An Interview With Comic Artist Lee Sullivan
By Ian M. Cullen
One thing I’ve been trying to do of late with SciFi Pulse is split the coverage between television and comics – and perhaps do a few more interviews with people from the world of comics. With this in mind I took it upon myself to approach Lee Sullivan – who is best known in the UK for his work on Doctor Who Magazine, among many other things.
Lee has been working in comics since 1983 and over the course of his career has worked on comic books as diverse as Transformers, Tekworld and Robocop.
SciFiPulse: Having read your brief biography it seems like you more or less fell into the world of comic book art via the introduction to John Higgins. Could you tell us a little more about how you got your start?
Lee Sullivan: In comics, really by accident. I was already an illustrator – four years at Further Education College on a vocational wildlife & technical illustration course; 5 years at British Aerospace as a graphic designer. When Doctor Who Weekly (as it was then) appeared, I thought – that’s the job for me! I was a big fan of Doctor Who on TV and comics since they started. I laboured mightily to produce two or three pages of samples but I didn’t have any real idea of showing them to anyone. They took me ages to do – scenes I transcribed from the first Who novel, Doctor Who and The Daleks.
Then I met David Lloyd who was producing backup strips (Abslom Daak was one of them) at the time at a Who convention and found out the timescales and rate of pay. It seemed impossible for me that I could ever work fast enough to earn a living.
So I thought ‘that’s not the job for me!’ and went freelance in 1983, working for the next five years as an illustrator in local advertising, during which time I met artist John Higgins in a local art store. He was assembling a team to help out on a music magazine comic strip he was producing called The BizNiz. I mentioned that I could do lettering and showed him the Who samples (which will never see the light of day).
My lettering wasn’t anywhere near good enough, but he liked the colour airbrushing on my advertising samples and so I coloured the line work that was being handled by Steve Yeowell. I think John was writing the strip – and was also probably doing the excellent colouring for the [Batman story] Killing Joke at the time; which has been replaced so disgracefully in the latest reprint.
The BizNiz was very short-lived, but John took me under his wing for a while and introduced me to the guys at Marvel UK. I did some colour covers for Ian Rimmer who was editing Transformers and about a year later I had learned enough from closely observing the methodology to ask for strip work from Simon Furman, who had taken over Transformers and was also the writer.
After a while working on Transformers, I asked for a Who strip from Richard Starkings who was Senior Editor of Marvel UK’s comic strips and a fellow Who-fan. He originally gave me a story that Dougie Braithwaite eventually drew, but that changed when he saw that I could draw likenesses in Transformers – specifically Richard Branson – and instead put me on to the ‘Planet of the Dead’ story. Written by John Freeman, it featured the shape-shifting creatures Gwanzulum posing as the first seven Doctors and dead companions.
That was considered a success, and I thereafter worked on occasional stories for DWM, particularly Dalek ones, which meant that by a very circuitous route I arrived where I wanted to be and ironically contributing to the Abslom Daak cycle.
SciFi Pulse: Have you always been influenced by comic books? If so, what comics would you say really triggered your imagination and spurred you on into the world of drawing them?
Lee Sullivan: I was heavily influenced when I was young by strips in TV Comic (Doctor Who by Neville Main) and everything in TV Century 21; lots of stuff in the Eagle of the 1960s; Countdown & TV Action in the 1970s, then found Marvel and DC books. My real heroes art-wise are the criminally overlooked Ron Turner and Keith Watson, when he was drawing Dan Dare. In those days there was no way of re-watching TV programs and very few published pictures from them either, and the strips based on them were a huge reinforcement of the programmes. In fact, they were almost more canonical than the programmes themselves, as you could re-read them. I still think of Davros as a re-working of Dalek history. Yarvelling and Zolfian – they’re the kiddies.
Because I always drew from the time I could hold a pencil, strips always seemed like the natural thing to do, though by the time I started ‘growing-up’ I had drifted away from the idea. But whenever I drew people, people would tend to mention that they looked like they belonged in a comic strip!
SciFi Pulse: One of the many projects you worked on that caught my eye was William Shatners Tekworld – obviously based on his TekWar novels. How did all that come about – and what kind of brief were you given in order to create that world for Marvel Comics?
Lee Sullivan: Marvel/Epic, actually.
I drew RoboCop for Marvel US for a couple of years; when the licence ended, Evan Skolnik (whom I’d worked with on Robo) suggested me to Fabian Nicieza who was editor of TekWorld. It was still being set up, and for some reason the artist originally slated to work on it suddenly wasn’t. I made strenuous efforts to get the gig; I drew two full covers showing the lead character that was obviously based on Shatner. Modified, they became covers 1 & 2; I got the job.
The editorial team kept the timeframe of the novels – the first story was the first Tek novel ‘TekWar’ – with flying cars etc. I was pretty much given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted and – importantly for me – produce full line art for the book. I had found it difficult to provide pencils that anyone could ink well, and the results were much better.
As a big Trek & Kirk fan, it was thrilling to know that Shatner was vetting the stuff I was producing. Later on, when a TV movie was in production I got a call from him. I was out. Down the shops. I got an answer-phone message saying he’d ring back. I waited by the phone. For a week or so. I needed provisions. I went to the shops. He rang. He left another message. I was climbing the walls by then and rang him! He was very friendly and invited the team to visit the set. In Toronto, which of course, we did.
At his request we shifted the look of the comic to match the look of the TV series; closer to the present day and modified the characters to look more like the actors.
He was very kind and also surprisingly generous with his time – he was directing the movie. But there was a moment when I was sitting next to him in the back of a people-carrier (new to me at the time and strongly resembling a shuttlecraft) and he was taking the mick out of my accent, when I just caught his profile and voice and – Gawd I’m in a spaceship with Captain Kirk!
However, the TV series that followed failed to save the comic from the ‘night of the long knives’, which Marvel underwent in the mid-90s. A botched series of corporate decisions led to many titles and personnel being axed. TekWorld was one and all the editors I had schmoozed were axed too; and I was back to being a UK artist (though I never left Caddington – unbelievably, looking back, it was all done by FedEx!).
SciFi Pulse: Doctor Who is probably one of the many things you’re best known for in the UK – with you having done strips for Doctor Who Magazine – as well as for the Wwbsite and numerous other Doctor Who projects. Is there anything regarding Doctor Who from a visual perspective that you haven’t done yet – but would like too?
Lee Sullivan: Design stuff for the show. There’s a version of the TARDIS interior on my website which I submitted to the show’s crew, but it was really just to say ‘here I am if you need another perspective’ They said nice things. It didn’t lead to anything, but I’ve worked a bit for [visual effects designer] Mike Tucker, storyboarding for some effects sequences he was filming.
SciFi Pulse: While keeping on the subject of Doctor Who, of all the comic book writers for Doctor Who comics which you’ve worked with, who sparks your visual imagination the most? And what is it about their writing that appeals to you as an artist?
Lee Sullivan: Oh, writers – splendid chaps, all of them! An artist’s job is to realise as fully as possible the writer’s ideas. I’ve enjoyed working with all the writers – I’ve been lucky to work with writers with a wide range of styles. It’d be interesting to work with Paul Cornell again, but he’s too successful!
SciFi Pulse: This is somewhat of a technical question. As an artist what would you say are the dos and don’ts for aspiring comic book writers – as in, what can they do to help the artist and what should they avoid doing.
Lee Sullivan: A while back, I assembled a ‘writer/artist guide for comic-book work’ which is on my website; various luminaries thoughts plus some of my own.
I think one of my least favourite situations is when a writer asks for action and consequences to happen in the same frame; for example: first guy comes through door, second guy hits him and first guy crashes into table. You might get away with the last two actions combined, but you can’t really show them combined with the first. That’s another panel! Also to avoid ‘cross-talk,’ by which I mean first guy speaks, second guy replies, first guy speaks again. That really reduces the vertical space on any panel and can just as easily be carried through to the next panel.
SciFi Pulse: You’ve done a fair bit of work for UK comics such as the iconic 2000AD and strips such as Judge Dredd. Have you ever been approached by Marvel to work on any of their comics – and if you could, what characters from their massive back catalogue would you like to have a go at and what can you bring to them?
Lee Sullivan: I had a hankering to draw Iron Man; I think it would suit my strengths. I drew a lot of covers for Marvel UK reprints that covered almost every conceivable team and mainstream character, without the tedium of having to draw them every day.
SciFi Pulse: As you mentioned, one of the first Doctor Who strips you did featured all seven Doctors. Obviously we have ten now – but out of all of them which one would you say is the most interesting to draw – and what about them appeals?
Lee Sullivan: For some reason I enjoy Peter Davison’s Doctor from a drawing point of view and increasingly so as a character in the series. My real favourites to watch are Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee.
SciFi Pulse: Who is your favourite Doctor and why? And, if you could both write and draw your own strip or storyboard an entire episode – without Daleks! – What sort of situation would you like to place him in?
Lee Sullivan: Oh, that’s easy – something like the E-space – no backgrounds! I have no desire to write. There aren’t many artists who are much good at writing too.
SciFi Pulse: What artists from the world of comics do you most admire and what is it about their work you enjoy?
Lee Sullivan: John Romita Jr is a fabulous artist. Economy of line with maximum dynamics. He was the last guy whose style I really analysed and tried to incorporate into my work. I try not to look at anybody else’s work these days as I always end up feeling inadequate or jealous or outraged. I don’t read comics – I just like drawing them. All my sources of inspiration are really from watching films and good TV.
SciFi Pulse: We have seen a fair few Television shows go direct to comic strips – but it isn’t as common now as it once was. As a kid I remember reading Look-In and enjoying strips of Logan’s Run, The Six Million Dollar Man and Space 1999. Out of the current crop of TV series on air now, which one would you say is rife for being given a comic book make over? And how well do you think it would translate?
Lee Sullivan: Is there a show that hasn’t??? Anything – any media – can be made into a good strip – it needs good writing; a good angle and suitable art.
SciFi Pulse: What in your mind makes a good comic book adaptation of a popular movie or television show?
Lee Sullivan: Telling a good story whilst staying true to the tenets of the show. I once refused to have the Tracy boys use laser guns in the Thunderbirds strip I did – they didn’t have them on the show and you’re changing the rules if you do. If you do that, why not have a time machine in a Bond film? As far as I’m concerned you’re either doing the thing that’s on TV or you’re not.
Personally, I have no interest in the back-story of the characters in most shows – I just want to watch them do their thing. Of course, this puts me at odds with most TV shows these days – but if you look at my favourite series (currently) The Wire - it’s almost all great characters moving through a plot; with romances etc. only appearing occasionally as background. To me, that’s far more effective than an endless procession of love affairs.
Writers, I think, really love dealing with ‘feelings’, but to me it’s a cop-out. PLOT PLEASE! But modern soap-addled audiences love that stuff too; The Wire is not commercial hit so I am in error, it seems.
• Thanks to Lee for taking the time to talk to us. For more information about Lee and his work you can check out his website at www.leesullivan.co.uk
Lee Sullivan will be one of many guests who will be joining Paul Cornell and John Freeman at this weekends Doctor Who Comic Book Convention – which is being held at The Lass O’Gowrie In Manchester on 18 October 2008. If you have an interest in attending this event – and if they have any tickets left you can book via Quaytickets.com