Among the many creators I interviewed for THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, Kevin O'Neill was one of the nicest and most avuncular. He chatted away happily about his time on the title, rising from art assistant to art editor before turning freelance and becoming one of 2000 AD's most acclaimed and original artists. Here are some extracts from his interview transcript...
KEVIN O'NEILL TALKS
I joined in the Autumn of 1976, when the comic was still in a state of flux. When I started, I think the very first Dan Dare artwork had come in, the first Belardinelli artwork. Dan Dare I absolutely detested, I have always felt it let the comic down badly. It was there apparently for the dads and the newsagents, to give the comic some sort of recognition. As much as I liked the exquisitely drawn old Dan Dare, of its time as it was, I really thought the David Bowie revamp was a shocking embarrassment. I remember Pat and Kelvin saying the only reason I didn’t like it was because Digby wasn’t in it! It tampered with continuity.
The other odd thing, now I think back on it, Belardinelli got an art credit. I had this thing about why we had to white out artists’ credits and why Belardinelli got a credit when others didn’t. The only reason they could give me was that Belardinelli’s agent swung a deal where he got a typeset credit and no-on else was to have them. It didn’t make any sense, it was completely illogical. When I first started at IPC years earlier, I was working under Jan Shepherd. I asked her why artists’ signature were being whited out on Valiant. She firmly believed – perhaps it was company policy too – but she felt the signatures distracted readers from the page. Looking at the huge Italian and Spanish signatures on the page, I think that was possibly true. That was something that could hve been remedied by a proper credit.
The obvious reason why they didn’t want to do it was it puts power where they didn’t want it. The readers start recognising names and the power shifts from the company to the creators…
Invasion was altered so the Russians in the dummy became the Volgans in the published version – what can you recall about that? Kelvin Gosnell talks about long hours with pots of process white…
This was directly attributable to John Sanders who, as I recall, actively encouraged the anti-Russian sentiment. Then he slightly bottled out after the Action fuss. That turned it into this fictional thing which kind of pole-axed the whole story really, it never really recovered from having these enemies. It became just like the old war strips in Lion, which is what Invasion was never meant to be. It was very strong when it started but then it took on the tone of contemporary TV series like The Sweeney. A little bit ‘Cor Blimey!’. It always seemed like a very old fashioned strip in 2000 AD after it was altered. One of those things you look back on and it really does date the comic, as does Mach-1. That has a delightfully 1970s ambience about it!
The bizarre thing was the most English strips were drawn by the most foreign artists, who clearly a sort of Terry Thomas idea of what Britain was like, Britain in the 70s. Punk was rearing its head at the time, but you’d never guess that from the foreign artwork. They just weren’t to know. I think that was always a big problem with 2000 AD, finding artists. When I started I had done some colour separations for Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland, who were drawing Powerman for Africa. Brian’s agent had already brought some samples in and everyone was very kind on Brian.
Then Dave got in and Harlem Heroes was the obvious thing for him to do. It was another one of those strips that no-one was terribly happy with. They felt it could be good but it just didn’t really look like. It looked kind of slow and lumpy. My memory of 2000 in those days is just white paint, paste-up, altering stuff, copying and enlarging stuff and getting as good a lettering job as we could get, because sometimes that covered deficiencies.
It was totally like a Frankenstein operation at times. If we ran out of time, we’d get Jack Potter to letter it because he’d do a great lettering job, big display lettering and stuff. That elevated material a little bit. It was like trying to bodge a thing into submission, really. 2000 AD was still finding its feet, it was still sort of similar to Action minus something in some departments, but going off in other directions. It got up its own head of steam, eventually…
Any other obvious changes in early progs you can recall? Was this censorship commonplace in the early days?
I don’t think Mach-1 ever went out unaltered. Every page seems to have changes. Flesh was predisposed to violence. I don’t know how much of that was censored at script stage, but then artists would up the ante and then management would look over the pages. In the early days that was Sanders. Pages would never go in to his office without coming back with corrections. Lots of white out on Flesh.
The science fiction element was the biggest problem with foreign artists. If you wanted futuristic buildings or special guns, they all looked like antiques. Often they were patched over. I was often patching over buildings in Flesh. It was an unhappy situation. When that first trickle of British artists came in – Dave Gibbons, then Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson – things started to become a little more consistent. Artists were meeting each other as well, which was a huge help. 2000 AD has that kind of hang-out atmosphere in the early days. To be honest, I think part of its energy was an us against them, anti-management feeling that was ultimately for the good.
I think the original Action-version of 2000 AD would have been popular, but I don’t if it would have been as good as it ultimately turned out to be. The need to avoid violence put a lot more pressure on the scripts to be entertaining. I recall John Wagner saying early on that 2000 AD and Judge Dredd in particular should be a lot more science fiction-ish. His example was talking door-knobs and things being more exotic, which was absolutely right. That uneasy alliance for Sweeney-type strips lurched on for quite a long time. You look through the first 100 progs now and you tend to forget about the abortions like Angel and Ant Wars and Colony Earth. All those sort of odd things that crept in. The long run of Mach-1… Dan Dare – I don’t anyone ever wanted to admit it was a failure. Dave Gibbons went manfully in the breach. They spanked the life out of the thing, trying to resuscitate it.