Dave Elliott is a man who knows comics. Co-founder of ATOMEKA PRESS in 1988, alongside Garry Leach, Dave has seen it all in comics and rode the wave from the boom in the 1990’s, through the crash of the industry and back around again to today’s resurgence. Sitting down to talk to Dave about comics, one cannot help but feel like Luke Skywalker, learning of the force from Obi Wan. There is an infectious passion in Dave’s voice when he speaks about comics, an excitement for the future, and as an artist, writer, editor, and creator, you can only expect that Dave will be at the forefront of the next wave of innovation.
THE WEIRDING WILLOWS is one of my favorite comics. Set in a world where classic literary figures co-exist, Dave Elliott weaves an epic fantasy filled with engaging and relatable characters. The central protagonist, Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland series, is a strong female lead, beautiful, smart, brave, and rebellious. Instantly likeable and reminded me of all the qualities of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I fell in love with as a teen. The pieces of the worlds all fit together in such a way that makes perfect sense. Of course Doctor Moreau created the Wicked Witch’s Flying Monkeys, and of course Mowgli is from the same bloodline as Doctor Doolittle. The art of Barnaby Bagenda and Sam Basri make the series a true work of art and the character designs create a fresh spin on these well-established and beloved creations. It is a fun ride, and for only 99 cents on ComiXology, and loaded with back matter, it is hard to find a better bargain for your entertainment dollar.
MONSTER MASSACRE from TITAN comics is also a fantastic read. For those of you that know me, I love Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, and long for the days where one could spend hours staring at a Frank Frazetta and getting lost in your own imagination. MONSTER MASSACRE does a great job capturing the feel of that pulp style Heavy Metal story, with artwork and stories from some of the biggest names in comics.
Do yourself a favor and check out http://monstermassacre.keenspot.com for free content from some of the great works by Dave Elliott, who sat down with Comic Crusaders and talks about his experiences as a creator over 27 years of making comics, the qualities of what makes a good comic book editor, and his love of all things Jack Kirby.
FM: LETS START AT THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS AND HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY?
DE: I think the initial seed of working in comics was somewhere between saying “Momma” for the first time and realizing Marilyn, a red-headed girl with green eyes and six years older than me when I was 11, wasn’t going to notice me.
Seriously though, I grew up with comics all around me. My older brother was into them before me but stopped when he realized he didn’t have to buy them anymore because I was buying everything. My mum said I used to chew on his comics when I was a baby. Legend also has it I was drawing long before writing. As I had so many comics it was easy to look at things to copy.
My art teachers at school were very supportive of my wanting to draw comics. Two of them were huge Silver Surfer and Fantastic Four fans. When I got to college interviews it was all about trying to persuade me to pursue other artistic avenues so I actually graduated with a degree in Printmaking and Illustration.
I got into the industry sort of by a half accident. I’d done some work doing storyboards and animation design work but was frustrated that I couldn’t see anything through to the end, everyone was just one cog in the machine and I couldn’t see the whole machine. After some weird detours, I ended up starting my own greeting card and postcard company. It was actually quite easy to start going, I had a rather bizarre set of cards on offer. The most successful was a series of mash-ups of my friends, drawn partying against images of war, those and my horror cards for any occasion. The best seller was of a young boy waking up on Christmas morning, eyes wide in wonder and surprise, arms outstretched to the end of his bed. When you opened the card you could see his parents severed heads were in his Christmas stocking at the end of his bed with Santa holding a bloody ax in the doorway.
I wanted to expand more and thought comic book stores would be a great natural place for them. The reception was good and in one store where the owner ran a publishing business out of his basement, it led to a job editing and art directing a comic line.
FM: CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? IS IT MARVEL STYLE OR FULL SCRIPT?
DE: It is totally different from project to project and artist to artist. Most times I discuss ideas thoroughly with any collaborator. I want to make sure the project is something that will keep an artist’s enthusiasm through the run.
As examples of “Marvel style” writing look at things I have done like FENRIS with Dave Wilkins and MAXIMUM FORCE with Simon Bisley, where we discussed things beforehand and then I gave them a very light script to draw upon and then did a full dialogue script when they had finished the art. Similarly with SHARKY, Alex Horley and myself would geek about our favorite comics and then I would ask Alex what he wanted me to include so he’d have the most fun. It’s a similar way to how Neil Gaiman did Sandman by asking the artists what they would like to draw.
With THE WEIRDING WILLOWS, with Sami Basri and Barnaby Bagenda, and ODYSSEY, with Garrie Gastonny, I had already fleshed out long storylines and universes beforehand so on these projects I went to full script. In every case I try to make sure the artist has some flexibility. If they see a better way to communicate something I’ve written I urge them to take it.
FM: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A COMIC BOOK WRITER AND ARTIST? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED OR PERHAPS A MISTAKE YOU MADE THAT YOU WOULD SUGGEST ANOTHER CREATOR ENTERING INTO INDEPENDENT COMICS DO DIFFERENTLY?
DE: Hard to say because things always change and the way to enter the industry now is more difficult, or just completely different, than it was when I entered. It is easier to avoid some of the mistakes we used to make now because of blogs and social media. I’d loved to have just been able to tweet to a creator for advice like you can now.
However I was very lucky as a kid in that I found Dave Gibbons and Mike McMahon’s studio number in the phone book and cold called it. Dave was really very nice and said if I came over he’d look at my portfolio. He tore it to pieces in the nicest possible way and instead of giving up, his talk inspired me to push on.
FM: IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO A CREATOR LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET?
DE: Don’t wait to be hired by a company. Just find someone to collaborate with and start producing work together, or if you can do it all, do it yourself and then post it to DeviantArt or Facebook for feedback. Start your own website and post the comic for free on a regular basis. It’s the best way to get exposure.
The economy has hit the comics industry along with publishers wanting better bottom lines. Publishers don’t get the resources they used to have. Editors don’t have the luxury of time to educate upcoming talent nowadays. Go back to Chris Claremont’s great run on X-Men and you’ll find great editors like Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti having great input, not forgetting John Byrne’s ideas. Nowadays the pressure is on the writer to either come up with most of the ideas by themselves, or try to make sense of executives ever shifting ideas and thoughts on where the books should be on that particular day, with editors relegated to traffic managers.
People don’t realize that for publishers to make the same money they used to they have to publish more titles with less staff. Your own efforts will be the best calling card. You really have to hit the ground running.
FM: YOU HAVE QUITE A FEW ANTHOLOGIES TO YOU CREDIT. WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE EDITING ANTHOLOGIES AND WHAT ARE THE REWARDS AND CHALLENGES?
DE: Personally, I love the experimental nature of a good anthology. It allows creators to break away from what people are used to seeing from them. It is a more flexible format. If I have 160 pages the creator can tell the story they want to in the exact page count the story needs rather than forcing a 20-page story into 6 pages.
FM: ANTHOLOGIES VERSUS LIMITED OR ONGOING SERIES, WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF EACH AND WHICH WOULD YOU SUGGEST FOR A CREATOR LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS?
DE: Anthologies were traditionally a great way to break into comics years ago. In Europe the anthology was pretty much the only comic form to work for. The majority were weekly with strips anywhere from 1 to 6 pages. My personal favorites had a balance of one-off strips and serialized stories.
Nowadays there is almost no place left to find yourself, other than self publishing. Depending on your style and tastes as an artist, there are differing venues for your work. Several new anthologies have appeared on Kickstarter that really should be reaching a wider audience but are meeting a resistance at the retail level. I’ve been told many times that “Anthologies don’t sell” often by retailers who order one copy and it is put end out on a shelf six feet up. That is a bit of a generalization but not by too far. The bigger publishers have abandoned the format and therefore that audience has lost an appreciation for them.
I’d hate for it to ever be a choice between one format or another. In anthologies I can experiment on an idea before doing the full series. The artist can get to play with the visual style before committing to a certain way.
FM: WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU SAY MAKES FOR A GOOD EDITOR?
DE: A good editor for Marvel and DC comics? Get the books out on time and make sure no one deviates from what Dan, Jim and John say they can do. Occasionally try to get a better story out of the creators you’re working with as long as it isn’t late.
If you’re working for a corporation your job is to keep the characters and book in line with whatever the rest of the company is doing with them. If you’re lucky you can get a creative team that is allowed to guide the characters with more freedom. Your job is to help them get the best story out onto the page. Most creators understand and value having a good editor that can suggest changes to script and art. Some creators and even publishers just view editors as the person who just collects their creators work together and makes sure they get paid and the book ships on time.
I’ve been fortunate to work with many creators where time wasn’t always a pressure and we worked on producing the best book possible. That means getting to know the creators well enough that you know when to suggest ideas or when to ask for changes. I feel the best editors usually have experience of writing or drawing or both. It really helps to be able to fully understand what you are asking of a creator when you make changes or ask them to draw a book in two weeks instead of the usual four. I’ve worked with editors who have asked for something to be turned around over a vacation that they have off but you’re expected to work through. I can’t do that to people. Probably why I would never be happy at DC or Marvel.
Editors aren’t ‘editors’ anymore. The likes of Archie Goodwin and Julie Schwartz are no more. But then publishing companies have had to make cutbacks so that means more titles by fewer editors. Books don’t sell half a million copies anymore so they can’t justify having extra staff. It used to be the editor would take creators out to long lunches where they would discuss direction over a leisurely meal or extended coffee. Now it is short and sharp Skype calls. They can’t afford to spend the time grooming the next generation of creators like they used to.
FM: I LOVED WEIRDING WILLOWS! SUCH A COOL CONCEPT AND A GREAT TAKE ON CLASSIC LITERARY CHARACTERS. WHERE DID THE INSPIRATION COME FROM FOR THAT STORY?
DE: I’d long wanted to do a series of projects where the concept is that all the characters stories take place in the same world. When I was young my friends and I would pretend that all the Marvel and DC characters existed in the same world but due to rights issues couldn’t appear in each others books. So WW started out along those lines.
When you go back and read these books, and most of them I hadn’t reread since childhood, you find big holes in them. Not necessarily plot or story holes, but world holes. It seemed that many of the characters and their histories had been developed enough just to tell the story the writer had in mind and nothing else. Very similar to how many screenplay writers write film scripts, little or no character, just enough to tell the story.
So I started to fill those spaces and flesh out the characters and the world more. It then made sense to make references to other characters in those histories, even making some characters related to one another. For example I decided that re-evaluating Alice’s character and the way she acts in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, it would make sense that her laid back response to much of what she experiences in Wonderland could be explained if what she was seeing wasn’t that strange to her. If her father was say, Doctor Moreau, she might well have seen far stranger creatures before.
As the characters stories and the universe came together it was then just a matter of where to start.
FM: CAN YOU TEASE A FEW THINGS FROM THE UPCOMING WEIRDING WILLOWS STORYLINE? WHAT CAN FANS EXPECT TO SEE FROM ALICE AND COMPANY IN THE FUTURE?
DE: Volume two opens with several of the characters at the Peace Festival Market, a holiday one day a year where all the denizens of the 7 worlds can come to Earth and trade. We find out a little about the conflicts that have formed between the worlds of Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, Mars, Pellucidar and Elysium, as well as friendships and partnerships.
The main story features an old college friend of Doctor Moreau’s coming back to get help from him. Turns out Moreau’s house belongs to Professor Lambert and didn’t think he’d be back, but his family is in trouble in Willow Weir and he needs help. The Morlocks have his wife and kids so they just have to travel over 800,000 years into the future to save them.
We’ll also find out who Alice’s mum is and meet Peter Pan’s father and brother.
FM: MONSTER MASSACRE IS AN AWESOME ANTHOLOGY SERIES AND HAS A VERY “HEAVY METAL” FEEL TO IT. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PUT THIS ANTHOLOGY TOGETHER AND WHERE DID YOU FIND SUCH TALENTED CREATORS TO WORK WITH?
DE: I created the first MONSTER MASSACRE with my Atomeka co-creator Garry Leach. It was published at Atomeka/Tundra UK alongside ‘Ammo Armageddon’ and ‘Carnosaur Carnage’. The idea was to do creator owned stories that would be similar in tone to 2000AD and Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal. The idea was to have as much fun creatively as possible, there just isn’t that many opportunities to have fun in comics where the material the creator creates is completely creator owned. I feel it shows in the work these creators are having a great time.
I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years; you get to know a lot of creators. As I originally trained and worked as an artist, I have always held on to the belief that most artists have at least one story of their own in them to tell and if they get to tell it they’ll be inspired to do more writing for themselves. I want to be able to give those artists the chance to tell those stories whenever I can, so I’ll keep doing anthologies for as long as I can.
FM: IN ODYSSEY, THE MAIN CHARACTER, BLAZING GLORY, A FORMER WORLD WAR TWO SOLDIER TURNED SUPERHERO STRUGGLES TO COME TO TERMS WITH THE EVOLUTION OF AMERICAN CULTURE, CULMINATING IN A STAND OFF WITH MILITARIZED POLICE AT AN OCCUPY WALL STREET PROTEST. IT IS A DARING AND THOUGHT PROVOKING STORY. WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU HOPE READER’S TAKE AWAY FROM THIS STORY?
DE: It was strange writing the series and seeing as the art coming in those events start to unfold in the real world. For a long time I have seen the wealthiest in this country, and the world, get richer at the expense of the working class. The poor are expanding at a rapid rate while some politicians promise that ‘trickle down economics’ is working. It’s a total and unmitigated lie. It doesn’t work, never has. The same goes for ‘austerity’ measures. They are just another way of bleeding the poorest people of the little money they have, in fact, they actually push them into debt with credit cards they’re never going to be able to fully pay off because of crippling interest rates.
I wanted to produce an engaging supernatural/horror story but make it a real world horror that the characters have to face off against.
The real world events are there to ground the story, but this isn’t meant to be reality. Odyssey is about the human condition. How we try labeling things ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but only apply those labels to things when it suits us. I want people to consider why our politicians and leaders act the way they do and the decisions on policy they make.
The background to the story is an age-old conflict of not good versus evil but Angels versus Demons. Demons are however just a label by us on these fallen angels, they are all the same group of beings. They were created by God to protect the universe he created. When some Angels tried to interfere in the course of humanity, he forbade them to ever set foot on the Earth again. The fallen angels, or ‘demons’, have figured out a way around God’s command by possessing humans. This possession is a permanent invasion of the body and is only able to be done as the human host dies. It very rarely works, as the timing is not precise, it all depends on who both the host and the possessor is.
For John Wilson, Blazing Glory, who was killed during World War 2 to become a host for one of these Angels, it is very different. He died and was possessed but he kept his human mind and personality and seems in full control. He occasionally has lapses and something else takes control with John having no memory of those events afterwards.
John’s abilities along with the fact he seems to be neutral on the Angel War has made him a target of both sides. The angels have infiltrated many levels of society, including the military and the government. John has been in the military all his adult life. He’s been sent into every conflict we’ve heard about and many we haven’t. John’s a good soldier, he believes in God and country, and he does what he is told. When he starts to question some of his missions and orders, it is decided his usefulness has come to an end. In all this time he has remained the same person and hasn’t aged a day.
John is fired. Next they will try to eliminate him.
Their actions will spur John to try to figure out what has happened to the world around him. He wants to know what happened to the country he fought for and along the way he will find out more about himself.
FM: SHARKY HAS SO MANY GUEST STARS IN IT FOM THE SAVAGE DRAGON TO VAMPIRELLA TO MADMAN AND A TON MORE. HOW DID THAT PROJECT COME ABOUT AND HOW DID YOU ARRANGE TO HAVE SO MANY CREATORS LEND THEIR CHARACTERS TO THE STORY?
DE: Sharky was just a love letter from Alex Horley and myself to Jack Kirby and the comics of the 60’s and 70’s. Sharky was Captain Marvel, Thor and Ambush Bug all rolled into one. It was fun and I think the creators we asked to borrow their characters saw it as being just that, a fun appearance that doesn’t really use their characters in the traditional sense. Sharky literally conjures them into being in the same way Rick Jones did in the Avengers ‘Kree-Skrull War’. It was a fun way to bring these characters together in one story through the main characters love of comics.
FM: WHAT IS YOUR TAKE IN THE RECENT SURGE IN THE POPULARITY OF COMICS IN TODAYS POP CULTURE AND HOW DO YOU SEE IT AFFECTING THE INDUSTRY IN THE FUTURE?
DE: You can’t escape the influence of comics these days thanks to TV and film incarnations of the characters adapted to this different media. Unfortunately it is a one-way street. The awareness of comics is huge but the films aren’t expanding the readership. In the 1960’s the Batman comic went from 500 thousand to nearly a million copies a month because of the TV show. Now the biggest sellers are Star Wars comics riding the wave of the anticipation of the most eagerly anticipated movie of the last ten years and we’re not even selling a quarter of those 60’s Batman sales and the population of the planet has more than doubled in that time.
People are trying comics but the retention rate just isn’t that great. Most of the comics they are coming across are inaccessible. A great example is Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman. I personally loved that comic. I got many of the inside jokes and references and it was fun finding out what I’d missed. But when I talked to friends who weren’t familiar with the source material, they were all ‘meh’ about it. When you eliminate the references to old comics the story loses a lot and you realize how inaccessible Marvel and DC comics are now.
I’m more excited by what Archie Comics are doing with the slow and steady changes they’ve been making both on their regular books and their new launches. Valiant Comics is another company that has been fun to watch grow. I can certainly see a point when Archie and Valiant take over from DC and Marvel.
I have been watching the steady growth of more comics for kids. Boom! Bongo and IDW have been steadily growing their lines and publishers from outside the Direct Sales Market have been growing their range of comic titles. If we don’t be more reactive to the market the Direct Sales Market will be more niche than they’ve ever been before.
FM: GROWING UP WERE YOU A MARVEL OR DC KID OR DID YOU LIKE TO READ SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY?
DE: I was an Eagle, Look & Learn, Look-In, Smash, Whizzer & Chips, Beano, Dandy and TV21 kid. These were the British comics I was reading before I discovered Batman, Superman and World’s Finest. The Batman TV show had a lot to get me into reading DC Comics. Both my elder brother and I bought a few of these as they were very different from the British comics we normally read. Comics were far cheaper back then so we didn’t have to choose between them, so I spent all my pocket-money on them.
The Marvel and DC comics felt like they were for an older reader than what I was previously used to. By the time 2000AD was launched in the 70’s I wasn’t really buying British comics any more. It was mostly Marvel and while I still read most DC comics, I really preferred the adventures of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Strangely enough it was Jack Kirby at DC comics that got me the most excited about their line. After he went back to Marvel I started to let many of their titles go.
Then Heavy Metal started reprinting the material from Metal Hurlant. Damn, did comics change.
FM: YOU ARE STRANDED ON A DESERTED ISLAND. YOU CAN HAVE ONE MUSIC ALBUM, ONE MOVIE/TV SHOW/ AND ONE BOOK TO READ. WHAT WILL IT BE?
DE: Hmmm… I’d have to say the best of John Williams soundtracks as they are always so inspirational and uplifting. 2001 A Space Odyssey would be the movie. I’ve watched other films more, but none has been more inspirational to me than Arthur C Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s vision of Earth’s origins and future. TV show would have to be Twin Peaks as I’m sure I’d still keep finding things every time I watched it. Book? Real book? I’d probably want a collection of myths and legends. But if I could take a comic it would be a collection of either New Gods or Kamandi.
FM: ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?
DE: I’ll be at NY Comic-con in October but unfortunately my schedule isn’t letting me be anywhere else at least until 2016.