“I Much Prefer The Drawing Of A Thing More Than The Finishing Of It”: An Interview with Warwick Johnson Cadwell

"Cargo" by Warwick Johnson Cadwell

I've been quietly obsessed with Warwick Johnson Cadwell's drawings for years. Playful and humorous with a confidence of line that's just a pleasure to view. A regular of the tables of most UK comics shows, his style seemed to arrive fully formed. Over the last few years he's been working on a series of books about Victorian monster hunters. The first of these, Mr. Higgins Comes Home (Dark Horse, 2017), was written by Mike Mignola, with Warwick taking the reins on the following two books, doing both writing and drawing in this gothic horror world they created. As I've been hiding away these last two years, I haven't really had the chance to talk with him about the project, despite us living a stone's throw from each other. So, as the latest book, Falconspeare, has just been released, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch up. - Joe Decie

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Joe Decie: Rather than jump straight in and ask you about your new book, let's begin at the start of this whole project. Can you talk about the beginnings, how it came about, a little history? 

Warwick Johnson Cadwell: This is the third book, not in a series as such but the third time we follow Professor Meinhardt and Mr. Knox in their adventures tackling the supernatural. Mr. Higgins Comes Home was the first of these and this was a great big deal for me as it was created by Mike Mignola.

Mike Mignola is a massive influence and inspiration for me, I’ve loved his work for many years. I love a lot of people's work and am inspired by many too but Mike Mignola is consistently in the top 2 or 3. Many years ago I was putting drawings up on a blog. I was filling sketchbooks at home while doing various jobs and a few illustration ones but those didn’t tend to have as many monsters or jokes as I liked so I took to blogging. I drew three images of a “mash up” between the Hellboy Universe and Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I got an email sometime later from him complimenting my drawings. Of course I had to ask if it really was him and he replied “yes” so that was that. We met some years later at the UK’s Thought Bubble comic festival. I was asked to join Mike Mignola, Faith Erin Hicks and Mahmud Asrar on a sketch panel run by Pete Doherty. Which was an amazing experience. After which I ran around to Mike’s table to give him a bunch of my books. He said we should work on something together and I was blown away. I skipped off, honestly not expecting anything to happen but completely happy. A few weeks later he got back in touch, then again with an idea, and again with a story. Completely exciting and every step of the way I imagined would be the last. Even when the box of comp copies of the finished hardback turned up at my house I didn’t totally believe it all.

From fan to collaborator! Mike wrote the first book and you drew... I'm interested how this artist / writer setup worked. Especially with a writer who has a very strong visual language of their own.

It was extremely exciting for me and as it turned out, dead easy. He sent an outline of sorts first. We’d talked about werewolves a bit. My memory of Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolf Man movies was of him being a sad and despondent character and I think I'd drawn a few melancholy werewolves at that time. The world the books are set in and are drawn from is the classic horror cinema of Universal monsters and Hammer horror and the like. We both have a great enthusiasm for these so [were] starting on the same page (no pun intended). The process was easy, Mike’s script was in bullet point form and I loved it. I’d work out the pages and he’d see them with the editors. It was a very different process from their usual workload as these books are not part of the Hellboy Universe. So there was no need for checking or double-checking against continuity and no worries about presenting a character in a different way than they had been or were planning to be. I’ve said a few times also that, though I’ve written the two books following, Mike's presence is still very strong there as his style and storytelling is something I’ve scrutinized while developing my own skills.

Was this something you consciously did, like sat down and studied his approach, or is it ingrained in your work through years of appreciation?

Much more the latter. I’d read new issues and really love how they were, and I’d reread them often, not just Mike Mignola’s work but with most artists I’d see. Part of me was looking for ways to improve or develop my own work and I’d spot things that I could use. Like how a leg could show weight or movement or I’d wonder why a particular image carried certain mood. Mignola became a popular focus as his style and subjects were something I really liked. I have tried to sit down with comics and films and try a more studious approach but I quickly get lost and mistrust my own judgement. So it’s better to go with what I notice while I’m reading rather than hunting for something grander. I mentioned “scrutinizing” work. I definitely find myself staring at certain panels or pages of art, taking it all in. Gawping probably.

Art from Falconspeare (2022) by Warwick Johnson Cadwell; written with Mike Mignola and lettered by Clem Robins.

But it appears to me, just from the look of your drawings, that they're drawn quickly, that you've got this ability to just get it from brain to paper in one swift movement. That there's not hours of pencils and corrections, it's all done in one take?

This is a real Yes and No answer. I can spend hours drawing with very little to show (except piles of paper) but if things go well I can get a lot done quickly. I just don’t know what sort of drawing session it’s going to be until I start. I have an idea in my head before drawing. I don’t have an image there of what I’m going to draw but an idea that gets worked out on the page, often a scruffy rough and a tracing of that using layout paper or a lightbox. If the rough is successful enough I sometimes use that. If it’s nearly there and I’m trying to capture lots of it when I’m redrawing it gets trickier and this is where I end up with 22 sheets of paper instead of 2.

Oh I don't doubt you've put the hours in. And I think that's the case for a lot of us, for every drawing shown there's a pile of practices that are straight in the recycling. I saw a video of Quentin Blake using a lightbox, but only just, so he's only got a vague impression of the sketch, keeps the spontaneity. Spontaneity, that's the perfect word actually, something I really admire about your work. It's not static, your lines constantly pushing the story on, creating noise-- I don't know, life. They look fun to draw, they look like you had fun drawing them.

Thank you! Keeping it spontaneous is most important so I prefer roughs to be fairly open. I much prefer the drawing of a thing more than the finishing of it. Having said that, once it’s done it is nice to look back every now and then to see if what I liked or didn’t like about it has changed.

Art from Our Encounters With Evil (2019) by Warwick Johnson Cadwell; written with Mike Mignola , colored by Dave Stewart and lettered by Clem Robins.

Do you have a library, a cache of stuff in your head you can draw? I mean like there's certain motifs and images I find synonymous with your work, old pubs and inns and walls heavy with framed paintings... a lot of the gothic stuff Falconspeare is brimming with. Is this stuff you've got banked in your memory, or do you research? Make it up as you go? Your worlds feel authentic.

I really love research. Pinterest is good, and the rest of the internet, but we have a lot of books too, so [I have] an actual library of sorts but I know what you meant. These drawings have an effect to encourage further ideas and projects. Drawing Mr. Higgins opened up so many future possibilities in terms of stories to tell, I was making up stories to fill the canvases of the paintings on the castle walls, just that in itself feels like a project all on its own. Drawing from reference, like drawing from life, is amazing practice. Objects, items and scenes that I've drawn do leave a mark and get recycled later. There’s a grandfather clock in Falconspeare that is an awesome wooden cupboard from a friend's house. A dark and heavy-looking thing that I stuck a clock cabinet on top. I know I’ll use the heavy shape and simple carved pattern again. Tools in a toolbox I suppose.

Perfect. And in terms of theme and genre, you said before that you and Mike share a love of Universal monsters and Hammer horror. I'm interested how that influences the books, these feel very much your own stories but with a familiarity that I take comfort in. The telling of tales: "have you heard the story of..." 

That history, Universal, Hammer and all those movies are a strong shared interest and is the source of what these books are about. We know enough about this world independently, and the familiarity of the genre stories helps us tell our version of them. I am less interested in telling a wholly original story and more interested in telling a story in an original way.

"Ghost Train" by Warwick Johnson Cadwell

Exactly, decapitating a vampire is good... decapitating a vampire then blowing its head up with a stick of dynamite is better. It’s the way you tell 'em. I’m interested in the pace of your comics, the action and the quiet bits. Falconspeare has some lovely pages with next to no text, save for the odd sound effect.

I’m really interested in working out pacing with stories. I find a lot of stories that don’t work for me, whether comics or films or books, can often be things that set themselves at a certain pace that doesn’t change. Also trying to get humor to work without timing is difficult. It isn’t something I’m confident with but I’m enjoying working that stuff out.

And humor seems like a key element in your work, be it dark humor or slapstick or funny little details in the backgrounds.

I like to reread lots of my favorite books and I dwell a lot on the art so I like [to] make pages that can be returned to and explored. There’s a lot of artists I think about when doing this and Richard Scarry and Geof Darrow aren’t a pair that get put together often, but those guys are a fond influence for these pages.

"Neptune's Head" by Warwick Johnson Cadwell

You can get lost in their work, I love that. Whilst we’re on the subject, can you talk a little more on your influences? Your visual style seems uniquely your own.

My influences are many and frequently updated. Mike Mignola and Mick McMahon command the top spot together I reckon. Early 2000 AD guys [like] Kevin O’Neill, Carlos Ezquerra, Cam Kennedy are all in there in large measure. Moebius, Genndy Tartakovsky, Frazetta, Klimt, Sergio Leone. Just about anybody making something has something to teach and I try to keep my eyes open to learn from them. The way I draw has been a series of choices based on observing how others do it. So it might look unique but it’s really bits of everybody else.

Sure, but your line is instantly recognizable to me. How much do your tools influence the drawings? I know you’re a fan of a nice thick 2B pencil, but I often see projects and series in other media.

I’m trying to stretch out more. I do love a mechanical 0.9 2B, it can give a lovely greasy fat line then a twist of the nib and it’s super fine. Regular pencils are a treat, and then my line ends up lighter rather than constantly sharpening. And I’m finding a lot of fun with ink pens, mainly fairly firm “Fude” pens. Every tool is different so you end up drawing in a different way. Not dramatically different but all those choices that you make without realizing, like how much pressure, how fast a stroke, how long a line, they change the character of the drawing as much as the media does.

And what about collaborations, working with a writer, does that push you as an artist? It's not something I've ever done so you'll have to excuse me if it's a silly question, I'm interested to see how it changes things. 

I love collaborations. Making my own stories I could, if I chose, avoid all the things I might not want to draw, making it easier for myself to do. Working with a writer takes off those stabilizers but collaborating is so much more. Working with others means you end up with something you wouldn’t have made by yourself, something properly new. I find the process of drawing very enjoyable, [and] also engaging and instructive, I learn a lot from it. Having another creator involved expands that experience. Working from Mike’s script with Mr. Higgins was amazing, exciting and daunting, and that was an original work. Working on Tank Girl and Samurai Jack brought another big element to the process in terms of audience expectation, and that opened up a whole other pile of issues. It also depends how you collaborate too. Working with Robert Ball on Dangeritis [a webcomic drawn by both creators] was so cool, we were drawing our way around it, no script for most of it but lots of working it out. I think making these things is more fun or important than finishing them in the end. I’m quite surprised to find how pleased with myself I am after these projects. It’s not that I’m smug, that they’re brilliant, but that they are brilliant to make.

"Tank Girl Twister" by Warwick Johnson Cadwell

Yeah, tell me about Tank Girl. I remember there was a lot of excitement about Alan Martin calling for new artists and you seemed like the perfect fit.

Alan “Tank Girl” Martin got in touch one day to introduce himself. Tipped off by Mark “Bad Librarianship” Kardwell, who was a guiding light back into comics for me many years ago. Alan and I had a chat and I was pretty starstruck. A year or so later he posted on Facebook that he was looking for artists for Tank Girl and I gave it a go. Solid State Tank Girl [Titan Comics, 2013] was the first story I did and it’s some of the most bonkers stuff I’ve ever drawn. I’ve mentioned already that I get a lot from drawing and it is fun, but it is also very hard and can be very tricky. That series was hard work for me, they were my first “proper” comics and there are some panels in there that I love and there are some things I might never dare draw again (unless it was more Tank Girl possibly).

They’re very fun, but I feel that’s the Tank Girl drawing ethos, dowhatchalike, anything goes? But you said there were issues around audience expectation?

With a character like Tank Girl and with Samurai Jack too. Different audiences very generally speaking, but these characters have BIG followings and rightly so. Hewlett and Martin’s Tank Girl should be on my list of influences above, it’s a giant (I can add to that list forever though). Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack is a true high water mark in animation. I spent a long while trying to decide what I should do to make my versions of these guys more acceptable to their audiences. I encountered this with Tank Girl first of all, so I had practice by the time Samurai Jack: Quantum Jack [IDW, 2017-18] came along. I decided to just go for it as though this was just for myself. I knew the work wouldn’t appeal to all the fans however I made it, so I stuck to my own path so there wouldn’t be some sort of half-arsed version. I made my own whole-arsed version instead.

I think that’s completely the right choice. Catering to everyone’s tastes makes a bland soup, or something.

"Gorgu The Destroyer" by Warwick Johnson Cadwell

What else? I wanted to talk about your day job. I just think it’s the greatest. Like, most cartoonists supplement their living with illustration or teaching gigs, but you skipper a boat. It’s such a contrast to being hunched over a lightbox in a dark studio.

It is! Guaranteed sunny weather when I’m coloring pages with the blinds closed and wet and windy when I’m out at sea. We live by the sea and near a harbor and I crewed on the boats as a school job. Then got my skipper license to take tours and fishing trips. Not my boats mind you, too pricey to own one of those. But it’s a great contrast, standing and hopping around to counter the sitting about of drawing.

And when those nautical themes pop up in your work, I can trust they’re accurate, you’ll put the correct amount of bolts on a Victorian copper diving helmet.

Haha! I love reference. But I might be slapdash with the actual number of bolts if it helps the image. I’m not sure quite how it works but there is a fair bit of correctness in my drawing. Knots might not need to be recognized but they do need to look like they’re doing their job for example. Weight needs to look like it’s doing its job, whether it’s boats in water or how people are carrying themselves. Holding objects too, that sort of thing. Lots of things. I don’t represent things realistically but there is a certain amount of rules followed. Maybe not so much with the bolts.

And what’s next, if it’s not all hush hush under NDAs? It strikes me as you’re never short of ideas, always something new popping up on your Instagram.

There’s some stuff that could be out this year that’s been done for a while, some TV and some film, all NDA'd to the max. I’ll have artwork in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker 50th Anniversary Kickstarter that is running right now. And there’s also a new original comic series I've written and am drawing for a brand new publishing partnership that will be announced later this year. Very exciting stuff, no vampires but it is set in turn of the century Europe. Like The A-Team if the A-Team was a circus.

Perfect. Seems like a good place to wrap this up. Thanks Warwick, I’ll let you get back to your boat, or your lightbox.

Lightbox just now. Thanks Joe, it’s been fun.