Edinburgh-based writer Ferg Handley has written for a wide range of British comics since the mid-1990s covering subjects as diverse as football, war and superheroes.
With the recent launch of the UK tie-in comic GI Joe, for which Ferg writes the comic strip, Jeremy Briggs spoke to him about this new title as well as the rest of his varied career.
First Published: 20th August 2009
downthetubes: Living in Edinburgh you have referenced the city in several of your stories from Spider-Man to Commando. Are you originally from Scotland?
Ferg Handley: Sort of. I was born in Chichester, Sussex, and my dad was from Manchester but my mum’s from Edinburgh so we moved to Scotland when I was two. So, I grew up in Edinburgh, moved to London when I was twenty, then back to Edinburgh in 1998.
downthetubes: What sort of comics did you read growing up and did you have a particular?
Ferg: I’ve loved comics since an early age. I can remember having a Fantastic Four annual when I was about six – I’m not sure if I understood it all, but the artwork made a tremendous impression. I picked up so many of the traditional British titles as a kid, such as Beano, Dandy, Topper, Beezer, Buster. I especially remember the annuals and the holiday specials, probably because they were re-read a lot.
Then there were the adventure based titles, such as Wizard and Tiger. Loved them, and being published weekly, they always seemed to be around. Commando books too (funnily enough); I was always fascinated by the covers, and the stories always seemed to satisfy and I can remember being about 9 years old and imagining the writer at work, which now seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Plus, there was the Mighty World Of Marvel, and the spin-off titles which followed. That’s when I really got hooked on superhero material.
The great thing about them was being able to follow the development of the Marvel universe, so it feels like I grew up with it.
So, I’d say my faves were Mighty World Of Marvel (and spin-offs, especially when Spider-Man or the Avengers were involved), and Commando.
downthetubes: Is there a writing or storytelling tradition in your family?
Ferg: Both my parents were in showbiz (they retired into pub management once I was born). My dad did a lot of theatre work, and although he grown up in the backstreets of Salford, he self-educated himself. He was a great storyteller, and I thrived on them. In fact, he won an essay writing competition in 1926, and the prize was a gold medal and a bursary to grammar school, which in those days, led onto a university education. Unfortunately, the family were so poor, he had to go out and work instead.
In later life, this must have been a factor in his encouraging me to be a writer plus, when we were watching TV or a movie, my dad always had a suitable anecdote or story (sometimes, more interesting than the actual programme).
Going further back, my paternal grandfather grew up in an orphanage; he somehow managed to memorise a lot of Dickens and suchlike, which he’d narrate to my dad and the rest of his kids, so I’d say that was an influence too. My mother’s family were also very poor, but in later life, my grandmother was an avid reader of non-fiction, as was her own father.
downthetubes: Was writing something that you always wanted to do or was it something that you moved into?
Ferg: Yes, I think I was always interested in writing. Getting third prize (for Scotland) in an essay contest in my first year of secondary was a boost. But apart from that, I found most creative writing (or composition as it was called) a bit of a chore, as it was mostly homework – and I never found the subject matters that inspiring until my English Higher exam when I went out on a limb during the exam and did a horror story which seemed to go down well.
But when I expressed an interest in writing at career interviews at school, they tended to change the subject and push me in other directions, such as retail or the Civil Service. That was maybe for the best, as I ended up having a reasonably colourful life before I settled into my writing career. Then, once I’d finished my MA dissertation, which was on comic books and ideology, I began to realise that I’d love to write them. Eventually, I signed up for some classes at the Cartoon Art Trust in London, which was my real introduction to the industry.
downthetubes: What sort of classes did you take at the Cartoon Art Trust?
Ferg: They were essentially writing classes, which involved working up scripts with the teacher, Win Wiacek, providing feedback. After a while, the sessions became more like informal workshops, and Win was able to supply plenty of industry-specific advice. And it was Win who pointed me in the direction of Commando.
downthetubes: What then was your first professional sale?
Ferg: It was a Commando book, #3102, entitled “Lucky Lenny”, published in December 1997 with interior art by Keith Shone and cover by Ian Kennedy. I think I scripted it around nine months earlier, and being my first one, I was asked to do it in several sections.
downthetubes: Since then you have become one of the most prolific Commando writers. Was there a point when it suddenly clicked and you found that the Commando writing style worked for you or does it remain a challenge?
Ferg: In a sense, both. I’ve written over 250 Commando titles, and I got into the rhythm of it quite early on. However, I use different style for, say, comedy or historical ones, and it can take a few frames to get into it properly. I always find the first few panels take a while but I’ve developed a system where I do three sections of 15 frames a day, over three days, bringing it up to the 135 frames total.
In a sense, getting the synopsis right is the biggest challenge. Mine are very detailed, and some have run to almost 4,000 words. So once that’s nailed down, it makes the actual scripting easier. Other writers prefer a shorter, looser synopsis though.
Strangely enough, broadband has slowed down the actual scripting process. In the old dial-up days, I’d do my research and have a pile of books to hand. Now, I check out technical and background stuff while scripting, and that slows down the writing – especially when the laptop’s running slowly!
I read a lot of military history books, which always gives me story ideas. We tend to use British, American or Australian characters if possible, so sometimes we lever them into other scenarios, which can be a challenge (reporters and military observers are two old standbys).
downthetubes: You came to Commando during George Low‘s tenure as editor and have continued to write for the title now that Calum Laird is in charge. Did you find much difference between their editorial styles?
Ferg: On the whole, the transition has been fairly seamless. Calum worked in the department beforehand, so he was familiar with the process. As with George, he does like discussing ideas with me, over the phone and by email, and I find that a great way to develop stories. Also, George and Calum both have a great knowledge and understanding of the subject material, which is a real help. Plus, Scott Montgomery has been sub-editing the title for both Calum and George, so that helped the transition.
There are subtle differences though. Calum isn’t a fan of flashbacks, so I’ve cut down on them considerably during his tenure, and Calum tends to prefer World War 1 and World War 2 material. I did a lot more ‘historical’ stories for George, but less so now – partly because we are only generating four new titles a month, instead of six.
downthetubes: From the reader’s perspective, Calum’s biggest change was the introduction of the credit grenade which meant that for the first time the title credited its writers as well as the cover and interior artists.
Whilst previously some artists had signed their work, the writers had always remained anonymous. Did you like the idea that readers now know your name and can tally writers’ names against the stories?
Ferg: Yes, I prefer being credited. That way, friends find it easier to pick up my titles, and yes, I think it’s good that the readers can now identify the creators. The artists put in so much good work, they deserve their names in lights.
downthetubes: Living relatively close to DC Thomson’s offices in Dundee, do you visit the editorial office for discussions or to see the artwork or is the life of a writer a more solitary one?
Ferg: Yes, I do get up to Dundee when I can. Sometimes, it’s straight to the pub, so I don’t always make it into the offices and other editors, such as Morris Heggie (former Dandy editor) and Bill McLoughlin (former Football Picture Library), usually attend, so they’re great sessions.
Now that he’s retired, George Low pops down to Edinburgh for a drink with me, a couple of times a year. Trust me, I don’t do a lot of work the following day (its not easy writing whilst sobbing in a darkened room).
downthetubes: You have been interviewed several times about Commando, both on the official website and on the Swedish Where Eagles Dare fan site – so perhaps we could take a different tack and talk about the creation of a single issue.
One of your recent issues was number 4211, “Storm Over Spain”, set during the Spanish Civil War. Since most non-readers consider that Commando only deals with World War Two, was this story idea a hard one to sell to the editorial team?
Ferg: No, it wasn’t hard to sell. The Civil War was very close to World War Two, and had similar themes (good guys against the fascists and so on). When I learned that thousands of Germans fought for the International Brigades – a risky business, considering German politics of the era – I was straight on the phone to Calum, whose interest was immediately piqued (one of the leads is a young German volunteer). Having a mysterious British character helped set up the story and also provide a bit of British ‘interest’.
I’ve written Civil War stories before, so the key to this one was finding a different angle, hence the German hero and setting it during wintertime was a bit different, as a lot of Civil War material tends to be set in the sun and heat. Plus, my dad worked for the International Brigades (fund-raising), so I’ve always been fascinated by that conflict. My degree was in Politics, and I tended to specialise in the build-up to World War 2, so I had a decent background in the Civil War.
downthetubes: With a personal connection like that to the Spanish Civil War, did you have any other relatives who served in the military who may have inspired you when writing other stories?
Ferg: Yes, quite a lot. My dad’s brother, Guardsman Charles Handley was killed in Tunisia in 1943, serving with the Irish Guards. American friendly fire was blamed, so that has become a recurring theme in my Commandos. My paternal grandfather’s brother, Private Thomas Handley, was killed at Gallipoli (Royal Lancaster Regiment).
From what I gather from my research, it seems his unit had been in a battle of attrition with the Turks for several days; the survivors on both sides were exhausted and parched, so – whether by accident or design – they ended up charging one another, and that was pretty much that. So, the Gallipoli campaign has inspired several of my stories. My paternal grandfather, Ralph, was in the Cycle Corps at the Somme. But the expected breakthrough didn’t transpire, so I’m afraid he was unable to unleash his ‘wheels of terror’ on the German rear.
My second cousin, Corporal Edward Hines, was killed in Korea (Black Watch), victim of an ambush. In later life, when retired and living in Spain, my dad ended up friends with his CO, who sent the patrol out that day. That sort of coincidence does pop up in Commando books, so it’s good to know we’re not forcing things too much. So, no officers in the family tree!
With all these deaths, it’s no surprise I’m essentially anti-war (believe it or not, I do try to avoid glorifying war in Commando books, and my heart’s always been with conscripts who had no choice but to serve). My maternal grandfather, David McKintyre, served in peacetime with the Seaforths. He didn’t see any action, but became the regimental boxing champion.
My maternal grandmother was fascinated by history, especially family stuff. I don’t know of any servicemen on her side of the family (except for my grandfather), but she did have some ancient photos of her ancestors, who ran guns during the American Civil War! So, that helped inspired the odd sequence in Commando books too. Last but definitely not least, my dad – Ralph Scott Handley – was a navigator\air gunner in Bomber Command during World War Two. He was a great storyteller, and some of his tales have been incorporated into stories.
downthetubes: Returning to “Storm Over Spain”, how long did the story take to write and how much additional research did you need to do yourself?
Ferg: It took the usual three days to script, and maybe a day spent researching the actual battles mentioned in the story, as well as other background.
downthetubes: Was there much changed editorially with this story or, since you have written so many Commando tales now, was it a smooth progression?
Ferg: The scripts are subbed months after I’ve written them, so unless I refer back to the script, I don’t tend to notice the changes. Scott reckons they don’t make many changes to mine, partly because I put so much detail into the synopsis. In fact, for the past few years, I’ve developed a system where I do a short (say, 300 word) synopsis; I then do a frame by frame breakdown, just a short note or two on each frame, which Calum and Scott look at before approval. So, they know exactly what they’re getting, apart from actual dialogue. It’s mainly getting rid of ‘Americanisms’ which creep into my writing -though, like today, Brits were influenced by American movies, especially during World War 2 (and we had American servicemen based here), so it’s possibly authentic, but just doesn’t quite scan right in print.
downthetubes: How far ahead of publication do you normally deliver your scripts?
Ferg: Sometimes, it can take over a year. But recently, I did one set around D-Day (#4209, “Terror On The Battlefield”), to help commemorate the 65th anniversary, and that was a rush job. Calum needed it fast, so I turned it around in five days, start to finish, and it hit the shelves about six months later.
downthetubes: The internal artist assigned to “Storm Over Spain” was Ricardo Garijo, who has illustrated other stories written by you. Do you have any contact with him and what level of visual detail would you put into your scripts for him?
Ferg: I wrote this one knowing that Ricardo would be the artist; in fact, I asked for him. A couple of years ago, I came across his website and contacted him (he lives in Tandil, near Buenos Aires – which featured in #4139, “Rebel Army”, which I deliberately used as a setting for him). We have since become good friends (although we haven’t met) and e-mail each other regularly. Ricardo’s parents were both involved in the Spanish Civil War, so in a sense, I scripted it for him.
I put the same visual detail into all my Commando scripts. Firstly, I’ve learned to keep the descriptions simple, as a lot of the artists are overseas, and we don’t want things ‘lost in translation’. I tend to put in a lot of detail, but advise the artist to omit things if they can’t fit them in – it’s better for the artist to have the overall picture, then interpret it his way. For example, I usually name the members of a squad, so the artist can do thumbnails and keep an eye on them; otherwise, they have to count back and see how many men are left alive by the end, for example. The editorial staff also supply references for the artist, but I put in as many internet links as possible and an artist like Ricardo has been drawing Commando for so long, he has his own reference material.
downthetubes: The cover, showing Stuka dive bombers of the German Condor Legion attacking a castle, was by Commando cover maestro Ian Kennedy. With the planes having the insignia of Nationalist Spain, rather than the more normal Luftwaffe crosses, it makes for a striking image. Do you have any input to the cover or the choice of artist?
Ferg: Not really, but if I come across a particularly striking image while scripting, I’ll suggest it as a cover option to Calum. I scripted one recently, which had its finale at the very end of World War 1 – as in 11am on 11th November. A clock got blew up in the process, and Calum and I hit on together as a great cover image (in fact, the clock was just a ‘macguffin’, until we realised it was symbolic).
downthetubes: Generally Commando stories are self contained but with Ramsey’s Raiders you have written one of the longest ongoing series that Commando have done. How did the Raiders concept originate and was it originally planned as a multiple issue series?
Ferg: George Low suggested the series and it was originally meant to be about six issues long. George gave a few notes on possible characters which I worked up.
The key was to give each of them their own voice and back story and each issue was to focus on a particular team member but the ideas kept on coming, so we decided to make the series much longer. The readers gave a positive response so we decided to bring them back, post-World War 2, in Korea and Malaya.
The final episode in Malaya was the last Commando I scripted for George, so there was a certain subtext to the end comments. The real-life Derek Jarvis is one of my oldest friends and he once managed a pub called the Queen’s Arms in Edinburgh (he was never a soldier though), so it was fun putting the Jarv character through his paces in the script. I guess Fitz, the Irish sniper, was my own avatar in the series.
It’s tempting to bring the team back again, but I’m afraid their adventures are now over (especially the dead ones, natch). However, Monty and Oz did pop in a recent Commando set in World War 2, which sharp-eyed readers may have spotted. We’ve discussed doing prequels, but I can’t really see them happening.
downthetubes: One of the requests that appears time and again in the CommandoMag website is for a Carlton Commando book that reprints the Raiders issues. Would you like to see such a book and since you have written more Raiders stories than would fit into one volume, are there any obvious stories that could be left out?
Ferg: Yes, I’d love to see them collected. I wouldn’t get any royalties, but it’d be good to have their adventures sitting on bookshop shelves (comics are only in shops for a limited period, and once they’re gone, they’re gone). But I’d hate to see any of them omitted. Although they were stand-alone stories, for the most part, each one contributed to the overall arc.
downthetubes: Commando has never used any of the legacy characters from DC Thomson’s other war comics such as pilot Matt Braddock VC or Royal Marine Union Jack Jackson. Given the chance to write about one of these characters, for Commando or elsewhere, is there a particular favourite one that you would choose or would you find it easier to create your own new character?
Ferg: Yes, that would definitely appeal. I loved Garth Ennis’ treatment of Battler Britton, and it’d be great fun updating old characters. Wolf Of Kabul would be one I’d be interested in, although I doubt that’s likely, what with what’s going on out there right now. I’ve suggested doing sequels to some of the famous Commando books, such as #1, “March Or Die”. We’ll see how that plays out.
There are certain characters I’ve used in Commando that I’d love to write again – especially Samuel Watts and Nate Bridges from the aforementioned Rebel Army story, but sequels tend to follow hot on the heels of the originals, so maybe that boat has already sailed.
downthetubes: You have also written for DC Thomson’s sport digest Football Picture Story Monthly. Since the Commando and Football PSM editorial teams were different how did you get your transfer from one to the other?
Ferg: Well, being from the same company, the editors knew each other. So when Bill Mcloughlin took over the football title, he needed new writers, so George Low put my name forward. Slight nepotism I guess, but that’s the way things work in publishing.
downthetubes: Football PSM often had two equal length stories per issue. Did you write any of the 32 page stories and did they pose a different challenge in getting the story across to the reader compared to the Commando standard 64 page length?
Ferg: Yes, I did a couple, including “Prince of Keepers”. Bill tended to work out the synopses then send them onto me, so I didn’t find them any harder to write than the 64 pagers.
downthetubes: Did you find it difficult to write stories about football matches in which, by necessity, the players should be running around rather than talking?
Ferg: No, I’m a massive football fan (Manchester United!), so the writing came easily enough. There was plenty of off-the-pitch activity, which helped, and fans and commentators were a useful narrative device for the in-play sequences.
downthetubes: When you were starting out as a writer you produced a single issue of a football magazine called Foul!
How did this come about and were you involved in more than just the writing?
Ferg: It was initially suggested by Win Wiacek, who was teaching the comics classes I was attending. He realised that myself and James Peaty were big on football, and with the 1998 World Cup coming up, we agreed it might well work.
As well as the writing (James and I shared most of the scripting duties), I was involved with everything, apart from actually drawing it (unlike some writers, I really, really can’t draw). That included getting a distributor (we managed a newsstand deal, which was quite exciting), and collating the final version.
downthetubes: Did working on Foul! give you a better appreciation of the editorial job and has that helped you in your writing?
Ferg: Yes, definitely, and to be frank, it put me off editing as a job, especially when it came to rejecting submissions, but it was my first opportunity to work closely with artists, which has definitely helped my writing and it’s helped me appreciate the hard work which (decent) editors put into their titles.
downthetubes: Changing the subject completely from the reality of war and football, you seem to have cornered the market in British superhero comics with Panini’s Marvel superhero titles. How did you move from writing for DC Thomson titles to working for Panini?
Ferg: Working on the DC Thomson’s titles gave me a track record in British comics, albeit limited. So when Tom O’Malley took over as editor on Spectacular Spider-Man in January 2004, and he was on the lookout for writers. Jon Haward, the artist at the time, put myself and others forward, and Tom accepted my first synopsis (issue 99, featuring Venom).
downthetubes: For our readers who may not be familiar with these British junior Marvel titles, which ones have you written for and which artists have illustrated your stories?
Ferg: I’ve written for Spectacular Spider-Man (75 issues to date and more in the pipeline); Marvel Rampage (a monthly anthology title, with two six-page stories per issue); and the current Marvel Heroes title (which I was involved with from the dummy stage onwards). Plus, myself and John Royle did a couple of Spidey strips for the Funday Times (which was part of the Sunday Times at the time), which was packaged by Panini.
I’ve worked with Jon Haward, John Royle, Simon Williams, Kris Justice, David Roach and John Stokes on Spectacular Spider-Man, but these days, the regular artist is the very talented Andie Tong.
Marvel Heroes has seen me collaborate with John Royle, John McCrea and Kev Hopgood (amongst others), not to mention Lee Townsend and Gary Erskine on inks.
downthetubes: Is there a generic format or style to the titles or are each of them different?
Ferg: Marvel Heroes strips are all seven pages (two per issue), which has certain limits in terms of what I can put into a story (so, a Civil War type event wouldn’t really work in a seven page format).
However, we are now doing linked stories, with the first one in an issue leading onto the second. I have just finished a four-part storyline which runs over two issues, showing the return of a certain British superhero – and it leads into a massive battle involving most of the Marvel universe (which will no doubt drive some poor artist to despair). Plus, the other writers on the title, such as James Peaty or Al Ewing, all bring their unique style to the title – which really helps keep the title fresh.
Also, Ed Hammond, the editor, manages to keep a good balance in terms of tone and characters. I’ve been the sole writer on Spectacular Spider-man for a while now, and I try to mix them up so there are stand-alone issues and multi-parters; gritty adventures and light-hearted ones. Mind you, Spidey’s a great character in that he can be deadly serious and also humorousÉ sometimes on the same page!
downthetubes: The Panini comics are aimed at a similar pre-teen audience to Commando although the style of story telling appears quite different with the superhero stories often having ongoing action over several pages while Commando often tells an entire scene in a single panel. How different to Commando do you find the technique of writing for the Panini titles?
Ferg: Very different. I don’t paginate the Commando scripts, that’s done at the sub-editing stage (along with dialogue tweaks). It’s a case of writing the 135 panels then submitting it. So, it’s a lot different in term of ‘beats’ and so on. I usually get the Panini strips on file once they’ve been drawn up and lettered, so that gives me a chance to make any last-minute changes. But with Commando, my input is over once I’ve finished the script.
Commando is a lot more compressed than the Panini material. You can put in a silent panel (a reaction shot, say) in a superhero strip, but that wouldn’t work in a Commando format. I’m not sure if Thomson’s would pay me for a ‘silent’ panel! So I’d say that I’ve learned a lot about regular comic-book storytelling by doing the Panini work since Commando is, in a sense, an illustrated story rather than a traditional comic strip.
downthetubes: You got the chance to bring Spider-Man to the UK with stories set in Edinburgh and London. How did this come about?
Ferg: Spectacular Spider-Man is syndicated across Europe, so Ed Hammond wanted Spidey to visit some of the readers’ home countries, especially France, Germany, Spain, UK and Italy (well, Panini is an Italian-owned company). So we worked out a suitable storyline, a retelling of a classic tale involving Peter Parker wanting to find out more about his late parents. I pressed for an extra issue in the UK, so that I could have the webslinger in Edinburgh. Foolishly, I imagined that it wouldn’t take much research but because I was aware that friends and family would read it, I really had to get the locations spot on.
There’s a running joke in Edinburgh about the opening scene of the film Trainspotting where Renton runs down a street into one which is a couple of blocks away – so I didn’t want anything like that coming up in my local story. London was an obvious choice and although there was less location work, it was great fun having him there.
downthetubes: You have included an often dizzying array of Marvel Universe characters in your scripts. For instance, those 16 pages of Spectacular Spider-Man set in London included Wolfsbane, Union Jack, Black Widow, Molock, Iron Man and Nick Fury as well as the usual Spider-man characters of Peter Parker, Mary Jane and Aunt May.
How much of a free rein do you have when it comes to including other Marvel characters in your scripts and are there any that are off limits considering that the title is aimed at younger children?
Ferg: Basically, we’re free to use any of the Marvel characters. We’ve sort of created our own ‘universe’, and as long as it doesn’t conflict with the classic Marvel Universe, we’re fine. So, we can’t kill anyone off, or bring them back from the dead, for example (sorry, Uncle Ben, but no!). Nobody’s really off-limits but we tend to steer clear of using the Punisher, say, as he’s basically a vigilante assassin and kills people.
Carnage is quite tricky, what with the host being a serial killer, so when I used him in #150, it was to fight Venom – that way we could have a real good scrap and some choice threats. On the whole, if we want a hero to really cut loose in a fight, we give them something non-human to deal with – such as robots or alien monsters. So in a nutshell, we can pretty much use who we want, as long is it’s written properly and within the boundaries. Oh, and Ed still won’t let me use Howard The Duck. (Sigh…)
downthetubes: Are there any marvel characters that you haven’t already written for that you would like to include in the Panini titles or any characters coming up that you can tell us about?
Ferg: Well, as I mentioned before, a certain British Captain will be coming up early next year, and if it works out, we’ll hopefully see more of him. I’d like to use John Jameson/Manwolf in a Spidey strip, and the Jackal – but the latter is quite bound up in the Gwen Stacy arc, and she doesn’t feature in Spectacular Spider-Man.
So far, my fave supporting character to script is the Black Cat in Spectacular Spider-Man. She’s great fun, and Andie’s visualisation of her rocks (she’s guesting in the current Kingpin story arc). Also, I’d enjoy using some of the Asgardian and Greek gods – I love the recent take on Ares in the Marvel Universe, so he’d be another one I’d like to script. Ghost Rider is also on my ‘to do’ list, as is Deathlok and Damian Hellstrom.
downthetubes: The UK originated comic strips are published around Europe in translated forms by Panini. Is there any special consideration that you have to give to the stories because of the foreign publications?
Ferg: I’ve sort of covered that in Spidey’s European adventure. But so far, I’ve scripted them in English, and I’ve never heard of any translation problems. And definitely no racism on the part of the heroes – so no anti-French or anti-German jingoism (which suits me just fine).
downthetubes: Before moving onto the superheroes you wrote for the Games Workshop publication Inferno, which was a stable mate of Warhammer. Since it featured both text stories and comic strips what was your involvement?
Ferg: ‘Twas a brief affair. I got the go ahead to pitch some material by the Warhammer editors, but at the time I was in the process of getting married and moving back to Edinburgh. By the time I got on the case, the schedules had largely been filled. When Christian Dunn took over, I managed to write a four-page strip entitled “The Gambler’s Tale” (John Stokes did a marvellous job on the art), but with Warhammer comic folding, it ended up in Inferno. A good experience, but a lot of research involved.
downthetubes: So having written war, football, superheroes and fantasy how did you manage to become involved with the Dandy?
Ferg: Yet again, working for DC Thomson’s helped. I first met Morris Heggie (Dandy editor at the time) at one of Alan Grant’s Moniaive comics festivals and we discussed work possibilities. The comic was being revamped, and he needed a freelancer, so I was in the right place at the right time (which is at least half the battle in this game).
I’ve always enjoyed doing humour, so I jumped at the chance. My main body of work was Winker Watson (updating him for the 21st century). But I also did some work on a new character called Ninja 9 (a manga-style football strip), which I believe might be seeing print soon (Dave Windett, a good friend and a great children’s artist, has illustrated some of the scripts) and then there was 10 Watt Spot, about a really dumb pooch, which also saw print.
At the time, the only artist I knew I was working with was Stephen White (Stref). We got to know each other via email and we’ve met up a few times at comics events.
downthetubes: How did you find the change of pace from plotting relatively long action stories to writing short, sharp humour?
Ferg: The shorter strips are a lot easier to write, but it’s a very idea-intensive process, especially in a weekly title. So, I used to sit down and develop batches of ideas, rather than concentrate on a single synopsis. I love writing humour anyway, so it was real fun to do. I’d already done underground strips for Northern Lightz, so that background helped.
downthetubes: Winker Watson was one of the older Dandy characters that you wrote for, dating from 1961 when he was originally written as a jacket and tie wearing teenage boarding school boy. Did this present any particular problems in updating him for the modern readership?
Ferg: Not at all. In fact, updating the character probably made it easier to write, as there was a blank canvas. One part of the brief was making the school co-ed, so by bringing in girls, there were immediate situations and character conflicts to play with and I hit on the notion of really playing up the teacher’s character, Mister Creep. I suggested to Morris that he’d be the type to have creepy past-times, like moth-collecting. Mo went for that and that helped get a handle on a character and the baddies (and anti-heroes) are always the most fun to script in humour titles.
At Mo’s suggestion, I scripted Winker in story arcs rather than stand-alone stories. That probably made things easier, as I do tend to put a lot of plot into my writing – which stems from the Commando books (and I hate underwritten comics). Now, I’m no fan of the public school system far from it, so it was good to look at the oppressive aspects of boarding schools, such as draconian teachers and punishments. That way, Winker and his pals were victims of the system, in a sense and I tried not to make him too posh, but more of a jack-the-lad. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’ was bubbling away.
downthetubes: Coming right up to date, today you are the writer for the new Panini GI Joe comic that follows on from the current live action film GI Joe: Rise Of The Cobra.
There were UK originated GI Joe/Cobra comic strips published in the 1980s under the title Action Force, originally in IPC’s Battle Action Force and then in Marvel UK’s Action Force comic. Were you aware of the Action Force toys and comics and did you read any of them at the time?
Ferg: No, not at all. I knew nothing about GI Joe when editor Simon Frith asked me to work up some strips (although I had written an issue of A.T.O.M., which helped) but thanks to the internet and the Devil’s Due trade paperbacks, I soon got up to speed.
My Commando background was a definite asset, and the Generation Kill TV series was showing at the time, which helped get me in the groove (modern military jargon, as opposed to World War 2 stuff).
downthetubes: Since the GI Joe concept belongs to the toy company Hasbro, how much control do they have over the contents of the strip and the comic in general?
Ferg: Hasbro own the characters, so they are obviously pretty protective, but they gave us a good set of basic rules to work with and that’s stood us in good stead. So far, they haven’t tried to control the creative style (art or writing); their main concern is with continuity and legalities, and that’s fair enough.
downthetubes: How early on in its conception did you get involved with the GI Joe comic and what sort of birthing pains did it have, if any?
Ferg: I was involved in GI Joe ever since its conception so, I had a free rein to develop storylines, with the expert assistance of Simon Frith (I’m not just saying this because they might read it, but I really have been lucky in having great editors during my career to date). There are always difficulties with licensed properties, but Si helped out a lot.
The one problem was that our stories are set directly after the movie – and I didn’t have access to the script, so there was a lot of second-guessing going on, and rewrites are still going on. Nothing major though, just tweaks at this stage.
downthetubes: Have you had a chance to see the film since you wrote the scripts and how close do you think you managed to get to the film’s style?
Ferg: I saw the film on its first weekend of release. Each script is scrutinised by Hasbro, so if any were too far away from the movie-style, they’d let us know. We see a lot less of the classic villains in the scripts to date, but that was because we weren’t sure where they’d end up by the end of the movie. But now we know, and ideas are churning away.
downthetubes: The film has a 12A certificate in the United Kingdom, meaning that by law under 12s must be accompanied by an adult, while in Panini’s own press release they have the comic’s target readership at 7-12 years.
How much did you have to tone down the violence for the comic or is it considered so fantastical, in comparison to Commando for instance, that you can get away with more?
Ferg: Actually, Commando‘s black-and-white interiors and a small format so we can probably get away with more violence in he title, as it’s represented less graphically. But baddies do die in the GI Joe comic. I’ve tended to use made-up locations so far in GI Joe, but grounded in real-life places (i.e. fictional former-Soviet Union republics). None of the violence is the movie is really nasty though, we’re not talking The Hills Have Eyes remakes or Hostel here, it’s just a matter of being sensible about it.
I hate doing rewrites, so I work closely with Si to make sure the tone is right. For example, when going up against, say, a warlord’s gunmen, the Joes use non-lethal weaponry whenever possible (but hey – stun grenades look as good visually as fragmentation grenades). The film has got the odd cuss in it, such as ‘pissed off’, which we can’t use for our readership but there’s the odd ‘damn’ and ‘hell’, so it’s definitely aimed at an older readership than, say, Spectacular Spider-Man.
downthetubes: You have mentioned at lot of different films. Are there any particular films or television series that you haven’t mentioned so far that have inspired your work?
Ferg: Yes, quite a lot in fact. I’ve always loved war movies, and grew up on the old John Mills films and suchlike and they’re still a handy guide to dialogue and attitudes. More recent films, such as Das Boot, Thin Red Line and Blackhawk Down, have also inspired; I’m always fascinated by how troops react to being in tough situations. For character conflict, Peckonpah’s Cross Of Iron particularly stands out and for sheer desolation, Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad is hard to beat; this has inspired many a story about doomed units
As for television, I love Band Of Brothers. The series, and Stephen Ambrose’s books, have definitely inspired stories while Generation Kill was really handy for modern military background when writing GI Joe. Other TV series, such as the reboot of Doctor Who and The Sopranos are also important to me; although not war material, the sheer quality of the writing and production are an inspiration in themselves.
Well-written war stories are always inspiring. Garth Ennis always seems to get it right with his military tales and Sven Hassel’s war novels have always inspired me, and have led me to write a lot of Eastern Front scripts for Commando.
downthetubes: As a writer, which comics are you reading at the moment?
Ferg: Right now, I’m enjoying Garth Ennis’ war stories for Dynamite, plus The Boys. I pick up a lot of Marvel monthlies for background and inspiration and I loved the recent DC All Stars – Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman was brilliant; and I loved Frank Miller’s Batman and Robin. Plus, I get all the Commandos sent to me. Sometimes, a writer will do a story which makes me think ‘now why didn’t I think of that’ (such as a recent one about a Red Air Force penal squadron in World War 2). Also, I’m re-reading Grant Morrison’s JLA just now, which stands up really well a decade later.
downthetubes: The vast majority of the titles you have written for are aimed at pre-teen boys. Would you like the chance to write strips or stories aimed at a more mature audience?
Ferg: Most definitely. I love doing underground work (such as on the Northern Lightz anthology – where I collaborated with Dave Alexander, which really was a labour of love), and I got a story into Ganja-Man Presents #1, and hopefully more to come.
Foul! was aimed at mature readers, so I enjoyed that experience and right now I’m working up a couple of pitches for war stories for mature readers which I’d love to get cracking on (there is a company involved, but I’d best leave it at that for now).
downthetubes: Looking back at the range of titles that you have written for, does one stand out as a favourite or are they all much loved children?
Ferg: No, I love them all. Variety is the spice of life, and working on such a diversity of titles has been a fantastic experience.
downthetubes: Ferg Handley, thank-you for your time.
• Cartoon Art Trust and Museum: www.cartoonmuseum.org
• Commando © 2009 DC Thomson | Football PSM © 2009 DC Thomson. Covers featured by Ian Kennedy.