Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Starblazer memories

Today, Bear Alley is one year old. I've already talked about some of my experiences with fanzines so it seems apt that today's column should be about my experiences as a professional comic strip writer. Because, yes, I wrote two (count 'em) comic strips way back in the late 1980s. OK, so it's not quite the glittering career that some folks have had but at least I can say that, for two whole months, comic strips I had written were on the newsstands. And this, dear reader, is how it happened...

I'm amazed at how many people remember Starblazer. It's now over fifteen years since the last issue appeared but the Starblazer pocket books appeared regular as clockwork throughout the 1980s at the rate of two new titles a month so I guess over the nearly twelve years it appeared a vast army of young science fiction fans, high on Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica, sought them out.

The series began with a single title in April 1979, 'The Omega Experiment' which had an excellent cover... it leapt out from amongst the Commando pocket libraries and I grabbed it with both hands. The artwork inside was a little less inspiring but I coughed up my 12 pence and read it on the bus home. I was about to celebrate my 17th birthday and science fiction was all I read at that time. I was frighteningly dedicated to the genre. When it came to choosing a subject for a school project, I chose science fiction magazines which began my first tentative steps as a digger at the coal face of what academics call "pulp culture". I don't want to turn this into a huge autobiographical sprawl (and I covered some of this yesterday) but it was luck that got me back into comics in the mid-1980s but my interest in research that made me stick with them.

In 1986 I was corresponding with an artist by the name of Tony O'Donnell and we put together an article about Starblazer for a fanzine called Fusion. Tony had been an occasional contributor to Starblazer since 1983 but was more regularly to be found in the pages of Buddy and Spike at that time (you can find out a lot more about Tony's early career via this excellent interview by Garen Ewing). Tony and I were both fans of an at-the-time unidentified South American artist who had been drawing stories for Starblazer since its early days whose name turned out to be Enrique Alcatena. A brilliant artist of science fiction and fantasy, Alcatena also turned his hand to some superbly drawn historical strips in Buddy and Victor, as well as a couple of SF epics like 'Sabor's Army' in Warlord. In 1988, 4-Winds published his graphic novel Moving Fortress which had originally appeared in the Argentinean magazine Skorpio, and, before long, he was inking Hawkworld for DC, his work championed in the US by Tim Truman.

It must have been in the summer of 1987 that Tony mentioned D. C. Thomson were looking for writers who could script some fantasy stories for Starblazer. They had already tried a few role-playing titles ("where YOU make the decisions") in the wake of the hugely successful Fighting Fantasy books. I wasn't a big fan of sword and sorcery but, according to Tony, they weren't necessarily after Conan-style sword-wielding barbarians. Since the only s&s series I liked were Mike Moorcock's Elric and Karl Edward Wagner's Kane I thought that an interesting hero could be concocted along the lines of a naive young swordsman whose homelands have been overthrown and who now wanders around raising money to finance a mercenary army to retake the lands of his forefathers. The anti-Conan elements probably had their roots in Elric and, if I remember correctly, where Wagner's Kane was cursed with living forever (like the Biblical Cain), my hero would be cursed to die and would do so by the end of book three -- it was a fantasy so, of course, it had to be a trilogy!

With a hero to hand, all I had to do was cobble together a plot and send it off to Thomsons. The money was as good as in the bank.

I haven't had any luck finding that original draft but, needless to say, my literary masterpiece was cruelly rejected by the editors of Starblazer.

In the summer of 1988 I thought I'd try my hand at writing a Starblazer script again. By then I was writing regularly for the newsletter of the Association of Comics Enthusiasts (A.C.E.) run by Dennis Gifford and had written a couple of interviews for the fanzine After Image published by Ace Comics. I had articles due in Golden Fun and Biggles News (a Dutch Biggles fanzine) and, in my usual naive way, I thought I was getting somewhere as a writer despite the fact that only one of my published articles had earned me any money.

Rather than put together a new synopsis, I dug out the story I had pieced together a year earlier and started writing it up as a script. I can't plot my way out of a paper bag so it looked like the smart option -- write the story, see where it went then write the synopsis based on the finished story.

I'm not recommending this to anyone, by the way. It's time consuming and there's no guarantee you're going to see any reward for all your hard effort at the end of it. What I didn't realise at the time was that the creative process wasn't necessarily down to me singular. I had the notion that everything I wrote down on paper would be what was printed in the book, omitting any contribution that the editors or artists make. I guess until somebody tells you how much input a good editor can have you don't know. Twenty years on, and having been an editor on various magazines in the interim, I have a lot more respect for how hard editors work.

Anyway, to get back to the point, having written out most of the story, I submitted a second, fairly detailed synopsis (now that I knew where the story was going!). The title was 'Assassin of Gods'. This would be around August 1988. In September I went to UKCAC (the UK Comic Art Convention) and met up with Tony O'Donnell again (I'm pretty sure we'd met in person for the first time the year before). Tony had some very exciting news -- two of the editors who worked on Starblazer were attending the Convention and so was Ian Kennedy.

Ian Kennedy! A brilliant artist whose cover art on Starblazer was one of the main reasons I kept buying them.

Tony and I arranged to meet up with the two Bills -- editor Bill Graham and his deputy editor Bill McLoughlin -- and Ian. It was in the student bar at the Institute of Education where everyone used to meet up and I suspect it was pretty alien compared to the hallways of Albert Square, Dundee. There was a lot of noise, a lot of drunks, even during the lunchtime session, but a lot of creative energy (if you could look beyond the noise and drunkenness). I suspect Ian, at fifty, was the oldest person in the room. I may be doing them a disservice but I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't totally bemused by the whole thing. Thomsons may be a fun factory, but I imagine its fairly sober fun.

It's difficult to remember what was said -- it's nearly twenty years ago, after all -- but a few things do stand out. I remember these very charming gentlemen introducing themselves and shaking hands. Our corner was a calm little oasis in the turmoil as they talked about Starblazer, science fiction and a new project they were hoping to launch. This was to be a series of graphic novels, larger in format to Starblazer with (I think) 96 pages of artwork. They had dummied up some examples using old Starblazer artwork. I presume the dummies had Ian Kennedy covers although I can't remember for sure.

Ian himself was equally charming. Both Tony and I managed to squeeze in some questions about his career but the only thing I can remember was that he told us he used to sharpen his pencil so it had a very long lead nib when he was pencilling out his covers. Why that should stick in my memory I don't know.

(Before posting this I sent a draft over to Tony who recalls that he showed Ian some of the artwork from his latest Starblazer. As it turned out, it was also to be his last. "Within a few months I was heavily involved with drawing my first Star Romance Library and then came Ghostbusters," he told me earlier today. Many years later, Tony recorded an interview with Ian which can be found at the British Comic Art website.)

However, the really important news as far as I was concerned was when I mentioned having submitted a synopsis recently and had yet to receive my rejection letter. Bill Graham then told me that he remembered it and I wouldn't be getting a rejection. They would take the story once a few problems were ironed out.

I resisted the urge to leap up and punch the air and casually accepted a pint from Ian Kennedy.

And that's where I'm going to leave it for this evening. More Starblazer memories soon, including how 'Assassin of Gods' became 'The Cursed Land' and how I killed Bill Graham and Bill McLoughlin.

(* The images above are from Starblazer and are © D. C. Thomson. From the top: Enrique Alcatena's second Starblazer, artwork from no. 16 'The Secret of Soma'; the cover of issue 1 by Friza (well, that's what the signature looks like); a page from Tony O'Donnell's last Starblazer, no. 230, 'A Plague of Horsemen'; and the cover for same by Ian Kennedy. You can find out more about Starblazer in Jeremy Briggs' 'Blazing Through the Secrecy'.)


  1. Hi Steve,it seems our destinies are intertwined.Not as scary as it reads-I have been in contact with one Tony O'Donnell on an ad hoc basis over the last 2 years.Even sent me a hand written interview which I foolishly sent back to him for proffing without scanning it.This was in conjunction with some artwork he did for a Starhawk board game for Spike.Also the famous Enrique Alcatena contacted me some time ago with a few quick words.Photo and blurb here,plus some other dude?!
    It just seems funny how 2 names you speak of have also been in touch with me.Queue eerie music....

  2. Hi,

    I too have fond memories of Starblazers and still have a complete set stored under my bed. I even managed to get Grant Morrison to sign the ones he did. By the way, there's a fair sized Wikipedia entry on them.

    The Cursed land was one I remember, and it was near the end of the series run when Starblazer became far more fantasy orientated. The one thing I think they did wrong was their brief try at the gamebook style issue.




Click on the above pic to visit our sister site Bear Alley Books