Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Kevin O'Neill: The Early Days
With the success of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with writer Alan Moore, artist Kevin O'Neill has rightfully become one of the leading lights in the comics industry. He's been high profile now for many years of course, but these days Kev finds himself interviewed in the High Street glossies such as this month's Death Ray. With the publication of the next League volume, Century:1910 due in a few months, I thought it might be appropriate to take a rare glimpse into the early days of this extraordinary artist...
Born in 1953 into a South London working class background, Kevin acquired a job in the early 1970s at IPC magazines as an office boy on Buster. This was an important time for UK comics. Although IPC's material was fairly bland and safe in this period they had up and coming people in editorial such as Kevin, Dez Skinn, Nick Landau, and freelancer Dave Gibbons who would soon shake up the industry. The IPC management may have been set in their ways but these young guns, who treated comics as a passion not just as a 9 to 5 job, were chomping at the bit to do something different.
At that time Dez Skinn was editing a fanzine called Fantasy Advertiser International (later the inspiration for his Comics International magazine) for a growing UK fandom. In issue 50 (1973) the famous Frank Bellamy interview edition, a 20 year old Kevin O'Neill drew this ad for Martin's Book Shop, one of London's first comic book stores....
(A year earlier, in 1972, Kev drew a Captain America / Jack Kirby tribute for the pages of Unicorn, a fanzine published by Mike Higgs and Phil Clarke. The art can be seen at the top of this post.)
Although his artistic talents were still developing, Kev was unleashed into the pages of the failing Cor!! weekly in to illustrate the Picture Yourself feature, based on a reader's snapshot.
The work was crude, but the familiar O'Neill sharp linework was emerging. The Zoo Keeper gag shown below is from the final issue of Cor!!, dated 15th June 1974.
In the mid-1970's the poster magazine became hugely popular with kids and teenagers. These would feature articles on a specific subject (such as Kung Fu, or horror films, in the case of Dez Skinn's Monster Magazine) which could then be unfolded to feature a massive poster on the reverse. Freelancing as art editor (and later editor) of a poster mag called Legend Horror Classics for Legend Publishing Kevin O'Neill's work entered the realms of horror, far removed from his cartoons for Cor!!, but horror was a genre he clearly relished and would excell at.
Other poster mags were all feature based, but Legend Horror Classics ran a complete horror strip every issue. No.1 (1975) featured an 11 page Dracula strip, loosely adapting the 1973 movie starring Jack Palance and Simon Ward. From this first issue it became obvious that the magazine wasn't going to be traditional British comic fare. With a killer Zombie being shot in the mouth, this was strong stuff for Seventies kids, - but I bet they loved it, assuming they could afford the then-hefty 25p cover price. (Comics were around 4p each at the time.)
Issue 2 adapted the 1931 Frankenstein movie, and although taking liberties with the dialogue and design (no doubt for copyright reasons), the strip had a fascinating energy about it. Kev's work was displaying some strong Wally Wood influences here but it was still destinctively O'Neill.
Issue 7 of Legend Horror Classics featured a Beowulf strip by Derek Tyson, but Kev illustrated the cover. By now Kev's work looked strong and confident, with his style reaching the standard we'd see in the early issues of 2000AD a few years later.
Legend Horror Classics No.8 is an interesting issue. A year before Hookjaw devoured his first victim in Action weekly, here's Kevin O'Neill presenting us with Killer Jaws tearing "moon-shaped chunks" out of a hapless swimmer. The shark also gets a protuding harpoon stuck in its body, which impales a victim, just as Hook Jaw would later do the following year. Too much of a coincidence? With Kev's connections at IPC, and Kev's later collaborator Pat Mills being the original editor of Action, was this the inspiration for Hook Jaw?
Issue 9 of Legend Horror Classics featured a cover that would give retailers the jitters in today's conservative climate. The Jokers showed a gory decapitation drawn by Kev in full comic horror mode.
Inside, the incident is shown to be a fake, - the "head" belonged to a dummy. Even so, that cover still goes to show what freedoms publishers had back then! No "Mature Readers" cover warnings, no policy of "top shelving" comics. This was on display alongside the likes of Tiger and Bunty, and no one batted an eyelid as far as I'm aware.
In 1976 Kevin self published Mek Memoirs, a 12 page stripzine (we didn't call 'em Small Press comics back then) for a mere 16p. Mek Memoirs had been conceived by Kev in 1974, but fellow IPC staffer Jack Adrian had suggested a rewrite. With Jack's new script, the strip took on a new direction, from robot quest to Robot War.
This rare comic shows Kev's excellence in robot illustration and design, and can be seen as a prototype for Ro-Busters and the ABC Warriors of Starlord and 2000AD. I'm sure Mek Memoirs helped Kev's credentials considerably when he moved to the art department of 2000AD, and I think it's safe to say that 2000AD would have been a far poorer comic without Kev's input.
Kevin O'Neill went on to produce the superb Nemesis the Warlock for 2000AD, had his entire style banned by a ridiculous Comics Code Authority in America, created hero hunter Marshall Law with writer Pat Mills, and today of course is the artist of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I've always been a big fan of Kev's work, (and if you're out there me old mate I hope this look back at your early material hasn't been too cringe inducing! As you know, my early work was far less accomplished than this!)
The work of Kevin O'Neill has always been imaginative and edgy (well, apart from those Cor!! cartoons) - a bit dangerous but balanced by black humour. With over 35 years experience Kev's work is stronger than ever, and has considerably matured from his fanzine days, but it's still distincly his unique style.