Monday, February 11, 2008


Twenty years ago, as a young editor at Marvel Comics in London, I commissioned a comic book series with the unlikely title, THE SLEEZE BROTHERS.

THE SLEEZE BROTHERS were created by two likely lads named John Carnell and Andy Lanning. To cut a long story short, after commissioning all six scripts for the series, and overseeing the pencilling, inking and lettering for the first three issues or so, I left the SLEEZE at Marvel and left for foreign shores, settling eventually in sunny California.

THE SLEEZE BROTHERS went ahead under the care of Dan Abnett, but after the sixth issue was published, it was abandoned in favour of other titles and directions, including KNIGHTS OF PENDRAGON and the STRIP anthology. Thanks to the good graces of Epic Comics' Archie Goodwin, THE SLEEZE BROTHERS had been published as an Epic Comic and, as such, was technically owned by the creators... as soon as five years elapsed after the publication of the last issue.

To cut another long story short, after the publication by Marvel's Epic imprint in New York of a SLEEZE BROTHERS one shot, and a short in an EPIC anthology book, the rights reverted to John and Andy and are now in the care of FOOF Productions, helmed by another Andy, Andy Banks and John Carnell hisself.

John Carnell, who regular readers of this blog will remember introduced me to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin, and I have remained close friends throughout the last twenty years and have spoken often about the idea of returning THE SLEEZE BROTHERS to their former, uh, sleaziness... and in just a few months they will be making their digitally re-mastered debut in the back pages of my monthly Image Comics title, ELEPHANTMEN. Featuring new colour by Gregory BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN Wright and new digital lettering by Yours BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE Truly, our intent is to drag THE SLEEZE BROTHERS kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

But that's all by-the-by... I wrote to Andy Lanning a little earlier this year and it so happened that he'd been sorting through boxes in his attic and discovered a box of artwork I'd left with him for safekeeping nearly twenty years ago!

I'd quite forgotten some of the pieces I'd collected from the many talented artists I worked with at Marvel UK over the years, so when I opened Andy's Fedex package a week or so after we talked, a flood of memories came rushing in...

This piece was the cover to DRAGON'S CLAWS #2. Geoff Senior was at the peak of his game and the art he was creating for DRAGON'S CLAWS was undoubtedly amongst his best work. I prised this piece off him because it's just A Great Cover!

This shot of Death's Head was also intended as a cover to DRAGON'S CLAWS -- issue #5, in fact -- but was considered to be a little too passive for an action comic, and was replaced with a shot of Death's Head clocking Dragon on the jaw.

These next two pages, which also feature Death's Head, are actually from DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE #135. As editor of both DEATH'S HEAD, the DOCTOR WHO comic strip and TRANSFORMERS I was always eager to create the sense of a shared universe, and there was also the problem of transferring Death's Head, who was as tall as the Transformers he was created to hunt down, to the world of Dragon and his Claws, who inhabited a world six thousand years in the future and were a whole lot shorter. Enter the Doctor and his time machine, the TARDIS, and one of the Master's matter compression eliminators...

Seeing all these bits and pieces after twenty years is a little bit like finding photos of yourself with a mullet or a ponytail (I won't tell you which one I had in the 80's!)... it's hard to believe so much time has passed and even harder to discern whether or not the art or stories have any relevance today as anything other than curiosity pieces.

Marvel UK has already collected together the DEATH'S HEAD stories and are planning a DRAGON'S CLAWS collection for later this year... and DOCTOR WHO Collected Comics editor Clayton Hickman assures me that the seventh Doctor stories I edited while listening to A-Ha and Tanita Tikaram in Arundel House will be collected any time now... all I ask of you when you read them is that you kindly remember that a lot of people had ponytails back in those distant days, and no one laughed or pointed out that we looked like complete pillocks.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Preaching to the Converted

When I was a child, my Dad made model airplanes and tanks from Airfix and Revell kits, and would often take me into town to stop by a couple of backstreet hobby shops which specialized in the model kits he bought. I remember that he would also have to buy tubes of glue separately as, in the early days, there was none included in the box. As my reward for accompanying my Dad, he would take me to the local WH Smith newsagents and buy me a couple of comics.

I knew a lot of other kids who read and enjoyed comics. We would talk about comics and draw our favorite characters, and none of us knew any comic book creators or had even met an artist or writer. We barely understood the concept of writing and drawing, comics were simply magical creations that turned up on our doormats, or on newsagents' shelves every Saturday. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of comics were sold and read but there were no conventions or specialty stores devoted solely to stocking and selling comics.

These days, finding comic books in newsagents or, in America, drugstores or 7-11s, is almost impossible, if you want to read comics you have to find a specialty store or website that caters to your interest. I guess I'd call them, um, backstreet hobbyshops.

No single comic book sells a million copies of each issue any more; on average a top selling comic published by Marvel or DC Comics is lucky to break 50,000 copies. Just to give that some perspective, in the late 80's Marvel routinely cancelled books that sold less than 100,000 copies. Today, any book that breaks a 100,000 is considered An Enormous Hit.

Think about those numbers for a moment. An average comic sells 50,000 copies, and there are (slightly more than) 50 states in the US. If we assume that each state has at least twenty comic book stores (Diamond Comics Distributors deals with around 1,000 strong retail accounts) that order fifty copies of each comic book published then we have a thousand copies of the (slightly above-) average comic in each state. Of course, Diamond's numbers include books distributed to the United Kingdom and other countries which have stores that specialize in US comics such as Australia and New Zealand, so let's deduct 100 copies from each state for the distribution of 5,000 copies around the globe, leaving us with 900 copies on sale in each state. Except, because of the high concentration of commercial artists, animators and, um comic book professionals in cities like New York and Los Angeles, we need another 200 copies from the 48 states in between New York and LA to distribute evenly between the two cities. Now we have 5,700 copies on sale in New York state and California, 700 copies in the other 48 states and 5,000 copies sold in the rest of the world.

So if you live in Ohio, then MAYBE there are another 699 people in the state reading the same comic as you. Now, even if we assume that there are ten times as many people reading comics as buying one (slightly above-) average comic in each state, we're still only talking about 7,000 people in each state reading comic books. In a country of some 30 million people... well, You do the math. Of those 7,000, it seems to me that perhaps 5% are either actively involved in the publication of comics or WANT to be. With each passing year, I meet more and more people at shows and conventions who talk about CREATING comics as a hobby, rather than READING comics.

My point, and I DO have one, is that the comic book industry that centers on the network of specialty stores in the US is less of an industry now and more a hobby. The comic books themselves are like the kits my Dad used to buy -- templates that show people how to make comics themselves. If you don't believe me, take a look at Diamond's Previews and count the number of independent publishers and aleternative press creators out there. I'm one of them. The only thing I seem to be missing is readers. There weren't any in the box.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stop me if you heard this one before...

I'll tell you a secret... I practice buddhism, specifically the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. Y'know, chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Twice a day "to my heart's content," whether I need to or not.

Despite occasional lapses, Buddhism has made, and continues to make, an enormous difference in my life.

I was introduced to the practice by a comic book writer in 1988.

Since I was young I always wanted to work in comic books and, as a teenager, developed an interest in lettering, a largely unregarded but essential art without which comics cannot be read. Pen lettering is an arduous task but I enjoyed the challenge and, after graduating from college, I picked up lettering work for various comic book publishers in London.

In a very short period of time I was hired by Marvel Comics on staff in London and eventually rose to the position of editor of boys adventure comics when I was just 25. I continued to letter comics on the side to earn extra money, but I loved editing comics, it paid well and London is a great place to spend your mid-twenties and your income. I thought I was perfectly happy.

Unfortunately, no one at Marvel UK seemed capable of teaching other editors how to create good comic books. It was clear to me that enthusiasm and love of comics did not qualify me to help the young writers who wanted to work at Marvel HOW to tell good stories any more than it enabled them to PRODUCE good stories. Older and more experienced writers were either too expensive for us, or preferred not to work on the licensed properties we published, such as TRANSFORMERS, THUNDERCATS or GI JOE.

When I was given the task of editing a comic based on the GHOSTBUSTERS cartoon series, I found myself having to cast around for new writers in order to generate the large amount of material that was needed in the book. I bought a number of scripts that were okay but they seemed to lack something which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. They didn’t seem truthful. I wanted to read and publish stories that were both fun and meaningful!

A young artist I had hired to draw comic strips for GHOSTBUSTERS recommended the work of his old schoolfriend, John, and brought him to meet me. Generally I avoided hiring friends of friends but there was something mercurial about John that inspired me to give him a chance. John was quick with a joke and earnest in his desire to write entertaining stories. The scripts he turned in proved to be witty and vibrant and eagerly sought after by the artists working for me. I struggled in vain to understand what exactly it was that they contained so that I could communicate “the formula” to other writers.

I soon learned from John’s friend that he was a Buddhist and after he and I had come to know each other, I asked him about his practice. I sat with him and his wife as they performed gongyo and leafed through a book called GUIDELINES OF FAITH. Pretending not to be very interested, I asked John if I could borrow the book.

Halfway through my reading I came across the phrase “turning poison into medicine.” Suddenly, a penny dropped. All John’s GHOSTBUSTERS stories turned negatives into positives. The Ghostbusters would be called to bust a ghost in a hotel, but would persuade the ghost and the hotel manager to work together so that people would visit the hotel BECAUSE it was haunted; or the Ghostbusters would trap two mischievous electrical sprites in a battery, thereby creating a source of everlasting power.

I called John the next day and confronted him with my realization. “Gotcha!” I told him. “You’re propagating Buddhism in your stories, aren’t you? Admit it!”

“Um, No, not deliberately,” John told me, “but I have been practicing for over four years and I guess that Buddhist philosophy is starting to bubble up out of my life into my work.”

I never quite believed John’s denial, but regardless of his intent, I decided I wanted to get me some Buddhist wisdom. I started chanting daimoku and encouraged the other writers working for me to consider the concept of “turning poison into medicine” as an alternative to the “this ghost is toast” philosophy our licensor encouraged. Subsequently THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS comic became one of Marvel UK’s most successful publications.

However, my personal success at Marvel was short lived. Shortly after embracing Buddhist practice, I initiated a series of workshops to train editors in the basics of storytelling and comics production. Suddenly my editor in chief grew jealous and suspicious of my intent and accused me of making a power play. Stunned by her accusations, I stepped out of the office at lunchtime and chanted daimoku for one hour. I decided I wanted no part of petty office politics and when I got home that evening wrote a letter of resignation. I had some money saved and decided I would use it to take a year off to travel round the world.

To cut a long story short, my savings ran out in California about eight months later. I had spent a long summer in New York where friends at the central offices of Marvel Comics gave me as much freelance lettering work as I could handle, and I continued to work for Marvel and DC Comics when I moved to LA.

Nevertheless, I now found myself struggling to enjoy the task of pen lettering which years earlier I had enjoyed struggling to learn. It had provided me with a way in to comics but now seemed like a chore and a penance. I was free but there was still a life to live and bills to pay.

Even in sunny California the consequences of my decision to quit my comfortable job at Marvel UK became more and more painful and I would often spend three hours chanting simply for the strength to get through the day. I felt completely directionless and lettering was agony. I produced only the minimum amount of work I needed to get by.

At several meetings at the SGI culture center in New York a gentleman by the name of David Kasahara often told us that a dishwasher in a restaurant can choose to be totally unhappy with his lot because basically he's just cleaning up dirty plates. Or he could take it upon himself to make the plates and glasses shine so brightly that the customers come back to the restaurant just because the crockery is so clean! I really took those words to heart. 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 neither can you properly appreciate a meal if your plate isn't clean.

I had also picked up a bookmark at a district meeting in LA which carried President Ikeda’s encouragement:

"A great revolution of character in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a society, and further, will enable a change in the destiny of humankind."

I placed the bookmark on my altar and often wondered exactly what it meant to me.

In the depths of my misery I decided that my only way out was to make my lettering look so good that readers would regard it as an important part of the artwork. I decided to be the best letterer in the business!

But I was living and working in the US illegally, and the work that was sent to me from New York was always due the next day. Producing work of a high quality under the gun all the time seemed to be impossible and I realized that making a living this way while at the same time setting a high standard for myself were almost mutually exclusive goals.

In 1990, as I entered a second year of suffering and struggle, I bumped into a former Marvel editor who proposed to me that I digitize my lettering styles on a Macintosh computer. This seemed to me to offer a solution to the dilemma of quality versus quantity.

After a certain amount of trial and error, I produced a workable digital version of my pen lettering style and convinced a couple of editors at Marvel to let me letter their books electronically. I hired an assistant, and with him developed a number of fonts which allowed us to become a tireless team of comic book letterers. We called ourselves Comicraft.

The quality of the digital work we were producing soon attracted offers of more work and we were able to move out of the back of my apartment and into studios in Santa Monica. I hired another assistant, and another, and another. At the peak of my studio’s success, I had sixteen employees on payroll and we won more than a dozen awards for our work.

Although we were still dependent on Marvel and DC comics for income, we slowly developed a secondary online business publishing and selling the font software we developed for lettering. Ten years on, that secondary business,, offers over two hundred fonts in its catalog and is supporting a third business, my own publishing imprint.

As an editor of comic books, my desire was to find a way of encouraging writers to produce meaningful stories. That desire led me to this Buddhism which led me to California and back to lettering comic books.

My determination to become the best lettering artist in the business precipitated a complete change not only in the manner in which I worked, but also the entire comic book industry. The digital methods and processes developed by Comicraft are now the global standard for lettering comics. Comicraft fonts are used in comics. movies and advertising throughout the world; I have seen them on billboards alongside the freeway, on the cover of Newsweek and Time magazine and in movies such as TOY STORY 2 and THE INCREDIBLES. Last year I co-wrote and published a How-To book about our work.

I overcame a multitude of problems and struggles along the way -– as a consequence of the earthquake in 1994 thieves broke into my studio and stole all my computer equipment; in 1995 one of my employees made a deal with one of my clients to work for them directly, taking thousands of dollars of work with him; in 2001, our biggest client, Marvel Comics, informed me that they would no longer require Comicraft’s services. But every time I got knocked down, I got up again, chanted and polished the knives and forks again

In the course of my struggles, I acquired a work permit, a green card, created a family with my wife Youshka -- who started practicing Buddhism last year -- bought a house and started my own publishing imprint.

But that’s nothing. The greater success I accomplished is the deep seated, sure and certain knowledge that anything is possible. My experiences taught me to realize that I was the most powerful person in my life and I finally realized that I didn’t have to wait for other writers to produce meaningful stories for me; I could write them myself!

In 1999, I approached a top artist with whom I had developed a close friendship to bring to life my comic book character, Hip Flask, which I also determined to publish myself. We are currently putting the finishing touches to the third issue. The first issue was named by the mainstream British style magazine THE FACE as one of the top ten hottest comic books of 2001, and the second issue was nominated for two top industry awards. Hardcover editions of the first issue are currently on sale in France, Spain, Germany and Italy. The story of Hip Flask touches upon issues that range from ethnic cleansing, genetic engineering to racism. It also has a mutant hippo, time travel and a robotic frog, because it is a comic after all!

Q and A

First Name:
Richard, but you can call me Rich!

Were you named after anyone?
No, but am often asked if I'm named after Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey)

Do you wish on stars?

When did you last cry?
Last time I got upset.

Do you like your handwriting?
Can't remember.

What is your favorite lunchmeat?
I'm vegetarian.

What is your birth date?
January 27th 1962

What is your most embarrassing CD?
That depends who's looking at my CDs...

If you were another person, would YOU be friends with you?
That would depend on whether I was another person I liked.

Are you a daredevil?

Have you ever told a secret you swore not to tell?
That would be telling.

Do looks matter?
That would depend on who was looking at me.

How do you release anger?
Primal screams in my car on the Freeway.

Where is your second home?

What was your favorite toy as a child?
A Dalek rolykin.

What class in high school do you think was totally useless?
I can tell you the teachers I thought were totally useless...

Do you have a journal?

Do you use sarcasm a lot?
Well, some people are just asking for it!

Favorite movies?
Alien, Blade Runner, The Big Blue, Notting Hill, Jean de Florette/Manon de Source.

What are your nicknames?
Rich! Starky. TBD.

Would you bungee jump?
Not now I have kids, but I would have before.

Do you untie your shoes when you take them off?
You can UNTIE your shoes?!?

Do you think that you are strong?
Emotionally or Physically?

What's your favorite ice cream flavor?

Shoe Size?
6 1/2 UK 7 US

What are your favorite colors?
Orange. White.

What is your least favorite thing about yourself?
My short temper.

Who do you miss most?

What color pants are you wearing?
Khaki shorts.

What are you listening to right now?
iTunes. Vangelis. Sigur Ros. Radiohead. Bob Geldof. Oasis's The Importance of Being Idle.

Last thing you ate?
Healthy Frosted Flakes in milk and a cup of coffee.

If you were a crayon, what color would you be?
I wouldn't be a crayon. You should see what my kids do with them.

What is the weather like right now?
Santa Ana hot in October. 90 degrees yesterday.

How Are You Today?
Hot. See above.

Favorite Day Of The Year?
Every day above ground is a great day.

The first thing you notice about the opposite sex?
That they're the opposite sex, obviously!

Favorite Drink?

Favorite Sport?

Hair Color?
Grey/Dark Brown

Eye Color?
I have overactive pigmentation glands and my eyes are sometimes blue, sometimes grey, sometimes green, sometimes hazel.

Do you wear contacts?
When I remember.

Favorite Food?

Last Movie You Watched?
On TV, Before Sunset; at the movies, Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Scary Movies Or Happy Endings?
Both. See above.

Summer Or Winter?

Hugs OR Kisses?
As often as possible.

What Is Your Favorite Dessert?
Hey! Bad enough you have to make a choice at the restaurant!

Who Is Most Likely To Read this Blog?

Who Is Least Likely To Read this Blog?
Joe. (No, the other one.)

Living Arrangements?
The family home. Studio on the side.

What Book Are You Reading?
Animal Liberation by Lori Gruen, Peter Singer and illustrated by my old mate Dave Hine.

What's On Your Mouse Pad?
A wireless mouse.

What Did You Watch Last night on TV?
BBC News. Lost. The Daily Show and The Road to 9/11 -- on TiVo.

Favorite Smells?
Good food cooking. My kids' hair.

Rolling Stones or Beatles?
The Beatles, of course.

Do you believe in Evolution or Creationism?
The one that doesn't need me to believe in it for it to be happening all the time!

What's the furthest you've been from home?
I'm always at home.