Sunday 3 April 2022

Britain says "Farewell" to its Prince of Comic Strip Illustrators, Garry Leach

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Garry, who has died at the age of 67, had a forty year career in which his comic strip illustrations thrilled and entertained  successive generations of readers. He had said that, growing up in the late 1950s and early 60s, he had read thousands of comics himself for as long as he could remember and :  "Always loved the sci-fi genre. When I started collecting comics as a small child, I homed straight in on 'Mystery in Space', 'Strange Adventures', 'Dan Dare', 'Captain Condor' and 'Space Ace'." When he moved into secondary school, at the age of eleven in 1965 and it came to opting for exam classes when he was fifteen he said : "I opted for the art classes at school. I'd been keen on art since primary school and most of my teachers herded me into various art groups". 

After getting his 'A' Levels in 1972 he started his Bachelor of Arts degree course at Central St Martin's School of Art and Design in London, but became critical of its attitude towards popular culture and said that it was :  "Supposedly one of the top colleges in London at the time. I say 'supposedly', because while I was studying graphics and illustration, I managed to grab a job with D.C.Thomson, a large Scottish publisher who were in the process of developing a new horror title. Now, bear in mind that art college should 'prepare you to work in some sector of the art world'. When my head tutor found I'd been spending my time working for D.C. Thomson he immediately threatened to kick me out". Apparently, Garry: "Couldn't abuse their teaching by drawing something as demeaning and lowbrow as comics". Almost thirty years later he would joke : "Nice one guys - I've only spent the last twenty years working on that 'worthless art'. But, hey, who ever said education had to be educational or even enlightened ?". 

In 1976, Garry said : "I'd finished college and needed to find some paying work fast, In the UK, '2000 AD', was a comic making all the big waves. A friend and I wrote up a two or three page 'Future Shock' tale which I penciled up and lettered as a finished piece. It was a future war story and fate was with me on this one. The Editor preferred war stories and bought the strip on the spot. That's how easy it was. I was on board. In the next year they commissioned me to do covers, more 'Future Shocks' and I went on to work on 'Dan Dare' and 'Judge Dredd'". He was commissioned to do the inking for Trevor Goring’s work on the Dan Dare story ‘The Doomsday Machine’ in 1978 in which the space veteran is revived from cryogenic sleep centuries after his own time (the original 'Eagle' strips) and given command of a deep space exploration vehicle and its seven man crew. Garry said : "At one point I even drew my own 'Dan Dare' strip, which was pretty well received. The funny thing is that it was a bigger kick drawing Dare than Dredd, because he was a childhood favourite".

These were his lean years when he was unrecognised and twenty-five years later he told the American writer George Khoury : "Bollocks to artists starving in a garret, I've played that game and there's nothing virtuous, noble or enriching about it. It just sucks". 

In 1979 Garry worked on 'Judge Dredd' stories such as ‘The Day the Law Died’ and ‘Night of the Bloodbeast’ for 'AD 2000', but his big break came two years later working of the illustrations for the revival of the character 'Marvelman' and becoming the Art Director for 'Warrior'. He recalled : " I had a string of 'realistic' strips behind me. Dez Skinn phoned me one day and asked if I was interested in a new creator-owned magazine he'd started. The strip he had in mind was Miller Comics', 'Marvelman' which the writer Alan Moore was going to resurrect and revive. I knew 'MM' was as cheesy as a slab of stilton, so I was pretty sceptical about the proposition till I read the script. It was a revelation and I was hooked".

Dez admitted that he had never heard of Garry but recalled the he : "Was shown a four page strip that an unknown had drawn in a '2000 AD Special'. He said that : "Garry's stuff was seriously over-rendered, perhaps through lack of confidence, but even so, he was a fan of American comics, he had a grasp of super-anatomy and dynamic proportions and so I gave him a tryout". "Neither Alan nor Garry were people I had worked with before, so I was going out on a limb. Could they meet deadlines ? Would they get bored in six months ? I had no way of knowing. They were the new guys". It was 1981 and Garry had joined Dez Skinn's company, 'Quality Communication'.

Of his new position in the company he said : "Now, 'Art Director' - that sounds pretty glamorous and high-powered" but  the company was : "From a sleazy little basement beneath a seedy comic shop  ('Quality Comics') in New Cross, just outside Central London. It was festering and alarmingly cheap, which sums up the the entire operation. 'Quality' ran on a shoestring budget, though budget is hardly the word. We had to put covers together with photocopies and a fifteen year old 'Letraset' that shattered when you touched it. That's how 'scroogey' it was". Apparently, Garry lived around the corner from the office.

When Garry later appraised his former self at the age of 25 he said he : "Had graphics and production experience; could spec type - in those days when you did it by hand; could amend art; storm up an idea in seconds flat; was empathetic to other creators; was naïve and cheap". In this case 'Art Director' is bullshitese for : 'The pay's crap, but the title sounds impressive and has the added bonus of making the company sound bigger that it is'. On the plus side, this introduction to the arse-end of the business was a hard learning curve that I carried on to 'AI' and 'Atomika'. One couldn't have existed without the other".

On the question of his work on 'Marvelman' he said : "We wanted 'MM' to be a realistic strip and my style always gravitated in that direction". He said that it wasn't that he didn't like stylistic art, because, as he said, the loved the work of Americans like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and British artists like Frank Bellamy and Brian Lewis and said : "They were my gods", but : "My mental camera always ran to the realistic school". For that reason, when he thought about his approach to 'Marvelman' he would have considered the work of the Americans, Al Williamson and Angelo Torres for their work on 'Creepy' and 'Eerie'. 

Naturally, British artist of the 'Eagle', Frank Hampson was there and he said : "I definitely remember looking at the American, Jesus Blasco's work on 'Steel Claw'. He said : "I suppose I believed if you made the pictures real enough the reader would be sucked right in and bleed right along with the hero and that, ultimately, would give the strip the intensity I was after. I figured if I could get a couple of good pay-off frames per episode, frames you'd remember for years, the the readers would be hooked and I'd stay in the business". "They did remember, but that theory was a pile of shit. If you look at 'Dick Tracy' or 'Popeye' or 'Tin Tin', their stylistic nature never hampered thar dramatic narrative. Why didn't I see this at the time ? Oh, and I gave Marvelman a dick. You can bet a lot of people noticed that".

When it came to working with Alan Moore's scripts, Garry said the challenge was : "Whether you were good enough to do them justice. They were so cannily crafted you could have run them without the art work. When a script arrived, I'd brew up a coffee, sit back and have a damn good read, because they were too dense to skim-read". " Most writers write for speed. The less you write the quicker you write, the you move on to the next job. But, not Alan. He wrote from the heart".

Garry said that he only collaborated with Alan on a handful of stories and : "The creative process on an episodic strip is like toppling dominoes : one idea triggers another and so on and so forth. The premise growth becomes almost organic. The visual aspect of 'MM' were my area and give special effects to play with. I contrived his 'force aura' or the 'Tinkerbell effect' as it came to be known : The self-healing, mutating costume". Garry recalled that on his "last penciling stint" when he was working on the battle with the lightning bolt, between 'MM' and 'Johnny Bates' that : "It pretty much materialised fully formed. I saw it all so vividly. I phoned Alan with the idea immediately and then, a couple of weeks later it was sitting on my doormat as the fourth episode".

He said : "Alan never objected to you pitching an idea in if it was relevant or enhanced the story. Some writers get real arsey about this, like you're some mindless art machine following their diktats. It's only comics. It's not Shakespeare and and you can bet he had a rewrite or two. Artists interpret a script. It'll never be quite the way the writer saw it. You have to travel in tandem and be sympathetic to each other's abilities". He had an enormous respect for Alan's ability and said that he was : "Such a talent" and every script he had from him "felt special" and he could : "Put a fresh spin on any story whether it was a simple 'Future Shock' or 'Marvelman'. He was head a shoulders above most other writers. The second I finished reading that first script I knew we had a winner. If I hadn't the smarts to see that that, I think the stream of 'Eagle' awards and critical acclaim would have clued me in eventually.". 

When he created 'Marvelman' with Alan in 1981, for his head, he admitted it was based "in a demigod kind of fashion" on that of the Hollywood star, Paul Newman. He said : "I really hated that corporate approach where all the heroes had the same face and the only identifying characteristic was the hairstyle.  I wanted a distinctive face that would emphasis MM's godlike perfection and Newman seemed to fit the bill. Anyway, I was following a precedent : C.C.Beck based Captain Marvel on actor Fred MacMurray, so considering the lineage between the two marvel's it seemed appropriate. Liz Moran's model was Audrey Hepburn because she had such an air of vulnerability, intelligence".

As for his other creations he said : "I think I saw Johnny Bates as some sort of  malignant amalgam of David Bowie and Jon Finch. It was someone like that. The script originally called for a massive Johnny Bates in his 'Kid Marvelman' costume, but I thought that this was too 'comic book'. If this was reality I couldn't see him wanting to wear buttercup yellow tights. Visually, I thought it would be far scarier to have a slick, skinny dude in a suit, kicking the living crap out of the world's new mightiest mortal. Johnny Bates.... what a lad".

An insight of Garry working with Alan is provided by Alan's hand typed script and Garry's illustrations for the 'Marvelman' story 'A Dream of flying' : 

When it came to leaving 'MM' he said : "At the end of the day you have to earn a living wage and that wasn't happening on 'MM'. The 'Warrior' page rate was low and I'd totally immersed myself in the strip to such a degree that I'd been visualising flying sequences then I'd dream about flying that night. Dez always had about two thousand reasons why he couldn't pay you that week. I think he must have taken lessons in management level weaseling. I'd reached a point where 'MM' was sweeping the awards. I'd been voted 'Best Dramatic Artist of the Year' by the Society of Strip Illustrators and I'd spent two weeks walking to work and living on porridge because Dez couldn't pay us. The rewards were not concomitant with the deprivations, so I moved onto some strips that were more fun and faster to draw".

Dez didn't quite see it in the same way and said : "Garry was such a perfectionist that if he wasn't happy with a page, he'd start again. At commercial speed he should have been working on a page a day, not a page a week. So that was when Garry quit as an artist and spent more time in-house". 

Garry now handed the drawing of 'Marvelman' over to Alan Davis and said : "Our fanbase was incredibly strong, so I stayed on board to ease the jilt of a sudden stylistic change as well as giving Alan an easier introduction to the strip. Not that he needed any. He was my first choice to take over the reins and proved to be absolutely perfect. He was born to draw super heroes". He said that he followed the strip and waited to see how the story unfolded each month. 

However, when it was sold to 'Eclipse' it was a different matter. He said : "When 'Eclipse' wanted to carry on publishing, I was happy to sell the rights". 'Miracleman' began as a reprint series for the American company in 1985 , containing colourised reprints of the original Warrior Series. However, it wasn't long before : "The whole situation had slipped into a bitter morass of litigation, broken contracts, failed intentions, creative disagreements and conflicting personalities. I wanted to put that mess well behind me. The project had picked up too much bad karma". In addition, he said : "I never received all the money that was actually owed to me. So there's a moral here : 'Never trust a publisher because they'll butt-fuck you in the end'. It's some sort of unwritten law".

Gary returned to Judge Dredd in 1986 with ‘Attack of the 50 ft. Woman’ and ‘The Comeback’ and ‘Ten Years On’ the following year.  In this he whimsically invested him with striped socks in a story which saw Whitey, the murderous gang leader from Dredd’s first published story, return to try and get revenge on the lawman.

He had loved sci-fi strips when he was a boy and he now returned to it and said : "I  was a happy bunny drawing sci-fi. The challenge of constructing new universes was a real buzz and I enjoyed 'Warpsmiths' and 'Zirk' more than 'MM'". In the case of 'Warpsmiths', which he did for 'AI' he said it was : "An unpublished script left over after 'Warrior' folded. Alan and I owned the copyright, so it wasn't a problem. It was fun and that was the point of 'AI' ".

For financial reason, Garry moved into illustration for commercial advertising and said : "I spent a few years designing premiums for Kellogg's. The print-runs there could be anything from four to twelve million. What comics could match that king of audience ? I'd go into people's homes and their kids would have my work stuck all over the kitchen". This illustration work meant that, at this point in his career, he could afford to do comics and continued to do inking at 'DC Thomson', 'Wildstorm' and 'Marvel'. He said : "Most comics aren't particularly well paid, especially if you're slow. So you need to work by volume to make a good living and I mean like two, three, four pages a day".

John Freeman presents a magnificent collage of Garry's work in his : In Memoriam: Illustrator, Designer, Publisher and Comic Creator Garry Leach.

Garry admitted that he was a better illustrator than storyteller. When interviewed by  George Khoury in 2001 he looked back on his 'Marvelman' days and said : 

"All these years down the line fans tell me how much they loved that stuff and that's incredibly gratifying, because I must have done something right, which makes all that effort worthwhile, because it's passed the test of time".


With grateful acknowledgement to George Khoury's interview with Garry in 2001 

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