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Home ¦ Features ¦ Simon Coleby Interview Part 1

9th October 03
Bato Loco
(click to enlarge)
Simon Coleby is a long serving 2000AD contributor, having first produced work for the comic back in 1989 (starting with the obligatory Future Shock) before graduating to Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper (in his Friday incarnation).

He's recently returned to the comic, impressing new readers with his take on a different Rogue Trooper in Gordon Rennie's retro revamp, and also as co-creator of Bato Loco. We put him to the usual 2000AD Review grilling...

What tools do you use on the job, and have you had any specific training?

I use pretty much the standard tools of the comic-book artist: animator's blue-pencil, Bristol board, Windsor and Newton brushes, Staedtler fibre-tip pens etc. I change the equipment that I use from time to time, as the requirements of the job dictate.

Virtually all of my work is drawn on a lightbox. I learned a long time ago that the quickest way to spot weaknesses in draughtsmanship is to hold a drawing up to a mirror and view the reversed image. It's a shocking and painful experience...you see your own failings laid bare in a brutal and unforgiving manner. It's also the quickest route to developing an understanding of your own drawing, and an awareness of your weak points. In this way, I constantly flip my layout on the lightbox, working on both sides of the paper until I'm satisfied by the drawing.

"Anais" - portfolio art
(click to enlarge)

Generally I start pages with a very small, thumbnail pencil sketch, just to get the composition of the panels clear in my mind. After I've ironed out any storytelling problems, I go on to do a full-size ( roughly A3 ) pencil layout on typing paper, which I heavily ink with broad-nibbed markers ( Berol kids' pens are great for this job ). This stage generally takes about 4 - 5 hours. Sometimes the layout can become a collage of images that I've scanned, flipped, resized and generally tweaked on my Mac...it doesn't matter, so long as the final page works.

When I'm happy with everything, I tape the sheet onto the back of my Bristol board and go to the lightbox. Parts of the page that I feel confident about can be inked directly from the rough, but if there's anything that I need to define more clearly, I'll add some pencil detail directly onto the Bristol board before committing to ink.

I have occasionally scanned watercolour-toned pencil art, and then built up the pages in PhotoShop using found textures etc. My most recent use of this approach was the second series of Inquisitor for Games Workshop.

In terms of training, I have a BA in Graphic design, which has had not the slightest relevance to my career in comics. As far as pure illustration goes, I'm entirely self taught, and, as such, I have made all my horrible mistakes in public.

Simon's first Future Shock

How did you first get started in the comics industry and with 2000AD in particular?

I'm embarrassed to say that I fell into the industry almost by accident. At the age of 19 I was dead-set upon a career as a guitarist in a thrash metal band. Unfortunately, in 1986 it seemed that the 'chug-chug', detuned guitar sound was going nowhere, and the band fell apart ( and I'm not bitter in the slightest that Metallica went on to become multi-bazillionaires! ).

Our vocalist was a huge comics fan, and he gave me a stack of books to look at, knowing that I loved dark-fantasy art. I figured that I should maybe give comic art a bash, and put together a portfolio of, in retrospect, horribly naive drawings. I trundled off to UKCAC 1987, and sheepishly presented my scribblings to Richard Starkings, then editor in chief at Marvel UK. On the strength of that portfolio he offered me an inking assignment; a Dougie Brathwaite-pencilled, Action Force cover.

It's all been downhill from there.

I should, however, offer kudos to Cliff Robinson. He is, in equal parts, madder than a sackful of feral cats, and the most gloriously splendid bloke on the face of the planet, and he was kind enough to offer endlessly patient and helpful advice regarding my earliest attempts at comic-book art. He showed enough zen-like self control not to laugh once at my pitiful draughtmanship. I remain eternally in his debt.

I honestly can't recall exactly how I made the move to 2000AD. If I remember correctly I received a call from Alan MacKenzie offering a future Shock, but my memory is appalling at the best of times, and I could well be doing someone a disservice here...sorry!

Artwork from Inquisitor Ascendant
(click to enlarge)

Your style has evolved considerably when you compare your current work with your earlier work. When you look back, are you surprised at the differences, or have you made a specific choices to effect this change?

Mutate or die! It's the most basic law of evolution.

It seems to me that there are two main types of comic-book artist: the Bisleys, Fabrys and so on, who crash into the medium with fully-fledged, arse-kicking drawing styles, and are recognised immediately. For the rest of us poor bastards it's a long, slow process of learning by mistakes and gradual, sometimes painful, improvement.

I'm incredibly critical of my own work, and I'm constantly trying to improve on some aspect of what I do. Right now I want to simplify my layouts and clarify my storytelling...in six months time I'll be fixed on something else. I dread the day that I feel I've achieved the best I'm capable of.

You've produced a fair amount of work for Marvel, working on properties such as Deaths Head for Marvel UK and the Punisher and Exiles for Marvel US. How did you make the jump to US comics?

The demise of Marvel UK led pretty-much directly into the US office. I think that Marvel felt honour-bound not to just dump all the UK artists. Ahhh, bless 'em..:-)

Death's Head 2
(click to enlarge)

How does working in the US differ from the UK?

Mostly, US work is defined by the sheer practicality of producing twenty two pages of finished artwork every month. Some artists can do it, some can't. Generally, the artists who succeed in the US tend to have much more of a structured approach to their work, with a well defined process for producing thumbnail roughs, enlarging to print size, and finishing the pages. The risk, of course, is that, over time, this production-line approach can lead to repetition and drain some of the original energy from the work. It's not an unavoidable phenomenon, but it's easy to spot the artists that fall into this trap.

It's interesting that, after years of us all saying that the US market would benefit from more non-superhero books, it's happened without much fanfare at all. Books like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy, Lenore, and 100 Bullets fill me with hope that the genre is happy to support books that fall outside the mainstream.

It has to be said that 2000AD has already fulfilled this role for years. The diversity of material published by Tooth, since its inception, is a huge credit to both editors and creators. I've always felt, however, that 2000AD has more of a European than an American flavour, probably due to the deliciously black humour of the comic.

Inquisitor Ascendant

You've also done some recent work for Games Workshop with Inquisitor Ascendant. Is it good to have Games Workshop as a competitor of sorts for 2000AD? How would you describe the Games Workshop comics to a newbie (like me)?

I'm not sure that Games Workshop are really in direct competition with Tooth, as GW tend to cater to their own market and don't generally rely on the same retail outlets as 2000AD, primarily presenting their books through their own chain of stores.

How to describe GW? 'Big guns and shooty-kill death-and-mayhem' pretty much sums it up. The comics are based on the tabletop wargame. The wargame has two essential varients: a quasi-medieval version (Warhammer), and a future-gothic setting (Warhammer 40,000). Both versions involve a huge range of creatures, weapons, settings etc, and they're both great fun to draw. My work naturally leans towards the 'modern gothic' in stylistic terms, and the Games Workshop universe provides plenty of scope for this kind of aesthetic.

GW have amassed such a huge and arcane library of background detail for their universe that it's hard to imagine any artist or writer failing to find something of interest to develop. Personally I love it!

GW also appeals to me as I originally got into the whole fantasy-art genre through role-playing games. Yep...I was the geek who, at school, started the lunchtime D&D club! Tunnels and Trolls was also a fave at that time, and I'm still ridiculously proud of my first-edition copy of the Call of Cthulu rpg!

Go to part 2

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Original content (c) 2002 Gavin Hanly (contact 2000AD Review).