LEE SULLIVAN SPEAKS
In a exclusive interview the main artist for the Marvel RoboCop comic series talks to the RoboCop Archive about the series that ended after just 23 issues.
[Conducted and edited by Flynn Cook]
What did you think about the first RoboCop film when it was released?
I really enjoyed it. Verhoeven has a very dark sense of humour and a great sense of making fun of fascist environments; if you look at Starship Troopers a great kick-ass movie which is also very subversive. All the elements were right and my first thought was that this would have made a good Judge Dredd film.
It was said in one of the "RoboCopy" letter columns that you got your gig working on RoboCop because of a RoboCop poster you did for a UK Computer magazine. How did you come about doing the poster? And did you expect it to lead to anything like what it did?
It's partly true, although first editor Greg Wright (who chose me) also said he liked the way I'd drawn some Doctor Who stuff, double-chins etc... And wanted a quirky look to match to non-superhero feeling of the film and projected comic book.
Why did the series only last 23 issues?
Well, I think the truth can be revealed at last - Tom DeFalco didn't like 'franchise' tie-ins and squashed it, as far as I know. The sales figures back then meant that any title falling below 40,000 per issue was on notice of cancellation. If you're aware of what even 'big' title sales are now, you'll note the irony in that situation
So when Robo fell to the magic figure, the axe fell. We were all disappointed - particularly as we finally had an editorial/writing/art team in place who all really wanted to push the title where I felt it should have been going from day one. Alan Grant and Greg Wright were slightly hamstrung from the start because there was a Marvel character (whose name temporarily escapes me - Deathlok? - another cyborg anyway) that was going to have the Robo-type storylines in preference to Robo - which left Robo rather aimlessly drifting through a peculiar future world which (to me) bore no resemblance to the first film's cynical but 'only 5-years-away' feeling. There was also an animated tv series which complicated matters. When Rob Tokar took over editing for the second year, he made a lot of good changes, but by then, we'd lost a large part of what should have been our core audience. The live action tv series or 3rd film was (I think) in the wings and would have helped, but it was too late.
Sadly, this sort of thing goes on all the time with franchise stuff; my next gig was on William Shatner's Tekworld, and I could write almost exactly the same about that. The tv series was commissioned and we were canned! Maybe it was all my fault. That (and my career in US comics!) ended with the almost filmic contrast of me standing around at a Marvel Christmas 'celebration' in evening dress with all the other Marvel editors, a large percentage of whom had just been fired, gazing up at ice sculptures of X-Men etc. At the time, I thought the comics world had gone mad - and I think I was right; what we were really staring at was the death of comics as a truly mainstream medium through stupid corporate mishandling in the name of a bigger buck.
Gosh - that sounds a little bitter - it's far enough away now to be not so painful, and I've been lucky enough to hang on to my UK career, but many good titles, creative teams and - more importantly, potential comic-book readers were lost as a result.
It's a funny old world indeed.
What was a normal day in the Marvel offices like during your time on RoboCop? Was pencilling the comic difficult in any way?
Actually, I worked from home, over 2000 miles away in rainy England. We'd Fed-Ex stuff back and forth across the "Pond" and it wasn't until quite a while that I got to see the [Marvel] "Bullpen" (Which was just another big office, sadly...).
I hated pencilling. I've never been very comfortable with the medium; I like to work in a loose fashion at the pencils stage and then draw the final image directly in ink, so it was tough trying to discipline myself to draw a finished image in pencils. I'm a slightly unusual artist as far as comics go; although I love the ones I read as a child, I don't really collect them (or read them) these days. I mostly get my ideas from film. Comic art suits my style, so that's what I do!
I was pretty unhappy with the finished art, which is not to say anything bad about the inkers, more about my poor pencilling technique. But their interpretations of what I had drawn wasn't what I'd hoped they would look like. It took a long time to convince editors that I could handle the scheduling of what's called breakdowns/finishes, but finally I did with Rob Tokar, and the last few episodes were my own pencils and inks as a result. I liked them much better, they looked like my style, finally, for better or worse.
Many have said that the covers for RoboCop were amazing. Did you have any input on the designing of them? Any covers that stick out in your mind as your favorites?
They were pretty much my ideas as far as I can remember. I know that the "OCP Needs You" [Editor's note: Issue #5] was striking, and that was probably Greg's idea; he coloured the covers and that looked particularly good. The ape one was quite cool, too. I've had to pull the file of my copies to have a look at these again; and I'm reminded that the "Dino Park" (issue 7) cover was based around the film poster of One Million Years BC, with Robo taking the Raquel Welch pose! Issue 12's cover was ripped off for a video box cover for the animated series.
In issue three, it's well-known that you drew yourself and your cat into one of the pages. How did the idea for this cameo come about?
"In-jokes" are pretty common in comics, almost every issue has them, I found them a way of easing the pressure of work. A little humour goes a long way :)
You may have missed (understandably):
Issue 1: Background store names "Mackay's Music" turns up from time to time in most of my comics, sax player Andy Mackay of the UK band Roxy Music is a hero of mine, so much so I play sax in a Roxy tribute band these days (see www.roxymagic.com) :)
Issue 2: page 2 & 3, the gang youths in the background, the guy with the hat is based on UK band Slade's lead singer, Noddy Holder. Page 17, the guy Lewis tackles is my wife's cousin Sam (hence badge).
Issue 3: page 7, that's me looking out of the door. The cat is slinking up the fire escape ladder. Joe Pizza wears a Death's Head T-shirt (Marvel UK character created by later Robo writer Simon Furman).
Issue 6: page 13, the UK Sinclair C5 was a revolutionary personal 3-wheel electric scooter that was "ahead of its time" to the point where no-one bought it.
Issue 7: page 7, these guys were both people I knew who wanted to feature.
Issue 8: page 19; blatant ad for recently released Roxy Music video. 9: page 19, Simon Furs Inc. (Simon Furman again)
Issue 9: page 26 "Calloway's Cabs" reference to prohibition-era US scat singer Cab Calloway.
Issue 10: Latka's liquor store, reference to Latka, character in Taxi US TV show.
Issue 10: last page; KYTV references a joke TV station name from British TV series; itself referencing KY lubricant, the type used by humans :).
Issue 12: page 22, that's Nixon in the US flag underwear.
Issue 18: page 12, Billy's Bar was a bar that Simon, Rob and I used to visit in NYC, featuring ladies performing dances of a rather dubious nature....
What did you think of the art done by the guest pencillers like Andrew Wildman?
Andrew was another British artist who also worked on Marvel UK's Transformers, along with writer Simon Furman. His style was very different to mine, which made him a good choice. Contrast of styles is always interesting, and you can always steal their ideas :)
There was a mob-boss woman in a black dress named "Lot's Wife," introduced toward the end of the series' run. And then suddenly, she disappeared come the "Beyond the Law" storyline. What was to become of her?
I don't know. I never knew; Simon would be the one to ask there!
What did you think of the RoboCop sequels/TV shows and the following comic series by Dark Horse, and even the new books by Avatar Press?
RoboCop 2 was a big disappointment to me. We were hoping that it would spur the comic on, because by that stage we'd got it around to where we wanted it. But the film went in a sort of lazy direction, very comic-book, if you like! But even so, I was fairly irritated with Marvel letting the franchise lapse. Dark Horse, by running with it showed that Marvel dropped it based on a general prejudice against licensed titles rather than business judgement. There was a reworking of my Robo introductory splash page in the Dark Horse version. I still don't know what to make of that!
I was Robo'd out by the time that the third film arrived and only saw it recently. The TV series I'm sure has its merits, but I didn't really watch it. The animated series was a way to sell merchandise; but in some ways it echoed the original idea that Robo creators pitched for the second movie; Robo set in the far future, rather than the day after tomorrow.
I haven't seen the Avatar Press stuff.
If asked to return to do some more RoboCop art, what would you say?
I virtually never say no. I'm soooo easy :)
When you look back at RoboCop, what stands out in your mind as the best and/or worst things about the experience? And what issue/story arc stands out in your mind as your favorite?
Working for Marvel US for the first time; I felt that I was a real artist at last!
The people I worked for and with were almost all a pleasure; a very friendly bunch, especially after a few frozen margaritas...
It led on to my working for William Shatner on his TekWorld comic book; both professionally and personally a high-point for me.
Stress and the turnaround on the book plus my various UK commitments meant that at one point I was drawing 30 pages a month. It led to a (I think - looking back - psychosomatic) case of repetitive strain injury in my wrist, so pencilling became an agony for a while.
The direction of the book; unfortunately Greg Wright was also working on a title called Deathlok at the time, and as this was also a part man/part machine character, I think the gritty cyborg story direction was firmly kept for the Marvel version, and poor Alan Grant (a major UK writer of Judge Dredd and therefore potentially ideal) was left with very compromised property to work on. He told me at the time and has said in interviews that it was the work he was least proud of, which was very frustrating, particularly as Dealthlok was such an insignificant title (to me) and, I think, only being reworked due to the RoboCop film's success. So all the massive publicity push for Robo was wasted, really, and although obviously a lot of the comic's readership liked it, we lost a whole raft of adult readers by issue 6 or so, and you can never get readers back. By the time things changed enough for the comic to be going in the direction it should have been from the start, it was too late.
I suppose my favourite story arc was the Flak storyline; particularly his return, so I suppose, ironically, we saved the best till last. I also liked the stories using Lewis. I always thought it would have been neat to have her resurrected in the body of an ED-209 and act as Robo's partner or fight him; would have been some issue, that!
Thanks for you time, Mr. Sullivan. It was a pleasure.
Best wishes to all, stay out of trouble!