Scifipulse.net recently had the privilege of interviewing well known comic artist Lee Sullivan, known for his work on Doctor Who, Rivers of London, and The Amulet of Samarkand graphic novel. In this interview, Lee discusses the difference between the British and American comics industries, what makes a good Doctor Who story, and how things have changed in comics since he was first starting out.
Scifipulse: How has the comics industry changed since you first began drawing? Do you think it’s more difficult for young artists to breakthrough than it was when you first started?
Lee Sullivan: I’ve been drawing for comics since 1986, and virtually everything has changed! Back then we drew on various artboards with pencils, ink pens, paints, and airbrushes. Roughs were produced and dispatched by post, courier or fax machines (a tedious, low-res method of scanning and sending down a phone line). Finished art was physically delivered by the first two methods. Colouring of line art was done either as painting or magic-markering photocopies, the latter being transcribed into multiple overlays all done in various shades of black for colour separation. Scanning was starting to be done by publishers on large drum laser scanners but most things were still reproduced by physical paste-up of lettering by photography and the lithographic printing process.
I was introduced to Marvel UK by John Higgins, who I got to know through our local art shop, and although I had no comic samples at all, they still gave me a shot at a Transformers cover based on my portfolio of advertising and technical illustrations. I’d already been a freelancer for 3 years and before that worked as a graphic artist for the industry for 5 years after leaving college, where I’d done an illustration course, and I had a fair amount under my belt already. So my accidental entry into the comics world was fairly easy, the economy was good and of course, Marvel produced a lot of work at that time. It no longer exists, and there are fewer opportunities now, so it’s much harder to find actual publishing work.
The key to getting paid work – apart from having the necessary skills and talent – is to get your work in front of an editor, and that’s always been a stumbling block. Conventions that have publishers in attendance sometimes have editors checking out portfolios, which is a good way of making contact. I suspect there are now far more budding comics artists now, as manga and dedicated courses have come along as well as access to computer technology which can be a help, particularly in publishing sample work or stories on the internet. I still have periods of no work, most freelancers I know do, so you not only have the problem of getting into the industry, but staying in it! I would find the idea of starting out now pretty daunting, but if you’re young and enthusiastic, and have what it takes, you’ll do it anyway!
Scifipulse: Given the success of Marvel movies over the last decade do you think there could ever be a 2000 A. D. Cinematic Universe on TV or in the cinema?
Lee Sullivan: Of course, but as you can see from the MCU’s success and the DC – how best to describe them – attempts, you have to get a magic combination of great scripts and a great cast, a balance of grit and entertainment, and real forethought in the planning of the overall story arcs. I’m sure that Rebellion will be thinking along those lines, but they face a bit of a problem, in that they have two movie financial failures already with Dredd, and even in the UK, 2000 A. D.’s profile is pretty low except for the actual readers. The general public knows Batman and Superman and latterly the Marvel characters; they might know Dredd (not always – most of my non-comics pals looked a bit blank when I was working on them) and the rest not at all, so you have to do a really good launchpad in the proposed Dredd TV series, or the rest just doesn’t happen. And I think they have to look at something between the two existing movies in terms of tone.
Scifipulse: Following on from that question, do you think there is potential for animated films or shows of 2000 A. D. characters such as Judge Dredd or Slaine or Nikolai Dante similar to the DC Animated Movie Universe?
Lee Sullivan: I think all of the above applies here too. The tone is probably the key.
Scifipulse: Do you think there is an appetite amongst the viewing population for urban fantasy? Might we ultimately see Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and/or The Amulet of Samarkand on TV?
Lee Sullivan: Oh yes, there’s certainly an audience for that genre, it’s probably more likely to succeed now than at any previous time; we are all geeks now! There is a proposed TV series of Rivers – several companies have looked at it; whether it comes to anything will depend on the state of the TV industry beyond lockdown and how bold the TV companies are. I’ve been working on other proposed TV projects since I left Rivers and it’s a very tantalising and frustrating area to be in. Amulet would be great, but would need a really big budget along the lines of Good Omens. I briefly did some work on a proposal for an Artemis Fowl movie years ago, that project has finally happened, but with a different director and story (I’m not involved), so it’s a terribly difficult thing to adapt something for the screen, regardless of the technology, there are so many factors that have to be just right for them to get made at all, and then to be good and successful is another HUGE hurdle.
Scifipulse: How does the American comics industry differ from the British comics industry?
Lee Sullivan: I haven’t really worked in the US market for decades, so I’m not much of an expert there. But generally, I’d say that one is alive though struggling, the other is struggling to stay alive. The future of mainstream comics is terribly bound up with distribution, and outlets through which you can buy them. That’s really becoming an issue, and the recent lockdown and probable ramifications of it for high street retailers are very uncertain. Digital is great, self-publishing is much more possible now, but how do you get an audience to even know it exists?
Scifipulse: What would be your dream project?
Lee Sullivan: One of the projects I mentioned earlier, as a concept artist on a proposed TV series which I can’t really talk about. I love designing stuff and it frees you from the grind of endless sequential images which comic strip work entails.
Scifipulse: What is your take on the fan backlash to Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor?
Lee Sullivan: Predictable, understandable, looks a bit pointless now that it’s happened and people are more used to the fact that she’s there. There is a much bigger worry in that the core audience seems to be dwindling for a number of reasons, but as with everything we’ve discussed, it’s largely down to the writing. If people can’t get into the stories and the way they are told, continuation becomes more and more difficult.
Scifipulse: What in your opinion makes a great Doctor Who story?
Lee Sullivan: One in which a mystery is happening and the Doctor fully interacts with it and is vital to the solution. I’ve always thought the format is really Sherlock Holmes in time and space; everything else, the effects, the soap opera stuff with the companions is completely irrelevant if you don’t have a strong core of situation/mystery/investigation/solution. I think it’s really struggling with this currently. I hope it revives, but momentum, once lost, is really hard to get back.
Scifipulse: What do you think the future holds for the comics industry? Where do you see it going in the next 5 to 10 years?
Lee Sullivan: No idea really. It was already uncertain, and nothing is going to be quite as it was before COVID-19 hit. My best guess would be more diversity, more digital, probably new platforms which I can’t guess at; no-one foresaw the changes the home computing/internet/interweb/social media phenomenon would bring. Expect the unexpected!
Scifipulse would like to thank Lee Sullivan for so graciously giving us his time and answering our questions.
You can keep up with what Lee is up to on his Facebook page.