attitude amongst editors to be most prevalent when I was on Roy of the Rovers, round about that period. I found Roy a bit of a boring subject, not being a great fan of football, and after four or five years of drawing those bloody hairy-arsed footballers tearing round, morning, noon and night, it got me down a lot. I wanted the Paddy Payne slot in Lion, and it took me a hell of a job to get off Roy. The continual ploy was “we can’t get anyone else to do it”, but if it had to come to the crunch they’d have found another bloke in five seconds flat, I’m sure of it. In fact, when I finally insisted I wanted a change, they found someone to do it, and do it pretty successfully as far as I could see. the main problem was finding another artist willing to move on from the slot you wanted. This really was a bigger problem than the inertia of the editors. The inertia did exist, around the late 1950s to mid 1960s there definitely seemed to be a conspiracy of editors to keep you on the same slot if it was proving successful. This happened on Buster and I had a bit of a job wangling onto Battle.

Was your agent helpful?

I’ve never had an agent, I’m glad to say, as they take, what is it, 20% of one’s earnings, which is a fair old slice on top of the income tax and National Insurance.

During the 1960s your work was published alongside such greats as Eric Bradbury, Mike Western, Geoff Campion, etc. Were you aware of them at the time?

No, you must remember that, up until very recently, IPC always insisted on anonymity. Even if you signed at the bottom, out of sheer pride in your work, they would white it out. We remained anonymous until very, very recently, when the credits went up in Battle, which is very gratifying in a way. However, I gradually got to know who the various artists were, if only by reputation, and formed a few opinions. I wasn’t familiar with Western’s work in the sixties, but Bradbury, Lawrence and Campion I thought were excellent stuff. Campion’s work recently has seemed to have fallen off a bit, I hate to say, but maybe the chap’s been ill, he may be getting on a bit.

What about the newer artists?

I never seem to get time to study other publications, but I’m very aware of Cam Kennedy’s work, which I think is really top notch stuff. One little exception, he tends to leave the backgrounds a bit vacant, but the presentation is superb. His detailed and accurate drawing of war material is spot on, to my mind, and he’s a damn good figure draughtsman. There’s a very good action and attitude about them, they could almost be stills from a movie.

How about the Europeans?

I’m not familiar with any of these artists, apart from Ezquerra, who has quite a strong, gritty, abrasive sort of style which doesn’t appeal to me personally but I can see why he has a following, it’s a unique style he’s got.

You’ve worked on a wide variety of strips, are there any you would have liked to have done more of?

That’s easy. Football Family Robinson was rather cut off in my prime. Even though it was football, it was football with tongue-in-cheek, and a lot of rather ribald humour, and offered some good characterisation of the entire family. The zaniness of it really, and it had a good author, Tom Tully. The other one, humour again, Cap’n Codsmouth, my very first slapstick, cartoon humour, and I was quite pleased with it. Also I wrote the script, the first time I’d written a script since I’d packed in after Roy. I felt I was just getting into my stride when it was cut off. The only other was Zarga – Man of Mystery, any of the others, I think, had reached saturation point and I was quite happy to move on.

Obviously you have a leaning toward humour. Have you a favourite humour artist that appeals to you?

One who appealed to me I think was called Nobby Clark, who drew in Tiger. I also believe he did Buster’s Diary. He had a nice, clean, flowing line, amiable little characters, and he drew super little dolly birds when it was allowed. Other characters he did were Wild Bill Hiccup, and a Luftwaffe pilot from World War II called Messy Schmidt. I thought he was an absolute scream. I think I’d like to do more humour work. Charley’s War is all very well, but it’s a sombre subject and believe it or not, when you’re stuck doing it day after day, it can be bloody depressing. It would be nice if I could find the time or the opportunity to do a one-page on The Goodies or Cap’n Codsmouth, just to relieve the tension.

Charley’s War is regarded by many fans and professionals alike as one of the best strip currently produced in Britain. How do you feel about it?

First of all, I can only say how gratified and quite surprised I am that it’s viewed so favourably even by quite upmarket intellectuals. I was astounded when one learned professor equated it with All Quiet on the Western Front as a social document. That seems a bit high flying for me, though I’m beginning to understand it in a way, thanks to the inspiration and dedication of Pat Mills. I think this has really rubbed off on me. I don’t want to let him down, and again I’m very interested in the subject, even though at times I find it very depressing and emotive. Particularly the sequence at the end of the Battle of the Somme. You’ll find it hard to believe, but when I re-read that in its printed version I was close to tears. Just shows how involved you can get, I suppose.
When I was first asked to take on Charley’s War after Johnny Red , I said to the editor “God Almighty, how are you going to make any subject matter out of such a static subject as trench warfare?” and Dave Hunt (the editor at the time) said “We’ve got a damn good author, he’ll be able to pull it through”. I’d never met Pat, or knew of him, I was still a bit sceptical, but as it developed I began to realise that we were onto something. It seemed to catch on. I’ve tried very hard to bring out the realism in the trenches, and most of the sequences in the story are based on factual incidents. That might lead to a certain amount of authenticity which is possibly lacking in the more blood and thunder, action-packed World War II stories. Finally, and this is my opinion, it illustrates a period that was already dying then. When words like honour, duty, patriotism, meant something, I think most decent kids reading this epoch will have a sneaking, almost atavistic feeling, that in this present rather sick and selfish world, with violence and amorality seeming to pay dividends, they might think they’re missing out on something. That’s a bit pretentious, but think about it.

How do you see Charley developing?

It’s really up to Pat, but I think the best has gone. The Somme sequence had the greatest impact, and we’re now in the greater horrors of Passchcendaele. After that there’s only 1918 and the armistice. However, Pat will probably pull something spectacular out of his tin hat.

Since the mid-sixties there’s been a steady decline in the number of titles published. What do you see as any reasons?

I would think, or rather hazard a guess, that the decline is due to a) the ever increasing costs of production, b) inept management policy, by promoting new publications at the wrong time with inadequate market research. Also some comics tend to duplicate subject matter. A case to prove that in a way: Lion and Tiger, companion papers, survived together for a long time because one was devoted to adventure mostly, and the other mostly to sport. Entirely different subjects. There was obviously much more scope to choose from then, and possibly a lesser standard of artwork required to hold down a job. I’d say quantity had been sacrificed for quality, which is a good thing in most respects. All in all, I can’t really see a vast difference between the publications then and now. IPC still remain fairly conservative in their outlook.

But what about the new look that was started by Battle Picture Weekly in 1975?

I suppose they did try to break of their unspectacular ways with the arrival of Battle, Action, and their companion papers. This arrival seemed to coincide with a sudden lessening of restrictions all round, with the impact of such films as Jaws. Prior to that you never saw a man’s legs floating down to the bottom of the ‘oggin (sea) with all the entrails, blood and guts falling out. Prior to that, violence or horror was only suggested. This new realism tended to be emulated in Battle and Action. I’m not condemning it. It was probably a good thing in some respects but then again, with the new license, they tried to take it as far as they could, until our friends at the good old Festival of Light, etc., stamped down. When I first started on Battle far more was permitted that is now. I’m not too sorry, perhaps I’m getting a bit long in the tooth and have seen a bit of violence myself. As long as we don’t get back to that monastic censorship of the fifties and early sixties a happy compromise is the ideal. The one thing I can’t quite reconcile to is the dialogue. All along, Pat Mills has maintained the realism, after all, it’s a Cockney regiment, and initially Charley spoke in the Cockney idiom: “‘Arf a mo’, mate”, But now, though Pat still writes in that vein, it’s invariably censored out. It’s now “Half a moment”. It sounds crazy to me, too stilted.

What do you think of the photostrips that IPC seem so keen on these days?

I’ve just seen the number one copy of the new Eagle, and I can’t say I was over impressed, but to be fair you’ve got to give it a few weeks, let it settle down and it will either make or break. The photo sequences have a bit more variety in impact than I would have imagined before I saw it, but I still think it’s a bit of a con when you consider how the stories could be put over in pure imaginative artwork. It’s a disturbing trend, but in this case if Eagle failed on its circulation figures the readers will have given this format the thumbs down. I can’t see it overtaking or substituting for artwork, for the simple reason of its limitations. You can’t have the 95th Foot and Mouth charging over the top in glorious sepia colour, can you really? I think they’ve got a long way to go and I hope I’ll long since be retired before this phenomenon does become too prominent.

What’s your current workload?

Solely three pages, with occasional colour cover and 2 1/2 inside pages. You have to get the work done in one week. I don’t do any other work except, very occasionally, annual work, so the work tends to fill the time available. When I used to do four pages a week on Charley, I found it absolutely killing, and it took me seven days a week. But I suppose, plugging away without any interruption, I can do 3 to 3 1/2 pages of Charley in four days. Therefore I’m gradually increasing the time ahead and relaxing on my deadlines. I send work in, all together finished job, though of course when I first started they required the pencil roughs to be sent in for approval.

Have you ever done any graphic design work at any time?

My only sortie into the realms of ‘legitimate’ publishing was when I illustrated quite a lot of thumbnail sketches for a book on the rules of association football. I suppose I got onto this due to my, so called ‘reputation’ for Roy of the Rovers, but I wasn’t very happy doing it. I had to do it above and beyond my weekly work, and it was a hell of a grind. I didn’t get paid a hell of a lot for it, but I was gratified to see it on the shelves. It was written by a chap called Stan Lover, who is, or was, a professional ref.

One question I meant to ask earlier: I’ve never seen any science fiction work by you. Would you like to do work for 2000AD?

No, not that I’ve studied 2000AD too much. This seems to imply an awful indifference, but it’s really lack of time in which to study these things in depth. I don’t think I’d be creative enough to dream up the weird and wonderful situations, characters in these stylised stories. Not by any means. I prefer to do contemporary or period subjects such as Charley’s War, for which I can easily obtain reference.

Before you wrote the profile for Dez Skinn’s Fantasy Advertiser, were you aware of an organised fandom?

I had absolutely no idea before Dez Skinn’s profile, and I was quite intrigued by it. However, until you contacted me about this interview, I’d not been aware of any other such publications besides Dez’s. I assumed there must have been some around, but I’ve no knowledge as to whether it’s extensive or limited.

Do you think fandom is useful in any way?

It serves as a recruiting ground almost, and a good training ground for up-and-coming artists who may desire to become professional. I don’t know how developed it is in this country, I must admit, but I’m pleased to see that Fantasy Express is geared to British comics. From my point of view, and I’m sure for a lot of other artists, being in touch with chaps like you is a very good barometer to find out what’s happening, what the current trends are, and the general gossip in this particular trade. I for one don’t get much information from any other source, especially from the office. It’s like getting blood from a stone, they’re so busy.

How do you see your own future?

In these uncertain times, I don’t like to delve too deeply in the future. Being self-employed offers little security, even in this welfare state. You get no pension,other than the basic one, even though we’ve paid a high earnings-related insurance. You get no fat, golden handshake when we decide to hang up our ink pen and brushes. Frankly, after thirty years of concentrated comic strip work, I certainly have no desire to carry on at this pace for another ten to fifteen years, which is about all I’ve got left in active life. I think the ideal way to bow out gracefully would be to, if economics permit, reduce gradually my output of work, and enjoy an increase in leisure until my official retirement age.

And how do you see comics in this country developing?

If costs can be kept to a reasonable level, and inflation doesn’t go out of hand, I would hazard rather a pessimistic guess that they’ll stay virtually the same in format and story content. Rather a sobering thought. I’ve a feeling they’ve passed their heyday and will never be as prolific again. In an ideal world I’d like to see some new vigorous company take up the challenge, like the old Eagle did in the fifties. I’d like to see a batch of new publications to challenge the stagnation. Lots of full colour work, good artists, good writers, with an abandonment of Letterpress, which I’ve been particularly restricted by, in favour of Photolitho, and on that, here endeth the first lesson…

Thanks for this interview, especially as you’re so busy on Charley’s War.

Thanks for your interest.


Joe Colquhoun
Artist and Writer
1927 – 1987

http://www.falconsquadron.sevenpennynightmare.co.uk/?p=200

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