Or - Making it When you Least Expect it
Who knows when you're going to hit the zeitgeist, and suddenly your world changes in way you could never predict?
I was 20 years old and messing up everything in a monumental way. I'd had my heart broken, failed to stay focused on work, and run up a ton of debts. I was drinking Falstaffian quantities, and doing pretty much all I could to avoid facing into my own reality. My electricity was cut off, then my phone. Instead of collecting rent from my lodger I got drunk with him on a fairly nightly basis.
I needed to face it - I was a mess.
I returned to London aged 21 with a ten pound note in my pocket and a dear friend prepared to put me up while I got back on my feet. Brian West was a cartoonist and writer then, and together we tried numerous things to bring in money and put beer and food in our bellies. We spent our weekends getting up at 4.30am to secure a slot at Campden Market where we drew caricatures. We planned magical comedy skits for the fringe circuit. We wrote plays, concocted ideas for television series's, and we drank. A lot. And played guitars loudly and badly.
I'd burned a bridge at 2000ad through general tardiness. I meant well, but my lack of any hold on my own destiny, spiraling debts and everything else I was failing to do just resulted in late delivery of art - which is a big no-no (though it's also very common of freelancers!) I've worked hard for the last 20 years to change that, and my track record since then has been exemplary, but I was young and foolish, and I won't deny it. I was unreliable. That only left Marvel UK, a company I had previously failed to make any real impression upon.
However, a new editor in chief had taken over, and things were changing there, so I chanced a visit--
Paul Neary was instantly likeable. He immediately started showing me work I should look at - in particular Jim Lee, who blew me away. I had not been keeping track of Marvel or US style comics, and there was an amazing renaissance going on. Jim was at the forefront of it with Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Scott Williams, and others. Barry Smith was drawing Wolverine: Weapon X... truly stunning work all round. It ignited me, and it was a style I instantly understood and could work with. Now it's viewed as the 'Image' style, but back then it was the Marvel house style, and Paul was keen that Marvel UK should not get left behind.
Paul showed me a picture of a redesign for Death's Head, created by Simon Furman and Geoff Senior. It was lovely work, but he felt it wasn't in step with where he wanted to take the company. It set me thinking, and that night I faxed Paul a sketch, with a note that read 'Hi Paul. I always thought Death's Head should look something like this...'
The next day Paul called me in again. He wanted to start over, with me as the artist. A whole new team. Dan Abnet had been an editor at Marvel UK but had left to pursue his writing. In he came to work with me on fleshing the book out. Then we tried out several inkers, settling on the lovely Andy Lanning - he, myself and Brian had previously shared a studio in Islington, so it was wonderful to be working with familiar faces again. It was rough on Simon and Geoff, but I was so swept up in the excitement and this incredible, unexpected opportunity that there wasn't much time to consider their fates. Thankfully they are both extremely decent chaps and we long ago put any animosity to bed in the cigarette-enshrouded bars around the Temple area in London, where the offices used to be.
The cover was done. The strip work began in earnest - and proved quite a process! The book was announced in Marvel's 'Sales to Astonish' catalog, and pre-orders jumped from 30,000 to 300,000! It rocked the Marvel UK offices to the core, and we quickly regrouped. This had to be done right. I was growing as an artist, and the complex time-travel nature of the story was proving unwieldy. I ended up drawing the first issue almost twice, with the pages below completely cut from the series and redrawn--
Eventually we were ready to go - and man, did it go big! The first issue of the four issue mini series sold out immediately, and there was a second and third printing with silver and gold ink on the covers. It was insane! We couldn't believe the size of the print runs, and I was suddenly a 'hot' artist in the US. I started getting profiles and interviews, invites to conventions, including San Diego. They made a costume of the character, and people were getting tattoos of him! He was a genuine superstar!
Issue after issue the sales were solid. It was not going to be a one-off. Death's Head II had legs. We started to plan an ongoing series, and this time I did a full-colour painting which became the launch poster--
The orders came is just shy of 500,000 copies - unheard of now. It was a staggering success. Nothing would ever be the same for me.
I drew four issues of the series, then wrote and drew Death's Head Gold, before getting wooed by Marvel US, drawing Spiderman, the XMen, and graduating to a run on The Incredible Hulk. But it was all thanks to metal horns, red wire dreadlocks, a metal skull, Death's Head II, Marvel UK, and Paul Neary. Those were halcyon days I will never forget.
I did get to (kind of) revisit Death's Head II in a DC series that gently parodied Marvel. Lord Havoc had been a pastiche of Dr Doom, but with the editor on side we changed it to be a Death's Head riff. I was even fortunate enough to have one of the greatest inkers of our age, and a direct influence on the DHII series, ink me - Scott Williams!
Five years ago I pitched a Death's Head II reboot to Marvel, with Bryan Hitch co-plotting the story. Sadly they passed, but here's a taster of what could have been--
Marvel are finally creating a new Death's Head comic with the excellent Nick Roche on art chores, featuring an alternate cover by me! I wish Nick the very best, and hope that old skull-head is a great for him as he was for me.
See my process below, from rough to the finishished piece coloured by the excellent Ryan Brown.
And last but not least, I got to draw him again for former Marvel UK editor and writer of Knights of Pendragon, John Tomlinson, for Eaglemoss' Marvel Fact Files - again digitally painted by Ryan Brown!
Welcome back old son. I've missed you!