Interview with James Hill
James Hill with Brian Clarke, UKCAC comic convention c.1986-7. (L-R: Brian Clarke, James Hill)
James Hill was a prolific writer on both the MOTU and She-Ra UK London Editions Comics as well as the World Annuals. James was the man behind the following stories:
The Reality Shaper (MOTU #13)
Taming The Dragons (MOTU #15)
Hordak's Slime Attack (MOTU #32)
The Siren Fish Of Etheria (She-Ra #6)
Freedom Castle (She-Ra #7)
The Spy Screen, part 1 (She-Ra #13)
The Spy Screen, part 2 (She-Ra #14)
Future Visions (POP special)
And also the whole of the 1989 MOTU Annual...
In September 2019 James was kind enough to answer a whole set of interview questions I sent him by email. So here is the interview, for MOTU/She-Ra fans worldwide to enjoy:
Firstly, thank you James for agreeing to do this interview! Let’s begin by asking, what was your background prior to working on the MOTU comics, and how did you come to work on MOTU?
I’d done a little writing for a small press publisher called Harrier Comics and that led me into the orbit of Marvel UK where I’d done a few Transformers strips and prose stories. Marvel UK had reprinted the MOTU miniseries (from DC) as a standalone album but I was told the ongoing license had gone to another publisher. I was always looking for fresh opportunities but I didn’t know who the MOTU publisher was until Fantasy Advertiser – the leading comics fanzine of the time – ran a press release announcing the launch. It included a quote from Brian Clarke explaining the type of stories the comic was to feature – something about imaginative plot twists, if I recall correctly. I quickly parcelled up some photocopies (pre-digital!) of my Harrier and Marvel work and sent them off to Brian.
I think Brian responded pretty quickly and he explained that LEM (London Editions Magazines) had only committed to 12 issues initially – if it was a success they’d continue, but they were waiting on sales info. He also explained that he’d written the first 12 – and would only need additional writers if the comic became an ongoing. I can’t quite remember what the next step was – but I know it happened pretty quickly, so sales must have been good from the very beginning – and I soon ended up in Brian’s LEM office (in Manchester) talking comics and toys!
I left that first meeting with the 1985 (I think) Mattel Sales Catalogue – featuring some great photography of the toys. I still have it stashed somewhere. (In addition to MOTU and SHE-RA it included a section on MARVEL’S SECRET WARS – which, as an avowed fan, I was intrigued to see.) I think I must have also picked up a copy of the style guide or animation bible to get a lowdown on the newer MOTU characters (Hordak etc).
MOTU was the second professional comic I worked on, preceding my writing more Marvel UK things like Thundercats and Zoids.
How familiar were you with the MOTU TV series before working on the comics?
I was pretty familiar with the brand. I think I responded more to the toys than the TV series. The toys were everywhere at the time. A benefit of the comic starting a little after the toys had hit, was that there was plenty of reference about.
I’d collected the DC miniseries and had the DC Comics Presents where He-Man teamed up with Superman (sadly, that’s one I don’t have any longer!) Having nephews of an appropriate age, I’d also managed to get hold of some of the early mini comics – as a comics fan, I was naturally drawn to the Alfredo Alcala art. The whole set up of the world just made sense to me – with lots of concepts and tropes pulled from the wider world of science fiction and comic books. It spoke to me in a familiar language.
I think where I differed from Brian (and some of the other writers) is that I was more taken with the fantasy aspect – spells and otherworldly realms etc – as opposed to the hard science fiction ideas of runaway technology or interstellar travel.
(As an aside, I didn’t own a video recorder at the time (who did?!) so would watch episodes as they aired, taking notes.)
Did you have full creative freedom when working on the stories, or were you ever asked to write a specific kind of story?
Generally, a lot of creative freedom. I would write up a short synopsis (a paragraph or two) take it in to show Brian and he would give the go ahead to write up the story then and there (which, I think, I’d deliver about a week later – dropping into the office before going on to the comic shop to pick up the latest releases! For a time, Odyssey 7 – the precursor to Forbidden Planet International – had a branch just around the corner from London Editions’ Ducie Street headquarters in Manchester. And Victoria Train Station was also nearby – so all very convenient!
I don’t remember Brian rejecting any full storylines – but I’m sure he must have offered ideas/tweaks at the synopsis stage. I do recall submitting an idea that started with a flashback (shortly after we’d used the same mechanic for ‘Taming the Dragons’) and Brian suggested that the device might become a bit of a crutch if over-used.
Working for LEM (and Brian in particular) was very different from working for other comic publishers. I think there was a sense of shared endeavour – we were all beginning our comics careers, looking to develop and do the best job possible. The emphasis was on straightforward comics – a good hook and then a few twists and turns before a strong ending. There was no need for ‘flash’ or ‘sophisticated’ storytelling. We knew we were writing for kids and I think that liberated us all to learn on the job. At other publishers, I often felt under pressure to craft the ‘perfect’ script. At LEM, we evolved one story at a time. For instance, early on She-Ra I went a bit caption heavy – but Brian simply pointed it out and I amended the next script accordingly.
Writing for foreign artists actually helped keep things tight, I think. You couldn’t get carried away with flowery language in the panel descriptions, as it wouldn’t necessarily translate. Also, we had to mark the panel descriptions as ACTION and the dialogue as TEXT so the artists could easily identify what to draw and what to hand letter in the balloons. That helped me focus the on the key elements of each panel – what needed to be shown and what needed to be said. (Brian was very keen on this formatting – and I learned a lot from it.)
In terms of general instructions, I’m sure Brian emphasised his fondness for hard sci-fi concepts. Looking back now, though, I’m not sure that I fully took that on board at the time! I think my inclination is for plots rooted in characterisation or emotional conflict rather than anything more ‘high concept’. I think a lot of my stories were more concerned with WHY things were happening (and to WHOM) rather than WHAT was happening. Nowadays, I think I’d try for a better balance…
Your debut MOTU story, “The Reality Shaper”, in Issue #13, made quite an impact. It was a particularly weird and twisted story in which everyone on Eternia was evil and working for Hordak, who had managed to remould reality to his own will. Where did the idea for this story come from?
I think “The Reality Shaper” is a good example of what I was talking about above. My first stories for any license always seem to come at things rather tangentially. Evil doppelgangers are always good for character conflict. How better to understand the character of a hero than to put them in the role of villain? So I think that was probably my starting point. I’m pretty sure the idea formed around an image in my mind of He-Man bowing to Hordak sitting on the throne of Eternia.
At the time, I don’t think I realised how ‘off-kilter’ the plotline really was – as you can tell, it was different to many of my other MOTU/She-Ra stories which, I think, are far more straightforward adventures.
In a similar way, one of my earliest Transformers stories – "State Games" – occurred millions of years in the past, was not set on Earth, was very political and explored this crazy idea of giant robots fighting in a gladiatorial arena. Not at all a typical Transformers story.
What I find interesting, is that both those atypical stories seem to be the ones that have resonated the most with readers. Now, I spent many years as an editor, and I suspect I would not have been brave enough to accept such ‘radical’ stories for publication if they’d been submitted to me. A lot of that probably has to do with how the licensing publishing field became more ‘corporate’ over the years – publishers having to go through more and more hoops to get approvals and anything printed having to conform to very tight parameters. Things were much more free form in the 80s. But I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here, in that naïve writer James Hill took more risks than experienced editor James Hill.
Out of all my MOTU/She-Ra stories, “The Reality Shaper” is my favourite – I thought the art featuring Nega-Space and the creature itself was great – and I’m pleased to hear you found it so memorable.
Your second story, “Taming the Dragons” in Issue #15, seems to have a feel of classic desert movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Woman of the Dunes. It also begins very unusually for a MOTU story, with Prince Adam wandering in a zombie-like trance through the desert and collapsing, and the narrative then jumps backward in time to show the events that led up to this. Where did the inspiration behind this story come from?
The scene of Adam wandering in the desert was definitely inspired by the classic sequence in Lawrence of Arabia where the hazy figure of Omar Sharif rides in from the far-distant horizon – getting progressively closer (and clearer) to the viewer over time. But I think the overall decision to go for a desert setting probably came about from a more circuitous route…
Having Hordak as the major threat in my first story, I think I was probably anxious to feature Skeletor more prominently this time. My favourite MOTU figure – even back then – was Dragon Blaster Skeletor, so I was keen to feature the Dragons. I liked the idea of them tunnelling underground and I probably cribbed the idea of them digging through soft sand from the Sandworms in Dune.
My favourite aspect of MOTU is the fusion of sword-and-sorcery concepts with outright sci-fi. I like the visual disconnect of primitive weapons like swords married to more advanced tech, so Tomar and his nomadic tribe probably came about because of my fondness for that sort of thing. I’ve always been a big fan of the classic Trigan Empire strip, which fused Greco-Roman designs with fighter jets etc. (As an aside, my first strip for Harrier, Forest, featured Napoleonic-style designs alongside spaceships and other advanced hardware in a pre-cataclysm Atlantis.)
Looking back on the story, I notice that the Dragons were somewhat peaceful creatures until entranced by Skeletor – and I obviously thought that summed up his Machiavellian ways pretty succinctly. He wasn’t out to just conquer – he wanted to pervert noble creatures and lure them to his evil side. Interestingly, it’s only now I realise I touched on the same theme in “The Last Unicorn” story in the 1989 Annual.
Also, I notice I included a “By the Eternal Fires of Sumason” curse from Skeletor. Very pleased to see that – I always thought it had a classic ring to it (which is probably why I followed Brian and used it. I think I probably used it in the Annual too, will have to go double check!) Of course, it’s only now, after reading Brian’s interview, that I realise it started life as a reference to Sue Mason – someone Brian and I later employed as a comics colourist in the Newsstand Publishing days. (Small world, many connections!)
Part 2 of James Hill's Interview is coming soon! Follow the MOTU UK Comics Fan Site's Facebook page for updates.