Summer of Indie: Interview – Graham Pearce

Recently I got the chance to ask Graham Pearce, one of the country’s best Small Press cretors, some questions about his life as a comic creator and about his awesome creation “Sgt Mike Battle”.

SGT MIKE BATTLE Volume 1 is out now and collects the first 7 issues of Sgt. Mike Battle: The Greatest American Hero! For only £12 for 280 b+w pages with a fantastic, freedom-loving colour cover. For more information, visit www.sgtmikebattle.co.uk

When and why did you begin writing?

I’ve always had an over-active imagination and have been drawing superheroes for as long as I can remember but the moment that made me want to create and write my own characters was the formation of Image Comics back in the early 1990s. I was really excited when I heard of this new company with brand new characters and it inspired me to invent some superheroes. I spent the next 5 years creating several hundred characters that existed in their own entire universe, with its own Golden, Silver and Modern age eras, that had epic crossovers where I would kill off the big name characters and would have new heroes take up their mantles. It was really enjoyable at the time but I cringe when I go back to my notes and sketches. Most of the characters were blatant rip-offs of existing heroes so I could never go back and re-use anything now!

What Comics have most influenced your life and work most?

The first comic I loved as a child was Action Force, which was a Marvel UK reprint of GI Joe. There were a lot of comics based on toy licenses in the late 1980s but Action Force was always my favourite. I pretty much learnt to draw by copying artists like Geoff Senior, Kev Hopgood, Rod Whigham and a very young Bryan Hitch. Lew Stringer’s Combat Colin cartoon strip appeared in most issues of Action Force and was also a huge influence. I think I learnt about comedy, wordplay and timing from Combat Colin than anywhere else. Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon is another influence and is the most consistently enjoyable comic I’ve ever read. Larsen has the creative freedom to do whatever he wants, which makes it so unpredictable. I’ve never read a book that kills off so many characters. The characters also age in real time which makes it even more interesting. I also need to mention the Simpsons spin-off Radioactive Man, which is hilarious and its fake publication history was a big influence on Sgt. Mike Battle: The Greatest American Hero!

What inspired you to create Sgt Mike Battle?

Sgt Mike Battle was inspired by the movie U-571, which told the historically inaccurate story of some American sailors who hijacked a German submarine and stole an Enigma machine. It caused a lot of anger in the British press because in reality the Enigma machine was captured by British sailors and it offended a lot of people. The film made me want to do a story that satirized Hollywood rewriting history so I chose to condense WW2 into a 6-page story with a kick-ass American soldier storming the Normandy beaches and running all the way to Berlin to kill Hitler. I needed a ridiculous name and remembered “Mike Battle”, who was a Golden Age superhero I invented in my superhero universe but he was nothing more than a name and a brief sketch. I changed his look so that he didn’t resemble Nick Fury but didn’t realise that he ended up looking like Duke from Action Force/GI Joe instead. I completed the first Sgt Mike Battle strip and enjoyed it so much that I quickly wrote 4 sequel stories set at Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and the Gulf War. Initially I had no plans to print the stories myself but then I discovered Small Press comics and decided to collect everything into the self-published Sgt. Mike Battle: The Greatest American Hero #1. Ten years later I’ve done 16 issues, 3 ashcans mini comics, 1 trade paperback and drawn 600+ pages starring the guy.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your comic?

There isn’t much that I would change apart from the lettering in issue #1. It really is awful. The balloons are too wide and the outlines are all hand drawn. I can’t change it because the balloons are stuck onto the artwork. Other than that I wouldn’t change a thing. Every decision I’ve made and every choice I’ve taken, whether right or wrong, is something I’ve learnt from and I hope they have all gone toward making the next issue even better.

What can potential readers expect to get out of Sgt Mike Battle?

I hope that they will find it laugh-out-loud funny! I have a challenge at conventions and invite anyone to pickup any issue, turn to any page and try to read it without laughing. I offer the challenge because there are so many jokes in each issue and because there are so many different types of jokes which should appeal to all senses of humour. Some jokes are visual, people often find those as they are flicking through to find a page to read and others are hidden within the dialogue. The jokes that I write fall into 3 categories. Firstly there are a lot of jokes about comic characters and storylines which appeal to comic fans familiar with the source material but are still funny in their own right. The best examples would be issues #4 and #6 which spoof Action Force/GI Joe with Sgt Mike Battle leading Battle Force against PANDA, #7 which spoofs the Image books from the early 1990s with the Sarge leading BATTLEBLOOD and then there is #12-14 which is a homage to Jim Steranko Nick Fury and James Bond.

Sgt Mike Battle, vol 1 Cover Artwork

Secondly there are jokes about Hollywood movies and I like to play around with action movie clichés. The Last Admin Hero storyline from issues #8-10 is the best example of a Hollywood spoof where terrorists hijack a US weapons facility and the only person who can save the day is an office worker armed only the contents of a stationery cupboard.

Thirdly there are a lot of jokes about politics, history and world events. Most of these jokes are made with the benefit of hindsight and are horribly inaccurate, Hollywood versions of history that offer a completely different version of events from what the rest of the world accepts as fact. The best examples of these would be #11 which shows Sgt Mike Battle go after Osama Bin Laden in Dec 2001, there’s #15 which shows how Sgt Mike Battle captured Saddam Hussein and #16 which shows how Sgt Mike Battle saved the Brits at Dunkirk, wins the Battle of Britain, saves London from the Blitz, stops the Nazi Invasion and then helps the king overcome his speech impediment!

Sgt Mike Battle #14 Cover Artwork

I love writing jokes but am also trying to get more into the comic. I’ll write a lot of jokes in the script but will write even more as I’m drawing. It’s great being both the writer and artist because I can always add more jokes into the story at any stage. If I was writing for another artist then I would annoy them by constantly adding more jokes, but at the moment I can adjust the occasional panel if a joke comes to me or if I think of a better one.

I’m a big fan of wordplay and love inventing funny names for characters like Shapely Charms, Roger Knightly and Dick Action or even organisations like the fast food chain VonBurger, the terrorist group A.C.R.O.N.Y.M or the US Intelligence organisation S.T.A.R.S  A.N.D  S.T.R.I.P.E.S!

What was the hardest part of writing Sgt Mike Battle?

The hardest part is being my own editor. I find it very hard to step back and be objective about what I’m writing or drawing. At the time I come up with an idea/joke I think it is the best thing ever but 2 weeks later I think it’s awful. I find it very hard to work out if I’m being self-indulgent or overly-critical and it’s not something that I can ask other people for advice.

It’s also a struggle to decide on what story to do next. An issue can take up to 4 months to work on, so it has to be a story that I really want to tell but then I have to be mindful of what sort of story would readers like to see. It’s no good wanting to do a 1950s romance comic because I can’t imagine that ANY readers would want to read it. That said, I try to avoid second-guessing what the readers do want because they all seem to like different aspects of the book. If I asked 5 readers them which was their favourite issue, I’d probably get 5 different answers. The best thing I can do is tell the story that interests me and hope that it will interest readers as well.

Are you currently working on any other projects?

There are 2 projects that are taking most of my time at the moment. One is the trade paperback collection of the Last Admin Hero storyline from issues #8-10. Last year I collected issues #1-7 into Sgt Mike Battle Volume 1, a 300-page trade paperback and it was so easy to do that I want to print everything as a proper book. I’ve been meaning to collect Last Admin Hero into a single book ever since I finished the last page of artwork and I have a lot of ‘DVD extras’ to go into the book as well. I’ve got a 10-page preview “trailer”, an alternate ending, a load of pin-ups and the original unpublished 24-page version which I abandoned in favour of the 80-page version. I hope to have that published in November 2011.

Sgt Mike Battle, vol 2 Cover Artwork

I’m also writing and doing layouts for issue #17 which is called Star-Spangled Wars. As the name suggests, it will retell Star Wars: Episode IV but set on Earth. I can’t say any more about it but it will be unlike any Star Wars homage you’ll ever see!!

Star Spangled Wars

I’m usually working simultaneously on 4 or 5 Sgt Mike Battle stories. Its sound a lot scarier than it is but each of those ideas will be different stages of development. Some will be very new and I’ll just been brainstorming ideas whenever I feel inspired, whilst others will be much closer to being to being illustrated. The projects that are in development are Last Admin Hero 2 although I’ve written about 5 different storylines and can’t decide which one to go with. I’ve got two 1950s Indiana Jones-esque stories called Sgt Mike Battle and the Nazi Flying-Saucers from Antarctica and Sgt Mike Battle at the Centre of the Earth, I might do a story about how the Sarge killed Bin Laden and then there’s The Death of Sgt. Mike Battle which I’ll probably do in issue #25.

Aside from Sgt Mike Battle, I’m working on a few other projects. One is an idea that I’m developing with an artist that we’d like to pitch to The Phoenix and the other is a top-secret shared universe project with some other Small press creators!!!

Are you appearing at any conventions in the next 12 months?

I will be at Thought Bubble in November which will be the first time it’s been a 2 day event. I’m really looking forward to it. I should be at Bristol in May 2012 which will see the return of the Train shed as the venue for the convention hall. I expect to be at a few other cons next year like Glasgow and possibly Manchester MCM but they haven’t been announced at the moment.

Do you have any advice for other aspiring small press writers and artists?

If you want to be a small press writer then write. If you want to be a small press artist then draw. The more you do the better you will get! Show people your work and listen to that feedback. Keep writing and drawing because you will get better with every page. Eventually you will be good enough that people will want to work with you. If you can’t find a collaborator then have a go at writing AND drawing yourself. A good story, even if it is told with stickmen, will still be a good story. If you can’t write then redraw a story from an existing comic! If you are lucky enough to be able to write and draw then get on and make your small press comic. Whatever your skills, you can make a comic if you really want to. The only thing stopping you is YOU!

I’d like to thank Graham for taking the time to answer my questions and I encourage you all to order his books!

GS Interviewer: Matt Pease

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