March 9th, 2009
John Higgins is a stalwart of the American and British comic industry. He has worked with some of the most prominent creators in the field, and worked on legendary characters like Judge Dredd and John Constantine, worked on film properties such as The Thing From Another World and The Hills Have Eyes, and provided colour for the groundbreaking series Watchmen.
We tied him up in a cellar and beat his shins with spanners until he answered our questions. What a gent!
1) First of all, and perhaps obviously, why comics? Was it a planned career move or a happy accident?
Synchronicity more than anything, my intention once I had left art college was to paint SF book covers, SF themed covers for 12” vinyl records, SF magazine covers and basically anything SF based, while wandering around a WH Smith’s at Paddington railway I saw a new SF comic called….. mmm ….. no, it name escapes me, but it seemed to me to be a new market for my as yet undeveloped career, so I started to try out examples of comic strip art, got to know people who were doing underground comics, got more experience and more portfolio pieces of work to show. Ah! Just remembered the comic, it was 2000AD!
2) You’re renowned for both your expressive line work and your lush painted artwork on projects like ‘World Without End’ or ‘Razorjack’. Which do you prefer working in? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach?
I prefer Black Line to tell stories, it has more immediacy than painted work, and with computers the colouring effects are what I strived to do with airbrush and paint before Photoshop arrived.
Black line is so much faster, which does give it a spontaneity and fluidity. Constructing shape and form with solid blacks, pure white and inked outline can make it a more “formed” drawing and have a solidity that can beat a fully painted image in my opinion.
I actually cannot think of of one advantage of painted comic strip over black line! For me the whole point of comic strip work is the story. I love painted art of any sort and will still appreciate a well painted comic strip, but to tell stories, Black line every time.
3) How do you work? Are you a rigid 9-5er or do you work when the muse strikes? Order or chaos?
Complete order, if I had a studio away from home I would probably be a 9 to 5 artist, but unfortunately I work at home and it tends to be 6am to 7.30pm, 7 days a week. But every now and then I will take a movie day off during the week, which is bliss, no crowds, cinema almost to one self, a joy.
4) You’ve worked with some of the biggest and best UK creators – Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, Pat Mills, Wagner & Grant and Jamie Delano. Do you have a favourite collaborator? Is there anyone you’d like to work with?
I think I have been very fortunate in that almost all of the top writers in the last twenty years, most of my career, have been British so I have been in the same market place as those talented guys, everyone of them has something individual, a singular talent that separates them from anyone else, so diplomatically I cannot pick one over another. And for me now, to carry on working with them all is my hope. Mark Millar is someone who I haven’t worked with yet, he is on top of his game at the moment and I love his hard boiled characterizations and weird and wonderful scenarios.
5) You originally self-published ‘Razorjack’ I believe. How did you find that? Do you enjoy writing as well as illustrating?
I initially loved being in control of all the aspects of self-publishing, but after a while I was spending more time doing everything except drawing my story, so to collaborate with Com.x on the next two issues was brilliant, they took over the production and business aspect of publishing which allowed me to do what I love doing and hope I do best. Writing and illustrating my own stories.
I have just this week completed a new four page comic strip for my magnum opus Razorjack. Which has been collected and is still being published in conjuction with Com.x, the UK Independent comic company that have quality and production values that can be compared to any of the big companies. This will be in your shops end of March. Go in and ask for it, support independent publishing!
6) Your style seems to evolve quite frequently. The b+w artwork on ‘Thunderbolt Jaxon’ for example is very strong and fluid compared to the more scratchy line work of ‘Pride and Joy’ or your early Dredd. Do you try and push yourself to experiment?
I am always amazed by artists who start their career off with a strong individual style that they seem to keep all of their career, I have always been influenced by most every artist and can love any well formed style from the cartoony to the most realistic. So for a long time, I was trying different styles as much for fun as to find what suited me. I think finally the style I am using at the moment has all the strengths that I am pleased with, but there is still room for improvement.
7) You painted one of my all time favourite Judge Dredd images – a big beefy pissed off looking Dredd looming out of a blue mist, nightstick in hand. This was waaay back in, maybe, 1989? You’ve got a fair amount of history with the character. How does it feel to work on a British icon, and to be one of the quintessential Dredd artists? You’re in some pretty impressive company there…
Well, you’re older than you look! I still love working on Dredd, I believe he has developed into a world wide iconic character, as all great characters can do, he has evolved from the hard wired near prefect template Mick Mahon and Brian Bolland created, taking little bits from all the artists who ever worked on him and has continued to grow as all the best characters should do. To have my name associated with Dredd is one of my career highs.
8) You’ve worked on a number of prominent horror comics. ‘Helblazer’ for DC, ‘The Thing’ for Dark Horse, and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ for Fox Atomic’. Do you feel any particular affinity for horror as a genre? Do you like drawing really nasty stuff?
Yesssss! I am such a pussy about horror movies and still hide my eyes when watching a really good one. But I love a specific section of the genre, the section that uses clever story and imagination to do something clever, funny and shocking with fine depictions of the horror imagery. Straight Serial killer or body meat slasher movie’s would not be in my top ten horror movies, but Thing from another World, or The Hills’ or The Others would. For me when I was a comics fan, looking at the horror images being created by most all of the artists that ever appeared in Creepy and Eerie, originally published by Warren Comics and specifically Richard Corben and Berni Wrighton. Could create a strong reaction from me every time, shock, horror and admiration created by a good story line and “simple” black line artwork done by masters of their craft. I hope I reach my readers in a similar way.
9) You’re painted art seems to come from a tradition of science fiction illustration as much as from comics. Are there any particular illustrators whose work you admire? Who are your influences?
My early SF influences are probably still my strongest influences, Richard Corben, Frazetta, Frank Hampson, Syd Mead, Michael Whelan, Bruce Pennington, Chris Foss, Richard Elson, Chris Moore, Ray Freibush, Vincent DiFate, Mobius, and never mind artists in other genre’s!
10) Obviously Watchmen is big news again at the moment. Your colouring for the book is an integral aspect of the books feel. It’s very idiosyncratic, and the film seems to be approximating the palette very directly. How does it feel seeing the work translated to screen?
It has been a long road, but finally The Watchmen hit the big screen, two and three quarter hours did not seem long enough, it really is the most sophisticated action adventure movie I have ever seen, whether or not that makes it a great movie I cannot say as I feel too close to the graphic novel at the moment, give me two more viewings to put it into a stand by it self movie perspective, then I will know. But every time an Alan Moore word or a Dave Gibbons image hit the screen, and there is a lot. I was blown away how appropriate it looked and sounded on the big screen. It is dark and moody as it should be for the movie subject matter, but the director and production team gave a nod in my direction with throwing a colour filter over certain scenes that I appreciated.
11) Have you had any involvement with the film?
Dave and I as the Watchmen art team, Dave line art and me colour, predictably enough. I did art for the movie licensing, and some that appeared in a peripheral way on screen, such as the comic book the kid at the newsagent corner was reading. And some promotional posters. But character designs for the screen, were done by other hands
12) In 2005 you digitally re-coloured Watchmen. Why did you want to do this? What were you aiming for with the colouring of the comic?
I hated what I saw on those pre Absolute Watchmen collected editions of the Watchmen for over twenty years, and had no interest in being reminded of what appeared on the printed page. All I saw was the limitations and mistakes imposed by the primitive colour printing process in 1986 when it was first printed. But thankfully in 2005 I got the second bite of that creative cherry with the digital remastering of the colour for the Absolute Watchmen, and was gratified my Watchmen colour concept had stood the test of time and was still relevant for the subject matter. We could also finally get rid of the awful grey I used on the first couple of issues, before we found how badly it printed. Create a consistency of scene colouring. Add better modeling and balance the colour across the Watchmen colour spectrum. Also working directly on the art/print files so no intermediate hands interpreted and hand sep’d my colour for the printing plates this time.
13) How did your involvement in the comic come about?
In that period I had just completed my first fully painted comic strip for the Judge Dredd Annual, a TB Grover story of Dredd. So I was getting known for my colour work. And I had also done some colouring jobs with Steve Dillion, one specifically was a colouring job over Steve’s pencils for an ABC warriors story, for the 2000AD Annual, written by a then little known writer called Alan Moore. So Dave knew I could work with colour on other artists work, and approached me to be involved with a new maxi series he and Alan Moore were about to start for DC. They both wanted a team approach to all aspects of the book and did not want a colourist imposed at a later date in the production process, which was the traditional approach to comic colouring in those days. Thanks to the Watchmen and Frank Millar’s Dark Knight, the colourist is considered at an earlier stage as a more integral part of the story telling process now.
14) Are you or have you ever been tempted by the lure of the film industry?
I imagine producing concept art or storyboarding may be more lucrative than comics.
I have done most things in my career and storyboards and conceptualizing has been a part of it. I enjoyed it immensely and intend to do more, but no way would I leave writing or drawing comics, it is not a job it is a privilege.
15) Do you read many comics? Are there any creators you particularly like?
I don’t read as many as I would like, but the ones I do tend to read are usually by my mates, as they are still the best written books around. Most anything Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch do together, most anything Garth Ennis writes.
16) What do you think is special about comics? What can the form do that no other can?
It is such a pure way of telling a story as simply as possible with a fluidity and dynamic sense of imagery that nothing else can beat. Plus, it is the one form of story telling that anyone can do, you can still be a 10 year old kid with a piece of paper drawing for family and friends or now with the internet, reach an audience that can be mind boggling if you get it right, the most democratic art form there is.
17) You set up Turmoil Colour Studios, and fully embraced computers as an artistic tool. What made you do this, and what are the benefits?
I was getting very busy around 1994 and was starting to employ freelancers to do comic production work. So I already had a sort of free form art studio set up. The more back ground artists I employed the more I felt I could not pass any work on as John Higgins work, so anything that had John Higgins/TCS was always a combined talent job. By this stage I had moved into a professional studio set up in Luton and the first affordable PC designed for the publishing industry came on the market, the PowerMac 7100. This gave me an opportunity to expand TCS and to employ people in house full time. Some of the artists were employed in the US production line model, so background artist, inkers and colourist, I always made sure it had a John Higgins style by doing key figure or face work, or doing the majority of the job, some jobs Like Pride and Joy were projects I had a personal commitment to and did all the artwork on except for the colouring. It worked up to a point, but the bigger TCS got the more overseeing others and less art work I did myself which I found frustrating.
The direct benefit of working on a computer was it gave me the knowledge and ability to self publish Razorjack. Before computers it would not have been feasible.
18) What work have you done outside of comics?
Book covers, Magazine covers, story boarding movies, concept art for movies, medical illustration, editorial illustration, children’s books, fine art canvas portraiture, exterior wall murals, advertising illustration, live in house performance mural painting and interior page art for book publishing. I think that’s it!
19) Is there any character you’d particularly like a crack at?
20) Which single comics project are you most proud of?
21) Right, it’s desert island time. You can take one book, one film, one album, one comic, one foodstuff and one companion. What are your choices?
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, The man who sold the World by David Bowie, Oh come on, The Watchmen! Cheese, and the lady who is looking over my shoulder now!