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The question most asked of comic creators is probably, 'Where do you get your ideas from?' Once upon a time, it seemed the only answer was 'other comics'. Are today's creators drawing on more than just the spinnerracks of their youth?
17 February 2003

JOHNSTON: It was certainly a truism ten years ago that too many comic writers were fanboys turned writers. They were just emulating the comics they read as kids, and that was why there was so much recycling of old storylines, and why comics were frankly a bit dull.

WHEELER: I don't know who said it first, but there is that comment, the reason British writers are usually so much better than Americans is because they read books, not comics.

WATSON: I think that's Warren Ellis.

WHEELER: Was it? That doesn't surprise me.

JOHNSTON: But a few people have said similar things. I think it was a 2000AD letters column where either Grant Morrison or Pete Milligan said to a guy who said, 'what do I do if I want to be a comic writer'; 'forget comics, go out and get a life. Come back in ten years time and then you might have something to say.' I think what's happening now is that writers are being more influenced by books and films and TV shows. You can just feel that things like OZ and WEST WING and THE SOPRANOS have filtered through to a lot of comic writers recently.

WHEELER: Warren Ellis has said he's influenced by WEST WING. Greg Rucka said THE SANDBAGGERS was an influence on QUEEN & COUNTRY.

JOHNSTON: A lot of Brian Azzarello's HELLBLAZER, I felt, was influenced by things like THE SOPRANOS and OZ. Not just the subject matter, but the way it was written.

WHEELER: Brian Michael Bendis has always spoken of his great love for HBO. It's very clear from the way he draws relationships and dialogue that television has an influence. POWERS, ALIAS and DAREDEVIL are almost TV shows in comic form.

JOHNSTON: You could imagine them as hour-long dramas

WHEELER: With the amount of dialogue he fits on the page, they almost are hour-long dramas.

WATSON: MEK has been called an exercise in Ellis showing off his research rather than his writing, and certainly some writers have a tendency to do that.

JOHNSTON: It's difficult, when you reach a certain level, to show off your writing any more, isn't it?

WATSON: Well, MEK was Ellis being very, very Ellis, and the only thing that would therefore distinguish it from his other work was the research that had gone into it. GLOBAL FREQUENCY is another case of, 'look at the interesting research I've done'.

WHEELER: So the only thing influencing Warren Ellis now is Warren Ellis? There is a degree to which one reads him saying, 'Well, this is me'. Though I think the research shows he's looking for new influences.

WATSON: I think there's only so far that influences in fiction are going to take you. If you're going to generate something new and interesting, you've got to look to the ultra-modern, the stuff that's just this far off being the future.

JOHNSTON: Well, only if you're writing sci-fi, to be fair.

WATSON: I think even if you're not writing sci-fi, if you're writing about stuff in the world today, you've got to be very up-to-date.

JOHNSTON: You've got to keep an eye on that sort of thing, but I don't think you should play down the influence of anything factual that you don't know - anything at all that you learn can trigger ideas for new stuff. It's just that, if you do sci-fi, that's more likely to be the bleeding edge research.

WATSON: If you're doing superheroes, to an extent, you are doing science fiction, and you are paying at least cursory attention to the bleeding edge of science.

JOHNSTON: It was mentioned on Movie Poop Shoot that there has been a tendency among people writing three issue arcs, like MEK - and Steven Grant has done this to a certain extent -to write them as if they were the three acts of a screenplay, with each issue being one act. The problem with that is, the first act of a screenplay takes up, what, one eighth of the total? The final act shouldn't be a whole issue either. So is being influenced by other works of fiction any better than just being influenced by comics? Or should people be getting out into the real world?

'If you want to be a comic writer, forget comics, go out and get a life.' WATSON: I think people should be getting out into the real world, but if they're not doing that, they should be reading books. Keeping the telly off and not opening their graphic novels.

WHEELER: Oh, come on, television is as valid a source as anything.

WATSON: Rubbish. It's the idiot box. It is Satan's tool.

WHEELER: It is not the idiot box, television is full of craft and inventive and brilliant storytelling. If you want to know about serial storytelling then you could do a lot worse than tune in to a television series.

WATSON: Oh, I'm aware of that, but my television seems to be distressingly full of 'reality' shows. And I use 'reality' in big inverted commas.

JOHNSTON: I think the main danger facing writers is taking things at their surface value. It's all very well saying, let's make comics more like movies, but if you don't actually think about what makes them work and apply those principles you end up with the whole 'three acts/three issues' problem.

WHEELER: Exactly, you have to get to grips with the mechanics of comics and the mechanics of whatever other influences you're taking, and get them reconciled.

JOHNSTON: What about artists?

WHEELER: They just do what the writer tells them, surely?

JOHNSTON: I was thinking of Hitch, specifically, and it's going back a couple of years, admittedly, but Hitch on AUTHORITY was very, very movie like. Obviously watched an awful lot of action films. His framing in that was very filmic, which worked with Ellis' filmic writing. Do you think Oeming's influenced by TV?

WHEELER: To an extent, but he's such a stylised artist that it camouflages it. Yes, you do get the interrogation scenes shot like they would be in a cop show. The view from behind the TV monitor when everyone's watching a newsflash - all the classic establishing shots that you'd get in a cop show, but it looks like Oeming. He's not a realist artist, so it's not immediately apparent.

JOHNSTON: Is anybody doing it in superhero books? I don't read any, so I don't know.

WHEELER: On a subconscious level, I think film is the number one source for any superhero artist. I think, more so than looking at previous artists, what young artists are doing today is looking at action movies. The MATRIX shot.

WATSON: The artist's job is to communicate with the reader visually, and if you're looking for the primary visual communication medium these days, it ain't comics, so I imagine artists do think their language has to follow cinema, to a certain extent.

WHEELER: Yeah, I don't think they're looking at Jack Kirby and saying, ooh, I must learn that.

WATSON: Back when people were studying people like Kirby, comics were the prime visual language, there wasn't really any other medium that was doing it.

JOHNSTON: I must mention video games. I'm not sure how many artists working in Western comics are actively influenced by them now, although Udon and Pat Lee come to mind, but I know and have seen hundreds and hundreds of artists and young kids living in the US who do nothing but draw comic style characters so clearly influenced by video games, or video games characters in the style of comics. Not just poses, but action sequences that look like something from PRISONER OF ZENDA, or whatever.

WATSON: It's no accident that GRAND THEFT AUTO looks like comics, with Brian Wood working at Rockstar Games, but GRAND THEFT AUTO is not unique. Clearly the video games industry has become very familiar with comics.

JOHNSTON: I think video games in general are such a big influence on a generation of artists that haven't graduated yet that it'll be interesting to see, in five years time, what happens when they start taking on high profile stuff. If they stick at it. One thing I notice with a lot of these kids is that all they want to do is draw pin-ups.

'I think film is the number one source for any superhero artist.' WHEELER: Or play video games. Where do you think artists like Ashley Wood, Ben Templesmith, where are they getting their influence?

JOHNSTON: Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz.

WHEELER: So where did they get their influence? There's this jagged, coffee-stain style...

JOHNSTON: Fine art and multimedia university courses.

WHEELER: It's design school?

JOHNSTON: Yeah. They go to school and get taught multimedia - in the old sense of the word, 'multiple media to make your picture', not video installations - and you spend three years supergluing bits of newspapers onto cardboard and chicken wire, and you come out of it with a style like Ashley Wood's. Honestly, I've seen people do it.

WHEELER: The chicken wire school of art. Is fine art influencing creators otherwise? It's there in pastiche and it's there in JH Williams, but...

JOHNSTON: Is he unique?

WATSON: There's P Craig Russell.

WHEELER: P Craig Russell is very classically influenced, he's influenced by music as well and he uses music in his design. I think he has a very strong design sense that draws on music and is filtered through poster art and classical art. You can see a bit of Waterhouse in the way he designs his maidens.

JOHNSTON: It is weird, the spilled coffee table school. It's all Bill Sienkiewicz's fault.

WATSON: Another notable school is the autobiographical school.

JOHNSTON: But their art styles are so diverse.

WATSON: They are, but they have a storytelling style in common because their comics are to a large extent talking head comics. There's nothing fantastic, there's no great big visual to aim at. Where does that come from?

JOHNSTON: Isn't that just that they're all influenced by Eddie Campbell? I can't think of anyone who was really well known for it before Campbell.

WATSON: Harvey Pekar, maybe. Chester Brown?

WHEELER: I think Will Eisner has done some autobio. Before that, I don't know. The alternative scene? By which I mean the 60s underground scene, not what we now mean by the alternative scene, which is, 'people who only occasionally draw superheroes'.

JOHNSTON: There is a similar shared tempo and storytelling manner.

WHEELER: Partly I think it's drawn from the introspective nature of diary, which can be plodding, and partly I think when you're writing about the mundane, your influences tend to come from the kitchen sink drama, which was also big in the 60s and 70s, when this stuff started. Is anyone actually taking their influences from anatomy?

WATSON: Anyone working on HELLBLAZER...


JOHNSTON: Glenn Fabry? Tim Bradstreet?

WHEELER: Fabry's almost too anatomical, I have trouble with his pencils for that reason. The way the sinews bend look horrible. I don't find myself gagging at the way muscles move when I see someone walking down the street, but the way Glenn Fabry draws them... But do people actually take their inspiration from real life?

JOHNSTON: Steve Lieber. He makes a big point of still attending art classes and doing life drawing.

WHEELER: Russell, as we say, he credits his models.

WATSON: Alex Ross.

WHEELER: He owns a mirror, therefore he has all the models he needs.

JOHNSTON: And Tim Bradstreet. Say what you like about his art, it does always look like a real person. Unsurprisingly, I think we must conclude that artists' influences come from everywhere. But I think it's nice that, since ten years ago, we can more obviously point to a huge diversity of influences than we could back then, when it did seem that most of the people working in the Western comics industry had done nothing but read comics all their life, and were both writing and drawing from those comics. Maybe it wasn't the case then either, but it wasn't as clear as it is now.

WHEELER: But I think that it's also the case that, just as the first resort of the comics pundit is always to compare the comic industry to the music industry, the first resort of the comic creator is always to compare it to movies.

JOHNSTON: Because everybody wants that big...

WHEELER: Cheque?

JOHNSTON: No, that big, widescreen...

WHEELER: Morrisonesque...

WATSON: Iconic...

JOHNSTON: ... explosion.

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