Interview: Richard Starkings
Cameron interviews comic guru Richard Starkings - creator of the award winning Hip Flask and Elephantmen series - and chats about Blade Runner, Doctor Who and more..
Recently I caught up with Richard Starkings to talk about his new hardback collection, Elephantmen Vol. 2: Fatal Diseases (available in all good comic shops!) though, due to his long and varied career, our focus shifted onto other areas. Starkings was born and raised in England and worked for five years at Marvel UK’s London offices as editor, designer and occasional writer of Zoids, Ghostbusters, Transformers and the Doctor Who comic strip. After re-locating to North America he formed the award-winning Comicraft design and lettering studio, which he founded in 1992 with John ‘JG’ Roshell. Since then, he's never looked back.
Before we look at your current work and releases, I'd like to ask you some questions regarding your career pre-Elephantmen. You worked as a letterer on a number of big titles (such as The Killing Joke), how was the leap from replicating the words of others to creating your own?
It wasn't such a big leap really, because I was lettering AND writing in tandem very early on - first for my WHO AND CREW strips for various DOCTOR WHO fanzines (ORACLE, TARDIS and DWB) and then at Marvel UK where I wrote for ZOIDS, ACTION FORCE, TRANSFORMERS, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS and DOCTOR WHO under the pseudonym "Richard Alan." My first professional work was illustrated by industry legend and longtime DOCTOR WHO strip scribe, Steve Parkhouse, and I went on to work with artists like Robin Smith, Phil Elliott, Bryan Hitch, Mike Collins, Kev Hopgood, Geoff Senior, Dougie Braithwaite and the mild mannered but mighty Lee Sullivan.
Lettering for 2000AD and DC was an opportunity to work with giants like Alan Davis, Paul Neary, Alan Moore, Alan Grant, John Wagner, Ian Gibson and Brian Bolland. I learned a lot working with the editorial team at 2000AD - particularly art director Robin Smith, sub editor Simon Geller and editor Steve MacManus. As a lettering artist you have to understand the demands of both the art AND the script so it is an essential part of the storytelling, and if you're sensitive to your role, you're working as an artist in your own right. 2000AD's editorial team put a lot of time and energy into training my sensibilities and I am eternally grateful to them for that.
As an 'extra' in the Elephantmen novels you often showcase a wealth of materials from the UK scene, dipping into Countdown and Look-In. Why do you feel the need to provide a commentary on this time in the UK industry?
Out of respect for my roots, really. Living and working in the US, I'm constantly aware of how little American creators and readers really know about British comics that informed and shaped our writers and artists. Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons were British creators who loved the American comics that appeared in the 60's, but second generation British creators like myself were very strongly influenced by the wealth of British comics that appeared in the 70's - and that includes COUNTDOWN, LOOK-IN and, of course, 2000AD. What these three weeklies had in common was Science Fiction, or Pulp Science Fiction, as I like to call it. Action and adventure with an SF twist. Of course EAGLE and TV21 cast a long shadow over all the three books I've mentioned, but enough old pros have banged on about the great Boys' Weeklies of the 50's and 60's - I thought the time was ripe to talk about MY favourites, from MY childhood. And of course, ELEPHANTMEN is MY comic so I get to do what I want!
Haha, quite right! On a personal note, I appreciated your inclusion of the art work for Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. Truly a remarkable work.
I remember buying WAR OF THE WORLDS in Morrison's when it came out in the mid 70's. It cost about £3.49, a lot of money in those days. The artwork on the cover was just tremendous and the booklet of art inside the gatefold album sleeve was incredible - it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Both the packaging and the album were a treasure, and inspired me to read the original book and HG Wells' other masterpiece, THE TIME MACHINE. We were spoiled for SF in the 70s - ELO and other big bands embraced the iconography of science fiction and I think movies like LOGAN'S RUN, SILENT RUNNING, THE OMEGA MAN and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH paved the way for the SF movies and TV we've enjoyed in recent years - like the TERMINATOR series, THE X-FILES, LOST and BATTLESTAR. The 60's and 70's were very fertile earth for impressionable young minds to grow their imaginations. I still listen to WAR OF THE WORLDS to this day. Not as often as I listen to the BLADE RUNNER soundtrack, of course!
You and me both Rich. Speaking of that, I don't think I'm insulting you here but the world of Hip Flask and his chums is reminiscent of both 2000 A.D. and Blade Runner - though it does have its own unique narrative. Fair assessment?
Yes, perfectly fair. I've said elsewhere that ELEPHANTMEN would have been the strip I'd have created if I'd had the chance to contribute a series to 2000AD. I particularly wanted to capture the satirical sense of humour that writers like John Wagner and Alan Grant brought to their stories. STRONTIUM DOG was a particular favourite of mine and I'll never forget John Wagner describing to me the simple idea of Johnny Alpha and Durham Red in the shower with Ronald Reagan. He had a real twinkle in his eye when he talked about the scene and I realized then that his stories weren't just entertaining, they could be subversive in the same way that Steve Bell, the GUARDIAN cartoonist sought to be subversive. I try to bring a similar sense of fun to ELEPHANTMEN - and named Hip's robot frog, Wagner, in deference to the creator of Judge Dredd, Walter the Wobot, Johnny Alpha, the Gronk, Robo Hunter and Hoagy.
I think comparisons to BLADE RUNNER originally had more to do with the style of Ladrönn's art in the HIP FLASK series that spawned ELEPHANTMEN, but as a matter of course themes such as the matter of what it means to be human - when you're not - naturally emerged from my story and characters and I can't deny that these are the same themes that drive BLADE RUNNER, which also happens to be my favourite movie. Ironically, I'm now lettering the comic book adaptation of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? So I guess I'm the BLADE RUNNER guy now - serves me right for using the quote "BLADE RUNNER meets TAXI DRIVER!" on the first ELEPHANTMEN collection, I guess. Oh, and naming it after a track on the soundtrack - "Wounded Animals."
What people tend to miss among my influences is my love for comics by the likes of Posy Simmonds, Carol Lay and Jaime Hernandez's Maggie and Hopey stories in LOVE AND ROCKETS. I am a big, big fan of TINTIN and the strip THE PERISHERS which used to run in THE DAILY MIRROR. I still read CALVIN AND HOBBES every day. Although there are a lot of super hero series that I've read and loved, I'd much rather read JACK STAFF than any current Marvel or DC title. And, as you know, Cam, I'd give up all my comics if I had to choose between reading them and watching DOCTOR WHO.
Speaking of the world's greatest television show, you recently penned the introduction to the Doctor Who collection, A Cold Day In Hell and you've also lent your font-astic hand to some work in the early Eighties for the strips in Doctor Who Magazine, any thoughts of returning?
A COLD DAY IN HELL reprints most of the strips I edited in the late 80's when I worked at Marvel UK - the only one omitted has been saved for the next collection, NEMESIS OF THE DALEKS which I plotted, edited and lettered for the aforementioned mild mannered but mighty Lee Sullivan. I wrote TIME AND TIDE for Dougie Braithwaite with my friend John Carnell, who co-created THE SLEEZE BROTHERS - now appearing in occasional issues of ELEPHANTMEN - with artist Andy Lanning, and co-plotted, uncredited, PLANET OF THE DEAD with incoming DWM editor John Freeman, but I never wrote a story all on my lonesome until UP ABOVE THE GODS which was a short eight page story for editor Gary Russell, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Davros.
As for returning, I've just written a one shot for IDW's DOCTOR WHO line from a plot by Gary entitled COLD BLOODED WAR. It's not the kind of story I'd have come up with myself - this one features Ice Warriors, Draconians and even Alpha Centauri - but it was fun writing dialogue for Donna and working out how to pace Gary's outline into 22 pages. Fellow Brit and Whothusiast Adrian Salmon is the artist on this one, and he's done a great job.
Elephantmen deals with the notions of hybridity and war - is this how you see mankind going?
Going?!? We're already there!
Are you aware that scientists impregnated a cow with human sperm and let the embryo gestate for six weeks before terminating? Or that many wildlife organizations are interested in cloning as a way to save endangered species? Did you know that the only continent that has no law against cloning or hybridization is Africa? [At this point the interviewer indicates a negative response here, for shame!]
By chance I met a Taiwanese cloning scientist here in LA - he was the father of a kid in my son's basketball team - and when I asked if he and his colleagues debated the ethics of cloning, genetic manipulation and hybridization, he laughed... "No, the company I work for is just interested in MONEY!" That was sobering. It's a rich seam of stories to mine, and I've barely broken the ground above it! I have a thread on the hipflask.com forum keeping track of some of the crazier cloning stories.
Initially I wasn't going to deal with the ELEPHANTMEN at war, but living under a jingoistic presidential regime for eight years kind of propelled me in that direction. THE COMICS JOURNAL suggested that the Elephantmen represented "George Bush's nightmare of stem cell research and Cheney's dream of armed forces procurement," and I couldn't have been happier with that analogy. Some of the headlines coming out of Bush's right wing "War on Terror" in the last few years are like manna from heaven for me.
Onto your latest collection, Elephantmen Vol. 2: Fatal Diseases, how would you sell it to someone who had never delved into your world so far?
I like to think that each issue of ELEPHANTMEN is written in such away that anyone familiar with reading comics would be able to get a grasp on the story quickly and easily without having to read previous issues to understand what's going on. That was something I admired about the various series that ran in 2000AD. Editorial was always conscious of the fact that every issue was someone's first issue, so stories were very accessible. There's a bigger story behind all the ELEPHANTMEN stories, so regular readers are rewarded for following the series from issue to issue of from collection to collection, but that doesn't mean this second volume is impenetrable. The big "event" in this collection is the meteorite that falls in Santa Monica Bay and how that brings together the key players in the series. In a tip of the hat to John Wagner's STRONTIUM DOG shower scene which I mentioned earlier, most of my central characters are stark bollock naked at the end of the book. But for good reason of course!
With comic books being plundered every month (well, that's what it feels like!), what are your thoughts on the crossover from page to screen? Do you think it's something you would like or are you happy with the paper medium?
I love comics, and it's my intention to continue to keep making ELEPHANTMEN comics. I envision ten inch-thick collections at least and the stories and developments that I have in mind will easily take me to issue #75. Dreamworks recently asked after the rights to the series and then baulked at the costs that would be involved for a big screen interpretation with live action and CGI. That's okay, I'm not writing the comic for the big screen - I'm not sure I'd know how to! Some people might say that I'm not sure how to write comics!
Finally, as a writer, is there anything you'd like to take on that you haven't already?
The next issue of ELEPHANTMEN. I don't think of myself as a jobbing writer - I consider ELEPHANTMEN as my job. It's not just about writing scripts, it's about developing the characters, finding good artists who feel the material and it's about promoting the series at shows and getting the new collections out there. The latest issue in production is by top 2000AD artist Boo Cook and it's title speaks for itself - KILL! KILL! KILL! Inspired by, of all things, a track by The Pierces.
Boo wrote to me offering his services a couple of years back and he has been one of our staunchest supporters ever since. His cover art for us has been both Zarjaz AND Scrotnig and this issue is the Work of his Life! He and his luvverly gal, Gemma have become my friends as well as my allies.
THAT's why I make comics! Working with people with whom you feel a sense of camaraderie - a sense of common goals and shared excitement... I had that with Joe Madureira on his BATTLE CHASERS book, with J. Scott Campbell on DANGER GIRL and with Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale on all their DC and Marvel books. If I'm not having fun, it's just not worth it... and what could be better than working on your OWN book with people you feel close to -- creators like Moritat, Boo, Ian Churchill, Rob Steen and Comicraft's Secret Weapon, John Roshell - that's the aspect of creating comics that keeps me creating comics. That sense of collaboration. A real revelation recently was working with rising star, Marian Churchland. Her contribution to issues 18-20 took the title in a completely different direction, and yet those issues are still very much part of the whole. We're collecting them in a slim trade this summer, entitled ELEPHANTMEN: DAMAGED GOODS, similar to last year's WAR TOYS collection. And there will be more WAR TOYS this year, in a new mini series with Moritat called ENEMY SPECIES. So I'm looking forward to taking that on too.
More ELEPHANTMEN. More surprises. More comics.
Can't wait, thanks so much Rich.
Thank YOU, Cam!
Elephantmen Vol. 2: Fatal Diseases is out now