Monday, 28 March 2016

interview: Tony Luke (1996)

I first met Tony Luke in the early 1980s when we were both very active members of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society. By 1996 I was working on SFX and able to do this big interview with Tony about his comics work.  A few years later we did a second interview about the film version of Dominator. After that I lost touch with Tony. I knew he’d had a lot of health problems over the years. Nevertheless it came as a great shock when I learned that he had passed away on 18th February 2016, aged just 49. A short version of this interview was published in SFX, but here’s the full transcript.

When did you first become interested in comics? 
“What kind of question is that?”

Okay. Comics/science fiction. 
“I was one of these horrifically nerdy kids in school who was into the films of Ray Harryhausen at the age of about eight. By the age of nine I knew every lighting cameraman who worked on all his films. Not very popular, as it were. I've just always enjoyed stuff that was a bit different, but that goes way beyond comics. I couldn't get hold of many comics when I was a kid because my dad wouldn't let me read them. It was a bit of everything: movies, books, anything that would stretch my imagination.“

When did you start creating your own stuff? 
“I got hold a little 8mm camera when I was a kid and started making stop-motion films and stuff. By the time I hit my mid-teens, when I left school, I was making loads of very, very cheap remakes of Ultraman movies and stuff. The weird thing was I kept on getting called up to go on programmes like Mad About and Blue Peter, where I got introduced to Peter Duncan - him out of Flash Gordon.”

Were these films using models? 
“Yeah, I built the whole shebang. I built stop-motion foam rubber models. And straight from that I went to do a degree in film and TV in Manchester, where a few things happened. At the same time 2000AD had come out and that inspired me. While I was at college it became very much a choice of what I wanted to do. Was I going to work in film and TV or was I going to work in comics, or something inbetween? So I went for something inbetween! I'm a bit fuzzy on my early years. I was a nerd, I admit it. I was horrible. I never, ever, ever owned an anorak.“

The earliest stuff of yours I remember seeing was the old Nemesis the Warlock photostories in 2000AD
“Let me get this sorted out once and for all. It was done as a piss-take of all the photo-love stories that were predominant at the time in girls' comics. We thought, 'We'll have a laugh and do one in 2000AD to annoy the purist fans'.”

That was an editorial decision? 
“Oh yes. Done to annoy the purist fans who had popped up by then who were being very precious about the characters. So we thought since 2000AD was supposed to be a subversive comic - certainly at the time it was a fairly subversive publication - we thought we'd do this and annoy everybody.”

Which you succeeded in doing. 
“Indeed. What we didn't realise was how many purists were out there! Looking back, it was really, really funny. I look on something being a success as to whether you get a reaction out of somebody, and what I find really funny now is that people say it was great. And I know it was a load of old rubbish at the time.”

You did those with Pat Mills. How did you get to know him? 
“I rang him up when I was doing a film for my college entrance exam, and he gave me a lot of help. Years later, I did a 15-minute stop-motion animated version of Nemesis the Warlock which had a bit of money in it and got shown on BBC2 in '88. That went down well; I had a lot of nice feedback from that. It was done in a weird, ‘Trapdoor-y’ type style. I did a lot of work with Pat and had a very, very good time working with him. I think he's a cracking writer, one of Britain's best, and I think his stuff deserves a far bigger audience.”

Around that time you were becoming quite notorious... 
“I knew you were going to use that word.”

Okay: infamous? In certain sections of fandom. 
“The people I knew in fandom at the time, some of them have gone on do very good things. My friends and I were involved in this because we made a lot of good contacts, made a lot of good friends through it, which was absolutely fine. But we also encountered a very, very unpleasant side of it which was this snobbery that dictated that if you are a fan then you must be a fan and how dare you become professional? Shocking! Shouldn't be done! We thought, 'Bollocks to this!' and went off and did our own thing. Ten Grand was a zine that my friends did that I did some artwork for about ten years ago, and they've gone on to do great things: TV series and stuff. But we just didn't like the snobbery side of it so we got out pretty much as quickly as we got in.”

Do you think your early work on fanzines was useful in furthering your career? 
“I've never had a problem with anybody telling me what they think of what I do. But I would say this: if someone's going to offer criticism, then let it be constructive. If somebody doesn't like it outright, then that's absolutely fine. But if somebody says, 'I didn't like it because you weren't using the right materials or the right tools,' then, well, get lost, really. It's what I do and that's it, and I'm not going to make any apologies for it.”

Have you ever had a proper job? 
“Yes, I worked in Odyssey 7 in Manchester for a while.”

That's not a proper job! That's a science fiction job! 
“I cleaned out toilets in the East End for a while for a company when I moved down to London, just to get some money. And while I was doing that I was thinking, 'I'm going to get out of this job as soon as possible and I'm never going to go back to it again.' Some of the graffiti in the ladies' bogs is absolutely disgusting. While I was doing that I dreamt up the whole thing of Dominator - the original version of Dominator, which ran in Metal Hammer magazine for about six months. Every two weeks, a little half-page thing. Just a little joke strip, with guest appearances by Zodiac Mindwarp.”

How did you approach Metal Hammer
“I just sent some stuff in. Originally it was going to be in Kerrang! but I fell out with the editor and gave it to Metal Hammer instead. It ran its course, and by then I'd moved down to Brighton where - how can I put it? - I lost track of life for a couple of years. Basically, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. In that order. I just thought about what I wanted to do. In '89 Alan Grant called me up and said, 'Marvel Comics are going to bring out a US/Japanese co-production comic and they've tendered it out to different writers. As you know a lot about Japanese stuff, do you want to give it a go?' I'd grown up watching Japanese monster movies and I'd seen a lot of Japanese animation on the continent like Mazinga and Captain Harlock. So I was well acquainted with Japanese pop culture, so we put this proposal together called Psychonauts for Marvel's Epic imprint.

“We got a very good artist called Motofumi Kobayashi who did the first two books then took a break to do the comic version of the Gulf War. And then he did the sequel! I'd love to see it! It's probably what Stormin' Norman would like to have done but didn't get a chance to do. When I was about six years old I saw a Godzilla movie. To a six-year-old, all the effects looked extremely convincing. So I'd always enjoyed all that stuff and I saw a lot of stuff on the continent on TV. Psychonauts came out three years late. We had this bit with genetically engineered dinosaurs running around all over the place. Unfortunately it came out right in the middle of Jurassic Park and everyone thought we'd ripped it off, which was rather embarrassing. But the seeds had been sown and I had some discussions with the Japanese.”

As I understand it, you are the first westerner to become successful in Japanese comics. 
“I wouldn't say the first westerner. What I can say was that Psychonauts was the very, very first ever joint co-production between a western and an eastern publisher. It came out simultaneously in America and Japan. It was the very first one created exclusively for the Japanese and Americans. Alan and I wrote that together. I went on to write a few Judge Dredds and Judge Andersons for 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine with him after that. Then Dominator came along. What happened was that the original version finished in Metal Hammer and at the back end of 1990, Tundra Publications wanted to do a version of it. So for about a year and a half that was on their slate. For one reason or another it didn't happen, so it went to Kodansha instead. Kodansha are one of the three biggest publishers in Japan. They sell millions of comics every week, magazines, coffee table books - they're a big publishing house.”

How had they come across your work? 
“I extricated myself from the sheer crap that my life had become in '91 and went to America for a bit to just get away from it all and see what else life had to offer. While I was out there I was going out with a biker chick; I fell off the back of a bike, banged my head and got inspired. As a result of that, I very cheekily asked a friend I was staying with, who worked at Tundra, if I could join them in San Diego for the comic convention there. So I went over there - it was brilliant. I secretly stayed in the Presidential Suite for six nights without anyone realising I was there. While I was there, I saw as many publishers as I possibly could, one of whom was Kodansha, who had a stall there. I showed them my portfolio and they immediately said, 'Can you do something for us?' So when Dominator became available after they took it away from Tundra they went with it immediately and commissioned a year's worth of monthly episodes in colour, with Alan writing it. The full name of the publication is Manga Frontier Comic Afternoon, which is 1,000 pages long for about £4 each month. There's loads of stuff in it. There's some great artists in there, many of whom I'd been inspired by in the first place, so suddenly finding my stuff in the same place as them was great.”

Do you produce it in English and they translate the speech bubbles? 
“Yes, I did all the artwork right-to-left in Japanese format. Alan did the script, then I indicated where I wanted each speech balloon to go and they translated it over there in Tokyo. I have a very good relationship with Kodansha and I haven't got any complaints at all. They're about the best publishing company I've ever worked for.”

Did they go for it because it was a British-Japanese amalgam? Did they like the British or the Japanese aspects? 
Dominator was always partly inspired by Japanese stuff in the first place, but they were at the time actively starting to look for different art styles. The style I was doing things in at the time - which was cut-and-paste montage - they really liked that because they'd never seen anything like it. Almost every publisher we took it to in the west said, 'No, this won't work. No-one will go for this style. No-one's interested.' One publisher in particular, who I won't mention by name, said, 'No, the Japanese will hate this.' So when Kodansha suddenly snapped it up for a year, we went out and got very drunk. I think in particular it was the art style, because that is completely different”

Explain this style. 
“I photo-reference everything, then retrace, redraw everything back onto the page.”

So is it a drawing or a photograph? 
“Some of the more illustrative pieces use photographs all montaged up, which I do now on the Apple Mac. Originally I was just sticking bits together with photocopies and glue. The Judge Anderson strips I did were retraced from photo-reference but I was using the same style I applied to Dominator on Anderson and I don't think it worked quite as well as it could have done. Now what I do is reference everything up. What a lot of people don't realise is that almost every artist working uses reference. It's just some people are more obvious than others. I do a lot of work with Glen Fabry and he uses reference all the time. Glen uses a Mac as well, with a poser program to put a humanoid structure into a particular pose which he then paints back down onto the board.”

What is the actual story of Dominator
“Dominator is the reincarnation of a Scottish warlord from 2,000 years ago who ends up on Earth, having escaped from Hell after 2,000 years, and is pursued by three of Hell's best agents: Violator, Decimator and Extricator. He's got problems because Violator's his ex-squeeze from Hell and she's none too pleased when he starts getting it together with a reporter from the XNN news channel, who also happens to be a reincarnation of his dead wife from ancient Scottish days. We were having a slight dig at Highlander while we were doing this, but for the most part Alan wrote a wonderful script with his trademark lunatic humour, which interestingly enough, translated very well into Japanese. British humour and Japanese humour are actually very, very similar, which comes as a surprise to most people. There are a great many similarities. We wound up Dominator after a year, having felt at the time that we'd told as much as we could, and I'm now working on something completely different.”

So Dominator's come to a finish now? 
“For the time being, yes. He's going to come back again.”

What about this crossover? 
Comic Morning is the weekly sister publication which has well over a million readers each week. There's a character in there called Sioshi and they suggested a crossover between Dominator and Sioshi: 'Do what?' Sioshi is a very traditional manga-styled character. He's got his own TV series in Japan and it's the eighth highest rated programme in Japan. So we thought ,'Yeah, let's do a crossover. Let's have a laugh.' So we did this one-off story, which got over a million readers.”

Who wrote that? 
“Alan wrote the story, sent it in, it was approved by Kodansha, then I went off and submitted the pencils, Kodansha approved it, and I did the final artwork. I had about a week to do it in. I used all of the Sioshi artist's references to get as close a match to the character as possible. So we had this thing where two characters from two completely different universes and art-styles are running around the place, slugging it out in the middle of Tokyo.”

Was this successful? Do you get reviews of these sort of things? 
“I haven't seen any reviews, but everyone I've met who's read Dominator really enjoyed it and said when is it coming back. Now there's the film prospect coming along.”

Whose idea was it to do a film? 
“Since the character came along... I got the idea for the character from looking at some old kabuki dancers who had very long hair with masks, and that's where the original design came from. I'd always seen Dominator as having a natural progression to the film or video medium. When the series started in Japan, over the year it ran, I had a number of calls from various film companies and production companies, but none of them seemed particularly keen on dealing with Kodansha who were joint copyright-holders of the property, which was a little annoying. Eventually Spice Factory said, 'We'd like to get the rights to this.' I'd been doing some script work for them on an aborted Doctor Who game. I said, 'Well, if you're happy to go to Kodansha and talk about it, then fine.' They have done, and kudos to them for doing it, because if things work out it should be rather a nice, tasty little film appearing on the screen in about two or three years’ time.”

Any ideas on cast or crew? 
“None at all at the moment. I've got a dream cast, but I'm not really going to say anything other than I think Famke Janssen would make a nice Violator.”

What's the new comic thing you're working on? 
Sim-7 is starting later this year. It was supposed to be last year for two reasons. One, my editor and I decided to start everything all over again to take into account the second reason, which was that I just laid my hands on a Mac. So my art-style changed completely again, became a lot more refined. A lot of the rough edges that people criticised - possibly quite rightly - from the old cut-and-paste style were thereby eliminated, resulting in a much more seamless piece. I took time off to properly study photography, composition, illustration. What you're going to get is a series of eight illustrations each month: full colour, full page. Going back to the original manga from 200 years ago which were basically one-page illustrations: one panel, one page, one picture, with a caption at the bottom.

“The basic theme behind it is these twins come to Earth - Agony and Erotica - who are sent by the universal goddess to tempt and judge mankind. This they do and they affect the world in various peculiar ways. There's another character in there called King Hell who's basically the ruler of the Earth for Satan. It's ‘King Hell’, not ‘…king hell!’ I explained the other meaning of this to the Japanese who found it most amusing. That's going to start later on in the year in Comic Afternoon. I'm actually really pleased that it's taken a bit longer to get it going, because what I've found that I can do on the Mac completely blows away anything that I've done before.”

Has any of this Japanese stuff been reprinted in English? 
“Not at all. For various reasons, the western comics industry has spectacularly shot itself in the foot. The industry has imploded quite dramatically, and there's not nearly as much stuff coming out as there used to be. As a result, sadly, the more esoteric stuff is not nearly as available as it was four or five years ago. If Dominator does make it to the big screen, then yeah, we'll bring him back. Whether that's in a completely revamped form again for the western market or a reprint of the old version, I don't know. Probably both.”

What do you think of the recent explosion in popularity of manga and anime? 
“What I find bizarre is that distributors over here, and the TV networks, have been incredibly resistant to the art-style and stuff for years and years and years. There's still hardly anything on TV. But suddenly Akira becomes very, very successful, and there's this huge explosion. Personally, I think it's wonderful because it justifies everything I was going on about ten years ago. From another point of view, I wish it had happened ten years ago. What I find disappointing still, is that we're only getting 1% of the output of the Japanese manga and anime industry. There's an awful lot more stuff out there that would probably go down extremely well, be that in a published form or on TV. We're still lagging about 20 years behind the rest of Europe.”

How is your stuff regarded in Japan? 
“God knows! I had quite a few letters which I got translated, most of whom wanted the address of the model I had for Violator. I realised pretty early on that she was the most popular part of the str-p. We're going to have to change Violator's name for the film because, even though our Violator was created six years ago, Todd McFarlane's Spawn has a Violator character in there as well. As I'm quite a big Spawn fan, I don't want anybody getting confused between the two characters. Sim-7 I've got really high hopes for. It's what manga was, but updated. What they're calling it now is 'renga'; that's Kodansha's term for the full-page, speech balloon-less illustration style.”

Is anybody else doing it? 
“It's purely me. I'm writing, producing the entire thing.”

But is anybody else doing that style? 
“Oh, yeah, sure. In the last three years, a lot more western artists have started working over in Japan. I believe I was one of the first. Dominator, as far as I know, was the first original UK-produced comic strip to appear in Japan, specifically for the Japanese market. But they certainly had other people from the west working for them before we came on.”

With Dominator, did you have an overall plan? 
“The first five or six episodes we had pretty well planned out. We changed things around from episode six onwards because there were an awful lot of other things we wanted to get in, and we figured we'd pack as much as possible into the first run, and then see what we could do a couple of years later when we came back to it. So we had the first six planned out, then we had to write the other six very quickly. But I had a lot of fun doing it.”

If the Dominator film gets made... 
“If it happens, fantastic: I'll buy everyone a pint. If it doesn't happen, then at least I'll have had the experience of writing the script, because Spice Factory have asked Alan and I to write the first couple of drafts of the script. Which again is extremely nice because that's what the Japanese do. If there's an adaptation in Japan - animation from manga - they will get the original creator of the strip in to work on the animation version, as a rule. What's great is Spice Factory are actually following that; they're not getting someone else in to rewrite it who'll immediately change it completely around from what it originally was. If there's any changes in it, then Alan and I will instigate them, certainly at first.”

If the Dominator film happens, it's a smash hit, he becomes a world famous character and everybody wants Dominator pencil cases and Dominator thermos flasks: would you be happy or would you feel you'd sold out? Suppose it became as big as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
“Given the Turtles' humble beginnings, and given that Eastman and Laird worked very hard to get those characters anywhere at all, I’d say they deserved all the success they got.”

But most people now consider the Turtles to be a crap kids cartoon and aren't even aware that there was a comic book. Suppose that happened to Dominator
“If I made a lot of money out of Dominator, I'd put it back into something; very likely a publishing company set up along the lines of a Japanese publishing company, which would do what I've experienced from Kodansha. Which is to have an active and exciting editorial team, actively encouraging fresh new talent to bring out exciting publications and instigate new projects because I don't think there's enough of that going on in Britain now.”

What is the state of comics in Britain now? 
“Pretty dire, isn't it? Lack of imagination and foresight. The whole adult graphic novel thing from the '80s was almost like the kiss of death. In far too short a space of time, certain PA people tried to con the general public that comics were - and always have been - this incredibly valid adult art form. The audience split up into different bits and it lost its mainstream footing. I think what we see as comics are going to completely change in the next ten years anyway. It's like it was 20 years ago. Something exciting and fresh will come along in the next couple of years in this country - I sincerely hope so - that will give the industry a good kick. But I don't know what that could be. Well, actually I do know what that could be, but I'm not saying.”

Where are you aiming at now? 
“I realised a long time ago that my future's pretty much with Japan, and Kodansha to a large degree, because they have a different attitude: that attitude I was talking about earlier of encouraging and working with the people who work for them, which is not overly practised on this side of the Pacific. I have a great affinity for Japanese culture, but then again if there was a better and more forward-thinking industry taking place in this country, I'd be just as happy to work for a UK company. Where do I see myself going? I guess primarily Kodansha for the foreseeable future. I have other series planned. I'm about to go off to Japan to discuss them with my editors. I've got something to come in after Sim-7 which takes me through '97, '98. In the middle of all that, I've been doing some work with Glen Fabry for Manga Mania. I've got a story out in the new Skin Tight Orbit collection which is rather rude, putting it mildly.”

Where do these commissions come from?
“Say the Manga Mania cover: that was, 'I'd like you and Glen to do a cover together.' So Glen painted a version of the character Armitage from Armitage III and I Mac-ed it up on my computer to print what you get.”

Do you think computers are useful? 
“For illustration on the whole, rather than just comics, I think they're a wonderful tool. But that's all they are - just a tool. What you put in is far, far more important than how good you are at messing around with it once you've got it in there. It's like an airbrush, it's just a tool. If you've got a good idea then you'll get it out whether that's with a pencil or with a Mac.”

Anything else you want to add? 
“Other stuff I did. I did a lot of pop videos that got shown on MTV: Wolfsbane, Christian Death, Creaming Jesus...”

Did you do it for anybody good? 
“Um, no.”

Did you direct those? 
“Pretty much made the entire thing single-handed. I stopped doing that because I got too many bands coming up to me going, 'Can you make a video for us for a hundred quid?' No.”

Did yours look like they were made for a hundred quid? 
“The Wolfsbane one cost about a thousand, and we fooled a record company executive into thinking it had cost 30,000. I kind of pixilated the band at the Marquee and got this incredibly manic, stroboscopic, epilepsy-inducing thing which actually got complaints from some people. It sent some epileptics completely round the bend when it was shown on TV.”

8Hz is not a good frequency to make your videos at. 
“Music is a big influence on what I do. I've always got something playing on the system when I'm working. So with that background as well, a lot of the imagery that I found when I was making videos I put into the work I do now.”

Are you starting to see people influenced by your work? 
“Yeah, I've met a couple of Japanese artists influenced by me! Which I find incredibly bizarre. I feel vindicated in a way.”

Vindicator! There's a good name! 
“We've got a list of about 150 of them.”

Ah no, sorry. That was a dodgy 1988 Canadian robot movie. 
“I'll take your word for it. I'll be the first to admit the style I work in tends to throw people here in Britain because they're used to a particular style of comic that's been published over the last fifty years or so over here. I'm grateful to the Japanese for letting me spread my wings over there. Because I've been able to experiment, which is what I've always been really interested in doing. People say, 'Why do you have to have your stuff look so life-like?' Because I'm interested in merging real life and fantasy. I like that style, that's my style. I'm not going to make any apologies for that. It's what I do and I want to make that as good as I possibly can. It's just my personal thing is to bring the characters that I work with into the real world as much as possible. So you look at something - and I think this'll be apparent in Sim-7 - I want to challenge the readers. I want to make them think, I want them to react. I want them to feel like they're involved in the illustration themselves. My editor certainly feels that the style I'm working in is very conducive to that, and that's really what I'm going for. I'm going to go for it until it's really refined; not so refined that it loses the craziness and vibrancy that got Kodansha's attention in the first place.”

Is there anything else you want to tell the world? 
“My wife models for all the female characters in my stories, including the quadruple-breasted whore.”

Ro, what's your opinion on modelling these thing? Do you have to dress up in the dodgy costumes?
Ro: “Oh yes.”

How do you feel about what ends up on the page?
Ro: “I was utterly horrified when I finally saw myself in print. I looked so awful - look at my cellulite!”

Tony: “I just want to point out that Ro works in the pathology lab of the local hospital. She comes back telling me all these stories of horrific organ transplants and bits of people in buckets, so she shouldn't criticise me so much for putting all that into my stories.”

But those have been removed by surgeons for medical reasons. Yours are just blown apart by aliens. 
Tony: “I've never blown anybody up.”

Ro: “You blew a great big hole in my stomach. You inserted a fanny into my abdomen.”

Whose fanny? 
Tony: “It was hers!”

Ro: “Was it? You bastard!”

Tony: “I'm going to change the tone of this completely. I've lived a strange life. I've had a very peculiar, up-and-down, sadly at times all too visible life. Shagged my way around half the world, got drunk in some very good bars in Mexico.”

You were going to talk about John Hurt. 
“I met John Hurt ten years ago. I was on Get Set. When I was on all these Saturday morning kids’ programmes when I was a nerdy teenager making rubber monster movies, I won this prize of the inaugural flight to Miami on Virgin Atlantic. I sat next to John Hurt when they were showing this film I'd made. I was 19 years old. He was pissed off his head, he turned to me and said, 'People like you should be running the British film industry. This is fucking great.' 'Thank you very much indeed.' Then he says, 'Are you going to get your leg over tonight?' and I went, 'I hadn't thought of that.' I realised that I was halfway across the Atlantic and I was still a virgin. So that night I finally managed to do something about it.”

Was that because of John Hurt? 
“No, it was because of one of the waitresses in the hotel. I can honestly say three good things have happened to me in my life: one, getting pissed on the plane over the Atlantic; two, falling off the back of a bike and seeing the road to, not Damascus but Tokyo; and thirdly actually getting married. Because everyone's got this ridiculous idea of me that I'm some complete animal. And sod it, sometimes I am. Alright, sometimes I'm a complete bastard and I make no apologies for it. I enjoy life, I enjoy what life's got to offer.”

Are you settled down and domesticated now? 
“I think I'm worse than ever. But I've met someone I can do that with at last.”

Ro: “I can eat vindaloos and you can't.”

Tony: “Yeah, I've actually met my match. What was good about that was the number of people who I've found out have been taking bets all these years, saying I never would get married. I collected an awful lot of money just before I got married. I think it's a great shame that in the country anybody who's got a passing interest in SF, fantasy or horror gets lampooned as an idiot. That's partly the fault of the general media, but I think it's also down to the large percentage of fandom who are in a strange way are actually happy to encourage this. I don't like it, and I wish it would change. I wish fandom would be more open to new people. All I can say is when I first dyed my hair black and turned up in a biker jacket, I was immediately criticised for being different. I thought, 'You bunch of bloody hypocrites.' They were all the people who said, 'It's great to be weird and different and strange,' but they couldn't handle anybody who in their eyes was, and I thought that was gross hypocrisy. That's why I got out of fandom.”

Tony Luke, 1970-2016. RIP, mate.

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