A Storytelling Thing: an interview with Paul Grist
Paul Grist has worked for, amongst others, DC Thomson, Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, but is probably best known for his self-published comics, Kane and Jack Staff. In this exclusive interview for the Forbidden Planet International Blog, Paul talks about making comics, self-publishing and why both Kane and Jack Staff are now being published by Image Comics. Interview conducted and transcribed by Matthew Badham, with additional questions by Propaganda’s Richard Bruton; interview copy-edited by Matthew Badham and Paul Grist.
(Paul Grist at the 2007 Bristol International Comics Expo)
MB: Have you always been into comics and which artists and comics were particularly inspirational?
PG: The short answer is yes. Ever since I can remember comics have always been around. I had an older brother and he had comics, and so I had comics. The ones that made the biggest impression on me were comics like TV21 and artists like Frank Bellamy and Mike Noble. They were the artists that I would look at as a small child and think, ‘Yeah!!!’ They made me want to draw comics really.
MB: You’ve developed quite a different style from those artists despite their influence.
PG: They were the ones that made me want to draw comics, but there were other artists who, if you like, I stole things from, but inspirationally they [artists such as Frank Bellamy and Mike Noble] were the ones that I was looking at when I was a very small child. Then, later on, you come to the artists that actually make you realise how things are done artistically. When I was a late teenager that was artists like Frank Miller and Dave Sim. They were a lot more motivational in giving me ideas about how to draw.
MB: You said Frank Miller. Are you talking about his work on Daredevil?
MB: What would you do? Would you copy specific panels?
PG: No, no… nothing like that. It was more in terms of looking at his storytelling and structure and that kind of thing.
MB: Can you still see elements of that storytelling in your work, in Jack Staff and Kane, or do you think you started with that and developed your own style?
PG: It acts as a starting point and then you introduce your own ideas and add things to it so that, hopefully, the storytelling develops and changes. I don’t see very much of that in my work now. There is some stuff there from Dave Sim, my use of lots of black for example. When you’re the sole writer/artist, producing your comic can take forever and covering it all in black can speed the process up.
MB: So although the stark use of black and white on Kane is for effect, it’s also about speeding the process of creation up?
PG: It is a quick thing to do, but it also creates an atmosphere. If you can do both together, create a comic quickly while creating atmosphere, then so much the better. I don’t particularly enjoy spending lots of time on backgrounds.
(a panel from Kane showing Paul’s use of black to reduce the time needed to create detailed backgrounds, (c) Paul Grist, published Image)
MB: You’re trying to find the essential balance in terms of the detail of the comic that best tells that comic’s story?
PG: My main concern is the story. It’s not a writing thing, it’s not an art thing, it’s a storytelling thing. Basically you have to get down what’s needed to tell the story. You need character, dialogue and enough background information so that readers know where the characters are and what’s happening, and all that kind of stuff. I’m not going to spend more time than I need to once I’ve got those key ideas across.
MB: It’s comics as one cohesive storytelling system/language. You’re not noodling away as the artist thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll have lots of detail because it looks pretty.’
PG: No. I’m never been like that. I’ve never had that patience or the desire to do that kind of thing.
MB: Would it be fair, then, rather than call you a writer/artist, to refer to you a cartoonist?
PG: That’s the word I’d use, yeah.
MB: Is that because of the synthesis in your comics of your writing and your art?
PG: That’s right. When I’m doing my own stuff, like Kane and Jack Staff, it’s very hard to separate the art and the writing from each other. I don’t write scripts. The writing comes along with the drawing.
MB: Do you think that this approach fosters experimentation in your graphic storytelling? An example: in your recent Kane collection, Partners, you have a sequence where a character reluctantly returns to his place of employment, a bank, following a heist that has gone wrong, the proceeds of which would have liberated him from his wage-slave existence. As well as showing the character hunched and obviously despairing, you also put a ball and chain around his ankle.
Now this isn’t a real ball and chain, rather it’s metaphorical. To help demonstrate its metaphorical status, you embed the character’s lower leg and the ball and chain in a second, smaller panel within the main panel. Do you think that these sorts of innovations are more likely to appear because you’re a cartoonist?
PG: I think that, yes, they are more likely to. It’s just straightforward cartooning as far as I’m concerned. I think if you’re writing something, then it’s not the kind of thing that you’ll be thinking about putting in. And if you’re drawing something from a script, then it’s not the kind of thing you’ll be thinking about either because you’re trying to communicate what the writer’s put down. If you’ve got one person doing the whole thing though, then you’re more likely to get some experimentation.
MB: It’s almost as though people associate the stuff that makes comics into comics, like emanata, visual symbols used in comics to signify a feeling or state, so birds above someone’s head when they’ve been concussed or lightning when they’re angry, with juvenility and the humour comics of their youth. But why not use emanata? They work in comics.
PG: There are things that comics can do brilliantly and people tend not to do them because… it’s to do with this idea of doing serious comics. Once people reach a certain age, and go through this thing where comics are associated with children and trying to persuade people that they can be serious, you don’t want anything that reminds people of the stuff you would get in comics when you were a child, which would be the more visual elements. I don’t mind using those elements, but they’re not the type of thing that you often see nowadays.
(events take a nasty turn in this stark and effective sequence from Kane, (c) Paul Grist)
MB: You don’t use thought balloons much though, do you?
MB: I find that interesting because you do use visual cues, as discussed, that hark back to traditional comics storytelling, but then you use quite decompressed storytelling techniques alongside that.
PG: The thing about thought balloons is that I am wary of using them because there are lots of things that are said in my comics by characters that might not necessarily be their guiding motives. I think with thought balloons you have to give away what people are actually thinking. Particularly in Kane, where characters are acting and you’re not really sure of what their motivations are, if you start using thought balloons then that can give things away too much. I’ll use dialogue and I’ll use captions, which are often used like thought balloons nowadays. These though are one step removed from an actual thought balloon.
MB: Thought balloons would destroy the sub-text?
MB: I hadn’t thought about that but that’s very true of Kane. Another interesting thing about Kane is that if someone didn’t know the series and they heard us discussing it, as we have just been discussing it, they’d think, you know, ‘Christ, this is a really dry, slow series.’ But the reality is that Kane goes all over the place in terms of its tone. Of course, you’re still in control of that tone, but you’ll veer from comedy to really serious stuff and sometimes within the same issue you’ll be running a comic storyline side-by-side with a serious storyline. Was that something you intended when you started Kane or something that just emerged?
PG: I just try and mix things up really. The first issue of Kane had elements of humour in it, but overall it was more straightforward. This, though, was just because it introduced readers to his world and state of mind, and then, later, I started mixing things up. I want to do something that is not always going to be what you expect.
MB: Do you think there’s too much of what you expect in comics? You know what you’re going to get. The thing that Steve Grant said, that every superhero comic is two fights and a chase scene.
PG: I think that there are lots of different things that comics can do.
MB: Gotcha. I should really get back to the questions I prepared for this interview. I have a terrible habit of veering off at tangents… tell us about the early part of you career and about working for DC Thomson.
PG: Initially I spent time just trying to break in. I was very impressed by Escape magazine, edited by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury. I sent them some work and they encouraged me to publish my own small press comic, which I did, and got into that kind of small press circle.
MB: This was all around the Fast Fiction stuff.
PG: Yeah. This was ‘85, ‘86. But I was also looking at how I could make some money and that wasn’t going to make me a great deal of money. So I sent copies of the comics that I’d done to DC Thomson, who seemed most suited to the drawing style that I had, and within a week they were sending me work to do.
MB: What sort of work was it?
PG: I was doing short, almost cartoon-like strips for their girls’ comics, such as Nikki. It started that I was doing quarter-page strips and half-page strips and then after about a year I was actually drawing the cover.
MB: Was it difficult to make a living from this?
PG: I was making a reasonable amount of money at that point, comparatively speaking. I was on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which, for me, was brilliant. It was basically to get people off the signing on register so that the Government could claim that more people were employed. They would actually give you more money than you would get for signing on and you got to keep all the money for the work that you’d done. So, I was getting that for a year and doing stuff for DC Thomson and it kind of built up from there.
MB: So you’re working for DC Thomson and then, later, in 1993, you self-publish Kane. Tell us about the journey from DC Thomson to self-publishing Kane.
(a selection of covers from Burglar Bill, borrowed from Guido Weisshahn’s fine Paul Grist fan page and (c) Paul Grist)
PG: What happened was Burglar Bill basically. I was doing stuff for DC Thomson and I then started getting work with Trident Comics.
MB: St. Swithin’s Day.
PG: St Swithin’s Day, written by Grant Morrison. Then, because I was very influenced by Cerebus and the idea of having my own black-and-white comic, having Trident Comics publish Burglar Bill seemed like a good idea and they were keen to do it. They published the first issue, but then very quickly went out of business. So I had this story that didn’t have a home.
(issue 1 of Trident, including stories from Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell and one by a young Grant Morrison and a certain Paul Grist; image borrowed from the invaluable Comic Book Database)
Then Tundra UK was set up, which was basically Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles money being used to set up a British branch of Tundra. They had very nice offices and lots of people running around doing stuff, but very few comics coming out. They agreed to do Burglar Bill and said that they would do it as a six-issue series and so I got on with it. But they said that they wouldn’t publish any of it until the entire thing was done. Anyway, there was going to be an advance and that was fine, and so I carried on working on Burglar Bill for a long time: almost a year. But then it turned out that there was no advance and they said that they weren’t going to publish it because they were going out of business. Anyway, I did get a kill fee of something like £2000.
By this point I’d spent a lot longer on it than I would have if I’d known all I was going to get was £2000. It was unfortunate because if they said to me, “Well, we can’t publish this comic but here’s £2000,” I would have gladly gone away and published it myself. And that is what the Xeric Grant does, that Peter Laird set up, with the other half of the Turtles money as it were. That actually seems like a more sensible way of doing things, because rather than setting up a whole imprint you give people a sum of money and they can go away and self-publish.
MB: Did all of this lead to a growing disenfranchisement with other people publishing your stuff?
PG: By this point I’d had a year where I’d had no paying work published or anything and so any name that I’d established for myself seemed to be rapidly fading. At this point I thought that the best thing that I could do was to self-publish. I’d reached a point where I couldn’t rely on other people to publish my work, but I could do it myself.
MB: That’s why you embarked on self-publishing. Now, you’d done Burglar Bill, which had a slice-of-life element. You’d also worked with comics writer and artist Phil Elliot and, that, again was slice-of-life. The stuff you’d sent to Escape magazine was slice-of-life. Why Kane, a crime drama?
PG: I don’t have much of an interesting life, so a slice of my life would get very tedious, very quickly. (Laughter)
There’s not an awful lot to write about there, at least for me, if you’re doing that personal kind of stuff. I couldn’t self-publish Burglar Bill at that point because there had already been one issue and so I didn’t want to self-publish something that was a reprint. So I did another crime story, but turned it round so that it was from the police’s perspective rather than a criminal’s.
MB: The idea of self-publishing seems quite daunting or do you disagree?
PG: The thing to do if you’re publishing anything is that you go and show the distributor what you’re going to do. They print details about it in their catalogue and then they come back with an order. What you do is you print quantities based on the order.
I didn’t do any of that.
I went and printed out… I think I ended up printing 3000 copies of the first issue. Then I decided to try and sell them. That was a matter of sending out a sample copy to all the comic shops in the UK and selling it directly to them. And from that I found that, out of the hundreds of comic shops in the UK, there were about 15 willing to sell something like that.
MB: Why is that?
PG: You’ve got shops that will sell independent comics and shops that will only sell DC and Marvel, and Image would be regarded as independent in terms of what those latter shops would sell at that point , although I think they [Image] are actually a bit more so [independent] now in terms of what they are publishing. A black and white, self-published comic wouldn’t be what a lot of comics shops would be selling. What you do is you find the shops that are going to support you. The shops that have people there that will work at building up sales and show an interest in what you’re doing, rather than just being one more comic that they can have that week.
Anyway, that’s how I started off and I sold quite a few comics that way, and then I worked my way up into the catalogues, there were two or three distributors, well, there were quite a few, like Diamond and Capital City, they were the two major ones, and I got listed in their catalogues. I think Capital City first, they took quite a lot of comics, and then Diamond, they took a lot of comics, and it built up from there.
MB: Was there ever a time where it looked like Kane might become economically viable or was it always an uphill struggle?
PG: It’s always been difficult. Initially, it did do reasonably well. I was making a reasonable amount of money.
MB: You were making a living from Kane?
PG: Yeah. I was selling quite a few back issues, but then that didn’t seem to be happening so much and I reached a point where… initially the readership was climbing and climbing and climbing and each issue would sell a bit more, sell a bit more and sell a bit more. But, you know, it reached a point where I was selling 2000 and that was it, and no matter what I did I couldn’t really get beyond that. That was ok and still made a little bit of money, but with increasing printing costs… it reached a point where sales weren’t dropping but they weren’t going up either. The profit margin was getting smaller and smaller and that was eventually why I had to stop doing Kane because the sales just weren’t there.
MB: It does live on in the form of trade paperbacks…
PG: Yeah, the thing about Kane is that although the individual issues weren’t selling well, it was still selling through the trade paperbacks, the collections. Also I was having problems with keeping everything in print, all the individual issues. It was becoming a real headache.
(some target practise in Paul Grist’s Kane)
MB: It was about physically storing your stock?
PG: Yeah, only this morning I was clearing out old stock.
MB: You were publisher, public relations, writer, artist; it’s a lot of hassle being a one-man band.
PG: Yes. It is also very enjoyable, if not necessarily financial rewarding.
MB: Did it ever give you sleepless nights?
PG: No. Never. Sleep is never a problem. And as a self-publisher there are benefits. You can set your own deadlines, for example.
MB: How much of it was about ownership, that you own the copyright for Burglar Bill, you own Jack Staff and you own Kane?
PG: That’s fine in its own way, but that in of itself doesn’t put bread on your plate.
MB: But you were never tempted to go back and do just the work-for-hire stuff, where someone else has to worry about the printing and distribution and all that?
PG: No one was offering.
MB: But you’ve written for Marvel and DC. You have done that kind of work. Presumably with a bit of networking you could do a Dave Hine, maybe get some work-for-hire gigs?
PG: That is what I hoped would happen, because I did do some of that kind of work in the ‘90s that I hoped would come to more, but that petered out. Partly though I suppose that was because I didn’t follow it up as I could have done. This was around the time that Marvel filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy or something and there seemed to be a real possibility that they might go out of business. And they seemed to withdraw a bit and stick with very safe properties for a while…
MB: Secret Wars 6.
PG: Yeah, they concentrated on all their core titles and just concentrated on staying in business. What I was doing for them, a black and white title focusing on the Daily Bugle, just wasn’t a significant kind of thing. Consequently there wasn’t really an opportunity to do much at Marvel.
MB: Would you like to do some work for them if the opportunity arose?
PG: What you’ve got to realise is that although I’ve been self-publishing for years, Kane came from something… that I’d forgotten about until later on… the core of Kane was part of a story that I’d pitched to DC Comics back in 1990 that they never picked up on.
MB: So this was the proto-Kane that came before Kane.
PG: The central idea behind it was abandoned and it was really just the characters that made it into Kane. A similar thing happened with Jack Staff. That was supposed to be a Union Jack pitch for Marvel. If Marvel had taken me up on that then there wouldn’t have been a Jack Staff.
MB: Note to aspiring comic creators: don’t rip up rejected proposals. File them away for possible future use.
PG: Things can be reworked and reused.
MB: Jack Staff has certain characters in it, for example, the vampire hunters who seem to be Steptoe and Son and there was a cameo from Dad’ Army at one point, and I wondered, where’s copyright in all of this?
PG: I’m not using those characters in any way, shape or form. There’s no copyright issue.
MB: Well, one’s a jokey cameo, Dad’s Army, but the vampire hunters are continuing characters.
PG: It’s using Steptoe and Son as an inspiration for two characters. It’s not like I’m taking set pieces from the TV series or anything like that. It’s taking the idea of an older man and his younger son and the frustrations in that relationship and applying that relationship to hunting vampires.
MB: How important is homage to Jack Staff? You do use archetypes, such as when you flash back to the Second World War and feature a team of Golden Age heroes and the storytelling style shifts to ape the comics of that time.
PG: I think that the ideal time for reading superhero comics is when you’re 14 or 15 and so I’m also putting in all the other things, like Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army, that I watched when I was that age.
MB: It sometimes reminds me of some of the British Marvel reprints from the ‘70s, in the way that you’ll have an issue that consists of five five-page episodes as it were.
PG: That is how I read superheroes, through the Marvel reprints and that kind of thing. Jack Staff’s very much a mish-mash of all the things that I was influenced by when I was growing up.
MB: And Department Q, that investigates weird phenomena, brings to mind all those weird telefantasies you used to get in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
MB: Were you surprised by Jack Staff’s success?
PG: Jack Staff was originally just an opportunity to do something different from Kane. I thought that people would hopefully read Jack Staff and, if they enjoyed it, try Kane. It did work to a certain extent. The Kane trade paperbacks started to have a renewed interest, but in terms of the single issues that was still not happening at all. What I was surprised at was that initially Jack Staff came in at around the same sort of level as Kane and then the order for the second issue came in and it was lower, which was what I expected, and then I suddenly got a whole load of reorders on the first issue, which I wasn’t expecting. And then the orders for the third issue jumped up and they were higher than Kane.
MB: There came a point where you moved to Image Comics after many years of self-publishing. Why?
PG: With Image I can do colour and that was something that I wouldn’t have been able to consider if I was self-publishing. Right from issue one I’d included colour pages as and when, but a full comic was beyond my budget. It also meant that I didn’t have to worry about paying printers bills and storage: the two biggest problems of the self-publisher.
Image Comics means I can have all the Kane books in print at the same time, which was one of the things I had to juggle round when I was publishing myself. You’d reach a point when Book Four is coming out, but Books Two and Three are sold out, but you can’t afford to reprint those AND do Book Four. Then, when Book Four comes out then you start getting people wanting the earlier books…
Image is a pretty good solution to some of those problems, and it’s still my comics, my way. Nobody is coming in and changing anything. For me, it’s a pretty good place to be. They’re a very creator-friendly publisher. I really have got nothing but nice things to say about Image.
As for what’s happening now, basically for the last year there’s been very little Jack Staff on the shelves: issue 13 and then the black and white King Size Special, and then nothing. What I’ve been doing is trying to clean up my act so that I get ahead of schedule before I solicited comics. This has been a problem that’s dogged me throughout my self-publishing days and followed me to Image, and that is, once you lose time on a comic it’s very hard to make it up. I’ve spent the last few months working away and I’m now finishing inking issue 17 and I’m halfway through pencilling issue 18. The result of all this industry is that starting in January with a Jack Staff Special (see cover above), which will be a complete single-issue story and an ideal jumping on point for new readers, Jack Staff will be going monthly.
And I will be doing some more Kane stories – just don’t ask when!
MB: Paul Grist, thanks for your time.
FPI would also like to thank Paul for taking part, to our own Richard Bruton for putting in some additional questions and to Matthew Badham who organised and executed the whole interview. To mark the launch of the Jack Staff Special Paul will appearing in the Manchester Forbidden Planet International store (65 Oldham Street, Piccadilly) on Saturday the 19th of January from 3 to 4pm, so if you are in the area please come down to meet him and get your favourite works signed. If you enjoyed this interview then you should also pick up the Judge Dredd Megazine (#267, dated February on the cover) where Matthew’s latest contribution is an interview with Al Ewing.