Interview: Joe Colquhoun

Fantasy Express
The original cover of Fantasy Express with a Joe Colquhoun drawn cover (courtesy of Lew Stringer)

 

This is the only interview I think that Joe Colquhoun ever did. It appeared in the Fantasy Express fanzine in 1982 published by Lew Stringer . It appears here courtesy of him. Many thanks indeed to you, Lew!

The interviewer was Stephen Oldman.

My undying gratitude for being able to bring you this interview also goes to Jim Crossdale who’s scanning and sending it to me made it possible. Thanks a million, Jim.

2011 Addition: while transferring this interview to this site from the original, we came across images of the original interview, which enabled us to correct some of the transcript from the original title. This version of the 1982 interview features minor grammatical corrections, but we hope it is more faithful than ever before to Stephen’s original piece.

Joe Colquhoun (pronounced co-houn) is perhaps the ultimate British comic artist. His career has covered the period from the first boom in adventure comic strips in the early 50s to the present day yet is not till recently when credit lines were added to battle that he was able to gain proper recognition for his work.

For the past 30 years, he has been working solidly producing strips of the highest quality across the entire range of juvenile adventure. Though he has suffered the anonymity of all British comic artists there can be few who are not familiar with his work, be it on ‘Football Family Robertson’ saga, ‘Zip Nolan’ and many others. He is currently working with writer Pat Mills on what is regarded as his best work to date – ‘Charley’s War’ for Battle.

Colquhoun is a true professional, he is held in high esteem by his peers, the staff at pick and all the young lads who write in to the comic every week praising his work.

Fantasy Express: How did you enter the comics field?

Joe: I’d always wanted to draw even as a kid I’d always wanted to be a comic artist, ever since I was old enough to pick up a pencil so of course I spent a lot of my early life drawing alone. I drew in an old ledger book: I would draw stories just make them up mainly in the adventure line – desert island stuff, war, I suppose it’s stood me in good stead for what was to come. I was brought up on the usual diet most kids were then – Comic Cuts, The Truepenny Bloods, Magnet, Champion, Triumph, Wizard, Hotspur which were all written stories and well written for what you paid, with one off illustrations.

I always remember a chap called Simons in Lion and a Chapman in Triumph who stood out to me as very good artists

Kids who could draw were often lionised at school and one got a false sense of ones capabilities at the time because there was no competition.

Although I was into comic strip in a minor form it was never really my intention to be an artist. The war was on the horizon anyway and we did not think much about the future to be honest. I got a place at Kingston-upon Thames Art School about halfway through the war, I did a stint there and then joined the navy, which I was in till 1947 when I went back to Kingston and did a more prolonged course in book illustration this knocked the rough edges and crudities from my work.

I still had a hankering after the comic strip field but it was very limiting at the time. Eagle had just come out but at my present state of development I knew I hadn’t a hope of getting in there.

'Carver of the Islands', Joe Colquhoun's first published strip, published in 1951.
‘Carver of the Islands’, Joe Colquhoun’s first published strip, published in 1951.

 

Then, suddenly I saw an advert in a trade magazine to send sample for a new project publishing independent comics and I jumped at this with alacrity. I met with a couple of ex-GIs who seemed pleased with the samples I had from art school, though as I later found out from the fees they paid, they’d be lucky to get anybody – the princely sums of 1.50 a page. Our work was crude and rushed – it had to be. The printing was atrocious and although we had a foothold in the market we’d rarely see our work in print. The very first publication I saw my own work in gave me the most euphoric feeling I ever had. It’s like riding a bike or having your first woman I guess – never to be repeated.

We were doing just one-off stories covering war, space, sport – very American orientated, very well written, all done by the Yanks. I was there seven to eight months and certainly never earned a fortune though I did learn speed and a certain amount of slickness.

However, the general consensus was that this outfit was done for. We hadn’t been paid for a hell of a time, I’d just got married and things were pretty grim.

With nothing to lose I managed to get an interview with the editor of Eagle, [Marcus Morris]. I showed him the specials I’d managed to salvage from the Americans and he was very compassionate, but it obviously wasn’t quite what he wanted. He said, “Why don’t you go across to A. P. (Amalgamated Press)? They’ve just started a comic called Lion.” I saw another nice chap called Stan Boddington. Lion was a little more downmarket than Eagle and he seemed impressed. Unfortunately, all the stories were tied up in Lion so in desperation “Of course, I write scripts as well.” (In truth, I’d never done anything in my life). His ears pricked up and he sent me away to write a specimen adventure strip.

 

'Wildfire the Untamed' - written and drawn by Joe for Champion.
‘Wildfire the Untamed’ – written and drawn by Joe for Champion.

 

So, influenced by my US debut, I flogged out a story about the Navy in the Pacific War. My synopsis produced an epic of 100 installments, ranging from a fairly logical beginning to a rambling climax. They ironed it out at a story conference and thrashed it out out and condensed it down to quite a decent four-story job!

Then they relegated me to the struggling Champion, which was still mainly written stories. They did have a two page centrespread and they got me to write another epic which ran for 44 installments, called “Legionnaire Terry’s Desert Quest’ which was all very much my own work, with very little interference from the sub-editors who subsequently became the bane of my life in script writing.

 

Legionnaire Terry - drawn by Joe Colquhoun
Legionnaire Terry’s Desert Quest  – drawn by Joe Colquhoun

Fantasy Express: How did the Script writer/Artist arrangement work in practice?

Joe: Just for the record, the first four installments of ‘Roy of the Rovers’ were written by Frank S Pepper, and I was relieved to think I’d finished with script writing, but unfortunately, ‘Pop’, I suppose, was getting on a bit and couldn’t cope. I was asked to carry on the series. I had some great reservations about this, because I knew damn all about soccer, really, but they said they would help with the technical detail and strategy.

We had endless story conferences which necessitated me going up to the office dry-mouthed month after month. It wasn’t a terribly happy time. Other than those first four installments, up to the end of my first five year stint on ‘Roy of the Rovers’ I wrote and illustrated all the stories I did.

I never wrote scripts for any other artists, but I consider myself an artist first and a writer second: the writing was a happy expedient to get into A.P. Writing never came terribly naturally to me, compared to the drawing. They seemed to like it quite well, though it got progressively more that a hell of a lot of it was edited out, until I got so frustrated I eventually hurled the script writing in.

Fantasy Express: How were the payments arranged?

Joe: Despite the writing coming less naturally that the artwork, it didn’ take as long. A two-page script for ‘Roy of the Rovers’ certainly didn’t take as long as two pages of artwork, but the ratio of pay was less – although I think it was proportionally about right per hours worked.

 

Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond
A panel from the US newspaper strip Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond: an early influence on Joe

 

Fantasy Express: In those early days, who were your main artistic influences?

Joe: The artist that influenced me most in this field was good old Alex Raymond of ‘Rip Kirby’ fame. His distinctive style, economy, a super ratio of black to white, a minimum of cross-hatching… he was the quintessence of what I would be happy to emulate and this influence stayed with me a long time, until my own technique and style developed. If his influence still shows, I’d be bloody happy.

Fantasy Express: Have you ever been affected the changes and reconstruction of IPC/Fleetway affected you at all?

Joe: Yes, two or three times. I can’t recall exactly whether it was the change from AP to Fleetway or Fleetway to IPC, and there have been several changes in the hierarchy, but a few heads have rolled from time to time, which was very disconcerting. The changes affected me adversely initially, though in the end I came off better financially.

Paddy Payne - Annual Illustration
An illustration for a ‘Paddy Payne’ text story by Joe.

At the time of the change from AP to Fleetway, a lot of strange new faces appeared in Editorial and caused upheaval in an attempt to modernise and update what were becoming rather pedestrian publications. As freelancers, we worked in varying degrees, far away from the office and didn’t know what the hell was going on. I, at the time, was working on ‘Paddy Payne’ for my second or third year and I never realised anything was in the offing until suddenly I was told to belay my last wok and stop the installment I was doing, and that was it. No explanation – I was out of work!

Finally, what we were told, was that due to reconstruction of Lion and Tiger they were calling in, as trouble shooters, a lot of Continental artists. I presume the new regime thought these guys a lot slicker and technically superior to us, and possibly they were, though ultimately I was returned to ‘Paddy Payne’ with a slight increase in the fee.

It caused a fair amount of resentment amongst the British guys. We thought these guys were pretty good but they didn’t seem to offer much more than we were able to supply and they were being paid less, the rate of exchange being favourable to us at the time. Thereafter I felt pretty insecure: I was shaken out of my complacency. It has never occurred in that degree since,  though I’ve had other upsets.

Though those new faces never intentionally did the dirty to me, they weren’t averse to insisting I drop a steady job. Case in point: ‘The Football Family Robinson’ which I really enjoyed. They asked me to drop that and pilot a great new project and, in time, this great new story would be shelved indefinitely. There I was, no job, and no apologies. In the end I made my feelings known, I told them: “This is bloody ridiculous, this is jeopardizing my career!” I came up to a good agreement with them but no contract. They never signed any contract. Since then, I’ve never had any trouble.

Roy of the Rovers original art 18th June 1966 (3) (Original)

Roy of the Rovers original art 01 (Original)

 

Fantasy Express: How do you view the realism of ‘Roy of the Rovers’ today?

Joe: I must admit I haven’t kept in touch with the storylines of ‘Roy’, though I think it was Barrie Tomlinson, who was group editor until very recently, who influenced the tendency to progress Roy to a more realistic and sophisticated level. I have an open mnd about it. Barrie did a lot to liven up the storyline but I don’t think it would hold much sway with the average reader. All I know is that it wouldn’t have been allowed to happen in my day, due to the policy at the time.

Fantasy Express: Were you then, subject to a lot of editorial pressures?

Joe: Yes, we were really limited. A lot of it was sub-edited. Perhaps they played down to the readers too much then, and perhaps they play up too high above the readers now. Perhaps compromise is the thing. I got awfully frustrated, because I think it’s extremely difficult for an adult writer to relate to the mind of a youngster, At that time there was an almost boarding school, monastic mentality with strict censorship. You were never allowed to mention women. One time i managed to bring in Roy’s landlady and even that was suspect. It’s unbelievable in this day and age but that’s the way it was.

Fantasy Express: Have the weekly schedules caused you many problems?

Battle Action 'Charley's War' cover
Battle Action ‘Charley’s War’ cover

Joe: From the beginning, serialisation is one of the world’s worst ways of making a living. The deadlines and pressures become pretty punitive from time to time. The worst is when you’re trying to get ahead for a holiday, and up comes bloody Easter and the office rings you up to say you’ve got to gain four days. When you’re working six to seven days a week it’s practically impossible, but you do it somehow.

There were periods when I when was a bit more ambitious, or needed to earn a bit more money, that I took on the annual jobs as well, and even though you could be more slapdash, it was still very much a dash. Now, I try to take on as little work as I can do and still remain solvent. I try to work Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, but it just depends. If there’s a cast of thousands [in Charley’s War], with  the 5th Ablutions going over the top, it takes a lot longer.

Fantasy Express: Does your attitude to the work vary with the job you’re doing?

Joe: I think I can say with a certain satisfaction that I’ve always tried to do the best I can in any job. You know there’s a readership out there somewhere, so you feel you want to do the best for your own pride, as well as to justify your wages. Of course, bad scripts do have a very depressing effect; I feel happier if I know I have a rapport with the author, even if I have never met the guy.

The time when I was least interested in my own work was when I was on Buster. I enjoyed ‘Zarga’ very much but it was relatively short-lived I was then relegated to childish material such as ‘The Ski-Board Squad’ and ‘The Runaway Robinsons’, a Little Orphan Annie type of thing which wasn’t quite my line. This was no fault of the author, it just wasn’t my scene.

I think I’ve always tended to put a bit more in my work than a few of my colleagues. I they’re wiser, they seem to have learnt the economy of line. Omission is always more difficult than over working,

I think my main failing is that I put in everything and the kitchen sink; a lot of it gets lost in the reproduction, therefore in strict terms it’s a waste of time, and, in this game, time is money. I’ve been a bit of a mug really, but the leopard can’t change its spots.

Kid Chameleon
Kid Chameleon

 

Fantasy Express: You obviously put a lot of care into your colour strips, ‘ Football Family Robinson’ and ‘Kid Chameleon’. Would you like to do more?

Joe: I really enjoyed doing the colour work. In some respects, it’s much more fulfilling than black and white. The next best thing is line and wash, which I was able to do for a fair time in Tiger because of the litho printing. With letterpress, it’s a very limited medium, with the cross hatching and  moulding. I’m not as happy with that as I am with the colour wash or line and wash techniques, but again it’s the old, old story of economics. Even if there was an opportunity to go back to colour work I would still like to do it, but only if they paid a justifiable fee for the considerable extra work and expertise involved.

Fantasy Express: Do you have a lot of difficulty getting a change of jobs when you’re becoming bored with the strip you are working on?

Joe: Since I’ve worked on Battle I’ve felt no desire to change, but I found the attitude amongst editors to be most prevalent when I was on ‘Roy of the Rovers’, around that period, I found ‘Roy’ a bit of a boring subject, not being a great fan of football, and after four or five years of drawing those bloody hairy-arsed footballers tearing around morning, noon and night, it got me down a lot. I wanted the ‘Paddy Payne’ slot in Lion, and it took me a hell of a job to get off  ‘Roy’. The continued ploy was “We cant get anyone else to do it” but if it had come to the crunch, they’d have found another bloke within five seconds flat, I’m sure of it. In fact, when I finally insisted I wanted a change, they found someone to do it and do it successfully as far as I could see.

The main problem was finding another artist wiling to move on from the slot you wanted. This really was a bigger problem than the inertia of the editors. The inertia did exist; around the late 1950s to mid 1960s, there definitely seemed a conspiracy of editors who tried to keep you on the same slot if it was successful. This also happened on Buster and I had a bit of a job wangling on to Battle.

Fantasy Express: Was your agent helpful?

Joe: I’ve never had an agent, I’m glad to say, as they take, what is it 20 per cent of one’s earnings which is a fair old slice on the top of income tax and national insurance.

Fantasy Express: In the 1960s your work was published along side such greats as Eric Bradbury, Mike Western and Geoff Champion. Were you aware of them at the time?

Joe: No, You must remember that, up until very recently, IPC always insisted on anonymity, Even if you signed at the bottom [of the page], out of sheer pride in your work, they whited it out.

We were anonymous until very, very recently when the credits went up in Battle which is very gratifying in a way. However, I gradually got to know who the various artists were, if only by reputation, and formed a few opinions. I wasn’t familiar with Western’s work in the sixties, but Bradbury, [Don] Lawrence and Campion I thought were excellent. Campion’s work has seemed to have fallen off a bit, I hate to say it. It may be the chap’s been ill; he may be getting on a bit.

Fantasy Express: What about the newer artists?

Joe: I never seem to get time to study other publications, but I’m very aware of Cam Kennedy’s work, which is really really top notch stuff.  One little exception: he tends to leave backgrounds very vacant, but the presentation is superb, his detailed and accurate drawing of war material is spot on, to my mind, and he’s a damn good figure draughtsman, there’s a very good action and attitude about them. They could almost be stills from a film.

Fantasy Express: How about the Europeans?

Joe: I’m not familiar with any of these artists, with the exception f [Carlos] Ezquerra, who has a strong, gritty, abrasive sort of style which doesn’t appeal to me personally but I can see why he has a following. It’s a unique style he has there.

Fantasy Express: You’ve worked on a wide variety of strips, but are there any you would have liked to have done more of?

Joe: That’s easy. ‘Football Family Robinson’ was rather  cut off in its prime. Even though it was football, it was football with tongue in cheek, and a lot of ribald humour and offered some good characterisation of the whole family. It appealed tome, the zaniness of it really, and it had a good author, Tom Tully. The other one, humour again, was ‘Cap’n Codsmouth’, my first ever slapstick cartoon humour, and I was quite pleased with it. Also, I wrote the script which was the first, the first tme I’d written a script since I’d packed in after ‘Roy of the Rovers’. I felt I was just getting into my stride when it was cut off.

Zarga, Man of Mystery
Zarga, Man of Mystery

 

The only other one was ‘Zarga – Man of Mystery’. Any of the others, I think, had reached saturation point and I was quite happy to move on.

Fantasy Express: Obviously, you have a leaning toward humour. Was there any humour artist who particularly appealedto you?

Joe: One who appealed I think was called Nobby Clark, who drew in Tiger I also believe he did ‘Buster’s Diary’. He had a nice, clean, flowing line, amiable little characters and he drew super little dolly birds when it was allowed. Other characters he did were ‘Wild Bill Hiccup’, and a Luftwaffe pilot from World War Two  called mealy “Messy Schmidt”. I thought he was an absolute scream.

I think I’d like to do more humour work. ‘Charley’s War’ is all very well, but it’s a sombre subject and doing it seven days a week can be bloody depressing. It would be nice if I could find the opportunity to do a one-page on “The Goodies” or “Cap’n Codsmnouth’, just to relieve the tension.

Fantasy Express: ‘Charley’s War’ is regarded by it s fans and professionals in the business to be the best strip in Britain at the moment, how do you feel about that?

Joe: First of all, I can only say how gratified and quite surprised I am that it’s viewed so favourably, even by quite upmarket intellectuals. I was astounded that one learned professor equated it to All Quiet On The Western Front as a social document. That seems a bit high-flying for me, though I’m beginning to understand it in a way, thanks to the inspiration and dedication of Pat Mills. I think this has really rubbed off on me. I don’t want to let him down, and again I’m very interested in the subject, even though at times I find it very depressing and emotive. Particularly the sequence at the end of the Battle of the Somme. You’ll find it hard to believe, but when I re-read that in its printed version I was almost in tears. Just shows how involved you can get, I suppose.

When I was first asked to take on ‘Charley’s War’, I said to Dave Hunt “God Almighty, how are you going to make any subject matter out of such a static subject as trench warfare?” and Dave  said “We’ve got a damn good author – he’ll be able to pull it through.” I’d never met Pat or knew of him, I was still a bit sceptical but as it developed I began to realise that we were  onto something, it seemed to catch on.

I’ve tried very hard to bring out the realism in the trenches and most of the sequences in the story are based on factual incidents. That might lead to a certain amount of authenticity which is possibly lacking in the more blood and thunder, action-packed World War 2 stories. Finally, and this is only my own opinion, it illustrates a period that was already dying then. When words like Honour, Duty, Patriotism meant something, I think most decent kids reading this epoch, will have a sneaking, almost atavistic feeling that in this present sick and rather selfish world, with violence and amorality seeming to pay dividends, they may think they’re missing out on something. That’s a bit pretentious, but just think it.

Fantasy Express: How do see ‘Charley’ developing?

Joe: It’s really up to Pat , I think the best has gone. The Somme sequence had the greatest impact, and we’re now in the greater horrors of Paschcendale. After that, there’s only 1918 and the Armistice. However, Pat will probably pull something spectacular out of his tin hat!

Fantasy Express: Since the mid-sixties there’s been a steady decline in the number of comic titles published. What do you see as the reasons?

Joe: I would think, or rather hazard a guess that the decline is due to

a) the ever increasing costs of publication

b) inept management policy by promoting new publications at the wrong time with inadequate market research

Also, some comics tend to duplicate subject matter, a case to prove that in a way: Lion and Tiger, companion papers, survived together for a long time.

Fantasy Express: One question I meant to ask earlier: I’ve never seen any science fiction work by you. Would you like to work for 2000AD?

Joe: No, not that I’ve studied 2000AD too much. This seems to imply an awful indifference, but it’s really lack of time in which to study these things in depth. But I don’t think I’d be creative enough for some things not enough to dream up the weird and wonderful situations, characters, in these stylised stories. Not by any means. I prefer things like ‘Charley’s War’ and ‘Johnny Red’, for which I can easily obtain reference!

Fantasy Express: Before you wrote the profile for Dez Skinn’s Fantasy Advertiser, were you aware of fandom?

Joe: I had absolutely no idea before Dez Skinn’s profile, and I was quite intrigued by it. However, until you contacted me about this interview, I’d not been aware of any other such publications besides Dez’s. I’d assumed there must have been some around, but I’ve no knowledge as to whther it’s extensive or limited.

Fantasy Express: Do you think fandom is useful anyway?

Joe: It serves as a recruiting ground almost, and a good training ground for up and coming artists who may desire to become professional. I don’t know how developed it is in this country, I must admit, but I’m pleased to see that Fantasy Express is geared to British comics. From my point of view, and I’m sure for a lot of other artists, being in contact with chaps like you is a very good barometer to find out what’s happening, what the current trends are, and the general gossip in this particular trade. I for one don’t get much information from any other source, especially from the office. It’s like getting blood from a stone – they’re so busy.

Fantasy Express: How do you see your own future?

Joe: In these uncertain times I don’t like to delve too deeply in the future. Being self-employed offers little security, even in this welfare state. You get no pension other than the basic one, even though we’ve paid high earnings-related insurance. You get no fat. golden handshake when we decide to hang up our pen and brushes. Frankly, after 30 years of concentrated comic work, I certainly have no desire to carry on at this pace for another ten or 15 years, which is about all I’ve got left in active life.

I think the ideal way to bow out gracefully would be to, if economics permit, gradually reduce my output of work and enjoy an increase in  leisure time until my official retirement age.

Fantasy Express: And how do you see comics in this country developing?

Joe: If costs can be kept to a reasonable level; and inflation doesn’t go out of hand, I would hazard a rather pessimistic guess that they’ll stay virtually the same in format and story content. I’ve a  feeling they’ve passed their heyday and will never be as prolific again.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see some new vigorous company take up the challenge, like Eagle did in the fifties. I’d like to see another batch of publications to challenge the stagnation. Lots of full colour work, good artists, good writers ,with an abandonment of letterpress, which I’ve been particularly restricted by, in favour of photo litho. And on that, here endeth the first lessons…

Fantasy Express: Thanks for the interview – especially as you are so busy on ‘Charley’s War’.

Joe: Thanks for your interest.

Web Links

Read the interview in its original format

• Fantasy Express Joe Colquhoun Interview (PDF)

Joe Colquhoun Profile

• The Official ‘Roy of the Rovers’ web site has more information on Joe’s work for the strip: www.royoftherovers.com

An interview with Ron ‘Nobby’ Clark – Buster Comic Site

The Guardian: Ron ‘ Nobby Clark’ Obituary by Steve Holland

Bear Alley: Tribute to Ron ‘Nobby’ Clark by Steve Holland


Charley’s War created by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

CHARLEY’S WAR ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT ©  REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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