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We have much love and respect for British comic book writer Andy Diggle. Famed for his writing on Hellblazer, Swamp Thing and The Losers, Diggle also made a name for himself as former editor of British anthology 2000AD, as well as a high-profile Daredevil run that saw him take Matt Murdock closer to the edge than ever before.
New Comicsphere scribe Neil Thomason caught up with Diggle at his office in Lancaster to talk about his career so far, the creative process and where he sees the industry moving in the future.
[Reprinted from Swipe Magazine]
ANDY DIGGLE: Oh yeah; I was giving Warrior magazine to my teachers and my English teacher told me that comics were not literature, my art teacher told me they were not art and my careers advisor told me I should go and work in insurance. Fortunately I ignored all the advice and did it anyway.
What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of comics?
>> I’ve always liked telling stories, simple as that, and I love the visual immediacy of comics. They grab you and pull you in, and you don’t have to worry about the special effects budget.
How did you get your start in the industry?
>> While doing an admin job at a university, I was able build a crude website and do an online fanzine called Fusion; which was basically just an excuse for me to interview as many cool writers as I could. I’m a great believer in making your own luck – like don’t wait for a job, create a job – and it was through one of the guys I interviewed for Fusion that I found out about a job going at 2000AD. So I applied for that and, because I was a huge 2000AD fan, and the fact I’d shown a bit of initiative on this fanzine, [it] impressed them enough that I got the job.
What were the major challenges that faced you as editor of 2000AD?
>> The big problem was always retaining the talent, because once you got noticed in 2000AD you’d get hired by an American company. I wanted to pay people more but couldn’t get a bigger budget. Being editor was really useful, at the same time a lot of other editors have gone on to careers in comic writing. Pat Mills is the famous one, but John Tomlinson was an editor of 2000AD and he wrote Mercy Heights, and David Bishop did some writing.
How did you transition from editor to writer?
>> I was very into the story side of things and after I’d been there for a couple of years, David Bishop, editor at the time, allowed me to start taking over the commissioning of stories… eventually, in the year 2000, David Bishop left and I became the editor.
I was editor for about a year and a half and I’d just had enough – I’d learned everything there was to learn, changed everything I could change. I couldn’t increase the budget, and I was just really hankering to write. Working with my childhood heroes like John Wagner was brilliant training… I’d become friends with a lot of the talent, so I knew I’d be able to get work for 2000AD at least. So I thought I would spend a year working for them in order to build up a portfolio that I could then send over to Vertigo, but it happened a lot quicker than that. I sent Lenny Zero, a little short sci-fi crime thing, to Will Dennis at Vertigo and he’d really liked it, I think Garth Ennis had put in a good word for me, and he invited me to pitch in really short order. So I got a Lady Constantine four parter and that led to The Losers and Swamp Thing and I was like ‘bloody hell that happened fast.’
What comic writers have influenced you the most?
>> John Wagner has been a massive inspiration to me since childhood, as he has to a whole generation of British comic creators. Alan Moore and Frank Miller too, of course – how could they not be? But really, John Wagner is the man. Ask any British comics writer. His Judge Dredd is such a unique cocktail of action, satire, heart, extreme violence, black humour and absurdism, no-one else can match it.
That said, I love movies as much as comics, and James Cameron’s writing style was a big influence too, The Terminator and Aliens screenplays in particular. In terms of structure, pacing, characterization, theme, subtext, all within the context of a sci-fi action movie. Brains AND brawn, I love it. And I’d have to add Troy Kennedy-Martin too. I bought his BBC Edge of Darkness screenplay while I was in high school, and I still have it.
The Losers, one of your most famous works, was adapted into a film in 2010, were you involved in its production?
>> Hollywood came sniffing around the project pretty early on, but because I didn’t own it, I wasn’t really privy to what was going on. Me and Jock [the artist of The Losers] became friendly with the guy who took over the script, James Vanderberg who is currently writing the new Spider Man movie, and he would send us the scripts even though we weren’t involved. Basically it follows the first TPB quite closely, but there were these huge problems with it because they changed all the reasons for everything happening. So they did all the same heists in the same way but their reasons for pulling the heists were completely different.
It was very frustrating not being listened to, or having a seat at the table. I wrote these detailed documents saying ‘here’s what needs fixing and here’s how I’d fix it’ and they just ignored it all… and then all the problems the critics had with it were all the things I’d pointed out!
What was it like to sit in a darkened theatre with an audience and watch your comic come to life on the big screen for the first time?
>> It was exciting, obviously, but also weirdly bitter-sweet. Jock and I were supposed to attend the Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but our flight was grounded by the Icelandic volcano ash-cloud. So we ended up seeing it for the first time at a London press screening with [actor] Idris Elba, who was also stranded. So of course it was amazing seeing our characters up there on the big screen, but the movie was, shall we say, tonally very different from the comic. That’s just the nature of work-for-hire. We didn’t own The Losers, so we didn’t have a seat at the table when those decisions were being made. I’m still very conflicted about the movie, but I think they assembled an amazing cast for it. They really cast it for the roles, and every one of them nailed it.
What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
>> I’ve always found deadlines a problem because I’m slow. Slow and lazy. And I’m also a perfectionist. I’m really judgmental about other people’s work but I’m also really judgmental about my own.
It’s always nice to work with people who you know, how they’re gonna approach it. When I was on Thunderbolts it seemed like every month there would be a different artist depending on who was available. It’s nice to know who the artist is gonna be in advance so you can write to their strengths. For example, Davide Gianfelice is a great artist who I worked with on Daredevil and who I hit it off with – we both like the same stuff, not massively into superheroes – and I requested him on this new thing I’m doing with Marvel [Six Guns – A Modern Day Western] and we’re both having a whale of a time and I’m enjoying figuring out what he does best. He’s so good at composing a page, so I’m giving him lots of gunfights and car chases and explosions to draw.
Are there any differences in getting comics made in the UK as opposed to the US?
>> The process is the same; there are just less opportunities, and less money, in Britain. Page rates vary, but Marvel currently pay me literally twice as much as 2000AD would. That said, I could probably work twice as fast for 2000AD because it’s in my blood.
With the advent of digital formats do you see the comic industry following along the lines of the music industry in regards to distribution and artistic freedom?
>> Very much so, yeah, which has got all the publishers shit scared. When I finish my Marvel contract I’m going to be going digital, creating my own characters. Things like the iPad have kicked the door in as far as distribution goes and of course they’re really expensive at the moment, but in five years everyone’s gonna have an iPad or tablet of some sort. As far as it being the end of the physical product, I think the monthly model will go digital only and they will get collected into a physical TPB that will be sold in stores.
The difficult thing with any independent comic is paying the artist, I can write five pages in a day but an artist working flat out can only do one page a day. So a six issue series is six months of work and they’ve got families to feed and don’t want to work for free. At the moment the system is; service trademarks for big companies and get well paid for it, or basically do it for free and get nothing. There is nothing inbetween and I’m trying to find something that works in the middle-ground.
>> Start by reading scripts. There’s a really good website www.comicbookscriptarchive.com which has lots of professional scripts by people like [The Unwritten writer] Mike Carey and [Ultimate Spider-Man’s] Brian Bendis, it’s by far and away the best way to learn. You get a sense of how other people do it. I think because of screen writing software like Final Draft, screenplay format is starting to make hedgeway into comic format because it just makes life a lot easier.
As far as pitching ideas, the bottom line is editors are always overworked and underpaid and stressed and they only do it cause they love comics. So anything you can do to make their life easier is good, so keep it really short and really tight. Never make anything more than two pages, ideally your pitch should be one. Do a paragraph that basically tells the whole story and if they like that first paragraph they’ll read on.
What’s coming up next for you?
>> Six Guns, which is a five issue Western set in the Marvel Universe albeit with no superheroes. There’s one moment where a guy is about to shoot lasers out of his eyes but just gets punched before he can. It’s very much informed by Robert Rodriguez films like Desperado. I’m also doing four issues on Captain America in the near future.
Check out more:
Andy Diggle’s website: www.andydiggle.com
Follow Andy Diggle on Twitter: @andydiggle