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Home > Interviews > Letters from America

Letters from America

This interview with Richard Starkings was conducted by Andrew Wheeler for an article on In this first of two parts, Richard discusses his days as Editor in Chief of Marvel UK.

Where were you born, raised and educated?

I was born at an early age and I grew up in a converted railway station in the North of England with an old English sheepdog by the name of Boot. Throughout my childhood I always dreamed of one day becoming a great comic strip artist, but my hopes were crushed late one night when my Dad made me turn off my bedroom light while I was tracing pictures of Superman Red and Superman Blue.

What did you do before joining the comics industry?

I spent an inordinate amount of time sanding down the pieces so they'd fit together snugly. I took day jobs as a proofreader at The National Computing Centre in Manchester & Medi-Cine Communications in London in order to pay for all the equipment.

How did you get started in comics?

A friend of mine lent me his jumper cables.

How did you come to head Marvel UK?

Subterfuge, sabotage and subversion.

In your opinion, what happened to kill Marvel UK?

It's not really a question of what "killed" Marvel UK, but more accurately your perception of Marvel UK having "died". Personally, I'm actually perfectly happy with Marvel -- um, Panini -- UK. I pick up DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE every month, just as I did five, ten, fifteen years ago. Peri Godbold, who I hired as an art assistant way back in 1988, is still working over there and, I think, doing an incredible job designing the magazine.

The bigger question you're asking is really "What happened to British Boys' Adventure comics?" The truth is that the "Boom" market of the late seventies and early eighties was fuelled by the passionate work of a handful of exceptionally talented and creative individuals working at IPC and Marvel UK. John Wagner, Pat Mills, Carlos Ezquerra, Kevin O'Neill and Dave Gibbons poured enormous amounts of energy and imagination into their work on ACTION, BATTLE and 2000AD in the late seventies; Dez Skinn, Paul Neary, Alan Moore and Alan Davis did the same over at Marvel UK back in the Camden Town days of the early eighties. The Boys' Adventure market rolled on the momentum created by these guys throughout the eighties and into the early nineties. The stories and artwork I was reading in my teens unquestionably inspired me to work in the British industry.

I was lucky enough to jump on board (as an art assistant; I answered an ad in THE GUARDIAN) during a period of strong sales. Numbers on weekly titles such as TRANSFORMERS, THUNDERCATS & THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS justified the cost of commissioning British writers and artists to originate new material and editors such as Ian Rimmer, Simon Furman, John Tomlinson and I enthusiastically did so. Nevertheless, we had to make money to spend money and even though TRANSFORMERS outsold 2000AD in its heyday, its success, as well as the success of most of our licensed properties, was shortlived. During my last year with Marvel UK, I focussed my energies on original material featuring original characters.

I argued with the powers-that-be that, had we offered Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (who had worked on CAPTAIN BRITAIN and DOCTOR WHO respectively) more than just work-for-hire rates and licensed properties, we might have found ourselves publishing WATCHMEN, which had gathered a lot of press and publicity at the time. I was lucky in that Robert Sutherland, who was the publisher at Marvel UK back then, responded well to my enthusiasm and subsequently green-lit DRAGON'S TEETH (which became DRAGON'S CLAWS for legal reasons), a project which had begun as part of a proposal for a publication called FAST FORWARD which Tom DeFalco and Ian Rimmer had initially devised as a weekly to rival 2000AD. Editor-in-chief Jenny O'Connor and I originally approached John Wagner and Alan Grant to work on the book for us, but it was clear to me that they were jaded by their experiences with JUDGE DREDD, which made money for IPC and TITAN BOOKS, but not for John and Alan, so I recruited Simon Furman and Geoff Senior, whose work on TRANSFORMERS had made them legends in their own lunchtime.

I'm often asked if the subsequent launches of DEATH'S HEAD and THE SLEEZE BROTHERS were all part of a publishing masterplan. The real truth of it is that IPC/FLEETWAY had been approached by EPIC COMICS (the "mature readers" imprint of MARVEL COMICS GROUP) in regard to the US publishing rights for THIRD WORLD WAR and NEW STATESMEN which were the two main features of 2000AD's "mature readers" spin-off, CRISIS. Robert and Jenny got wind of this and we all felt that we couldn't let our parent company publish our principal competitor's works. Robert protested to Marvel president, Jim Galton, who agreed to put a stop to the books... but only if we came up with two new projects to take their place.

Simon Furman and I had always envisioned DEATH'S HEAD (who had been created as a supporting character for THE TRANSFORMERS) in his own book and John Carnell and Andy Lanning -- who had been working for me on GHOSTBUSTERS -- would always keep us all in stitches in the pub with their ideas for SLEEZE BROTHERS. I pitched both books to Robert and Jenny and they were quickly added to our publishing schedule.

The humbling postscript to this story is that the nicest man in comics, Archie Goodwin, was infuriated when he discovered that his negotiations with Fleetway were scuttled by our protestations. He was still steaming when I visited his office in July, '88. "But, Archie," I ventured, "Wouldn't you feel the same way if we were to reprint DC books in the UK?" Archie looked at me directly in the eye and replied: "No. Quality work is quality work. It should be exposed to as many readers as possible. It's origin is irrelevant." Suitably chastised, I went back to work at Marvel with a completely new perspective and was humbled further still when Archie stopped by our offices that September. I was struggling to convince Robert and Jenny to grant creator ownership of THE SLEEZE BROTHERS to John and Andy. Archie took a look at the material and proposed that it be published as an EPIC comic. Reluctantly, Robert and Jenny agreed. To this day, THE SLEEZE BROTHERS is the only wholly creator-owned title ever published by Marvel and a testament to Archie's sublime ability to influence the shape of the comic book industry simply by walking through a room. His graciousness and all around good will has affected me to this day.

Marvel UK had a great track record for finding fresh talents - Bryan Hitch, Carlos Pacheco, Gary Frank, etc. What was the secret of your success?

I would have to point once again to the high standard of work produced by Mills/Wagner/Grant/Moore/Bolland/Gibbons/Gibson et al. It wasn't really a question of discovering new talent as recognizing it when it was presented to me. If Bryan Hitch, Dougie Braithwaite, Andy Lanning and Liam Sharp had never knocked on my door, I'd have had to knock harder on the doors of the more established talent. I was very fortunate to be in the position of reaping a harvest of inspiration sown by far greater talents than myself.

As to the real secret of my success, I can't tell you; it's a secret. Curse that gypsy wench!

Do you miss editing and being involved in the overall comics creation process?

I don't miss it at all, because I still feel very much involved in the overall process, perhaps more so than ever. Although I'm not officially involved in the editorial process, I am often asked for input and advice, probably because I was raised to offer praise only if its richly deserved and, on this side of the Atlantic, such honesty and forthrightness seem to be in short supply.

Do you think the UK can support its own comics publisher beyond 2000AD?

It's important to remember that, were this 1975, you'd be asking pretty much the same question. EAGLE was gone, TV21 and COUNTDOWN were gone and LOOK IN was one of the few comics publishing high quality comic strips (remember Asbury on SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN; Bolton's BIONIC WOMAN; John M. Burns on THE TOMORROW PEOPLE and Michael Noble on MAN FROM ATLANTIS?). What's lacking right now is talented and creative men or women of vision to inspire a whole new wave. There's obviously no shortage of talent in the UK; take a look at DC's VERTIGO imprint or Quesada's MARVEL KNIGHTS line. Garth Ennis's ADVENTURES IN THE RIFLE BRIGADE was very much like the BATTLE/ACTION stories of old. What's most important is that talented artists and writers, who happen to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, are finding outlets for their work. Whether that's 2000AD, ACTION MAN or THE INCREDIBLE HULK is surely by the by.

What was your favourite Marvel UK work? And, because I've been asked to ask you: Do you know where Geoff Senior is now? :)

Working at Marvel UK was one of the happiest experiences of my life. I was particularly fond of my time on ZOIDS. Editor/writer Ian Rimmer created a really sound scenario which allowed us to tell great stories and feature the toys TOMY wanted us to promote. ZOIDS was the first regular professional work for my good friend Kev Hopgood and my first script for Marvel UK, illustrated by Steve Parkhouse, was a six page ZOIDS story. Later on the strip was to become my first editorial responsibility which allowed me to work with Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. When the weekly was cancelled, we asked Grant to redevelop the series as a monthly for the US market. He produced three terrific scripts, one of which was completely pencilled by Yeowell. Unfortunately, interest in ZOIDS was on the wane and the project was cancelled.

Grant was actually more mysterious back then than he is now. He struck me as being extremely polite over the phone and shy in person. He came to Marvel UK's lustful but lacklustre Christmas party in 1987 and was dressed all in black with dark glasses, like a negative zone Andy Warhol. No one knew quite how to approach him and, looking back, I'm sure this was all part of his act. His work on ZOIDS was just terrific. I had written a couple of stories for ZOIDS myself, and I was bowled over when Grant picked up on characters and concepts I'd introduced and used them as springboards for his own ideas. Grant also contributed one of the more offbeat DOCTOR WHO stories I'd commissioned, which was illustrated by a young Bryan Hitch, and the rather splendid Quick Kick/Shang Chi recap in ACTION FORCE which hooked him up with Steve ZENITH Yeowell.

A couple of years later, at UKCAC, I was chatting with Grant and Jamie Delano, while Jamie was poring over every single page of the latest issue of HELLBLAZER. Grant asked Jamie what he was doing, and Jamie replied; "Checking to see what they've rewritten!" Grant smiled, "Oh, Yeah, I always do that too." I swallowed hard, I'd rewritten Grant at least a dozen times. But not again.

I also had a lot of fun working on ACTION FORCE with Simon, Kev and, of course Geoff Senior, who was last seen working on storyboards for Trev Goring's old company, Helicopter, in London. He visited me here about three years ago and we recently worked together on a 26 page TRANSFORMERS story for BOTCON. Written by Simon Furman, colored by Andy Wildman with a cover by Lee Sullivan, it was just like old times.

Do you ever look at contemporary kids entertainment and weep for the likes of ZOIDS and the classic ACTION FORCE and TRANSFORMERS? (You probably don't care, but I had to ask.)

No, I weep for THUNDERBIRDS, CAPTAIN SCARLET, UFO and ACE OF WANDS. I think we develop an affection for the shows and toys that reached out to us (and our pocket money) in our youth. In the midst of working on TRANSFORMERS back in the late eighties, Simon Furman lamented that we couldn't get top talent to work on the book because all they wanted to do was work on JUDGE DREDD. I pointed out to him that the kids reading our books would one day get all misty eyed about Simon and Geoff's LEGACY OF UNICRON just as we get all nostalgic about Wagner and Bolland's JUDGE DEATH story. And, what do you know, Simon gets flown out to the US every other year for 'Botcon!

On a related note, could you do licensed properties again? Do you envy Dark Horse or feel sympathy for the company

Every property in mainstream comics is a licensed property. Whether you're working on BATMAN, JUDGE DREDD or STAR WARS, someone else owns the character and you can produce stories that shine or suck. Grant's work on ZOIDS, Simon Furman's work on TRANSFORMERS (LEGACY OF UNICRON being his finest hour, I think!) and Michael Golden's work on GI JOE, all prove that the material is not as important as the enthusiasm with which you approach it.

The licensed properties available at MARVEL were a tremendous projects on which to learn the ropes, and I worked variously as a writer, colorist, color separator and, ultimately, group editor. However, after nearly five years there, I found myself simultaneously at the top of my profession and at a creative dead end. The editor-in-chief and I were clearly pulling in different directions so naturally she and I fought often. I was recently divorced from my first wife at the time and in consequence, I was fiercely reviewing any and all limiting circumstances in my life. The writer of THE SLEEZE BROTHERS, John Carnell, had introduced me to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin and, to cut a long story short, after one last particularly frustrating altercation with my editor-in-chief I felt that it was time for a leap of faith. I typed up my resignation that night and handed it in the next day. Of course, I should also mention at this point that for a number of months I had been seeing a young girl who had recently returned to her home in California. I decided that for once in my life I'd listen to my heart and not my head. I worked a six week notice, in order to ensure that the various projects I had initiated were going to be well looked after, and then jumped on a plane at Heathrow for what I imagined would be a trip round the world taking in New York, LA, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Although I never made my trip round the world, and I broke up with my girlfriend shortly after moving from New York to LA, this was the best decision I ever made in my life.

THE SLEEZE BROTHERS - I remember that title fondly, so I'll take a little detour here. Was there much of an audience in America for that kind of humour?

No. I didn't realise why at the time, but Sergio Aragones once told me that he feels very strongly that people stopped looking toward comics for laughter when the sitcom started to dominate American TV programming in the late sixties. Why pay for a quick laugh when you can turn on network TV and laugh for free?

Why didn't the book lead to any other creator-owned books being published at Marvel?

Because none of the powers-that-be thought creator owned properties were worthwhile.

Has there ever been an attempt to reprint or revive the BROS?

Yes and no. The rights have reverted to John and Andy. John and I are very close friends and we talked for a while about reprinting the original series, but while I was working out all the logistics, I saw a shrinked-wrapped set of 1-6 on sale in the local store for $5, and I realised that reprinting the series (which was widely regarded -- by US retailers -- as a flop) during an industry slump would be insane. John is actively pursuing the possibility of a movie or animated series. The Sleeze's foil, Vanity Case, lives on in name alone in HIP FLASK. She was my small contribution to the series, and John kindly let me take her name back.

Are you still in touch with the Marvel UK alumni?

Simon, Kev Hopgood, Mike Collins, Lee Sullivan and John Higgins.

Continues in Part 2...

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