Creating Comics Panel – Thursday 22nd October 2015

Creating Comics Panel

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On the evening of Thursday 22nd October, in conjunction with the Dundee Literary Festival and the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies, the new Dundee Comic’s Creative Space hosted a Comic’s panel featuring legendary writers and artists in the comics field, both new and old, who discussed their own experiences in the comics industry whilst giving advice to the younger generation of aspiring creators. The panel consisted of Ian Kennedy, renowned for his work in DC Thompson and Amalgamated Press, Cam Kennedy, best known for his work on 2000AD and Star Wars, John Ferguson, creator of the Saltire series, Monty Nero, widely recognised for his ongoing series Death Sentence and Tom Foster, a relatively new artist currently working with 2000AD. The panel started with each discussing how and why they got into the industry.

Ian Kennedy began the talk by saying that as a young boy he had always been interested in art. He joked that his parents used to say ‘if you want to keep him quiet give him a paper and pencil.’ As a child he honed his skills, drawing in the evenings after the table had been cleared of that night’s dinner, from there he undertook an art course at secondary school and eventually, through the help of a mutual friend (David Ogilvie), he left school and went into employment with DC Thomson; Dundee’s powerhouse in comics. However, that is not to say he went straight into the comic’s industry, at that time it was primarily a case of getting your foot in the door first. For six months he worked as the office teaboy before eventually becoming an artist. He notes that throughout that time he did not stop drawing however and used to copy used pages of DCT comics on his breaks, whilst the artists who had drawn them, and worked alongside him, observed and gave him feedback. At this point he gave the budding artists in the room a word of advice and said, ‘don’t be frightened to copy, your own style will eventually come.’ Through copying other, more experienced artists he learned their techniques and how to draw clearly in a way that spoke to the readers and eventually could put across these skills into this own work. After serving tea and drawing the crossword squares for the local newspaper he later became a professional artist and was eventually offered work with Amalgamated Press, thus working with the both of the two major British comic companies of that time. He concludes of his career saying that ‘I’ve had a great time, I was very lucky. I’ve lived through the golden age of comics.’ To this day he still does the occasional cover for DC Thomson’s Commando, having produced around 1500 covers for the long running comic.

Cam Kennedy came next in the procession and opened with a joke introduction commenting that he was ‘Ian’s younger, prettier sister.’ (Although it should be noted that despite their identical surname there is no relation between the two.) Laughter aside, Cam began his insight into the comic’s industry at the end of his school career, he noted that he applied for various art colleges and was accepted but chose not to go, instead travelling to London with his dreams on his sleeve, living the life of a wandering poet. He too worked originally as a teaboy in Glasgow before his move and then eventually from London he travelled to France to become a painter. After some success abroad he returned home to Scotland living in a variety of places throughout. At that time his friend contacted him and told him there was work in comics available and so after taking a portfolio to Dundee he began to some artwork for Commando scripts. He again moved back to France and returned home in 1978 where he began to work on 2000AD. Cam shared Ian’s fondness of his career in the industry saying, ‘I never wanted for work, I was very lucky.’ He commented that his work as an artist would often fit in to suit around his family life and hobbies, saying that he would often ‘work through the night’ but similarly that he was ‘never prepared to work night and day for anyone.’ At the height of his career he was doing both Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper artwork for 2000AD but he commented that as he has aged he has slowed down and was always aware of his own abilities. As his eyesight begins to fade and the way he perceives colours has changed he notes that he now spends a lot less time drawing but still does the odd sketch or painting here and there.

After Cam concluded his introduction both he and Ian, who shared similar views on their progression into the industry noted that the comic’s world at that time were ‘like a family’ and that ‘everything was done on a handshake.’ They laughed as they then passed the conversation onto the ‘younger generation’ of creators, who were next to speak.

John continued the talk by opening with the simple reason for his background in comics being that ‘I can’t work for anyone but myself.’ For him, comics provided a way to follow his creative ambitions without anyone else being in charge. He noted as a child he was into anything that wasn’t academic, be it sports, comics, music, anything practical or creative. As such, his only wish for a future career was in something along those lines. Originally he was a boxer, he jokes that in hindsight this may be the inspiration behind his violent comics. However, when in the US he fractured both his hands and had to accept that his boxing career was not to be. On his return home he decided to move from sporting to creative pursuits and for a while saw himself as a bit of a rockstar and joined a band, however admits that he wasn’t very good at it so instead took to writing. To begin with he pursued his interests in mythology and religion but there was not much of a demand for those subjects. After several rejections from publishers he realised that there was a gap in the market for Scottish mythology and with no success in academic books he decided to bring it into popular media. He recalls reading an article that argued that Scotland could not have a superhero and if it did it would be terrible. In defiance of this statement John began work on Saltire, at first in secret but then he involved his wife who also realised its potential. They looked for help within the industry and came to Phillip Vaughan (lecturer of animation at Duncan and Jordanstone and highly involved within the Dundee Comic’s Community in and out of the Universities), with his help their art team expanded and the book turned into a series which through its huge success is now beginning to branch out into new media. He too has enjoyed huge success in the industry which seems to be continually growing. However, despite this John concludes jokingly that ‘from my point of view it all started out as a bit of an accident.’

The next up in the discussion was Monty Nero who began by saying that as a child he was highly influenced by artists such as Cam and Ian and their work on 2000AD. In fact he notes that he was amazed by their style and how it seemed they could draw so easily commenting that he ‘always finds it difficult to draw, it looks effortless but the process is difficult.’ At sixteen years old he saw an advertisement for a weekly Comics Class in London run by David Lloyd which he travelled several hours for every Monday to be a part of. Each week David would hand the class a script for them to draw and he would critique their work in the following class. It gave them an opportunity to not only get feedback from a professional artist each week but also a chance to see how everyone else interpreted the script. Nero comments that this process was invaluable in his later career and that feedback was essential to his improvement. At around the same time he began to apply for art colleges but there were no comics- based subjects available so instead he became a freelance artist and was sent scripts at home where he worked on them then returned them, Nero noted that he never really saw anyone in the industry through this process and wasn’t really enjoying it. Instead he moved his artistic abilities over from comics to gaming and worked on game concept art for a while. However, despite success in the industry he still wished to create his own comic. Originally he anticipated it would be a personal project but he found a very good artist (Michael Dowling) to work on it with him and from there Death Sentence was born. Nero too chose this opportunity to give advice to the audience and said, ‘try to do something that excites you, not what someone else wants. Go your own path.’  Nero concluded that, for him, his success was down to studying comics and their creators and obtaining feedback and ultimately becoming ego-free of his own work.

The discussion was concluded by Tom Foster, who has been working on 2000AD for the last 18 months. He begins modestly by stating that his history of the industry is less storied than the more experienced people on the panel. He admits that he had a very straightforward, easy transition into comics. He went to Duncan and Jordanstone and studied art but attended before any of the comic courses that are available today had started. Instead he had to self-teach himself a lot of skills which he notes was not easy without feedback or guidance. From there he began to go to conventions with his portfolio to have it reviewed by big publishing companies such as Marvel and Titan. His first trip did not end in a successful career with any of the publishers but as Nero previously commented, Foster says that the feedback and advice given there was invaluable. In 2011, he entered a 2000AD competition to write a five-paged script for the comic, the winner of which would receive a short story publication in the magazine. Both Foster and Nero entered this competition and although they were both finalists they didn’t win. In 2012, the contest was repeated and once again Foster entered only this time to come second. By 2013, he decided to give the competition one final go and eventually was successful and won the prize of a story within the publication. 2000AD liked his story and saw his potential and within a month he was given a series to work on. Nero, who Foster had talked with, amongst his introduction, added that ‘adversity is almost as important as having the skill.’ They both agreed that perseverance was vitally important and that through Foster repeatedly entering the competition 2000AD were able to see that he was ‘consistently great.’ In today’s market both creators agreed that in order to get work you had to ‘be fluent in the language’ of the industry.

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After each creator had given their own background into comics and their own advice to the audience the panel was opened up to questions from the audience. The first question from Ana Hine, editor of the feminist zine Artifical Womb, was ‘how long should you work for free?’ as in trying to get the balance between getting your work seen and being taken advantage of. The panel seemed to share the same response, ‘if you’re good at something never do it for free,’ although the comics industry, like all businesses, may seem to be a difficult one to break into the creators agreed that you should treat people as you would like to be treated. Similarly, they suggested looking online at spec-scripts and researching exactly what the comic publishers you are looking to work for are wanting, build up your portfolio with this in mind and big mainstream comics will tend to gravitate towards you if they like what you do. In today’s industry self-publishing and independent work is much easier to produce than ever before. It is in this field of comics that Image has found success with Nero noting that they now make up 33% of the comics market. Foster added that ideally he hopes Image will act as a blueprint for other publishers to seek out potential in independent creations. There was much discussion of this point, and several other questions, but the last question of the night came from Comics Studies Masters student, Elliot Balson, who asked what current comic series and publishers each panellist enjoyed.

John began by admitting that he didn’t read much modern comics and had instead been going back to his childhood favourites, however of the graphic novels he had been looking at he recommended Brian .K. Vaughan’s Y as a good read.

Monty followed by saying that Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus, released a few years ago, was a fantastic series and also suggested Greg Rucka’s Lazarus as another interesting and innovative comic.

Tom confessed that since working at 2000AD he has had a lot less time to read comics but he recalled Scott Synder’s The Wake being of particular interest.

Ian finished by saying he preferred comics that entertained and were not too psychological.

The event finished with a drinks reception where the audience where able to mingle amongst the creators and learn more about their thoughts and interest in comics. Overall, the night was a great success and is the first of many great events lined-up for the Dundee Comics Creative Space that officially opens at the start of next year. The creative space hopes to create a strong comics community within the city and with the University’s fantastic links and resources to a wide array of comic’s professionals the Creative Space looks set to engage with and inspire a long line of future generations interested in a career in the comic’s industry.

(Images courtesy of @SaltireComics and @DundeeComicsCS)

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