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Letters from America: An interview with Richard Starkings (1/2)
Richard Starkings lives and works in the Santa Monica sunshine, a far cry from his childhood in the cold wet north of England. Best known as the president and 'First Tiger' of the near-ubiquitous comics lettering agency Comicraft, Starkings was also once a group editor at Marvel's UK division, where he worked with - and provided a first step for - many of the industry greats.
Starkings worked as a proofreader before answering a newspaper ad for an art assistant at Marvel UK in the mid-80s. As Marvel UK expanded its line of publications, Richard found himself climbing the ladder to an editorial post in charge of many of the company's licensed properties.
While the American comics industry has always concentrated its efforts on monthly titles, UK comics have tended to be weekly. The two biggest names in the market during the 70s and 80s were IPC, publisher of anthology titles like 2000AD, ACTION and BATTLE, and Marvel UK, which published a number of double-bill comics, often pairing a US superhero series with toy and cartoon licenses. SPIDER-MAN was paired with ZOIDS, for example, while THUNDERCATS had a POWER PACK support strip. Reprints fed much of the Marvel UK output, but sales were strong enough for Starkings and his colleagues, Ian Rimmer, John Tomlinson and Simon Furman, to commission original work from young hopefuls such as Dougie Braithwaite, Bryan Hitch and Liam Sharp. It was a healthy time for British comics.
"The 'boom' market of the late seventies and early eighties was fuelled by the passionate work of a handful of exceptionally talented and creative individuals working at IPC and Marvel UK," explains Starkings. "John Wagner, Pat Mills, Carlos Ezquerra, Kevin O'Neill and Dave Gibbons poured enormous amounts of energy and imagination into their work on ACTION, BATTLE and 2000AD in the late seventies. Dez Skinn, Paul Neary, Alan Moore and Alan Davis did the same over at Marvel UK back in the Camden Town days of the early eighties."
Starkings' fondest memories from his Marvel UK days come from his time working on ZOIDS, a series based on a line of Tomy toys. The series provided him with his first published script, and it was also the first book he was given editorial responsibility for. He inherited a pair of young up-and-comers on the book, writer Grant Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell, who would later go on to create ZENITH. The series sadly folded, and an attempt to relaunch it as a US monthly with Morrison and Yeowell was killed due to the falling sales of Zoids toys. The finished first issue is supposedly out there somewhere, but has never seen the light of day.
"Grant was actually more mysterious back then than he is now," remembers Starkings. "He came to Marvel UK's lustful but lacklustre Christmas party in 1987 and was dressed all in black with dark glasses, like a negative zone Andy Warhol. No one knew quite how to approach him and, looking back, I'm sure this was all part of his act."
Inevitably, the UK boom didn't last. Though 2000AD is still going (under a new publisher), and Marvel UK still exists (having been acquired by trading card manufacturer Panini), and is still publishing its monthly DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE, the market for what Starkings calls "Boys' Adventure" almost disappeared. "Even though TRANSFORMERS outsold 2000AD in its heyday, its success, as well as the success of most of our licensed properties, was short-lived.
"I argued with the powers-that-be that, had we offered Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons - who had worked on CAPTAIN BRITAIN and DOCTOR WHO respectively - more than just work-for-hire rates and licensed properties, we might have found ourselves publishing WATCHMEN, which had gathered a lot of press and publicity at the time.
"I was lucky in that Robert Sutherland, who was the publisher at Marvel UK back then, responded well to my enthusiasm and subsequently green-lit DRAGON'S TEETH - which became DRAGON'S CLAWS for legal reasons - a project which had begun as part of a proposal for a publication called FAST FORWARD, which Tom DeFalco and Ian Rimmer had initially devised as a weekly to rival 2000AD. Editor-in-chief Jenny O'Connor and I originally approached John Wagner and Alan Grant to work on the book for us, but it was clear to me that they were jaded by their experiences with JUDGE DREDD, which made money for IPC and Titan Books, but not for John and Alan, so I recruited Simon Furman and Geoff Senior, whose work on TRANSFORMERS had made them legends in their own lunchtime."
Along with DRAGON'S CLAWS, Starkings helped oversee the creation of a few other fondly remembered Marvel UK originals, two of which, DEATH'S HEAD and THE SLEEZE BROTHERS, owe their origins to a little editorial vanity. Marvel's 'mature readers' imprint, Epic, had approached IPC about the possibility of reprinting two strips from its CRISIS anthology - THIRD WORLD WAR and NEW STATESMAN. Starkings, Sutherland, and O'Connor all agreed that they couldn't have Marvel publishing their competitor's works, so Marvel president Jim Galton blocked the move. However, he also challenged the UK contingent to come up with a couple of new projects of their own.
DEATH'S HEAD, a dimension-hopping mechanical mercenary created by Simon Furman, had first appeared in TRANSFORMERS, but had always been intended to have his own spin-off book. (The character's dimension hopping helped him guest star in DOCTOR WHO and even Marvel US's FANTASTIC FOUR.) Meanwhile, GHOSTBUSTERS creative team John Carnell and Andy Lanning came up with THE SLEEZE BROTHERS, a futuristic tale about a fraternal pair of private eyes and their distinctly disreputable investigations.
"The humbling postscript to this story is that the nicest man in comics, [Epic editor] Archie Goodwin, was infuriated when he discovered that his negotiations with [IPC] were scuttled by our protestations," Starkings explains. "He was still steaming when I visited his office in July, '88. 'But, Archie,' I ventured, 'Wouldn't you feel the same way if we were to reprint DC books in the UK?' Archie looked at me directly in the eye and replied: 'No. Quality work is quality work. It should be exposed to as many readers as possible. It's origin is irrelevant.'
"Suitably chastised, I went back to work at Marvel with a completely new perspective and was humbled further still when Archie stopped by our offices that September. I was struggling to convince Robert and Jenny to grant creator ownership of THE SLEEZE BROTHERS to John and Andy. Archie took a look at the material and proposed that it be published as an EPIC comic. Reluctantly, Robert and Jenny agreed. To this day, THE SLEEZE BROTHERS is the only wholly creator-owned title ever published by Marvel UK, and a testament to Archie's sublime ability to influence the shape of the comic book industry simply by walking through a room. His graciousness and all around good will has affected me to this day."
SLEEZE BROTHERS' short lifespan suggested that there wasn't much of a market for humour books. "Sergio Aragones once told me that he feels very strongly that people stopped looking toward comics for laughter when the sitcom started to dominate American TV programming in the late sixties," explains Starkings. "Why pay for a quick laugh when you can turn on network TV and laugh for free?"
The glory days of British comics publishing look distant and unfamiliar today, but Starkings points out that the future looked just as bleak in 1975. "EAGLE was gone, TV21 and COUNTDOWN were gone and LOOK IN was one of the few comics publishing high quality comic strips. What's lacking right now is talented and creative men or women of vision in editorial positions to inspire a whole new wave. There's obviously no shortage of talent in the UK; take a look at DC's Vertigo imprint or the Marvel Knights line. Garth Ennis's ADVENTURES IN THE RIFLE BRIGADE was very much like the BATTLE/ACTION stories of old.
"What's most important is that talented artists and writers, who happen to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, are finding outlets for their work. Whether that's 2000AD, ACTION MAN or THE INCREDIBLE HULK is surely by the by."
Starkings has good memories of his time at Marvel UK, and believes that the work produced there has stood the ultimate test of time. "In the midst of working on TRANSFORMERS back in the late eighties, Simon Furman lamented that we couldn't get top talent to work on the book because all they wanted to do was work on JUDGE DREDD. I pointed out to him that the kids reading our books would one day get all misty eyed about Simon and Geoff's LEGACY OF UNICRON just as we get all nostalgic about Wagner and Bolland's JUDGE DEATH story." Unfortunately, while Titan Books is reprinting the old TRANSFORMERS stories from the US comics in graphic novel format later this year, there are no current plans to reprint the UK stories.
Eventually, of course, the time came for Starkings to move on. "Marvel was a tremendous place to learn the ropes, and I worked variously as a writer, colourist, colour separator and, ultimately, group editor. However, after nearly five years there, I found myself simultaneously at the top of my profession and at a creative dead end. The editor-in-chief and I were clearly pulling in different directions, so naturally she and I fought often.
"I was recently divorced from my first wife at the time, and in consequence, I was fiercely reviewing any and all limiting circumstances in my life. The writer of THE SLEEZE BROTHERS, John Carnell, had introduced me to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin and, to cut a long story short, after one last particularly frustrating altercation with my editor-in-chief, I felt that it was time for a leap of faith. I typed up my resignation that night and handed it in the next day."
After serving out his six weeks notice, Starkings headed for America, where his girlfriend was living, and planned to embark on a world tour. The world tour never happened, and the relationship soon ended, but Starkings still claims "this was the best decision I ever made in my life". This was the move that sowed the seeds for his next big adventure: Comicraft.
Click here to read part two of this interview, in which Richard talks about the founding of Comicraft, plus Buddhism, Hip Flask, the art of lettering, and the notorious WOLVERINE incident.
Andrew Wheeler is a London-based entertainment journalist.
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