British Comics That Never Were – BBC Worldwide’s “ROBOT” Project – Part One

Freelance graphic designer Matt Bookman reveals the story behind a BBC Worldwide comic magazine project featuring art by Garry Leach and Lee Sullivan that, sadly, never flew, despite having its own version of Doctor Who

It was a very nice surprise when last Christmas morning I unwrapped one of my presents, a copy of David Roach’s stunning Masters of British Comic Art hardcover. As I flipped through it my eyes alighted on two particular pages, featuring the unlettered double page spread of Garry Leach’s “Zero Zone” artwork, which I had commissioned while at BBC Worldwide, for an abandoned comics project I had instigated. Finally after all these years it had been made available for a wider public and in such a fantastic publication too. It definitely made my Christmas!

Unlettered art for the unpublished "Zero Zone" by Garry Leach, commissioned for the BBC Worldwide comics project "Robot" | Via Master of British Comic Art © 2021  Garry Leach
Unlettered art for the unpublished “Zero Zone” by Garry Leach, commissioned for the BBC Worldwide comics project “Robot” | Via Master of British Comic Art © 2021 Garry Leach

Back in the 1990s, I was a graphic designer for BBC Worldwide’s national TV listings magazine weekly, Radio Times. During my time on the title, I had commissioned a lot of illustrations, primarily but not exclusively for the radio listings pages. I used a wide variety of illustrators with differing styles, but I was always looking for ways to incorporate my first love – comics. Among the artists I commissioned were Rian Hughes, Garry Leach, Woodrow Phoenix, David Lloyd, Bryan Talbot, Ed Hillyer, Barry Kitson and Nick Abadzis.

This "Miracleman" illustration by Garry Leach was commissioned for Radio Times' radio pages, for a programme about 1950s British comics - so technically it is  Marvelman image...  Marvelman/Miracleman © Marvel Comics
This “Miracleman” illustration by Garry Leach was commissioned for Radio Times‘ radio pages, for a programme about 1950s British comics – so technically it is Marvelman image… Marvelman/Miracleman © Marvel Comics

In addition to this, in May 1996, the day after the Doctor Who TV Movie starring Paul McGann was broadcast, Radio Times started running a weekly ‘Sci-Fi’ page.

Most downthetubes readers will know Doctor Who and Radio Times had shared some history together and then current Editor Nick Brett was aware of this, and wanted to capitalise it.

At his direction, the page was divided into two halves, the top a weekly round-up of TV and radio related SF news, the bottom a regular comic strip continuing the adventures of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor.

Commissioning Editor Ann Jowett was responsible for the words on the page and commissioned Garry Russell to write the comic strip. In turn, Gary brought a team of creators with him – Lee Sullivan (on art), Alan Craddock (colour), and Elitta Fell (letters). Once the team was assembled, the page was assigned to me to design on a weekly basis. As I was the Art Department’s most vocal fan of both comic strips and genre TV this was no hardship.

A cromalin of a Radio Times Sci-Fi page, featuring Garry Leach's art for a radio play and Lee Sullivan's Doctor Who. Because the title had different regional editions, black text changed from  region to region and didn’t appear on Cromalins for colour proofing
A cromalin of a Radio Times Sci-Fi page, featuring Garry Leach’s art for a radio play and Lee Sullivan’s Doctor Who. Because the title had different regional editions, black text changed from region to region and didn’t appear on Cromalins for colour proofing

Whilst Ann dealt with editing Gary’s scripts, I oversaw the rest of the strip’s production process. I sent scripts to Lee, who would send me a rough visual to approve. Then Lee would scan and send his finished inked art to Elitta and Alan for colouring and lettering.

Alan would send me a jpeg of the colour art, Elitta would send the lettering on an acetate overlay and then the two would be merged in Photoshop to create final art and. finally I would place in position below the top half of the designed page.
I developed a nice telephone rapport with Elitta, Alan and Lee, who was and is an entertaining raconteur.

The first instalment of the Radio Times Doctor Who strip by  Gary Russell, Lee Sullivan, Alan Craddock and Elitta Fell.
The first instalment of the Radio Times “Doctor Who” strip by Gary Russell, Lee Sullivan, Alan Craddock and Elitta Fell.

Sadly, good things don’t last, and over the course of a year it became apparent that the Doctor Who TV Movie, which had been a co-production between the BBC and Universal, was not going to continue further into a full TV series. When Nick Brett was promoted to Radio Times’ Publisher in 1997, his successor cancelled the Sci-Fi page and comic strip as one of her first acts as Editor.

However, since I knew Nick had championed Doctor Who and SF in the Radio Times, an idea started to form in my mind of something I might be able to pitch to him, in his new role… a new comics magazine.

I’d collected 2000AD since Prog One in 1977, until the aftermath of the Stallone Judge Dredd movie when it had become apparent, to me, that it had lost its way. Conversely, SFX, Future Publishing’s SF themed film and TV magazine had launched around the time of the movie and appeared to be thriving.

Just as Radio Times Sci-Fi page was exactly 50/50 comic strip and features, why not a whole magazine with the same ratio?

If it was possible to merge strips of the calibre of 2000AD’s early 1980’s heyday, with well-designed features in the SFX mould in a Look-In style format, I felt it would be a winner!

I then spent a few weekends and evenings working up a document explaining my idea, and the reasons why it would be a good thing for BBC Worldwide to publish.
BBC Worldwide’s remit was to commercially exploit the TV and Radio properties the BBC produced. In the 1990s, this would take the form of VHS, books, audiobooks, and magazines. The profits of these products would then go to back into programme making for the BBC.

The project I was envisioning, would be fine to include feature content that related to a wider world of films and commercial TV programming. But the comic strip content had to be about BBC properties.

In 1997, TV programming in the UK was not as genre friendly as it is today, so there weren’t a lot of programmes I could choose from in the BBC’s schedules. The one sure SF hit that the BBC was broadcasting at the time was The X-Files. This led me to name the project “The Sci-Files”.

Along with the document, I drew some images and designed a cover to explain, visually, what I was proposing. My cover montaged my illustrations of Dean Cain, the then current TV Superman, the cast of Bugs, and Kryten from Red Dwarf alongside a photograph of the leads from the The X-Files and a panel from Lee Sullivan’s Radio Times “Dcotor Who” comic strip.

Matt Bookman's initial design for "The Sci-Files" a BBC Worldwide project that would eventually be re-titled "Robot"
Matt Bookman’s initial design for “The Sci-Files” a BBC Worldwide project that would eventually be re-titled “Robot”

In April, when my cover and pitch proposal was ready, I asked for a meeting with Nick Brett. Along with my documents I brought along current issues of 2000AD and SFX, as well as a vintage issue of Look-In.

Radio Times back then was a big beast of magazine and employed a huge staff, much bigger than any other magazine in the UK. This meant that although Nick knew who I was, we had never exchanged more than a hello before. Radio Times also had a very definite hierarchy in place. Nick did have a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, so I did have a sleepless night before the meeting I had requested.

When I went in, he did gently tell me off for not taking my idea to my line manager first, and that I had leapfrogged the chain of command to see him. After that, though, he listened to my pitch and looked at the material that I had brought him.

I was convinced that such a comic/ magazine hybrid would work, and more than that, if it was produced with genuinely well written and drawn material that didn’t pander down, then it would find favour with a large audience including kids, teens and adults.

What I was suggesting was a 36-page fortnightly, created to appeal to a mix of children, adults, SF and comic fans, and with house ads in other BBC titles, the possibility of reaching a very wide audience.

Included in my presentation was a flatplan, breaking down the contents of the proposed magazine. I suggested that the strip content should consist of four continued strips, Doctor Who, Bugs, Superman, and Red Dwarf, all four pages in length each issue, and a one page humour strip – Wallace & Gromit.

I distinctly remember sweating when asked questions I couldn’t answer like, what exactly were the circulation figures of both 2000AD and SFX… but in main, Nick took my proposal seriously and asked me to do more research, and a second meeting was arranged.

I was able to track down those asked for circulation figures and produced an update for the next meeting. It was also then that I mentioned the original Eagle’s “Dan Dare” and how it was still highly regarded. It’s also one of my favourite comic strips and I wanted the comic strip content of The Sci-Files to strive for the level of quality as Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy.

Asking some of the strip artists I was continuing to commission for Radio Times for an idea about existing rates for scripts, art and lettering, I included that info in my update, too. I also suggested that for the level of quality I was proposing, our rates should outmatch the competition.

Things moved slowly, and a few meetings were scheduled, where I continued to pitch the idea to Nick and try to answer questions he’d ask.

One of my contacts was comic artist and writer David Lloyd, and I phoned him regularly, and sent him photocopies of my updates which he would critique – and add his own suggestions too. One thing he was critical of was my suggestion the stories should run to 24 pages in length, and be repackaged as US comic books and European comic albums once serialised in the UK. David felt that this led to what is now called “waiting for the trade” and that had destroyed the French comics market – and was now doing the same to the American market.

In November 1997, BBC Worldwide had a reorganisation. Publishing directors that had previously been in charge of one format only (Books, Magazines, Video and Audio), were now to be assigned specific genres and their remit included all formats.

Science fiction was now one of the genres appointed to another Publisher, Stuart Snaith, and Nick introduced me to him. Then, his existing BBC SF projects were Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, and he published the VHS, book, and audio releases of these properties.

Nick was a posh, polite old school gentleman, while Stuart had more of a brash, barrow boy persona about him. Both were capable of great charm, but could turn on their scary side in a moment if they thought it called for. You had to watch yourself when dealing with them!

I’d told both Nick and Stuart that if The Sci-Files got off the ground, then I wanted to be its Editor and Art Editor, which I felt would be fair, since the idea of the title was mine. Neither of them would commit to this, only saying that I would receive sufficient credit and reward if the project was successful. In the meantime, I continued to be employed as Radio Times designer by day and worked on The Sci-Files (unpaid) in the evenings and weekends.

Stuart was definitely interested in the pitch and had a suggestion of his own. I had mentioned Dan Dare in my pitch, and now Stuart asked, could we perhaps licence him from Fleetway if they weren’t doing anything with him?

I got very excited at this prospect and phoned David Lloyd. Did he think I could get Alan Moore to write new adventures of the original Frank Hampson version?
David agreed that they might be brilliant stories, but was very sceptical that this would ever happen. This was at the time before the debut of America’s Best Comics, when Alan Moore was writing various Awesome and titles as work for hire, so I thought it might be possible. Certainly, I thought Mr Moore was one of the few writers who might successfully write a thrilling Dare without altering what the strip actually was, unlike all the other revivals up to that point.

Excitedly, I drew and designed up another cover, this time focusing on Doctor Who (Paul McGann) and Dan Dare (Hampson version, traced from a Brendan McCarthy illustration). Presenting this to Stuart at our next meeting, he was most unimpressed at my drawing skills and took the piss, much to my discomfort!

Matt Bookman's second cover design for "The Sci-Files", featuring Doctor Who, Dan Dare and Red Dwarf
Matt Bookman’s second cover design for “The Sci-Files”, featuring Doctor Who, Dan Dare and Red Dwarf

At this meeting, Stuart also brought along a neighbour of his, who was a Dan Dare fan and had a subscription to the Eagle Times. He was similarly disparaging about my artwork, but did however say that an acquaintance Rod Barzilay, had commissioned Keith Watson and Don Harley to draw new Dan Dare stories and that this was a fan organised thing with no publishing deal sorted.

Intrigued, I was given Rod’s number and explained that I was at the beginning of developing a new title, and was interested in seeing his Dan Dare story. Rod sent me colour xeroxes of the first eight episodes of the strip he’d written entitled “The Phoenix Mission” strips that were faithfully produced in the style of 1950s era Eagle comic.

The art was impressive, and even more faithful to the source material than I was expecting. Every two page episode began with the red and yellow Eagle masthead, and the characters all spoke in the ‘”Great racketing rockets!” style of the original.

However, while being an absolutely superb copy of the original that definitely interested me on a personal level, I did feel that its authenticity was actually something that would not appeal to the readers that I would be aiming for.
I quickly came to the realisation that I would be better off using Dare as more of a yardstick of quality rather than as an actual strip in my proposal.

(Later, in 2003, Rod self-published his Dan Dare story in his magazine Spaceship Away, which continues to this day).

Meetings continued and everything seemed to be a mixture of steps forward and steps backward, so it seemed like the project would never move forward, until a year after I had made my original pitch, I was introduced to Steve Cole, who was the editor of Doctor Who books.

Steve was friendly and enthusiastic. He agreed that the mag was a good idea, and I felt I had gained the support of someone who would be very useful. He also had a blinder of a good idea…

Matt Bookman

Next: A new Doctor Who, designed by Lee Sullivan, “Zero Zone” and the perils of audience testing…

Matt Bookman is a freelance graphic designer with a varied background in magazine publishing – including TV, music, women’s and photography titles – as well as CD and book covers and marketing materials. Recent clients include the Chelsea Magazine Company, Cedar Communications, TI Media, Penguin Random House and BBC Audio. A lifelong comic book fan, his favourite creators include Jack Kirby, Serge Clerc, Yves Chaland, Frank Hampson and Mike Allred

• Examples of Matt’s work can be found at mattbookman.carbonmade.com

Masters of British Comic Art by David Roach is available from all good bookshops, and online from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

WEB LINKS

DOCTOR WHO STRIP CONNECTIONS

Alan Craddock – on Facebook

• Article about letterer Elitta Fell

Garry Russell – on Twitter (writer of the Radio Times “Doctor Who” strip)

Lee Sullivan – Official Web Site

RED DWARF STRIP CONNECTIONS

David Pugh

ZERO ZONE STRIP CONNECTIONS

• Garry Leach – Bulldog Arts | Atomeka Press on Facebook

Woodrow Phoenix – Official Site

Avatar

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



Categories: British Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Features, SF Comics

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Let us know what you think about this story

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: