NYCC 09: Origin and Foundation: Dave Elliott on Radical

NYCC 09: Dave Elliott on Radical

Hotwire, by Steve Pugh

Fresh off of Diamond Distribution naming Radical Publishing their “Best New Publisher of the Year 2008”, I sat down with David at Yakitori in Manhattan to eat bacon wrapped scallops and discuss his path to Radical, and the future of the new kid on the block of comics publishers.

Bryan Edward Hill: First, let me congratulate you on the award from Diamond. That must feel like vindication for all of your hard work. Before we get to Radical Publishing, why don’t you give readers a crash course in how you started working in comics.

Dave Elliott: Jesus… Uh, well… I know I first decided I was going to work in comics by age 11. I was selling drawings of TV and comic characters at school when I was 8. Don’t remember the first comic I ever picked up, my mom started giving them to me before I could talk.

I studied Printmaking and Illustration at college. My first work after graduating was doing storyboard work for Richard Williams animation and Halas & Batchelor. Actually, while at college I did a couple of weeks of unpaid clean-up work on the animation for Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

BEH: How’d you land that?

DE: One of my best friends was the son of the head of the British Board of Film Censors and he showed some of my work to Alan Parker. I later tried out for Another Country for Alan, but my style was a little too comicky for the project.

After that I was doing a lot of illustration work, but still spending way too much money on comics (those days you could afford to buy the entire line of Marvel comics).

BEH: Ahhh, I figured you for a DC boy.

DE: I started out on DC Comics, Batman, Superman, Hawkman and Aquaman, then switched to Marvel just before Jack Kirby left for DC, so when he did I started to buy both, so I was never really a DC or a Marvel guy, just read the comics that I liked. I should mention that my biggest comic inspirations were all the British comics like TV21, Look & Learn, Eagle, Boys World, Countdown, Look-In and then 2000 AD. The art in those comics were years ahead of anything else. Then came Tintin and Asterix.

BEH: So getting us back to how you got into the business…

DE: Sorry, but that stuff is still great to look at and a lot of the stories held up fairly well too, the writers didn’t write down as much as they did later.

Anyway, I first started in comics working for the legendary Dez Skinn. I didn’t realize at the time, but he was quite the controversial character in the industry. Warrior was just wrapping up and he was still involved with Eclipse on the material they were reprinting from it. My first ever job in comics was cleaning up and re-inking a couple of Marvelman (Miracleman) stories by Don Lawrence for a 3D special they were doing. I was pissed off with Dez later when I found out he was selling my inks as originals. He just smiled and said that they were “originals” and he didn’t put Don Lawrence’s name on them, but they were of Don’s artwork… so I at least managed to get a beer out of him.

I then worked as his art director, editor, managing editor, production manager and sometimes even cover artist at Quality Comics when they took over reprinting the 2000 Ad material from Titan. It was during this time that I was introduced to my ATOMEKA partner Garry Leach, who did such a great job inking issues #4 and #5 of Freedom Formula for Radical recently.

After a year of that I finally started to get more artwork gigs at 2000 AD and Marvel UK. Most of it was inking work as I could do that reasonably quickly. In fact it was there that I would meet David Hine, Richard Starkings and Doug Braithwaite who I’ll be seeing this weekend at NY Comic-Con.

BEH: David Hine is quite the up and coming writer.

DE: Hah, hah, ha… I’m sorry, but Dave has been writing and drawing great stuff for years, so it is funny to hear him referred to as “up and coming”. Dave and myself were both inkers at Marvel UK so I knew first hand what it was like when you tried to get work as a writer or penciler but every editor had you pigeon holed. That’s why when I was hired as publisher for Tundra UK and Dave wanted to pitch me a project, I was going to treat him just the same as a Steve Moore or a Neil Gaiman.

The project he pitched was Strange Embrace. I read the treatment and immediately loved it. It was dark and disturbing, but filled with character and emotion. Kevin Eastman agreed with me, so we commissioned the project. When the scripts came in I was blown away. I read everyone and couldn’t stop myself from reading it as a reader not an editor. Dave says I asked him to change just one thing in the entire series, I can’t remember even that.

I was super-happy to have Richard Starkings collect it in color through Image last year. I cannot recommend that book enough.

Funny how certain things come full circle… I’m working with Dave on not one but two projects now at Radical. We’re also going to be republishing another Tundra UK/Atomeka originated project, The Lords of Misrule as well.

BEH: The Lords of Misrule, what’s that?

DE: When I started Tundra UK with Kevin Eastman, and my wife Helen, I also hired two great editors from Marvel UK, Steve White and Andy Seddon. Steve’s two best friends at the time were John Tomlinson and Dan Abnett, two other Marvel editors. All three of them were also very good writers and they had just finished a great mini-series there with artist Gary Erskine, called the Knights of Pendragon So Steve asked me if it was okay if they pitched a couple of projects.

One was Pale Horses, that became Hypersonic at Dark Horse, while the other was The Lords of Misrule. For the graphic novel we got Gary Erskine to do the interiors, but by the time we decided to do the series, he was working on Pale Horses, so we contracted Peter Snejbjerg. It was originally supposed to be in color, although Peter’s line art is so strong, you wouldn’t know it when Dark Horse printed it in black and white.

Misrule was a chilling horror story that played off of all the urban myths, so I’m just very happy it can be finally colored and all collected together finally in a single book.

BEH: You also gave Warren Ellis some of his first work, what was Warren like back then?

DE: Warren was one of those really annoying guys who always spoke with such confidence as though they were always right.

BEH: Was he?

DE: Yeah, usually… (laughs) I worked with Warren at Deadline, John Brown publishing, Atomeka and then Tundra. Warren was one of those idea engines that just couldn’t stop. He is still the energizer bunny of ideas today.

BEH: And you’re printing his Hotwire mini-series at Radical now as well.

DE: Well, yes and no. Hotwire was something that was originally written by Warren for Tundra, but this Hotwire is only based on that original story. Steve Pugh has completely re-written the story and added a lot to it. Steve was the original co-creator for the character and was halfway through drawing the book when Tundra shut shop. Steve however carried on his love for the project and has been developing it for years. So when Barry and myself finally got Radical up and running, I knew what I wanted Steve to do as soon as he finished Shark-Man.

BEH: That’s the second time you’ve given an artist the chance to show he can write as well.

DE: No, I’ve done that before with other artists. It was one of the main reasons Garry Leach and myself started A1 20 years ago. Every artist has a story inside them, even if it is just a three pager. We just wanted to give them (and ourselves) the chance.

BEH: From working with you, I know that you get the best material out of your writers, no matter their genre or perspective. It’s a beautiful skill. Do you have a general philosophy you use when editing a book?

DE: Sure, there are two possible hats I can wear. If it is something the company owns and if it is something the creators brings to us.

In your instance, with Orphan, I approached it from the standpoint of helping you tell the story you wanted to do as best as you could. That sometimes meant pushing you to explore areas of the characters that you hadn’t considered before. It doesn’t mean changing the story, but it can add greater depth to the characters without sacrificing anything. It is about offering you suggestions and also being a bouncing board for ideas. Ideas in our heads often sound different when spoken aloud. It sounds weird but I’ve done it myself. I’ve pitched ideas to Barry (Levine) and as soon as the words have left my lips, I know he going to think I’m crazy and tell me “what are you thinking?”

BEH: It seems that every week there’s a new publisher, new series of books, new statements about how ‘awesome’ they are, blah, blah, blah. What made you decide that working with Radical was the right choice?

DE: Well when Barry and myself started “Radical” it wasn’t called that. Over ten years ago, I published a comic called Sharky at Image and the day the first issue came out I received a phone call from Barry wanting to option it. Little would I know then that I would spend the next three or more years doing development for his company Takoma Entertainment and later Brigade Pictures. So I guess we could just as easily have become Takoma Comics or Brigade Publishing if we’d managed to raise the money back then.

Over the years Barry and myself stayed in touch so it was a weird feeling in 2007 when he called up telling me we were finally going to achieve our dream.

BEH: I was around a little in that first year. It was war. What was the most challenging part of Radical: Year One?

DE: Wearing way too many hats. Being co-publisher, head of sales, Editor-in Chief as well as editor on every project (including the many that we helped creators develop but just didn’t happen for one reason or other), developing all our initial marketing plans… It was just too much. I saw Barry in NY in December and he thought I looked like $###. I think I’d aged twenty years in 18 months. We didn’t have our full funding in place so we all just had to suck it in and do the work. We had a couple of mishaps, but fortunately only we really spotted them.

BEH: You and your British humility. I can attest that it was your knowledge and your relationships with creators that made the difference. I remember what you did with Steve Moore and Hercules: The Thracian Wars...

DE: Well with Hercules the first thing I remember saying to Barry was no sandals and togas. After other Hercules projects in the past, I believed that ours should be character based. Barry and myself went back and forth, entertaining a few pitches from other writers, but I kept coming back to Steve Moore. While I knew in the US he was relatively unknown, I knew Steve would be the person that would give us a truly grounded, much darker version of the character than anyone had done before. For anyone who remembers his “Father Shandor” series from Warrior, you’ll know what I mean.

Then once Steve had given a brilliant outline, I went to my old friend Jim Steranko to give us not only our first cover, but also the look for the character. We wanted something mythical and symbolic, I knew Jim would give us that. Well, Jim knocked it out of the park. It was gorgeous and his single classic piece of artwork captured everything that Steve had put down in words.

Then there were the other characters and the world to create. I had previously worked with Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop on another project, so asked Richard if they’d be interested in working on Hercules. It’s funny, before we had even drawn page one of the comic, Barry had taken this material and had the project optioned all before San Diego Comic-Con of 2007.

Then after that we met with Imaginary Friends Studio and the work they did was nothing sort of amazing. They did an equally good job on Caliber as well.

BEH: Let’s talk genre. What would you say Radical’s focus is? Sci-Fi? Horror? Action? What can fans expect from the Radical Publishing experience?

DE: Our focus is quality and high concept ideas. Sure the majority will probably fall into the genres you mentioned, but Caliber is an Arthurian western. Where do we put that? Western or fantasy? City of Dust is sci-fi and horror. Freedom Formula is drama, its action and its sci-fi as well.

BEH: Yeah, what drew me into Radical was talking to you and seeing how much you agreed that you can elevate story quality in genre without making the end product pretentious and boring.

Let’s talk Hollywood. One of the criticisms of new publishers like Radical is that they don’t really care about comics. They just want to make intellectual properties that are easy to sell to Hollywood and the fans always get screwed in the end. Convince me that Radical is different. Convince me that Radical loves its’ readers.

Shrapnel #1
Shrapnel #1
DE: $1 comics. Hercules and Caliber were both square-bound, glossy, fully painted, for just $1. Shrapnel #1 was a 48 paged book for only $2.99. Come on, just look at any of these… (a set of Radical books were spread over the table and chairs surrounding us) Then ask me if we care about our readers. Anyone who has read them knows. I’m not saying that they’ll be everybody’s cup of tea, but you’ll feel the care that went into these books. I’ve staked my entire career on that method. I can’t produce bad material and neither can Barry. You may not like it, but you’re a real grinch if you think they’re bad.

BEH: I’m almost convinced. What do you think is the most important promise to keep with new and existing fans?

DE: Just that we will always try to do our best. We have striven to make sure our books always come out on time, in fact the first complaint we received was that our books were shipping early. There may be a book that comes out late, but I won’t push an artist to do substandard work to get it out a week earlier. Quality wins out every time with me.

BEH: So Barry Levine is pretty much your firewall against people influencing your stories, and he allows you to work in peace?

DE: No, it’s much more different than that. Barry and myself work very closely together with our creators. Barry has an instinctive feel for what works. Sometimes we disagree. Sometimes he wins, sometimes I do, but the project is always the better for it. There are projects that Barry gets very close to and I follow his lead on, others where I work more closely with the creator, like with Sam Sarkar on Caliber or Steve Niles on City of Dust.

BEH: All right, you talked me down.

I always check in with you to see the future. Everyone’s chasing online media, but they don’t know what to do with it. What are Radical Publishing’s plans? Are they expanding into more than just comics and movies?

DE: Ah, we have plans. To be honest, my focus is more and more on the actually development of the property with the creator. We are working with our partner Stormlion on the online and mobile phone aspects of publishing. The future is coming, but we have to look beyond just tomorrow and further down the path than that.

BEH: Nice to see a publisher not fighting the future. Okay, here’s the test. Pretend I’m a new reader. I’ve got twenty bucks to spend on comics. Normally it goes other places, but today I’m looking at new stuff. Why should I spend the money on a Radical Publishing title?

DE: New readers are more likely to be influenced by film and TV. They want more than just one genre and they’re also not going to be spending all their money on comics, so what we are looking to appeal to is the person who loves comics but only wants to spend $20 a month. You can’t buy all the Batman or Spider-Man books for that, let alone an entire line… I just want people to know that the Radical “R” on the book is a stamp of quality. That when someone picks up one of our titles they know that they are going to get something very cool and maybe next year they can pick up a sequel. I’ve long had the mainstream approach to graphic novels, that anything produced of good quality will always rise to the surface and that sequels come when they are ready and not forced.

The other thing is that you have to make the retailers aware of what you are doing. You can’t expect people to go in and ask a retailer to order something, most people just wander in and if it isn’t there you have lost the sale.

When we were gearing up at the beginning of last year, most of the company got on the phone and between us all called every retailer we had a number for. That was at least 3000. I personally called the top 400 stores. It was exactly how I launched A1 years ago. Grab a phone and go ‘grass-roots’. Over the years you see what works and what doesn’t. I prefer the personal touch every time.

BEH: You’ve raised some great expectations to customers and retailers alike. Better reach them. So what can we expect from you and Radical in 2009?

DE: Ahhhh, now that would be telling. Barry is going to be making some fairly substantial announcements at New York Comic Con. Head to our panel at 5:15 on Saturday where he’ll be joined by Steve Pugh, David Hine, Rick Remender, Ian Edginton, Arthur Suydam, Sam Sarkar and Joltin’ Jim Steranko… You won’t regret it.

BEH: Anything you personally want to do more of this year?

DE: When you’re a creator and you spend all your time helping others get their ideas together, you always feel the longing to create more yourself. When I came up with a really different take on Aladdin I had hoped to write the series myself, but I was just too busy and Barry wanted to put it on the front burner, so Ian Edginton wrote it instead.

BEH: Was that hard?

DE: A little. Ian is an old friend and I love his work, so asking him to do it was fairly painless. I’d originally written it with more of a Pirates of the Caribbean meets Star Wars feel to it, but after talking with Barry and Ian it was decided to go darker in tone, more Lord of the Rings with it. The premise is still pretty much the same, we kept Sinbad and two genies in it, on a trip across the world. I’m very happy with the way it is now, plus Patrick Reilly’s artwork is wonderful and Arthur Suydam’s cover blew me away.

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You can visit Radical Publishing at www.radicalcomics.com and drop by their booth (#1415) at NY Comic Con.

BRYAN EDWARD HILL is a storyteller, filmmaker and journalist. Currently he is writing alongside Ron Marz in Broken Trinity: Aftermath for Top Cow Productions. Visit his blog: www.thebryanhillproject.com

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