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Richard Starkings Interview


[ Richard Starkings ]

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 your background?

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 Flask.

What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

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 both experiences?

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 of—sometimes unnecessary—relaunches. What do you think of those "gimmicks"?

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 increased accordingly.

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 independent artists?

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 year.

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 creators?

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 animalistic roots.

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 on Hip 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 panels?

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 and pornography.

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 contest.


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