Music and comics: Pádraig Ó Méalóid talks to Peter Hogan
That man Pádraig Ó Méalóid strikes once more, pouncing on another unsuspecting comics writer, pen and pad in hand, armed with a bandolier of questions as he talks to the fine Peter Hogan about his early comics reading (a slew of classic Brit comics many of us grew up on), being exposed to his first DC and Marvel comics as a boy, how he became a writer, running a bookstore then a publisher for the Who’s Pete Townshend, the long-gone but still influential Brit comics Deadline and Revolver, working with Dez Skinn, overcoming his ‘fear’ of the blank page by writing and editing with Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis, breaking into the US market with Vertigo, working with Alan Moore at America’s Best Comics, writing new Tom Strong adventures, music journalism and more – it’s a fascinating read and we hope you enjoy it. Over to Peter and Pádraig:
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: Where are you from, and when were you born?
Peter Hogan: I’m from South London – born there, and lived most of my life there. Born on May 5th 1954.
PÓM: Did you read a lot of comics as a child, do you remember?
PH: Sure, from the age of about five up, and everything that was going – all the obvious British comics, like Beano and Beezer and Dandy. The entire Harvey line, Sad Sack and Casper and Richie Rich and so on. Tons of silver age DC and early Marvel… my Dad used to insist that I also read all of the Classics Illustrated titles he could find, so that I’d gain some semblance of an education along with all the men in tights. The first thing I remember really loving was Alex Toth’s Zorro, which was serialized in Mickey Mouse Weekly. The first thing I remember being completely blown away by was an issue of Superman that retold his origin, with a back-up story about time-travel and parallel worlds. I was six or seven years old, taking in all these science-fiction concepts for the very first time in the course of about an hour. I don’t think I ever recovered.
PÓM: Who was buying all the comics? Was it just your father, or were there older brothers and sisters, or what?
PH: Both my parents bought me comics, but my father initially had a bit of a problem with it. I remember him trying to explain to me, very seriously, that Superman wasn’t real. Something I didn’t really buy into at the time, or now! My brother’s nearly nine years older than me, and he was kind of beyond comics by then… but he still had some old Eagle annuals and some Mad paperbacks lying around. He was also my route to discovering lots of other cool stuff, like Tom Lehrer and the Goons and the Everly Brothers.
But I had cousins my age, and we’d swap boxes of stuff – you’d lose all the comics you had, but I didn’t really mind at the time because I’d get this completely random selection of stuff in return, Archie and Turok and Beetle Bailey, as well as Silver Age DC. Got my first Marvel comic that way, Fantastic Four # 6. Also ended up with a copy of some pre-code horror anthology title – no idea what it was, but it gave me nightmares for weeks. My parents nearly banned comics completely because of that, but I talked them round in the end.
(cover to Fantastic Four #6, with art by Dick Ayers and Jack Kirby, (c) Marvel)
PÓM: Do you still have any of those comics from your childhood left?
PH: The originals? No, all long gone. But I’ve replaced a few. Every once in a while I’ll see something up on a comic shop wall and succumb to temptation.
PÓM: Were you reading books at the same time, or was your childhood reading mostly comics?
PH: Probably more comics than books, but I still read fairly widely – lots of Billy Bunter and Tarzan. Read all the James Bond books when I was nine or ten, after seeing From Russia with Love for the first time. But it’s the fantastical stuff that I think of first and foremost … Narnia and Wind in the Willows when I was about seven, then Conan Doyle and John Wyndham and H.G. Wells and Alan Garner. Tolkien and Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft I discovered in my early teens.
PÓM: Did you decide you wanted to write comics from reading them then, do you think?
PH: No, never gave it a thought. I don’t think I was aware that there were such things as comics writers until Stan Lee made it obvious – you just assumed the artists did it all. But I didn’t really consider comics as a possible career until literally decades later.
PÓM: Did you have any sort of career path in mind, then, when you left school? Did you get any sort of qualification, for instance?
PH: I probably did want to be a writer, but I didn’t have the confidence to pursue it. I also kind of felt that while I knew I had some ability with words, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what I wanted to say. So while I wrote a lot of bad adolescent poetry in my teens, and I’ve been tinkering around with songwriting ever since, I didn’t attempt any prose writing or fiction at all until I was into my thirties.
My father had sent both my brother and I to Dulwich College, which is a public school in South London, and when I was there it was a real mixture of 19th century attitudes shot through with a hefty streak of arty liberalism. I was there between the ages of nine and sixteen, and largely hated it at the time, but I feel a certain fondness for the place in hindsight. Anyway, my father then managed to scupper my education by breaking up with my mother during my very first term at the place. Pretty much nobody got divorced in those days, so there wasn’t anything resembling a support network, or counselling, or even much in the way of sympathy. I had a pretty rough ride of it, and as a result fell drastically behind academically – and I didn’t really catch up again until after I left school. Since my ‘real’ life was pretty hellish, I simply retreated into fantasy worlds – comics, horror, science-fiction.
I left school with two ‘O’ levels, scraped up another four and a couple of ‘A’ levels at adult education colleges later on. But I spent most of the next eight years as a bookseller, mainly at Dillon’s University Bookshop, which is now a large Waterstone’s. That’s kind of where I grew up, really.
I left there in 1978, because my friend Pete Townshend wanted to open a bookshop in Richmond, and he asked me to set it up and run it for him.
PÓM: That would be Magic Bus Bookstore, would it? How did that work out?
PH: Magic Bus Bookshop, actually… and while we’re correcting Wikipedia, I should probably point out that my first wife never actually worked there, though that is where we met. She wandered in as a customer, and I chatted her up.
Anyway, Pete had found an empty shop and bought it, and I then had three months to turn it into a functioning bookshop, aided by a couple of other people. We opened in October, and our first Christmas was a roaring success. It was a smallish general bookshop, but we ignored some subjects completely and leant heavily in some of the directions that Pete and I were both interested in, like mysticism and music. We were fairly Stalinist about the mystical side, in that we completely bypassed all the stuff one might categorise as new age twaddle, since I saw no point in stocking books I considered deeply dubious or downright pointless. I mean, you can hold a crystal for as long as you like, but it’s not going to make you a better person – and I don’t really care whether crap sells. It’s still crap, so why stock it?
Anyway, I ran the shop for about a year, then transferred over to Pete’s publishing company, Eel Pie, where my brief was to produce some decent books about rock music and pop culture in general. Did that for just over three years, during which time we published a couple of dozen books I suppose, a handful of which I’m really proud of: Pennie Smith’s book of Clash photos, Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray’s Bowie – An Illustrated Record, Tony Stewart’s Cool Cats, which was a book about street style that featured contributions from Ian Dury and Paul Weller. The last couple of years of Eel Pie was basically myself on the editorial side, with John Brown on the business side. John of course went on to publish Viz, amongst other things.
(Pennie Smith’s totally iconic Clash photograph, (c) Pennie Smith)
And we were doing fairly well, for a small publisher. But Pete had managed to get himself hooked on heroin, and when he got clean again he hit a financial crisis and decided he was going to radically change his entire life. So he quit The Who, and shut down all his businesses – many of which deserved to be shut down, because they were insane. Recording studios on barges, for example. But Pete told me years later that his accountant was completely mystified as to why he’d shut the bookshop and the publishing company down, because they were actually making money. So it goes. The bookshop got sold, and has changed hands several times since then but is still a bookshop, which I’m quite pleased about.
As for me, I suddenly found myself both unemployed and single again. So I went to New York, and spent a couple of months there editing Dave Marsh’s book about The Who, which was mildly ironic in the circumstances.
PÓM: I think you’ve corrected several things that Wikipedia has wrong, just in that last answer!
PH: Yeah, I’m finding this whole business a little bizarre, but if people are going to write stuff about me, I’d rather it be accurate than not.
PÓM: Before we go on, can I ask how you ended up being mates with Pete Townshend? For all I know, of course, he could have been your next-door neighbour…
PH: That’s okay, feel free to backtrack on stuff if you want to. Let’s see… I first met Pete socially in… 1972 or 1973, I think, because we were both followers of Meher Baba. Still are, for that matter … though I don’t really have much involvement with Baba organizations or centres these days. It tends to become a much more personal thing, as time goes on. For me, anyway.
PÓM: At this point we’re up to about the early 1980s, I think, seeing as Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who was published in the US by St. Martin’s Press in 1983. I know that you didn’t start working on things like Crisis and Revolver for a few years yet, so what were you doing in the interim?
PH: Yeah, this is going to be another long answer. I edited Dave’s book in the spring of ’83. After that, I came back to Britain, and decided to set up my own literary agency, which was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. I found out the hard way that I just wasn’t a businessman. I had a few successes, but not enough to amount to a living, so I was having to do all kinds of other freelance work to keep myself and the agency afloat – editing, and publishing consultancy stuff. It was a bad period, which went on for about four years. I developed serious back problems, and was having cortisone injections directly into my spine, which sent me a little bit crazy for a year or two.
But at least I had a few jobs that were interesting during that period. I was a record company press officer for a while – worked at Rough Trade during the early days of the Smiths, handled the press for the first London gig by Los Lobos, worked on press for REM while they were still on IRS and did a short tour with them.
A few months after all that ended, Dez Skinn asked me to help out in one of his comics shops. I’d met Dez right at the end of the Eel Pie days, because I’d wanted to put together book collections of Marvelman and V for Vendetta. I got in touch with Dez again a year or so later to revive the idea, this time with me acting as Quality’s literary agent. I set up a deal with Virgin, but it all fell through because they primarily wanted Marvelman, and that had already begun its descent into legal chaos.
Anyway, I ended up working for Dez for about a year. He’d got the licence to do 2000AD reprints for the States, and I did some of the editorial work on those. I also caught up on all the comics material that had passed me by till then – Miller and Chaykin and so on – and met most of the people on the British comics scene during that period. That all ended too, of course, because Dez eventually parted company with his backers, and they kept the licence.
That takes us up to the spring of ’87, when I fortunately came to my senses long enough to realize that I’d developed a serious booze problem, and that I’d better do something about it pronto, because it was only going to get worse. So I knocked it on the head, and haven’t touched a drop since.
It was rip it up and start again time. I finally shut down the literary agency and began trying to reinvent myself as a journalist. I knew quite a few people in magazines, so I slowly built up a trickle of steady work. Mainly wrote about film, for magazines like Melody Maker and Sky and Vox, and much later on Uncut. I also wrote for a kids’ newspaper called Scoop, for whom I interviewed people that I’m really glad I got to meet, like Hanna & Barbera, Jim Henson, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hammill… I even interviewed Ricki Lake, when the original Hairspray came out.
It was also the time of the big comics boom, so people were constantly asking me to write articles about comics, and I interviewed most of the big names of the day, like Alan [Moore], and Grant [Morrison], and the Hernandez brothers. Neil Gaiman I knew because I’d done editorial work on his Douglas Adams book.
Probably because of all that, Igor Goldkind asked me to go and work for Fleetway, just to babysit Crisis for a couple of weeks so that Steve MacManus could take a much needed holiday. Steve asked me to stay on as his assistant on Crisis, and six months later he asked me to put Revolver together.
PÓM: How did you find working on Crisis?
PH: Interesting. I grew very fond of Steve, who was really trying his best to do something different and occasionally succeeding. The Brendan McCarthy pin-ups were great, and he’d managed to discover Garth Ennis, who was obviously really talented even then. Signing up the Pleece brothers was pretty smart as well.
The trouble was, Crisis had Pat Mills’ Third World War hanging round its neck like an albatross. It was an unreadable shambles, to my mind, just Pat ranting away on his soapbox, and it was eating up half the comic. But Steve was committed to it – probably out of loyalty to Pat. I can’t even remember when it finally got dumped, but it seemed to take forever, and it really held the magazine back.
PÓM: You mentioned working with Dez Skinn, who seems to polarise opinion amongst people who’ve met him. How did you find him?
PH: Dez is … a bit of a rogue, obviously. But he has the charm to go with it, and whatever else he may have done, he at least had the gumption to give the world Warrior, and all that was in it. I can completely understand why so many people are pissed off with him, and they have my utmost sympathy but … personally speaking, I have to say that the man never did me any harm, and he gave me work when I needed it. Without Dez I might never have got involved in comics, though that’s definitely been a mixed blessing.
PÓM: What was your brief for Revolver?
PH: Pretty open-ended. Basically, they trusted me to put something together, and let me get on with it. They wanted to do something vaguely adult, and not as po-faced as Crisis … and they had a couple of ingredients already racked up. Dare was already half-finished, and had been for a long time. Charlie Murray’s Hendrix strip Steve had bought a few months earlier, at my suggestion. I caught flak for that one, because a lot of people didn’t understand why we were doing a strip about a 1960s musician. I’d get really depressed about it, but practically every day I’d see 17-year-old kids on the street wearing Hendrix t-shirts. It was the people who were a bit older than that who didn’t get it, because they weren’t caught up in the whole rave-psychedelia thing that was going on at the time.
(cover to the first issue of the short-lived but fondly remembered Revolver, featuring Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ famous take on Dan Dare)
Anyway, given those two strips, what do you add? It blows the whole thing wide open, so that seemed the only way to go. Beyond that, there was a time factor. I was given the go ahead just after Angouleme, so it was January or February… and they wanted to launch in June. So there were lots of people who couldn’t sign up for the kickoff because they were busy elsewhere, and we basically ended up with the best line-up I could put together in what was a ridiculously short space of time. Thank God we had Rogan Gosh and Dare, both of which were class acts.
But we had all kinds of good things lined up for the future, and the Hallowe’en and Valentines specials are probably the best example of what Revolver might have become in time, if the rug hadn’t been pulled out from under us. The excuse was low sales, but… the truth was, they’d screwed up the distribution. Outside of comics shops, the first couple of issues were almost impossible to find – and then we were judged on the sales figures for those issues and found wanting, even though the ongoing sales figures were well above what they’d hoped for.
I honestly don’t know if this was a case of simple ineptitude, or malice aforethought. I’ve been told that there was a Maxwell executive a couple of levels above Fleetway who absolutely hated them, wanted the whole division to fail. He wanted to cut their budget so he could launch his own pet project, a music magazine. I’ve even heard that he’d told the sales force ‘not to bother with this one’. The music magazine subsequently lost a fortune, apparently, whereas Revolver actually made money. Not much, but some.
PÓM: I know at least some of the strips from Revolver were continued elsewhere, or collected, weren’t they? A particular favourite of mine was Happenstance and Kismet. Did anything ever happen with that?
PH: Dare was concluded in Crisis, and has since been collected and republished several times, and Vertigo picked up Rogan Gosh. Several of the short stories got republished elsewhere, I think, including Neil’s Feeders & Eaters. Nothing further happened with Happenstance that I know of… if it got translated into Albanian, nobody’s told me.
PÓM: Wouldn’t it be around the same time that you started actually writing comics?
PH: There was one important thing that came first, and that was the Comic Relief Comic [AKA The Totally Stonking, Surprisingly Educational And Utterly Mindboggling Comic Relief Comic]. Neil Gaiman roped me into that one, shortly before Revolver ended. Fleetway had agreed to do all the production and sales on the Comic Relief title, and they also loaned me out as an editor to work on it. Then Revolver folded and I was made redundant … but I felt kind of obligated to Comic Relief to see it all out, which took a couple more months. But that was okay. I figured I might never do anything for charity ever again, so it was time to step up … and even though it ended up being one of the most complicated and demanding jobs I’ve ever done, it also kept me sane, by giving me something worthwhile to do. It turned out well, too, and did what it was supposed to, which was to raise a stack of cash for genuinely good causes.
(cover for the charity publication The Totally Stonking, Surprisingly Educational And Utterly Mindboggling Comic Relief Comic, edited Hogan, Gaiman and Curtis)
The editorial team was Neil, myself, and Richard Curtis. Grant Morrison had come up with an overall plot for the thing, which we divided up into two-page sections and parcelled out to a whole load of different writers to turn into scripts. Once those scripts came back to us, the only way to get them all to tie up – and to improve the weaker ones – was to sit down and rewrite the whole thing as one cohesive script. Which the three of us then did, all huddled round one computer. I’m sure my input was minimal compared to Neil’s and Richard’s, and Neil did most of the typing, as I recall …
But it changed my life. In terms of trying to write a comics script myself, up until then I think I’d always had a terror of the blank page, or perhaps I should say the blinking cursor. Where do you start ? The answer is that you start anywhere you like… Doesn’t have to be Page One, Panel One. Could be somewhere in the middle, or at the end. You can start with an image, or a line of dialogue. It really doesn’t matter, because you can always change it later. The most important thing is that you actually make a start, and the second most important thing is that you finish. Anyway, watching Neil and Richard in action kind of… demystified the process for me, and took away some of the terror.
So, I ended up writing my first ever comic script for that, the two-page section of Dan Dare meeting Dr Who, which John Ridgway did the art for. When I finished it I still doubted that it was good enough, but Neil very sweetly told me that it was as good as any of the other contributions, and better than some.
After that, I decided comics writing was something worth exploring further. I persuaded Alan McKenzie to let me write the Steel Claw for his Action Special, sold Richard Burton a couple of Future Shocks and then a series for 2000AD… and while I’m sure there was an element of Richard and Alan giving me a tryout because I was a mate, they wouldn’t have kept giving me work after that if they hadn’t liked what I was delivering.
PÓM: Your time on 2000AD ended up quite abruptly, I believe. Do you want to say anything about that?
PH: 200OAD is like Comics Academy, and I learned a lot from working there. You always tend to wince a bit when looking back at stuff, but… I think I did some good work for them. Some of the short stories, the second Timehouse series… the Judge Dredd story wasn’t bad, and I think all the Robo-Hunter stories I did with Rian were absolutely spot on. But Strontium Dogs and Durham Red were… a bit of a curate’s egg. Some of it really works, but overall it’s kind of a mess. That was partly my fault, partly theirs – they kept changing story lengths on me, which made it hard to plan out. If I were doing it now, I wouldn’t have gone the meandering route – I’d just jump ten years into the future and explain the backstory on the run.
Anyway, that all ended when David Bishop became editor. The thing is, David had a perfect right to use – or not use – anybody that he chose, and that’s absolutely fair enough. But when he rang me up to fire me, he was kind of unnecessarily unpleasant about it. He’s at least had the grace to apologise for it since, but he basically told me that he wasn’t going to give me any more work, and that the work of mine that was already finished he was going to savagely edit and re-write. I told him that in that case I’d like my name taken off it, and we subsequently agreed that those stories would appear under the name ‘Alan Smithee’, which is the traditional Hollywood label for disowned work.
In point of fact, David only made one real change to the Durham Red story, and it was one I could easily have lived with if only we’d discussed it sensibly. The main change he made to the Strontium Dogs story concerned the last page. Instead of being a revelation that set up some interesting possibilities for the future, you had this really limp conclusion, which just seemed to me like David shooting himself in the foot. But… stuff like this is par for the course, there’s no point in getting too upset about it. As it happened, I was already working for Vertigo by then.
PÓM: So, how did you end up writing for the American market, and for Vertigo in particular?
PH: Alisa Kwitney rang me up. She was getting The Dreaming off the ground, and had discovered some of my 2000AD material in a dusty corner of the Vertigo office, and had liked it. She invited me to pitch her a story, liked what I pitched and bought it. That was ‘The Lost Boy’, where I got to work with the wonderful Steve Parkhouse for the first time – and it was the longest and most complex story I’d tackled up till then. I learnt a lot – and it’s quite a jump, moving from doing six-page chunks in 2000AD to doing twenty-plus pages at a time.
Anyway, after that Alisa asked me to do another story, and then another, and another… and I loved doing them, they were easily the most challenging and interesting things I’d written up till then. I thought Sandman was terrific, a stunning piece of work – and obviously a great springboard for new stories. I think Neil was quite surprised when I first turned up there – he’d moved to the States a while before, and had never seen any of my work for 2000 AD. Fortunately, he liked what I was coming up with. I don’t know how many other Dreaming writers took the opportunity to pick his brains about that whole universe, but I did – partly because I already knew him quite well, and partly because it seemed foolish not to ! Neil was always incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the whole thing, and afterwards.
(the Dreaming: Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory by Peter Hogan, Caitlin Kiernan, Jeff Nicholson, Peter Doherty et al, based on creations by Neil Gaiman, published DC/Vertigo)
But at some point Alisa and Neil decided that the Dreaming format just wasn’t working, and that instead of switching writers practically every issue they were going to use just two, myself and Caitlin Kiernan. So the two of us came up with a storyline that ran for a number of issues, but I think we were a bit of a mismatch, and the collaboration wasn’t that successful. Caitlin had also come up with this long continuing story that she wanted to do, so they gave The Dreaming to her from then on.
I was already knee-deep in writing Love Street at that point, which was originally intended to be an arc in The Dreaming. So, when things changed, they decided to put that out in a new title, The Sandman Presents. The original plan was that they’d do three or four projects a year under that title, most of them by me … but it didn’t work out that way. I wrote the next one, Marquee Moon, and then while it was being drawn Alisa decided she’d had enough of editing, and wanted to spend more time with her kids, and do other things as well. But when she left – apart from a one issue fill-in on The Books Of Magic – that was the end of my career at Vertigo. Marquee Moon went into limbo, and I have no real idea why … I think it’s probably as simple as Alisa being gone meant that I was gone too.
Something similar happened to me at Marvel. I did one project for them, a WWII story that teamed up Captain America and Sgt Fury with the Ancient One. And it was a fun one to do, but… Bob Harras, who’d commissioned the story, got fired while I was writing it, and then Bobbie Chase, who edited it, got fired while it was in production. After that, it felt like everyone I talked to at Marvel was like, ‘stay away from him – he has the Touch of Death’! At any rate, I never got any more work out of them. I was supposed to do a Madam Hydra story with Bill Sienkiewicz for a Captain America anthology, but we were the last people to get signed up, so we were the first ones to be dropped when the page count got cut.
Sometimes you just hit simple bad luck. Like … Will Eisner told Kitchen Sink to hire me for The New Adventures of The Spirit. So I duly wrote two Spirit short stories, and then Kitchen Sink went under, a couple of weeks before the first story was due to appear. Still, at least I’d had a nice letter of encouragement from Will, which really made my day, to put it mildly.
PÓM: I’m particularly curious to know how you ended up working with Alan Moore on the America’s Best Comics titles?
PH: Well, the backdrop is the fact that I’ve known Alan for well over twenty years now. I interviewed him several times as a journalist, and we always got on well – I’m only six months younger than him, and we share quite a few reference points. So, when I started writing comics myself, I’d send Alan copies of the odd thing that I was particularly pleased with, and several of them he’d said he liked. Then about a year or so after he started ABC he did an interview in which he said that he was hoping to eventually bring other writers in to work on the line. So I rang him up, and said if that ever happened I’d like to be considered – and Alan, bless him, told me I was already on his list.
It took about a year before anything happened, and then it was suggested that I might do something with Tesla. Alan had already done a story about other Teslas from parallel Earths, and I thought there was more mileage in that – which really appealed to Scott Dunbier, since it meant he could recruit a whole bunch of great artists to do a few pages apiece. So, that was The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong. I’ve heard of quite a few people since who thought that Alan wrote it, which is about as big a compliment as I could ask for.
PÓM: Is it difficult trying to carry on a title Alan has already worked on? And do you get any sort of negative feedback for doing so?
PH: Well, Alan’s obviously a hard act to follow – as is Neil, for that matter – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I was enjoying Neil’s take on Marvelman before it got shot down, and I enjoyed quite a few Swamp Thing stories by other people after Alan’s run. So, it obviously can be done, but I’ll let other people be the judge of how well I’m doing.
As for negative feedback… yeah, there’s been a fair number of people saying things like, ‘well, he’s not Alan Moore’. And I never claimed I was, you know? It seems to be subsiding a little these days, and at least with Tom Strong they can measure me against all the other writers who’ve had a go at the character as well.
But I got a lot of it when we were doing Terra Obscura. It’s not as if they’d have had Terra Obscura without me either, because … it was something I’d suggested doing, because I thought those characters had real potential, and I still do. But Wildstorm wouldn’t go for it unless Alan was on board as well. So Alan suggested that we plot it out together, and that I then go off and write the scripts. So that’s what happened, and it was basically an incredibly generous act on Alan’s part, to keep me in work. I’m going to have to be his butler or something in my next life, to work off the debt – and of course, I learned a phenomenal amount from him in the course of writing it all.
As far as following Alan goes, the whole Tom Strong universe is somewhere I feel completely comfortable and assured. The hardest things for me were the comedy characters I did for the ABC A-Z. The Splash Brannigan one isn’t bad, basically thanks to Hilary Barta suggesting lots of ingredients we could use. But Jack B. Quick is one of Alan’s best-ever strips, I think, and although what I did is likeable enough, it’s not up to his standard by any means. The Top 10 entry I’m pleased with, but that one had a lot of input from Alan … I got to read the Forty-Niners script, which was still being drawn at the time, and Alan filled me in on other material that he’d planned to use but never got around to.
PÓM: While I have you, do you know what happened to the ABC A-Z series, which only ran to four of the six issues it was supposed to be?
PH: The first I knew that there was anything wrong was after they made a printing error in the Terra Obscura issue, leaving the text off one page. So, I said I hoped this would get put right for the trade collection, and was told there wasn’t going to be one, and that not only that, but the series wasn’t going to be completed. Low sales was the reason given.
The only thing of mine that didn’t appear was the Smax entry, and that was easily the weakest one I did. I’m actually more annoyed that we didn’t get to see Steve Moore’s take on Promethea, which was probably well worth seeing.
When the series was first mooted it struck me as a bizarre title to publish unless they were planning to do an ABC relaunch after Alan finished up, in which case it made perfect sense. So I assumed that was what was going to happen, but as time went on and nothing was said, it became clear that was the end of it all. Alan had never had any problems with the thing continuing after he left – though I think Wildstorm accepted there was no point doing more Promethea without him – so … I don’t know. Maybe things changed somewhere along the line.
PÓM: Tell me about Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom.
PH: After ABC shut down I tried banging on various doors in the comics industry, but nobody answered, so … I wandered off to do other things. Wrote four music books in four years and became a father, so I wasn’t exactly idle.
Then Roz Kaveney wrote some nice things about Terra Obscura in her book on superheroes, so I dropped Ben Abernathy a line to let him know about it, and that got us talking again. We’d discussed various projects without much success when Ben asked me how Alan Moore might feel about the possibility of my writing Tom Strong. So I rang Alan up and asked him, and fortunately for me he was absolutely fine with the idea. He just said, “You’ve got this whole backstory and universe to play with now, so go and have fun with it”. And I have done! I’m also really, really pleased that Chris Sprouse came on board as well.
For me, plotting Tom stories is often a case of problem solving. You want to do x, so which character or device will help you bring that about? In this case, if Tom was to have any kind of ongoing future, I couldn’t really have the world stay the way that Alan left it. So, who might want to change the world? Tom’s illegitimate son Albrecht seemed a good candidate, and time travel a good tool. The Dero I brought in partly because they’d never been used and partly because… there’s an old joke about time travel stories, that if you change anything at all in the past then the Nazis will end up ruling the world. It’s an idea that’s been done badly so many times. So, I wanted Albrecht to have a weapon that would make taking over the world actually feasible, and the Dero fit the bill. Other story problems brought other characters onstage to solve them, and the whole process flowed quite organically.
Anyway, I set out wanting to write a perfect Tom Strong story, and I think I’ve come pretty close. There are, I hope, quite a few surprises lined up before story’s end. I’m very pleased with the finished thing, and working with Chris and Karl is always an absolute joy.
I was talking with someone the other day who’d coined a term to embrace Tom Strong and Planetary and Grant’s Superman and a few other titles. He called it ‘Postmodern Silver Age’. I’m not entirely convinced that makes any sense, but it does have a nice ring to it.
(a page from issue 4 of Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom by Peter Hogan, artwork by Chris Sprouse, published Wildstorm/DC)
PÓM: In case people haven’t heard of them before, tell us about the Dero?
PH: The Dero are an old pulp concept dreamt up way back when by a guy called Richard Shaver, that there’s a race of ‘detrimental robots’ hidden away in caverns under the Earth. Alan had planned to use his own version of them in Tom Strong, which is why there’s a statue of their leader in Tom’s hall of villains, but he never got round to it. I’ve no idea what Alan might have done with them, but they fitted into my story perfectly.
PÓM: Do you have any more plans for more Tom Strong stories after Robots of Doom?
PH: Sure. I think Chris and I would both be happy to do Tom Strong stories almost indefinitely, but only time will tell if we’ll get the chance to. Regardless, I think I can safely predict that you will be seeing more of Tom, but that’s all I can tell you for now.
PÓM: Are there any plans for the rest of the ABC properties to come back, do you know, either written by you or by others?
PH: Not by me, and not that I know of. Promethea I think they’ll leave well alone … but it’d be a shame if they didn’t do more Top Ten. I was enjoying it, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
PÓM: What about Terra Obscura?
PH: Maybe, if the Tom Strong stuff goes down well enough. But right now I think it’s far more likely that you’ll see it in the pages of a Tom Strong story than in its own series.
Q: Didn’t you do a Batman story for DC at one point?
PH: Yeah, years ago – can’t even remember when, but it was around the time I was doing stuff for The Dreaming. I wrote a short story featuring Poison Ivy for one of the 80-page Giant specials – just a ten-pager, and it was more cramped than I would have liked, but… I still actually got to write Batman, which makes the six-year-old inside me jump for joy whenever I remember it. Had fun writing Alfred too, but… that’s been my only venture into the DCU to date. A pity, because I suggested a few nice ideas to them, though I’m not sure anyone there actually read them – at one point John Bolton and I were talking about maybe doing something with the Demon, but I couldn’t get anyone at DC to even discuss it.
PÓM: What else are you working on at the moment?
PH: I’m about to start trying to find homes for a couple of creator-owned projects, one of them in partnership with Steve Parkhouse – and hopefully somebody will offer me some superhero stuff this time around, who knows ?
PÓM: What were the music books you wrote?
PH: I contributed to Glenn Baker’s book on the Monkees, and went on to write books about the Bangles, the Doors, Queen, REM, Shirley Bassey, the Velvet Underground – did two books about them – and Nick Drake. There’s also an unpublished book about Johnny Cash, which may still come out one day. To some extent that does reflect some of my musical tastes, but mostly they were just subjects that publishers asked me to do, so I did. The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground is probably the best of them – I managed to collate a load of really obscure material from all over the place and even dug up some brand-new info – but even that one has some editorial errors, sigh.
PÓM: As you’ve an interest in music, and would’ve been the right sort of an age at the right sort of time, did you end up in a punk band in London in the seventies, by any chance?
PH: No. I was in a comedy band in the mid-70s called Laughing Jack Gasbag – never recorded, only did a handful of gigs, but people seemed to like us. My friend Michael Jones was in that with me, and he’s now in a musical comedy duo called The Big Fibbers, probably playing tonight at a festival near you.
Other than that, I spent a lot of time in the 70s and 80s making slightly more serious music with Michael and various other friends in garages and living rooms, and I actually recorded a couple of singles in the 1980s – one at either end of the decade – that were never released. The mainstream labels said I was too indie, and the indie labels said I was too mainstream, and I simply didn’t have the money to stick them out myself. One of these years I might do it, just for the hell of it.
PÓM: As far as I can see, you don’t really have any sort of Internet presence, like a webpage or a FaceBook or Twitter account. Any reason why not?
PH: Laziness, probably. Friends keep nagging me about it, so I keep vaguely thinking I should, but… it’s just another thing to do. I can really understand the appeal of blogging, but I just know if I started it’d quickly expand to fill up my entire day. But there isn’t enough time to read or watch a sunset as it is… and I’d rather live in the moment than comment on it, you know?
And part of me looks at the whole cyberthing and thinks, there’s never been a better time to be a recluse.
Always happy to talk to people like yourself, though.
PÓM: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer all my questions, Peter. It’s been a real pleasure doing this interview with you.
PH: The pleasure was half mine.
FPI would like to thank both Peter and Pádraig for sharing their time and thoughts with us; Peter’s current series, Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom (how can you not love a series with a title like that?) is running right now from DC, with the fourth issue recently released.