Interview with Brian Clarke
Let’s talk about the writers who worked on the comics. Can you tell me about some of the main writers and artists, and any key stories they wrote/drew? Are you still in touch with any of them, and do you know what they have done since?
I think I wrote, of the UK-created strips (not the German reprints, which I’ll get onto later) I probably wrote about 80% of them. I certainly wrote, I think until about issue #12 or #13 they were all my stories. After then, because I’d also launched She-Ra, and I’d taken on duties for some other titles - in fact I took over Enid Blyton for a while as well- I just needed other people coming in to take the load. Some of the writers I used- I know you know about Mike Wild, also there was James Hill who was a writer on the Rainbow comic for a while and he took that into strange and unusual places. But James came to us from Marvel UK, because he’d been writing Transformers for them. He was based in London but was about to move back to Manchester and asked me, are there any jobs going, and I said we do have MOTU, so he wrote a handful of stories for it. There’s another chap called Mike Butcher. He was mainly a 2000AD fan who wrote a book I think, called the Judge Dredd Guide or something like that. He wrote maybe 2 or 3 stories for MOTU. My long-time friend Tom Sweetman wrote a couple of stories. And there was John Gatehouse, he wrote a couple of stories for us, but we were beginning to move into the end of its UK life then. Those were the main people who wrote the stories.
In terms of artists, most of the artwork was provided by Selecciones Ilustradas (SI) artists, in Barcelona. In the early 60s through to mid-90s they supplied a huge amount of artwork to UK comics. And when I joined, they were already set up as the studio who would provide most of the artwork for us. So for those early issues, SI provided nearly all the work, but bit by bit I began to bring in UK artists- mostly as cover artists. There was Will Simpson, he now works on a lot of American titles: he has a kind of Neil Adams-type style. He did I think issue #46. It was one I had a bit of trouble with because it was our Christmas issue, and we had He-Man dressed up as Santa Claus. That went through fine- the problem was, I wanted to put snow on the logo, and they said we can’t interfere with the logo. So we agreed that I wouldn’t have candysticks and puddings, but I could have a snow coating on there. But you’d be surprised how much of a battle that took to get them to agree to it.
Mike Slatterley was another artist, we did a series of covers, I think in the issue #40s, where they were all Jeopardy covers, so it’d be like, He-Man’s underwater, there’s a kind of menace coming towards him, he’s in chains, etc. And what we said there- Mike Slatterley is a huge Gerry Anderson fan, and we said, the way in which Captain Scarlet ends, it always has this series of images of Captain Scarlet in some deadly situation. So I thought we’d take that idea, and just have these covers where He-Man is in some kind of menace, so Mike would do the cover, and then I would do the story to match the moment. That way we ensured we had a good dramatic piece for the cover.
Paul Crompton was another UK artist, he ended up doing work for us on our Roger Rabbit, but he did a couple of covers for MOTU as well. We didn’t have many people do interiors although there was the 3-panel Orko strip, the kind of gag strip, we had a number of artists who tried out for that- Dave Windett was someone who worked on that, and Mike Kazybrid. I think they’re the main people.
But going back to the writing side, certainly on MOTU it mostly came down to me. I was then promoted to Managing Editor, so my involvement in the writing side kind of drifted off, but that coincided with the time we were reprinting the German Ehapa comics anyway.
The comics were notable for their incredibly strong continuity and attention to detail. They are unique among 80s MOTU canons (in fact pretty much any MOTU canon to this date) in that they told the entire MOTU saga from the beginning right through to the end with the New Adventures storyline. To this date, no single other medium has accomplished this, at least not in solid story form. Who was in charge of overseeing the continuity and story arc?
That was mainly myself, and that was mostly because we had the luxury of knowing that with the market we were in, we were probably going to get at least 2 years. That’s a very good time in licensed comics. But it meant that I had a canvas that I knew I could paint quite vividly. And also, I knew that no-one was going to stop me, there wasn’t anyone looking over my shoulder saying, ‘You’re making this too fannish, you don’t need to back-reference this’, etc. They just said we should tie it down, so if you read, say, issue #16 as your first one, you’d got most of the concepts from the TV show and you’re just running with them.
And because I’d written the vast majority of the stories, those things were in my head, and it’s just a matter of saying ‘Oh yes, I remember this, this happened’ and the little bit about putting ‘See issue #6’ as a footnote in the panel, that was just a way of tying things together- if you do want to find out about it, do! But it was nice to have freedom, we weren’t being sat upon saying, you know, ‘Make it younger’ or anything, they were quite happy for us to slowly raise the age profile.
The comics are slightly darker than the cartoons usually were. The cartoons increasingly focused on humour rather than action as they progressed, but in the comics you got a more serious dynamic to the conflict.
That’s right. We had our humorous characters, for instance Grizzlor and Moss Man would have a lot of humour to them, especially Grizzlor, we did a lot with him. And his characterization was very different to the way it was in the minicomics and TV series. I just wanted someone to play off against Hordak, and with Hordak being so maniacal, having a humorous character can cut it, and it brings it back down to being suitable for younger readers. I think also, being a comic fan, you just automatically do it, you just start firing away with ideas in your head.
Now onto the character of Scrollos, i.e. your alter ego! Although he was exclusive to the UK comics, most MOTU fans across the globe are familiar with him to some degree and there is demand for an action figure of him. Did you create this character and how did he come into being?
I needed a voice- an editorial voice for issue #1. So I wanted a way in where we’d always be able to talk about this comic, but I didn’t want this kind of ‘voice from nowhere’ that some comics use for the editor. I wanted something that would reflect Eternia a little bit. In the original style guide from Filmation they use a lot of medieval terminology, so they mention things like scrolls, so to tell the story, I wanted someone who had the lore, and was slowly releasing the story to you bit by bit. And I also wanted something that gave us a friendly voice, so instead of being very third party or distant, I didn’t want him to be like your Dad talking to you. And Scrollos gave me the freedom to be a little bit more human in there. And again I had no problems from Mattel with that. They didn’t see it as creating a side character, because he didn’t appear in strip form, he was part of the framing device. So yes, I was Scrollos!
So who designed Scrollos’ appearance- he was only shown in shadow at first, or we’d only see part of his body, but in the Adventure Magazine we finally saw his face when he got his own strip, and he had an almost Ziggy Stardust-like appearance?
Well the original letters page was by Chameleon Design- instead of showing Scrollos, we would have a computer screen framing the letters, and we would just drop the words in. So that’s what we went with for a long time, but then we wanted to bring in a bit more of the character. I think Mike Kazybrid might have been the first person to actually draw Scrollos in there. But again, we wanted that friendly ‘me and you talking’ side to him.
An early illustration of Scrollos as a mysterious, shadowy character.
Was it always you who answered the letters on the Master Mail page, or did anyone else ever take the role? One of the writers, Mike Wild, mentioned that occasionally the desk editor Mike Butcher would assume Scrollos’ role…
Again, that was much further into the run, I think around issue #50. So those first 30 or 40 issues I was Scrollos. I cannot recall a single incident of us ever inventing a letter! All the letters on the page- even the ones that might sound like product placement, where someone says ‘Are you going to do anything with this character’- they’re all genuine. And we got shitloads of letters! Monday, Tuesday mornings, I would have a huge heap of them. There was MOTU and My Little Pony that just got loads and loads of letters. And poor Richard Scrivener with his Disney titles, would only have a little row of these! And future titles we did never seemed to get the kind of mail response My Little Pony and MOTU did. With something like My Little Pony I would expect that, as it was mainly a young girls’ title, and they like to write letters, but getting boys to write is pretty difficult. But we got lots and lots of letters coming in. And they weren’t just letters like ‘I am 5, I like He-Man’, they were very specific and really wanted to know more about the universe we were writing about, and this was very encouraging.
I wrote many letters to ‘Scrollos’ throughout the comics’ run, three of which were printed! Do you remember receiving any particularly amusing or interesting letters from fans, or any you couldn’t print for whatever reason?
Well the way the letters page worked- and this will sound awful, but it’s about the only way you could humanly manage it with such a large amount of mail- we didn’t read all the letters and choose the five best, we would dip into the letters pile at random, and if the letter we picked out was interesting, we’d use it. And if it wasn’t interesting, we’d dip in again. And we’d do that until we’d filled the page. And then, next issue, we’d start pulling out letters from that week’s pile. So we wouldn’t have a mental record of whose name was in the pack, because as I say, we couldn’t physically sit down and read every single one. Certainly you couldn’t rank them, saying ‘This one’s better than that’, it’s just when we’ve come across 5 or 6 interesting ones, we’ve got it.
As for interesting letters, there was a huge demand to see somebody die. And not necessarily Skeletor or Hordak. And there was also a lot of questions about- because we set Scrollos up as knowing everything- there was a lot of ‘So how does it end?’ ‘What happens to Adam and Teela?’ ‘What happens to Skeletor eventually?’ ‘What Happens to Hordak?’ ‘Who wins in the end?’ Which is very very healthy, wanting to engage in the mythology to that degree is great, but people were really, I could sense them getting a little bit frustrated that we were always more or less staying on the same date. The day we started was the same day that we ended really, there wasn’t a lot of progression other than that more characters joined us along the way. He-Man looked the same, the relationships were pretty much the same- there was just more people around by the end.
There was one reader called Ray Rainbow, and he used to write- I think we did publish some of his letters actually- but he used to write 2-3 page analyses of the stories and say ‘I like this because’ and ‘This obviously connects to’. We’d have various references in the comics to science fiction works or other comics and people would always say ‘Oh! I spotted that, I caught this, I saw a bit of Moorcock, and a bit of Lovecraft here’, all those bits in there. We had a lot of letters from Ray, and I used to write back personally as well.
Shortly after the live action movie came out I remember sending you my ideas for a sequel, with a couple of designs for new characters, actors to play everyone etc.!
Yes, we had several people who weren’t happy with the MOTU movie and wanted to know why it couldn’t have been set on Eternia, and why couldn’t it have done this and that, and here’s my ideas, and invariably their ideas were better. I know that Dolph Lundgren himself wasn’t happy with the story. It wasn’t the script he signed up to. And I think fans picked up on the fact that it was too Earth-based. Why do MOTU and send them to Earth? Because it’s cheaper.
Going from the attention to detail there seems to have been a strong team spirit among the staff… Do you have any particularly interesting anecdotes from the time, between yourself and the rest of the staff on the comics?
Well, there was never a sense of ‘We are the MOTU team’, but there was a sense of ‘We’re in Manchester creating all these comics’. So there was a lot of camaraderie between ourselves, and we’d move around titles quite freely, especially when I was Managing Editor, I’d move Greg (Rayner) from Postman Pat to MOTU, and Mike Butcher I put on Centurions or something, so people would have a lot of familiarity with the range of titles. I worked a lot with Mike Butcher because, what we’d do with scripts, we’d always have someone proofread them. Every script would be proofread by someone who wasn’t the writer, because as you know, if a writer proofreads their own work they just go wordblind. So Mike Butcher was my go-to proofreader on MOTU, and he built up a knowledge of that, which is why when I eventually released MOTU from my own control later in the comic’s run, it was passed on to Mike, because he’d already built up a knowledge of it.
For a very short time we had the Manchester Comic Creations Group, which used to meet up in a pub. Mike Wild was part of that, along with Mike Kazybrid, a few people like that. We ended up having a very relaxed environment...
World as I said was very corporate, but I used to go to Denmark about twice every 2-3 weeks to Egmont, based in Copenhagen. Egmont was a huge pan-European company, they owned Ehapa in Germany, Serieforlaget in Sweden, throughout the continent, and they had that continental approach to office design. Everything was colourful and open, people would go in without having to wear a tie, sometimes they’d even wear jeans, it was very easygoing. And that fed back into the UK office, once our managers were going over and seeing for themselves, ‘So that is the way it’s done’, we developed a different cultural style from World. And I think that bonded us together, because we thought, we are London Editions, we are LEL people, whereas the World people, as I said earlier, really looked like they were going to work in a bank. I suppose it’s a little bit like the difference in the 70s between Marvel and DC, because DC at the time was very very corporate, whereas Marvel was very informal.
© Aidan Cross, 2017.