It’s 1969, ok? Pádraig talks with Kevin O’Neill

Published On September 30, 2011 | By Padraig | Comics, Interviews, Pádraig's interviews

Well alright!

It’s 1969 ok
We got a war across the USA
There’s nothing here for me and you
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do

There’s nothing here for me and you
Another year with nothing to do.

(1969 – The Stooges)

(cover art to LOEG Century 1969 by and (c) Messrs Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, published by Knockabout and Top Shelf)

On his visit to the Forbidden Planet in Dublin as the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969 came out, our man in Dublin, Pádraig Ó Méalóid , got to sit down for a good chat with one of the most remarkable artists to come out of Britain (in my humble opinion), Kevin O’Neill, discussing the LOEG, working with Alan Moore, Pat Mills and others, his early comics career and much more, while Pádraig’s better half Deirdre took some great pics of the pair of them. Over to Pádraig and Kev:

The interview was done at midday on a Sunday, and I think both Kevin and myself were a bit bewildered at doing something like that at a time like that. So, it’s disjointed in parts, we both tail off the ends of sentences sometimes, and I regularly break the most fundamental rule of interviewing, which is that the question should never be longer than the answer. In fact, seeing as we seemed to get on well almost from the beginning, it quickly became a conversation, rather than an interview, although you can see me trying to drag it back to a Q&A format occasionally. However, having said all that, I think I’d rather have it exactly as it is as this is what was actually said, pretty much exactly. I could do a version that is tidied-up, and has a more linear flow, if The Editor wishes (nope, we love it just as it is – Joe), but here it is, as is, for the moment.

One of the things that you’re not going to get from reading this is how entertaining it all was. Occasionally I’ve marked the bits where we did a lot of laughing, but most of the time it was all very good humoured. Really, you had to be there…

Interview with Kevin O’Neill
Conrad Hilton Hotel, Dublin
Noon, Sunday 7th August 2011

(Kevin O’Neill chatting with Pádraig, photos here are all by and courtesy of Deirdre Walsh – thanks, Deirdre!)

Pádraig Ó Méalóid: …It’s now recording. Most of my recordings start we me saying, ‘Is this thing on?’ Now… How was the signing? Was there a good crowd?

Kevin O’Neill: It was good. It was good fun. Really nice people.

PÓM: Yeah, Kevin’s very good, Kevin in the Forbidden Planet [Dublin], I’ve known him a long, long time. Eh, I have a list… I was reading an old interview, and looking at your Wikipedia page, and things like that. Right, 1969. You actually started off as an office boy on Buster in 1969, I think, didn’t you?

KON: 1970, yeah.

PÓM: Yeah, you were 16, so 1970, yeah. So, you kinda have some recollection of 1969, actually 1969, which you obviously don’t with the previous stuff, so some of what you’re doing is… were you working in London then?

KON: Yes I was. What happened was, I had a place in art school, or could have had a place at art school, but my dad had to retire from his health, so I was the next one in the family to be a breadwinner, you know, it was that kind of thing. I couldn’t afford to go to art school, so I thought I’d get a job.

PÓM: Actually, I was going to ask you – are you from a large family? With a name like Kevin O’Neill, there’s some Irish connection…

KON: Yeah, my dad’s from Tipperary, Clogheen, and my mum’s got Irish blood in her family, so it’s a fairly big Catholic family, you know, a Catholic neighbourhood, an Irish Catholic neighbourhood.

PÓM: Where was that?

KON: South London.

PÓM: Yeah, ‘cause I’ve been looking at Punk Rock recently, because basically thirty -five years ago now it started happening, and one of the things with that is there was a lot of people, Johnny Rotten – John Lydon, Elvis Costello, lots of people who were of Irish extraction, and that seemed to be one of the things that fuelled it, and I was wondering…

KON: It is a curious… and in America as well, you get people like Frank Miller, who was certainly a Catholic…

PÓM: Was there anything like that… I think there was a certain amount of that in the people who were doing comics in the UK at the time as well.

KON: Pat Mills has an Irish Catholic background. He was an altar boy.

PÓM: Do you think all that nasty dark Catholic stuff did something to you all?

KON: I’d say it’s fuelled more of my artwork than I probably give it credit for. When me and Pat get together we credit it for quite a bit of inspiration, the Catholic background, the very old-fashioned way we were taught. The nuns were brutal, I just remember, they were really brutal.

PÓM: I was taught by the Christian Brothers – I remember telling somebody at one stage that I was almost disappointed that, I was one of the people that wasn’t abused. It’s a terrible thing when you know you’re too ugly even for a Christian Brother!

[General laughter]

I may clip that bit out. I may not…

But yes, anyway, so, what sort of a family were you from? What size of a family? You said you were the next breadwinner after your father.

KON: There were five of us, and I’ve got a surviving older brother. No-one did any art or writing in the family, my dad was a building worker, a scaffolder. I just loved comics when I was a kid, and I wanted to know how they were done. There were no conventions in those days, there was no…

PÓM: It was all completely anonymous, nobody had any idea…

KON: Absolutely, yeah. I remember writing to IPC to find out who the artists were on some of the strips. When I worked there years later they told me they used to tear up letters from kids. They couldn’t be bothered. It was terrible.

PÓM: Really? That’s terrible!

KON: That was why at 2000 AD we always made a big effort to answer letters, because it was important to people.

PÓM: Yeah, a mate of mine is still very proud of the letter he had published in 2000 AD. I think it meant something to people.

KON: I remember when I was a kid, the first letter I got with my name written on that wasn’t a birthday card was from Marvel Comics. I sent them a little drawing of Captain America when I was a kid, to Stan Lee, and I got a lovely letter back from Flo Steinberg, his secretary, to say, ‘next time you send artwork, put some backing board, ‘cause it gets all scrunched in the post.’ Kinda ‘keep it up,’ you know, it was just encouraging, which was really nice. It had the Incredible Hulk on the envelope, really exciting.

PÓM: Which must have been pretty cool to find dropping through your letterbox.

KON: They went to the trouble, they had a nice connection with their readers, so that was good. But IPC, when I joined it, when I was a kid, it was all ex-servicemen, and it was very strict – it was like a continuation of school, really. It was very, very regimented, and very old fashioned – strict on time-keeping, keep you late after work if you got in late, having to work your lunch hour, all that stuff.

PÓM: I suppose they had to churn this stuff out every week, I can’t see how it could have been conducive to…

KON: No, the military background probably helped enormously for efficiency – put the fear of god into you not be late with stuff, yeah. And it was a machine for producing material. You get good stuff that comes through the machine, and that kind of process, but you could feel it was the early seventies, and everything was changing in society, except them. They were like, this is the way we do it, comics are for kids, there’s no older readership, anyone who’s older is a delinquent or something, we don’t want their money – so that was the atmosphere. So it was really Pat, Pat Mills and John Wagner coming along that changed everything. They did new comics, Battle and Action and then 2000 AD. 2000 AD was an explosion…

PÓM: Pat Mills was involved in things like Misty as well, wasn’t he, writing all these really dark, strange, sadistic girls’ stories.

KON: Pat had his fingerprints all over…

[Brief interlude while refreshments are ordered…]

PÓM: So, yeah, 1969. I’m looking at the pages here… I mean, you put so much stuff in the background, is there any, in this case, any of your mates, or anything like that, or people you knew at the time?

KON: There is in the Hyde Park sequence – let me point it out. Alan asked me to include something…

PÓM: Funnily enough, just a couple of weeks ago on Sky Arts they showed some footage from the Hyde Park concert. Did you see that? It’s something that Granada made – it was bizarre, ‘cause the day they showed it, the next day was the release date for that [Century 1969].

KON: On this page, that is Steve Moore, Alan Moore’s best friend, the comic writer, and that’s Bram Stokes, who owned the first comic shop in Britain, and they were… Alan sent me a photo, just that image of them sitting on a bit of grass watching, so I included them in.

PÓM: Yes, that particular one I though must be someone in particular. That’s not, is it? [Pointing to the figure sitting to Steve Moore’s left.]

KON: No, no.

PÓM: This is the thing – by the way, Jess Nevins, I was mentioning on Facebook that I was coming in to see you, and he says to send his best regards…

KON: Oh yeah! He’s alright, Jess.

PÓM: We correspond a bit. He was doing the annotations for this one and he’s already got lots of them online (see here for Jess’ invaluable and exhaustive LOEG 1969 annotations – Joe), and I send him some…

KON: Yeah, I usually see it when he sends me the manuscript of the book, and I put notes in for stuff, yeah…

PÓM: I was saying, you remember 1969, were you aware of all this stuff, The Stones and…?

KON: I was the right age, I suppose, being born in 1953, I was just the right age for The Beatles. It seemed a change from the old… My brother was a Teddy Boy, so growing up I was very aware of the shift from the fifties to the sixties. The sixties began about 1963, effectively, you know, and everything was changing. So, yeah, I was a long-haired kid at school, and then it felt very old fashioned at IPC, it was all short-back-and-sides. They hated the outside world – you walked through a door and you were back in the fifties. It was interesting – I’m glad I saw it, I saw the end of days, the end of the old way of doing comics, really, the old-fashioned way. I did hate working on Whizzer and Chips, and things like that, because it was pretty boring, week in and week out.

PÓM: How is work coming on 2009?

KON: I’ve done twenty-eight pages, a third of the way through. Yeah, it’s going very well. It could be out next spring.

PÓM: That’s not bad!

KON: By my glacial standards, that’s almost like speeding…

PÓM: Yeah, Alan is always blaming you for things being late.

KON: Well, he’s right! His scripts are usually finished years in advance.

PÓM: Well, you know, I agree with him when he’s saying, people complain about deadlines, but in ten years’ time, nobody is going to say, ‘Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it had come out on time.’ I certainly agree with that.

If you’re doing 2009, the visual references that you generally chuck in, I mean, is that going to be difficult? Say, particularly the background things?

KON: It gets very, very difficult – copyright, trademarks, and things like that, yeah, very difficult. We just have to be crafty, fly, don’t use anything – the law is pretty complicated nowadays. It doesn’t inhibit the book really, ‘cause there’s so much else going on, particularly in the next one, yeah, we can strip things in the background, I think that’s fair use…

PÓM: Yeah, yeah, particularly if you’re not literally borrowing the character in character, if you like.

One of the things, when I was reading about your previous work, you do seem to have had a couple of instances where people just really took a dislike to your art style and your artwork. The Comic Code Authority did, I think, and IPC did with some of the stuff in 2000 AD. How do you feel about that?

KON: It makes me laugh, really. The reason I ended up at IPC was kind of an accident, really. I tried to get a job at Odhams, Odhams Publishers – Smash! and Wham! and Pow! I loved as a kid – and they’d Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid doing magnificent work, so I wanted to work with them, on those papers, but they’d just been bought by what became IPC – the Daily Mirror group – so I was directed to Fleetway House, and was swiftly made aware that they didn’t like the way Odhams did comics, they were trying to beat that subversive nature out of the artists who took over, like Ken and Leo. It was a great shame, because they were absolutely brilliant.

PÓM: Ken Reid and Leo Baxendale, and people like them – there was Dennis Law and… They were the ones who revitalised the Beano and things like that, and it is their work that is remembered and is important. Yes, editorial interference… You’re with a new publisher, and does that give you a lot…

KON: Oh, it’s totally different, because the problem with League was – well, you probably know the story: originally it was just for WildStorm, when WildStorm were independent, but WildStorm, before we even started, were sold to DC, and Jim Lee sorted that out so that the League book was protected, it was…

PÓM: It was meant to be firewalled, but it wasn’t really.

KON: No. The inevitable happened, and DC gradually crept into the picture more and more, so the dam was always going to burst with Alan. Alan’s… he’s a very, very patient man… no means no – you can go so far… They seemed to do things, whether by accident or design, that deliberately made things even worse than they were to begin with, which was quite bad. So in the end it just became untenable, and it’s, I think, the one ABC book that Alan actually owns with an artist, so we could take it away to someone else…

PÓM: It was always the case that all of the other stuff, the Tom Strongs and Promethea, and all that, were all owned by WildStorm – owned by ABC comics, which was owned by Wildstorm, which is now owned by DC – but the League, and only the League, was a separate entity – I’m not entirely sure why that was – are you?

KON: I think it’s a by-product of… the film rights were sold before the comic was even – before the first issue was written, just based on a synopsis – and part of the contracts was that the publishing rights belonged to the creators, so it was embedded, and I think we weren’t strictly meant to be part of the ABC one, we were just subsumed into it.

PÓM: I suppose from a marketing point of view, it was handier for them. What did you think of the movie? Did you see the movie?

KON: I didn’t recognise anything, you know. I got sent the screenplay, and I remember opening it up and thinking, I must have the wrong thing. It was set in Venice, and the Bank of England, and all this kind of stuff – Leonardo’s plans, it was a crazy thing, really, it was crazy. But it was a vehicle for Sean Connery – once they said that… If Mina’s not the prime character, you’re immediately off on a tangent, and it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

PÓM: And they do kinda do this thing where she does something vampirey, and I always though one of the endearing things about the League is that there’s always this possibility that she might have been infected with, quote-unquote, some sort of superpowers, or whatever, but that never actually manifests, and we’re always left wondering if there is or isn’t.

KON: Exactly, yeah. It doesn’t really bother the film makers that they’d be left with, ‘what’s this woman doing here?’, whereas in our book she’s the strongest character, she’s just very formidable, she controls everybody, and runs damage on everything, so she’s possibly the only character who could have kept Hyde and the Invisible Man together and in the same place at the same time. But, yeah, I have to say, they dabbled with it so much on the film. But it’s never going to stop – people are always going to ask about it. It’s repeated and repeated, it’s on TV all the time.

PÓM: Yes, it was on quite recently. Last night, I think, Watchmen was as well, which is just a truly dreadful, dreadful film. I did at one stage try to persuade Alan that V for Vendetta was quite good, of the movies, of all of them…

[Sound of Kevin O’Neill choking]

PÓM: … but I don’t know how completely I succeeded. But of all of them it’s the one I like.

What… I’m looking at my notes here… [sound of papers being gone through] Yes. Research. How much research do you have to do, or is this stuff you’ve already read, or do you say, ‘let me go out and find what I can that relates to 1969,’ or 2009, or whatever?

KON: Well, it’s funny, ‘cause Alan would have done tons of research doing From Hell, of Victorian London, but I had loads of books on Victorian London, where I grew up in south London it was very old, the buildings were very old, it was near Woolwich, and the old docks, near the old bombed-out buildings, it was fascinating, so I grew up with quite a few books. What I did was re-read all the Victorian novels, and started to work my way out to curious things like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, a fantastic barmy book which you’re not too aware of, maybe…

PÓM: I know the name, and I don’t know an awful lot more about it…

KON: it outsold Dracula, back in the day, but he sold… he needed money desperately, so I think he sold the copyright for like ten pounds, or something, and lived to regret it for the rest of his life. He never wrote another book near as popular, but it outsold Dracula. It’s completely mental, absolutely mental, very disturbing. So it’s fun, it’s actually fun researching, and finding… reading The Mysterious Island and going, ‘oh yeah, Nemo’s actually an Indian character,’ an Indian background, and that influenced the way the Nautilus was done, it was the whole way we handled him: before it was either James Mason or a man from the old engravings with the white beard, a Father Christmassy sort of character. So, yeah, the research is pretty important. Now it’s just, it’s finding… once we started – originally we just had the main characters interacting with each other, and I think at one point Alan said, ‘let’s have the coach come from the Charles Dickens book,’ kinda thing, and then somebody thought, ‘oh, we can start using lots of things like that,’ just in the background, shop names and stuff, but when you come closer to the present everything is possible: newspapers, cans of food – there’s a fictional version of almost everything nowadays, but it is kinda bonkers. Since the Black Dossier it’s just nuts, ‘cause we feel a slight obligation to make the effort to find a fictional version of almost anything you see.

PÓM: One of the things I noticed in 1969 particularly is that, a lot of it is actually reflecting what was happening in the real world at the time, and they are, rather than just being fictional characters and having adventures, they’re also reflecting real word stuff – there really was a Rolling Stones, and there’s a band in this, there was a Hyde Park concert, so that’s a kind of a strange extra layer to it that wasn’t there before.

KON: yes, and the Norton character, the Iain Sinclair character, he’s talking from the real world into the fictional world.

PÓM: Yes, I noticed that very much…

KON: Which makes it fascinating, ‘cause they’re completely baffled by what he’s saying…

PÓM: I think everyone is. I’ve attempted to read books by Iain Sinclair, and I’m kinda going, ‘I’m none the wiser.’ I’ve made a couple of efforts at Slow Chocolate Autopsy. Have you read Slow Chocolate Autopsy?

KON: Yeah, I love Iain’s work. It’s a very particular style, though, isn’t it?

PÓM: It certainly is that, yeah.

KON: His writing on London is fascinating, I must say.

PÓM: To go back to Jess Nevins:  the fact that Jess, and a huge amount of contributors from all over, at this stage – everyone send them on to him – that they’re doing that, and you have these annotations, and you have this… there’s a kind of a symbiotic relationship between the two in a way.

KON: There is now, yeah. When we first saw what Jess had done, on the first series, we were completely astonished. We knew while we were doing stuff, maybe a couple of people will get this, but it doesn’t really matter if they don’t, ‘cause it just amused us, but when we saw that people actually quite like it, and they actually like contributing to the notes and stuff, and he was seeing connections that we hadn’t made, and he was occasionally seeing things which we hadn’t intended, but he missed other bits and pieces.

PÓM: Something I came across, just yesterday, somewhere completely different – on the internet – was a reference to… the Rolling Stones did the second gig, the second Hyde Park free concert. The third one, the last band to play, their last song was called ‘Out Demons Out,’ which I thought was fascinating. I must get the name – I’ll drop the name of the band into the interview and pretend I knew it all along… [It was the Edgar Broughton Band.]

KON: Yeah? I didn’t know that. How interesting. I’ll tell Alan that, ‘cause he’s quite interested in coincidence.

PÓM: Yeah, sometimes these things, these extra layers just add themselves.

KON: I know, absolutely, yeah.

PÓM: I think as well, the great thing about the annotations, and uniquely of any other artwork, is that everyone gets to… everyone gets the opportunity – I mean, it’s like we were all sitting there, waiting for the off, waiting for the thing to be published, waiting for Jess to put up the first set of annotations so that everyone could then go, ‘yes, that’s this, and that’s that.’ You don’t do the internet?

KON: No, nor does Alan. No, it’s funny, we’re completely distanced from it, so we just, we see the manuscripts, which is the first time I see any of the notes, and then I just add stuff for Jess – my annotations. I’m fascinated to see this big block of material, you know – and we keep trying to outwit him, as well, but we’ve never, no matter how obscure, there’s always someone out there. It’s really weird – the book had only been published a couple of days and some young guy mentioned in one of the comic shops how he liked Zom of the Zodiac. Now, Zom of the Zodiac is like, so obscure, but there’s always somebody on the internet, I suppose, who knows these things.

PÓM: The other thing is, it does bring these things back into… there must be people – I have tracked down some of the old source material, or gone looking – I got a copy of Performance, several months back at this stage, and I’ve just picked up the video for… the DVD of The Rutles, because I haven’t seen it in years, and I was going, I remember The Rutles! So in a way you’re giving a new lease of life to some of this stuff as well, I think.

I have a question here that says, ‘Was DC difficult towards the end,’ but I think we might have kind of covered that…

Anyone you really wanted to use that you couldn’t? Any characters? Or that you couldn’t find a way to use?

KON: Nothing major, I don’t think. I mean, it’s a pity, as you mention Marvelman, it’s a pity we couldn’t have used Marvelman, ‘cause I always liked him when I was a kid, I thought he was a fantastic character, but it’s… it’s one of those characters that is now almost toxic, anyone who touches Marvelman, it’s like a curse, you know, you just want to pass it straight on, which is a terrible state of affairs for the character to end up in.

PÓM: As I said, I’ve researched the thing in enormous detail for the past several years. The book was going to be called Poisoned Chalice, because both Alan and Neil refer to it as a poisoned chalice in different interviews I saw, and now I find that my own curse of Marvelman…

[Earlier I had mentioned to Kevin that the book I’ve written on Marvelman is now without a publisher, as MonkeyBrain Books, who had contracted to publish it, were taking a break from publishing, at least for the time being, leaving it without a home for the moment.]

KON: Isn’t that weird?

PÓM: And even Kimota!, George Khoury’s updated Kimota!, seems to be on permanent hold – that was meant to be – there’s an updated version, and that hasn’t come out either, so it’s kind of bizarre…

KON: I was saying to someone yesterday that it was really odd that Marvel are printing the old black and white stuff in too expensive editions that no American kid would even understand. I mean, if ever a strip that needed a softback cheap edition…

PÓM: Like the stuff they usually do, the big, thick old Spider-Man (Marvel Essentials series of budget bumper value reprints – Joe)… The story is bizarre beyond all belief and – there’s one thing I came across, which is… the Millers, and because of some stuff that the son had been publishing, reprinting some of the American real nasty stuff, the EC things, you know, this brought about the Children’s and young Persons’ Harmful Publications Act in 1955. There was only one prosecution under it, in 1970, which was the Millers themselves were prosecuted under it, and even that as well, that fifteen years later they were prosecuted under this thing that they brought about themselves…

KON: And Mick Anglo is still alive.

PÓM: Mick Anglo is still alive. I get the impression from the interview he did recently with Marvel that he’s not all there, really, it seemed to me, you know. But even the whole argument about whether he owns it or not, I don’t… he was commissioned to do it, and to a very specific brief – the Millers, and I’ve reason to believe Fawcett were aware of this as well. I got to have some correspondence with Arnold Miller, who was the ‘and Son’ in L Miller and Son… I’ll have to cut all that bit out.

KON: I’m sorry about that. It was an interesting digression for me, because I’m fascinated by the story. I’d love to read it.

PÓM: I’ll print it out, al 95,000 words of it as it stands, and send it on to you.

Right. Do you have any other current work?

KON: No. Pitifully, this is all I do, you know. I know it sounds… someone asked me the other day, ‘Well, obviously you’re doing…?’ and I just burst out laughing. If only I’d the time to do anything else. People think I’m dead for two years, and then a book comes out, you know. Apart from Dodgem Logic I haven’t done anything else. There might be some new pages for the Marshall Law collection next year, when that finally surfaces – hopefully.

PÓM: I was going to ask you – so is that due next year?

KON: I hope, yeah. We keep trying to get a date out of them. It’s got an editor, I think, for the reprint, but nothing’s been put together yet. We’ve contracted to do it, so it will happen. I’ve no idea when.

PÓM: That’s Top Shelf…?

KON: No, we’ve took it away from Top Shelf. It’s DC. DC are doing it.

(Marshall Law, displaying his more gentle, softly-softly approach to dealing with errant capes. “I hunt heroes. Not found one yet”. By and (C) Pat Mills and Kev O’Neill)

PÓM: Oh, is it? Oh, I see!

KON: Which amused us greatly, ‘cause Paul Levitz when he was there I think hated Marshall Law with a great vengeance.

PÓM: You haven’t foresworn from ever working for DC again then, obviously.

KON: No, not really. I’ve never had any big falling out with them. I’d the same reasons to be uncomfortable that Alan had, with certain people – Like Paul Levitz, we just didn’t get on, none of us really got on…

PÓM: And he was one of the people who was making things difficult, wasn’t he, with Black Dossier…

KON: Yeah, Paul has a very particular idea of comics, and how DC should function. He had his way, but it didn’t leave much wiggle room for people like us, you know. I’m sure we just made him very uncomfortable.

PÓM: Aggressively independent people like yourselves! And quite rightly… Yes, the Marshall Law omnibus. It’s going to be quite big, I think, isn’t it? It’s one volume?

KON: I think they’re going to split it into different volumes. I think with the retail climate being what it is, you don’t have to do a big volume – I don’t see how anyone can afford it anymore, spending a hundred dollars on a box set of something. Maybe later, to do a nice big edition would be cool – but I like trade paperbacks, I like the affordable versions of things.

PÓM: I think the trade paperbacks are lovely to read, but things like this [I pull a copy of the slipcased two-volume hardcover Absolute edition of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one from my bag] …

KON: They’re nice editions.

PÓM: The Absolute editions. They’re very lovely things to have, even if it almost never gets taken down.

KON: I know, I know. The same with my version, yeah.

PÓM: You know, books aren’t just for reading, sometimes books are just for having! And… Actually, there’s a thing – because you’re not on the internet, you don’t have any dealings with the internet, but you’re going to do something set in 2009 – in 2009 the internet does play a large part in people’s lives, just in general, so are you going to make any effort, or are you just going to blithely ignore it?

KON: Well, we do have scenes with mobile phones, which for us is like inventing the atom bomb, or something! [Much general laughter] Actually, Alan doesn’t have a mobile phone. At least I’m slightly in the late twentieth century, if not the twenty-first century. But, no, funnily enough, let me think…

PÓM: I think Alan is actually going backwards, because there was something I was reading recently, where he said he no longer has a television…

KON: That’s right. They turned the signal off, the analog signal, and he… you see, he’s forgotten why he was making the stand, he’s completely forgotten why, but he doesn’t miss having a TV. So, yeah, you’re right, he is rolling, gradually rolling back to the Spinning Jenny, or something like that.

PÓM: Yeah, I saw something that Leah wrote about him, at some point, saying he doesn’t believe in the twenty-first century… A man is entitled to his beliefs, I suppose.

KON: I was telling him I was dreading drawing the present day, because I realised that all the stuff I’ve drawn since I started was avoiding the present day. Everything was either the future, it’s alien, it’s superheroes, it’s abroad, it’s anything that’s not my world, the real world around me. I just wanted to draw to escape from that, when I was growing up. But drawing 1969 now is drawing a historical period for me, even though I probably would have found it less interesting…

PÓM: And even ‘77…

KON: Yeah, it was a nice shift, actually, it’s such a short gap between those periods, the shift in society was massive.

PÓM: Slowly but surely actually the League is filing in… you started in 1898, and we have something in 1910, we have something in the 1950s, and the sixties, and the seventies, and then there’s the one-shot he was talking about doing with Mina and the Seven Stars, is that a kind of a plan…?

KON: That’d be in 1964, that’d be set in.

PÓM: There’s another incident with Mina in Arkham that gets mentioned a couple of couple of times. Is that ever, are we ever going to find out what that is?

KON: Yeah, we’d like to do that, cause that’d be a kinda big – Alan’s a huge Lovecraft fan…

PÓM: Yeah, no shit!

KON: … and my first published work was a HP Lovecraft fanzine illustration, the first thing I ever had published, so… We’ve certainly not made our mind up what the next book will be. It might be the supergroup, but we’re checking out all the… just checking out if it’s possible to do that, really. Or it’ll be a big Blazing World epic, which we’re quite keen to do, and I’d still like to do more with the Golliwog, I love the Golliwog character. The Americans seem a bit baffled by it…

I was at a signing and a lady came up to me, a Black photographer, and she said, ‘Look, I really like your book…’ I knew what was coming, she said, ‘I really liked the Black Dossier, but I have a problem with the,’ I think she called it a pollywog. I explained, oh, it’s actually a really heroic Black character, in fact it’s the only heroic Black character of the fiction of that period. It was created by Florence Upton, it’s not a racist character at all. Her mother wrote the verse to accompany her illustrations. She didn’t copyright it – her spelling ends with a double G, golliwogg – she didn’t copyright it, everybody ripped it off, they changed the spelling and ripped off the image, and all the minstrel kind of golliwogs were post her, or contemporary with her. Her original inspiration was I think a minstrel doll which is in the museum back home, the toy museum.

PÓM: I have to say, with golliwogs, as a kid a golliwog was this toy, this creature, I had no concept it was meant to be a caricature…

KON: I’ve heard that a lot. I didn’t, when I was a kid, I never saw it as a black character, I saw as like an alien thing…

PÓM: yeah, so I think Alan’s take on it is… if you were to ask me what it was I’d say, ‘a strange looking… creature.’

KON: And the relationship with the Dutch dolls is pretty authentic, actually – the books are very, very odd. They were hugely popular – a lot of children’s illustrated fiction of that period, there’s a kind of slightly erotic undercurrent running through them. The Arthur Rackham illustrations, there’s a lot of nudity in those illustrations which you wouldn’t have seen when I was growing up, but they were in the old books that I was buying.

PÓM: Things like Peter Pan, I suppose, and especially Alice…

KON: The Water Babies…

(a scene from The Black Dossier by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, published DC)

PÓM: the old story about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell is a thorny subject, although comprehensively covered by Bryan Talbot in Alice in Sunderland!

What am I going to ask you next? I don’t know. Yes! Em, no, not that. You really do, your artwork is quite slow. I mean, is… As I was saying, Alan is always saying, ‘well, it’s Kevin’s fault.’ He’s always blaming you for everything. He also blames you for trying to drive poor Jess mad. Is it just that, I presume it just takes as long as it takes. Is it all research, or…

KON: It is. I was saying to someone, you’d think as I get older it would get quicker, but… I suppose, because we keep shifting time-period as well, it’s starting over again. I got quite used to the Victorian period by the conclusion of that era, 1910 was close enough that it wasn’t a big shift, but the Black Dossier drove us mad.

PÓM: Yeah, I suppose Nemesis and Marshall Law were really, between one thing and another, fantasy landscapes that they were in, if you like, whereas this had to be some semblance of…

KON: It is, yeah. When I first started, I was going, ‘I can’t even do this,’ because there was lots of scenes of people talking, sitting around, which I’ve never really drawn before – everyone’s running, or being blown up, or chopping heads off, things like that. So, yeah, that was a big shift for me, so I really did slow down, and I tried to lose a lot of bad habits as well, which you pick up when you’re doing other stuff, you know. I’d been doing a lot of fill-in issues of DC books before starting League, I wasn’t doing Marshall Law – we couldn’t find a publisher, by the end it was impossible to find a publisher for Law.

PÓM: Yeah, it was jumping all over the place.

KON: The nineties were a really bad time for comics, they were really sliding down. Comic stores were going bust, Marvel did their own distribution, do you remember that?

PÓM: Yes, kinda…

KON: It all went horribly wrong so, yeah, I was just filling in. The League came along at the perfect time for me, but I did have to think, right, OK, I’m going to draw this really differently to anything else.

PÓM: How did you end up getting the gig at League?

KON: It’s odd. I went to Comic Showcase in London – Paul Hudson, it was his shop, he was a friend of mine. I walked in the door and he said, ‘Oh, I hear you’re doing a book with Alan Moore.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’ve got to ring Alan tomorrow about something else, nothing to do with working together.’ But I don’t know what he means, that just scuttlebutt. I rang Alan, we were talking about some IPC stuff, contract things, stuff from the old days, nothing very important, but right at the end of the conversation he went, ‘Oh, I don’t know if you’d be interested, but I’m sort of thinking of this idea, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and it would be…’ and listed these fictional characters, and it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard.

So he said, I’ll send you a synopsis, and he sent me a synopsis, which was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. So I said, yeah, fine, I’d love to do it, and it started like that. Then we talked about the characters, so when the first script was being written we could have embedded in it the Indian heritage for Nemo, and we talked about the state Quatermain would be in by that point – I’m glad we didn’t, we were talking about giving him African tribal scarification, tattoos and things on his face, but it wouldn’t have given him much of a stealth capability, going undercover.

PÓM: No, when he was sitting, in the 1950s, sitting in the bar, waiting for Mina to lure Jimmy Bond…

KON: We became so obsessive, I found all the Quatermain stories I could, and there are quite a few short stories by Rider Haggard which have fascinating bits of information, so I’d ring Alan up and say, I’ve just read this story about Quatermain’s youth, where he saved a girl from fire, and she has – and it’s his first love – and she’s got a scarred neck from the fire. And that’s great, ‘cause Mina’s got a scarred neck, which ultimately we’ll reveal, so we could embed that straight in, by complete chance. But then we had the bed scene – Alan describes Quatermain getting undressed with some trepidation, and he’d be beaten up and scarred from various things in his life, so I read all the stuff again, keeping notes of when he was savaged by a lion, what bit of his body had been savaged, where he’d been shot. So all the bullet holes and everything, the scars from the lion, they’re all in the right place – I don’t know if anyone… I don’t think I even mentioned it to Jess, ‘cause that might seem too mad, completely mad…

PÓM: I’ll send him a copy of the interview, so he knows. But I think the thing is, when you do research like that, even though people may not get all of it, I think it does enrich the finished work.

KON: It feeds through to the audience somehow. When I was a kid, most of the MAD paperback stuff, I didn’t understand the Jewish humour, but I kept going back, and I gradually got to understand it, because I was studying it, figuring it out. I just liked the attention to detail, the feeling there’s more to this than meets the eye, maybe.

PÓM: Are you happy to continue to do this – I don’t know if I can say ad infinitum – until they take your pen out of your cold dead hand?

KON: I said to Alan, I made a horrible mistake a couple of years ago, I worked out roughly how many books I’ll have left in me, then I got quite scared – I forget what I worked out, I’ll just pretend I’m going to have a very, very long Mick Anglo sort of life that’s going to run well into the future, like Will Eisner or something. No, they take a devil of a long time, these books, they tend to get, they get more ambitious as they’re going along, so…

PÓM: Are you suggesting, as Alan gets madder and older, and comes up with madder and madder things…?

KON: Yeah, ‘cause no-one’s stopping us… I suppose if the Black Dossier hadn’t sold, it would have made us sit back and thing, well, OK, to keep going, we recalibrate another way to do a mad book, and see if that mad book works, but Black Dossier surprised even DC.

PÓM: I love Black Dossier. I was re-reading it – every so often I take them down – and there’s stuff in 1969 which is in Black Dossier. Let’s say, there’s stuff in Black Dossier which only really clicks into place… so it’s not just a source book for the previous volumes, but a source book for…

KON: Yeah, absolutely, and the text carries a lot of material if people do read it. I know the Black Dossier, people were expecting the third series, a conventional series…

PÓM: Yeah, a lot of people refer to it as the third volume, which it actually isn’t…

KON: It isn’t.

PÓM: No matter what they try to say. I think I might have run out of things to ask you. I’m going to ask you if you’ll sign one or two things, and what the possibility is of your drawing me a little picture…?

KON: Of course, yeah, no problem.

PÓM: I’m going to leave this running anyway.

KON: I’ll be careful what I say!

PÓM: No no! Don’t worry. Unless it’s safe for publication, you know. How did the thing in Gosh go?

KON: Oh, that was crazy. We didn’t get out until almost nine o’clock that night, and we started about two.

PÓM: Yeah, you were at two, ‘cause Gary Spencer Millidge was in before that with his book.

KON: Yeah, it was nuts. It was fantastic – they started queuing at eight o’clock. Alan attracts huge crowds – one guy flew over from Texas, and Alan said to him, ‘You’ve come from Texas?’ And he said, ‘I’ve come just for you,’ and Alan said, ‘well, are you going to go sightseeing?’ ‘No, I’m flying back tomorrow!’ Alan has no passport, unless you fly to Britain you’re not going to see him, you’ll never see him.

PÓM: I’ve tried to lure him to things over here numerous times. I’m hoping that… I have some paper, if that’s any use to you?

KON: That would be useful, yeah, ‘cause I’ve just realised I’ve got no…

PÓM: Just in case, I stuck a few sheets in here. This is a terrible question to ask a man, but are you now financially comfortable on the back of all of this? If you like, you know, it’s making you a living?

KON: Yeah, it does make a living certainly, yes. It’s one of those businesses, you put a load of effort, you put more effort in than you’re possibly sometimes rewarded for, but if you’re in the business only for going into an art business just to make money, going into advertising, or something like that, it’s a hugely unsatisfying sort of career path if you wanna do kind of wild stuff. No, we just love comics, so as long as there’s an audience who can keep it viable, you know…

PÓM: I think with something like this, and with, let’s say, a lot of Alan’s work, he’s proved that you can actually stick to your principles, and you can take the harder road, and still you can be successful. And huge quantities of talent and genius and things like that possibly also help. I’ve always admired him for the very fact that he is uncompromising.

KON: Yeah, I know. Alan, he’s turned back huge amounts of money on principle, you know, and suffered as well. People don’t really understand it. It seems to annoy people as well, they say, ‘well why don’t you do this for the money, or that,’ whereas the point is… It really annoys American Hollywood people – ‘if he doesn’t want the money, what does he want?’ He actually doesn’t want anything, he wants them to go away, and they keep offering him more…

PÓM: I’ve seen interviews with him where people are asking him essentially… do you know what I was going to ask you to draw? Any possibility of Mina with Alan Moore? Would that be possible?

KON: I’ll try…

(Kev sketching for Pádraig, pic again by Deirdre)

PÓM: OK. Well, I can ask no more than that! I mean, I read interviews with Alan where people are asking him about Watchmen, and about the Watchmen movie, and about stuff that, if anyone had any sense, they’d know he’s not interested in talking about, that annoys him, and so on. And then the interviews are published and people say, ‘Ah, there he is giving out about Hollywood again,’ and he’s only doing it because people are asking him what his opinion is about stuff that they should know he doesn’t like.

KON: A lot of stuff, quotes from Alan, are misunderstood, because they don’t hear the voice behind it, because Alan’s very, very funny, he’s a very funny man, but they can seem very dry, dry comment.

[I continue to ramble on as Kevin draws.]

(Kev’s sketch for Pádraig showing Alan Moore with the LOEG’s Mina Murray)
PÓM: A friend of mine says this a lot, that the thing that people don’t seem to get with Alan is how remarkably funny he is, and he’s very dry, very droll. He’s lately been hanging out with comedians and scientists…

KON: Yes, that’s true.

PÓM: A dangerous mix!

KON: Yeah, he’s great buddies with Stewart Lee. Yeah, I heard him on radio recently, Alan…

PÓM: He’s doing a lot of bits and pieces of all sort of strange stuff…

KON: People think because he doesn’t go to comic conventions, he’s a recluse, as if life is only a comic convention – he does a monstrous amount of work, he’s always active.

PÓM: Yeah, and he does seem to do an awful lot of work in Northampton itself, and the community. I think essentially Alan believes that Northampton is the most important place in the world. I believe the same thing about Dublin, and we’re both correct. And my wife puts up her hand there and says, ‘you’re both wrong, it’s Waterford.’ [Deirdre had come along to take photographs…]

I think I’ve run out of things to ask you. You see, I came along with a list of things here, and I know when I’m interviewing Alan, I ask Alan a question – you know you’ve got an hour, right – the terrible fear is that that question is the only question you’ll get to ask, because he’ll go, ‘Well…‘ and ramble on… Talking about art, I saw there was a photograph of you with a guy called Tom Mathews, who’s an Irish cartoonist, at the signing yesterday – white hair, moustache…

KON: Yeah, I remember Tom.

PÓM: Tom, as far as I’m concerned, it Ireland’s greatest cartoonist, his stuff is fantastic. He was saying, you draw a cartoon and maybe, weeks, months, years later, somebody looks at it and laughs. But you never hear that laughter. At least when you do these signings…

KON: You get feedback, which is great.

PÓM: Because otherwise it is a very solitary occupation. I suppose with Alan and yourself, he does do these famous monstrously long phone calls, so there’s an ongoing feedback there, I suppose, between the pair of you.

KON: Yeah, absolutely.

PÓM: I think at this stage I genuinely have run out of things, so I’ll turn this off. Fifty minutes, we got…

FPI would like to thank Kevin and Pádraig very much for taking the time to share their thoughts with us. LOEG 1969 is out now from Knockabout and Top Shelf, with collected Marshall Law volumes expected from DC, possibly next year – Pat Mills also confirmed them coming from DC but we’re still waiting for an actual planned release date. And don’t forget you can also indulge yourself in some of Kev’s amazing art in the likes of the 2000 AD Nemesis the Warlock collections too.

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About The Author

Pádraig Ó Méalóid has a long history of promoting good comics and science fiction works, from organising conventions in his native Ireland to extensive writings and interviews with creators such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Kevin O'Neill and more

8 Responses to It’s 1969, ok? Pádraig talks with Kevin O’Neill

  1. A Cheverton says:

    Great stuff. I prefer a good ramble to an interview any day.

    (Pedant that I am, though – the 1969 lyrics quoted are by The Stooges, not The Sisters.)

  2. Thanks very much. I had considered tidying it all up, and pulling pieces together to give it an appearance of some sort of coherence, but in the end decided that would interfere with it too much, and anyway I liked it as it was.

    As to the Sisters/Stooges matter, I’m also being told the same thing on my Facebook. I shall leave it to our good editor to sort out, as that’s the only bit of the article I didn’t do!

  3. Joe says:

    Ah, right, only version I was familiar with was the Sisters version, old Goth freak that I am, I did look up the lyrics online to check them and it said Sisters, didn’t reference earlier band, sorry!

  4. Matt Badham says:

    That is a very good interview.

  5. Pingback: Kevin O’Neill: Forbidden Planet Interview «

  6. Garen says:

    Fabulous interview. Thanks, Pádraig!

  7. Joe M. says:

    Does he really think that the 2009 issues will be out that soon? Cause I really don’t want to repeat the wait for the last one (although it was totally worth it)!

  8. Lew Stringer says:

    Excellent stuff. It’s always good to read an interview with Kev.