Artist Keith Burns, who is well known for his military comics work, made mention that he was delighted that he had been asked by a fan couple at Enniskillen comic fest to do a couple of blank comic covers – but, surprisingly, Leia’s X-wing and the Millennium Falcon were the subject matter.
Star Wars was unexpected, yet the fully painted art is absolutely stunning, and James Bacon visited Keith’s studio to discuss the project with the artist, who was gleeful in sharing what had occurred.
Keith’s studio is full of hundreds of models, and has multiple desks, with plenty of art on view, including classic Graham Coton Battle Picture Library covers, as well as John Cooper “Johnny Red” original art. During my visit, he shared his appreciation of other artists warmly, and his love of comic art comes across strongly.
Books fill one whole wall, and every corner has more, the many models neatly set out in groups on multiple shelves, on hand for helping him to bring the artistic visualisation of military technology to the pages of comic books. Racing cars, Apollo rockets, currently flown jets all are drawn and painted beautifully, and it was really lovely to see the studio and chat – but especially nice to find out more about this Star Wars work.
“I got a commission at Enniskillen Comic Fest that really excited me,” said Keith, “it was brilliant to do something new. I have done a Millennium Falcon once before and, because it was Star Wars, I was interested in this commission and really wanted to enjoy it and spend some proper time on it.”
“I use models to help me get the angle and pose the ships,” he says of his working process, “just like I do with World War Two aircraft, vehicles and ships, trying to capture the physics and kinetic energy of flight.
“When you do life drawing,” he continues, “you want a gesture to it, and there’s a similar element to working in comics, you want them to look like it’s really flying. I use the models to get the basic shape and angles set, and then use photographic reference to work on the details. This is methodical and accurate work, then you get to the painting, which is more fun, and you nearly want to hide how technically accurate you have been, the brush strokes creating physical movement, adding energy, quick strokes giving speed.”
The images certainly possess great movement. I was quite taken with just how much of a dogfight was going on with the X-wings.
I asked why painting and not inking, and Keith responded, “Inks need to describe things perfectly. With painting, you can suggest what’s going on and allow the viewer’s brain to assist. With painting brush strokes, the movement is inferred, it’s that step where the reader ‘fills in the gap’, the element that Will Eisner discussed in regard to the reader being an active participant, not only in viewing, but interpreting the art of comics and helping the story.”
I asked what Keith liked about the art.
“I like adding drama to the scene. With Leia’s X-wing, I like that you can see the TIE Fighter through the wings, others chasing, she’s been saved from one and you can also see in the background that more are coming from the Star Destroyer, and you’re adding drama and threat.
“I love the capital ship, and there’s a story. and I want the viewer to think about what’s just happened to get here, what has occurred in the ten seconds before this and what’s about to happen next.”
I noted that this was Leia’s X-wing, something fans would know is part of the history of the character and which was unexpected but nice to see, and asked about his interest in Star Wars in general.
“I saw Star Wars on telly when it was on in Ireland and my dad took me to see Return of the Jedi in Dublin at the cinema and we got Empire Strikes Back on video,” he tells me. This resonated with my own encounters, as I too had seen it out of order, but loved it all nonetheless.
“It was the first thing I really got into,” Keith continues, “the first thing I collected and the first interest that really fascinated me. With the toys in hand, I was able to watch the film and study the model angles and movement, playing with how you see the ship best.”
I wondered if Star Wars were his first comics? “No, ‘Starcom‘ [in the New Eagle] was my first comic,” Keith reveals. “The toys were cool, had magnets and more moving parts and the 3D comic was done by Garry Leach, which I only found out recently, which was amazing.”
As we looked at the Millennium Falcon, one can see the detail and attention to detai.
“I use pencils first, looking to get the right scene,” Keith explains, “then I projected the ones I am happy with onto the covers and paint. This is similar to what I do with other comics, although I also use tracing paper.
The process takes about fuve days each, while the acrylics dry quickly, I was keen on painting strong scenes. Space scenes are new to me. and I wanted to take my time enjoying ensuring the image was good, loving figuring it out as I went.”
I asked if the process was different to the Commando covers he had done, over 30 now completed.
“The process was similar, but I have built up experience drawing Commando covers, and have completed hundreds of images of planes, tanks and ships, for Iron Cross Magazine, Ladybird, some twelve books, with every second page an image, for war comics with Garth Ennis, as well as work for the services and collectors. So with that experience and practice I can paint a Commando cover now in a day, although I like to have the model to hand.
“I love the dirty lived in look, love the feel of Star Wars, and this was a different proposition and I really wanted to enjoy it,” he says, “and the Star Wars ships are more detailed than planes.”
I asked what elements he had brought from drawing military aviation to these images.
“Everything, it’s the same process,” he replies, “figuring out angles and movement and flight path. Just like working on ‘Johnny Red’, it all comes down to portraying the movement of flight.
“The dog fights need to look right,” he continued, “overlapping, and giving depth, with an element in the foreground grabbing you, but with details in the background, too, leading the eye.
As we considered the Falcon piece he continued: “The Falcon – well, the TIE fighters are bad shots, but one gets a shot in and is hitting the deflector shield.
It’s just amazing to do this,” he enthuses, “seeing it as a kid, and then you are drawing what I am imagining could be a scene from the film. It’s a lot of fun, and when I found out that Star Wars used dog fighting footage at an early stage to give an idea of what was going to happen, I was fascinated. The trench run was very Dambusters in style and so, for me, the similarities in Star Wars to war scene events is really there.”
“I love Star Wars, and I loved doing these,” he ends.
• Garry Leach drew the “Starcom” 3D comic given away in New Eagle No. 284, cover dated 28th August 1987, while former editor Barrie Tomlinson is “95% certain” that although uncredited, Sandy James provided art on a very short-lived strip to promote the Coleco toy range in New Eagle Nos 340 – 342, published in 1988. (You can read a short discussion thread here on Twitter, and the art matches Sandy’s style on M.A.S.K. comic, also published by Fleetway).