Thursday, 11 November 2010
Mike Collins Interview
Mike Collins brings a lot of kudos to the DWM strip thanks to his extensive and fascinating career in comic artistry. He has tackled everything from modern day adventures, historicals, stories set on far flung worlds and even Roy of the Rovers spoofs! His artwork is detailed, sweeping and his reaction shots are second to none.
Mike, thank you very much for your time.
What first prompted to you to move into the worlds of graphic artistry? Were you a fan of comics yourself when you grew up?
As a kid I loved comics, and still do even though I work in the medium every day. It’s a brilliant, accessible, unlimited style of storytelling. You don’t have to worry about CGI or extras or location shooting- you can tell that sprawling epic story with a pencil on a piece of paper.
I grew up on the UK weeklies of the early 70s- TV21, Countdown, and Look-In, with artists like Frank Bellamy and John M.Burns who would do these amazing double page spreads every week, usually on strips based around my favourite TV shows—the Gerry Anderson puppet shows, or The Tomorrow People. I was always amazed how –in the comics- they just made everything seem bigger and more dramatic. Gerry Haylock I remember drawing Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who in Countdown, and again, separate from the budgetary restraints of the TV show, creating some amazing visuals.
Did you have any particular favourites? Did you base your style on a mixture of others artists work that you admire?
In the mid-late 70s, I got into the US comics particularly Marvel, and got to love the whole drama/soap opera/epic tragedy set up that Stan Lee created. DC never really engaged me as much, they always seemed ‘safe’- Marvel characters had real problems (well, when you’re 13 you respond as though they are) and the stakes were always high—personal lives at the brink because of galaxy shaping events. That mix of the grand and the intimate suckered me in. The art was pretty jaw-dropping too. John Buscema, Gil Kane John Byrne and Jim Starlin were my big heroes, but biggest of all was Neal Adams- he just made the characters seem real, three dimensional. My art was inspired by all those guys. Later on I got into European artists, Bilal and Moebius who had this ragged, hypnotically detailed work which opened my eyes past the very slick American work I’d admired.
I’d say my style is a mix of Adams, Kane, Starlin and Bilal, with the storytelling of John Buscema underpinning it all.
Can you tell us a little about your career before you worked on Doctor Who magazine?
I always drew comics—whether it was strips featuring school teachers as super villains, or my own versions of Marvel’s cosmic heroes like Captain Marvel and Warlock. I always thought I’d draw comics at some point but it always seemed to be a pipe dream. I grew up in West Bromwich and the only thing famous that came from that town were the football team, the Albion, and Wyatt Earp’s parents. It wasn’t ‘til I discovered that John Byrne –a favourite Marvel artist of mine at the time- was actually born in the same town that I thought –hang on, maybe it is possible! I went to University to study Law – my folks wisely reckoning that I stood a better chance of a career in a ‘real’ job, but while at Uni I decided that I didn’t want to be a Barrister who drew Spider-Man on his off days, I just wanted to draw Spider-Man full time.
I used to visit Marvel UK and 2000AD who were both still based in London in the mid-80s, gradually wearing them down and finally got work in the business, writing and/or drawing Spider-Man and Transformers for Marvel, and Slaine and Judge Dredd for 2000AD.
Tell us something about how you got the gig at DWM?
Nightmare Game was my third Who strip as artist. I’d drawn the 7th Doctor and Ace Cyberman story ‘A Good Soldier’ and the long reviled ‘Doctor Conkerer’ for Marvel UK’s younger-readers Hulk comic. I’d also written Profits of Doom featuring Colin Baker, with a fabulous John Ridgway art job.
After Good Soldier I was supposed to do more Who comics but was lured away by DC Comics to write and draw a revival of a old Charlton Comics character ‘Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt’ (In Watchmen his equivalent character is Ozymandias).
I stayed working for the US at Marvel and DC for more than a decade. In 2002-3, my mate David Roach contacted me, wondering if I wanted to take over illustrating the spot illos in DWM which he’d been doing up to that point. I loved the idea, and jumped in- so every four weeks, I do a pic featuring an old Doctor. Good fun. Then, out of the blue, I had a call from Scott Gray asking if I was interested in football. I said ‘not really’ then Scott countered with- ‘how about a Doctor Who story, set in the 70s, where he meets Roy of the Rovers?’. The script was witty, smart and gave me an opportunity to indulge my love of research—sweet-wrappers, billboards, clothing- I spent far too long in books and on the net getting images together. I think it went down well- Clay and Scott wanted me to do more, so that’s a positive.
Were you a fan of Doctor Who or did you come to the show fresh when you started working on it?
I adore Doctor Who, always have. Getting to draw the strip (and write it) is a dream come true. My very first memory of TV is Doctor Who- I can clearly remember seeing a giant William Hartnell head with tiny figures standing in front of him. I was maybe two or three!
How did you find bringing the tricky ninth Doctor to life? There seemed to be a couple of stories where the strip wobbled when the new series kicked in, would you agree with that description or did you taking over as the chief artist on the strip a doddle?
I knew Martin Geragthy wanted a break after his amazing run on the 8th Doctor stories, especially The Flood which stands as one of the best Who stories in any medium, so shameless petitioned Clay and Scott to let me have a crack at the new guy. It was completely bizarre finding out that New Who was going to be based in Cardiff, as I’ve lived here for over two decades! It seemed a natural then that the strip should originate in the same city as the show. I wore Clay and Scott down, and they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime- to draw the adventures of a re-born British institution. I was ridiculously excited at the prospect.
Things were tricky though, because we had the spotlight of the BBC on us- the straightforward we’ll-just-get-on-with-it attitude that had prevailed on the magazine through the wilderness years had gone. Doctor Who coming back was a BIG deal. Previously the magazine just assigned the artists, now –quite rightly- the BBC wanted to make sure the strip reflected well on the new approach the show was taking. Also, actors now had approval on likenesses, so I had to ‘audition’ for Chris and Billie. (As I’ve done for the subsequent Doctors and assistants). Billie was happy right off, but Chris had a problem—I’d drawn him too handsome! All those years drawing for Marvel and DC, I suppose I defaulted to ‘heroic’. With that in mind, I went for a rangier, skinnier look which –yes, I accept- took a couple of issues to settle down-. I think that the final 9th Doctor story, by Gareth Roberts, A Groatsworth of Wit, I had him pretty nailed.
Having drawn and scripted Art Attack do you have to put on two different heads to look at the story from a writer and an artists point of view?
On Art Attack, I’d only seen Rose and End Of The World, so wanted to emulate that ‘breathless’ story in the style of Russell’s scripts—a story that’s immediate, that actually takes place over those 40 minutes you’re watching.
I wanted something that looked big and strange, so not just an art gallery, but an art gallery in a tesseract. I had to submit full script, so yes, Worzel put on his writin’ head, and when I came to draw it I muttered dark thoughts towards the writer, giving me all that complicated stuff to pencil.
A side note there, I introduced the idea of Rose having snuck off a school trip to the Louvre to go visit Parc Asterix. In his Rose timeline in one of the annuals, Russell included this as a detail, so I contributed to the canon, even in a small way.
You tackled five strips in a row for over twelve months. Did you enjoy being the sole artist on the Doctor Who strips or did you sigh with relief when Roger Langridge showed up to pencil The Green-Eyed Monster? I personally found the consistently good artwork and storytelling a real highlight of tenth Doctor’s initial strips. Because of the nature of the television series leading where these characters were going did you find there was a lot of freedom in drawing ‘extra’ adventures or constrained by what you couldn’t do?
I loved the idea of having a run on the strip- it was made new each time by having a fresh writer come on board. I don’t think there’s a bad story in there—each one gave me new tests, new challenges to draw. Having Roger do a fill-in was fine, the story was great, and something I couldn’t have drawn a tenth as well as he did, but I didn’t actually take a break, just shot straight on to the next strip!
You were the first person to give us a peek at what a Sontarans looks like underneath their armour. Was it a thrill to bring such a vivid Doctor Who monster to life in such an epic adventure? You also capture the Tenth Doctor and Rose beautifully, are there plenty of stills to base your drawings on or do you work with what you see on the TV?
I was so happy to draw the Sontarans- they were one of the aliens I used to doodle as a kid! We were able to expand on what we know (very little) of the Sontarans, (the world wasn’t even called Sontar until we mentioned it in the story) and John and Nick’s brilliant idea that if you have a clone society then it makes sense that you’d get defective clones and take it on from there. Thanks for the complements about the likenesses- I only really had the Children in Need skit as reference. I had several episodes of Billie Piper I could get screen grabs of, but for David Tennant it was just that five minute section. I’d bought the Casanova and Blackpool DVDs thinking that’d be good ref but he’s a wholly different person as The Doctor, a total transformation. Quite amazing.
Taking my personal favourite strip that you have pencilled and written, The Futurists can you take us through the typical execution of a Doctor Who comic strip? Are the new series scripts okayed by the production team?
Thanks for that- The Futurists was a story idea I’d been percolating for ages, well several ideas really—I felt that –as I’m based in Wales, just like the production- it’d be great to do a proper Welsh Who story; and I’d also gotten fascinated by the Futurist Movement in Italy. Tying these together, I’d long had this idea that there were ‘regulators’ in the Who universe who set things pretty much back on track after the Doctor had screwed up the timeline- (and I’d submitted this plot before Paul Cornell’s Fathers Day story with the Reavers had aired) so what became of them when the Time Lords went away? The Futurists were from Italy, so linking them with the Roman Occupation of Wales was a straight line, if not a chronological one. I pitched it to Scott and Clay who liked the idea- I did a couple of revisions to the outline, and resubmitted. The key to me for the story was Valente, the African Roman Auxiliary who had come to believe wholly in the noble ideal or Rome. It’s his humanity that drives the story and the way Althea struggles with her love for the morally compromised Giovanni, himself as much of a true believer as Valente. I wanted to get some of that cosmic/interpersonal conflict I’d loved in my 70s Marvel comics across here. I’d also mapped out whole sequences with the Silures that wouldn’t fit for time and space considerations- where you’d have found that the tribe was actually led by Mererid who –with Rose- leads the fightback against the Romans in the third episode.
DHM then sent the revised outline on to Russell who gave us the thumbs up, and then I got on with scripting the first episode. When that was approved by all, I started drawing it –at the same time, getting on with the script to part two. So for a couple of months I bounced between writer and artist, sometimes on the same day.
How much involvement do the various editors have in the artwork? How much of collaboration is the artwork? Do you simply hand over the images and they are inked and coloured or is there much more of a marriage of talent all pitching in with ideas?
The team is hands on—I submit thumbnails of each page and Scott will get back with tweaks and changes he feels will punch up the art, give it more impact; I then do full pencils, and submit them for approval. Occasionally there are changes at this stage too but usually it’s just making sure the likenesses are consistent and the story reads well. The inks on Doctor Who are done by David Roach who I’ve worked with for over twenty years, so we’ve developed a shorthand for working. The colours are by James Offredi who is hands-down one of the best I’ve ever worked with. When David and I got offered A Christmas Carol I ‘took’ James with me, I rate him so highly.
Your artwork on The Woman Who Sold the World was astonishingly detailed and vivid. How long do you get to work on a script that is so packed with vibrant ideas?
Not long enough? Rob Davis had written with such an élan and a visual clarity (he’s also an artist) that I took the ball and ran with it. Really, I should have thought through how I designed the buildings in that city, realizing I’d have to keep re-drawing them. I have shelves of reference, books on Greek and Roman architecture, and I’d recently visited Paris and was awed by the scale and scope of the buildings there. I wanted to get across that alien-baroque feel that Rob’s script called for.
Looking back at your work over the past decade do you have any strips that you are especially proud of and any that you wish you could go back and have another stab at?
The Cruel Sea remains my favourite New Who story. I adored Rob’s script, and the way –particularly in the last chapter- he played with levels of reality using comic conventions –going from realistic, to animated style, to out and out cartoony, was just genius. It was the first time working with James and he did a dazzling job. David’s inks are also top-of-his-game. Scriptwise I think A Groatsworth of Wit is the best written, and gave me opportunities to draw some brilliant sequences, but Cruel Sea is my favourite. Dunno if there’s one I’d go back and re-do, I think they all have strengths. My one regret is we never got to ‘break’ my Thomas More in Space story. It went through several revisions, initially a Martha story, then a Donna one, but me, Clay and Scott just couldn’t get it to work. A pity, as there are some great set pieces in there, and some funny lines... but if the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
You dip into the comic strips now maybe once a year. Was that a conscious decision?
I think I was giving Clay and Scott heart palpitations every month as I used up all the deadline time to get the best work out there. At the same time, I’d had offers to do other projects which I couldn’t take in all conscience without screwing up Who schedules. This happily coincided with Scott and Clay and Tom deciding that, after having many writers and one art team, they wanted to mix up the art styles, and go with one writer and many artists. And hopefully easy the deadline rush each issue!
Since coming off Doctor Who regularly, I’ve worked on A Christmas Carol, TV storyboarding, a series of Norwegian graphic novels, Judge Dredd for 2000AD and other side projects. I still get a kick out of drawing Who, and am more than happy to pencil strips that they think I’ll suit. I was thrilled be asked to draw Matt Smith’s first adventure for the magazine. At the same time, I was drawing Only Good Dalek for BBC Books, so I was working full time on Doctor Who for two publishers at once earlier this year!
Of all the various Doctors and companions you have gorgeously brought to life which would be your favourite in each camp?
I think Matt Smith looks brilliant- as a comic artist, his face is a gift. I enjoyed drawing David Tennant though the problem I had with him is, he’s too pretty! You can’t put too many lines on his face, as you age him too much. Eccleston was great when I got him sorted. A couple of times Clay would ring up and point out when my likenesses were off – I remember one shot of the 9th that looked like Bruce Forsythe, and one of Tennant early on that looked more like Willie Carson!
For the assistants- well, they’re all great (although I missed the chance of drawing Donna) but my favourite is Rose. Billie Piper has a gorgeous face to draw. Easiest to draw is Amy, as she looks a hell of a lot like my youngest daughter.
Mike, thank you ever so much for your time.
My pleasure! x