Greg Gates comic book artist talks to Dark Matter
I met Greg Gates on Free Comic Book Day, because Paul Bedford invited me to the Monthly Comic Makers’ Meet. This was the beginning of my journey to enlightenment. Greg talks about his work and the comic book scene in general, including what he’s reading at the moment. This interview is only available in text.
Hi Greg, thank you for talking to Dark Matter.
Strange Worlds is a ‘best of’ my work. They’re all short stories, real life, comedy, and some strange fantasy bits and pieces. In one story someone is plugged into a virtual world and he’s trapped. There’s a parody of ABC art’s programs. I don’t think we even changed the guy’s name. The presenter was well known in art circles and was on TV all the time. There’s also a parody of 50’s horror stories with a Geoffrey Eddlestone parody as well. He’s the guy who bought the Sydney Swans. As you do when you’re filthy rich. It was the first time it happened in this country I think. There were always people looking for excuses to put him down. He was also extremely ugly with an extraordinarily beautiful young wife. That can always get you into trouble with your critics. Another is a romance story mixed with fantasy – George Bernard Shaw, the statue that comes to life.
Is this pen and ink?
Yes except for the cover which I drew with a pen and tablet on screen.
You have a Wacom?
Yes it’s wonderful for colouring with, but I find it hopeless for drawing with; slows me way down.
It’s much quicker to draw by hand?
I think so, yes.
How did you get into comics in the beginning?
I read them as a kid, when I was like 10 years old. I didn’t like some of them until friends at school said to check out Marvel comics. I went crazy, a Marvel fan after that. I always drew when I was little, you know, crayons on walls.
I bet your mother loved you!
Um, but I was otherwise a model child of course! I was terrible as an artist like all kids, but I decided I wanted to be as good as my heroes so I just worked and worked and worked and 30 years later here I am. [I’m not really THAT good, just a lot better than I was.]
Did you do a particular training course or degree to get you from high school into this career?
Yes, I did a couple of years of Graphic Design, the closest thing they had to a comics course and had an illustration component, which was pretty useful. I only really got better through practice. You don’t really learn as much as you think you do through illustration courses. You just get it by doing it.
I don’t think you learn as much as you think you might when you’re doing any kind of degree.
Yes, that’s just the start of your learning, to point you in the right directions.
You get that parchment that is the key that opens the door to the career where you start learning.
Well, if I got that parchment I probably wouldn’t be doing comics now, I’d be doing graphic design, but I did graphic design old school. The computer I just taught myself, with a little help from a couple of friends.
This would have been in the 70s?
A student in the 70s, then soon after I got a job in a comic book shop but they didn’t get the good comics in, so I started my own with some friends. Minotaur Books, that was the start of it. Melbourne’s first street front comic bookshop back in 82 or 83. But it really wasn’t for me, I was turning into an old crank, so I got out of that. And I’ve just had ordinary day jobs since. And drawn in my spare time. I’m still a hobbyist I think, but I like to draw as professionally as I can.
What’s your day job?
At the moment I’m between jobs. But I’m about to start another one, scanning office documents. I’m not sure who it will be for, last time it was scanning in old, boring records. It was interesting because we were allowed to talk and play the radio because it was such boring work that we had to do something to stop from going crazy. And I’d draw in my lunch times sometimes. And there happened to be, the first time I’ve ever experienced, some other people into comics too. And there were some guys in a band, and a writer and some others that were not so interesting perhaps, but they were all good people. Best job ever.
It’s interesting, some of these really incredibly boring jobs seem to have the most creative people. They need a day job or maybe the boredom at work helps them to be creative outside. What do you think?
Interesting work or interests usually don’t pay, so you have to do a boring day job. It’s all it comes down to. It’s the same for actors and musicians. As I was saying, there were a couple of musicians at work, an author… maybe they all gravitate to Melbourne because it’s such cold weather and they’re stuck inside all the time, writing and drawing. Comics are something I do when I can. I haven’t done a lot in recent years although I keep getting people pressuring me to do more so I will. I have plans for a medieval comedy that I’m looking forward to doing. It’s not fantasy although there are fantasy elements. It’s mostly about a couple of drunks in medieval times. So I’m looking forward to doing that. Probably as a web comic. So in six months time, your readers can look up Vultures of Vinegar.
Do you think it’ll be a bit like Looking for Group? It’s a comic available on the web, but if you want a copy to keep, you buy the books, but you can read it online for free. The reason why I ask is I bought some e-comics from Dark Horse and I was not impressed. I couldn’t download them to set up a user interface on my computer and their user interface was a small window inside a much larger screen with limited options to read the comic online.
I think it has to be iPad or iPhone or similar to work. I’ve looked at a few comics on iPad and when it’s set up right it looks great. Some set it up so we see one panel at a time, so we never have to worry about any reveals getting through too soon. It makes reading a comic even more suspenseful.
Yes, like when you look at a page and there’s this big give away screaming at you from the bottom of the page before you get there.
Most people try to do that on the turn of a page but that’s very hard to gauge in the middle of a story. I don’t know if the whole digital thing will take off or not. Do people really want a print version or not? Some people say it’s fine and other people can’t stand the digital look, or having to hold an iPad or a computer screen. A comic you can roll up and read on the tram or the train. I guess you can with a kindle too, or an iPad but you’re paying for something that’s not actually physical.
I’m in both camps. Reading a comic is really hard for me because I’ve got bad eyesight. Reading on a computer screen is my preferred way to read a comic. A couple of years ago I started looking at comic books again and I got blown away by the art work but it didn’t have that impact for me on the page. So I’m pushed towards the electronic version, on the other hand I like owning books, not just reading online. If I want a trophy for my bookshelf, I’ll buy the hardcover. Like other people collect miniatures or coins.
That’s fair enough. I do love print. I used to be a printer too, that used to be one of my day jobs for a long time. It was just instant print, business cards and letterheads, things like that, very simple printing. I couldn’t print some of the comics I’ve seen printed lately, they print it digitally so they don’t have to worry about the print not drying because it’s toner. And some of them look sensational. If you can see them.
I’m a real fan of modern technology.
There are a few artists, I know of one in particular, a guy called Brian Bolland who drew the most famous version of Judge Dredd, and his sight is terrible now, so he does everything on the computer screen. He used to do it traditionally with a brush, paper and pencil, but he does it all on screen now. He’s pretty slow, I guess because he just does covers mostly now. You can’t tell the difference, they look just the same. So if you want your digital version to look exactly like your hand-drawn versions, you can do it, but most people don’t bother. They just paint instead of doing line work if they work entirely digitally. The computer is just a tool, you can use it however you like. I love Photoshop.
You don’t use Photoshop for this?
No, not in the past. I still only use it for colouring. I’m currently doing a cover for a comic called Airhawk, which is a reprint of an old newspaper strip from the 1960s. They’re re-releasing it and they want a cover for each of the reprints, I’m doing one of those. But I’m still drawing it on a piece of paper, and I’ll colour it in Photoshop. I’ll scan it in 2 halves on a little A4 scanner and put the 2 halves together. You can do that while it’s still a simple black and white image. Once it’s in colour it’s hard to match up. It’s great for colouring. Photoshop has probably made better colourists too, because you can always click ‘undo’ for anything you don’t like.
You’re an artist who works with a writer.
Yes. Tide of Dreams is more to do with mood than it is to do with character or plot. It’s more expressive. It’s more about capturing the feel of this guy who grew up in South Australia and went to the Glenelg carnival, which is no longer there. It’s his memories from the 1950s, so there are a lot of icons from the 50s. There are vampires and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was serialised by Fox Comics in the late 80s. For a lot of issues I would have drawn the stories in my spare time while I had my day job.
You work with other people, with the writer and the company. How does that come about?
Usually just do the work and show it to them and they either accept it or they don’t. But this was for a fanzine so it was not paying so they probably would have accepted anything, although the standard was pretty good in most of Fox comics. It’s still considered one of the great little art comics of its time. Comics is a strange thing, it gets in your blood so you do it whether you’re paid or not. It’s a unique way of telling a story. You can do real stories or science fiction. Technically there’s no budget but don’t ask me to draw a thousand characters on every page.
The last person I interviewed was Paul Bedford, the writing half of the team. He talked about collaborating from his perspective. How does it work for you?
It’s different with every writer, they all work in different ways. You just figure out how to make it jell. Usually it’s written as a screen play-type script but not always. I’ve drawn others that are laid out by another writer/artist who doesn’t have time to draw it, so he’ll send me bits of A4 paper with rough layouts and all the script written on it so I don’t have to think about it at all except maybe change the pacing or put an extra panel in or take one out if I think it’s redundant. Change the angle to make it more dramatic.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
There is a huge amount of space to work in interpretation. Mostly they leave it pretty open. They won’t tell you the angle, pick your own, your own lighting, mostly it’s just the dialogue and the setting and time of day and that’s about it.
Have you done work and had it sent back because they want it done differently?
I think I usually know how to do it better and I’ll tell them so. I do know others in the same position like Bruce Mutard working on The Sacrifice, he wrote that himself. He’s currently doing educational comics for Macmillan. A glorious gig he gets to do in full colour, 12 pages in a big hard cover book (with text as well). But the writer has never done comics before and they usually get it wrong, so he has to teach them how to do it. Most writers don’t think visually.
Having read a lot and reviewing things, I’m constantly comparing. Some people almost give no descriptions while others will labour the descriptions. I think George R. R. Martin is one of the few people who seem to get a balance.
Is he writing the TV series? (Game of Thrones)
No, he’s not actually writing the TV series, but it’s obviously his book. What do you think of the TV series?
In your issue of Dark Matter there was a link to one site with some clips, so I saw one clip. I didn’t want to spoil it, so I haven’t seen anything else, I’ll wait until it’s finished and buy the DVD set because it’s full of ads; so yuck. I’m looking forward to it. I read the first chapter of the Game of Thorns.
Game of Thrones. ‘In the game of thrones you win or you die.’
Yes, well, probably a lot of dying goes on in that I should imagine. But I like the fact that it seems to mostly be about politics, which, for fantasy, is unusual. It would put a lot of readers off I guess but I love it. When he’s finished writing the last book I’ll get it. I’ll probably get a kindle just for it.
Considering the books are that fat.
Yes I’ve got one, the first one. I’d love to draw that too as a comic but it’d take forever so I’m not going to. Other authors of fantasy have their books adapted into comics. Not always with good results. It’s a bit like William Shakespeare. Most comic adaptations of Shakespeare are terrible. There’s been a very good adaptation recently of Hamlet by Nicki Greenberg in Melbourne for Allen and Unwin. I don’t think you’ll see it online, it’s a huge doorstop of a book in full colour and she’s done all the characters as ink spots but it works. It’s quite amazing
Have you ever turned a novel into a comic?
No only short stories. In my spare time. Graphic novels take years of almost full time to draw and that hasn’t been possible except for the last 5 to 10 years, except for in a few places, like America; Japan probably. It’s changing now so the new generation of artists will be able to take advantage of that.
What about your generation of artists?
Oh well, graphic novel to an old fogey sounds a bit laborious to draw. If I was paid to sit down and do it, I’d do it, but most of those things happen through the artist’s impetus like Nicki Greenberg who did an adaptation of The Great Gatsby (before she did Hamlet), just to amuse herself. This is hundreds of pages of a graphic novel. Allen and Unwin liked it and said copyright in Australia becomes free next year, so they went ahead and printed it. It can happen, but I’m not going to start a graphic novel on the hope that it’ll go there. This medieval comedy that I’m thinking of, the Vultures of Vinegar, could become a graphic novel. We’ll probably put the first episodes online for free to see what the reception is and pimp it around the net a bit to see what happens. If a publisher says okay here’s some bucks, go ahead and draw it, I’d be happy to do it.
A lot of people do want the paper, so what’s on the internet gets people hooked then they collect the paper version.
It’s hard to print if it’s not a standard size. If they want to have up an episode or two a week, they’ll put what I call a tier of panels, so they would have drawn the original art on an A3 sheet of paper and scanned it in 2 or 3 or 4 tiers and put up one or two a week, but they’ve drawn it as one original page.
You’re looking at putting up a taster?
The author doesn’t want to put up too much of it. I think we should put it all up. If people only see a few pages, people will be not sure if they like it, unless they’ve seen all of it. Enough people still want a physical product, so it will actually help sales if you put it all up for free.
If you look at Sandman, people are spending hundreds on the leather bound editions.
It’s probably a different story for big publishers. If you’re an unknown, it’s better to put it all up for free. If it’s any good… For your readers there’s one I’m really enjoying at the moment called The Meek. It’s a fantasy. It’s exhilarating to read, fun, serious, beautifully drawn, well written… It starts off as a comedy then changes entirely into a political thing
You like your politics.
Not especially. Not real world politics, if it’s fantasy politics it doesn’t have any nasty implications, it’s not going to hurt anyone. If it wasn’t about politics I’d still be happy to read it. If it’s well written, I don’t have a favourite genre. I also like Cerebus the Aardvark. It’s funny and political, in a fantasy setting. A real world with a talking aardvark in it. It’s gorgeously drawn, stunning to look at. Hundreds and hundreds of pages, a master in control of the comics medium. It only works as a comic. If you tried to do it as a film, you’d have to rework it to get down to 1 ½ hours. It’s a bit too idiosyncratic to work as a TV series.
You don’t aspire to write, you just draw
I have tried writing but I don’t have the time to get better. Writing takes a lot of time to improve your craft, as drawing does. Probably authors reach their best at retirement age. I’m nearly there [laughs].
You have put the energy into drawing – do you think it’s the old idea of jack of all trades, master of none?
Maybe. I think I draw pretty well, well enough to get by anyway, but my writing is terrible. The Strange Worlds book is a hundred pages. I would have done another 50 to 100 pages that is not nearly as good, particularly early work. No-one wants to see my stick figures.
I’d love to see your crayon drawings on the wall.
We didn’t get a photo. We didn’t have an iPhone in those days.
How many hundreds of hours do you think you’ve put into these comics?
I haven’t worked it out but I’m pretty slow. It takes about 3 days to pencil and ink a full page, if it was full time 8 hours a day. That’s figuring out how to lay it out, trashing it, starting it again, carefully pencilling it, carefully inking it. Probably now I could colour it in that 36 hours too. I’ve speeded up a bit but not enough to be fully professional. If I was thrown into a professional job I think I’d learn all the short cuts. I just methodically do it
And you work as well and presumably you ate and slept as well.
10 pages might take 10 weeks because of working in spare time.
It’s a huge chunk of your life.
Yes, I’m quite proud of the bits that have been printed. I don’t think I drew anything for print before the first story in Strange Worlds. I would have started projects and not finished them, I wrote and decided it was terrible, had someone else write it and then we decided that it wasn’t as good as we thought it was. For all those aspiring drawers and writers out there, get someone else to read it. If they’re having trouble reading it, you know you have to think about it again.
Is this why you’re part of this monthly comic makers meet?
It’s just fun. We get together, have a few beers and talk about comics but mostly other stuff. Occasionally we’ll do in-depth stuff about comics but that’d be boring all the time.
I suppose if you’re eating, sleeping and breathing it the rest of the time…
That’s right. When you’re an artist stuck in your garret you have to get out now and again and see some people. The meetings have been going on for 15 years. Not all of it was run by me. Someone else started it, it lapsed a little then started back. There’ve been a number of venues. If any of your readers are comic creators and want to come along, check out pulpfaction.net. On their events forum there is a thing for Melbourne creators’ meet. I use the forum occasionally but I read it once a week to see what people have been talking about. The forum is about Australian comics mostly, there’s a big chunk to do with comikaze that is basically a loosely organised 24 hour comic session done in artists garrets around Australia on the one day so they all try to draw a 24 page comic in 24 hours. Working together or separately doing their own stories. It’s been a real eye opener for some of them because it gets the adrenaline juices flowing … and the coffee.
Yes, V8 or red bull. It gets rid of the emphasis on carefully drawing the page. You’re forced to tell the story as efficiently as possible to get to the core of comics hopefully and maybe come up with a good story that you can then carefully re-draw later and sell it
Do you do comikaze?
My own writing I’m not happy with anyway, so no. I’m more interested in drawing a story that’s good, rather than one I’ve knocked up in a flash and is terrible
Do any people work as a team for the comickaze?
Occasionally, yeah. The guys that do Sawbones, sawbonesonline.com. There’s a writer called Jen Breach and an artist called Trevor Woods, that’s how they got together doing a 24 hour comic. They’re now doing a different one, a web page every week, which has forced him to draw and now he’s done 200 pages and now has a print version that’s damn fine. So you can work any way you like with comics. One guy called Douglas Holgate did a 24 hour comic. He just did it in pencil and scanned it in. Later he rendered it up and sold some beautiful 24 hour comics.
How do you feel about being part of this community?
It’s awesome. There used to be not a lot of this before the online world became alive. Suddenly it’s all connected and you get to know what everyone’s doing before they’ve finished it, which is great. Someone’s coming up with a new story, I’ve just finished reading their last printed one, they’ve already got a few pages online… it’s very exciting times. Comics were dying. Recently mainstream publishers have discovered comic books, like Macmillan. They’re doing comics within an educational context. They could have been doing it for 50 years but they’re doing it now because of the buzz surrounding comics which is great. At the right age when you’re just starting to read, if they’re struggling with the words the pictures will help them figure out the words.
Have you written anything for a younger audience?
Absolutely. There is a story called Da and Dill given away in showbags. Dillon, the guy who wrote and drew that, before the company went broke, they would print up hundreds of thousands of copies and distribute it around the country for kids. I drew a few stories for Dillon and loved doing it. I still like doing comedy. Before I was a serious young man, now I like comedy!
That’s a quote!
I speak only in quotes. Kids comics are fun, if they’re humorous stories.
Do you think that it’s different working on a comic for kids?
I like the fact that it’s aimed at an innocence that we all lose. I recover it a bit by going back there [and working on those comics]. Every now and then I go back and look at comics I read as a kid, like Asterisk, Tintin, Uncle Scrooge, all very sophisticated comics but they’re aimed at kids.
Is Asterisk really aimed at kids?
Well, maybe the kid in us. I’m not sure.
And Dogmatix. In Europe kids would get most of that because it’s Latin, they’ve slaughtered Latin in that book. Particularly Tintin I think stands up extremely well. It’s still set in the original time, the 50s or 60s, when ever it was, but they’re beautifully illustrated and it doesn’t date, it’s easy to look at. It’s not too complicated in the way it tells the story visually, it draws you into the characters, their body language, the way they talk and act. They’re elegantly plotted. It’s hard to plot anything and they’ve done a fine job. Even now, with comics coming more into the mainstream every day, most authors tend to do the layout in the simplest way, so people who are not used to reading comics will have no trouble reading it, so tiers of panels straight across. I’ve often spoken to people who have tried to read comics but they’ve picked up a comic I would consider a bad one where the storytelling is too flashy and it makes it too difficult to read. I’ve picked up a modern comic and it’s too hard to read. I blame certain creators who are popular and have started up a trend of being more flash than substance. Marvel and DC really took that on in the 90s, but now they’re coming back to more proper storytelling. Their storytelling is reverting back to some basics, but there is still a lot of flashiness for the sake of it where it gets in the way of telling the story and immersing the reader in the experience. Basically you want to make the mechanics of reading the comic effortless. Even if the story is complex and you can make very complex stories in comics just like anything else. We’re just starting to do that now. It’s exciting times.
How did someone who started out loving superheroes get to the point where you don’t like them any more?
When I was growing up it seemed like every little while there would be a quantum leap in the quality of comics. When Marvel started, all comics were like superman. Clarke Kent was a cipher for superman, he wasn’t an interesting character. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started the Fantastic Four it was more about their characters and their inter-reactions and their problems with life. Before that the superheroes had no problems in life, they just went out and beat up the bad guys and that was all they did. Stan Lee was the first to introduce that. I started reading after he’d been doing it for a while and was getting pretty good at it. Through the late 60s every few months there would be a quantum improvement where they were learning to do it better and they did.
It might look a bit antiquated now but people who have followed have also added something too. One of the big changes was that comics used to be printed very cheaply. They decided if they charged a little more and printed them like any magazine, they could do full colour. Wow, that’s a huge quantum leap in the physical look of the product, and some good writers came along. You’ll hear the name Alan Moore will crop up regularly. He’s still probably one of the best writers in comics. So I’ve seen comics improving all through my life and there’s still exciting, interesting and new stuff coming along because it’s still a relatively virgin area.
Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.