Colin Wilson - Quick on the Draw
Colin Wilson - Ozcomics.com Interview - May 2001
From publishing comics on his kitchen table, to illustrating Judge Dredd and working on one of Europe's most famous comics' series, Colin Wilson has enjoyed a unique career on the international comics' stage. Kevin Patrick spoke to the expatriate Kiwi who now calls Australia home.
"I don't think that I ever made the conscious decision to BECOME an artist," says Colin Wilson "Drawing was just something that I always did anyway."
"But actually making a living as a comic artist never occurred to me - it just wasn't a possibility in New Zealand then anyway," he says. "Probably still isn't!"
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1949, Colin says that comics were always a part of his childhood growing up in the 1950s and 60s, thanks largely to his older brother's collection.
"The first titles that I can still remember would have been the Fleetway war stuff - War Picture Library , Battle Picture Library and Air Ace," he remembers.
"I can also recall seeing some issue of Eagle during the '50s that had a Dan Dare story with some really well-drawn giant ants by Frank Bellamy. Beautiful stuff," he says. "Even then it was always the artwork that got me first interested in the story."
Colin received formal training from the Christchurch School of Art during 1967-68, but as he saw it, "art school in those days tended to churn out art teachers and I wasn't interested in doing that."
During his second year of study, Colin began specialising in photography, as well as working as a part-time graphic artist for the local TV station.
"In those days the maps for the evening news were hand-drawn and I used to do three hours a night producing those," says Colin. "I also did things called caption cards, which were names of people being interviewed, which were later superimposed over the footage. Hell, it all sounds so primitive now..."
Colin left his TV station job in 1968 to specialise in motor sports journalism. "At the time I was a huge motor sport fanatic," he says, "and this involved some writing, but mainly design and layout work, in addition to photography."
"It was a great period for NZ motor sport," says Colin, "but unfortunately it didn't last long."
By the mid-1970s, Colin was keeping busy with all sorts of jobs: working part-time in a science-fiction bookshop, laying out a local Auckland newspaper, contributing to the Dunedin Critic university newspaper and drawing the occasional freelance illustration job.
Beginning in 1975, Colin began contributing to the Auckland-based science fiction fanzine Noumenon, which was published by a friend of his.
"I was a huge reader of SF at the time," says Colin, "and started writing a few articles on SF book cover art for Noumenon in my spare time."
"Eventually, I was doing filler illos and other stuff for the zine, which eventually led to the possibility of doing Strips."
What started off as a forum for Colin to publish his own comics eventually sparked off the revival of the contemporary New Zealand comics' scene, which continues to thrive to this day.
Like Australia, New Zealand witnessed a small but flourishing local comics industry during the 1940s and 50s, which saw indigenous titles like Supreme Feature Comics and Bonzer competing with locally published reprints of both Australian and American comic books. Strips, however, was the first locally produced comic seen in New Zealand since the late 1950s.
Debuting in 1977, Strips ran for 22 issues before ceasing publication in 1986. During that time, Strips showcased the first work of some of New Zealand's best contemporary cartoonists, including Kevin Jenkinson (whose work later appeared in the 1980s Australian comic, Reverie) and Dylan Horrocks (who was later published in Australia's Fox Comics before achieving critical acclaim with his 1999 graphic novel, Hicksville.)
Strips also featured a regular column by the late John Ryan, who wrote the pioneering history of Australian comics, Panel by Panel, which was published in 1979. Australian cartoonist and animator Paul Power also contributed the S.F./superhero strip, 'Captain Ozz'.
Colin couldn't have anticipated the impact the comic he co-founded with Terrence Hogan would have on the New Zealand comics' scene.
"It just seemed like a good idea at the time," recalls Colin. "I wanted to draw some comics and there was no one else publishing anything like it at the time, so I started Strips."
"Terrence had a few contacts that he thought might be interested in doing a bit of work, he came up with the title and I had access to the printing press," says Colin. "I used to collate each issue on the kitchen table and send an issue to anyone who was interested."
Strips' unique blend of the underground comix sensibility of the 1960s and 70s, with the technically accomplished stories and artwork of its contributors easily made it the most sophisticated comic of its day - on either side of the Tasman.
"We were lucky," says Colin. "People just kept coming up with interesting stuff. If something looked good, or read well, then it would go in the next issue!"
"It just seemed natural at the time," he adds, "but maybe it was just filling a need that hadn't existed until then."
During his ten-issue stint as the nominal editor, Colin contributed two of his own comics to Strips; a sword-and-sorcery series called 'Chronicle of Spandau' and 'The Sound of Thunder', an unofficial adaptation of the best-selling novel by Wilbur Smith.
"For some strange reason, I was reading Wilbur Smith books at the time - heaven knows why, as I can't handle them now! - and they seemed like ideal stories to draw," says Colin.
'The Sound of Thunder' was set during the 1899-1902 Boer War in South Africa. "I'd never seen any comic stories set in South Africa and the Boer War seemed to me a great situation to base a comic story on," he adds.
Colin's work on Strips brought him to the attention of various local advertising agencies, who commissioned him to produce comics-related advertising artwork.
It also led to his next major comic book assignment, Captain Sunshine, which he produced for Sunshine Watches Ltd. in 1979.
"A bunch of 'new age' businessmen were about to market the next big kiddies' toy, a solar watch," explains Colin. "Part of their strategy was to promote this watch with a character - Captain Sunshine - in his own locally made comic book."
Produced in sumptuous full colour, Colin's Captain Sunshine was easily the most visually impressive comic book produced to date in New Zealand.
"With the amount of money involved, there was no way that Captain Sunshine was ever going to last a long time, unless the solar watch became the hula hoop of the '80s," says Colin. "It didn't and the whole enterprise ended in tears in 1980. By that time, I had completed a second issue, which was never published. I'd love to get my hands on the artwork again, which I've never seen since."
The new decade found Colin eager to explore the wider world. "In New Zealand, you hear about all this fantastic stuff going on, but it's always happening 'somewhere else'," he explains. "So by 1980 it was time to jump on a plane and go see where all these things were supposed to be happening."
Before leaving for overseas, Colin met his future wife Janet, who joined him in England six months later. Theirs is a creative partnership, too. "When we got our first full colour book to do, it only seemed natural that Janet took a shot at doing the colour," says Colin. "It worked and we've kept doing it ever since."
"Originally my idea was to spend some time in London, run out of money and come back to live in Australia," he admits. "But from the very first weeks in London, I was trying to figure out some way of being allowed to stay there."
According to Colin, London in 1981 was a very exciting place to be. British comics were also undergoing a revival, in large part due to the popularity of a relatively new, weekly S.F. comic book, 2000AD and its star attraction, 'Dredd'.
"Strangely enough, I'd never even heard of 2000A.D before I arrived in the UK," admits Colin, "but it was an exciting time."
"Some great artists had made their reputation there, the money was OK and the editorial team were really on the ball," he says.
"My first job for the magazine was thrown my way when the preferred artist for the story couldn't deliver," explains Colin. "I drew the thing, the editor must have liked what he saw and gradually more scripts started to come my way."
"Initially, doing two pages a week was a bit of a strain for me, especially as were living in a completely run-down squat at the time, but it was tremendously exciting," he remembers. "We tried the best we could on each job and one interesting thing just seemed to lead to another."
One of those 'interesting things' was the perennially popular 2000AD serial, 'Rogue Trooper'.
"Dave Gibbons created Rogue Trooper in 1981 as a character designed to exceed the popularity of Judge Dredd in the magazine, even just for one issue," says Colin. "And we almost did it!"
"I was lucky enough to do a lot of work on the early Rogue Trooper stories." After proving himself on 'Rogue Trooper', Colin eventually graduated to illustrating 'Judge Dredd'.
Long before he set foot in England, however, Colin had already been bitten by the French comics bug, or 'la bande dessinee', as comic strips are known in France.
"The first European comics I saw in New Zealand left a huge impression on me, as much for the style of storytelling as the quality of the production," says Colin.
Like their American counterparts, European comics had been undergoing radical changes from the late 1960s onwards, with cartoonists producing increasingly serious works for an adult readership.
Whereas America's underground comix scene had largely fizzled out with the hippie counterculture by the mid-1970s, European comics continued to explore new subjects and creative possibilities.
These included sexually provocative characters like Jean-Claude Forrest's space-age siren, Barbarella (1962) and Italy's Guido Crepax, whose heroine Valentina (1965) underwent increasingly disturbing sexual adventures.
Violent anti-heroes, like Secchi and Raviola's Kriminal (1964) and A. & L. Guissani's Diabolik (1962) , outraged many with their violence an alleged immorality.
Even more significant was the 1975 debut of the French comic magazine Metal Hurlant (literally 'screaming metal'), founded by a group of radical French cartoonists calling themselves Les Humanoides Associes.
This group consisted of Philippe Druillet, Jean-Paul Dionnet, Bernard Farkas and [http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/giraud.htm Jean
Giraud] who, under his 'Moebius' persona, created some of the most visually stunning and conceptually original comic strips of the decade.
The combined impact of their work was far-reaching and extended to America, where many of their stories formed the backbone of the new adult sci-fi and fantasy comic, Heavy Metal , which debuted in 1977.
"[European comics] looked like a much more exciting format to me," explains Colin, "and the stuff being produced by Jean Giraud, Hermann and a lot of the new authors just breaking into the market at that time told me that was where I wanted to be."
"Initially there was no way that I could conceive of working there myself, but as things started to happen for us in London, we wanted to go over to France and see how hard it could be," he says.
Colin and Janet took the plunge and cross the Channel to visit France, initially as tourists. By the time Colin was winding up his two-year stint at 2000AD, he and his wife were already living in Paris and had signed a contact with the French publisher Glenat.
Colin's first European assignment was Dans L'ombre Du Soleil ('In the Shadows of the Sun'), a science fiction series.
"Science fiction was a genre that I was very comfortable with at that time, so it was only natural that I'd head that way with any project for a French publisher," says Colin.
"I wrote the first story and we sold the idea to Glenat on the strength of a limited, three-issue series," he adds. Colin wrote the first installment, Rael, in English, then had it translated into French by a young writer named Frank Giroud.
"They [Glenat] wanted something more longer term," explains Colin, "but I was not too sure if I was capable of making a commitment to an open-ended series."
Living and working in France was not without its challenges, the most daunting being mastering a new language.
"How would a US or UK editor treat someone who arrived in front of them speaking only French, no matter how good his or her work was?" asks Colin.
"So we did our homework," he adds. "Luckily, Janet enjoys languages more than I do, so I kept in the background as much as possible and let Janet do most of the talking!"
When they didn't have their noses buried in French phrase books, Colin and Janet spent much of their first five years in France trying to avoid being booted out of the country by the immigration authorities, while they fought to obtain permission to live in Europe. After five years, they finally won permission to live and work in Belgium, which they could later transfer to France.
In the meantime, Colin's work on Rael had caught the eye of one of the most popular and influential writer-artist teams in European comics - Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud, creators of the long-running Western adventure series, Lieutenant Blueberry .
Long before he had hooked-up with the Metal Hurlant crew, artist Jean Giraud, together with Jean-Michel Charlier, made their name with a gritty American Western story called 'Fort Navajo', starring Lieutenant Blueberry, for the French comic Pilote in 1963.
Blueberry was a roguish U.S. Cavalry officer, initially stationed in New Mexico, whose thirst for fighting and gambling saw him roam the American West with his whisky-guzzling companion, Jimmy McClure.
Displaying an eye for historical detail, breath-taking colour artwork and Giraud's grasp of characters and action, Lieutenant Blueberry became something of a French comic icon, and one of France's most recognisable comic strip exports.
Charlier and Giraud were looking to revive their earlier spin-off series, La Jeunesse de Lt. Blueberry ('The Youth of Lt. Blueberry'), which focussed on their character's adventures during the American Civil War of 1861-65.
"At the time Jean was thinking about moving to Tahiti - which he did a few months later - and from what I gathered, Jean-Michel was worried that Jean would no longer be available to draw Blueberry," says Colin.
The Blueberry team met with Colin and offered him the job to illustrate the new series of La Jeunesse de Lt. Blueberry .
"Meeting then both in Paris and being offered La Jeunesse the same day was a bit overwhelming," Colin recalls, "and initially I said 'no' to the offer!"
"Janet quickly put me right on that score," he adds. "It was a tremendous opportunity, although initially I had hoped that we might get a little more help with the series from Jean [Giraud] than we eventually did."
When asked why he was chosen for this prestigious assignment, Colin says, "although it was never spelt out to me, obviously it was because I got most of what I know about drawing from studying the work of Jean Giraud on Blueberry."
"They (Charlier and Giraud) must have felt I wouldn't present too much of a problem for fans of the series to accept me a 'replacement' artist," he says.
Between 1985-1994, Colin illustrated six volumes of the La Jeunesse series, three with Jean-Michel Charlier and three with Francois Corteggiani, who took over writing the series after Charlier's death in July 1989.
The six books were: Les Demons du Missouri (The Missouri Demons - 1985); La Terreur Sur La Kansas (Terror Over Kansas - 1987); Le Raid Infernale (The Terrible Raid - 1990); La Poursuite Impitoyable (The Chase - 1992); Trois Hommes Pour Atlanta (Three Men for Atlanta - 1993); and Le Prix du Sang (The Price of Blood - 1994).
Working on Blueberry gave Wilson firsthand experience of the vastly different world of the European comics' publishing industry.
"In Europe, the whole industry was considerably more balanced in favour of the authors," he explains. "We retained ownership of what we created, a contract between editor and author detailed the deadlines for delivery, the print run of the books, the royalties payable on every copy sold and any subsequent reprinting of the work."
"That alone gave the author added incentives to do the best job possible - everyone could benefit," adds Colin.
Unlike most English-speaking countries, comics in Europe are regarded as a legitimate popular art form and enjoy widespread public support and recognition.
"Conventions are an altogether different operation for European artists," says Colin. "Although I was scared stiff the first few time that I did book signings, I quickly got to really enjoy these events to meet the people who are actually buying the stuff we produce."
"But the Blueberry character was so popular that I never had a less than chaotic signing," he recalls. "Anyone drawing Blueberry is going to be asked to sign books ANYWHERE in France, but it was getting to be a little too time consuming, so I cut back on it a little."
Colin says that French and Belgian comic conventions "are really something else." He says the biggest event, held at Angouleme in January each year, attracts up to 80,000 visitors and the opening ceremony is normally covered live on television!
Colin's work on the La Jeunesse series came to an end in 1995, as he became entangled in legal disputes with Philippe Charlier, who had assumed control of the series after his father's death in 1989.
"It was clear that he was determined to make as many problems for us with the series as possible," says Colin, "and basically, I just wasn't interested in working with the guy."
Colin and Janet no longer wanted to deal with the pressures associated with working on such a high-profile series as Blueberry and decided to move to Australia to "rediscover the quieter life."
Relocating to Melbourne didn't mean that Colin had hung up his spurs and drawn his last six-shooter! After arriving in Australia, Colin and Janet spent two years working on the 'Special Tex Annual' edition of the popular Italian Western comic strip, Tex Willer.
The American West holds a special fascination for European comic creators and readers alike and Italy's Tex strip is one of the continent's longest-running comic books, debuting in 1948. The series was created by writer Giovanni Bonelli and originally illustrated by Aurelio Galleppini. Tex was a Texas Ranger who freely used his fists and his Colt .45s to keep the peace.
Colin and Janet's 224-page Tex special edition was published by Sergio Bonelli Editore in 2000. During this time Colin also branched out into website design, commercial illustration "and anything else that came along."
Two years ago, 2000AD came calling once again, with the then-editor tracking down Colin to see if he would be interested in receiving most of the original artwork he'd created for them back in the early 1980s!
This exchange led to an offer for Colin to contribute new stories to the magazine. "While finishing off Tex, I did a couple of short stories for 2000AD," he says. "We found that it would be fun to work together again and we've taken it from there."
Colin's first major assignment for 2000AD was a ten-part mini-series called 'Rain Dogs', set in a flooded, post-apocalyptic New York City. The series was reprinted in album format for the European market, where it has become a best seller - no doubt because of the continued popularity of Colin's artwork.
His latest work for 2000AD is a new series called 'Tor Cyan', which is based on the early '80s hit feature, 'Rogue Trooper' - which Colin first worked on nearly twenty years ago!
Colin has been able to maintain his 'European' comics' career long-distance from Australia, based on his professional reputation and the contacts he made while living overseas, along with the ease of communication made possible by the Internet.
"I can receive a six-page 'Dredd' script from 2000AD via email, start work on it the same day, and have the coloured art delivered via CD-ROM with about three weeks," he claims.
"During that time I'd expect to email (low resolution, JPEG image files) of the pages to both the editor and the writer, which allows them time to make any corrections to the script and have the lettering files ready when the CD arrives."
After working for both English and European publishers for well over twenty years, Colin reckons that the entire comic industry is undergoing "one of its frequent crises," a situation he partly attributes to greater competition for readers' dollars from other forms of entertainment.
"The business has got to make more of an effort to discover, then hold on to, a new audience," he argues.
"Unfortunately, many editors seem to now regard the comics they produce as mere merchandising spin-offs, rather than a core product that is capable of generating new readers," says Colin.
"But traditionally, most comic editors have been interested in short-term gains rather than longer-term investment in the comics genre as a whole," he says. "Luckily the current 2000AD gang appear to be one of the few exceptions."
Text © Kevin Patrick - thepanthercomic.com
- For a concise history of New Zealand comics, see: Harrison, Geoff (October 1983), 'Kiwi Comics', The Australian Comic Collector, No.4
In early 2005 comics.org.nz and Colin did a catch-up interview to see what had happened since 2001.
Q: In early 2002 you mentioned to Kevin that you had signed on with Wildstorm in the States to produce Point Blank, a limited series graphic novel, written by Ed Brubaker, drawn and inked by yourself and coloured by Janet. How did you get involved with that project?
Point Blank was one of those jobs that just came out of the blue. At the time, funnily enough, I was on a couple of months holiday in France, visiting old friends with my family. Actually, I was working, the rest of the family was on holiday! One of my major interests was to get over to London to visit the 2000AD guys, and talk with the (then) editor Andy Diggle about getting Tor Cyan back on track. When I began work on the character a year or two earlier I had hoped that the stories would get back to using some of the sf war/anti-war themes that the old Rogue Trooper character should have ran with, but hadn't. Science Fiction isn't much of a genre if its all just space opera shoot-'em-ups or, shudder, aliens, and there was enough interesting elements already involved with the Tor Cyan character to take the series in some interesting directions. I thought so anyway, and wanted to sound out Andy in person.
But the Wildstorm guys contacted me about Point Blank, and I thought that it would be an interesting project to get some of my work in front of US comic readers. Initially I was only second in line for the job - I was told they were trying to get Rich Corben(!) to handle the art - but by the time I got back to Melbourne we had sorted things out and I was off and running. Just in time for September 11!
Q: What appealed to you about the project?
To be honest, the idea of doing something for the American market, and the chance to work with Ed Brubaker. And the story sounding intriguing too. I was never going to try my hand at Superheroes, Ed promised me that there was very little Superhero involvement with the story, and after several sf years I had been itching to do something more 'crime'.... what the French call "policier".
Q: Was wildstrom happy with how the series was received?
I've got no idea. Wildstorm and Ed loved the work, but I have no idea of how the public received the mini-series. And from what I gather, in the States sales are everything. Sell well and you are in...... if not, then there is always something else coming down the line. I've never really got a good grasp of the US comic market. Anything with spandex and capes seems to sell, but it's a lot more difficult to get anything different off the ground. And unless you are a very big name, you can forget author originated stuff these days it seems. The market just ain't there.... or at the very least the Publishers are not prepared to invest in anything that they don't own. It makes it all rather hard, and these days a lot of authors are looking towards the Euro approach with interest......
Q: You moved on to working on Du Plomb Dans la T'te (Action Speaks Louder Than Words), written by Matz, the writer Le Tueur.
Matz and I will probably use Headshot as the series title when we finally get an English language version up and running, as Du Plomb has a few subtleties of meaning (in French) that "Actions Speak...." doesn't quite address. On the surface it is a crime series, but in fact I think that it is more of a "Buddy" story, as the relationships between all the main characters is really more important than solving the 'crime' elements of the story. A US Senator is assassinated in a compromising position, and the series follows the two Killers and the two NYPD Officers who are trying to hunt them down.
Du Plomb has been chugging along at my usual Euro speed - one 54 page album a year - and so far two books in the series have been published in Europe. No English editions so far, unfortunately, although we are working on it!
But just for a change of scenery, I've (very) recently put Du Plomb III to one side and taken on a three issue fill-in arc on The Losers, a Vertigo series by Andy Diggle and Jock. Since that trip to London that I mentioned earlier Andy and I have always wanted to get together on something, and The Losers is the first collaboration that will reach print. I've always loved Jock's work since the first stuff that I saw of his in 2000AD (do you spot some sort of theme here?) so I jumped at the chance of helping out on the Losers. I've never in my wildest nightmares imagined myself capable of handing 22 pages a month before, but so far it is working, and I'm also having a hell of a lot of fun.
My three issues (#26-27-28) will appear mid-year. Du Plomb III is due January '06.
Q: What's the division of labour in the work that you and Janet do, and what is the secret for a long term creative partnership?
I don't really think that there is a secret to working together. It is simply that we compliment each other on so many things, and her colour work was a hell of a lot better than I could ever manage!
Funnily enough, we no longer work together, at least as far as comics go. Janet was never really happy about the transition from 'blues' - the technique for colouring comics used in Europe at the time - to computer colouring. Apart from the physical side of things - sitting in front of a computer screen for 8 hours a day shouldn't be forced on anyone! - the feel just wasn't there. She was also not exactly delighted with the more violent aspects of the stories that I am involved with these days.
For Du Plomb I have asked Chris Blythe to handle the colour, and so far it is working out really well. Chris is, at least in my view, the best of the 2000AD colourists, and he has been doing some tremendous work on Du Plomb.
Q: Mainstream media in New Zealand have started to pay attention to your work and your status as a major success in the world of comics - what's your take on this new awareness of your work?
Has it? Tell me about it! And I'm not really sure about this 'major success in the world of comics' bit either. With almost all of my work appearing in Europe, and not in English, I have long since discovered that I am quite happy working away on the edges of the business, and that the medium will never really be taken seriously by the media 'mainstream' , at least in the English language world. I had my moment of fun doing Blueberry for 10 years in France. There they take their comics very seriously indeed, and getting to bask in the Blueberry glow for a few years was quite enough for me!
For a limited catalogue of Colin's French publications, check out www.bulledair.com