On the occasion of Shaky Kane's new book, Cowboys and Insects, Tim Goodyear asked the longtime British cartoonist a series of questions.
Tim Goodyear: The Shakyverse is a real place, it transcends the comics.
Shaky Kane: I like to imagine so. There's a certain familiarity to everything I produce. It's sort of populated or for want of a better word, furnished by the same stylistic tropes.
The very stuff I spent my time conjuring up onto the cheap sketch pads with wax crayons in my room as a child. It's genuinely heartfelt. It's a sincere appropriation of something very American. Something that resonated with me and I've kept close to me for the best part of 60 years.
Insects, especially giant ones; do they gravitate to you?
Giant insects have always held a fascination.When I stayed up watching late night TV, while my father worked nights, the giant ant invasion movie Them! made a real impact.
I thought it was the greatest. Likewise, I was thrilled to see American troops fighting off hoards of giant insects on the Topps Mars Attacks! bubblegum cards which were reprinted in Ireland and distributed over here by a company called A&BC. Giant Insects and GIs were as synonymous as Cowboys and Insects.
Eating bugs, zebras, hamburgers, human flesh; food plays a roll in many of your comix. Do you ask your collaborators to address diet?
Well, it certainly isn't part of my agenda. To be honest I've never really given it any thought. Cowboys and Insects, certain features a lot of Big Insect feasting. But that's what made Bug Town famous.
In Cowboys & Insects your pages have a denser, fuller feel to them.
I find it hard to think why this might be the case.
I certainly wanted this to look cool. I always draw big and shrink it down. I wanted the Stag Beetle Tusslin' scene to look cinematic, I had a pretty clear idea in my head on how all this was going to look. It didn't take much preliminary work. Soon as I read the script I had it all ticking over.
I like this page size your using. Could Cowboys & Insects be a counter culture morality tract/Bazooka Joe/Tijuana bible?
Glad you picked up on the page size, I wasn't sure if this was clear from the Previews listing. I've always liked the way comic art looks shrunk down. As I work on a book, I like to print out the pages as I go, and make up a version using a home printer. That way I can look back over the pages to keep an eye on how it's going to look as the pages turn. To save ink I print them out smaller than the actual book size and paste the pages together. I've always liked the way this looks. With Cowboys and Insects, it being a standalone one-shot, I thought it would look neat the same size as the Minx books that DC brought out, with a paperback book cover. Castellucci and Rugg's The Plain Janes is one of my all time favourite books.
You did a cover for Henry & Glenn: Forever and Ever. Do you read any of Danzig's comix?
That's right, I was asked out of the Blue to do a cover for Tom Neely's Henry and Glenn, Forever and Ever. I didn't really know much about the book. I take it, that the premise is that Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig are a gay couple, is that right? Is that even funny? I honestly don't get it. I'd heard of both Rollins and Danzig. Glenn Danzig was in the original Misfits. I always liked the album cover art, can't say I was particularly taken with the music. Does he make comics? I'll have to do a Google search.
I believe Danzig did some of the covers for the Misfit records, he doesn't draw any of the comix. His style reminds me of the Famous Monsters of Filmland that James Warren designed. Did you get that magazine?
During the 1960s, American import magazines and comic books would wind up on a spinner-rack in independent newsagent/ tobacconist here in the UK. The comic books would be at a kid friendly eye level, while the upper half housed Men's Adventure magazines, True Detective and more adult orientated titles. As a pre-teen I was always viewed with some suspicion by the store owner, while I perused the spinner-rack. I certainly got to see issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland,
I remember how the paper of the books had become brittle during their long boat journey to these shores. Somehow I managed to get hold of a copy of Warren Magazines, DIY Monster Make-Up book. The Dick Smith classic. This would have been later than its American publication date. Rare oddities like this would turn up at indoor markets, along with back issues of comic books, and Alan Class publications. Alan Class comics were black and white repackaged vintage American strips, between full cover covers, with titles like Creepy Worlds and Sinister Tales. I was quite taken by the idea of becoming the neighbourhood creep. To this end I'd spend my allowance on spirit gum, crepe hair and greasepaint. All to less than spine chilling effect.
Do you have this Halloween's costume sorted out already?
I still like the idea of dressing up. I like the way makeup smells. When my son was younger, I used to spend a bit of time putting together outfits. But here in the UK Halloween is always a bit of a letdown. Of course I've always got a bowl of treats ready for the Trick-or-Treaters, who do the rounds. But unless I was going to an organized event, it hardly seems worth the effort. I like the run-up to Halloween. Asda (part of the Wal-Mart group) in particular always has an isle of great spooky goods. And Poundland, who are the British version of Dollar City or Family Dollar, used to really go to town.
I've bought eyeball novelty lights, glow in the dark novelties, and a polystyrene butcher's tray containing a plastic severed hand. They used to stock a whole seasonal array of B-Movies on DVD, and all for a pound, as the name suggests.
I think that for a time, British stores were hoping to replicate the interest in Halloween that exists Stateside. But it seems to be fizzling out a bit.
Are you into eco horror, Slow Death/carnosaur type stuff? Are these just Hine-isms?
I did actually own a copy of Slow Death. The one where the man is cradling a seal pup, framed by a bloodied club, with the caption 'Over my dead body!' on the cover. I loved the EC look of the cover art. I bought it under the belief that it would be an over the top underground read. Turned out to be a bit repetitively preachy. Overstating the message until I sort of lost interest. Bit like comic book 'Door stopping'. I got the idea that it was a gateway for the illiterate, as if comic book readers don't get information from any other sources. I've no objection to comic books exploring social issues, but the story has got to be there. In my opinion at least.
Were you making your own comics before Escape #1? Is that what's in Beyond Belief?
That's what I'd always do. I was a very antisocial kid and would spend most of my time in my room drawing, ill thought-out strips, onto sketch pads. I'd color them with wax crayons, I found that if I colored first yellow, then lightly colored over with red, I'd obtain a very pleasing Californian tan skin color.
Red and blue applied in the same way made a perfect Batman body stocking color! My first published strip was of course, Hitler On Ice which appeared in David Hine's Art college project Joe Public Comics. This would have been during the early days of UK Punk scene.
"Hitler on Ice" was around 1977, an underground comix by all accounts; had you read American underground comix at this point?
Again, these things somehow made their way here from America. There was a link with the American and UK underground press in the very early 70s. Oz, the notorious underground broadsheet started to put out US sized books under the name Cozmic Comics ( with the emphasis on the 'Oz'). I certainly saw Crumb, Skip Willamson, I think Spain was represented. There was a similar underground comic movement here in the UK. British creators would share the pages of these books. As well as appearing in the publication Nasty Tales. I was particularly taken by Chris Welch, he drew the biker strip Ogoth and Ugly boot. Welch had a more accessible style, at least to my then unworldly eye.
Deadline was where I first saw your comics. I got the impression it was a social group not just a magazine. Was it?
I was actually about ten years older than most of the Deadline contributors. Jamie Hewlett, Alan Marten and Philip Bond came to the magazine straight from Art School. I'd been plugging away since I'd arrived in London. I'd do the odd unskilled work, while contributing single frame gags to The New Musical Express, and taking on any drawing job which came my way. Funny enough towards the end of Deadline's run, I went to live in Worthing, sharing a house with Alan Marten. To be honest I rarely saw him, I spent most of my time in my room, chain smoking while driving myself nuts ,while trying to draw idiotic stuff like the poorly received Soul Sisters for Judge Dredd The Megazine. I found it incredibly hard work, and it showed.
I've noticed you dig the Full Moon Videos, do you watch them all; or are there artists that you follow?
I'm a big fan of the movies Charles Band puts out. It's very much a comic book world in itself. The Puppet Master and Demonic Toys movies in particular. I never detect that it's done in a knowing way, a sort of postmodern wink to the audience. I think this guy makes these movies because these are the movies in him to make. That, these movies are as good as they are going to get. Different medium, but it's exactly the place I come from.
There are people out there making, sort of, kitschy, retro looking art, and comic books which ape the way things looked in the Silver Age. But it always shows, you always pick-up the feeling that it's ironic or a funny book. When I sit down to draw the pictures happen to come out that way. I've been drawing for a while now, I don't imagine it's going to change overnight, I'm not going to suddenly become Frank Miller.
Charles Band's father made a movie (a couple at least) in the '50s called I Bury the Living, and he composes the scores to many of the Full Moon movies, were there any comics or art culture in your family growing up?
Ha, that's something I wasn't aware of: Like father like son. No I don't recall any real encouragement from my parents. Although the germ of the obsessions I've dwelt on, for the last 50 years or so, certainly have their roots in my childhood. My father worked unsociable hours as a baker. My mother was the biggest American TV fan. Together, we'd watch all the shows that made their way across the Atlantic during the sixties. I recall my mother ironing my dad's laundered Baker's 'whites' ,with the ironing board set-up in the doorway, so she could watch the TV from the kitchen. The Lucy show starring Desi Arnez Jr.), Hogan's Heroes, F Troop, The Lone Ranger, The Munsters (I really loved the Munsters), Bewitched, it was a great time to grow up in.
I'd stay up late on a Friday, when my dad worked nights, and watch the monster movies. The Universal Creature Features were a big part of the late night movie schedule here in the UK. At the same time that I was soaking up all these cathode rays, my father started to bring home American comic books and Men's Adventure magazines from work. Big piles of them, I've no idea who gave them to him, but to me, it was like being transported to another planet. This was the early sixties, the books then were the greatest. Being a fairly self contained child, happy with my own company, I'd invest a lot of time trying to make my own versions of the pictures I saw in the comic books.
I'd draw onto anything I could get my hands on. The back of wall paper, card shirt stiffeners, even the packaging from store bought cakes! I was obsessed.
Your colors, the pastels and day glows. Do you paint much?
Like everything I've ever done, I achieve through pure perseverance. I like to do things right off the bat. I don't plan things to look a certain way. A lot of the look comes from working within the limitations of my Photoshop knowledge. I always like comic book colors to look flat. I like mechanical color. The times my art has been 'professionally' colored, it's always jarred to some extent. I like that 60's look, where the page was made up of overlaid color, I even try to replicate the miss-registration. I have painted, I've always tried to keep that mass produced look in everything I do. I hate to see the 'artist's hand',
Curt Swan is a favorite of yours, do you have a "Top Swan", is he still stoking the flames for you today?
I still obsess about Curt Swan's beautifully crafted work. My favorite period being the George Klein collaborations This would have been mid sixties.
DC had a real knack for employing the most shoddy inkers. So many strips were ruined, even fan favorite artist couldn't escape the horror. When the combination worked it was the greatest. This is the period of American comic art which really set me on a course that I would follow for over fifty years.
Neal Adams was the guy who changed things. I never really cared for the new realism. There existed a whole bunch of artist who followed his lead. Dick Giordano is a name that springs to mind. And it wasn't just the art, the stories were the worse, a half realized world of angry Hippies in horrible fringed buckskin, I didn't even ring true, I really didn't care for it. Towards the end of his career at DC, Curt was pressured into adopting the new house style. It was a shame to see his art losing what made it special in the first place. It didn't gel and it soured his legacy.
Shaky 2000 is very visceral, grim, bleak, and disquieting. There is a literal cry for help, what was going on at this time? Was Shaky 2000 a mask, or possibly just a statement of employment?
This came from a particular time in my life. I dwelt a little too much on the darker side of life. I was a 2000 AD contributor, we were known collectively as Art Droids. The name was a play on this, this feeling of dehumanization. The scripts I were asked to draw never played to my strengths as an artist. Like Jamie I was seen as the token weird guy.
The work I did outside of Fleetway, particularly the work for late period Deadline, again this is going back a while, was influenced by to some extent by the work of Richard Kern, and the cinema of transgression. It was fairly bleak and self indulgent. I don't know how it impacted on the reader.
Through many of your comix there has been the scene, of a corpse being pulled from the harbor waters on a hook, to a dock. Is this autobiographical? Dose Exeter have gruesome docks?
The Drowned Cop! In The Shakyverse it's usually a jetty. Jetty is a great word. There certainly are docks in my home town. A body being pulled from the river, is a constantly recurring local newspaper story, particularly during the summer months. Of course the docks and the quayside in general, have been turned into visitor attractions, and dining experiences over the years. The image of the hook and the drowned hero comes directly from a late sixties issue of Captain America, initially drawn by Kirby, but I'm sure I've seen a similar image by Steranko. I work from memory rather than reference images. It's the gut feeling of things that I try to capture in my drawing.
Was the end of your stay at 2000 AD in step with your moving out of London and returning to Exeter? Was this when you became a father? Your comics output has increased dramatically since the turn of the century.
When I returned to Exeter, I was still a regular contributor to 2000 AD, regularly working for Fleetway. This was before the internet was the accepted form of communication. I'd phone into the office and receive typed scripts through the mail. During this time I'd moved away from the clumpy Kirby styling and felt like I was finding my feet as an artist.
Hand coloring the art, I was still unable to produce the flat mechanical color I was looking for, but it was certainly getting a lot closer to how I wanted it to look. I was a family man, we had a young daughter, we'd sold our North London flat and had bought a house in Exeter, things were looking good. And then a management shuffle took place at Fleetway. Dave Bishop took over as editor, he wanted to make changes, I suppose make the books fit in with his vision, whatever that was.
I was out of work over night. Two days later I was washing dishes at the Post Office canteen. I signed up with a temporary employment agency and spent the best part of two years drifting from one low paid unskilled job to another, while my marriage fell apart. It was a fairly dispiriting experience, you might say.
It was after running into David Hine, at Bristol Comic Expo, over 10 years later, that I formulated the basis of Bulletproof Coffin. David was the one who actually took the project to Eric Stephenson at San Diego Comic Con, for this I'm eternally grateful. It was this, and of course the growth of the internet, which opened up a whole new world of opportunity.
Was Monster Truck created as a single image, then spliced into pages? At what point did you stop creating the finished page on paper?
Monster Truck came from a strange period in my life. I was no longer working in comics and had found a job as in-house artist at a community paper. The editor made the decision to shut the magazine down, but in an unrivaled act of philanthropy, suggested that I used the office space to draw a 'Graphic Novel'.
The deal was that I would still be paid for coming into the office, three times a week, and all he wanted in return were the first 50 copies of the print run of 500, that he could give out as Christmas presents that year. The offer coming out of the blue, I had no idea what to draw. I had a 'filing cabinet' of ideas stored away in my head, but no workable idea for the book. So I decided just to set to work. I'd let myself into the empty office and I drew whatever popped into my head. I'd draw dinosaurs, big bugs, custom cars, all researched from frequent visits to the local library.
I'd draw them fairly big, get them shrunk down on a Xerox printer and manually paste them onto page sized templates. Where the images ran over the border of the page, I'd simply slice them and keep going, formulating the idea of the continuous loop as I worked.
Once I'd produced a batch of pages, I'd write a stripped back narrative, from the viewpoint of the driver, describing the journey as it might appear in a travelogue.
Has Shaky Kane's Monster Truck ever been displayed in its full panoramic form?
In fact there is a version of Monster Truck out there, where the whole book glides past the screen. It's quite a treat.
Michael Waspman, was he a novelist? Is there any of his work to be found?
This was someone overzealously editing my Wiki page. While I was working for the community paper, I'd spend a lot of time by myself. I always get struck by ideas, when I'm left to my own devices. I started to write them down in a notebook and built up a whole universe set in a fictional 1980s Charlotte. I chose Charlotte as the setting because Charlotte is such a common name for an American town that I needn't be geographically accurate.
It was quite a yarn. It centred on the legend of The Man who walks The Tracks. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of little Bethany Tyler. How to appease the spirits. Blood sacrifice and peep freaks. It was about Ginger Palmer, Joey Dimebar, and Magic Tattoos. In fact I wrote this stuff before Kick Ass, and came up with the idea of comic fans becoming vigilantes wearing homemade superhero costumes. It was about the desire to become invisible and 'slip into other people's live, naked and buzzing with pubescent hormones'.
It was about a lot of things. I typed it all up naming it Charlotte [IN-VIS-IB-LE] under the pen name Michael Waspman, which to me sounded like an American pulp novel horror writer's name. My times been taken up drawing, but I'd really like to one day get it all in order and tie up the loose ends. As a matter of fact, David was keen to do a comic book version before we settled on Bulletproof.
Aside from the convenience, was there a reason you stopped lettering your comix? I'm a big fan of your hand lettering. No disrespect to Richard Starkings.
Over the years I've often heard people say how they liked the hand lettering on my older strips. The truth is I was never really that happy with it. It was never uniform enough for my own personal taste. I found it a real chore. The only time I've been happy with the way my lettering has looked, was when I hit on the method of writing out the captions with my left hand and then inking over it, cleaning up as I went. Sounds a crazy way of working, but it gave the letters a unique 'spook house' look, which didn't attempt to mimic professional lettering.
I've picked up a few tricks over the years. When I'm looking to produce a title font, I often print out the text in a straight Microsoft Word font. Print it out fairly big, then trace around the outline of the words. Gives it that classic hand lettered, mid sixties, Artie Simek look. A style I've never seen bettered. Richard (Starkings) has actually produced a Shaky Font. With the repetition of letters you get in a typed font, it certainly looks an improvement on my own undisciplined hand.
When you visited the USA was it as you had hoped? Did you discover anything that added to your comix?
I already pretty much had the whole place mapped out in my head before I arrived. So it didn't really come as much of a surprise as sorts. I stayed for a couple of summers running in South Boston, which is I was informed a 'blue collar' area. I liked the things like going into Mom's Laundry, Brooke's Pharmacy, and Stop and Shop. Although similar to British stores, it was as if someone had taken all the goods out and replaced them with similar items. Walkers crisps becoming Frito-Lays chips, yet retaining the familiar logo. I liked looking at the goods on the shelves. I liked the way they sold cigarettes in the pharmacy.
What struck me most of all, was the easy way that strangers would enter into conversation, and the general good will that was extended to me as a visitor. Genuine curiosity as to what my impression of the country was. Really the nicest people.
Did you find the comics culture much different in America, did you visit any comic shops?
When I'm away from the computer, comics seem to retreat. I'd just seen the movie Hatchet, where the lead character wore a Newbury Comics 'Tooth Face' logo T-shirt. So I set off to Newbury Comics. I was a bit surprised that instead of comics, the store mostly sold punk / heavy rock CDs, Horror DVDs and Boston Red Sox memorabilia! The comics were tucked away on a fairly short stretch of shelving. I did manage to get a copy of The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen trade paperback, which was a bit of a treat.
The Hatchet souvenir shirt was out of stock, so I settled for a regular Tooth Face shirt. I actually featured the shirt along with a drawing of the Hatchet movie poster in the second issue of Bulletproof Coffin. Newbury Comics picked up on this, and when I told them the story about visiting the store looking for the Hatchet shirt, they sent me one free of charge! Isn't that the best result? If you look up Newbury Comics on Wiki, under the references in culture section, it mentions how the store features in the opening credits of the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and how the logo appears in Bulletproof Coffin!
Last Driver is another new comic you've got coming out, what can we expect?
This was a new thing for me. Last Driver is funded by a Kickstarter campaign. At the time of writing it's overshot its goal, so it seems like a good idea to me. Last Driver is published by Dead Canary Comics who are a UK based independent comic book company. Chris Baker wrote it as a homage to 80s video store rental movies.
John Carpenter springs to mind, but this is a wilder ride than any movie I've seen. In a way that's the thing that drew me to producing comics in the first place. Imagination is the only budget constraint.
In a nutshell the story, which is a very linear tale, centers on the adventures of Frank Sudden, who embraces the end of the world and sets off across the post apocalypse wasteland in his boss's 'borrowed' car.
Along the way he encounters a mind boggling array of giant creatures, scream queens and double crossing scavengers, before fighting for his life in a makeshift arena where he is pitted against, amongst other abominations ( You guessed it ) giant ants.
It's quite a yarn, Chris peppers the text with witticisms and observations from Frank's peculiar singularly optimistic point of view.
I was given free rein on the actual character design, and I spent the best part of a year drawing all this up. I'm really happy with the look of this one, it's got some of my career best artwork in it.
Last Driver offers a different view on the Shakyverse than Cowboys and Insects, Cap'n Dinosaur comes to mind as a Last Driver level of jubilant pop-sploitation. Is your relationship with Last Driver and Cap'n Dinosaur different than the other books?
Last Driver arrived as a fully written script. Written by Christopher Baker resident scribe at Dead Canary Comics. What was so much fun about putting these 60 pages together was the total trust that Chris put into me as the artist. Certain details, for instance the car featured in the script was a specific Chevrolet model, and the look of Frank Sudden, being a sort of John Carpenter video rental mix of Rowdy Roddy piper and Kurt Russell, were very much part of the brief.
The actual look of the assorted monsters and the supporting characters was left to my judgement. I had worked with Chris on a previous strip. A great future shocker, entitled Campaign, featuring an atheist robotic president and a fundamentalist robotic assassin, which in itself is an awesome idea.
So we already had a cool working relationship. I'm sure we'll be back with a new project, just as soon as I've got a suitable sized hole in my schedule. Cap'n Dinosaur was very much my own project.
The Bulletproof Coffin characters, although not fully realised at this time, mostly came from ideas for characters I'd collected over the years. I had a vague notion of a cast of undead characters, who would exist in a comic book limbo. Somewhere between perceived reality and the actual comic book pages that imprisoned them. A vague idea. Cap'n Dinosaur came from these early drawings, although in a much more reptilian "When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth" guise.
Following Bulletproof's moderate success, I was looking to produce a strip that rather than following the meta path of the original series, was presented as a straight adventure strip. Of course most of my characters were tied to Bulletproof, Dave being, quite rightly, the co-creator of the book. So the only character I was free to use was The Cap'n. In a way I would have liked to have produced something with the Coffin Fly. I had an idea at one point of a 80 page giant, like the old DC books, featuring each of the characters. But of course these things have to be by mutual agreement and it didn't come to anything.
The script itself was written by a British writer named Kek-W. In fact he scripted one of my more successful strips for 2000 AD. A resurrected GI zombie yarn entitled Nightmare Patrol, the true inspiration for Bulletproof's combatant cadavers The Hateful Dead.
It always feels as if everything I do, ties together to build a much bigger picture, a Shakyverse!
Cowboys & Insects, a comic wrapped in the lullaby of mid 20th century America. Is it real, the human nightmare?
David's script on this book, which is a self contained entity, works on a number of levels. There's a certain early Movie Monster giant insect trope, referencing movies such as Them! A theme I'd touched on in Monster Truck where The Kane gang are glimpsed rustling up oversized 'critters'. Where there's big bugs there's big bucks to be made. There's the Teen Romance tenderness played out in the unsure relationship between Chip the Rancher's son and Cindy the girl outsider.
Then there's the unquestionable authority of The Knights of the Head. A group of masked Klan-like vigilantes, culled from the small community of Bug Town, who bring down justice on those who go against the natural order of things. In this case a deviant vegetarian family. There's a very telling line towards the end of the book where a rider voices the Donald Trump-like remark "You say you love insects? Let's see how much they love you"
Certainly ticks the boxes of the human nightmare.
What's on the drawing board now?
Right now? I'm working on two books. I work, alternate days on each one. I'm ten pages into a Bulletproof Coffin one-shot. In this one we've gone back to the format of the first series and the comic book within a comic book. Again Dave's come up with a real neat idea. There's some great backstory on the inhuman nature of the original Coffin Fly.
There's a real sci-fi B-Movie vibe to the featured comic book, which is entitled Hypno Vampires From The Stars! Plus there's a look at the events immediately following Hine and Kane's sell-out to the mysterious Shadow Men. It's a lot of fun.
At the same time I'm close to finishing issue three of Richard Starkings' long-time coming Beef series. Somehow events transpired to halt production for the best part of a year. But it's back in production, and this is a real personal statement for Richard as a committed pacifist vegetarian. It's a tale of wholesale animal slaughter, small town bigotry, contaminated beef and wild mutation. And it features the rawest, beefiest, most messed-up avenger since Toxie. The Beef! This guy is literally made out of pulsing, living meat!
Would you write a comic for David Hine to draw?
Now, that's not such a bad idea. You got me figuring now.