Joe O’Brien recently tracked down elusive The Real Ghostbusters artist John Marshall (John Williams), who now lives in Suffolk, and interviewed him for his brilliant The Art of The Real Ghostbusters web site. With Joe’s permission, we’re re-posting the feature here, re-visiting the creation of one of Marvel UK’s best-selling titles back in the 1980s and Nineties…
Joe O’Brien: John, it’s great to have finally found you and a real honour to be able to interview one of my personal favourite artists from Marvel UK’s The Real Ghostbusters comic.
Could you tell us a little about how you got your start in comics, your artistic background and what you’ve been up to since your involvement in the industry in the late 80’s to early 90’s?
John Marshall: Thanks for inviting me on. Your site has been a wonderful trip down memory lane for me. As far as my artistic background is concerned, I’ve literally drawn all my life. Like you, as a kid, I got really excited by comics. I wasn’t so turned on by the Beano and Dandy but I loved Mighty World Of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly. I studied each panel avidly absorbing the styles of drawing, reading and re reading each story.
The artists had a profound affect on me particularly on how they expressed the human form and so I went to Art College in Cardiff. I was still inspired by comic books at that point though it wasn’t acknowledged as a serious art form by the tutors then.
Out of Art College, I got to draw some titles for Harrier Comics. After that, I got a job as a penciller with Marvel UK, after being introduced to the then commissioning editor, Richard Starkings, by professionals in the comic book industry who recognised my talent and ability. To them, my undying thanks.
Since then, I’ve illustrated teenage fiction books, storyboards for production companies, worked on community literacy projects with the BBC and a whole host of artistic stuff.
Joe: Which Harrier comics did you draw before working for Marvel UK?
John: I drew some covers and ad pages for Harrier, as well as the Cuirass title and later, Barbarienne. There might have been some other bits and pieces too. Prior to this, I illustrated the covers of comic book sales catalogues for [Middlesex-based] Just Comics. This was a catalogue produced by dealer Justin Ebbs and each month I would draw the cover in a different artist’s style. So you’d get art in the style of John Buscema, Gil Kane, Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson etc.
It wasn’t my intention to rip them off as I’ve too much respect for them, even now, but to pay tribute to them and to continue my learning as an artist.
Joe: When did you first starting working for Marvel UK and how did you get the job?
John: I first began working for Marvel in the late 1980s. Back then, there used to be a monthly comic mart held the Central Hall, in Westminster. I used to attend these fairly regularly and one day someone introduced me to Garry Leach and Dave Gibbons. To cut a long story short, they were impressed enough with my work to point out Richard Starkings, the then commissioning editor of Marvel UK, who was at the same venue.
I spoke to Richard and he invited me to bring samples to him at the Marvel offices, who then based at Arundel House, in Temple. I showed up, we had a chat and I walked away with a try out script. After that, I got a commission to draw a story for Action Force [featured in Action Force Monthly Issue 10, “BATs Out of Hell”. John also drew “Rogue Delta” for the 1990 Action Force annual – Ed], and just went forward from there.
Joe: As well as contributing quite a bit of work to the The Real Ghostbusters comic, you also drew for Marvel’s Transformers title too. Did you work on any others and which title did you enjoy drawing for the most?
John: It was all an immensely thrilling artistic adventure. I felt there was a huge amount of free rein, creatively, even though there were rules that required adhering to.
I recollect I did a couple of Thundercats covers and illustrations for text stories in Dino Riders, Action Force and the Marvel Superheroes annuals.. I guess, though The Real Ghostbusters was the one I enjoyed drawing most.
Joe: I mentioned in my previous question that your contributions to the The Real Ghostbusters comic were quite extensive – and they really were! Not only did you provide the artwork for many memorable covers (most notably, cover work for Issues 58 through to 67) but also annual illustrations and stories in the weekly comic too. What were some of the highlights for you during that time?
John: That’s a tough one. I loved drawing the front covers. They were a scream to do. Basically, I was asked on one of my many trips to the Marvel offices if I had any ideas for covers.
Did I have ideas?!
If you recall, the front cover featured as a text story inside the comic. The strips were written first before being illustrated. The text story was often written after the art had been drawn. Being an artist, I thought that was a terrific idea and really enjoyed seeing what realms of the imagination authors would take the drawings to.
Imagining and drawing the covers to The Real Ghostbusters was definitely a highlight. It was the best! I could depict creepy monsters and ghosts, conjouring them out of the ether so to speak.
Many of the drawings were done at night beneath a pale lamp light while the rain fell in sheets from a black sky upon hillside and night haunted villages as eerie, inhuman, sinewy shadows rippled over ancient tombstones. I was living in South Wales at that point.
Joe: Wow, I never knew many of the text stories were written after the illustration had been drawn!
That says a lot about the writers and how talented they were, literally using a single image as inspiration for those wonderful short stories.
Your earliest credited work is (I think) the pirate ghost story called “Dead Man’s Chest” which featured in Issue 55, but the first time I remember seeing some of your art was on the cover for Issue 56, an image which depicts all of the characters getting into some trouble with “Gonkiss-Khan”.
As a kid, I didn’t always notice the difference in styles between artists from story to story but there was something about that cover that must have interested me as I remember it quite well. Now that I’ve had a chance to research your work as an adult, I think it was probably the way you captured the characters when they were in motion that stood out. Little did I know at the time that it would be the first of many of your covers that I would get to enjoy!
What were your artistic influences growing up and which comics were you reading? Were you imitating any other comic artist’s styles or just trying to create your own?
John: My artistic influences are legion! Yes, I was concerned with promoting my own style but calling upon my experiences to help make it work. So you’ll get a bit of Jack Kirby creeping in here and there. Others like Will Eisner, Gene Colan, Jack Davis, the old EC Comics creators such as Wally Wood, Johnny Craig etc. will make an appearance now and then.
I love figures that have been imbued with animation even if a figure is standing still as a sentry the viewer should believe they are capable of movement. I also love atmosphere in drawings. To me, this is what brings a story to life.
I’m a huge fan of the old b/w horror movies too, and the Hammer productions. These films just drip with atmosphere and have helped to influence my visual storytelling. Journey back through my work on The Real Ghostbusters and you’ll see what I mean.
Joe: My memories of your art from my childhood are a real combination of those great cover images (from arguably the comics most successful period) and as I already mentioned, the way you drew the characters in motion, often leaping around or running after ghosts… and away from them! The facial expressions on the characters are also a tell-tale sign of your work…
I always loved the almost anime-looking panels with the huge grins and wacky over the top expressions. It was a real departure from what usually appeared in the comic but not a million miles away from some of the animation seen in the cartoon.
Did you find the characters easy to draw? I imagine you got very good at it after a while!
John: I saw the characters as over the top personalities and wanted to put that across. I mean I know they’re not superheroes like Captain America or Thor, but they are heroes. They don’t do an ordinary job , they deal with extraordinary adversaries and situations — they bust spooks for a living— so just like Cap and co. they are different. So I felt their visual treatment should be over the top. And that included the facial movements. They needed to look as though they could run, leap, vault into action ‘cos that adds to the overall excitement of a story.
And at the end of the day, that’s what we were doing, telling a story and doing it in the best way we could. Imagine a Marx Brothers movie with them acting just like the rest of the cast. It wouldn’t be much fun. Like the Marx Brothers, The Real Ghostbusters were fun too (and easy to draw).
Joe: Your cover for Issue 58 was a wonderfully scary depiction of Egon inadvertently turning himself into a monster during one of his experiments.
I am not ashamed to admit that I may have been a little scared of that when I was younger! Did you enjoy the regular cover work at the time?
John: Yes I very much enjoyed the regular cover work. As I said earlier, it was a highlight for me as there was so much creative freedom allowed. A couple of pieces I did for the Ghostbusters title got a very definite reaction from the editorial team. Notably, these featured in an Annual.
The stories were “Chocolate Fudge Up”, the main illustration was met with good natured revulsion in respect of the foul creature laying across Ray’s outstretched tongue, and “Dummy Run”. The images, it was felt, would really scare kids but (thankfully) no editorial censorship was imposed on the drawings.
Joe: I’m not surprised, the Dummy run illustration was pretty scary, John! The one you did of Ray for “Chocolate Fudge Up” was pretty gross, too!
After you got the regular cover gig from Issue 56, your pencils were almost always inked by Dave Harwood, a great tag team-like artistic partnership that continued for many issues. Do you remember who coloured them?
John: I’m afraid I have no idea who coloured the covers before John Burns began to paint them towards the end. It may well have been done in- house by one of the editorial team. Remember, these guys were very talented individuals in their own fields. Letterers, colourists etc. Euan Peters was an editor and also a great colourist, so too was Steve White. I believe Peri Godbold was a letterer.
Joe: Helen Stone did a little bit of everything as well, it really was a fantastic team. Did you ever get to meet Dave Harwood?
John: I was very fortunate to meet Dave on a number of occasions. If memory serves, I was introduced to him by Martin Lock, of Harrier Comics fame. A more gentle, helpful, genuine unaffected guy you couldn’t wish to meet. A great inker too! Very professional and his style of inking did justice to the pencils. By that I mean he didn’t impose himself on the pencillers drawings. I loved working with Dave. As far as I’m concerned, and this is no detriment to other inkers I’ve worked with, Dave Harwood was the best!
Joe: Did you ever visit the Marvel offices while being involved with The Real Ghostbusters and which other artists from those days have you met in person over the years?
John: I visited the Marvel offices on many occasions, mostly to hand in an assignment personally rather than commit it to the tender mercies of the postal system. I can’t remember ever meeting any other pencillers there but certainly, as I’ve mentioned, the colourists and letterers on the editorial team. Helen Stone, Stuart Bartlett, Steve White, Peri Godbold, and Euan Peters.
Joe: I should have perhaps asked this first but for those reading that are unaware…throughout your career as a Marvel artist you were credited as “John Marshall” but your real name is actually…. John Williams! Why did you decide to use a pseudonym?
John: Well, there were already two regular artists working on the title – Brian Williamson and Anthony Williams. I felt another Williams might be a little too much so I became John Marshall!
Joe: Is it true that you also wrote some stories for the title too, using another pseudonym?
John: Yes, I did write a couple of tales for The Real Ghostbusters. As I recall they were “Budgerig—aargh” and “Ghouls Gold”.
I used the pseudonym of Jane Roome, which was my wife’s maiden name. Marvel had a rule which forbade one person having too much creative involvement with stories. So the penciller couldn’t ink, colour and write the same tale. It was real teamwork and it was understandable, because of the deadlines. Miss a deadline and it has so many knock on effects all round.
However, not to be defeated, I proposed a couple of storylines under a different name. They were accepted and Jane Roome appeared in the credits as author, while John Marshall appeared as artist.
Joe: One of the things I love about the Marvel UK Real Ghostbusters comic as a fan of the toys is that there always seemed to be stories or covers that incorporated Kenner’s ghosts & vehicles, combining two of my favourite things as a kid and merging it all into the same universe. In Issue 152, you provided the artwork for a story written by Dan Abnett called “Invasion of the Buggy Snatchers” which featured an Alien life form which was identical to Kenner’s Highway Haunter toy.
How did that come about? Was it Dan’s idea to use the toy in the story or yours? Did you have a toy on hand to copy or were you sent some images of one for reference?
John: As far as I can remember, it was me that made the conscious decision to incorporate the toy. If my recollection is faulty, then my sincere apologies to Dan.
I borrowed the toy from the Marvel offices to use as reference and returned it along with the completed assignment about a week later. I seem to remember it was rather a large plastic toy that had great articulation so it was a joy to draw. So easy.
Joe: The last few covers you provided the art for on the weekly comic were Issues 169, 173, 174 and 182 which were from the period where Marvel were just filling the comic full of US reprinted stories.
Even though I have fonder memories of your earlier covers, I think 173 and 174 are absolutely fantastic pieces of art and quite possibly two of your best. It was great to see your work coloured by the very talented John Burns too, who was without a doubt the best colourist to work on the comic.
What were your thoughts about the way the comic had gone after so many issues of original content?
John: It was a real disappointment. I had become very attached to the title and enjoyed working on it immensely. Every creative person involved had put so much into it and still had so much more to give to it but like so many things the world of comics is, unfortunately, run by accountants. The black, leprous, talons of the Spectre of Doom were reaching out to end the title and not even the legendary heroics of The Real Ghostbusters could win the day. They fell before the onslaught of the unstoppable demon of economic recession…
Joe: Some of your last commissions for the title appeared in the 1992 annual, a couple of illustrations for the text stories “Ghoul in One” and “Ghost Plane”. The 1992 edition was the title’s final Christmas annual and one that really seemed to mark the end of a hugely successful comic.
Were you surprised when it all came to an end or did you feel it had run its course by that point?
John: It most certainly had not run its course. There was so, so much more that could have been done with it. The creatures, the ghosts, the ghouls and spooks who were out there on the other side of midnight just waiting for a chance to enter the arena and pit themselves against The Real Ghostbusters. So many more haunted houses, crumbling tombs, ancient books with spells to resurrect the dead and the dread , foul things that watch and wait in the ether of faery were out there to entertain children of all ages.
I think, also, the title, because it didn’t have any creative American input, was very British in its treatment and look. I remember when I saw the reprints I instantly lost interest in it. I wonder how many others felt the same way?
Joe: It’s really nice to hear that you felt the comic had so much more to give, I do too. Although it ended up being a shadow of its former self, I guess we should all still be thankful it got the green light in the first place. It’s safe to say that Marvel UK’s The Real Ghostbusters was a huge part of many Ghostbusters fans lives over here and we have people like you to thank for that.
One final question then John, if you could sum up your career in comics and indeed your time spent drawing for The Real Ghostbusters title in just a few sentences, what would they be?
John: Absolutely amazing! I got to know and work with a whole host of the most fantastically creative people. Colourists, editors, authors, letterers it was my privilege to work with these unsung heroes of British Marvel comics.
Joe: John, thank you very much for your time!
• Check out The Art of Real Ghostbusters web site at theartofrgb.com