Interviewed in July 1997 by Garen Ewing
All artwork reproduced by kind permission of Tony O' Donnell. © 2002 Tony O' Donnell.
I have been an admirer of Tony O' Donnell's work as an artist for quite a few years - though I didn't really know who he was at first. I just kept seeing his careful and well crafted drawings or name pop up in unexpected places almost as if I was being... followed! While his early-days writing partner, Grant Morrison, went on to DC and superstardom, Tony has continued working as a very talented and intelligent artist, finding fame on titles such as Marvel's Ghostbusters and DC Thomson's Starblazer Monthly to name but two of the many projects he has worked on. This interview is fascinating for the insight it gives into working for the British comics industry and life as a jobbing illustrator. Tony belongs to the tradition of great British illustrative comic artists, and I've no doubt we have yet to witness his crowning achievement, probably within the pages of a Marvel or DC comic... or maybe Grant will have an urge to complete Abraxas! Whatever, I want to thank Tony for his enormous patience and generosity in answering my sometimes naive questions, and for his help with this interview (and I am the proud owner of an original T. O' Donnell splash-page from Near Myths!).
2003: Tony became the artist for Ivy the Terrible in The Beano.
GE: Which came first, comics or drawing?
TO'D: Drawing definitely. I remember being asked to draw for my classmates as far back as Primary 1. My snake drawings were very popular. It just grew from that - I drew for fun at home - I think I drew my first comic when I was 9-10 years old. It was an epic SF story entitled 'Invasion of the Giant Ants'. A few years later I started to copy whole comics like Gil Kane's Captain Marvel, panel by panel. It would probably have been better if I'd continued to create my own strips rather than copy my favourite comics.
GE: Which comics came before Captain Marvel then?
TO'D: Oh let's see, I think I started off with The Topper, then came The Hotspur, The Smash and after that Look and Learn - featuring 'The Trigan Empire'. Those are the comics that I read every week as my parents used to order them for us - my sister got The Judy followed by The Jackie, which of course I read as well. Later on when I was at High School the only British comic I read regularly was my brother's Look-In, which at that time, the early 70s, featured strips like 'Follyfoot' and 'Kung-Fu'. I never managed to convince my parents to order TV21 which was deemed too expensive, I did buy it sometimes.
GE: My favourite strip in Look-In was 'The Six Million Dollar Man' - I was a big fan! What about American comics?
TO'D: The big thrill was buying American comics - I'd usually get some when we visited my Gran in Glasgow, although they did start to show up in my local newsagent around 1968. My earliest exposure to American comics was at the barber shop in Grangemouth, around 1964-5 - they always had two stacks of comics for kids to read while they waited for their haircut. They were for sale as well. I still remember being totally engrossed by a certain Flash comic involving a race around the world - when I had to put it down to get my haircut... I never did get to finish that story! My Dad usually let me buy a couple, but I remember taking ages to sift through the two columns, it must have been really boring for him to wait on me making up my mind.
These comics were not on sale anywhere else in Grangemouth at that time - they were brought in by merchant sailors from the docks, I imagine. I sometimes wish I'd had the sense to get myself a wee job at the barbers and get paid off with those comics as they'd be worth a fortune now! My total collection of American comics never amounted to more than ten as I lost or swapped most of them. My Mum was also notorious for throwing stuff out.
GE: The fate of many a child's comic! Which of these early titles would you say made the most impact on you?
TO'D: I suppose the comics that made the biggest impact were Avengers by John Buscema and TV21.
GE: When did you become aware that there were artists and writers behind these comics?
TO'D: Again, this would have been around '68-9, when I bought Avengers and TV21 - I'd finally started to think about the artists who drew the stories rather than just enjoying the stories themselves. I remember seeing those posters advertised in Marvel comics which were self-portraits of the top Marvel pencillers surrounded by the superheroes they drew - they were cool - and I I think that's when I started to day-dream about drawing comics or being an illustrator.
I sent off for the Famous Artists School Talent Test, which was advertsied on the back page of most comics at that time. I'd presumed that if you passed the test then the course would be free... I was 12, what did I know? A salesman talked my parents into paying for the three-year course, I felt a tremendous pressure to prove they hadn't wasted their money by trying my very best with the course assignments. The FAS was excellent but the European section went bust before I'd done my final assignment. I'm certain that it was my FAS work rather than my school work which got me accepted by Edinburgh College of Art when I was 16.
GE: It seems a shame there isn't something like that now. What sort of stuff did you have to do for the FAS?
TO'D: It was a very intensive course, covering all the basics of commercial and fine art - from cartooning to abstract. Every assignment was a challenge! I'd send my work off to an address in London and maybe 6 weeks later I'd receive an illustrated critique from a Dutch illustrator. It was always a different artist each time so I was exposed to a whole variety of styles and approaches to all aspects of commercial art... I loved it! The text books were excellent too and were profusely illustrated with examples from the Renaissance to Picaso and also all the great American illustrators.
Thiirania from Near Myths no. 5 1980
GE: For your parents to finance the course, I suppose they must have been supportive of your ambitions...
TO'D: I think my parents were a bit mystified by my career choice but they did support me. I do remember that they seemed really pleased when I was working as a part time lecturer of illustration at Clackmannan College. This was, after all, a proper job which they could explain more easily to friends and neighbours.
GE: And what does your family make of your chosen career now?
TO'D: I'll ask them...
Laura [step-daughter, age 13]: 'It's good because he asks me what I think of his pictures and when someone compliments his pictures I am proud to say 'my dad did that!''
Baby Garen [5 months]: 'Ga! Ga! Ga! Gurgle.'
Dorothy [Wife, age 30+]: 'I feel a bit guilty 'cos I was never one for reading comics, but just love watching Tony draw. I'm also amazed by his pictorial recall; if he's seen a picture once, he can trace it to the book or comic, the issue and probably the artist in minutes.'
GE: Thank you Tony's family! Getting back to comics, what sort of comics and titles do you read now?
TO'D: I've recently opened my first Standing Order in years with Justice Comics in Stirling. I'm reading JLA, Invisibles, Supergirl, Comics Journal and Wizard as well as lots of one off orders like Russ Manning's Star Wars book. The graphic novels I've bought this year were Ghost by Adam Hughes, Superman/Kal by Garcia Lopez, One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot and Star Trek by Adam Hughes.
GE: We seem to have quite a few favourites in common. I was just looking at the wonderful work Lopez did on Teen Titans, and I keep having a good look at the sumptuous detail in Bad Rat. A couple of weeks ago I bought Tarzan in the Land That Time Forgot by Russ Manning - it's lovely work. Who else do you admire from today's scene?
TO'D: Jim Lee is a tremendous talent and deserves all the success he's achieved. I'm also following Gary Frank's career with interest as I met him in 1990 at the Glasgow convention - he was 18 then and his sample pages were really impressive. As well as any artists I've mentioned earlier, I admire the work of Steve Rude, Alan Davies, Brian Bolland, Alcatena, and many more... I would like to buy far more comics than I do, but they are very expensive and the bulk of my income has to be spent on necessities.
GE: Comics are necessities, aren't they?! Would you say the current scene is better than it used to be?
TO'D: It's certainly healthier in respect of creator's rights and the growth of the independents in America. The children's comics market in Britain has declined drastically over the last 15 years. In 1981 when I started working for DC Thomson there were still quite a few boys and girls comics available, I know that most of them were old fashioned and a bit dull, but the fact remains that if today's children aren't in the habit of buying comics then it's unlikely that comics will ever be more than a minority interest. I enjoyed Patrick Brown's article in Vicious 6 which outlined the problem better than I could.
GE: I'm starting to feel a bit more positive about it now. There's The Simpsons and I had my first look at Sonic the Comic the other day, and was quite impressed. It even had Mick McMahon in! I like the fact that there's Enid Blyton's Mystery and Suspense - but I wonder if kids buy it? It seems a long way from Johnny Quest or Sonic.
TO'D: I can't really see the Enid Blyton comic lasting very long, it's a quality product, but it's probably aiming at parental approval rather than kids. Johnny Quest and Sonic look great to me and they represent the only route to success in a children's comic today, that is, based on either a TV show, a movie or a computer game - the obvious exceptions being The Beano and The Dandy
General Jumbo from DC Thomson's Buddy 1982
GE: The British comics scene is probably quite healthy if you're a reader, or a young reader at any rate, but certainly not if you're a creator! So when were the best comics produced!?
TO'D: I suppose that at 12 years of age I believed that Marvel Comics were the best ever, along with TV21 - but now I've broadened my horizons a bit and I'm well aware of all the excellent work produced since comics were first published. In my own collection I have reprints of Little Nemo, Steve Canyon, The Spirit, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, EC Comics, Prince Valiant, Scorchy Smith, Tintin, Juliet Jones, Modesty Blaise, Dan Dare, Garth, On Stage, Lt. Blueberry, Lone Sloane - all of which to my mind represent some of the best comics work ever produced.
GE: The classics!
TO'D: In the 80s my favourite comics included 2000AD, Warrior, Starblazer, Epic, Heavy Metal, Nexus, Swamp Thing, Elfquest, Deadline, Luther Arkwright, Daredevil, American Flagg, Watchmen and Batman. The main change as far as I'm concerned was that within a few years of Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons getting their first commissions from DC Comics, the number of British artists and writers working for American publishers has increased tremendously.
GE: Besides Giant Ants, what sort of material were you drawing before you got published?
TO'D: I studied illustration and animation in my third and fourth year at college, I had a bash at illustrating Lord of the Rings, War of the Worlds, Jabberwocky and John Carter of Mars. My animation work comprised of some line tests and some fully animated sequences of my own character - Video Man. I also spent ages drawing abstract doodles on a roll of blank film which when projected would be syncronised to a Steely Dan track. As a result of spending so much time on animation, my diploma display of work was going to look a bit sparse, so I drew some colour comic strip type story boards featuring Video Man.
GE: And Near Myths #4 saw your first published comic strip...
TO'D: I was a frequent visitor to the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh, so when I heard that they were going to publish an adult SF comic I was very keen to get involved. I showed my portfolio to Rob King at the bookshop, but although he seemed quite impressed with my work, he stressed that he was looking for comics that he could publish - and I didn't have anything that could be used.
As I recall this was June 1978. My four year stint as an art student was over and I'd just been informed that I hadn't been accepted into the National Film School. I was working as a dish washer in an Italian restaurant in order to clear some debts, and my drawing time was now severely restricted. Eventually I got my act together and produced a six page strip called 'Thiirania'. I took the pages to Rob King and I was delighted with his reaction - 'These are great! I'll print them!' I walked out of the shop on Cloud Nine - I'd done it! Eager for more praise I returned a week later only to find that Rob had discovered a young genius in Glasgow called Grant Morrison, and I have to admit I was suitably impressed by the pages he showed me - especially when I was told he was only 17.
Graham Manley was the artist who proposed the idea of publishing an adult SF comic to Rob and he also recommended that they should try and get Bryan Talbot to contribute a strip, and that's how Near Myths became the first publisher of 'The Adventures of Luther Arkwright'.
GE: Grant Morrison was someone who you were closely associated with in your early days, it seems.
TO'D: I met Grant and everyone else at my first Near Myths meeting which was, to say the least, a fascinating experience. I'd gone through four years at art college without meeting anyone else who was interested in drawing comics, so it was a real thrill to meet all of these other comic strip artists for the first time. Grant was the youngest at 17, I was nearly 21, after the meeting broke up we travelled back on the same train and he offered to write an SF story for me.
GE: Though looking at 'The Checkmate Man' in Near Myths #4, he wasn't too bad an artist himself!
TO'D: Grant was heavily influenced by Neal Adams at that time and this combined with his writing talent meant that his comics pages were very impressive and I felt that he was way ahead of me- I could draw but I hadn't learned to draw comics yet. Grant went on to write and draw 'Captain Clyde' for his local newspaper and he did his first fully professional job as a writer/artist on the Starblazer book 'Algol the Terrible' - No.15 - as early as 1979. I think he decided to concentrate on his writing after producing lots of 'Gideon Stargrave' pages for PSSST
GE: The SF story, I presume, was 'Abraxas' - what was it all about?
TO'D: 'Abraxas' was a projected 100 page SF epic involving galactic conflict, Gnosticism, sexy girls and nasty aliens. When we first conceived the project our ambition was to create a graphic novel which combined the best of Marvel and DC with the sophistication of European comics - you can be a bit pretentious when you're 20!
GE: It sounds great!
TO'D: It was a noble enterprise which was doomed to failure - and that was largely down to me. Whenever I worked on the project I became so obsessed with trying to produce my very best work that I spent ages on each page. This meant that the publication date was constantly delayed in order to allow me time to get ahead on the project. It didn't help that I often went back to drawing Starblazers or advertising jobs.
I believe that if I'd produced, say, at least 2 pages per week from the start, then 'Abraxas' could have been published sooner and perhaps it would have done as well as Redfox. Anyway, that didn't happen. The first two prologues were published as the back up strip in Sunrise #s 1 and 2, and shortly after, Harrier Comics [publisher of Sunrise] went out of business.
GE: Did you and Grant just drift apart... or what happened?
TO'D: Around the time of that first Near Myths meeting I'd found work as an illustrator with The Educational Resources Unit - it was a Job Creation scheme. I'd sent Grant some copies of my attempts to write an SF comic, which had resulted in 'Thiirania' - he responded by sending back the Prologue of 'Abraxas' and a complete plot outline for the 100 pages the story would need! I remember how excited I was at the idea of drawing it but was also totally convinced that it was far too big a job for me and I just wasn't ready yet.
A year later I was back at art college for a Post Graduate year and drawing 'Abraxas'. I only managed to complete the first 8 pages and the cover for Near Myths #5. I'd set my sights too high and tried to produce a standard of finished art which was way beyond my capabilities - the pages did look great though - I'd been trying to emulate the colour work of Frank Bellamy on 'Thunderbirds'.
Over the next year or so we kept in touch. I was working for DC Thomson, but quit after 15 months in order to draw a 6 page story which Grant had written for me, 'Where Angels Fear to Tread'. We went to London for a meeting with the editors of PSSST and were delighted when they said they wanted to publish Grant's 'Gideon Stargrave stories, our 6 pager and 'Abraxas'! It wasn't to be... the magazine went bust. After that set-back we lost touch for a while. A few years later we got involved with Harrier Comics who were going to publish 'Abraxas'. After the first two prologues Harrier went bust. I found work as an inker on Redfox and Grant's career was beginning to soar with commissions from 2000AD, Marvel UK and Warrior.
GE: Did you feel a bit left behind when Grant hit the 'big time'?
TO'D: Yes, I think I did and it probably put a strain on our friendship, but it was more to do with the fact that my own career was going nowhere fast - my regular work on Ghostbusters had ended and Marvel UK had cut back on its publications for a while. There was no immediate work available from DC Thomson and there seemed little prospect of my being 'snapped up' by DC or Marvel.
GE: Do you follow his work today?
TO'D: I missed a lot of his work during the early 90s, but I've enjoyed The Invisibles and I've just started to read JLA. I think for a while he moved into more experimental areas and I'm more of a mainstream reader, so in that respect I did prefer his pre-Arkham Asylum work - but he's definitely writing for the mainstream again judging by the success of JLA. We chatted on the phone recently as I was curious about a rumour I'd heard that he'd written a script for DC Thomson. This is probably top-secret so I won't go into details - all I know was that the script was for a proposed X-Files type magazine which may feature a revival of some old DCT characters done Manga style!
GE: Well, that sounds very intriguing, but as we don't want to mysteriously disappear thanks to a visit by some strange men in black sporting 'Dennis the Menace' fan club badges, we'll move on! I was quite heavily into role-playing games and bought Imagine when it came out, and you did the cover for #5, didn't you?
TO'D: That cover was also the cover for Near Myths #4, my first published work and still one of my best covers. I got £20 for it from Near Myths and £125 from Imagine. I'd sent them samples hoping for some illustration commissions but they only wanted to buy 'Thiirania'. This cover was also published in The Association of Illustrators 5th Annual - 'The Best of British Illustrators'. It was exhibited along with all the other selected illustrations at the Mall Gallery in London in 1980. I think I owe its success after Near Myths to some advice from Neal Adams when I showed him a copy of the picture at a signing session on the opening day of Forbidden Planet in London. His advice was to get rid of the clouds - 'paint 'em out and you'll have a better picture'.
GE: How did you end up working for DC Thomson?
TO'D: As far back as 1979 I'd submitted samples to both IPC and DC Thomson. IPC responded first - I got a nice letter from Doug Church which was quite complimentary and he suggested I find a good agent and recommended the Temple Art Agency. DCT, namely Bill McLoughlin, the Starblazer editor, sent me a try out script. I made a total mess of it - the samples were really bad and were of course rejected, though I did get a cheque for £10, 'for use of Letratone'.
Luckily, after this set-back I returned to art college to my post graduate year. It would be around September 1980 before I got around to sending samples to the Temple Art Agency. Their response was quite encouraging but they wanted a broader range of samples, rather than just SF and fantasy strips, as 2000AD weren't exactly short of artists. Temple Art were a very professional outfit and had artists of the calibre of Don Lawrence, Ron Smith and Mike McMahon as clients, so I took their advice seriously and drew up a new set of samples. I think I did 6 pages... Western gunfight, girl gymnast, romance, boys adventure, football and number 6 as I recall featured Johnny Cougar taking on a Bruce Lee lookalike! I was sent a football script from DCT within a month of completing the samples, the strip was 'Hoodoo Utd. for Scoop. This led on to work for Buddy, where I drew 'General Jumbo', 'School for Soccer' and Sports Biographies.
I left Temple Art after 15 months to try and find work on PSSST, 2000AD or Warrior. After 6 months I was knocking on DCT's door looking for work again - this time without an agent. This was my first visit to the Courier Building in Dundee, home of 'Oor Wullie', 'Desperate Dan' and 'Dennis the Menace', and of course Starblazer. It was also the one and only time in my career that I've had editors clamouring to give me work. I came home with the promise of two jobs - a Starblazer and an SF series for a new comic - and Bill Graham had given me a couple of jobs to keep me busy 'til the Starblazer script arrived.
I took longer than expected to draw my first Starblazer - 'Space Ghost' [No.111] and as a result I was asked to return the script for 'Starhawk', the first episode of the SF series, and accept a football series instead. This was 'Johnny Tough' which I slaved over for 15 'boring' episodes during most of 1983. Then I got another Starblazer - 'Gateway to Terror' [No.142] - but this time I enlisted Grant's help on the inks to avoid any deadline problems. I only ever drew 6 Starblazers and looking back now, I could have done a lot more, but I used to 'take a break' after each one to do other work like 'Abraxas', advertising commissions and other stuff for Harrier Comics and Redfox.
GE: Starblazer #192 - 'Face of Evil' has some really beautiful artwork in it. I especially like the scene with the two giant lizards climbing the tree after Jai.
TO'D: Thanks! I'm glad you liked it as I put a lot of hard work into that story. I'd asked for extra time as I'd just received a substantial cheque from an advertising agency for some road safety posters I'd done earlier in the year. I felt that I could afford to take my time on a Starblazer for once, I must have spent the best part of 4 months working on it. It was a fun story to draw, lots of monsters, witches, demons and warriors and I really enjoyed my time on it - I'd convinced myself this was going to be my last Starblazer and I'd be off to pastures new within a few months. I do think though that the artwork is far too detailed and overly rendered.
GE: Who wrote it?
TO'D: The writer was D.H Taylor, who also wrote 'Prince of Fear' [No.226]. My final two Starblazers were 'Prince of Fear' and 'A Plague of Horsemen' [No.230]. These were fun to draw although I had to use inkers on both to meet the deadline. Rob Moran did some lovely brush inking on '...Fear' and Vincent Danks did some very precise line work on '...Horsemen'.
When Starblazer folded I went onto illustrate 4 Star Romance Pocket Books until they were cancelled in 1990. I did samples for 'Desperate Dan' and came third! Bill Graham asked me to try out for the new 'Bucky O'Hare' comic, but although DCT published it they were not allowed to do their own versions of the character. Pity as it would have been fun. I eventually managed to persuade Garry Fraser, the editor of Football Picture Story Monthly that I wasn't a 'prima-donna' who hated drawing football comics and so all of my subsequent work for DCT has been on the Football pocket books.
GE: So you still do work for them, do you like working for DCT? They seem to have a bit of a reputation for being stingy.
TO'D: I still draw an average of 3 Football Monthly's each year as the work is there for me when I need it and that's one of DCT's good points - they are very loyal to artists they regard as D.C Thomson artists, even if they have left to work for other companies. I like all of the editors I've worked for - they treat you with respect and courtesy and are even polite when you're very late with a job. As for being stingy, well it's true their rates are lower than Fleetway, but the compensation is that they pay you within a fortnight of delivery.
GE: So what sort of page rates do they have?
TO'D: £80 per page for black and white and £100 for colour. The payment for pocket books, which have 2-3 pics per page is just below £20 per page. I suppose that the average DCT artist makes between £200 and £500 per week. I reckon that if you were drawing one Commando or Football Monthly every month for a year, your annual income would be around £14-15,000. I know of some artists who can do twice that amount of work and some of them are in their 70s. John Geering, who does a pile of strips for The Beano and Dandy, including 'Bananaman', must produce at least 10 pages a week, every week - he is perhaps the highest paid artist at DCT.
GE: Will there always be a D.C Thomson? They seem a world away from the rest of the comics industry.
TO'D: I've no doubt that DCT will continue to prosper. Whether or not they will continue to publish comics is unknown to me. If some executive within the company decided that they were going to publish comics to compete with the best of Europe and America - they could do it. They have more resources than most comics publishers, including their own colour printing presses. They would need to address the issue of creator's rights and increase their page rates to attract the top talents, but if they were committed to the concept I'm sure this could happen. The main reason it hasn't is probably because they can make as much money as a successful American comics company just by releasing a nostalgic 'Best of Beano & Dandy' book.
I know that Bill Graham and Bill McLoughlin once prepared a dummy graphic novel with colour artwork by Alcatena - it looked brilliant - but the project was never given the green light.
GE: D.C Thomson don't credit their artists - do you have any feelings on this?
TO'D: This has been the company policy for so long it seems set to stay for a while yet. I believe the reasoning behind it was to keep the artists tied to the company and also as a way of promoting the comics rather than their creators. Dudley D. Watkins was allowed to sign his work and this tradition continues as the current 'Broons' and 'Oor Wullie' artist Ken Harrison signs his strips as well. Some of the editors have a more relaxed attitude about it and you can often spot signatures in The Beano and Dandy.
I used to sneak my name onto my work in all sorts of devious ways, but I don't bother these days. In 'Prince of Fear' there's an old inn sign which reads 'Tony & Rob's Inn'. I remember etching 'Tony' along a cliff, suitably disguised by the rock formations, in my first Star Romance book. Grant managed to include his first name cleverly integrated onto the reflective surface of a life-support capsule when he inked 'Gateway to Terror'. Starblazer would often allow main characters to have the same name as the writer and they also published a complete checklist of writers and artists in the final issues of the series.
GE: I often see some work I really like and find it frustrating that I can't find out who it's by - though the styles are distinct, at least. I agree though that it's the comic that is the important thing - far too much is made of some creators. So who would you say are the unsung heroes of DCT?
TO'D: There are many talented artists working for DCT. My personal favourites are Ian Kennedy, Neville Wilson, Denis McLoughlin and José Jorgé. Ian Kennedy has painted thousands of covers for Starblazer, Commando and Football Monthly and he used to work for Fleetway and Marvel UK, where he drew strips such as 'Dan Dare, 'Blake's Seven' and even 'Judge Dredd'. Neville Wilson worked for IPC but came to DCT in the early 70s where he worked on boys comics like Buddy, Spike and Victor. He's currently drawing regularly for Football Monthly - and his figure drawings are superb. Denis McLoughlin used to draw 'Swift Morgan' in the 40s and 50s, but he's best known for his outstanding work on the 'Buffalo Bill' Annuals of the 50s and 60s. He worked on Vulcan in the mid 60s, drawing 'Saber', a jungle hero. He quit freelance work to write an 'Encyclopedia of the Wild West'. I believe he couldn't get any further work from Fleetway after being away for so long, which is why he started working for DCT in the 70s. I still see his work appearing in Commando which is incredible as the man must be well into his 70s by now. José Jorgé draws for Commando and has done for years. His work is very realistic and he was a major influence on John Ridgeway, who spent 10 years working for Commando on a part-time basis until he left to work on Warrior and quit his job to go freelance.
My favourite Starblazer artist was Alcatena, closely followed by Casanovas Jr. Graham Manley has produced some excellent full colour SF and fantasy comics in the Dandy Annual for the last few years, he's also working for DC on their 'Big Books' series. DCT is providing regular work for many former Fleetway artists who used to work on comics like Roy of the Rovers, Tiger and Battle. There are a number of famous names who once worked for DCT - these include Pat Mills, Alan Grant, John Wagner, Dave Gibbons, Redondo, Carlos Ezquerra, Ron Smith and Jim Baikie. Incidentally, during industrial action at IPC, Mike McMahon and Cam Kennedy did some work for Starblazer - definitely collector's items. McMahon drew No.71 - 'Jaws of Death' and Kennedy drew No.105 - 'Conquerors of Earth.
2000AD - Prog 376, 1984. Tharg's Future Shocks - 'Bigger Game Hunters' written by 'Script Robot' Alan Hebden.
GE: Talking of such artists, you had rather a brief flirtation with 2000AD...
TO'D: Like every 'wannabe' comics artist in Britain at the time I was desperate to work for 2000AD but I only appeared in one issue - Prog 376 - a 'Future Shock' entitled 'Bigger Game Hunters'. I was hired at a time when they were planning a new 'Judge Dredd' comic. This never got the go-ahead, so they lost interest in looking for new artists. I should have persisted through. I think I'm too easily discouraged sometimes. My last submission to 2000AD was around 1987, and this resulted in a call from the editor of Gary Lineker Soccer Comic who was looking for an artist for a football series. In what was probably a foolish move I turned it down. I'd just been promised regular work on The Real Ghostbusters from Marvel UK.
GE: But before Ghostbusters, you did some inking on Redfox...
TO'D:Fox was in need of a new inker as Dave Harwood had decided to leave. He liked the illo I'd done for the UKCAC booklet - 'Captain Future' - and I was happy to accept the work so soon after the demise of Harrier Comics.
GE: I enjoyed Fox's art, but it was only when you joined that the comic started to look professional. The backgrounds especially improved!
TO'D: I was very enthusiastic when I started off, I found it relaxing to be an inker. I even started to play about with brush inking on some pages. The agreement was that I would provide background pencils and finished inks, but after a few issues I began to feel that Fox was taking advantage to a degree, in that his pencils were getting less and less detailed, and in some cases, nonexistent, so I resigned. It was a pity as I was a genuine admirer of his work and had enjoyed inking his drawings.
GE: How did Ghostbusters come about?
TO'D: I'd been working on Starblazer 226 ['Prince of Fear'] during the latter part of my stint on Redfox, and when I completed that I drew up some samples for Marvel UK. I did a Dr. Who illustration, Thundercats and The Real Ghostbusters. I decided to go to London rather than do yet another mailshot - this decision worked out well when Richard Starkings promised me regular work as a penciller on Ghostbusters. I remember feeling really pleased with myself when I left the Marvel offices and paused to look over the Thames... I'd actually done it - landed a job with Marvel Comics! Okay it was just Ghostbusters, but it felt as good as if I'd been offered pencilling chores on X-Men!
I didn't realise that the promised work wouldn't arrive for months and even then because of the large number of pencillers they had hired there were often substantial gaps between commissions. The stories were great to draw - I had some very funny scripts, including some from Glenn Dakin. The best thing about my Ghostbusters work was that it really loosened up my approach to drawing. My confidence soared during that first year with Marvel UK.
The Real Ghostbusters Summer Special 1994 from Marvel UK.
GE: So was that the only strip you did for them?
TO'D: I loved drawing 'Combat Wombat' for Strip #13 but it was a bit of a let down to be told I'd been offered the job because I was regarded as an old pro when I still felt like a raw new-comer! It seems that a lot of the new guys hired for Strip were taking ages to deliver finished work, so I was asked to pencil and ink 'Combat Wombat' within a fortnight, which included a trip to UKCAC. I only managed to attend one Marvel Christmas party and I chose the wrong one as it was more like a funeral - everyone was worried about losing their job as there'd been a change of management - all of which was news to me!
GE: But you tend to do more illustration work now, which I suppose is more reliable.
TO'D: I became unemployed after Ghostbusters was cancelled. I applied for various jobs including lecturing posts, graphic design and sent samples to all and sundry including some art agents. I was aware of the opportunities for steady work in educational illustration. I sent some samples to Graham Cameron Illustration and things just grew from there. I'm not making a fortune, but it's regular work, and always varied. I don't enjoy every commission, but the same applies to comics work - it helps to approach every commission as a fresh challenge and to avoid just churning it out.
GE: So what's a 'typical' Tony O' Donnell day in which to face these fresh challenges!?
TO'D: My typical day has changed forever with the birth of my son, as I now spend my mornings looking after him when my wife is at work. I don't usually get to the drawing board until around one o' clock these days, except at the weekend when I try to make up for lost time. It's easy to let yourself get distracted when you work from home and to convince yourself you've done a full day's work when in fact you have only done about 4 or 5 hours of drawing. I can do 12-16 hour shifts in order to meet a deadline, but it's a killing schedule. I aim at putting in 8-12 hours of drawing each day, depending on my workload.
GE: What's your workspace like? I read that George Perez lies on his back on the living room sofa to draw, and has the T.V on!
TO'D: I work in the spare bedroom which is quite small compared to my previous 'studios'. I'm surrounded by bookshelves and filing cabinets full of reference material and comics. I usually listen to the radio or play cassettes, and sometimes work in total silence.
GE: Right, anally retentive fan questions coming up... not to say I haven't been the slightest bit 'anoraky' so far! What materials do you use - to draw with, to draw on, and for colour work etc...?
TO'D: I use H or 2H pencils, Rotring pens and felt tips for inking, though I keep saying I'll go back to using a brush or a dip pen, but I never do. Top quality cartridge paper or Bristol board, and watercolour paper for colour work. I'm always promising myself an airbrush, but I still haven't bought one yet. In my studio I have all the usual stuff - namely a camera, lightbox, an Arto-graph projector, and of course my drawing table.
GE: How do you cope with an artist's prime enemy, those uninspired moments?
TO'D: In my 20s my usual reaction to being bored with a job was to quit as soon as I'd completed the commission and find something more exciting. Nowadays I can't afford that luxury and I have the self-discipline to produce a competent if uninspired drawing which will please the client. I enjoy being an illustrator - and if a job is really dull or I feel pressured by deadlines then I find it helps to imagine having to get a real job! There's the bonus factor that every few weeks or so, more often than not, you get a job that's a real pleasure to draw and you feel lucky you're earning a living doing something which you really enjoy.
GE: Of course to get to that position you have to work at it, as you have. I understand you had an interesting 'portfolio' encounter with Dick Giordano...
TO'D: I think it was just prior to UKCAC 87, the SSI [now the CCG] had organised a DC talent search at the Sketch Club in Chelsea. I went along with Rob Moran and Daniel Vallely, the place was mobbed, lots of bulging portfolios and anxious or confident faces - some I recognised and plenty who were unknown to me. I realise now that I hadn't prepared myself for the experience, I'd built my hopes up without taking a cold hard look at my portfolio of samples.
I got an accurate critique from Dick Giordano, it's just that emotionally I wasn't prepared to have my hopes dashed when hearing his opinions of my work. 'This isn't comics!' was the reaction to my Starblazer pages - the same applied to the third prologue of 'Abraxas' - I should have pointed out that DC had just hired the writer, but I kept quiet. It didn't help that the room was hot, crowded and noisy, and Giordano was slightly deaf and couldn't understand my Scot's accent at all! I showed him the page I'd done which was my attempt at one of his story-telling exercises in his book The Illustrated Comic Art Workshop. He seemed quite pleased to see this but it seemed I'd failed the test and made the same errors that 90% of artists who try it make - namely I hadn't used sound-effects or shown clearly that the woman was approaching the door to the room wherein her fiancee was embracing another woman... I guess you'd have to see the page! The exercise asked you to tell the story without using text or dialogue. After all that he did end by saying 'your drawings are fine - you just need to work on the story-telling', but I wasn't really listening by that point.
GE: That must have been quite disheartening...
TO'D: It's very hard to accept criticism, and it's even harder if you've begun to think of yourself as a professional, just because you've been getting paid for your work for a few years. I was cheered up at UKCAC when I was introduced to Ian Kennedy by Bill Graham and Bill McLoughlin from DC Thomson. He was very friendly and encouraging and gave me a much more relaxed critique of my work one of his suggestions was to always try and keep it as simple and direct as possible. I remember asking one really stupid question, namely 'how do you do folds in clothing?' He just raised his eyebrows quizzically, smiled, bent his arm at 90 degrees and studied it... I felt really dumb!
GE: What about the Cartoon Workshop you gave in 1993?
TO'D: My first Comics Workshop was part of a Summer Playscheme organised by a local community project. I wasn't too nervous as I knew most of the kids from working at the youth club where I spent my time doing request sketches of everything from Dennis the Menace to Dracula. All that's involved is showing them a few basics about drawing comics, then letting them have a shot at drawing their own. At the end of the week I'd photocopy all their work and each of them would go home with a comic. Workshops are fun to do and the kids are no problem because they are usually mad keen on drawing comics - it only becomes a headache if they are too young and get bored easily.
GE: Living in Scotland, do you feel a bit 'out of it', or is location not much of a problem for a working illustrator?
TO'D: I've probably missed out on a lot of opportunities by not moving to London - I was once offered studio space with Kev Hopgood and some other artists, but decided to stay in Scotland. My agent solves most of the problems caused by living in Scotland and the rest of my work comes from local graphic designers or DC Thomson.
GE: Right, you're offered the chance to work on any character (or group of characters) from the history of comics, with any writer you want (dead or living, or you can write it) and you'll be well paid. What's it to be!?
TO'D: That's a difficult one, but I guess it would have to be Avengers #75 and 76, scripted by Roy Thomas, inked by Tom Palmer, printed on four-colour newsprint, price one shilling - but I'd get paid £300 per page plus royalties! I'd also have John Buscema on hand as a technical advisor - we are living out fantasies here aren't we!? Anyway, Moebius got to do the same thing when he drew The Silver Surfer.
GE: Back to reality, and what do you see in the near future for yourself?
TO'D: I do intend to find the time somehow to get back to drawing comics again. One idea is to work on short stories to submit to the American independents, like Caliber and Dark Horse. It's time I stuck my head above the trenches again! If you really want to do something then all you can do is give it your best shot and I don't think I've done that yet.
GE: It's true, nothing can happen if you don't make it happen. After all commissions don't come pouring through the letter box thanks to day dreaming! Is there a particular quote or something that you find inspiring?
TO'D: This is from Andrew Loomis' book Creative Illustration... 
'There can be the decision each day to make that day count in some way toward your big goal. Art takes so much time that waste of precious time is costly. You must not just try to find time for study, you must somehow make it.
And, in art, study can never stop. You will find sketches galore in the studio of the good man, with the paint quite fresh. The mediocre artist's sketches are old and dusty. I have seen so many middle-aged artists still hoping, whose samples are frayed at the edges, and thumb-marked with time. Sometimes it has been a matter of years since they sat down and actually did something to give their hopes any promise. They are plodding their lives away at something they hate, and doing nothing about it. These are the men who never seem to have had a chance. the truth is, they never seized a chance.'
Andrew Loomis was one of the major artistic influences on Steve Rude [Nexus].
GE: Um, I've got this, er, friend, and he was wondering what sort of advice you'd give to an aspiring artist. That's what he wants to know, this friend of mine.
TO'D: Keep a sketch book and use it! Don't try to imitate the current 'fave' artist - maybe by the time you can draw just like him or her that style is out of fashion. Try to be true to your own talent and draw to please yourself, rather than follow temporary trends. All of this advice is difficult to follow and I wish I'd followed it myself. Still, better late than never! In the past I've overworked my pencils in order to make them as 'good' as possible, whereas I now believe it's best to adopt a looser approach and perhaps to have more self-belief in your own personal style. I was given the same advice in 1982 by Steve Dillon, who I think believes that being a perfectionist can take the 'fun' out of drawing comics.
Never give up - I once read that Todd McFarlane had over a thousand rejection letters before he got work from Marvel. Have a fall-back option in case you don't achieve your ambition... or don't give up your day job! Arthur Rackham used to advise would-be illustrators he considered weren't good enough, that it might be better to have your drawing remain as an enjoyable hobby, rather than find yourself having to produce 'hack' work in order to make a living. If you make it big - get an accountant and a lawyer!
GE: Right, thanks! Uh... I'll tell my friend that then. Thank you very much, Tony.