A Cutaway Above: An interview with Captain Scarlet artist Graham Bleathman

Graham Bleathman with his cat "helper", 13-plus Pixel, who usually sits on his box in the afternoon supervising and doing his Neighbourhood Watch duty. Photo: Katie Bleathman
Graham Bleathman with his cat “helper”, 13-plus Pixel, who usually sits on his box in the afternoon supervising and doing his Neighbourhood Watch duty. Photo: Katie Bleathman

Following up on our recent review of the Haynes Captain Scarlet Agents’s Manual – a great new guide to the Gerry Anderson show celebrating its 50th anniversary – we caught up with cutaway artist Graham Bleathman, whose impressive visuals form a major element to the book, written by Sam Denham.

Graham Bleathman is one of the country’s foremost illustrators, perhaps best known for his work on projects involving Gerry Anderson’s television series including Stingray, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and, of course, Thunderbirds. He is particularly well known for his “cross section” (cutaway) illustrations of the spacecraft, vehicles and buildings from those shows and his illustrations have appeared in a number of books, magazines and comics since the early 1990s.

Kent Fire Brigade Headquarters by Graham Bleathman
Kent Fire Brigade Headquarters by Graham Bleathman

downthetubes: How did you get started in the “Cutaway” business and what most inspired you to pursue this path?

Graham Bleathman: My first cutaway was of Exeter Cathedral for a college project, and although I was inspired by the Gerry Anderson cutaways in TV21 and especially its related annuals, this was my first attempt at drawing one myself. The next one was of a more typical Bleathman subject; the Battlehawk from Terrahawks on the centrespread of SIG magazine. At that time I was still at college but was quite heavily involved in providing illustrations and graphics for both SIG and Fanderson, but I didn’t actually draw too many more in the way of SF cutaways until the early 1990s.

When I left college, I worked for the Salisbury Journal as their graphic artist, producing mainly advertisements but also editorial graphics and illustrations, which included some illustrations for a series of tourist guides that the newspaper also published. These were big tabloid format publications about Salisbury and the surrounding area, which gave me the opportunity to do large black and white cutaways of Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals, plus the Salisbury museum and ‘reconstruction’ illustrations of Avebury and Stonehenge, and illustrated maps of the city streets.

Albert Square, Walford - an EastEnders illustration for the Radio Times in 199 by Graham Bleathman
Albert Square, Walford – an EastEnders illustration for the Radio Times in 199 by Graham Bleathman

When I left the Salisbury Journal in 1990, I went freelance, providing over 30 double page spread cutaways for the Bristol Evening Post, starting with the studio set for Casualty, but also other subjects including Bristol Cathedral, mechanical dinosaur exhibitions, Concorde, Clipper ships, the second Severn Crossing, the Theatre Royal etc, plus a few more TV related subjects. These included Brookside, Wallace and Gromit, Star Trek and… Thunderbirds.

The editor was a bit of a TV fan, and these cutaways were quite an indulgence for the paper, to put it mildly, as the Thunderbirds spread – although tying in with a lecture Gerry Anderson was giving locally – was a cutaway of Thunderbird Two, not, as you might expect, a feature about how the series was made! And that cutaway was to have not insignificant importance to me a little later on…

downthetubes: How many cutaways do you think you have created down the years?

Graham: I’m not too sure, but I think it’s at least 450, probably quite a few more.

downthetubes: Your work hasn’t just been SF-inspired, has it? You’ve done EastEnders, too, for example, among others?

Graham: Yes, a good proportion of these are on real-world subjects, mostly for the Bristol Evening Post as I mentioned, but also on TV subjects I’m not normally associated with; EastEnders, Coronation Street, Brookside, Emmerdale for Inside Soap and All About Soap magazines; plus Casualty, EastEnders (again) and The Great Escape (for a documentary) for Radio Times.

A few cutaways and illustrated maps based on a number of TV shows were also illustrated for Cult TV magazine including Twin Peaks, Dad’s Army (Walmington On Sea), The Prisoner and Space: 1999 etc, plus a handful of aircraft cutaways for the short-lived RAF Magazine.

 

Thunderbirds - Tracy Island
Thunderbirds – Tracy Island

downthetubes: How do you approach a cutaway from scratch, whether it’s working with a writer or single handed?

Graham: It depends on the subject, really. In most cases I am pretty much left to my own devices as I write the captions for all or most of my cutaways. So more often or not, a visit to a real world location or aircraft/ship with a camera and sketchbook is a good starting point, followed by pencilling it all out for client approval, followed by inks and paint. I work traditionally – probably the only artist left alive to do so – but it does mean that I have a style of artwork people recognise, for better or worse.

downthetubes: How long does it take to create a cutaway and what are the major challenges?

Graham: A typical A2 sized cutaway take up to around three weeks, and the challenges are really dependant on the subject matter. Real world cutaways often subject to clients changing their minds or making decisions to go ahead at the last minute, not realising that these things take time to do, and there is often other ongoing artwork that also needs delivering at around the same time!

Technical challenges usually involve fiddly detail, or deciding what bits to ‘cut away’ to show a particular internal feature. Multi-decked ships can be difficult to illustrate as decisions have to be made which decks need to be removed to show what is below!

downthetubes: Do you have particular favourites you’ve worked on?

Graham: I guess I got most satisfaction illustrating the two Carlton-published Gerry Anderson cutaway books in the early 2000s; Thunderbirds FAB Cross Sections and Supermarionation Cross Sections. These were large format hardback books that had a big impact on Anderson publishing at the time, and they are well remembered.

A lot of people also have a fondness for my work on Thunderbirds the Comic and its associated comics (Fleetway; 1991-95), and if I do private commissioned cutaways, I am often asked to do them in the ‘Fleetway style’. This meant producing fully painted backgrounds with lots of additional detail, sort of in the style of the old TV21 annual cutaways or those produced by L. Ashwell Wood for the Eagle in the 1950s. I must admit, looking back, I have a certain fondness for them too!

Thunderbirds Comic Collection feature page
A Thunderbird 2 cutaway by Graham Bleathman

In terms of a single favourite subject; probably Thunderbird 2, which I seemed to have illustrated endless times now. The TB2 I drew for the Evening Post in 1990 lead me directly to being commissioned by (ex TV21 editor) Alan Fennell to work on the Thunderbirds comic for Fleetway.

Alan was always generous with his artists; he ensured we’d get a re-use fee every time the artwork got reprinted; and I’m sure it was pivotal in getting the best out of his contributors. It certainly encouraged me to do a lot of work for him on those Fleetway titles; they were great days, I have to say!

Captain Scarlet - Spectrum Agents’ Manual - Cover

downthetubes: The Captain Scarlet Agents’ Manual is your latest published project, how did that come about?

Graham: The Captain Scarlet Agents’ Manual does have a slightly convoluted history in that it was originally meant to be a direct follow up to the Thunderbirds Agents’ Technical Manual published in hardback in 2012. Having made a start on it, Haynes got cold feet and cancelled it about half way through my work on it in September 2013. Instead, they later opted for a paperback version of the Thunderbirds manual to celebrate the show’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2015. This featured additional pages with newly commissioned cutaways of some of the vehicles that were the subject of some of the rescue missions; these included the Fireflash, Crablogger, Sidewinder and Martian Space Probe.

The original hardback had been reprinted three times and a Japanese version was also published (for which author Sam Denham and I received nothing), and due to the strong sales of the paperback, Haynes commissioned a follow up; another Thunderbirds volume dealing with the various International Rescue missions and al looking at the world of the 21st century as seen in the series. That got cancelled, too.

All went quiet for about a year or so, until I pointed out that the 50th anniversary of Captain Scarlet was due in 2017, so after a little to-ing and fro-ing, Haynes recommissioned the Captain Scarlet manual. There followed a mad rush to complete the illustrations and text ready for publication this Autumn!

To give Haynes their due, I did get paid for all the illustrations for the cancelled books, so I wasn’t out of pocket, but there are a few Thunderbirds images that I’ve done currently in a folder that remain unpublished!

Captain Scarlet - Spectrum Agents’ Manual - SPV

Captain Scarlet - Spectrum Agents’ Manual - Cloudbase

 

downthetubes: Does it include new as well as previously published cutaways you’ve created?

Graham: All the cutaways are new; a small number of them were created for the unpublished Thunderbirds volume are featured here to illustrate the wider world of the 21st century and the various world security and military organisations, but none have seen print before. Of course, it’s not the first time the subject matter of the book has been drawn by me… after all, I’ve drawn Gerry Anderson-themed cutaways for Fleetway, Carlton, and Redan, but the Haynes cutaways are all new.

downthetubes: Did you use the old TV21 and Captain Scarlet annuals as inspiration for these amazing cutaways?

Graham: Initially I did, to try and maintain a visual consistency between the 1960s books and my work. In later years, that consistency has been maintained, but often adding more detail has my illustration technique has developed. I suppose in some cases I reference my older cutaways for the new ones, although the advent of Bluray for looking at certain episodes has also helped a great deal.

Captain Scarlet - Angel Launch System-Bleathmandownthetubes: What’s the best thing about being a comics creator or freelance illustrator?

Graham: Well, you have to remember that although I have worked in comics on and off for years, I don’t create or draw comics these days! The best part of doing these cutaways for books or comics is that I have been given pretty much free rein to do what I want, often creating interiors and images not seen in the TV episodes with very few problems approvals-wise.

There was one story put about a few years ago where Haynes were a little unsure about commissioning me to do the Thunderbirds Manual because they had no ideas about how the craft should look. They asked ITV to recommend some sort of adviser who had experience of doing this sort of work, and the person they recommended was… me.

downthetubes: And the worst?

Graham: It’s the age-old issue that many illustrators who work with licensed characters face these days; rights. Or the lack of. My art gets reproduced on everything it seems (well, jigsaws and T-Shirts, anyway) and because ITV own the rights to everything relating to the Gerry Anderson shows, in most instances I get bugger all… although there have been a couple of exceptions where a publisher has been thoughtful and courteous enough to contact me offering a modest re-use fee.

downthetubes: What most distracts you from getting your work done?

Graham: Cat help. A well-known contradiction in terms, but our two do take an active interest in my work.

Captain Scarlet - Atlantica Basedownthetubes: What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the illustration industry?

Graham: If you work within someone else’s licensed character universe, don’t expect any rights or royalties!

downthetubes: What are you working on right now, and when will it be published? Is Joe 90 next?

Graham: At the moment, there are no more books on the horizon (I’ve had 14 published so far, in collaboration with several authors/ co-creators, so I can’t complain), and it’s unlikely that there would be a Joe 90 book!

Other Anderson series books are rather dependant on how well known the series are with the general book-buying public; most of the other series don’t have the instant mass market recognition that Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet has, unfortunately. I’d love to do a UFO Technical Manual for example, but are there enough people beyond its fans who would remember it and want to buy it (either for themselves or as a gift)? Who knows… but never say never, I guess!

I am currently doing some more work for the SS Great Britain here in Bristol. Following a successful promotional campaign which centred on a cutaway of the ship, I am doing more promotional work for the ship’s museum and the IK Brunel museum opening next year.

Graham Bleathman's cutaway of Gogol's Personal Phant Transport from the Dan Dare story "Rogue Planet", which appeared in Spaceship Away Issue 38
Graham Bleathman’s cutaway of Gogol’s Personal Phant Transport from the Dan Dare story “Rogue Planet”, which appeared in Spaceship Away Issue 38

I’ve also done my first licensed Doctor Who work this year, which will be out in early December. There is always the odd cutaway or cover for Spaceship Away, and of course I do have this ‘secret life’ as ‘J. Campbell-Kerr’, regularly painting roughly half the covers per year for the People’s Friend! After a brief stint in the mid-1990s, I’ve been doing these for 12 years, and whilst everyone seems to get much amusement when I tell them I do these covers, I must admit, I do rather enjoy doing them…

downthetubes: Graham, thank you very much for your time and the very best of luck with your future projects.

• The Captain Scarlet Agents’ Manual is available now from all good bookshops – using this amazon.co.uk link helps support downthetubes

Read our review of the Captain Scarlet Agents’ Manual

• Graham Bleathman Official Site: www.grahambleathman.co.uk

Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds © ITV

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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