This interview with
comic book writer and letterer Richard
Starkings was conducted by Director Sebastien
Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures
Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of
the first set of interviews, which means that Richard
Starkings received a part of the shotlist, and was
asked to answer the questions as if they were actually
shooting the interview together. Richard
Starkings was offered the possibility to interact
this way with the members of the cast.
By sending the same
questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get
the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking:
conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions,
we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of
answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.
Can you tell us about
I was born in Liverpool
and grew up in Yorkshire in the sixties and seventies.
I'm an English graduate and after college I lived and
worked in the London area where I got my first staff
job in comics in 1984. I've worked in the industry as
a writer, colorist, editor, production manager, T-shirt
designer, color separator (long before computer separations!)
and cartoonist, although I'm primarily known for my
work as a lettering artist and graphic designer. I pioneered
digital comic book lettering beginning in 1992 and,
since 1995, my LA based company, Comicraft, which celebrates
its tenth anniversary this year, has moved into the
business of publishing comic book fonts. More recently
we've announced our plans to publish a series featuring
the character I created to promote the fonts, Hip
What do you find
in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of
I started reading comics
because I wanted to be on the same wavelength as my
older brother. He had an enormous collection which he
let me read when I was in my early teens. A friend of
mine at college was a big fan of radio shows because
he was raised by parents who loved to listen to the
radio rather than watch TV or read. He went on to work
for BBC Radio, I went on to work for Marvel Comics.
I still read books and watch TV and listen to the radio,
but I developed an affection for comics which served
me well when I got a job at Marvel and has continued
to serve me well ever since. What I find in comics is
the security I felt when I was able to talk to my brother
about something he loved. The security I find now is
also the security of knowing that I'm working in a medium
I came to love and I'm doing a good job. I don't read
as many comics now as I did when I was a kid, but I
know how to read them and I still follow certain books
that catch my interests.
What was the overall
mood in the industry when you began your career? What
was its commercial state? How has it evolved?
When I started work
at Marvel UK in the mid 80s, Marvel was chasing licensed
properties like Care Bears, Thundercats
and Transformers and the company was making a
lot of money. 2000AD was selling incredibly well
as was the humor magazine Viz, which sold a million
copies every other week at its peak! Sales in Britain
have plummeted since those days, and 2000AD sales
are a small fraction of what they once were. There are
way fewer weekly titles than ever and stores aren't
interested in carrying original titles, only children's
comics tied into shows like Bob The Builder or
Thunderbirds. I moved from the UK to America
in 1989 and sales were considered quite good here at
that time. The US Transformers title was cancelled
at issue #80 because its numbers dropped just under
100,000! The boom of 1992 was not far away and there
was no talk of gloom and doom. But the Image explosion
blew a hole through the comic book economy and we've
been shellshocked ever since. Every couple of years,
a new company has come along looking to tap into the
licensing potential of comic book characters and every
couple of years one of them drops out of business as
sales "decline." A lot of creators who made a small
fortune in the nineties have continued to make money
at the expense of other creators somewhere down the
food chain and what we have now is an economy skewed
toward certain artists and writers who are perceived
to have power. Power these days means the ability to
sell 60,000 + copies of a book, which pretty much puts
you in the top ten. Of course, some smaller publishers
are capable of selling 20,000 or 30,000 copies of their
titles so what we actually have now in publishing terms
is I think a more level playing field. Although Marvel
is doing incredibly well these days the Cliffhanger
launch in 1999 proved that Big Name creators could strike
out on their own with fresh new titles and outsell The
X-Men and Spider-Man. More recently, new
Cliffhanger and Image books have not been doing so well,
so retailers can't be sure that the Image or the Cliffhanger
brand will guarantee high sales.
Comic book stores
were created during the 70's as a boosting solution
for the market. But as years went by, the direct market
became the major distribution channel at the expense
of the "newsstand" channel. Do you think that the industry
is now paying the price for what was considered as the
only viable solution back then?
We're not paying the
price, we're enjoying the benefits! How many trade paperbacks
were available in the 70s? TWO?! How many books like
Bone, Cerebus and Kane were available
in your local store? The Direct Sales system provided
a whole new market for books which would've been regarded
as "Underground" books and consigned to the back of
Record Stores on Haight Street. There would be no Love
& Rockets, no Drawn & Quarterly, no Berlin
or Scary Godmother. The only publishers that
miss the newsstand are the corporations who now can't
afford to take the losses. Direct Sales liberated certain
talented and headstrong creators from their work-for-hire
oppressors and saved them from a life in chains.
1986 has been a turning
point for the industry with works like Batman: The
Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It seems
that since then, the comic book audience has grown up
with the industry and that there is just no new readers.
Has the industry at that time completely forgotten its
younger target audience?
These days younger audiences
are better attended to by video game manufacturers and
movie makers than they are by comic book companies.
But even so, the first books most children read are
comic books of one kind or another. I think there will
always be new young readers who gravitate toward comics
once they get into their teens, we just have to make
sure we're making comic books that attract their attention
and keep it. That said, comics will never be the cultural
phenomenon they once were any more than television can
recapture the hold it had on the public in the days
before videos, cable TV and DVDs. It used to be the
case that people watched the same shows and their kids
read the same comics as their neighbors. Now we can
choose to watch whatever we please. I watch a lot of
obscure English shows on DVDs that play on my computer.
Just ten years ago I couldn't do that.
1993 was the last
profitable year for the American industry. The market
has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are
the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?
There has been no collapse,
but there was an artificially stimulated, speculator
driven boom which exploded like a nuclear bomb and we're
still dealing with the fallout. Just because you're
lying down doesn't mean you've lost your stature. There
are more individual comic book titles in the US today
than ever before so it's no wonder that Marvel and DC
regard sales across the board as disappointing. They
have more publishers competing with them than they did
before the boom. Why do we always listen to the big
guys when they say that the industry is in recession?
Talk to the little publishers and I bet they'll tell
you they never had it so good.
During your career
you worked for the big publishers, but you also recently
created your own publishing company. How would you compare
I don't really make
a distinction. I look at my work in the comic book industry
on both sides of the Atlantic as one long learning experience.
Since leaving my staff job at Marvel UK in 1989 I've
never thought of myself as working for DC and Marvel.
I work for Comicraft. Obviously, when you're creating
a comic book which you intend to publish yourself there
is way more work involved, but there is more freedom
as well. Hip
Flask is the work of just a handful of people and
we all get along. That's not always the case when you
work for the major players, but the restrictions placed
on you by Marvel and DC force you to become more competent
and more inventive and the pressure of only being as
good as your last job keeps you on your game and helps
you create and maintain a dedicated work ethic.
In the 90's, publishers
began to create alternate covers, and made a lot ofsometimes
unnecessaryrelaunches. What do you think of those
I always liked the publishing
schedule of Frank Miller's Sin City. He told
a bunch of different stories with a beginning, middle
and end. Some lasted 7 issues, some lasted 9, and some
were one shots or 1/2 issues. Readers knew that Frank
would always be the creator and they knew there would
be a gap in between serials and then collections after
a period of six months or so. No one accused Miller
of relaunching his book. He was just publishing a new
graphic novel like an author or returning for a new
season like a TV series. If your work has honesty and
integrity people will respond well to alternate covers
and even swimsuit issues. If you're just gouging your
readers for more cash, they'll eventually figure it
out and leave you high and dry no matter what gimmick
you might have up your sleeve.
In British comic book
publishing, we would refer to "Boom" issues. These would
be regular issues of an ongoing weekly title that featured
a free gift or a poster or even candy with some "juvenile"
titles. Most of the editors I worked with didn't particularly
like Boom issues, but we figured out ways of producing
them in a manner that spoke to the content of the title
and our loyalty to our readers. 2000AD Boom issues
always involved some kind of free gift which was well
worth having; a poster or a mini-comic or a Judge
Dredd badge. Inside, stories were always geared
toward new readers and favorite artists and characters
always returned for these editions. Boom issues were
gimmicks and readers knew it but when it was done right,
they were something to look forward to and circulations
Television has its own
gimmicks and season cliffhangers, guest stars and all
the story flips and twists that fill "May sweeps." Why?
Well, because viewers sometimes drift away and, just
as when you're telling someone a story about something
that happened to you, you sometimes exaggerate the details
to keep your listener's attention, comics and television
shows often find they have to do the same also.
To make more money
and be able to reach different places such as bookstores,
the publishers have created the trade paperback. As
an example, many people have read Sandman when
it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you
feel that the comic book format had its days, and could
be replaced by the paperback?
There was always a demand
for paperback collections, books like Sandman
showed publishers that they could meet that demand and
continue to publish individual comics. Trade paperbacks
produced on the scale we're familiar with today would
not have been possible without the Direct Sale system.
The comic book format has always been and will always
be a thermometer for what is successful and what is
not, and it serves as a fairly dependable source of
income for publishers, especially small publishers who
need the support of regular readers so they can produce
the collections that actually help them make a profit.
The early 90's saw
the first digital lettering and coloring in American
comic books. Do you think that it opened a new world
of possibilities as far as storytelling is concerned?
Digital Lettering freed
the imaginations of letterers like myself from the dreary
routine of cranking out pages day after day, page after
page and allowed us to step into the more far reaching
role of graphic designer. Digital Lettering allows the
same letterer to work in any number of different styles,
in upper case and lower case, in a style that approximates
hand writing or mechanical typesetting and the computer
provides a consistency that a hand letterer working
with a pen at three o'clock in the morning cannot.
If you really want to
understand our digital lettering process, visit our
informational site, www.BalloonTales.com.
Also around the same
time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that
the internet could become a distribution system for
No one quite knew what
to make of the internet at first, but I had seen a brilliant
speculative documentary called Hyperland by Douglas
Adams when I was visiting England ten years ago and
so when the opportunity to present ourselves on the
internet came up I was eager to see where it might lead.
Diversity seems to
be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that
current comic books are oriented mainly toward a male
audience in its 20's?
No, I think that's the
biggest part of the problem. Comics are being oriented
toward an audience that was in their twenties in 1986!
We need to unstick ourselves from fifty and sixty year
old characters and create new and different books that
will attract new young readers. One of the most interesting
new characters I've seen recently is Samurai Jack
on Cartoon Network. I'd put him in a comic in a heartbeat.
A success of the
American film business has always been not to ignore
the foreign market. Do you feel that the comics industry
has been successful abroad?
But the US film industry
does ignore the foreign market! American movies are
successful overseas because they're tailored toward
the lowest common denominator, they're not tailored
toward French audiences or Chinese audiences. They don't
have to be. The American comic book industry doesn't
tailor their books for the foreign market either, and
I don't think it should. Once you start tailoring your
work for some kind of global appeal you end up with
Power Rangers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
was a global phenomenon because their creators loved
comics and, even though the title of their book is clear
evidence of their attempt to jump on the bandwagon of
all the trends in comics in the 80s, Eastman and Laird
put their hearts into the book and in so doing created
something unique and appealing. The same was equally
true of James Cameron's Titanic. It could easily
have been a cheesy film that took a dive at the box
office, but Cameron was passionate about the story he
wanted to tell and he pulled it off. Absolutely everyone
thought I was a nut to create a comic about some silly
genetically altered hippo, but Ladronn understood me
and now our audience is responding to our faith in the
character. Ladronn's art has a very European sensitivity,
even though he's Mexican, and I'm sure his work will
catch on overseas. The American market is more of a
challenge for us because traditionally they don't respond
well to science fiction. I grew up surrounded by SF
comics and television, as did Ladronn, so in that sense
we're sticking to what we know best. I have no desire
to create any kind of caped, spandex-draped super-hero
who wears his underpants over his trousers, or a grim
and gritty vigilante with a gun. They're the ones that
look silly to me.
Comic book conventions
are typical in North America. What feedback do you get
from your peers over there? Is there a positive mood
within the industry?
People who love comics
are always positive and I always enjoy meeting my friends
in the industry at shows. It's the people who love money
that complain about declining sales.
When you go to comic
book conventions, do you feel that people come to buy
comics... or toys, busts, and whatever merchandising
has to offer?
People go to conventions
for all sorts of reasons. Most artists, who work most
of the year alone at home, go to the shows to socialize
with (hopefully) like minds. Most readers, who read
their comics alone, go to the shows for the same reason.
Spending money is just a way of making sure that the
show will be available for social interactions the following
What do you think
of that merchandising?
If it's related to something
I'm interested in, and it's well-made, I LOVE it. If
it's not, I'm not interested. We're Hunters/Gatherers,
we have a primal need to collect stuff.
In the biggest comic
conventions we can find print and digital artists. Some
print artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do
you feel that there are now two clans of comic book
It's all a matter of
your point of view. Some artists who pencil, ink and
color their own work look down on artists who stick
to one discipline or another. Some artists who work
on boards look down on artists who work on paper. Paper
artists who regard Digital artists as Anti-Christs (and
I have been referred to as the Lettering Anti-Christ)
are most likely ignorant or afraid. It's a reptile brain,
fight-or-flight response. We're all likely to get spooked
and angry when our livelihood is threatened. "Anger
leads to Hate, Hate leads to Suffering..." Yoda says.
Each to his own, I say.
Many forgotten artists
who can't find a job in the industry because they are
told they are "outdated" make money thanks to commissions
on their personal websites. Others create those digital
comics but don't really make money out of them. Do you
think that the internet could be the solution to the
current state of the comic book industry?
Industry is just the
word we use for a collection of individuals engaged
in the same craft or trade. If individuals are finding
new ways of earning a living via their contact with
an internet audience, then they're part of the creation
of a new industry. Unfortunately, when we talk about
"the comic book industry," we're including hundreds,
if not thousands, of middlemen who are part of the distribution
system. The beauty of the web is that it can be a publication
device AND a distribution system and, most importantly,
it can aid the artist in reaching their true sponsor,
the reader or comic art enthusiast.
Some digital comics
use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a
digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?
A comic is a sequence
of stationary pictures arranged to tell a story. A digital
comic is the same thing in cyberspace. Once the picture
starts to move, it's a movie.
Do you think that
readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch
a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen
be enough for them? What about you?
I recently subscribed
to the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip at the Universal
Syndicate site. I get a new episode e-mailed to me every
day and I love it. Having said that, I'll never give
up my Calvin & Hobbes books. Even if all the
CDs and movies in my possession were freely available
on the web, I'd probably still hang on to the hard copies.
We're Hunters/Gatherers, and if we're not dragging a
dead buffalo back to the cave, or bringing a handful
of berries, we'll find something to connect us to our
There are many issues
that could prevent digital comics from growing, such
as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall,
it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such
as PayPal. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments:
what do you think is the best option to be paid on the
web for digital creations?
Sponsorship. The situation
with novels and comics on the net is not altogether
very different to television. We pay for television
shows whether we want to or not every time we buy soap
or soda. As more and more people turn to the internet
for entertainment, more and more sponsors will invest
in the web. At Comicraft we sell comic book fonts via
our online catalogue and provide content and information
ostensibly for free. Of course, it's not really free,
the people buying the fonts are sponsoring the content,
whether they're aware of it or not. Our Hip
Flask comic book is funded solely by the sale of
the fonts. We have created a sponsorship situation for
ourselves without the pesky interference of an independent
sponsor or publisher, with his own agenda, censoring
our content or taking issue with our editorial policies.
We've had problems with piracy, especially when we made
our fonts available for download, but all businesses
encounter piracy problems and always will.
Why would artists
choose to make digital comics, even if they don't really
make money, instead of becoming independent publishers?
Artists are more interested
in communicating their ideas than they are in making
money. Artists posting comics on the internet are doing
what they love. They're reaching an audience. The money
will eventually follow. Look at Van Gogh. He only sold
one painting in his lifetime.
There are different
ways to compose a comic book story on the internet.
Some artists like to consider the screen as a page,
others still use a typical comic book format. We can
also use the screen as a panel/link leading to another
panel and so on. Finally, other artists use the internet
as an unlimited space to compose a story. What do you
think of those ideas?
In working with Ladronn
Flask in the course of the past year, we have discovered
that the very process of looking at his work on the
computer screen has encouraged us to open up the images
so that they could be used more effectively for promotional
purposes on the internet. This, in turn, has encouraged
Ladronn to create work that is more expansive and more
detailed. What began as a comic book that we intended
to produce in paper form only has now grown into a project
which we also intend to issue on CD. Readers will then
be able to better appreciate Ladronn's work, as they
will be able to enjoy it as it was created and backlit
with the opportunity to zoom in on details.
One can find digital
comics on the web, but also short films produced especially
for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes?
What do you think of them?
Now and again I do and
it seems to me that the best movies on the web are short
humorous cartoons produced by amateurs experimenting
with Flash. They're rather like the panel cartoons and
comic strips in newspapers in the last century. It'll
be interesting to see how the work of these people develop
in the years to come. Even so, I'd rather watch movies
at the theatre or on television, although I dare say
that when my kids are my age, there will be no distinction
between computers and television. The line is already
blurred. I often watch DVDs on my I-Book and I-Mac.
We talked earlier
about the unlimited space and animated digital comics.
Do you think that we could apply some of those compositional
ideas to live moving pictures, instead of just drawn
The possibilities are
endless, but ultimately, if any such experiments don't
engage the reader, they won't be forms of entertainment,
they'll be forms of experimental art. But that's okay,
Jazz is regarded by many as experimental music and it
still finds an appreciative audience. It's just not
the same audience as popular music.
Bad artistic, and
moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons
of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems
like a good solution to create art without any form
of concession. Do you think that the internet is an
open door for new creative voices?
There you go with those
leading questions again. I don't believe there has been
a downfall, just a diversification. Right now comics
are still printed on paper and sold to consumers. The
internet is serving us best as a billboard drawing in
people's attention and as a mail order catalogue allowing
them to buy comics that they might previously have only
found in a store fifty miles away. By and large Joe
Public treats the internet as he would a newspaper.
As long as the computer is pretty much a TV with no
sound and not many moving pictures people will generally
regard it as an online mail order catalogue with news
Now that comic books
have become a niche market (whether they are on paper
or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think
that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality
as a reaction to the current situation?
The comic book industry
is very much like the theatre. Many actors, writers
and directors prefer the stage to the screen because
they have more control over the presentation of their
work. I think the same is true of writers and artists
working in comics. For a talented artist with imagination,
it's much cheaper to produce a single comic book than
a big budget SF movie, and as long as that remains the
case, people will still draw comics, just as they have
since stone age man painted on the walls of caves. We've
only been making movies for about a hundred years. No