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Words and Pictures: An Interview with John Higgins

John Higgins was an important part of the process that turned younger me into a dedicated fan of comics. The truth is, though, that back then I probably didn’t really understand just how important he was, because his original specialty was colouring comics and my appreciation of the absolutely crucial and skilled role such folks play in the medium was, I confess, rudimentary in those early days.

John coloured Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke, two of the iconic and in many ways transformative comics of the 1980s, and his work on them undoubtedly broke new colouring ground. His talents don’t remotely end there, though. He’s an accomplished comics artist, with a diverse body of work that includes lots of output for 2000AD in the UK and the big US publishers.

As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a writer, which brings us to the excuse for this interview: the publication by Titan Comics of a re-mastered collected edition of Razorjack, a character and series he created, wrote, illustrated and coloured. We talk about that, of course, but cover a lot of other ground too …

Q. To start in the obvious place, could you introduce us to Razorjack, both the character and the story?

Razorjack is your worst nightmare, the one where something is chasing you but you don’t know what. You have run as far and as fast as you possibly can, heart pounding, gasping for breath, you press back hard against a wall, feeling vulnerable but hidden. There is no reason why you cannot escape from the twisted, alien, sharp-fanged thing shuffling slowly past your hiding place. But then it stops and looks straight at you. And that is when Razorjack‘s story really starts.

A group of high school students inadvertently create a dimensional nexus that allows this alien god to fix her baleful eye on Earth, a place she never knew existed until now. And now she wants to cross over from her dimension to ours to destroy and lay waste to everything she hates, which is you and Earth and all living things on it. But due to the interference of a couple of cops, who initially have no idea what they are battling, she cannot cross over into our world. All she is waiting for is for that day, and that day will come; we drive the story through the continuous murderous incursions of her Twist Bitches into our dimension. These twisted creatures – whose general aspect is of a perfect and beautiful woman – have been harvested from their birth cradles from all of Razorjack‘s conquered worlds and genetically and psychologically twisted into cold killing machines. Their sole purpose is to do Razorjack’s bidding, which is to kill and keep killing until nothing remains alive. No character is safe; even heroes die in Razorjack‘s world.

Q. This edition is described as being re-mastered; what does that mean, in practice, for the script and artwork?

As the Absolute Watchmen edition for DC comic was the complete and ‘remastered’ edition of said comic, I like to think of this as my Absolute Razorjack. When I first talked over the approach to the new edition with the Titan editors, it was decided new lettering and new bridging story artwork was needed to clarify certain aspects of the original story. When it was collected together from my original self-published edition and the Com.x editions the structure had slipped somewhat.

Once that decision was made it was a small step to bring in a fresh eye to look at the dialogue and no one would I want more to do that than the phenomenal Michael Carroll: book author and comics writer, who is writing Jennifer Blood for Dynamite Entertainment at the moment, with regular gigs writing for 2000AD. He put a polish on my old dialogue, all the same words just not in the same order.

Mike also came up with a sensational new Twist Bitch story. So new dialogue and new stories to add texture to the world in the detail, while the apocalyptic destruction of everything by Razorjack remains the over-arching premise, the thread of dread that links everything that happens in the Razorjack universe. The small incursions of killer Twist Bitches or possessed monsters in human form into our world is an interesting way to develop the characters and villains and to discover more about them and their world and Mike’s story, “A Glimpse of Summer” is a very clever SF premise with a neat poignant love story twist that adds depth to my characters in a clever way and shows Razorjack’s near omnipotence in more detail. Mike’s understanding of my world even surprises me.

Q. The fusion of genres and influences here is interesting, with Clive Barker-esque cross-dimensional horror mixing with police procedural and a cult-conspiracy vibe. How did this particular mix of ingredients come together to feed your work? Is this you combining what you enjoy as a reader/viewer into a single package?

Thank you for that Clive Barker association, a fine compliment and a very perceptive question. That is exactly it. All I wanted to do with Razorjack was to create my own world outside of what I had been commissioned to do all my professional life. As much as I love working on Batman, Spider-Man or even the Watchmen it has always been as a gun for hire.

Now that doesn’t stop you from being the best you can be; the best artist, the best writer, the best colourist or the best anyone, of the long production line of creative people that makes the book that goes on the shelves. But I had a story I wanted to tell, a story that no one else could tell, it was a John Higgins story. It is not profound, it won’t make you look at the world around you in a different way (it might make you look under the bed before you get in to it). First and foremost, I just wanted to have fun with it and if the reader has fun also, I have done my job. Razorjack is something that I would have gone out and bought if someone else had written it.

I was trying to bridge a gap between my experience of looking for material to read myself and not finding it, and the work I was doing for the likes of Vertigo, that was dark, gritty and had a certain social realism. I wanted something a bit more light-hearted than that, but still touching on deeper themes. Darker themes, shall we say, rather than anything profound or intellectual.

Q. There’s a striking extended sequence in here that feels remarkably like film or TV, where you’re cutting rapidly between simultaneous but separate actions by various characters, a lot of which are converging on a great big outbreak of violence. It’s very effective at creating tension, and it brought to mind several questions: Is your approach to writing or illustrating consciously influenced by the rhythms of film/TV? Does your background as an artist affect the way you write, in terms of your sense of the visual pacing or structure that the words imply? How close do you see comics being to film/TV creatively and as they’re experienced by the reader?

That is a very neat reading of a scene. I have been taken on by an agent with the intention of exploring other media for Razorjack, so Razorjack is an idea I would like to see transferred onto the TV probably more than any other medium, because of the depth of characterization you get in an on-going television series.

I think there has always been that co-referential relationship with film/TV. Most comic people use filmic editing and story sensibilities when telling a story. Also, as an artist on a scripted book, all of my favourite collaborators showed me how best to do it. This gave me the incentive to aspire to reach their heights in the way I told the story. Alan Moore’s masterclass in the way many different character story strands can build up into a strong singular story with a satisfying conclusion in Watchmen is a prime example. I always loved the way he lead from one scene into another which is very filmic. One of my favourite TV writers Dennis Potter used similar visual crossover cuts to other scenes, so definitely there is that influence from moving pictures.

Q. You’re clearly interested in story-telling in all sorts of different media. Perhaps with a particular soft spot for science fiction, fantasy and horror? I assume that interest and attachment to sf started quite young, so what were the stories, in books, comics, TV, film, wherever, that really got you hooked on the genre?

Definitely SF more than any other genre, or maybe SF with added horror. I do seem to have been put into a horror fantasy bracket as an artist which I am very happy about. The books I first remember reading were the classics of SF: Heinlein, Asimov, Eric Frank Russell, and once I discovered Harry Harrison there was no going back. I liked the idea of being part of a cult minority as it was then. In the 70s most SF movies were very limited in the scope of their special effects, imagination and in most cases they just could not interpret the imagination or imagery of the book. Some notable exceptions came along before digital fx made SF movies imaginably real: 2001 A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Alien and my number one movie of any period or genre Blade Runner.

Q. You’re a pretty rare breed, having an extraordinary depth of experience and reputation as a colourist and artist, but also branching out into writing. (Have you ever done any lettering – that seems to be the one job missing?) What made you decide to branch out into the writing side of things? Was that desire there from the start of your career, or did it emerge as you went along?

Ha ha. The only lettering I have done has been on the side of Mega City 1 Blocks in 2000AD. I think very early on as a young reader of SF books and comics I wanted to be a writer, but then found out you had to know punctuation and grammar (something I still have a problem with); but I felt I had stories and ideas that were as interesting as any I had read, so I have always wanted to write. Once I found I could draw comics for a career, I knew the next logical step was to combine the two and probably self-publish.

This is the great thing about comics. Anyone can produce a comic from scratch, which is the theme I always push when I do talks at schools. If you have a good idea you can do a comic in your bedroom. You could be the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Viz Comics, both started by young college students who printed the first issues themselves and sold them to their friends initially, and both created a publishing industry on the backs of their creations.

Q. For a long time, the importance of colourists in comics was perhaps a bit under-appreciated by fans, although that’s changing nowadays. Could you outline what you see as the role of the colourist in comics, perhaps in the context of some of your most famous books, like Watchmen or Killing Joke?

Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore always wanted the colourist to be a complete part of the creative process and I think Watchmen more than any other comic proved colour was integral to telling a great comic story if it was approached in the way we did. Alan wrote certain scenes in colour, Dave gave me suggestions and did the artwork in such a way that I could use back-lighting on figures with his high contrast lighting style. Shadows on faces and bodies etc. I think colour started to get noticed and appreciated around that time, because we used it as a method to further the story.

With The Killing Joke, I wanted the colour to reflect the madness of the Joker and have the tones influence our perception of his world. I had started to use colour in Watchmen as an indicator of emotion, and The Killing Joke was done in the same vein. Most comics at that time was just any old colour stuck between the black lines of the artist. There were great colourists around at that time – Tom Zuiko, Marie Severin and Steve Oliff spring to mind – but 99% of all comics were coloured by almost anyone who walked past the editorial office on colouring day.

Q. You know your way around both the UK and the US comics industries. Art styles seems to translate pretty successfully across the Atlantic, but do you think the UK and US audiences actually differ in their receptiveness to different art styles? And how about for different story styles, content, genres etc?

I think 2000AD was the conduit for all those artists in the UK that were more influenced by the American art style than the home-grown style, so the crossover to the American market and publishers was just the next step for most artists who worked on that illustrious comic.

I think with the dominance of the superhero across all of American comics, most other genres do not get the attention they deserve. I am hoping Razorjack has a crossover sensibility with its mix of elements, such as one of its heroes having powers that are more than human (and of course the villain Razorjack is super bad!). Some of my contemporaries have no interest in the superhero genre, but I think of it as an off-shoot of SF. Even though most super hero comics tend to be little more than soap opera, the best can stand comparison with any speculative fiction. And the pulp SF book, Gladiator by Philip Wylie written in the 1930s has been said to be the inspiration behind Siegel and Shuster’s original Superman comic.

Q. I’ve got to ask about one particular series you illustrated back around 1990: World Without End, written by Jamie Delano. I was young and impressionable back then, and it made quite an impression. I remember it as a strange sort of science fantasy, really markedly different from most comics around then, filled with distinctive, painterly artwork. Could you say a little about its subject matter, what effect you and Jamie were going for, and how it came about?

You have a good memory, Brian. World Without End, written by Jamie Delano, was the first big job I got for DC as an artist in my own right. We wanted to do a pure SF story and Jamie’s political bent at that time lead toward an ecological/sexual politics tone to the story: it’s set in a mad future world with religious fanatics killing anyone who steps outside the constraints of a controlled, church-based society, with a toxic waste land surrounding church city-states, where wild things grow. Quite prescient if we look at some aspects of modern day life.

While I was mad enough to decide to paint – no one else was painting full colour stories at that time, except Dave McKean – which was my background, full tonal painting. Black line was a discipline I had not yet mastered and which I am still working at today (I feel black line with added colour tells a more concise and effective story) but I have a natural feel for painting.

It got pretty good reviews and initial sales, but a couple of things held us back: it was not in the superhero genre, it was full painted colour and no one knew how to market it at DC. I think it was ahead of its time in subject matter and in execution. But the rights have reverted back to Jamie and me, so anyone who would like to do a new edition please get in touch.

Q. What can we expect to see from you in terms of future work? Any more Razorjack?

I am about to start a new SF strip called Eden for Dark Horse Presents, written by Jim Alexander who has a clear and weird alternative view of a future reality when he writes this series, set in a dystopian future world he has created. I just need to finish the 3rd Greysuit series I am doing for 2000AD. This is set in the present day and is peopled by super-enhanced hit men who have been brain-washed into doing the bidding of a shadowy organization, which basically involves removing “problems” for political purposes. One of the hitmen is fighting his conditioning. This is a very satisfying series to go back to, because I get to work with Pat Mills again. Pat is one of the original creators of 2000AD and is a superb writer with a feel and texture to his writing that is all his own.

And definitely more Razorjack. With Michael Carroll and a number of other creators, I already have a wealth of Razorjack-related art, SF novels and even a music soundtrack finished and waiting to hit the audience. I have a lot in the can so to speak, and Mike and I have already talked about doing a new Razorjack series next year.

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