Jim Steranko coverJonathan Ross is one of the UK’s top media personalities – and one of its top comic book fans. Tommy Lee Edwards is a fan-favorite U.S. comic artist who’s become an increasingly in-demand presence behind the scenes of major motion pictures. So when these two get together to do a comic book, it’s no surprise that it has gangsters, vampires and aliens.
Turf, a new four-issue limited series, premieres from Image Comics this April, and is already one of the most anticipated books of the year. It’s a dream come true for the longtime Friday Night host, whose comic fandom over the years has included co-owning a comic shop, naming one of his children after Jack Kirby, and producing the acclaimed documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, about Spider-Man’s reclusive co-creator. He’s close friends with a number of comic creators…very, very close in the case of Neil Gaiman. He’s also married to screenwriter Jane Goldman, who co-wrote the film adaptations of Stardust and Kick-Ass with director Matthew Vaughan.
Edwards is known to many U.S. fans as the artist behind numerous acclaimed books, most recently Marvel 1985 with Mark Millar. In addition to work on such books as The Question and Bullet Points, Edwards has worked on style guides for tie-in materials for such major films as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Batman Begins. Recently, his behind-the-scenes presence expanded when he worked with Chris Weston as a concept artist on the Denzel Washington hit The Book of Eli.
So what happens when you get these guys together? Through the miracle of electronic correspondence, we found out. In their first in-depth joint U.S. interview, Ross and Edwards discuss what led to Turf, their collaboration, and why they love comics.
Newsarama: Guys, let's start by discussing the basic story of Turf -- plot, characters, protagonists, antagonists, miscellaneous... etc... You can fight over who gets to recount it.
Jonathan Ross: Can we take this from the Image site…
Duncan Fegredo coverA 4-issue hard-boiled noir crime thriller with girls, guns, fangs and aliens.
New York, 1929. The height of prohibition. The cops turn a blind eye while the mobs run the city, dealing in guns, girls and illegal liquor. But the arrival of the mysterious Dragonmir Family from Eastern Europe with more of a taste for blood then booze coincides with a series of brutal attacks on the gangsters themselves. As the gangs fall before the fangs, only a handful of mobsters survive. But an unlikely alliance formed between tough guy Eddie Falco and a character from a long way from New York City – a long way from Earth in fact - offers the humans a glimmer of hope. As the strong willed young reporter Susie Dale from the Gotham Herald tries to survive in the middle of the maelstrom, and an ancient prophecy unfolds, no one can guess who’s going to win the battle for this particular slice of Turf.
Nrama: Tell us of how your collaboration came about. How aware were each of you of the other's work?
Tommy Lee Edwards: I knew who Jonathan was, and had seen a few episodes of his Friday Night show on the BBC. I had also seen aspects of his In Search of Steve Ditkodocumentary online.
It wasn't until Mark Millar introduced Jonathan and I, that the two of us realized how much we have in common with our love of comics, film, and certain genres. We have similar tastes, and similar goals when it comes to telling a good story.
Ross: I knew of Tommy most directly because of his work with Mark on 1985, which I loved. But I realized after we started working together that I had admired his stuff elsewhere – his work on The Question for DC, and more recently Bullet Points over at Marvel. So I had kind of been soaking his stuff up and admiring it without necessarily realizing it!
But for me what is extra exciting is seeing Tommy doing his very best work here on Turf! He is really going the extra mile, and it shows in every page. I was very keen to work with him because although I love comics and comic book artists, I am also a big fan of American advertising art and commercial artists from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Tommy seems to be influenced by those guys as much as comic book artists.
Nrama: Jonathan, beyond your obvious fandom for comics, what made you want to branch into writing them at this time?
Ross: No one good reason. I have been creating my own characters and comics since I was a kid – like most fans. None of them would really have been good enough for publication, and many were just horrible rip offs of whatever I as reading at the time. I remember when Claremont and Cockrum rebooted the X-Men way back in the seventies, I started writing and drawing my own thinly-disguised rip off strip – The Mutant Army!
But then a couple of summers back I sat down and read through most of the Atlas books that were published by Martin and Chi Goodman as an assault on Marvel in the ‘70s. Some of those books I loved. And so I started sketching covers for an imaginary whole new comic range. Just a fun thing to do over the summer.
When I told Mark Millar he encouraged me to stop just messing around and really sit down and do something. So I did. I came up with three specific book ideas. Turf is probably the most original and different of the bunch. I offered them all to Tommy and he chose to go with this...and here we are.
Nrama: Tommy, what sort of visual research did you have to do with this story? Your art has a very realistic edge, which makes it more interesting that you're doing a mash-up of all these different genres. In the preview, for example, I like the way the vampires hover; their body language is such that they're not flying through the air but sort of suspended above the ground.
Edwards: There's something creepy about a heavy object floating and slowly controlling its direction. Kinda like the bad-guy with a hatchet staggering slowly toward the helpless victim.
It plays into our dreams. After visiting the “smallest woman in the world” at the NC State Fair, I had nightmares. In my dream, she was floating at the foot of my bed. The tiny and deformed Haitian woman opened her mouth and attempted to say “help me.” But her tongue was cut out.
So a lot of that creepy stuff in Turf comes from Jonathan's and my imagination. It also comes from us loving the sci-fi, horror, and crime genres. That's where doing the visual research comes in. That's where making the story look and feel authentic gives a crashing spaceship in 1929 Coney Island some validity.
Turf is a very scary and exciting and fun story. Much of that would be lost if our Prohibition-era New York was faked. When the clothes, architecture, cars, and characters feel real, the vampires do too.
Ross: I was keen that they not do anything too “supernatural,” so no turning to mist or fog, not transforming into wolves or bats, nothing that couldn’t be vaguely plausible. So the flying seemed like it might look absurd, unless – and here’s what passes for logic – they kind of glide on wind currents like giant bird. In my head they are super strong, resilient, but light and graceful. They catch a breeze and off they go.
Also, I agree with Tommy that slow moving things can be scarier – in a dreamlike way, and that’s what we are shooting for.
Nrama: Jonathan, what were the challenges of writing a comic book script? Tommy was telling me you wanted to put a lot of material in every issue, kind of take an old-school approach to the storytelling. There's certainly a lot of narration and captions in the samples, which sort of gave me a vibe like an old 2000 AD serial. What's the learning process been like for you?
Ross: Well the main challenge for me is that I’ve never done it before, so I am learning issue by issue. The first book is a little too dense with dialogue perhaps, but I like it. I like getting something to read when I pick up a new comic, especially one that is trying to create a new mythology.
There was also a desire to make it look and feel like something that might have appeared in Warrior in the 1980’s, alongside Miracleman and all those great strips that Dez Skinn rounded up.
I used to love the European horror and fantasy books that crept into England during the seventies as well. Sometimes they were mainly illustration, but others were thick with panels and balloons, and I liked both.
The trend now is for big pictures and few words, but that can lead to a rather thin story. Some books you pick up and you have read it while you stand in line to pay...so I wanted to make sure you got more bang for your buck, as they say.
Having said that, from book two onwards Tommy is being given a little more space to flex his artistic muscles! But I have put a lot of time into creating the different characters and trying to plot their respective narrative arcs, and hopefully the books will be a fairly rich, rewarding experience for those who give them a chance. I want them to have a lot of action but also a lot of characters and pace.
Have I succeeded? Well, I guess we’ll find out when they hit the stores in April.
Nrama: Tommy, what's been the biggest challenge of doing a book like this?
Edwards: The research has been very time consuming. After getting a handle on the story and laying-out the first issue, I spent a few days exploring possible locations throughout New York City with my friend and letterer John Workman.
It added to my art's authenticity, and helped Jonathan and I lock down Turf<'s geography. Where does the spaceship crash? What building does this certain crime family hide out in? Where might this speakeasy be located? Where is the warehouse in book two, and when the protagonist escapes the vampires, what bridge does he use?
I expected these challenges, though. New to me were the challenges of a true creator-owned project. I have nearly all the freedom I've ever wanted on a comic. But with that freedom comes so much more responsibility and pressure than a typical book for DC or designing a movie or something. But as usual, the toughest stuff is always the most rewarding.
Nrama: What made Image Comics the right fit for this story?
Edwards: Jonathan and I met with several potential publishers at San Diego Comic-Con last year. Everybody we talked to was interested in Turf and really liked the story and potential.
Image ultimately won us over due to their excitement and genuine love of the project. They love comics the way I do. Jonathan and I have many projects and ideas we'd like to tackle in the future. So I think it also meant a lot to us that Image was a publisher who is interested in us as creators and what we'd have to offer beyond Turf.
Ross: Yes, they just seemed to like the ideas the most. Everyone wanted to work with Tommy, of course. But I felt that Image really liked the ideas behind the book and weren’t just keen to get involved with me for the novelty of it!
Nrama: Tommy, how did you develop the look of the alien civilization? You actually built a model of the alien spaceship...
Edwards: Turftakes place eighty years ago. Going with a retro design for the aliens would be too obvious for me. So I went with a mix, and am trying to give the aliens and the tech a more timeless feel.
Basically, it ended up as Jack Kirby meets Manga. Not sure if other people will see it, but that's what I have in my head when drawing our primary Alien character. And yeah, I built a spaceship, based on my initial sketches, out of old model kits, a blender, a vacuum, old toys, and art supplies. It was a fun project for my kids and I, and works great as a model to draw from.Nrama: Jonathan, a question you might have an interesting perspective on: Creators from England -- and okay, a few Scotsmen and at least one Irishman -- have really been a who's who of creative innovators in comics over the last several decades. Most of these creators, in turn, cite many of their major influences as Silver Age and 1970s Marvel and DC reprints. As someone with a unique perspective on popular culture in the UK, what do you feel is that unique chemistry between the US and UK attitudes that has resulted in so many memorable books?
Ross: Well, when we talk about comics we tend to mean American comics, so it’s inevitable that we should be influenced by the greats from the period when we all first started reading them. I think in the case of both Moore and Gaiman, you can see the influence of British comics more, and of course so many outside influences on what they write and how they do it.
But Millar’s generation – and I think of him as being part if the same wave that includes Morrison and Ennis and Bendis and I suppose Frank Millar – are more like Tarantino, in that they really have absorbed this stuff in a primal way, and can take an old story or character and give it a very exciting, sort of post modern spin, rich in references from a variety of sources.
They mix up movies with TV shows with their love of old comics and characters and serve up something new. Us Brits tend to obsess slightly more over the American-ness in our comics. I don't think that people who were born and grew up in the USA can imagine the thrill we felt just reading Spider-Man, for example, and seeing it take place in New York City. The size and scale of America is impressive, and even if it's a subconscious reaction, I think it excites us more.
But ultimately, I don’t necessarily think the UK angle is that important. I think the age of the creators themselves plays a bigger part. In 15 years time, I suspect that the comic landscape will look drastically different because the writers and artists of that generation will be as influenced by video games and Internet sites as they are movies and TV and comics themselves.
Nrama: Tommy, with The Book of Eli doing well at the box office and with reviews, will you be doing more film projects like that in the future, where you're really extensively designing the look of the film? With artists such as Frank Miller, John Cassaday and Kaare Andrews moving into directing, do you see yourself heading that route?
Edwards: My heart broke a little yesterday, when I had to turn down a job as concept artist for a new movie produced by Spielberg and Michael Bay. I love movies, and see filmmaking as the ultimate storytelling tool. That's what I studied in college, and that's where most of my storytelling technique comes from.So yeah, I really want to do more film, and direct, and animate stuff, and write more, and on and on. Right now, my focus is Turf. When I'm done, I hope to jump onto a couple films that are on the horizon. And then more comics!
Nrama: Jonathan, I heard this dreadful rumor that your wife has co-written some horrific movie with a young girl going around violently killing people, and even worse, using naughty words! I am shocked and appalled! Were you aware this was going on? Do you really think that sort of thing will fly with Americans? Honestly, you might have to give that woman a good talking-to.
Ross: What? This is news to me. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I will go and ask what she has been up to and get back to you ASAP!Nrama: Tell us about all these fellows you've got lined up to do variant covers. I think I might have heard of this Steranko fellow in one or two places, can't be sure.
Edwards: Jim Steranko was the first name to fly out of Jonathan's mouth when we started thinking about variant covers. We are huge fans, and his work fits Turflike a glove. We really wanted to find artists that we both liked to illustrate variant covers for us. I'm honored to say that we have some of my favorite and some of the all-time best illustrators working with us.
Beyond Steranko, some other artists providing variant covers for the four issues of Turfare William Stout, Sergio Toppi, Duncan Fegredo, Bernard Chang, John Paul Leon, David Lafuente, John Romita Jr., and Travis Charest.
Ross: I can’t describe the buzz I got when Jim Steranko, one of the greatest of all time, said he would do a cover! I love all the other guys too, of course, but Steranko! It doesn’t really get any better than that.Nrama: Jonathan, here is a place to impress people with your comics fandom. Describe the great highlights of your collection, be they back issues, original art, or something completely strange. What, in your opinion, is uniquely appealing about this medium? Also, and this is a complete fan wank question, what's it been like chatting with Steve Ditko?
Ross: Well, I’ve got most every book I want. I have all the Silver Age Marvels, and many of the Silver Age DC books that I like. I also have lots of lovely Golden Age books too, like all the Kirby Captain Americas and the first 100 Batmans.
I have a complete run of certain Golden Age books I really like – Planet Comics, Police Comics, Plastic Man, Sensation Comics, Wonder Woman. Then mostly it’s Simon and Kirby stuff or weird characters like The Spectre that I really like. Have a huge collection of pre-code horror books and all the EC books.
As for art, I have covers and pin up or splash pages by all my favorite artists – Ditko, Kirby, Ploog, Eisner, Starlin, Wrightson, Romita Sr. and Jr., Colan, Kaluta, Kane, Kubert, Toth, Gulacy, Nino, Buscema and so on.
I have a few complete Ditko stories from the old anthology books that Marvel used to produce, and covers from all of Kirby’s Fourth World books, plus a beautiful piece of color art he did to help sell DC on the idea of the New Gods.I also have a couple of stories that he wrote and illustrated for the unpublished African American Romance book to be called Soul Love that he planned with DC as a companion to In the Days of the Mob and Spirit World. Really weird but lovely. Too many to hang all at once.
Meeting Ditko was remarkable. A fascinating, inspirational character. I think he really is a unique human, in a way that most of us can’t really understand. It was one of the greatest experiences of my adult life – one of those moments where you almost feel your 12-year-old-self is standing alongside you...
Nrama: Do you see Turfas a one-off story, or something that could be ongoing? Also, given your work in other media, any plans to do it in TV or film, preferably some grand exclusive revelation that Newsarama can print first?
Edwards: There are actually several storylines we could follow to make a sequel. If we chose to leave NYC, I'd personally love to follow one of my favorite characters into space for a whole new kind of Turf.Ross: At the moment, I see it as a self contained four book series. We could take it on, I guess, but I don’t think I would feel as excited as I do with this first run. I would like to do one of the other three ideas I fleshed out next, but I wouldn’t rule out picking up the Turf story again.
I have a killer scene in a prison that I talked through with Tommy, if we do continue. Mr. Mark Millar has already joked that if we do head off to space for a sequel it should be called Astro Turf.
Nrama: What's next for both of you, and anything you'd care to discuss that we haven't talked about yet?
Edwards: 2010 is already shaping up to be rather dramatic for the both of us. The Book of Eli kicked off the year, and I've got three possible film projects down the road. And beyond Turflaunching in April, my Prince of Persia graphic novel from Disney Press comes out this spring. To celebrate these comics, I'll be attending the typical conventions like NYCC and SDCC, and new shows in France and the UK.Ross: Tommy and I are thinking of launching a cologne together, and a range of lingerie for men. Mangerie. As you can see from the photo of us together, it will start at XL and go up to XXXXL. Tommy is wearing one of the prototype thongs in the pic, hence his slightly pre-occupied expression.
Join the battle for Turf from Image this April.Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.