Staz Johnson began his career in comics drawing strips for Marvel UK and Fleetway before pencilling books like The Mighty Thor and The Avengers for Marvel in the US. A six issue run on Detective Comics lead to him becoming the artist on the popular Robin series, where he stayed for over three years.
Renowned for a bravura action-adventure style that combines classic storytelling qualities with a contemporary edge, he has worked on major characters for Marvel, DC, 2000AD and Dark Horse, illustrated a powerful graphic novel adaptation of Dracula and was the resident on-screen artist for the Channel 4 TV series Zero to Hero. His most recently-published work for Dark Horse is King’s Road, written by Peter Hogan.
Prior to his attending the Birmingham Comics Festival this weekend, Paul H Birch caught up with him to talk about his most recent work, including a graphic novel currently only available through Britain’s public library service…
downthetubes: The King’s Road mini-series for Dark Horse, featuring you as artist, is receiving good reviews. We associate you with more mainstream adventure characters so what lead to you becoming to be involved in this more fantasy lead saga?
Staz Johnson: It was simply a matter of time and circumstance, I think. When (original series artist) Phil Winslade decided not to continue with the project, the editorial team looked for someone who could continue/finish the series in a style not too dissimilar. I had known the editor, Philip Simon, for some years and he just asked if I’d be interested in taking the book on, which I was more than happy to do.
downthetubes: Were there any creative challenges in producing the visual storytelling element for the series, and can readers look forward to future instalments?
Staz: To be honest, all the major characters (and many of the minor ones too) in the series had already been established in Phil Winslade’s Dark Horse Presents’ episodes, so there wasn’t a great deal of designing to be done. My main role was to try to make sure the jump from Phil’s pages to mine wasn’t too jarring, while at the same time not wanting to ape Phil’s style. The book has been received fairly well, and I know both the editorial team and (writer) Peter Hogan are keen to continue with more instalments, so I’m sure that if a new series gets the green light, you will see more.
downthetubes: Even more intriguing is the fact that you have illustrated a graphic novel based on the eccentric explorer Charles Wateron. Who on earth came up with the idea of producing such a book, at what stage did you become involved, and were you aware of Waterton prior to your involvement?
Staz: I was well aware of Charles Waterton. I grew up in the village where his estate was located in the 18th and 19th centuries, so tales of his exploits were regular fare in my primary school… We even had a print of him riding on the back of a caiman on the wall of the school’s assembly hall.
The project was the brainchild of John Whitaker, the curator at Wakefield Museum, and as well as being something of a Waterton expert, he’s also a bit of a comic fan, so I think he thought it would be a good idea to combine the two and create something for the commemoration of Waterton’s death. Along with the other artists on the book (John Welding and Richard Bell) I was invited to participate pretty much from the very beginning.
downthetubes: Was the book presented to you in script form and was there much give and take to make it work as both a graphic novel, and presumably an educational book of sorts? Also, where can people purchase the book?
Staz: Tricky one that. For the longest time it was impossible to buy the book. Due to the way the project was funded (by the Arts Council) it wasn’t allowed to make a profit. So the book was only available from the museum for a ‘donation’. I believe a deal was being touted to make it available in a local comic shop, but I’m afraid I don’t know the details of that. The script was presented to me in much the same way as any script would be, and given that he had never written a comic before, I think John Whitaker did an excellent job.
downthetubes: Who and what were you own early comic book influences as a kid, and do you consider there’s more variety or less available today?
Staz: My comic art tastes were formed in the 1970s and early 80s, so I’m sure you could make a decent guess of my influences. As far as American superhero artists go, it was people like John Buscema, Gil Kane, John Romita Sr, Gene Colan, Neal Adams etc.
But obviously, I was also an avid reader of British weekly comics and was greatly influenced by a whole host of (uncredited) British, Spanish, Italian and South American artists who drew the stories in comics like Warlord, The Victor, Commando Picture Library, Action and all those great ‘boy’s papers’.
Once 2000AD came along I learned the unpronounceable names of some of those artists. It was actually the arrival of 2000AD and the inclusion of creator credits which made me realise that drawing comics for a living was something that a kid from Yorkshire could actually do, because so many artists on that comic were British. People like Bolland, Steve Dillon, Mike McMahon and Cam Kennedy, although my absolute favourites were always Dave Gibbons and Alan Davis.
That sounds like an overly linear description of my influences, but as anyone who is creatively minded will know, we are like a sponge and although I wound up drawing comics, I soaked up influences from sources far wider than just a list of comic artists. I can, for example, clearly remember as a youngster drawing comic-style narratives which were more influenced by episodes of Starsky & Hutch or The Professionals, or films like Jaws and The Dirty Dozen, or even LP album sleeves, than they were by any comics.
I’m afraid I don’t really read many comics these days, but judging from what I see on various websites, these seems to be as much variety (if not more) as there has ever been certainly in terms of artistic styles. That said, I do lament the passing of those massed ranks of British weekly comics, in which for the price of a few pence you could get five or six stories in five or six different genres every week. I don’t think we should kid ourselves that because of the success of a comic like The Walking Dead, the industry today is anything other than a ‘superhero’ industry, not a ‘comic’ industry.
downthetubes: You’ve worked for Marvel, DC, 2000AD and several other companies. What you consider some of the highlights of your career so far, artistically or for other reasons, and are there any mainstream characters you’d still like to draw?
Staz: In terms of personal satisfaction there have been many highlights: my first American comic (Thor), first Judge Dredd, the first time I had anything actually published (in an RPG magazine called Adventurer), first Batman etc. But from the point of view of still being able to look at work I did and still say “I did an okay job on that” they’re limited to two or three examples: Batman/Aliens2, a “Rogue Trooper” strip I did for 2000AD which was written by the original series writer Gerry Finlay-Day and which I think was the best thing I ever did for them and Unknown Soldier for DC which was probably the most fun I have had drawing any strip.
As for characters I’d like to draw, although I have drawn him as a supporting character, I’d like to do a standalone Captain America story (preferably a World War Two one to be honest), same goes for Superman, and I’m still waiting on the day I get to draw Conan. I’d also love to do a Commando Picture Library story for DC Thomson, but that is such a closed shop it’s unlikely to ever happen.
downthetubes: The whole area of commissioned art is something that’s taken off in recent years. Is it creatively interesting, in that you might get to draw a character you’ve not worked on before or is it more a case of facilitating current fan trends as a way of earning income for you?
Staz: I don’t really get that many requests for commissions (other than the quick sketches I do at shows and cons) so in terms of income it’s not really relevant, but when they do crop up it’s usually a nice distraction from regular work, especially (as you suggest) since they tend to be requests for characters I rarely or never get a chance to draw.
downthetubes: Have superhero films becoming popular helped legitimise your career choices to family and friends, or have they always been supportive? Do you think their success has had a knock-on effect by making more people read comics or do you think they take away from the comics medium?
Staz: I think superhero films are an entity in and of themselves. I don’t know enough about sales figures in the comic industry to ascertain whether movie success has any knock on effect on the source material. Certainly, I haven’t noticed any upturn in my own workload as a result.
I think my family and friends have always thought it to be quite a novelty that I do what I do, and been generally supportive. Certainly as a young man trying to get into the industry, there was never any pressure from my parents to “get a real job”, they knew it was what I wanted to do and were happy to allow me to pursue it.
downthetubes: Finally, are you able to reveal what you have planned for the future or the kind of projects you’re looking to become involved with?
Staz: I’m currently drawing a Vikings mini-series (based on the TV show) for Titan, so hopefully there’ll be more of that down the line, and as I said before, hopefully another King’s Road series at some point too. Other than that, who knows.
downthetubes: Vikings, cool! Many thanks for your time, Staz!
• Staz Johnson will be appearing at The Birmingham Comics Festival’s convention this Saturday, 23rd April 2016. For more information visit: www.thecomicfestival.com
• Vikings, written by Cavan Scott, drawn by Staz Johnson, launches on 27th April and will be on sale in all good comic shops, including Forbidden Planet
In his time, Paul H Birch has been an editor and writer for assorted media, on rare occasions they are comics related