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Interview with Comic Book Professional Barry Kitson
What do Batgirl, L.E.G.I.O.N., Superman, Batman, Azrael, JLA, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, Titans, Avengers/Thunderbolts and Empire have in common?
Artist extraordinaire Barry Kitson, that’s what. Barry has pencilled them all. Now, with a DC exclusive contract, the forthcoming JSA: Strange Adventures (previously known as Lord Dynamo) and the recently announced Legion of Super-Heroes relaunch with long-time collaborater Mark Waid, Barry’s in for a busy year!
Nevertheless, he kindly took time out to chat with PaperbackReader about how he got started, latest projects and everything in between…
PaperbackReader: What lead you to comics? Was it something you always wanted to do or was it just supposed to be a pit-stop on the way to something else?
Barry Kitson: No, it was literally all I ever wanted to do from when I was about 6 years old. Somebody showed me some US comics when I was about that age, and basically all I wanted to do from then on was to draw comics. I had a few years in my teens when I wanted to be a rock star, but that didn’t quite work out.
PBR: Your first work was for Marvel UK; how did you manage to land that?
BK: That was just being in the right place at the right time really. I’d been down to Marvel with some samples, and they’d basically said they quite liked them but they wanted me to have something published before they’d give me any work. I said how will I get something published if nobody gives me any work until I’ve got something published? That was just the accepted practice back then I think.
PBR: And it’s more or less the same now, isn’t it?
BK: Yeah, but what they did say was that they’d give me a script to work on just so I could show them what I could do, but they never actually sent me it. When I rang up to find out what was going on, they said the editor I’d seen was no longer there and I’d better come down and see the new guy.
PBR: So you had to go back and do it all again?
BK: Well I went back down and luckily the first time I’d been there it had been someone’s leaving do, and I’d gone along to that and got to know everybody there through the evening, so when I walked in this time everyone was going, “Hello, Barry, nice to see you again,” and the new editor, who hadn’t been there at all, thought ‘Oh well everybody knows him, I’d better give him some work’. He said that they were looking for somebody to draw a Spider-Man strip they were going to do for a few weeks, he gave me a script and asked me to go away, draw a page, and bring it back the next day, so I did. He liked it and gave me the job.
PBR: That was back in the UK’s Spider-Man Weekly?
BK: Yeah, for four weeks they ran a story that originated in the UK by Mike Collins. He wrote all four weeks and drew two. I drew the other two, and Mark Farmer inked all four. After that I basically worked at Marvel for maybe a year or so. I did Transformers, a strip called Space Thieves as a back-up in Captain Britain, basically anything. Really I was just very, very lucky that there was stuff out there so I could learn the trade.
PBR: As you say, it was the right place at the right time. And you worked on 2000A.D. [a British science-fiction based weekly comic] as well, on Grant Morrison’s script?
BK: Well Grant wrote the first script I did for them, which was one of the ‘Future Shocks’, then basically I was working with Alan Grant on Dredd and Judge Anderson after that.
PBR: So a lot of big names before they made it in the US really?
BK: Yes, I mean at the time they were just beginning. I think that that was some of Grant’s first work as well, and Alan and John Wagner were, I think, just about to begin their run on Detective Comics.
PBR: Grant Morrison has a reputation for being very innovative, and to ‘think outside the box’ in his storytelling. Was he like that even back then?
BK: It’s very difficult for me to say, really. I didn’t meet him at all back then.
PBR: So you were just working from the scripts?
BK: Yeah. There was kind of a community of artist and writers in London but that was about it. Most of the rest of the people working in the UK outside London didn’t really bump into each other much in those days.
PBR: Was it long after that you landed your first DC work in the US?
BK: I probably worked on 2000A.D. for about a year. Then – and this was really through Alan – DC were looking for somebody to draw Batgirl and at that time Alan was writing Detective; he suggested my name to Denny O’Neil who was editing the book, and he gave me a call one night and asked me if I’d be interested in doing Batgirl and I said ‘yes’. I got all excited and put the phone down and then realised that I hadn’t actually asked how much they were going to pay me! But that was like a dream come true for me, working for a US comic company was what I’d always wanted to do.
PBR: That was the Batgirl Special, released shortly before The Killing Joke?. Were you aware at the time that it was going to be the last real Batgirl story?
BK: Not specifically. I knew that something was going to happen to the character, and so DC wanted this one-off, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was.
PBR: And after that?
BK: I did a Legion of Super-Heroes annual and a Catwoman strip for Action Comics when it was weekly, then after both of those I was given a choice between doing the Catwoman mini they wanted to do and L.E.G.I.O.N. I’d always been a fan of the Legion and science fiction stuff, so I went that way.
PBR: And you stayed on there for about five years?
BK: I had a six-month break when I went and did some Wolverine issues and some Wildcards stuff over at Marvel, then I came back and did some more L.E.G.I.O.N. I think it was two years, then a break, then another two and a half years.
PBR: On the later run at least, you’re credited as co-plotter as well as pencils. Was that a natural evolution for you?
BK: I guess you could say it was. When Alan decided he was going to move on he suggested that I was capable of writing it myself. I did that for a few issues, but I actually kind of missed the collaborative side of things so I stayed on co-plotting and Mark Waid came on board. That was when we met and we’ve enjoyed working with each other ever since.
PBR: You’ve done a number of projects together since then.
BK: We have. We’ve got a very good working relationship where we give each other a push and shove both ways; he lets me tinker with the story and I show him the work as I do it. If I’m planning a scene and he thinks that I’m not handling it in quite the best way, he’ll give me a call and let me know, ask me if there’s any way that I can do it differently. I really like that; it’s half the fun, really.
PBR: And after your second stint on L.E.G.I.O.N came Adventures of Superman?
BK: That’s right, I went on to Adventures of Superman after L.E.G.I.O.N and I was doing Shadow of the Bat as well.
PBR: Again, with Alan Grant.
BK: Yes, and then Azrael was kind of in the wings to do at some point. I don’t actually quite know why, because it doesn’t really seem to happen like that anymore, but everything seemed to be very planned out and you knew what was going on.
PBR: And you launched the regular series of Azrael, and stayed on that for a while with Denny O’Neil as the writer?
BK: I stayed on Azrael for two years, yes, with Denny writing and with Archie Goodwin as the editor, which was a real pleasure.
PBR: They’re both really legends in the industry. Was it easy to work with them?
BK: Working with Denny was a bit different for me, because Denny doesn’t like to collaborate a great deal with the artist. He likes to just write it, and that’s his part done, so it was a big change from what I was used to. And working for Archie was one of the nicest things that could happen to anybody in the business.
PBR: So you stayed on Azrael for two years; was JLA: Year One next?
BK: Pretty much, but even back then Mark and I were talking about doing Empire. We kind of approached Wildstorm, and they were interested in doing it. DC basically asked us what it would take for us to keep with them rather than going off and doing that, and we proposed ‘JLA: Year One’.
PBR: I guess it was a dream project really, because it’s really all the big DC characters.
BK: Absolutely. It was childhood wish-fulfilment., really, for me. Plus we got to drag in everybody else – Doom Patrol, and all the other characters that I’d always wanted to draw.
PBR: Again, that was very much a collaboration between you and Mark Waid. Wasn’t Brian Augustyn was on that as well?
BK: Yes, he was kind of working more with Mark and then I’d have to deal with the two of them.
PBR: That must have been pretty well received, because it wasn’t long after that that The Brave and the Bold was announced, a mini series chronicling the relationship between Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) and Barry Allen (the Flash).
BK: That’s right. It was kind of a case of “what do you want to do now?”
PBR: They really wanted to keep you two around, didn’t they?
BK: I guess so. DC has always treated me very well.
PBR: I was looking at The Brave and the Bold, and a lot of the way the books were designed is very much a homage to the old silver age comics.
BK: That’s what we were trying to do, really. We were trying to tell the story of Hal and Barry’s friendship, and kind of stylize it to the actual comics that were around in the period they were set, which is why #4, which was a very Neal Adams-ish one-
PBR: – the one with Green Arrow in it?
BK: That’s right. Tom Grindberg drew that and I just inked that one, as he’s got a kind of Neal Adams style that I don’t have.
PBR: And I guess that it was not long after that Gorilla Comics and Empire happened?
BK: Yes, I suppose it was.
PBR: Tell me a bit about Gorilla. How did that come about?
BK: The idea was that a whole bunch of us would get together, and make some comics and have some creative say, and see what we could do – try and do something interesting. The unfortunate side of it was that the business side of things didn’t work out; we went from having backing and funding to ‘you’ve got to pay for the printing of this yourself’ which I certainly couldn’t afford. It was hard. I really admire Kurt [Busiek], Stuart [Immonen], Karl [Kesel] and Tom [Grummet] because they did carry on through, but I’m very much a pragmatist. If we were selling as many as we were selling on Empire and we weren’t making any money it seemed kind of pointless – like you’re in a hole but you keep digging.
PBR: Sure. And it was just two issues of Empire that got released?
BK: Yes, two issues. We were hoping we’d keep going, but you have to wait and see what the economics were. Unfortunately, the economics were such that what would be a good selling book for a major company, with all the discounts they get at the printers’, and would make a profit for a big company just doesn’t make a profit for a small one. And another part of the trouble was because we thought we had funding, we said that we wanted the best paper, we wanted to pay the colorists more than they were getting anywhere else at the time, we were including 24 or 25 pages of story per issue instead of 22…
PBR: And I guess that cuts down on your advertising revenue.
BK: Yes and the way to economise was we put less story pages in, or we didn’t use such good paper, and we just decided that we’d rather wait until we could afford to do it as it was Mark bankrolled the whole operation – for which the rest of us on the book were more than grateful!
PBR: Rather than put out something you’re not entirely happy with?
BK: Absolutely. Luckily at the time DC said they liked the book and were interested in picking it up, so that’s what we went for.
PBR: It took a couple of years for it to come out at DC, though.
BK: The thing was, because of what happened with Gorilla, we’d taken on other work and it became a case of when can we sit down and do this. In a lot of ways, it worked out for the betterment of the book because it gave us a chance to talk through it. We continued to talk about it over the years, and we kept throwing ideas in and the story would keep changing.
PBR: Empire is quite a violent book, and obviously September 11th happened between the Gorilla and DC issues; did that have any effect on the story?
BK: I don’t think it had any conscious effect though I’m sure on a subconscious level 9-11 probably affected everyone’s world view. If anything I think it may have brought what we trying to say about how ugly violence and power seeking is into sharper focus, but we didn’t hold back because of it.
PBR: And you’ve had pretty favourable reviews every where, really.
BK: Yes, it seems to have been very well accepted by everybody.
PBR: And is DC happy with it?
BK: Yes, they seem to be.
PBR: Happy enough to give you a second series?
BK: I certainly hope so! Mark and I have got plans for at least a hundred issues of Empire.
PBR: That’s plotting in advance!
BK: That’s just from talking about it over the years. It’s such a big canvas…
PBR: It is. As a reader, one of the joys of the series is that nobody’s ever safe; anything can happen.
BK: That was part of the point. What we were trying to do with all of it was to play with all of the preconceptions that readers have about superhero comics; that characters won’t die, they’ll always wear the same clothes, that the good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are the bad guys. The idea was to make it fun because people wouldn’t know what was going to happen next, even when they thought they might think they did.
PBR: Stepping back, before Empire ran at DC you were working on the Titans. At the time, I guess the book was kind of dying a critical death to some extent; the storylines weren’t being particularly well received almost from the beginning of that run. When you’re working on a book that isn’t a big hit with fans, does it affect your enthusiasm for your work?
BK: Well, the Titans thing was kind of pear-shaped from the start really. I was asked if I wanted to write and draw it, so the idea was I could kind of try to put it right, but when I actually came on board the editor and writer had patched things up so I came on just as the artist. Then I found out that the writer, Jay Faerber, hadn’t been writing the kind of stories that he really wanted to write; but by then I was on the book, and I was sympathising with him and we both kind of stuck with a book we couldn’t steer the way we had hoped. By the time that Jay decided he’d had enough and Tom Peyer was coming on board, DC had decided the whole thing was going to be re-jigged anyway. It never became the book I really wanted it to become and I never got the chance to do the things I wanted to do. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have started on it when I found out that I wasn’t going to be getting the chance to change things as I’d hoped, but also, Andy Helfer the editor was a friend and you don’t like to let anybody down. It wasn’t the happiest time because I like the Titans a lot as characters and I looked forward to drawing it, and never really getting the chance to do with them as I liked wasn’t great. Its just one of those things, I suppose. Hopefully I’ll have learned some lessons from what happened!
PBR: Okay, just bringing it up to date, you signed a three year exclusive with DC early this year?
BK: That’s right. It came about when I was working for Marvel as well, on Avengers/Thunderbolts.
PBR: How many issues of that did you do in the end?
BK: I completed issue one, did the breakdowns for number two and pencilled and inked all the covers. The schedules between the two companies just went kind of haywire; I would never intend to leave a project before I completed it but it just wasn’t physically possible to do it all the work DC and Marvel wanted from me in the time available and something had to give. DC had some long term things they wanted me to do and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I agonized over what to do for a long time, but really there was only one choice to make. I would like to say how understanding the editorial team at Marvel were (Tom Brevoort and Any Smith) which I really appreciated and I really hope I get a chance to make it up to them someday! At least I got to draw one issue. It was the first chance I’d had to work with Kurt [Busiek] since Gorilla, and I got to meet Fabian [Nicieza] as well. It’s a shame but it just couldn’t be avoided. Ironically Tom Grummet, another Gorilla artist, finished it up. I took over Adventures of Superman from him and he’s taken over that from me.
PBR: Swings and roundabouts.
PBR: And what kind of things did DC offer?
BK: Well one of them was the JSA book I’m working on at the moment, Lord Dynamo, which is nearly 200 pages long.
PBR: And what format is that coming out in?
BK: I think six thirty page books.
PBR: And it’s set in World War II?
BK: It is, yes, so it’s kind of like a JLA: Year One thing again for me but this time I get to draw all the original characters.
PBR: Again, a bit of a dream project.
BK: Yeah, it’s great; I’m having a lot of fun. It’s really the first kind of period piece that I’ve done so it’s giving me a chance to use a lot of references and get really stuck into old architecture and engineering and things.
PBR: And are you writing that series?
BK: No, it’s written by Kevin J Anderson. He’s a very well respected science fiction author with several best-sellers to his name
PBR: Okay. What do you have lined up after that? I read an interview with Mark Waid that hinted that there might be something else for the two of you coming up?
BK: Yes, Mark and I will definitely be doing something after that. J
PBR: I know that there are constantly rumours on various message boards about either Legion of Super-Heroes or L.E.G.I.O.N?
PBR: I’ll take that as you can neither confirm nor deny those?
BK: I’m aware that there are rumours, but I’m not making any comment on those. The bottom line is, if Mark and I don’t do anything else, we’ll be doing Empire.
PBR: Fair enough. Is there anybody working in the industry that you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?
BK: Oh yes, loads, the list could be almost endless. I’m wary to even begin listing people with fear of forgetting somebody!
PBR: I know that Geoff Johns is doing some great work at DC at the moment.
BK: He is, and I worked with Geoff on the Doctor Fate issue in JSA All-Stars. I think that was basically the reason I got offered the book I’m doing now. Geoff and I had wanted to work together for a long, long time and hopefully we will again in the not to distant future. We both enjoyed the experience J …. I think!
PBR: Okay, good. Moving on to comics generally, what’s your opinion on the state of the industry at the moment? There seems to be a slight rut as far as getting new readers in goes.
BK: I don’t know if that’s actually the case; DC were telling me that their sales were up 13% last year, which is quite a healthy rise. A few people I know that own comic shops have been telling me that it’s actually picking up again. There’s now maybe half a dozen books selling over a hundred thousand, whereas a couple of years ago there was only one. I think it tends to go in almost seven year cycles; there are troughs and peaks. Sometimes the peaks get higher than others. We seem to be on an up-trend at the moment. I think things are a bit more together now; a couple of years ago things did look a bit dire but I think people have kind of rationalised now. To me it seems that more chances are being taken with stories and genres and that there’s a fine depth of talent working in the field.
PBR: And the UK market?
BK: I’m ashamed to say that I’m not really up to date on the UK market at all. I used to get a few things when I was younger, like a magazine that reprinted Tales of Asgard, Jack Kirby stuff, but I’m a die-hard superhero fan through and through. Before 2000AD the British comics I bought were mostly titles like Fantastic and Terrific that reprinted Marvel comics. I did buy Look and Learn for Don Lawrence’s Trigon Empire…though I’m sure my parents thought I was reading all the intellectual bits!
PBR: I see. So you’re not tempted to work on anything a bit Vertigo-esque while you’re at DC?
BK: I’d like to actually. Mike Carey and I have talked about maybe my doing something on Lucifer at some point if we get the chance, because he’s somebody I’d like to work with; whether I’ll ever get the chance to or not I don’t know. I would like to do some other stuff, but I think it would always be like a holiday and I’d always come back to superheroes or sci-fi.
PBR: Sure. What advice can you offer to aspiring artists trying to break in?
BK: Basically, just keep working, keep drawing and try not to just copy from comics. There’s nothing wrong with just doing that but if you don’t draw from life as well, you kind of limit where you can go. You can become a perfect mimic of another comic artist but unless you draw from life as well, you can’t take that style somewhere else. There are loads and loads of people who start by copying another artist but the ones who tend to make it move on from that and develop their own style, and the ones that do, do it by drawing from real life. The other thing is to actually listen to what people tell you when you show them submissions and things.
PBR: And actually take their criticism on board.
BK: Yes. You come across people, and you’ll say ‘Well you need to do this,’ and they’ll argue with you for giving them criticism – if you aren’t prepared to hear some criticism of your work you really shouldn’t be showing it to people! Criticism can only make you better, and help you analyse what you need to do to improve what you’re doing. Another thing is, when you’re starting out take anything; if you’re offered work, don’t ever think you’re above it. It’ll give you a chance to learn your trade. I do feel some sympathy for people who come into comics these days and get promoted straight away as the ‘next big thing’, maybe before they’re ready for it. They often get dismissed before they get a chance to grow and really develop their style because they were forced into the limelight too soon, and that’s a real shame. You’re better just trying to keep improving all the time – there’s nothing more disappointing than seeing that somebody’s stopped trying and you can tell their heart isn’t in it. Learn your trade. And most importantly, do it because you enjoy it.
PBR: Is that most important do you think?
BK: Probably. People sometimes start seeing it as a job and they lose sight of why they enjoy it, and maybe that’s only natural, but when that does happen you just have to take a step back. It’s not a job, it’s a dream come true, at least for me.
PBR: And what’s the working day like for you?
BK: I start work at maybe 7.30 or 8.00am and work through till about 8pm.
PBR: And that’s five days a week?
BK: (Laughs) No, seven! Its not like I work solid, I’ll take breaks, take the dog for a walk, that kind of thing.
PBR: Okay, some quick-fire questions for you; Jay, Barry or Wally?
PBR: Alan, Hal or Kyle?
PBR: I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Dick, Jason or Tim?
PBR: The ones you grew up with, right?
PBR: Birthright or Man of Steel?
PBR: Garfield or Snoopy?
PBR: Good answer. I think a lot of people say Garfield.
BK: Only the ones that are trying to be cool. Snoopy all the way.
PBR: What’s the last film you saw?
BK: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on DVD last weekend.
PBR: Me too. It got a lot of bad reviews, but I kind of liked it. Not great, but it was a good fun film.
BK: Exactly. I think if you get a comic book movie and you go in and you’re too precious and picky, then you’ll be disappointed. If you go in with an open mind and don’t expect a masterpiece, you’ll be okay.
PBR: Okay, favourite film ever?
BK: I don’t think that I really have a favourite film ever, it changes. I’m tempted to say the ‘Thin Man’ movies, but it changes from day to day. I’m really engrossed with 1940’s movies for the JSA project at the moment – so almost any film noir title could have been named for this question! I don’t really believe in ‘all time favorites’ in anything actually!
PBR: What comics are you reading at the moment?
BK: All of Alan Moore’s ABC stuff, Birthright, Lucifer, Hellblazer, Fables, Planetary, Wanted, Arrowsmith, The Ultimates, 100 Bullets – I’d like to work with Brian at some point, particularly as we share a lot of the same taste in music. I tend to put stuff to one side and read it in batches; I just read the last JSA run the other day, including Black Reign, and that was good. If I don’t like something, I’ll just put it down. Aside from the stuff I get comp’d I also get Supreme Power, Fantastic Four, Ultimate FF, MK4 – although I haven’t read that yet – and Hellboy, when it comes out.
PBR: Barry, this has been great!
BK: Thanks, I’ve enjoyed it.
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