By Laura Sneddon
Dundee Comics Day – in which a mini MorrisonCon occurs in a Scottish city, resulting in secrets spilled, wine aplenty, and the sexiest comics line-up you could hope to meet.
To many North American readers, the city of Dundee is perhaps a seemingly exotic location. Perched on the east coast of Scotland, home to one of the Western world’s oldest comic titles, and guarded by a spectacular statue of comics star Desperate Dan, Dundee has helped start the comics career of many a professional. Equally impressive, the University of Dundee runs one of the only dedicated Comic Studies degree programmes in the world, and the collaboration with the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art results in a twice yearly publication of original comics work.
As a Scot myself, and a PhD student at the university, it is perhaps easy to take these things for granted. Certainly I was surprised at the envy expressed online when I revealed I would be helping out at Dundee Comics Day, an annual event that draws fantastic talent from all over the UK and further afield, for a small comics convention in the heart of the city. For as much as I envied those who could attend MorrisonCon back in September, in the glitzy Las Vegas, I couldn’t quite see Dundee as having the same animal magnetism. However, in a weekend that saw Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Dave Gibbons, Cameron Stewart, Frazer Irving, Rian Hughes and Peter Doherty all under one roof, it was a grand reminder that when it comes to comics, Scotland is riding high in the glamour stakes indeed.
Dave Gibbons opened the weekend on the Saturday, with a two hour look at his large and varied output over the years. Originally planned as a workshop, the longer time frame allowed Gibbons to go right back to the beginning, looking at his early works as a young teenager which certainly highlighted just how much natural skill the artist has always possessed. From Harlem Heroes to Green Lantern, Watchmen to The Originals, Gibbons touched on his favourite titles before using his work on War Story: Screaming Eagles with Garth Ennis to show his artistic process in great detail. I was very pleased to see one of my favourites, Martha Washington, in all her glory, and it was no surprise to see fellow Gibbons fan Frank Quitely in the audience listening in rapt attention. A final look at the promising MadeFire comics app and a round of questions finished off the event before Gibbons adjourned to another room (currently holding the Art of Dredd exhibition) for a lengthy signing and sketching session.
Those who have seen Gibbons speak before will know he excels at entertaining the crowd, and my youngest brother was delighted with his newly penned sketch of Rorschach.
In previous years Dundee Comics Day has been a one day event, but this year saw the schedule expand slightly, with Gibbons on the Saturday and a screening of the Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods documentary on the Friday evening. Sunday remained the main event however, and after the refreshingly large turnout on the Saturday, the hall on Sunday was fit to burst. Running under the banner of Invisible Symmetries: The Comics Of Grant Morrison, the day was dedicated to Morrison and his collaborators, with each guest taking their own direction on what they wished to discuss.
Up first was Grant Morrison himself, in an hour long conversation with event organiser Dr Chris Murray, taking questions from the very keen audience. Murray’s opening welcome to Dundee mentioned the fact that some of Morrison’s earliest work, in Starblazer, was published in the city by the large comics and magazine publisher DC Thomson (large to such an extent that in decades past, a mention of DC in comics and news circles in the UK would be parsed as referring to the Dundee giant rather than the significantly larger New York publisher). With a grin Morrison spoke of how he had never actually set foot in the city at the time, and that the editors would meet him at the train station in Glasgow, “like one of those Soviet spy movies, where they would meet up and push a brown envelope across the desk and that would be the latest briefing!”
Speaking of how the editors at DCT had taught him the basics of comic book writing, with an overriding desire for “more space combat!”, Morrison had the audience in stitches with his always disarmingly debonair approach. The question of a lack of British superheroes was swept away with the recollection of The Amazing Mr X (“He could leap about eight feet in the air! He can lift a table!” cried Morrison) and other UK superheroes with similarly low ambitions. The smaller scale of the terribly British hero, posited Morrison, is their appeal. Zenith of course followed in those footsteps, and was understandably very different from Morrison’s later approach with Superman, who is America’s best dream of itself, “what America wants to be – you have to go into that quite un-ironically”.
When it comes to Morrison’s comics, across all the various titles he has written and created, the works are littered with symbolism and references to literature and the arts (and the occult). Asked whether this was deliberate, Morrison considered the question. “There are certain things… you always go back to Blake or back to Shakespeare, or the Bible or things I grew up on. It’s not done deliberately, I’m not thinking ‘lets add this bit, lets bolt this on’. But certain things appear obvious. In Zenith it suddenly seemed obvious that [if] you’re writing about British superhumans, you have to look at Blake because Blake was talking about these demigods and superhuman figures walking through the streets of what were contemporary London for him. So I thought, well I’m telling the same kind of story here, so I really have to be aware of Blake in order to give the story a bit more depth and a bit more weight.”
Morrison spoke about the Moon Card symbolism in Arkham Asylum, and how when a structure is put in place, the world starts to conform to that structure. Putting in a certain amount of information results in a work that begins to evolve itself, something many a writer and artist will be familiar with.
Asked whether Morrison was ever tempted to return to works like The Invisibles, close to many a readers heart, the writer revealed that such an offer had been tabled. “Karen Berger asked me to do some more Invisibles for the anniversary of Vertigo next year, and I thought about it for five minutes and just didn’t want to do it. It was the same, when I tried to go back to Justice League and I did the Justice League Classified book which was like three years after I’d finished Justice League, I couldn’t connect with those characters at all and I had to fill the book with other characters to make it palatable to write. So I kind of, once the divorce has happened I don’t want to know!” A brief laugh before the added afterthought, “Batman’s the only one I can go back to, because he’s so sexy.”
Touching on Morrison’s commitment to creating his own more personal works alongside the commercial work for the big publishers, he stated that the balance had never been difficult, but had always been important. From the early days of free reign at Near Myths and tight control at DC Thomson, the avant garde and the commercial were equally important to the writer. “You can see through the 80s, it’s the struggle with that. Because I’m doing all my own stuff and it’s not getting published… In the commercial stuff it’s really obvious I’m aping successful styles, because that’s what I was doing – my own work was nothing like that, and it wasn’t until Doom Patrol that I was actually able to fuse the two things together I think, and then it’s really obvious that my own voice was coming out.”
Describing the commercial work as a palette cleanser, Morrison mused that his more recent superhero work is written in the same way as his more personal work, and it’s a winning combination as the success of both Batman Incorporated and Happy can attest. Further discussion included talk of All-Star Superman as Morrison’s definitive Superman story, his genuinely modest claim that his work would not be remembered in the future (“you have to be very special” for that), that receiving his MBE from Prince Charles had been “kind of interesting”, and his resistance to the idea of decimating the mutant population of the Marvel Universe which happened immediately after he left the book, with House of M.
“I kinda thought there wasn’t a lot of story potential in there,” Morrison replied to the audience member who asked, “because then all they were was a doomed race, and there’s no hope for them and ultimately, mankind would destroy them if there’s only a few hundred of them. And to me it took away the progressive possibilities… Because if we as humans knew that within a few generations we were gonna be replaced then it made a lot more sense to go to war against the mutants or to have all these weird ideas about them. It makes a lot less sense to fight mutants if there’s only a few hundred of them and they’re all dying. You don’t need to build sentinels, you just hang around and wait!”
A couple of elements of particular interest to me came up in the always popular questions about Morrison’s view on Jeff Lemire’s current Animal Man reincarnation, and Morrison’s upcoming Wonder Woman book. “I kinda like it,” Morrison said of Animal Man. “I’ve accepted it as here’s the new generation coming along and they’ve got their own ideas and I don’t really want to stand in the way of it. The only thing I didn’t like about it and I’ve said this before – but they keep printing it as ‘Grant Morrison Hates Swamp Thing Because…’ – but I really don’t, so I’ll say it again, I do not hate Jeff Lemire’s Swamp Thing! But I always hated that concept of The Red, which isn’t Jeff’s concept, I think it came in with Jamie Delano, but it really bugs me. It’s this idea of looking at nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ where nature’s this rapacious destructive… and we know that’s part of it, but I think there’s a really weird attitude behind that approach in Animal Man, where nature seems this monstrous constantly morphing terrifying… I find it quite, it’s like there’s fear of the female in there, that rings off it slightly to me. And it’s not Jeff’s fault, it comes out of that concept.”
Morrison clarified that while he has emphasised the sexuality of Wonder Woman a lot, because that is the element that he is bringing back, that “it’s not really about that at all”. Like All-Star Superman, this is his definitive take on the character, and the writer has also worked to rehabilitate the supporting cast, making Steve Trevor “worthy of Wonder Woman’s love” and bringing back Etta Candy as “an immense girl” and “Wonder Woman’s pal”, commenting that her being slimmed down since her original inception was “terrible”. (Feel the Etta love – Woo Woo!)
Asked if there were any characters that had come along in the past decade that he would like to write, Morrison stated that he had done all the ones he wanted, that had nostalgic ties for him, and that he preferred to read other people writing their own characters. “I’d rather see Mark Millar write Kick-Ass than me write Kick-Ass to be honest.”
On favourite comic writers, Morrison revealed that he is very uncritical: “I like everyone. I read them in the bath and everything’s great. I always think, ‘oh my god, why can’t I do this?!’, and it’s some crappy issue of [title removed!] Whoever’s writing [that] I’m not talking about you! I’m using [that] as an example of a generic comic!”
Morrison’s anecdotes are always strewn with giggles and laughter, but it’s become a tired joke that his unguarded flippancy is often rewritten as gospel truth from a comics priest on high. So next time you see a fiery headline quote, just remember that Morrison is in Scotland, reading comics in the bath. “I like the people that everybody else likes,” he smiled. “Warren Ellis and Alan Moore.”
With the hour up, Morrison encouraged would be writers to concentrate on shorter stories, to aim high and to keep bugging people (this will work if you are any good, and “if you’re bad they’ll send someone to kill you!”), explored the differences between screenwriting and comics writing, and rejected the label of anti-establishment. “I don’t like to be anti-anything, except bastards!” he laughed. “Because bastards can crop up anywhere, they can be part of any social scene, so it’s easier just to hate bastards. I can’t say I’m anti-establishment, or anti-anything any more because I think the establishment is something that we made, we put it there, we kind of sustain it all the time so I’m more fascinated by the giant aspects of our lives and culture… it’s not about enemies and the establishment.”
With a short break for lunch, which saw Morrison and Gibbons catching up and many of the guests obliging their fans with quick snapshots, the stage was next set for Rian Hughes, master of fonts and design wizard. Morrison’s collaborators were given shorter slots, complete with individual Q&A sessions, and the guests had free reign on their topics of choice. Hughes began with his work on Dare, the re-imagining of cult UK comics hero Dan Dare, with his stunningly beautiful art, which he revealed had all been done pre-digital, with inks and markers. Like many of the artists there, Hughes had found that the evolution of digital art had allowed him to reach the style he had always strived to achieve. Adobe Illustrator enabled him to render his art in the sans ligne style that he is famed for.
Moving on to his impressive portfolio of title logos and cover design work (including some of my own personal favourites, the Flex Mentallo covers which mimic and interpret different comic eras), Hughes ably demonstrated just how much work goes into a comic cover once the artist has completed the main piece. There was also a brief look at the stylised portrayals of Batgirl, Supergirl and Wonder Woman for DC merchandising purposes, all of which would look wonderful in a kids comic I might add.
Hughes finished with a “top secret project” he has recently completed that he wasn’t allowed to say much about but had “special dispensation” to show some pictures from. What followed was a few very intriguing pages indeed of a Batman story, the first Batman that Hughes has “written and drawn”. It features the Neoplastic Man who speaks in complete anagrams, and Tal-Dar, an older character that featured in the first Batman comic Hughes read when he was younger. The pages are gorgeous, with suitably clever design. All very intriguing!
The lovely Frazer Irving stepped up next who elected to discuss a specific aspect of his creative process that he has noticed over the last few years. Beginning with his work for 2000 AD, Irving described himself as a “purist” and technophobe, with his work reflecting the influence of Bernie Wrightson and Brian Bolland. His career took an unexpected turn, after his initial knowledge of colour being “atrocious”, when he realised he was “inking himself into a corner”. Turning to digital he discovered new freedom, and his art continually evolved from mimicking his old techniques to what is the very distinctive style he is so praised for today.
With the gothic bold blue of Klarion the Witch Boy ensuring its place as one of my favourite shorter stories, it was a delight to see Irving go through his processes and to see how his art had changed and matured over the years. Using his iPad hooked up to the screen, Irving’s talk was very engaging, as he zoomed in and out of images to illustrate his points.
The first signing session began, with Morrison, Hughes and Irving, producing a queue the length of which I haven’t seen since the last Morrison event I attended. Due to the tight scheduling, the Comics Crew walked up and down the line stating that only two items were to be given to each guest, but even so the line had to be cut short in order for the next events to proceed. Morrison happily agreed to attend the second signing as well, and was joined by Quitely and Stewart along with Irving who was wonderfully persuadable! That session ran until everyone had received their signatures and brief chat, somewhat pushing things behind schedule but with attendees and guests both happy.
The hotness that is Frank Quitely was next (as described by the Mindless Ones no less!), introduced by myself as I belatedly realised that my introductions were about a tenth the length of anyone else’s! Ah well. Quitely revealed that unlike some of the other artists present, he felt a long way from working out his own method and approach to his work that he’s completely happy with. The artist is well known for his dedication to storytelling, which is why he changed to very tight pencilling alone rather than inking and colouring as well, to increase his page production (although his fully painted pages for Sandman: Endless Nights are beautifully done). Unlike the other artists present, Quitely hasn’t “made the jump to all digital yet”, with his finished line work being done in graphite. Cover work is often done purely digitally.
Asked about his infamous Bumheids, characters with “eyes where their nipples should be, a nose where their bellybutton should be”, who were presented at MorrisonCon, Quitely laughed that they “look much better than they sound!” They have been thumbnailed into short stories, but there are no immediate plans for a Bumheid invasion.
“I wouldn’t mind doing a Spider-Man story at some point,” said Quitely, when quizzed about which characters he would like to work on, “and a Daredevil, and Hulk. That would probably be the three characters that I haven’t worked on.”
I hope Marvel are listening…
One audience member asked a question I’ve heard more than once before, what the description of We3 as “Western manga” actually meant. “I have no idea what Western manga means!”, grinned Quitely, “I thought it sounded good!” The artist spoke a little about the influence of Katsuhiro Otomo, describing Akira as a “gateway drug” into manga.
“It was me that made up Western manga,” came the voice of Grant Morrison from the audience to the laughter of Quitely. “It’s actually got nothing to do with the artwork. What it actually was, was that it was taking techniques from manga, which were kind of an intimate focus on objects… and breaking it down, slowing it down, decompressed ideas from manga, but doing it in a short form. Because I thought the Western idea of manga would not be telephone directories, it would be a tiny little book this size. So it’s like super compressed, and that’s why I called it Western manga.”
Speaking about his work on Pax Americana, with Morrison, Quitely said that is a denser and more descriptive script than usual, and that for many of the pages Morrison has provided thumbnailed layouts.
Cameron Stewart opened his talk with a fantastic shot of his “first collaboration” with Morrison, his home made Zenith costume (possibly his only non-terrifying Halloween outfit. Stewart talked about how his art has changed through the years, from his early work with pen and lightbox to his later computer aided work, and finally fully digital. Given that Stewart goes into incredible detail on each layer, allowing him to move layers above fully drawn layers underneath, it was all the more astonishing to hear how fast he works: 22 pages in two weeks. It also means his art is already set for more advanced digital platforms.
Stewart showed a script and art page from Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!, “which was originally supposed to be issue 12 of the series”, with Spoiler rather than Batgirl, as it had originally had Stephanie as the latter, before DC decided it should be the former, and then back to being the latter again, resulting in the artwork having to be redone to change Spoiler to Batgirl. The page, featuring Stephanie fighting off schoolgirl assassins, really drove home just how brilliantly Stewart renders female characters in particular, with not a hint of exploitation that would have been all to easy to find elsewhere with teenage schoolgirl characters.
Peter Doherty bounced on stage to talk through his process in his cheeky and laid back manner. His talk of colouring was fascinating, and I saw many an artist in the audience taking notes. Doherty described having his own line work badly coloured as “soul destroying” and the amount of work he puts into his own colouring is perhaps why he was so disheartened by the somewhat vitriolic reaction to, and “misinformation” about, his recolouring of Flex Mentallo.
After the second signing session, and a short break to be supplied with wine, where I was lucky enough to have Grant talk me through the finished pencils for Pax Americana (I can thoroughly recommend the directors commentary!), the troops rallied for a round table discussion. Missing a table, they decided an upturned cup on the floor would do, before proceeding. Morrison said that “of course” he’d be working with these collaborators again. “If it was a wedding we’d be the top table!” joked Quitely. “If it was a wedding I’d be a Mormon!” Morrison laughed.
The day ended with the announcement of the winner of the annual Dundee Comics Prize, with Rian Hughes accepting the Tartan Bucket from Grant Morrison on behalf of Steve Marchant, whose geriatric exploits of the a re-imagined Amazing Mr X came out top. The character, who first appeared in The Dandy back in the 1940s, was the focus of the competition, and the runners up, Darrin O’Tolole and Gavin Boyle, both of whose comics got a huge reaction from the audience. All will be published soon, along with some of the other entries, in a University publication.
It was perhaps the most successful Dundee Comics Day yet, and certainly the most glamorous; a fantastic event not only for fans but for up and coming creators to see how these established stars all work in unique and individual ways. What will they pull out of the bag next year to top this…
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Mayo
[Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Her hero is Spider Jerusalem, she knows entirely too much about the works of Grant Morrison, and her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.]