2000AD 1700 interview #4 – Ben Willsher

This week sees the release of 2000AD issue (or “prog” to the faithful) 1700.
As with previous issue 100’s this is down as a jumping on prog so every story is a part one, suitable for new readers looking to give 2000AD a try. To make the most of this I’ve nabbed a few quick Q&A’s with some of prog 1700′s contributors.

Next in line we have artist on prog 1700’s Judge Dredd story, Ben Willsher

So your strip in prog 1700 is Judge Dredd : The Skinning Room. What can you tell us about that?

The Story follows Dredd (as the newly instated Council of Five member) and his draconian crackdown on Megacity.

But that’s not all… just who is the Mysterious Mr. Skinner who lives at number 22390B? -Only the latest fashion victim really knows.

This story is written by John Wagner, Dredd’s creator. How does it feel working on one of his scripts? Is it a different dynamic from working with creators who…. well, who aren’t John Wagner?

I have been extremely lucky, and have worked with some amazing comic writers over the years: Alan Grant, Gordon Rennie, Al Ewing, Alec Worley, and even ex-Tharg himself, Andy Diggle (on something which may, or may not see the light one day), to name a few; but there’s something really special about a Wagner script, not least because it means it is a Dredd script, which is very special in itself. John is like an alchemist, he manages to bottle lightning, and create gold from nothing more than a Word document (and loads of other amazing mixed metaphors, that I cannot think of right now). His story telling is very crisp and succinct, but it’s always epic and has a filmic quality. This is reflected in his scripts too, as they structurally feel more like screenplays, than comic prose. The beauty of his writing is he’s very artist friendly- He only ever gives you the visual bullet points you need, for example: “panel 4: Dredd approaches a Man (looks like a commercial traveller) sitting on park bench.” Or something similar, whereas someone like Alan Moore, will give you about 4 pages on the graffiti scratched into the bench, and the social upbringing of the vandal that did it. Both ways are brilliant, but Wagner focuses on capturing that moment in time, and concentrating on the story and dialogue.  He makes it look simple, but if you study and analysis his scripts in any depth, you soon realise that they’re anything but simple. I think this really comes across when you read any of his work; you’re not reading a comic, you’re watching a film, and I’ll put money down that it’s better than any movie playing on the screens right now. Seriously, the man is a phenomenon. We’re very lucky that Hollywood hasn’t snatched him away from us.

As 1700 is a jumping on prog, would you say The Skinning Room was accessible to new readers who may only have seen the old Stallone movie?

It’s just like the film version. He removes his helmet in the first 3 panels, then stomps around saying “I Nuuuuuuuuu, you’d say tha’!” before kissing Maria the house keeper in episode 5. Well, maybe not…

The great thing about Dredd, is that he’s probably the magazines most accessible character, and therefore, so is his world and their stories. He has this sort of shorthand of being an Anti-hero, neo-fascist, lawman of the future, which does help in instantly getting a handle on the tone and environment of any given story, and as such, means you can probably jump into most stories (even if it’s in the middle of a run) and soon be up to speed with what’s happening. This is all thanks to the sterling work that both John Wagner and Pat Mills originally put in to creating what is in fact a fully fleshed out, multi-layered character who inhabits and even more complex world. So, if you’ve not read Dredd before, then you should, it’s bloody brilliant! …And this isn’t a bad place to start. It has it all: politics, death, the odd robot and nudity.

From the page of inks you sent me from the third part (sorry guys, cant share it) the story seems pretty dark. Without giving anything away, how do you handle stories like this when drawing for a book where you cant go too crazy with the violence?

Oh you’re such a tease… No, don’t show them, make them wait for it. It’s worth it I promise!

Actually, the script is pretty dark, and fairly gruesome in several places; so I just ran with it, and  hoped that Tharg/Matt didn’t come back saying, “What the Splundig are you Vurgle thinking? I can’t fucking print that, Thrigg!” and luckily, he hasn’t so far. However, in my defence, it’s all in the script, so don’t shoot the art droid. A lot of the time you do have an in-built censor, and you do tend to rein yourself in, but, it would have been quite tough to have held back with this script; although I’m sure I could have gone further. Maybe next time?

I’ve been loving your covers work, though not as much as the wife and “Small Press Big Mouth”s Stacey Whittle who both got a bit hot and bothered by your Johnny Alpha “Righteous kill” cover. Do you have a preference between cover and sequential work, and it is weird seeing your artwork on the shelf at Tesco?

I have all my food delivered by Ocado, so I miss that treat. No, there is something truly amazing and gratifying about seeing your work actually staring back at you from the shelves. And I’m guessing not one artist hasn’t gone into WHSmiths (other high street newsagents are available) and ‘double shelved’ their art; which is stacking another copy of  your own magazine over the nearest or rival magazine. So this week’s Country Life and Heat magazine sales will be down in the Davis-Hunt area of the country 😉

Anyway, to answer the first part of that question, it’s a bit like what they say about having two children, I genuinely love both and don’t have a favourite. I was going to say “I love doing both”, but that could have been taken in such the wrong way. The only real benefit of doing a cover is you have more time to lavish on a single picture, a luxury which isn’t really possible in comics unless you get a splash page, and it’s something which is even rarer in a 2000AD as you are usually limited to 5 or 6 pages. That said, there is a splash page coming up in one of the episodes of the Skinning Room, so I have been a lucky boy this year.

Cheers for the kind words. I’m so pleased the covers have gone down so well, especially with the ladies. Well, isn’t that why we all get into the comic industry for the chicks? Or am I thinking of something else???  I’ll make you a Johnny Alpha mask as a special surprise for the wife.

How do you approach covers? Are you given specifics or just a character and told to come up with something that’ll jump off the shelves?

It really depends, as sometimes Matt Smith has something very definite in mind that he’s wanting, and it’s just up to me to make that picture come alive. A good case in point is the ‘Dog’sLife’ cover for prog 1689, Matt knew he wanted a head and shoulders shot of Johnny in his body armour and helmet, but instead of a face, he wanted a skull. That is an absolute copper-bottom genius idea straight from the thrill centre that is Matt’s brain-that’s why he’s Tharg, and we’re not!  The rest of the time we’re allotted a character and left to our own devices (or sometimes, just our ‘vices’) to have fun, and hopefully come up with the goods.

Aside from 2000AD you’ve also done a lot of Doctor Who work. Who is your favourite Doctor & villain to draw? I would ask about assistant but any answer other than Amy Pond would be wrong.

You not an Adric, or Bonnie Langford fan then?  Ahhh yes, Amy Pond, If I was the Doctor, I’d also show her something that felt bigger on the inside… My TARDIS I mean, obviously!

Tom Baker was my Doctor, and he’s also my favourite to draw. All Teeth and curls as Jon Pertwee once put it. But most of them are pretty easy to draw as most of them have very strong features, or “ugly Bastards” as David Tennant jokingly once said to me at a friends’ wedding.  As for villains, there’s something magical about Roger Delgado (he was the first and best Master), although I think the Cybermen are my all-time favourite Villain. The funniest Doctor Who creature I’ve ever had to draw is Erato who appeared in ‘Creature from the Pit’. Google it, it’s hilarious. For all the Swedish speakers out there, they will know that the word Pitt means something very rude, and that’s exactly what the creature looks like in this episode.

Looking through your website I noted a very cool animation concept for Strontium Dog. Is that just wishful thinking (he asks with his fingers crossed)?

I’m afraid that was done merely for my own amusement. Although, I would kill to do an animated series, or even a one off comic in that style. Tharg, what do you think? It is a crime that no one has picked Strontium Dog up that as a film license, it is the summer Blockbuster we’re all waiting for; and if I had a spare $35 million, I’d be funding it tomorrow.

Last one then… What other cool stuff have you got lined up and where can people check out more of your work?

Several things in the pipeline, some I can’t talk about because I’m not allowed, and some because it’s far too early at this stage. But, you can find my regular review illustrations in each month’s issue of Doctor Who Magazine. I’m also doing a few covers for the second series of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who Audios called ‘Demon’s Quest’

Other work includes graphics for Mark Gatiss’ ‘First men in the Moon’ film, that will be screening very soon on BBC4 (I even make a guest appearance in it, so keep them peeled- good luck with that “where’s Wally” game). And Noel Clarke (Writer and Director of Adult/Kidulthood, and, and maybe better known to readers as Mickey Smith from Doctor Who) and I are trying to develop a project as we speak. So watch this space. I also hope to be doing more 2000AD strips, Tharg willing.

Cheers Ben.

Cheers Rich!

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