“sharpening a pencil is like a cup of tea for your brain” — richard starkings, comic creatorBack
One of the crueller twists in the tales of comic book history is the way entire universes, with their origins in a single human imagination, have been brought into our universe only to be wrenched away from their creators.
The originating imagination doesn’t stop imagining, but it can no longer influence the characters or the worlds it brought into being. They belong, now, to somebody else.
The life of Richard Starkings, creator of the Elephantmen comic books and a pioneer of digital font design, has been a journey towards his own imagination: cultivating it, expressing it, and owning it.
“I would always advocate that creative people own what they create,” he says. “The benefits are massive.
“I was good friends with the creator of Judge Dredd at a time when he didn’t even own a piece of it, and he constantly told me – Own what you create! Don’t make the mistake I made! And I listened – I’m the creator and owner of Elephantmen.”
Elephantmen is published by Image Comics, where one of the core philosophies is that comic book creators own their work, rather than the publisher, meaning those creators’ decisions are paramount.
“It’s about control over your creative destiny, and control over your characters,” says Richard. “I’m approached all the time by people saying, ‘Hey, I’d love to write Elephantmen’ – well actually that job’s taken!
“But if I worked for Marvel or DC and they thought, hmm, sales are dropping, let’s bring in some other creators to work on this series and give it a shot in the arm, they could do that, and they could fire me. Because I work for Image Comics, they can’t. I own it, I decide.”
Creative control doesn’t narrowly mean that every line and letter of each comic book is the work of one lone person.
“That’s another decision you can make,” when you own your universe. “My friend Mike Mignola, who created Hellboy, works with other writers and artists on spin-offs, including an artist called Duncan Fegredo who went to Trinity & All Saints in Leeds.
“Mike makes an understanding that he is the owner and creator of Hellboy, but he enjoys working with other artists who bring something, like architects who bring something to the world. Maybe he has a story that he doesn’t want to draw but he’d like to see someone else draw it. That’s a great position to be in.
“With my book, Elephantmen, I’ve worked with a number of artists, and that starts with my cover artist Boo Cook, who is an extremely talented and imaginative artist who might create an image or character on the cover. Then I work with different artists like Axel Medellin, who lives in Mexico and can draw a cityscape that makes you understand how deep and wide the Los Angeles of the future is; and a brilliant artist from Canada called Marian Churchland who has a very soft, gentle style and is very good at imaginative technology; and they each bring a different perspective.
“When Ridley Scott made Blade Runner he talked about how important it was to have different artists working on the movie, doing design, doing different graphics, different buildings, different cars; because he didn’t want a world that looked like it was designed by one artist. He wanted a world that looked like the real world, where the pub next door has a painting on the sign by one artist, somebody else does the façade, then the building next door is completely different: that’s reality, that’s a world.
“I’ve been doing Elephantmen for over sixty issues and the great thing is that water finds its own level – you attract people that like your kind of work, and that’s something you don’t realise when you start out. When you carve a niche, people will come to you. It’s very satisfying when you create your own series and people respond, and artists send you work without you having to ask.
“There are lots of different ways of working that don’t require corporate ownership. It’s a sort of myth, that you need somebody to write you a cheque. If you are able to create something that finds an audience, that work writes its own cheque.”
Understanding the rewards available through creativity can be difficult for any artist who is trying to work out if art can actually be their career path, and when Richard was growing up in Rawdon at the end of the seventies there was no obvious way to make his imagination into work, whether corporate or not.
“In Yorkshire at that time, being an artist was not a manly profession. We weren’t encouraged to pursue careers in art – we were always told why it was important to be an engineer. The school I went to, Aireborough Grammar, was not really focused on what you wanted – it focused on what the country wanted. They were trying to prepare us for the reality of going to work and finding a career, and I just knew I wasn’t going to do any of those things. I didn’t know what I would do, because until I went to college I didn’t really feel like I could live and work creatively.
“I was good at English, but I had a great careers officer who came to Aireborough Grammar and she sussed me out. She saw that I didn’t just want to do English – although I really enjoyed it – and she found the perfect course for me. 300 miles away.
“My English degree was very strange at the time, because it was called English and Media Studies. It was very difficult to find a course like that – it was 1980, and there was only one in the country, at the Dorset Institute of Higher Education. It was very small, and we didn’t have much money, but I left with a degree that was in English, but I also had experience of making a movie, making a TV show, doing audio – and we performed in each others’ projects so there was acting involved too.”
Cutting across the disciplines, through novels to movies to TV to sound, highlights the unique space that comic books occupy in the world of storytelling.
“Growing up I enjoyed comic books for the visual side of storytelling; and I’m a writer now, that’s what I do,” says Richard. “But I have so much interest in how pictures and words join together, and comic books are unique in that you don’t really have a comic book until the pictures and the words join together.
“You might say the same thing with movies, but movies are moving pictures; the power of a single image, and the power of a single image combined with words, is a very different thing to a narrative you experience in real time in a movie. Part of what captures you in comic books is that static image that the artist has selected to tell the story to you. That one image limits the amount of information you get; so that one image has to be one hundred times as powerful as moving images.”
By the end of the eighties Richard had moved from writing for Dr Who fanzines and student papers and into the corporate world at Marvel UK, where despite the machinery that comes with working for a global publisher, the excitement and innovation of comic books’ early days was still present.
“From 1987–89 I was the Editor of Boys’ Adventure Titles at Marvel UK, so I had editors working under me on comics like Transformers, The Real Ghostbusters, Action Force. It was an exciting time, because there wasn’t enough material being generated by Marvel US, so we had to generate our own, and that’s how I had got work at Marvel UK before I was hired. We were encouraged to produce original material for licensed properties like Ghostbusters, which was one of my most successful launches, and we produced eleven pages every two weeks – so it was like putting out an American comic every month.
“We had to commission new artists, and working with those new artists was really exciting. During my time I worked with Bryan Hitch, who went on to work on the X-Men and the Ultimates at Marvel US; Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning got their first work with me at Marvel UK, and they’re best known right now for doing the Guardians of the Galaxy comics that the movie is based on.
“It was great working with artists when they’re young and enthusiastic, when they stay up all night and bring their pages in and are really excited to get your feedback. In those days there was no Instagram or Facebook to get likes so they had to come to the office, show up with their work, and they would watch your face to see if you liked it because they were so afraid that you’d see the mistakes and not the good stuff.”
That feeling of being pioneering and on the edge is something Richard thinks has been lost at places like Marvel and DC, but that creater-owner publishers like Image Comics retain.
“Marvel and DC are very much production line comic book companies. Somebody writes, somebody pencils, somebody inks, somebody colours, somebody letters, somebody edits, and that’s the way you get a comic book out every month. You need to be able to hire other artists, hire another inker when somebody’s sick, know that your colourist can turn something around overnight.
“It’s very much about making sliced bread. Batman needs to always feel like Batman, Spider-Man needs to always feel like Spider-Man, and even though you’ll get sweeping editorial changes – Spider-Man becomes Spider-Girl, or Thor becomes female as just happened at Marvel – ultimately you know that they’re going to go back to basics and deliver sliced bread.
“That’s not what made Marvel exciting in the beginning. What made Marvel exciting was – here’s a new comic, The Hulk. What the hell is that? And he had all his villains – the Leader, the Abomination, Metal Master, all these characters. There was this constant surprise and excitement, like when you watch something new on TV, or see a movie that’s exciting for the first time.
“That’s what I enjoy about making Elephantmen at Image Comics. They create only new creations. Walking Dead is the most well known Image comic, that was very popular before it was a TV series; Saga is a new one that has been around for twenty or thirty issues, Chew is an Image comic; and a lot of people will hear these titles and think: I don’t know what that is.
“But they forget that it was the same in the sixties when Spider-Man came out – what the hell is a Spider-Man? That’s what Image Comic creators try to recapture; we try to put out a book that creates the same excitement in the reader as we had when Spider-Man came out. Every time I do an issue of Elephantmen, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and the readers don’t know what’s going to happen; and there’s been a big upsurge in readership for Image Comics’ titles because people are tired of the same old sliced bread.”
But boredom with the sliced bread corporate comic world wasn’t the motivating factor behind Richard’s move to America and, ultimately, to Image Comics.
“I left Marvel UK to chase a girl out to California. I didn’t catch her! But I did move to New York. I had a lot of friends at Marvel US, and I worked for them as a pen-lettering artist; then I moved out to California in late ’89 and got sort of stuck – but I kind of like it there, too. I’d been to San Diego Comic-Con in both 1988 and ’89, not realising I would go to San Diego Comic-Con every year for the rest of my life.”
In California Richard began to establish his own means of creative control by founding a company that changed the creative processes for the entire industry, changing what might seem like a minor detail: the lettering.
“I always concentrated on lettering because I could do it,” says Richard. “I hadn’t had the art education at Aireborough that I would have liked to have had, and I wasn’t encouraged in the way that maybe I needed. But I was fascinated by the contribution that a lettering artist made, and that was a niche that let me find my way in: to work in editorial, to write stories.”
Richard was ahead of the rest of the industry in the early nineties in seeing that digital lettering processes would overtake lettering by hand, and the company he founded – Comicraft – blossomed first by offering digital lettering as a service, then as a product, with over 300 digital comic book font packages available to buy.
“First I had one assistant part time, then I had him full time and another person part time, and I got all the way to having a studio in Santa Monica of sixteen people, not including myself. It was very creative and we were getting a lot of work done and winning all sorts of awards, but nobody realised that the studio wasn’t just me, because they didn’t need to – what’s important in lettering is the quality of the work, and your contribution to the body of work that the publisher is putting out.
“We’ve worked with all the major publishers in the US, but it was always with a goal in mind – I wanted to sell comic book fonts so that I could fund my own comics, so that I could create something I owned.”
Despite developing the software that took comic book lettering for publication away from the pen, it’s still hand and pencil, and pen and ink, that Richard uses to translate the universes he imagines into the comics he owns.
“I don’t do any professional work with a pen, but I still use my hands. There is pen lettering, because a pen is just a tool, and digital lettering, because a computer is just a tool; and while the computer has more tools, when I write Elephantmen I use a pencil and a sketchbook and I write dialogue by hand. There is something about the process of the mind to the hand, compared to the process of the mind to the computer – that doesn’t work for me.
“I like the smell of the lead on the paper, I like sharpening the pencil, I like to draw as I write. It’s the combination of words and pictures – when you look through a newspaper or magazine, sometimes the picture makes you read the story, and that’s what you’ve got to remember: on every page of a comic book, the picture makes you read the story.
“It’s a visual medium, and that’s why I like to use a pencil when I’m writing a comic book, whereas I have no problem typing an email. It’s a different side of the brain – I think the right side of the brain needs to be triggered by that movement of the hand that we’re all trained to use. I use Moleskine sketchbooks, like the old rough books we used at school but with quality paper; and I exclusively use a pencil, a Blackwing pencil, which has very soft lead so it has to be sharpened a lot more. I think that’s still my process. It’s like having a cup of tea. Sharpening a pencil is like a cup of tea for your brain, there’s something about it.”
Drawing roughly while writing also allows Richard to communicate ideas to the artist working on the comic book, by providing a basic blueprint for the story and the storytelling required.
“That’s the way I like to work,” says Richard. “I do breakdowns of the comic strip that I send to the artist and attempt to draw it before he does, because where you position characters, how you control close-ups, is half the battle of storytelling.
“I have very specific ways of telling stories. I like to do a lot of close-ups on the eyes, because in comics – and in movies too – you’re constantly looking for the eyes of the characters. I remember the covers of Tracy Chapman albums that came out at the start of her career; she never looked at the camera and I was like, but I want to see your eyes! And I used to think, but why do I want to see her eyes? And it’s because there’s a story in people’s eyes that we’re used to.
“In comics the eyes are very, very important. Obviously artists have to be able to draw anatomy, but I sometimes think that if you can draw eyes you can get away with bad anatomy.”
The pictures in a comic have to do a lot of the work to communicate what a character is feeling or thinking; the prose has to do a lot of the work to add meaning to those expressions; the aim, whether collaborating or working alone, is to find the harmonious pitch that unites those elements and tells the story.
“Sometimes I just write whatever is coming out, and other times I draw and add my little word balloons in pencil – I always put a little balloon around them because that’s my experience of comic books.
“I’ve had more experience of seeing words and pictures meet, and that’s the beauty of the lettering artist – he’s the first person to read the story the way it was intended, and he is stitching the art and the script together.
“Oftentimes I’m both the writer and the lettering artist, so I literally sometimes rescript as I’m lettering – because it’s my property to do with as I please. I find that I react to the artwork – I write the script and then when I see the artwork it becomes something else because the artist has contributed a different facial expression or you need to explain something the artwork doesn’t cover.”
Having the overall view of a creator, and training the close mental processes that let you write and draw worlds, is something Richard honed, ironically, when working in among the franchises at Marvel UK.
“I always had a rule that if I edited a comic I had to write one, to find out how difficult it was. I wrote Dr Who, I wrote Ghostbusters, I wrote a Transformers story, an Action Force story, all to find out what the difficulties were of telling a story for that particular franchise. It was great experience, and it allowed me to understand and tell the writer, this is the kind of story you need to be telling.”
It was while working on Ghostbusters with writer John Carnell that Richard learned one of the foundation lessons that has informed his storytelling ever since.
“As an editor, you’re always trying to find out what makes a story work, and it took me a long while to realise that the best writers were searching for truth – that telling stories is like a search for the truth. The best movies always move us because there’s something truthful about them, even if it’s something troubling or tragic.
“John Carnell always wrote the best Ghostbusters stories, so I decided I had to find out why he could write Ghostbusters so well. I found out he was a Buddhist, and started reading a book he gave me, and in that book was the concept of turning poison into medicine; and I realised then that in all his Ghostbusters stories poison was turning into medicine.
“A ghost in a hotel: instead of just zapping the ghost, the Ghostbusters would make an agreement between the manager and the ghost that it would be their thing – The Haunted Hotel. Instead of the problem being crushed and destroyed, it became harmonious. He had another where electrical sprites were causing power outages across the city – so the Ghostbusters trapped the sprites in a ghetto blaster and it became an everlasting battery.
“All John’s stories transformed the situation and that’s life; life is all about transformations. That’s why the Incredible Hulk is attractive, because we’re all familiar with that meek, mild person who becomes angry and turns green; it rings true. All Spider-Man stories tend to be about coming of age: he’s a teenager who gets beat up at school, but eventually he becomes strong and intelligent and goes to college.
“I started practising Buddhism around that time because I was interested in that search for truth. Basically Buddhism is humanism, and that’s what we look for in comic books, in movies, in TV shows – where is the human story?
“I think that’s what I’ve discovered as a writer; that all writing is about studying how people react. Looking for the eyes. We’re all looking for the eyes – and that’s the truth.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 17