Creating Comics: A chat with Millarworld 2017 New Talent Annual winner Simon James

Comics writer Simon James

Simon James, a 23-year-old writer and Lancaster University graduate from Manchester, had his script chosen from over a thousand to appear in the Millarworld 2017 New Talent Annual, now on sale in all good comic shops from Image Comics. downthetubes talked with him about the project and his writing…

The new annual, featuring a cover by Rob Doyle, also features stories by Emma Sayle, Martin Renard, Stephanie Cooke, Steve Lawrence and William Mclaren with art by Alex Aguilar, Edgy Ziane, Jake Elphick, Luana Vecchio, Marcelo Salaza and Robert Carey.

Millarworld 2017 New Talent Annualdownthetubes: So Simon, ‘Symptoms’, your Superior story in the annual, is your first ever comic. Feel good?

Simon James: Great man – it’s always been the dream to write comics. And to have it chosen by Mark Millar… the guy’s always been up there in my top couple of writers, more-often-than-not in the top spot. He made me wish my whole teenage life away in desperation of the ‘next issue’; I’d love to think one day I could do the same for others.

downthetubes: Are you pleased with how it’s turned out?

Simon: Very. The comp copies came this week and the whole issue looks stunning – every artist has brought their A game. The guy who drew mine, Alex Aguilar, has got this kind of Steve McNiveny vibe going on and really captures the emotion of ‘Symptoms’ – it’s a story that pulls at the heart strings. I hope anyway.

downthetubes: Did you meet with Alex?

Simon: Nope, he lives in the Philippines. But we chatted over Facebook. I guess that’s one of the amazing things about this industry – it’s perhaps the only true storytelling medium in which, thanks to the internet, you can collaborate with anyone in the world.

That said, crazy story: I went to the comic store nearest to where I work in Manchester to pre-order my copies of the annual and the girl who served me, Abigail Bulmer, told me proudly that she was the colourist! She’d just finished it that day too so I was able to get a sneak preview… I love it when the universe speaks to you like that. An international book and what are the chances that the first person I go to buy it from had coloured the thing?

downthetubes: Why Superior?

Simon: I love it. Loved it when it came out, love it now. It’s beautiful – everyone should read it. Such a poignant, simple idea, executed directly and with class. When Simon Pooni is asked about what he likes best about being transformed into a superhero: “just being able to wiggle his toes”.

Not many superhero stories can punch you in the feels like that. It’s very visual too – there’s a reason Superior is the cover star of this annual and it’s not because my story is the best. Oh, and there’s a demon in it that looks like a monkey. What’s not to love?

downthetubes: What’s your take, ‘Symptoms’, about?

Simon: I won’t spoil too much but it’s about Simon’s affliction of multiple sclerosis. The initial judge of the Superior entries who picked mine out for Mark to read has a very close connection with the condition. He very kindly reached out and thanked me for the story’s authenticity, which might be the biggest compliment I’ve ever had.

A page from Simon's Superior story "Symptoms" for the Millarworld 2017 New Talent Annual
A page from Simon’s Superior story “Symptoms” for the Millarworld 2017 New Talent Annual

downthetubes: How did you come up with the idea?

Simon: Well I tried to come up with a story to fit the title ‘Book of Ormon’ (demon-monkey’s name) but nothing really stuck! (laughs). I entered an American Jesus story for the first Millarworld annual but it was very dark. Like, ridiculously dark. I’m glad it didn’t make the cut because I wouldn’t have been able to give my Nan a copy. Or should I say ‘sell’ her a copy…?

So I read through that annual when it came out and looked at the approaches people had taken, and Mark Abnett’s Hit-Girl story really got me thinking about different narrating voices – his was basically poetry. I played with a few different ideas until I settled on using a medical document to narrate, focusing on juxtaposition rather than a chronological narrative.

downthetubes: Anything you’d do differently now that the finished thing’s out there?

Simon: I guess I’d do what Brian Michael Bendis repeatedly advises in Words For Pictures and give my artist the freedom to lay out the pages. I spoke to Bendis about this at a masterclass he ran last month and he explained how doing it yourself is like saying to your artist that you can do their job better than them. They’re storytellers too, not art monkeys.

I couldn’t be happier with how Alex breathed life into the thumbnails I drew, but it would also have been a nice surprise to see his own vision. Hopefully one day we’ll make a comic together again and I can do less work, and in doing so, be a better collaborator!

downthetubes: You’re one of the only six writers in history to have the rights to their comic bought by Netflix before it’s even published…?

Simon: One of five, in fact. Kick-Ass is still under Universal and that’s who Emma Sayle chose to write about – sucker.

downthetubes: Would you like to be involved in the Superior adaptation?

Simon (laughing): Nothing would make me happier than just the thought of a Superior Netflix film/show being produced. The world of non-comic-readers need to experience the story. As for working on it, I think there’s a definite leap from writing a short story on the guy to developing a live-action adaptation.

That said, my day job is in TV production, so if Millarflix are ever looking for people who are passionate about showcasing Simon Pooni’s story, I will of course have my hand in the air like Hermione Granger.

downthetubes: On the subject of Millar adaptations – excited for the new Kingsman film?

Simon: I have high expectations. The Secret Service was my 2015 film of the year.

downthetubes: Tell us about your writing background.

Simon: Well I’m 23 so I’m still in the early stages. I studied English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. While there I self-published a book of short stories called Chapter One (which also stars a demon disguised as a monkey – Adolf Hitler in this case).

Oh, and I wrote and directed a radio drama on our student radio station which was fun, and helped with more radio writing that I’ve been able to do since graduating – I’ve just finished a romance about 2017 terrorism which is less weird than it sounds.

But I’ve probably achieved the most so far on the stage; I love the theatre. I’ve got a short play on this week [at the Lyric, Hammersmith as part of Lyric Fest] starring Jude Law which is very cool. I’ve also done little bits of TV work as part of my job, but yeah, still working away at it everywhere I can.

Comics hold a particularly special place in my heart though – the medium excites me just as much now as it did when I was five, and I have pages and pages of ideas for contributions I’d love to make to the artform.

downthetubes: What is the comic book dream for you?

Simon: To make important work. To get people agitated that my next issue isn’t out yet. To make comics to give to non-comicbook readers to show them the limitless possibilities of what they can be about. I want to write huge, high-concept stories driven by my own characters. I’d also particularly love a crack at Spider-Man, but who wouldn’t?

downthetubes: Big fan?

Simon: The biggest. Fight me.

downthetubes: Favourite Spider-Man story?

Simon: To pick one would disregard too many others. The first 25 years are pretty much perfect in my eyes, and I mean that. But because of the context of this interview I really should mention Mark’s Spider-Man run which, in comparison to most of his other Marvel work, for some reason is never really given much love or attention. It’s everything a Spider-Man fan could want – Peter being pressured from all angles but fighting relentlessly to save Aunt May. And a real celebration of his rogues’ gallery, giving all the villains the respect they often don’t get. I sometimes hear people saying they’d love a version of Batman’s ‘Hush’ for Spider-Man, but in my opinion Mark has already ticked that box.

downthetubes: Are you pro- or anti- marriage?

Simon: Pro of course. Equal rights for all.

downthetubes: Funny.

Simon: I appreciate your question was Spider-Man related, but the less said about Mephisto retcons the better, particularly so early in one’s career. I feel very strongly about the way it was handled and how it affected Peter’s story, but this is life. We have to accept what we’ve got and move forward.

Amazing Spider-Man #618downthetubes: Are you a fan of Mr Slott’s current status quo?

Simon: Well, I read the book in collected hardcovers and the last thing I got through was Spider-Verse, so I can’t comment on the brand new stuff. But to answer your question, Dan has really given us so many wonderful Spidey tales. Obviously, Superior Spider-Man is his magnum opus (hey, maybe you just have to have ‘Superior’ in the title for something to be good?). But he’s done some other smaller stories which really hit home for me as a Peter Parker fan. Some examples which people must pick up if they haven’t already are Mysterioso, the first three issues of Brand New Day, I Killed Tomorrow, and, perhaps above all others, No One Dies. Then go and get them signed from him (he’s always visiting the UK) because he’s the most entertaining man you will ever meet.

downthetubes: Last Spider-Man question – thoughts on Homecoming?

Simon: I loved select bits of it: From that incredibly tense scene in the Vulture’s car, to him running down the school corridor ripping his tux off, and of course, the Final Chapter moment… that’s all classic Spidey.

But then we’re brought back down to franchise-building earth when he hears Tony Stark in his head egging him on to lift the rubble when it should have been Uncle Ben. No, we didn’t need to see Ben die again, but for the most important character in the whole story not to have a presence at all is a travesty. They could have slipped him in when Peter was asked what his motivations were in Civil War, but obviously they’re too scared of treading on any similar ground to the previous movies.

As for Homecoming, people have said to me “you must love it, because he’s actually 15”, but being 15 isn’t impressive on its own to me. Being 15 and facing the odds off your own back and suffering the consequences on your own, now that’s something to commend. Being given everything on a plate by man-whose-movies-we-want-to-cash-in-on, and an in-built-parachute-escape-clause to boot, is not what Spider-Man is about to me. The theme of Peter’s story is not ‘youth’, it’s ‘responsibility’. Driving a car around the city at crazy speeds, with no license, whilst on the phone, when you can just as easily web swing, does not come close.

And then there’s the current disregard for the notion of a secret identity… Hey, you know what, time to stop bitter-ranting, I’m 23 for God’s sake. I like Holland, and not just because he’s British; hopefully one day he’ll be given the right script. I highly doubt it would ever beat Spider-Man 2, the pinnacle of superhero movies in my eyes, but there’s no harm in them Hollywood folks fine-tuning their scripts and giving it a shot.

downthetubes: What inspires your own writing?

Simon: Difference. Something new. Any art that opens my mind. Yes, reading other writing inspires me, but no more than a trip to the theatre after not going for a while, or even a physical move from a city to the country or back. Anything that moves my brain from one place to another. And of all the art forms, I’d say music inspires me more than anything. I’d like to thank Noel Gallagher one day for giving my mind somewhere to escape to on many an occasion.

downthetubes: Favourite writers?

Simon: If I blow any more smoke up a certain Glaswegian’s a-hole you’re going to think he orchestrated this interview, but it’s clear he’s right up there in my list of modern comic writers, along with Vaughan, Bendis, Brubaker, Kirkman and the like. Outside of comics there’s just so many, for all different reasons and in all different mediums. John Sullivan, Anthony Horowitz, Caroline Aherne, Alan Ayckbourn… I could list them all day.

downthetubes: Any tips for aspiring comic writers?

Simon: Absolutely none. I wrote a short story based on a character Mark Millar already came up with. Ask me if I make it big.

• Simon’s entry into the Superior story, ‘Symptoms’, is out now in the Millarworld New Talent Annual 2017, in both in print and digital

• Follow Simon James on Twitter @SJames | Find him in Facebook: Facebook.com/SimonJamesStories

• Millarworld: www.millarworld.tv

• Chapter One

How far would the government go to build an army? What really happened to Adolf Hitler at the end of World War Two? How can studying at Oxford make someone suicidal? What goes through the mind of a first time rapist?

Find out the answers to all of these questions and more in this eclectic selection of 10 short stories by award-winning author Simon James. It will feel as if you are there as people find themselves stuck in empty graves, celebrities are kidnapped… and someone gets trapped in a monkey’s body?

Described as “fresh and clever” by Penguin Books, Chapter One acts as a literary stepping stone to the busy adult who may have fallen out of reading regularly – these short stories are perfect for fitting around a busy lifestyle, whilst being so exciting and thought provoking, every moment spent reading will feel worthwhile.

You will meet a host of exciting new characters, immerse yourself in a range of genres, and begin to question things you thought you knew about the world. The first chapter begins here.

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor. He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY. Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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