For nearly ten years, Richard Starkings and Comicraft have been redefining the art of comic book design and lettering. BULLETPROOF COMICSspoke exclusively to Richard about his career, his successes, self-publishing, Buddhism and Comicraft’s forthcoming 10th anniversary celebrations.
Has 2002 been a good year for Comicraft so far?
Busy. Very, very busy. There are a couple of top secret, hush-hush mainstream projects we’re involved with that I’m very excited about, and then, of course, we’ve launched the first of (hopefully) many comic books featuring our mascot character, Hip Flask.
Did you always want to work in the comic book industry?
My oldest brother, Mel, was a dealer in the seventies and eighties and he started taking me to comic book marts when I was just ten years old. At about that same time I started reading Mighty World of Marvel from the first issue so I could be on the same wavelength as my brother.
How did you begin your career at Marvel UK?
I answered an ad in The Guardian newspaper. Ian Rimmer was looking for an ‘Art Assistant’. I didn’t get the job at first, but I got lettering work on Transformers on the strength of one Future Shock I’d lettered for 2000 AD. Ian gave me semi-regular freelance work and eventually took me on as Art Assistant on Spider-Man Comics Weekly.
Which Marvel UK titles are you still proud of today?
All of them. They were great fun. I was almost as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed back then as I am now, and working on books like Transformers, Thundercats and Zoids with talented young artists like Geoff Senior, Bryan Hitch, Dougie Braithwaite, Steve Yeowell and Kev Hopgood was terrific. We were all incredibly enthusiastic about our work, and none of us felt intimidated by the projects presented to us. We were given a tremendous amount of freedom to do pretty much as we pleased. Simon Furman created some classic comics in the pages of Transformers (‘The Legacy of Unicron‘ being my personal favourite) and Grant Morrison was pitching us some pretty off-the-wall stories for Zoids long before his stints on Doom Patrol and Animal Man. Zoids was my pet project, Kev Hopgood, the original artist on the series, and I were good friends. We were roommates when I got my job at Marvel UK, and I got him his break on Zoids just by pushing samples in front of Ian whenever I could. He actually prepared a sample page of Transformers which was never published, but which I have around here somewhere…
Eventually, Ian, with the encouragement of Tom DeFalco, gave me some editorial responsibility for Zoids. I wrote my first strip in issue 12, which was beautifully illustrated by Steve Parkhouse, and a text story for the Zoids Annual. A year or so later, I started work on a Zoids monthly with Morrison and Yeowell. It never made it to the launchpad, although I did find photocopies of the first half of issue one recently, and I can’t understand why Marvel didn’t want to follow through. It would’ve been a fantastic.
I also had a lot of fun working on Action Force with Simon, Kev, Bryan and Geoff Senior.
Are you excited about new Transformers and Zoids comic books being published?
What excites me is that the material we produced in the last century (!) stands up so well to the material being produced in the twenty-first. Simon, who works over at Titan Books these days, is already collecting Transformers material from the Marvel UK book for trade paperback publication this year. I’m sure he’s just trying to build up interest for the Zoids collections, of course!
What are your feelings about the current state of the UK comics industry?
I feel terrible! I turn my back on you guys for just 14 years and the whole thing falls apart! They said they could manage without me. Obviously not.
The bigger question you’re asking is really “What happened to British boys’ adventure comics?” The truth is that the “Boom” market of the late seventies and early eighties was fuelled by the passionate work of a handful of exceptionally talented and creative individuals working at IPC and Marvel UK. John Wagner, Pat Mills, Carlos Ezquerra, Kevin O’Neill and Dave Gibbons poured enormous amounts of energy and imagination into their work on Action, Battle and 2000 AD in the late seventies; Dez Skinn, Paul Neary, Alan Moore and Alan Davis did the same over at Marvel UK back in the Camden Town days of the early eighties. The boys’ adventure market rolled on the momentum created by these guys throughout the eighties and into the early nineties. The stories I was reading in my teens unquestionably inspired me to work in the British comics industry.
What’s lacking right now are talented and creative men or women with the editorial vision to inspire a whole new wave. There’s obviously no shortage of talent in the UK; take a look at DC’s Vertigo imprint or Quesada’s Marvel Knights line. Garth Ennis’ Adventures in the Rifle Brigade was very much like the Battle/Action stories of old. What’s most important is that talented artists and writers, English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, are finding outlets for their work. Whether that’s in 2000 AD, Action Man or The Incredible Hulk is surely by-the-by.
When did you realise lettering was your real area of interest?
Comics were my real area of interest. Lettering was my area of competence. I had read somewhere that one of Dave Gibbons’ first jobs in comics was doing lettering corrections for Marvel UK reprints and I thought to myself, “I could do that.” A couple of years later, that’s exactly what I was doing!
That said, I became interested in lettering after my brother gave me a whole bunch of collections of The Perishers. The art and lettering, by Dennis Collins, put a spell on me and inspired me in my teens to start writing, drawing and lettering a newspaper-style Doctor Who strip which appeared in various fanzines and even Warrior! Later on, a friend at school got me hooked on the Byrne/Claremont Uncanny X-Men books and I started to realise how much of a contribution a letterer like Tom Orzechowski could make to a book.
How complicated was it for you to move from the UK to the US and then start your own business?
It didn’t seem complicated to me at the time. It never seemed to me as if I was *Starting a Business*. I was just continuing to do business. I worked part-time for Graphitti Designs for a couple of years and, god-bless his open-toed sandles, Bob Chapman sponsored me for a work permit which allowed me to stay in California legally. Beyond that, I was just trying to survive and gradually transformed my freelance lettering career into a business of my own.
What hurdles did you have to overcome?
The biggest hurdle was a broken heart. Curse that gypsy wench!
What is the secret origin of Comicraft? What inspired you to start your own company?
Well, I was sitting in my smoking jacket in the study of Starkings Manor one night, when a computer flew through the open window. “That’s it!” I exclaimed. “Comic Book Letterers are a superstitious cowardly lot, I must be a creature of fright! I shall become… The Computerman!”
What was the industry’s initial reaction to your intention to produce completely computer lettered comic books?
Shock! Horror! Surprise! Bob Harras famously informed me that I would NEVER be allowed to letter an X-Men book with “computer” fonts. Fool! Never again will he underestimate the Cosmic Comicraft Power of Meeting the Deadline!
During your time at Marvel UK you wore many hats (art assistant, writer, colourist, editor, group editor). Would you say the skills and experience you gained there were essential for your current role?
All those hats, no wonder my hair’s graying and getting thin on top! The licensed properties available at Marvel UK were great projects on which to learn the ropes. I have a very thorough top-to-bottom understanding of each and every aspect of comic book production and my experiences at Marvel & 2000 AD brought me into contact with people like Steve Parkhouse, Alan Davis, Paul Neary, John Wagner, Robin Smith, Alan Grant and Steve MacManus, all of whom had a huge influence on me in terms of what I learned about copyrights and creators rights.
When I was at Marvel, I encouraged Alan Grant to submit ideas for a US-style monthly book. I was looking for a character with the kind of clean-and-easy internal motivations I saw in Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Spider-Man, but Alan wanted to tell stories featuring characters with external motivations. One of the stories he submitted was Macabre (which ended up in Toxic! a year or two later), a character who was very much on a quest. I was anxious to avoid stories which had obvious endings (Kwai Chang Caine finds his brother, Kevin Costner finds dryland). We got as far as Kev Hopgood drawing sketches, but eventually Alan told me that he felt he was at his best bringing new life to established characters (as he had done on 2000 AD and, later Batman) and so we started looking at reviving Night Raven. Unfortunately, I left Marvel before we could get the book off the ground, but my conversations with Alan regarding internal and external motivations never left me and Hip Flask is very much my attempt to deliver a character who carries his motivations with him wherever he goes.
How many comic books does Comicraft letter and design in a typical month?
Lots. Big Lots.
How would you describe the Comicraft approach to comic book lettering?
Jeph Loeb regards our role as “as important to the writer as the inker is to the penciller”. I’d add that we have to be sensitive to the work of everyone involved. Ian Gibson wrote a very kind note to me on the very last page of Halo Jones. He remarked that I was the most sensitive letterer he’d ever worked with (when I read this, I went into a corner and cried), and was one of the first artists with whom I worked who would ask for me by name when he turned in his art.
What tools and programs do you use to produce your work?
Pencils. Pens. A drawing board. The Mighty MacIntosh computer. A scanner. Fontographer. Illustrator. Photoshop. Acrobat. A DSL line. A telephone. Music.
Do you see the production of a comic book as a realteam effort?
Comic books are obviously team efforts. Judge Dredd is a team effort. Hip Flask is a team effort. Cartoon strips don’t have to be. Hedge Backwards is all about me. No one could write or draw it for me any more than I could write or draw Calvin and Hobbes, the Best Cartoon Strip of All Time!
Marvel’s recent ’Nuff Said month featured stores with little or no text. Were you concerned at all about the potential lack of work during this period?
We kept busy. Actually only a small handful of ‘our’ books were completely silent. Ironically enough, when we submit proofs for silent pages in regular books, we pop a little ’Nuff Said logo on the side of the page. Quesada saw this and renamed ‘Silent Month’ accordingly.
Are you worried about competition from comic companies employing in-house lettering departments?
Not until just now!
This year sees Comicraft marking its 10th anniversary this year. How are you intending to celebrate this milestone?
John JG Roshell and I are always looking for new ways of keeping ourselves fresh and interested. John was on the ground floor with me when Comicraft was created. He was my first studio assistant and one day asked how he should answer the phone. Quick as a flash, I said “Comicraft” and lo, a legend was born! Ten years is a long time, long enough for John to have redesigned the Iron Man logo twice, long enough for us to have badgered Marvel enough so that we were finally able to convince them to reprint the Miller Daredevil run and allow us to design it. Long enough that Hip Flask has made ‘cameo’ (shhh!) appearances in Fantastic Four and The Inhumans. After 10 years, the hardest part of the job is not being taken for granted and not taking the work for granted either. You’re only as good as the last book you lettered. There are some editors who only remember the day you missed the deadline or made a mistake which made it all the way to press, and forget all the top quality work you turned in overnight. Touch wood, we’re very lucky to have a pretty solid reputation and industry friends who bring great projects like Spider-Man: Blue, High Roads, Danger Girl and The Red Star to our door. So I guess we’ll be celebrating by continuing to maintain the highest standards possible in the shortest time possible!
Comicraft has also just published its first own-brand comic book in 2002, the long-awaited Hip Flask. What’s the story behind this unusual concept?
Hip Flask was originally the name of a very human, stereotypical private eye character I created for inclusion in Hedge Backwards. However, I got so tied-up with Comicraft, Hedge fell aside, and Flask never even appeared in the strip. A couple of years later, after my efforts to secure either the X-Men or Wildcats to promote Comicraft fonts came to naught, I started casting around for another, more suitable ‘salesman’. While I was looking through my sketches for Hedge, I found my original drawing of Hip Flask and proudly announced to my lovely wife, Youshka, that I’d found a character to represent our line of fonts. She liked the name, but, when I told her he was a private detective, innocuously asked me what made him different to any other P.I. “Oh, er…” I said, thinking quickly, “He’s, um… he’s Hip, he’s a — He’s a Hippopotamus!” She liked the idea, I made a quick (and unpublishable!) drawing of him as a hippo, and it stuck.
Hip’s P.I. identity didn’t stick, and thanks to artists like Brian Bolland, Ian Churchill, Jae Lee, Stephen Platt, Mike Wieringo, J. Scott Campbell, Christian Gossett, Tim Sale and Joe Madureira, Flask made a number of appearances in Comicraft ads in a variety of guises: Hip Flask the Barbarian, Hip Flask Agent of T.R.U.S.T and Komissar Hip Flask. The ads were very effective and we actually received quite a number of calls from people trying to get hold of copies of the Hip Flask comic.
In 1998, we published Hip Flask #1/2, an elaborate font catalog cleverly disguised as a black and white comic. Ian Churchill pencilled and inked an eight-page ‘story fragment’ for us and the ever-magnanimous Jeph Loeb wrote the script. In the course of creating this story Hip started to take on an identity of his own and demanded situations and stories that suited his grim yet affable character. Unlike other hippos I’ve seen in cartoons and comics, I envisioned Hip as more of a tragic hero rather than a “funny animal.”
Having worked together for several years on Cable, Avengers and The Coven, Ian Churchill and I had become close friends. Right before he was signed up to pencil Uncanny X-Men last year, he and I had started talking very seriously about a Hip Flask mini-series, and Ian had actually pencilled a couple of pages. Hip’s backstory and modus operandi had become very clear to me by this time and Ian’s willingness to work on a book with me fired-up my enthusiasm.
However, both Ian and I knew that the opportunity for him to work on X-Men was too good to pass up, but, bless his cotton socks, he’d got me started and I didn’t want to stop. Luckily my great good fortune was not yet exhausted. Ladronn and I had been working closely together on Cable and then The Inhumans. He’d started work on a Hip Flask pin-up for me and we were talking about the possibility of working on Hip some day in the waaaaaaaaay distant future. But Ladronn was taken off The Inhumans, right at the moment Ian moved on to Uncanny X-Men, and suddenly the prospect of Ladronn drawing Hip became less of a pipe-dream.
The actual story of Hip Flask is very simple. Hip lives in Los Angeles — Mystery City — a couple of hundred years from now. He and a number of other ‘Elephantmen’ or ‘Unhumans’ are the survivors of a series of genetic experiments performed by their creator, Doctor Kazushi Nikken. Rehabilitated and relocated by the U.N, Hip works for the Information Agency with his colleague Vanity Case. In the story of ‘The Big Here & The Long Now’, they are drawn into conflict with businessman and crimelord, Obadiah Horn, another survivor.
The biggest influence on me as a teenager was 2000 AD during its heyday. Hip Flask is very much the kind of character I could imagine fitting in amongst Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Robo Hunter. John Wagner, Robin Smith and Alan Grant, who used to trounce us at softball on a regular basis during my stint at Marvel UK, were a huge influence on me. But don’t tell them that.
Do you still intend to produce more online episodes of your semi-autobiographical comic strip, Hedge Backwards?
Still intend to, still do. There’s a new, introductory episode up today!
You’re also a practicing Buddhist. How were you inspired to practice and study this particular philosophy?
I was introduced to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin by John Carnell, the co-creator of The Sleeze Brothers. He was one of a number of writers working for me on The Real Ghostbusters, but there was something very special about his work which made it stand out from the rest. I couldn’t figure out what it was, ’till one day Andy Lanning took me aside and told me, with a little hushed awe, that John was a Buddhist. As I got to know John better, I learned more about the practice of Buddhism, and he gently encouraged me to chant “Daimoku”, or the title of the Lotus Sutra, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo”. I picked up a book called Guidelines of Faith and came across the Buddhist concept of “Turning Poison into Medicine”. I realised that John’s Ghostbusters stories were full of situations that showed poison being turned into medicine — for instance, ghosts that haunted hotels weren’t zapped, they were encouraged to work in harmony with the hotel management — and, when I confronted him with this subtle but obvious attempt to propulgate his beliefs, he laughed and told me he wasn’t working Buddhist philosophies into his work consciously, but after five years of practice, they were starting to surface nevertheless. This impressed me greatly and I started practicing myself shortly thereafter.
Has it influenced your creative output in any way?
My personal approach to work in general and lettering in particular was shaped by a story shared with me by a Buddhist in New York by the name of David Kasahara. At the time I was lettering just to make a living and I was struggling to enjoy what I had once enjoyed struggling to master. At a Buddhist meeting in New York, I approached Mr Kasahara with my complaints. He listened kindly and then proceeded to tell me the story of a dishwasher in a restaurant who was unhappy with his lot because he just hated cleaning up dirty plates. He complained to his wife who chastised him and suggested that, instead of bemoaning the circumstances his life had delivered to him, he should express his gratitude to his employers by taking it upon himself to make the plates and glasses shine so brightly that the customers would come back to the restaurant just because the crockery was so clean! At the time I remember rolling my eyes and saying to myself “What does that mean?!” But I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said and began to see how his story was relevant to my work. Generally, you don’t pick up a comic book and rave about the lettering any more than you would sit in a restaurant and say: “Wow! These knives and forks are shiny!” But then again, nobody likes to eat from a dirty plate.