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Monday, 26 July 2010

More Ways to Explode: An interview with Boo Cook

Boo Cook has been working in comics for just about a decade, drawing strips such as A.B.C. Warriors, Judge Dredd, Asylum, Damnation Station and Judge Anderson for 2000AD. He's also worked in US comics as one of the many artists contributing to Richard Starking's Elephantmen and on X-Factor for Marvel. For this chin-wag (cross posted on the Forbidden Planet International blog - check that version out for more great art by Boo), Matthew Badham spoke mainly about Damnation Station and Elephantmen...

downthetubes: Let's start with your recent work on 2000AD's Damnation Station. How did you come on board with that project?

Boo Cook: There often comes that scary moment as a freelance comics creator when your current crop of jobs is about to run out, so you tentatively put the feelers out to your various sources hoping that there'll be something lurking to keep that old roof up there. I asked my longest standing 'source', Matt Smith, aka Tharg the Mighty, if he had anything floating about that I could work on; preferably in the 'gritty, realistic, sci-fi written by Al Ewing category'.

Wouldn't you know, that's exactly what was available and I got offered episode five of Damnation Station. The script immediately sang to my old skool sci-fi sensibilities: big bleak moonscapes, detailed space suits, wrecked spacecrafts and tangible characters.

I really jumped in with both feet, and whether Matt detected my enthusiasm, or he just had three more episodes without an artist attached lying around I don't know, but I was handed the next three-part story arc shortly after completing part five.

It was a refreshing change to go from working on something like Anderson: Psi with its 20-odd years of canon set in stone, to something where I got to design fresh characters, outfits, guns, ships etc, not yet drawn by hundreds of artists.

Damnation Station

downthetubes: You were picking up from artist Simon Davis, right? How much were you working from his designs and how much of the design work were you doing yourself?

Boo: Simon had the task of introducing the bulk of the cast with his initial four-episode arc, so I was sent jpegs of the main characters to work from. This was a little tricky in as much as all Si's people are incredibly life-like and emotionally articulate. I don't know if he works directly from photos of models or just has an incredibly inventive brain, but without either of those I had to kinda start by copying the faces from the few jpegs I had, and evolving them from there. It's not like Dredd, for example where he is 90 per cent uniform that you can copy and build on. These were very real, human characters.

In an effort to keep up with the realism of Si's work I used a lot more photo reference for my figure posing than I usually do, but then I would have to try and morph a photo of me into an overweight middle-aged black guy, for example.

Incidentally, the character Joe Nowhere is someone I didn't get quite right to begin with. There were less reference pictures of him and the strip hadn't started in the Prog at the time when I was working in my run. I just had him pegged as an average build/age kinda guy with no hair and a goatee. It wasn't until I'd drawn him a few times that I twigged he was meant to be considerably older and considerably less fit and healthy, so I tweaked him gradually as I went on.

The episode that my run on the strip began with was the introduction of a new character, so I designed him. He was meant to be loosely based on Roy from Bladerunner, who is one of my all time favourite sci-fi characters. He ended up looking kinda like Mr. Hudson for all you Ndubz fans... I am not among youuuuu! He was in a space suit that hadn't been mentioned previously, with a gun that hadn't appeared in Si's run, and a ship that had only been vaguely depicted so far, so I really went to town on that lot straight away, hoping that where my art style differed from Si's in a realistic people way, I could ramp up the 'sci-fi', which I love to do.

Also, I like to try a fresh approach with each bulk of work in order to keep me on my toes artistically. As soon as I start relying on the formulas of a particular style or method of working, my brain slowly starts to switch off and rely on tested techniques rather than progressing and thinking things through meticulously at each stage.

With this in mind I asked writer Al Ewing if he had any ideas about how I should approach the strip. I think he said that I should definitely go for painted backgrounds and inked figures in the foreground. It was an approach I hadn't tried before, so I was happy to dive in and accept the challenge. Already though, by the end of my fourth episode, which all happens in a relatively similar environment, I could feel myself starting to rest on my artistic laurels once more, so the next work I do will probably be in acrylic paints.

Si gave me some great characters to work with and in particular I loved drawing the seriously twisted 'Host' alien, but Al also gave me plenty of other stuff to design in the final three episodes of my run: more aliens, more craft, and more ways to explode!

downthetubes: You mentioned Al Ewing, the writer of Damnation Station. His work on his own strips and on Dredd seems to have really caught the imagination of the 2000AD readership. Why do you think that is?

Boo: One word: genius.

Not for nothing did I vote for Al as 'best writer' in the Eagle Awards. It was no sudden rush of 2000AD jobs for Al, and I think that was maybe even a conscious effort by Matt Smith to help hone Al's full-on mentalism into a grounded and fully-fledged writing brain, which definitely seems to have happened. Al can make me laugh out loud reading the Prog, which is a very rare thing. But he can also write very believable and emotionally realistic, slow burning characters as is apparent from Damnation Station.

As for his work on Dredd, it's clear that Al has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dredd's back story and universe, which, when combined with his genuinely hilarious sense of humour, solid characters and infinite idea stream, makes him second only to Wagner in that arena.

Nuff said!

downthetubes: I also wanted to ask you about your work on Richard Starkings' Elephantmen (pick it up folks, it's brilliant!)

Boo: Three years ago I wrote to writer, editor and letterer Rich Starkings to ask if I could work on his monthly Elephantmen comic because, basically, I love it - simple as that. Having been raised on 2000AD for nearly 30 years, the comic instantly caught my eye when it came out around eight years ago because of it's similarity to the classic AD strips of old - there's slices of Rogue Trooper in there, Meltdown Man, Halo Jones - just the very vibe of the art and writing oozed 2000AD so it was a no-brainer for me to get.

The Elephantmen comic stems from the wider universe of Starkings' Hip Flask Mystery City books with uber artist Jose Ladronn, and is a mixture of many genres, largely the sci-fi realms of Bladerunner. The story follows human/animal genetic hybrid protagonists, the Elephantmen, bred for war, and now trying to reintegrate into a society that shuns them.

As well as some well rounded, very human characters there's some serious philosophical, metaphysical, ethical and ecological issues in there to wrestle with while yer eyes pop out at the lush myriad of artists involved, one of whom was Henry Flint. It was Henry's issue that really fired me up and compelled me to write my 'I love Elephantmen!' email to Richard. Since then I've been regular cover artist on the book, did interiors for issue 21, (subtly titled 'KILL!KILL!KILL!' ), and I'm just commencing work on volume 2 of the prequel/offshoot 'War Toys - Enemy Species'.

If you've never heard of the Elephantmen, head over to http://www.hipflask.com/ and dive in deep! There are three gorgeous hard and softcover trade collections to get stuck into, the original War Toys trade, the monthly comic, and coming soon to a screen near you - 'Elephantmen - the motion picture.' it's a harsh but incredibly entertaining world…

downthetubes: What next for Boo Cook, comics wise and otherwise?

Well, I'm currently working on a two-issue follow up to the gritty Elephantmen prequel, 'Wartoys'. It's called Wartoys: Enemy Species and again it sees me working in a new experimental way. I'm doing ultra expressive 'dirty' penciling, with a sort of Charley's War meets sci-fi edge, and Gregory Wright, the top notch Elephantmen colourist will be applying greyscale tones to it in Photoshop, so it will be in monochrome like the first series. I'm about 10 pages in and so far I'm having some of the best fun I've ever had drawing comics!

A character design for Blunt by Book Cook, written by novelist Tom EglingtonAside from that, I am of course always up for doing anything that Tharg will throw my way, and in fact he's recently commissioned me to draw more Anderson. There are also a few things I'm working on off my own back. Firstly a sci-fi comic product named 'BLUNT', about a Neanderthal-gened terraformer who has a penchant for making moonshine... a fledgling colony of planet pioneers, over-reliant on technology have to turn to him for help when their planet's evolution goes haywire!

It's scripted by novelist Tom Eglington [author of the children's novel Spellbound Hotel - Ed], a close friend, and it's something we've been knocking into shape for a while, with a view to pitching very soon. Some concept pics are on my blog.

I've also been writing a sci-fi novel in my 'spare' time for a couple of years now. It's on it's third draft at the moment and will hopefully be ready for touting around soon. It's called 'The Distance' and is a sprawling, psychedelic road movie of a book, set in the far future. It features a man who may in fact be Syd Barrett but doesn't realise it, a neon-covered wrestling Golem, and a tank track-legged Glaswegian drug dealer for starters...

Finally, future wise: playing drums, there'll be lots more of that.

downthetubes: One last question, what's on your reading list at the moment, in terms of comics?

Boo: My comics reading has peaks and troughs in terms of amount and content. I used to read a lot more Marvel/superhero stuff a few years ago, but that has almost trailed off to zero. You get the odd, mind-blowing good run, such as Greg Rucka and J.H.Williams III's recent stint on Detective Comics/Batwoman, which was an incredible read, and show's there's still much to be done in the genre.

Obviously, I love Elephantmen, but I've probably said enough about that. I love Kirkman and Adlard's Walking Dead -- character-driven comics don't get much better than that! I'm also having a massive flirt with old school fantasy in the form of Conan, which I've been ploughing through with the Savage Sword reprint volumes as well as the new monthly.

This affection has carried over into more contemporary stuff like the excellent Northlanders and Viking. I've been loving Frank Quitely's work on Batman and Robin, but I'm also really looking forward to seeing what Dave Taylor is getting up to with the caped crusader - see his blog for some teaser evidence...

I love pretty much everything Jack Kirby ever produced - my favourite run of comics ever being his take on 2001: A Space Odyssey - in both his ten-part re-visioning and his massive treasury edition direct adaptation, which, to me, is the Bible. But as far as new artists go, I'd say Elephantmen's Marian Churchland is producing some beautiful work right now. At the opposite end of the style scale, I'm a massive fan of the frenetically bombastic Nick Dyer's work on Dredd etc. for 2000AD.

To be honest, there's really too much to mention as far as my favourite comics and creators go, but that's definitely a pretty representative core sample of my current likes!

downthetubes: Boo, thanks very much for your time, and best of luck with all your projects.

• Boo Cook's blog is as http://boocook.blogspot.com

• And, seriously, check out Elephantmen (www.hipflask.com) It's amazing!

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