Just over a week ago the British small press lost one of its most hardworking and consistent artists – the incredible Stephen Prestwood.
I’d worked with him – watched him drawing tirelessly for years, turning in an almost endless stream of art for comics, art jams, competitions – anything. He was as relentless as he was ever-present. His art unfussy, his style clean, clear and entirely his own. It was inspiring.
When I was asked to write this tribute I pictured myself writing a few paragraphs about his recent contributions to sister anthologies as well as to my own, sharing some of the artwork that he’d submitted to the Weekly Themed Art Blog on Facebook, and just generally talking about all that I’ve seen him do since making his acquaintance five years ago. Then, in the many heartfelt tributes that poured out in the days after, I realised I had seen just a fraction of his output. I knew nothing of the 1990s small press scene which he’d participated in and those two decades before my contemporaries and I got stuck in. So I hunted down some of his collaborators and editors, and through their tributes I saw a man who had quietly sat right at the core of self-published UK comics. The generosity and warmth of these contributions speaks volumes about the type of man he was.
The loss I felt before setting out on the composition of this is nothing compared to what it is currently – knowing as I do now just how vital Stephen was to self-publishing in the UK. He gave his time to all of us so selflessly, so freely, and it’s gratifying now to have an opportunity to give something back.
“In the mostly pre-internet days of the early 90’s, small press comics was a thriving community in the UK,” says artist Nigel Lowrey, one of the first people that I was pointed to with regards to finding out a bit more about Stephen’s earliest forays into self-published comics. “While most of them were avant-garde or alternative there was a small group doing more mainstream work: adventure, superheroes, sci-fi etc. and a network of creators soon sprang up.”
With that mainstream template in mind, Stephen and Jason Faulkner created the “Evolutionary Comics” imprint. “The pair of them seemed to have more characters in their joint universe than Marvel and DC comics combined,”notes contemporary artist Chris Askham. “They both displayed a deep love of the medium and, more importantly for the small press, they could create a ‘zine regularly and frequently with a consistently high quality of work.
“When I first encountered Stephen Prestwood’s work I was convinced he was in some way the secret lovechild of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby!”
The first output from Evolutionary was Otherside/Flipside which ran for nine issues, published in a “flipbook” format which was very much the style at the time in the mainstream, where two separate comics were upside-down and back-to-back on the “flipside” of the other. Jason “Falcon” Faulkner did the Flipside and Stephen’s was the Otherside – although other contributors were free to play with their own superhero universes, including Nigel Lowrey and artist David Metcalfe.
“First I was using his character The Sinner and then, with my own strips, The Debasers and Rush,” David recalls. “He was always encouraging and when I sent a strip with no action or heroics in he just ran it, no questions.”
After nine issues Otherside/Flipside was replaced by The Dark Zone, which dropped the flip-book format and brought in even more creators, including Julius Chancer creator Garen Ewing.
“I wrote and drew a two-parter based on Stephen’s own plot featuring The Dark Warlord vs. The Tri-Knights: Viscid, Argo and Darkhunter,” syas Garen. “It was great fun to do!”
The Evolutionary Universe was a dense one – a vast multiverse propelled almost entirely by Stephen’s boundless enthusiasm. “His stories were epic in scope but had an underlying sense of cheekiness,” recalls Garen, “and I seem to remember he was very good at getting his comics out on time – monthly. One of his letters apologies for an issue being two weeks late!” Certainly quite enviable from a small press perspective.
“Not only would Stephen produce a whole issue every two months or so,” adds Chris Askham, “but he would also find time to work on everyone else’s comics too!”
Needless to say, Stephen was an active contributor to other comics throughout this period – notably Dave Metcalfe’s Slices and Rough Trade comics (the latter written specifically with Stephen in mind), which ran for ten and five issues respectively as well as contributing to Rol Hirst‘s long-running series The Jock, and Jason Cobley’s Bulldog Adventure Magazine (or BAM), starring perennial small press character Winston Bulldog.
“Someone referred to [Falcon, Stephen, Rol Hirst] and myself as the small press Northern mafia and I guess to a certain extent we were as we were all working with each other a lot,” says David Metcalfe, “but I think it’s because the camaraderie and encouragement from each other brought us all forward and Stephen was central to this.”
It’s been interesting weaving together the stories of early collaborators here to form a picture of Steven’s output during the 1990s but what’s really striking is the similar way in which they all speak about him:
“Stephen was always enthusiastic, with a child-like sincere passion for comics and drawing flowing from him. His inking was always bold and lush, and while the stories were usually light on characterization, Stephen’s dynamic art always moved the strip along and stopped it from becoming boring.”
“Stephen Prestwood was a god-damn powerhouse of comics illustration and he never lost his enthusiasm, whatever he was working on. The man was unstoppable.”
“Stephen’s comics were made with unabashed enthusiasm – he made no apology for doing what he loved and his comics burst with fun. You could tell from his stories that he loved doing them. I have really fond memories of those 1990’s small press days, and Stephen was a big part of that enjoyment.”
“He was a great storyteller and his layouts were second to none, no gimmicks or flashy noodling, just simple, clear storytelling. He knew how to step his art back and when to whack it into full throttle. One thing he never changed was his complete lack of reference. He didn’t need hyper realism; if you asked for something in the art that he wasn’t sure of, he’d draw it how it should look, not how it did look, and that was the perfect thing to do. He wasn’t drawing the world outside the window, he was drawing a world of wonder inside his head. And what a wonderful world that was. Our world is now a much emptier place without Stephen in it.”
2000s – 2010s Anthologies
After the millennium, Stephen seemed to dedicate his comic work solely to anthologies – and as such I decided that the best way to cover this period is by hearing from the editors themselves.
Jay Eales (Editor – Violent!)
“My best guess of how I first met him, with my crumbly old memory cells, was that in 2005 Violent!‘s creator and first editor Mike Sivier came up with a comic strip ‘Hard-Boiled Hitler’,” recalls Jay Eales. “Our original artist for the series had to withdraw after the first instalment, so I put the word out that I was in need of a replacement. This would have been late 2005/early 2006, I think.
“Given the nature of the strip – to take the origin story of Captain America and flip it to make Adolf Hitler the protagonist, who takes the super-soldier serum in the hope that it will grow back his missing testicle, you’ll understand that we required a certain type of artist – one who could play up the cartoonier elements of the story.
“Mike did a lot of historical research that underpinned his story, so there was a lot of photo references supplied with each script. At that time, I was active on the 2000AD forum and that would be my bet as to where Stephen offered his services.
“He gave me a bunch of examples of his previous work and I could see straight away that he was the perfect artist for our needs. Incredibly modest about his talents and with a clean line cartoony style that sent up the Fuhrer nicely. I showed Mike the samples and he was as impressed as I was.
“Initially, I’d receive photocopies of each instalment’s pages hot off the drawing board, until Stephen was able to get a scanner and the assistance of ScanMistress Gill, his wife and technology wrangler. Stephen would be the first to admit that computer gadgets were alien to him, so Gill was an important (though uncredited) member of the team.
“As we went along, the number of other small press comics that Stephen got drafted into working for went up and up, but he was always able to fit in’Hard-Boiled Hitler’ when I needed him. We arranged our deadlines around other comics and family commitments that limited the time he was able to spend at the drawing board. Knowing about all the drains on his free time, I was always impressed at how many plates he was able to spin. It may explain why we were never able to meet up in the flesh at a convention, despite several attempts. I imagine he was chained to that drawing board to keep so many editors supplied with pages!
“We reached the end of ‘Hard-Boiled Hitler’ Volume One and then I decided to stop publishing Violent! shortly afterwards, so we didn’t get onto further volumes and I didn’t have many opportunities to work with him after that. I know that a number of other editors jumped straight into the breach to keep him busy in my absence, so if I had wanted to bring Violent! back, I’d probably have had to join a queue to get him again.
“I was one of the organisers of the Oxford-based Caption comics convention and got Stephen to do a number of illustrations for the Caption programme. I also published a Doctor Who prose anthology for charity in 2008 and was able to hornswoggle Stephen into an illustration for that, too.
“Mike and I have from time to time discussed the possibility of bringing out a collected edition of ‘Hard-Boiled Hitler’, re-lettered and spruced up, but we’ve never quite found the time to do it. Something to reconsider, I think.
“I always found Stephen to be a keen collaborator and if a deadline was too short for the time he thought he would need, he’d let me know straight away so I could plan accordingly. You couldn’t ask for a better co-conspirator. He was always one of the highlights of any comic he appeared in. His passing will leave a hole in the British small press scene that will take a lot of filling.”
Mike Sivier (Editor – Violent!)
“I never met Stephen Prestwood, but I had a very fruitful working partnership with him for many years,” Mike Sivier says. “Stephen and I were introduced online by Jay Eales, who had taken over editorship of our small-press comic Violent!, as a possible replacement artist for my bad-taste war strip ‘Hard-Boiled Hitler’, starting with the second episode.
“He turned out to be a natural. The strip grew into a mainstay of the comic, appearing in every issue until Violent! ceased publication.
“Stephen became a firm friend online, although we drifted apart a little after Violent! ended. I had hoped to publish’Hard-Boiled Hitler’ as a graphic novel or eBook but the stresses of other commitments – on both of us – prevented that.
I was deeply saddened when he passed away. If it’s possible to have giants in the British small press, he was one of them.”
Dave Evans (Art Editor – Futurequake Press)
“Stephen Prestwood first came to my attention with a set of Judge Dredd pages,” recalls Dave Evans. “He’d completed the pages for a submission to 2000AD but never sent them (see above). We ran the pages as a competition for scripting and I wasted no time at all in getting a proper script to Stephen to draw.
“Over the next four years, he worked on strips for me across the pages of FutureQuake, Something Wicked, Dogbreath and Zarjaz. He was actually the last artist to work on a script by Al Ewing that had not seen the light of day in Zarjaz 22.
“Stephen was always amiable to chat with and never missed a deadline. He was incredibly knowledgeable and was one of the first artists I know of to make the leap to working digitally on an iPad.
“Losing Stephen is a massive blow to the British comics’ scene, and it is a personal regret that I was never able to meet the man and thank him properly for all he had done.”
Davey Candlish (Editor – Paragon)
“We met around 2003 whilst both frequenting the ‘Pencil Monkey’ forums hosted by PJ Holden,” recalls Davey Candlish of his first encounter online with Stephen. “He took the piss out of me from a very early stage and I thought ‘here’s someone I’m going to get on with!’
“When I started looking for contributors to my own comic Paragon, his bold cartoony style was the first I thought of, and he was the perfect fit for ‘Battle Ganesh’. From then, on he was a regular contributor and ever-present from Issue Four, taking over on ‘Battle Ganesh’ from me as artist, going on to illustrate the complete ‘Icarus Dangerous’ saga and then switching to return to a new stint on Bulldog!”
Davey intends to make the next issue of Paragon a Stephen Prestwood tribute issue. More details on the Paragon blog here: paragoncomic.blogspot.co.uk
Matthew McLaughlin (Editor & Writer – El Bigote)
“A sprawling splash page: a fortified castle built into an immense floating mountain drifts with the clouds; a scene out of Gulliver’s Travels by way of the Arabian Nights.
“This is the awe-inspiring image that comes to my mind when I remember Stephen Prestwood’s talent,” says Matthew McLaughlin. “It must be almost ten years ago that he drew that amazing splash page for a strip called ‘Battle Ganesh’. I paused when I saw it. The following pages were just as fantastic: weird, wiry characters adventured across a zany fantasy world.
“By the last panel of ‘Battle Ganesh’ I knew I had to collaborate with him.
“I got in touch with Stephen, and although he had a backlog of strips to illustrate, he promised me he would draw an episode of ‘El Bigote’. While waiting for him to tackle my script, I watched in wonder as he produced art for literally dozens of strips – I get the feeling that he never said no to anyone; that if he could have, he would have drawn every strip that came his way.
“And these strips were no doubt better for his involvement. When he began sending me the finished pages for ‘El Bigote’, I was thrilled. He elevated my script with his imagination, and at times he realized my characters and setting with his visuals better than I had with my words.
“Stephen was both funny and profound, and his work on ‘El Bigote’ showcases both sides of his wonderful personality. I feel truly lucky that Stephen put his mark on the character.
“When I learned of Stephen’s passing I was at first shocked, then saddened. It’s true that the small press scene lost one of its most prolific and talented creators – but everyone who knew Stephen, everyone whose script he brought to life, everyone whose magazine he contributed to, everyone he encouraged and gave advice to – lost a dear friend.”
Matthew recently announced on the El Bigote Facebook page that Stephen had drawn the first page of the next issue of ‘El Bigote’ before becoming ill – and that the final 22 pages needed filling. Within a few hours, the small press had risen up and offered, a page each, to finish what Stephen had started.
• Follow El Bigote here for more details: facebook.com/elbigotecomic
Before I delve into my own specific feelings on Stephen’s work with me, I’d just like to highlight the non-sequential side of the man. Since March 2014 I’ve been running the Weekly Themed Art Blog (or TAB as its sometimes known) on Facebook – and from its inception several years previous to that, Stephen contributed nearly every single week.
Around 93 original entries in all and above just some of my personal favourites, although I’ve uploaded his entire work into a single gallery which is viewable here: Weekly Themed Art Blog – RIP Stephen Prestwood
Much has been said about his exuberant adoption of the iPad and he would produce the majority of his entries mere hours after the theme had been set. On more than one occasion, he’d be there the minute it had been a week demanding I change the theme!
Finally – I personally collaborated with Stephen on Paragon and for the 2000AD forum advent calendar. I’d seen first hand how reliable and talented he was, so I asked him to submit to my themed anthology The Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel. For the first issue he submitted the above – a four-pager entitled “The Journey”, in which a knight fails to learn the meaning of life by doggedly pursuing it alone rather than embracing opportunities as he travels through abbreviated time.
Stephen’s relentlessness was dizzying. His dedication tremendous. I am honoured I worked with him, and am inspired by his endless fervour to draw more, to collaborate more. He never failed to embrace an artistic opportunity and run with it, which surely must be the meaning of life.