Thank God he got fired!: an interview with Dan McDaid
Dan McDaid is a regular contributor to the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine (DWM) and the artist on Image’s Jersey Gods. (He’s also one of my personal favourite cartoonists.) In this interview with the FPI blog, he talks about his work on Who, taking a back seat in terms of the writing chores on Jersey Gods and also hints at what the future holds for him professionally. Questions by Matt Badham, interview copy-edited by matt, Dan McDaid and Joe Gordon
Matt: How did you first get involved with the Who comic strips?
Dan: I lost my job, and there was pretty much nowhere else to go. I’d been itching to write or draw something Who-shaped for a long, long time. Since I was a boy, in fact. And losing my job with erstwhile Scots publisher DC Thomson gave me the kick up the arse necessary to send out some samples. The very first place I hit was Panini. I wrote and drew an eight page Who strip (still available here), and did a couple of colour samples. I had a pretty good idea that they were of a reasonable standard, but was still astonished when (then DWM editor) Clayton Hickman phoned me two days after I sent the package. I keep weird hours, so when Clay called at about one in the afternoon, I had ‘just’ got out of bed. I ran from the bedroom to the phone, with a weird feeling that this call was ‘important’… and without putting any of my clothes on. So I effectively did my job interview for DWM in the nude. I still haven’t told Clay that. (I’m sure Clay’s delighted to learn it now! – Joe)
(a page from Hotel Historia, one of the Doctor Who strips you can see on Dan’s site)
They asked me to develop the pitch a bit, plot out what was going to happen in the rest of the story and so on. It quickly became apparent that this story wasn’t going to work for a number of reasons (too similar to Tony Lee’s recently-published FAQ, too “Mind Robber-y”, not good enough), and I thought that was it, I’d blown it. But Clay, bless him, wanted to see if I had anything else going. My girlfriend had just brought Ernest Shackleton’s account of his attempt to cross the Antarctic, and I figured he would make a good historical figure for the Doctor and Martha to meet. I also figured, as I would probably be drawing the strip, that I couldn’t mess up the ice plains of the South Pole too badly, so it was perfect really. The brilliant Martin Geraghty ended up drawing the strip in the end, but by then there was no getting rid of me.
Matt: How much ‘interference’ (bad word, I know, but I can’t think of another at the mo’) is there from the BBC? What’s the process in terms of getting your stories vetted to ensure that the Who TV production people are happy with them?
Dan: No interference at all, actually. Tom (Spilsbury, current editor of DWM) and the staff at DWM really know their stuff, they’ve been around the block, they know what’s acceptable, what works, what doesn’t. I’ve eulogised (DWM strip editor) Scott Gray quite a lot before, but it bears repeating: he’s one of the best Who writers, in any medium, we’ve ever had. So I was in very safe hands.
I did hit a small snag after I wrote Hotel Historia. It’s a very time travel-y strip, with a hotel which offers visits to Earth’s history. I’d planned another strip with a time travel component when the edict came down from Russell T Davies himself that the only time travellers in the Nu-Who universe were the Time Lords, the Daleks, the Time Agents and, at a pinch, the Sontarans. So time travel as a plot point was right out from then on. That said, at the end of HH (which is set in the present day), the cosmic bailliffs take Majenta Pryce away to a prison which is part of the Great Human Empire. So… the cosmic bailliffs can travel in time? Maybe? Oops. Don’t let on.
Matt: What was it like getting to use ‘your companion’ (Dan’s ‘specially-created-for-the-comic-strip’ character Majenta Pryce) in a whole run of stories for Who’s ‘year off’ during 2009? Did you enjoy the freedom that gave you (if, indeed, it gave you more freedom)? Was it refreshing to create a story arc like that? Or daunting perhaps?
Dan: Yeah, it was fun. Majenta was fun. She’s sexy, sparky, difficult. I’ve loved all of the Doctor’s new companions, but I did think there was a bit too much of the “you’re so brilliant, Doctor” stuff. Scott and I agreed that it would be nice to have a companion who was the polar opposite of that, who didn’t see the Doctor as a lonely God, or the most wonderful man in the world, or whatever. To Majenta, he’s just the chauffeur. Useful in a jam, nice arse, knows his way around an android, but other than that… It’s quite funny in a way – my instinct was to make her a bit nicer, play up her admiration of the Doctor a bit, but Scott was always like “no! She should be talking down to him!” Which makes it much funnier, of course.
Creating a companion also meant I got to give her an arc – a beginning, a middle and an ultimate end. You couldn’t do that with Rose, or Martha or Donna. You can’t make them into villains, or kill them off. Right from the start, the chaps at DWM were clear that this was my story, my Who… and I could do what I wanted with it. That’s brilliant. What an amazing thing, to be able to play with these toys.
(a page from the Doctor Who story Mr McGuffin, art by Dan McDaid)
Matt: What challenges do you think writers/artists will face now they have a new Doc’ to accommodate?
Dan: For the artist, getting Matt’s face is going to be the real trick. I got a kind of caricature of Tennant down pretty well, but he’s a lot easier than the next guy. The big quiff, the pronounced lower lip, the big eyes. The Tenth Doctor practically *is* a cartoon. The Eleventh Doctor is more like Davison – faint eyebrows, deep eyes, strange good looks. Much more mercurial features, if you like, much harder to pin down.
Writers are going to have it just as hard, in some ways. There was a wonderful egalitarianism to the RTD-era, particularly towards the end. His tenure invited people to imagine these concepts he would just toss in there – stuff like the Nightmare Child and the Cruciform. Lovely gaps in the narrative, where the amateur (or pro!) fan could scumble in some extra details. I think the beginning of the Moffat era will be more like how Who was when it first came back – he’ll want to spend a season or two establishing the new status quo, which means all the ancillary stuff (the comics, books and so on) will have to hold their breath while the new world takes shape. We don’t really know what we’re dealing with yet, so I think that experimentation, that wildness, if you like, will probably get dialled down. Once it’s running nicely, and we know the Doctor, and Amy, and the universe they’re travelling through, it’ll be back to the same madness.
Matt: Why do you think the comic strip has endured for so long?
Dan: Pretty much because of that madness, actually. When the DWM strip started, Who wasn’t the brand that it is now, and the tie-ins weren’t quite so keenly scrutinized (How else does one explain the Tom Baker underpants?). This meant that the comic strip could pay lip service to honouring the TV series, getting the likeness and “voice” right, while going off in their own oddball direction. They could push things a bit, take the TARDIS into strange new parts of the Universe, without the BBC machine stripping off all the interesting bits. It’s also partly an alchemical reaction: when you take the idea of Doctor Who – that is, the idea of a man who can travel anywhere in time and space – and bolt it to the inherent wildness of comics, something interesting is bound to happen.
It’s also worth remembering that the seventies were an incredibly creative, fertile period for comics generally. People like Dez Skinn and companies like IPC were overseeing our own comics Golden Age. You had creators like John Wagner, Pat Mills, Mike McMahon and Dave Gibbons doing some of the best work of their careers, crafting subversive satire for the children of Britain. That’s pretty punk, isn’t it, when you think about it. But it’s those people, that powerhouse of invention and energy, that got the Who strip machine up and running. And it’s that energy which keeps the strip going even today.
Matt: Cheers, Dan. I also wanted to talk about Jersey Gods a bit. Please give us the high concept behind the series.
Dan: In a nutshell: the New Gods come to New Jersey.
Matt: How did you get involved with the series and what’s it like taking a back seat in writing terms? Do you find that difficult?
Dan: In late ‘07, I entered Comic Book Resources’ Comic Book Idol event. I hadn’t planned to – I was pretty convinced my work wasn’t up to snuff and I wouldn’t make it past the qualifying round. But my girlfriend kept poking me, threatening to withold favours… that kind of thing. So I took the plunge, and I’m glad I did, because as a platform for promoting your work, getting your name known, it’s hard to beat. I don’t know if they’re still running it, but it was a lot of fun, and it got me in with Image, Oni and a few other people. It also got me noticed by a guy called Glen Brunswick, who contacted me out of the blue, told me he loved my stuff, attached a PDF of Killing Girl #1 (his book with Frank Espinosa and – latterly – Toby Cypress), and asked if I wanted to work on something with him for Image.
(a page from issue 8 of Jersey Gods, published Image)
The competition was still going at this point, so my main focus was hitting my deadline for each week’s entry. I was also 100% certain that as soon as the contest was over, the guys at Marvel and DC would be battering down my door with job offers, lifetime exclusives… stuff like that. But it didn’t happen. I got knocked out, nothing came… so I went back through the stack of emails I got during the contest – a lot of “would you work on my book for free” stuff – and came across Glen’s. I had another look at his pitch, decided I loved it, roughed some character designs and away we went.
As for the writing… yeah, that’s a weird one. But there’s something to be said for taking the backseat, letting someone else work out the character beats, plot out a year’s worth of stories and so on. Drawing is physically more of a challenge, but writing is exhausting, a constant headache that nags at you throughout the day. I’ve had more migraines in my year of writing Who than I’ve had in the rest of my life. So it was nice to step back from that for Jersey Gods. And Glen is a great collaborator, in that he’s happy to hear my stupid ideas, use the better ones, then pass them off as his own down the line. That takes a special kind of genius.
Matt: Jersey Gods seems to have had accolades from…all sorts of people, including Mark Waid! What’s that been like for you?
Dan: I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. Glen keeps coming to me with the latest variant cover from guys like Mike Allred or John Romita Jr and I just kind of go “uh huh, that’s nice” because I really don’t know what to say. How do you process the fact that legends like Waid, Allred, Romita, Cooke are taking an interest in your work, writing and drawing characters you’ve helped shape? That’s just nuts, isn’t it? What I suspect will happen is that in a few years time I’ll wake up in a hospital bed, and the last few years of success will have been a coma-induced dream. I banged my head in ‘98, when I was working for Blockbuster Video, and I’ve been dreaming since then. That’s the only way I can explain something this awesome.
Matt: How can people get hold of Jersey Gods? I understand that there are trades that people can buy to get up to speed on the series.
Dan: There’s one trade out already. That’s issues 1-5. I can hardly bring myself to look at it now, it’s so raw, but there’s some groovy stuff in there. We have another trade coming VERY soon, which collects the following 5 issues. And then – get this, here’s you’re heads up as to how it will all end – the book is going to run for another 2 issues, then we’re wrapping it. So there’ll be a last trade with issue 11 and the mammoth finale, and all the other JG bits and pieces we’ve done. I’m drawing that final issue right now, and it’s an absolute killer. Glen is setting out to break as many hearts as possible.
(cover to volume 1 of Jersey Gods by Glen Brunswick and Dan McDaid, published Image)
Matt: And, finally, what next for the McDaidster, in terms of Who, JG and whatever else may be on your plate?
Dan: First of all, I endorse your use of the phrase “the McDaidster”.
Secondly, the plan is to do more work with Glen, this time over at Boom! Studios. He’s got a really smart, funny idea for a book, which he’s kindly letting me ruin with my daubings. I think there might be something on the cards with Rascally Richard Starkings (another legend in my personal pantheon – the man behind the Marvel UK of my youth), and two incredibly exciting top secret projects with Oni Press. All for this year. I’m going to have to clone myself or something, aren’t I?