Interview with Brian Clarke
In July 2016 I conducted an in-depth interview with Brian Clarke, the lead writer and editor of the MOTU/She-Ra UK comics for the majority of their run, and the man behind 'Scrollos'.
Brian gave a brilliant interview full of revealing and intriguing details about the making of the UK comics and the writing of the stories.
Here is the interview, as transcribed from over four hours of recording!
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to work on the Masters of the Universe comics for London Editions?
I’d been doing a lot of freelance writing, for magazines etc., but I had just written a Starblazer comic- which were these mini, almost Commando-style comics published by D. C. Thompson. I was about to finish university, and my wife, Jane, noticed in the Manchester Evening News paper, there was an ad saying ‘Editors Wanted,’ and it was just as prosaic as that. I wrote them a letter, said I was a freelance writer, I’d written for comics, I know my way around pop culture, written lots and lots of short stories. I had an interview, and at the end of the interview I was given a writers’ test. Right at this stage, I had no idea what the Editor job was.
At the end of the interview, which was by Mae Broadley, who was the Editorial Director of World International, she handed me a copy of the previous year’s Masters of the Universe annual, and said well, this is the project we’re doing and we want you to be able to edit this, so we’d like you to write a 5-6 page story using these characters in comic strip format. So I went home that weekend, wrote a story, sent it in, had a second interview, and she said yes, you’re hired.
Two shots of the developmental pages for the story "The Living Rocks", the first story Brian wrote for the comics. The first shows the black film taken from the original twice up artwork. The second is of the colouring for the page. The London Editions staff kept the black separate from the colour to ensure a strong line.
Do you remember what the story was?
I do! It was the story “The Living Rocks” which appeared in issue #2 of the MOTU comic. So I sent that in to Mae Broadley, she read it, she thought it hit all the right points, she didn’t have a single correction to it, which was nice. So I then had the job, and I turned up at the office. It was a suit and tie place, so I was actually dressed like I was going to the bank, when I was going to work for the world of comics! That did change over the years, but it was very corporate when I arrived. There was only three people in the department- there was myself, there was another editor Richard Scrivener, who looked after the Disney titles we had, plus the Enid Blyton Adventure Magazine, and there was Amanda Evans, who was our production person. That’s what I walked into; I sat down on the Monday morning, and they said, ‘Right, write us a comic’!
I started there on the 9th December 1985, and was told we were going on sale in February, and it was a fortnightly comic. So the first thing you have to do is work out what it’s all about. I’ve got a little story here, which you might not like, but I remember watching, at 4.25pm or something, on ITV, Masters of the Universe, when it first began. And I loved it, but I loved it because it was so over-the-top crazy, it was the first time we’d had anything where every few minutes, whenever there was a change of scene, you’d have this little flashcard with a chant of ‘HE-MAN!’ And it was so hyper-energetic. We’re quite used to it now- but back then, it was very weird, it was almost kind of homoerotic in places as well! So I remember watching it, and, I have this fascination with bad movies, so I put this into my list of bad TV series- but I had to keep watching, because I loved it! So to be asked to work on it, I thought, ‘Yeah, I know exactly where this is coming from, I’ve got a good vision for it’.
MOTU had already been a successful franchise for 3 years before the UK comics began. How familiar were you with MOTU before then?
When I started on the title, what I received was a series bible from Filmation, by Michael Halperin. It was a lever arch folder, and there was probably about 200 pages in there. What was interesting to me was in the introduction to it, it explained how a team of psychologists were employed by Filmation, who went out and looked for a gap in the market. They said, ‘If we’re going to create a TV series, what qualities will we need to have in there, to bring mainly boys back week after week?’ So I had that background, and that gave me a good grounding in what they believed the core concepts should be. There was already an outline of the backstory to MOTU, so in the first issue, I wrote an origin story that covered the pre-history of Eternia (“The Legend of Grayskull”, issue #1). It was about 5 or 6 pages, and I based that on three paragraphs where they gave a basic outline about this mystical beginning and magicians coming together. So I developed that as the basis of what I wanted this mythology to be.
We were a little bit nervous sending that off to Mattel, but luckily there was a guy called Gordon McFadden who at the time was in charge of Childrens’ Concepts UK, and he was given the job of approving the artwork and scripts for MOTU. He had no background in it- his background is Marketing- so he’s thinking ‘brand, brand, brand’, he’s not a comics person at all, he’s a visual thinker, but he said he got it, and he knew kids would get it. And he understood that fundamentally, what kids need to know is, where do these characters come from. He knew that was the bit missing from the Mattel storyline, so he was very happy for me to make up character names and a backstory. So once I got those scripts through I knew we had a lot of leeway.
So using the Filmation animation bible, which gave me the character breakdowns, their powers, their strengths, the relationships between them, where the tensions are… from that, I just began to develop the Masters. I kind of cheated as well, because there’s quite a lot of characters there. I know the temptation is, if you have 7-8 characters, you have to have them all throughout the story. But I didn’t do that, because first of all, I wanted to learn about those characters myself, so I started off having one character working with He-Man per story. So we got to know them, but at the same time, I was figuring out what was unique about their personality. So I know that early on I relied on Man-At-Arms a lot. I made him more the authority figure than He-Man.
I had also decided that my vision for the comic was it was going to be more science fantasy. So I wanted more science fiction elements in there- mainly because I’m a SF fan- than there was in the TV series, because the TV series was out-and-out fantasy. But I wanted to have more hardware in there and more SF concepts, which is the opposite to the way I went with She-Ra later on. So I set it up so that we were in this science fiction world that has fantasy elements in there; magic works but science also works. I did that because a lot of the heroes had mechanical attributes, so there was a lot of machinery in that world and I felt that SF elements belonged there, and Mattel went along with that very well.
What were Mattel’s motives behind commissioning London Editions to do a UK-based MOTU comic series?
It came about the other way. World had already been doing quite well with MOTU. When they launched London Editions, their biggest selling title was My Little Pony. They had the Disney licence, because World was part of Egmont, and throughout Europe Egmont had the Disney licence, so that also meant we were doing Disney comics. They also had the Enid Blyton comic, and now they were looking to expand their range. They found that comics had been very profitable, and they needed the next title, that was going to be really big and strong. They wanted to do Transformers, but Marvel got the licence to that. So they had a look, and said, well what’s the next most successful children’s franchise, especially boys’ adventure titles, and it was MOTU. So they just approached Mattel, saying can we have a licence for MOTU, or at least can we extend the book licence to include a comic and Mattel said yes. So initially, Mattel was just interested in getting the royalties; they also knew, from a marketing perspective, having a comic selling 180,000 copies every fortnight would be pretty good for selling their own toys. So it was London Editions through Mae Broadley who went after the deal.
What kind of demands and requirements, guidelines etc. did Mattel enforce upon you? It was clear that there was a tendency to prominently feature the newer toy releases (i.e. Moss Man, Sy-Klone, Extendar etc.) while earlier characters (i.e. Stratos, Ram-Man, Tri-Klops) were featured relatively little often…
It didn’t really happen that much in the early issues, because they weren’t really expanding the line at that point. But once they began to bring in, the Snake Men say, and the new characters, and Hordak, there was an expectation that we would feature them prominently in the comics. And also, I wanted to, because it constantly refreshed the comic, and having new characters coming in just made the world more vibrant. So I didn’t object to that, because to me, there was nothing but positives from this.
As for what limitations we had, the main one I think was that Mattel, with what was happening in America, but perhaps also with Mary Whitehouse in the UK, were very sensitive to sexual innuendo and violence. So we could never kill anyone- in one panel, Skeletor was going to say ‘He-Man, I will kill you’. And we had to change that to 'destroy you'. So words like ‘kill’, ‘death’, they all had to have that softened-up version to them, and we had to be sensitive about the amount of violence we had. So luckily, I’d remembered something that Tex Avery had said, about the Warner Bros. cartoons, Looney Toons and stuff. He said that from a dramatic point of view, it’s far better to show the lead-up to the action rather than the action itself. And that’s something I took into the comics.
Like on the cover of issue #2, He-Man and Skeletor are just about to fight- there’s a strike being made on the shield, but no-one’s hurt. That was what we had to maintain, so there was this kind of consequence-free universe, they’d constantly be struggling, but no-one was seriously hurt. And of course we had the same limitations that animated shows have, that there could be no progression- at the end of every story, things are reset more or less. We did have a little bit of internal story arc, but essentially, the next story starts off, and there’s no real continuance from the previous story.
But I found Mattel very good to work with, and you might find this interesting- they liked our comics so much that they approached me to write a He-Man stage show. This was in 1986, at the start of the run, so we were probably about 10 issues into it, and I was invited to a meeting with Mattel where they said, they have someone interested in mounting a stage show- this wasn’t an arena show, this was on stage, boos hisses and all that, but they hadn’t got a story, and would I come up with the storyline. But like all these things, it fades away, I think mainly because McFadden left Mattel UK to run a big part of Mattel US, and I think once he went, all these ideas faded.
But as I was saying, Mattel very much liked the comic and what we were doing with it, and the sales were very very good, we were printing something like 180,000 and selling about 120,000 or 130,000. That’s a very good sell-through rate on comics, so everyone was happy, which meant I was pretty much left alone, except for these occasional notes like avoid too much physical contact between the characters. Everything else was fine.
I’m assuming Mattel gave you more or less complete creative freedom with the comics- given that the stories operated within a continuity of their own and often ignored the cartoon and other media?
Yes, going back to what I was saying, the comic was selling extremely well, and I remember having a meeting with Mattel’s marketing people; this was after McFadden left, I forget the name of the person who moved into his place. But she had a team of maybe 3-4 people from the marketing side who talked to us about the direction of the comic, and she made what I thought was a very grown-up decision. She said, look, Brian here, he’s the expert in the room, so if it’s working, let’s go with that. And they weren’t so precious about the concept, because their job was to sell toys and this was a good tool for selling toys. It wasn’t like working with LucasFilm, where they had an archivist who knew everything inside out. Years later I worked on Coronation Street magazine, and I worked with their archivist Darren Little and everything had to be absolutely fact-perfect in there. But at Mattel, these were people starting off their career in marketing, they were 22-25, they didn’t watch the show, didn’t know much about it, these scripts were coming in, they were proofing them for correct English and making sure there was nothing dark in there. Beyond that, they didn’t know if I was making it up or not. I just felt, with that science fantasy world, I just wanted things to fit in more with that.
What was the reasoning behind going for multiple short stories in most issues as opposed to single stories that ran throughout the issue? There were more ‘full issue’ stories further into the comics’ run…
I wanted to do stories where I would introduce different characters working with He-Man. So having that three story format allowed me to feature a lot of characters in each edition. But also, I’m a very big comics fan, and I took my model for this from those 1960s DC Comics where they would have 2-3 stories per issue. I recognized that having short stories makes you focus on the plot. I didn’t have a lot of soap opera to play with; I couldn’t do the Marvel approach and have a lot of character growth in there. I didn’t want these big long storylines because they quite often end up relying on fight scenes, and I knew I’d have problems with Mattel if I had too many fight scenes. And my characters didn’t have a lot of emotional depth to them, so having short stories meant I was focused on the plot, and I could rattle through all these storylines and really focus on action, and what I hoped was a twist in the end of the story.
So when we went further into the comics’ run, and we started to do 2-part stories and full issue-length ones, part of that was because we were feeling very at ease with our audience and we knew they could take that. And also the comic was beginning to mature a bit, so a lot of our readers had grown up with us, so they too were reading other comics which were longer-form comics. There was also this belief with London Editions, except for Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, which was a self-read comic that the parent would sit down and read it to the child. So having short stories made it more parent-friendly because they could sit there and read that 5-page story rather than having to read 20 pages again and again and again. But the main reason for me was it just made us focus on plot.
There was a pretty equal focus on both Skeletor and Hordak sharing the spotlight as the main villains throughout the comics’ run, and a pretty even mix of stories featuring either one as villain, with King Hiss later adding to the mix. Did Mattel have any role in this?
Well, when the Hordak line was launched, they had a feeling of ‘Here is the new villain’, so they wanted to see Hordak, Hordak, Hordak and the Horde. But I didn’t want to break the continuity with the past, and I could see there’d be quite an interesting tension we could set up between Hordak and Skeletor as well. So having this kind of triangle dramatically worked quite well for me. So whilst I knew Mattel really wanted to see Hordak, I knew our audience had grown up with He-Man and Skeletor. And if you ask people now, you say ‘Who does He-Man fight?’ They’ll always say ‘Skeletor’; very few people will say Hordak. So that’s the reason why I continued to feature Skeletor a lot, plus he’s a really good character, he’s got a nice design to him, and we built up a kind of humorous relationship between him and some of his henchmen, and I wanted to preserve that as well because it gave another beat to the stories.
© Aidan Cross, 2017.