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.

33 comments:

Tom Daylight said...

His entire style banned? Wha-???

bristle said...

What a great mini-retrospective! 'Mek Memoirs' looks very interesting, too...

SOS said...

A truely unique legend!

Reuben said...

Let me guess Mr O'Neill didn't come through with the brown envelope full of money, so now you're printing the pictures?

Seriously, this maybe early work, but some of those covers are quite good, especially Legend Horror Classics no.7. I don't recall ever having heard about this publication before, so thanks for that.

Lew Stringer said...

Yep. It was when Kev did some work for DC Comics. (Late 1980s?) The CCA found his entire style too unsettling for their conservative tastes.

I'm sure there must be more info on the net about it somewhere.

Rich said...

Great to see those old Legend Horror Classics, Lew. I picked up a copy of the Seventh Voyage of Sindbad issue from the foyer of the Odeon cinema in Worcester as a kid. I still have it. It was a bit of a shock when I realised, years later, that Kev had drawn it.

Did you buy them at the time they were published? Or have you picked them up through Ebay?

Lew Stringer said...

Neither Rich. Kev kindly sent me the first nine issues when I interviewed him for my fanzine Fantasy Express back around 1982.

I do remember LHC being in newsagents though, in 1975, but I thought the 25p price tag was too steep as I could buy a 68 page issue of Monsters Unleashed for less! I didn't appreciate back then that heavy glossy paper stock could affect the prices of magazines.

Anonymous said...

A really nice insight into Kev's early work, Lew - he's always been one of my favourites too.

SOS said...

Lew, this was a brilliant read, I'd love to see an Early days of Mike McMahon or Calos Ezquerra too! Mike, Kev and Carlos were the real deep bones of 2000ad for me - The rest were (still amazing, usually) stuffing.

Lew Stringer said...

I don't think I have any pre-2000AD Mike McMahon or Carlos Ezquerra samples. I may have some Carlos work in an old issue of Battle, although I didn't really follow that comic until Charley's War came along.

Mike and Carlos didn't come into comics through fanzines as Kev did, so there's little, if any, of their work in print until they turned pro.

Dave Whitwell said...

Lew, a fantastic post on Kevin O'Neill. Your images reminded me of some old fanzines I have had stored in the loft for years! I'm sure that there were a couple which featured Kev O'Neill covers- One was Alan Austin's 'Fantasy Unlimited'(the Batman Special issue)and another one was called something like 'World of Comics' -- both were side-stapled b&w A4 zines from the early 70s. I'm tempted to haul them out of storage tomorrow!

It was great to see the Legend Horror Classics too. Like you, I passed them up at the time, but did manage to get a few copies years later. These must be scarce now, as most of them probably ended up as posters on bedroom walls.

Thanks again for a great blog.

Lubbert Das said...

Great post Lew.

Anonymous said...

I'd disagree about Legend Horror Classics being in WH Smith - in Stockton at least. I can't ever recall seeing it there, but I did see it at a comic stall in the Shambles at Stockton market. Ah, those were the days...

Lew Stringer said...

I don't think anyone said LHG was in WH Smiths, Anon, but it was on sale in other High Street newsagents, as were other horror comics of the Seventies.

Anonymous said...

Oops! Would you believe I said WH Smiths to see if anyone was paying attention? No? Okay, I just had Smiths in mind when thinking of local newsagents. Having said that, I still recall seeing LHC in the Shambles at Stockton, but nowhere else. Then again, it was nearly thirty-four years ago. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Lew Stringer said...

Yeah, LHC didn't seem to have great distribution. I remember seeing it in one or two newsagents around here, but that's all. The great thing about those days though was that with independent newsagents and distribution you'd find obscure items in different shops. Today, every newsagent seems to have more or less the same stock and there's no opportunity for small publishers to get in.

Anonymous said...

"had his entire style banned by a ridiculous Comics Code Authority in America"

And they were absolutely right.This guy's "art" is completely disgusting and ridiculous.He should be paid NOT to draw.

(I bet my post won't appear.)

Lew Stringer said...

No "Anonymous" I've published your comment as an example of the sort of cowardice that is rampant on the internet. You're entitled to your opinions but next time have the guts to put your name to them ok?

Talos said...

"as an example of the sort of cowardice that is rampant on the internet."

Is that the best you could say? Where exactly is the cowardice? I wrote an opinion,I didn't threaten anyone or call names.Speaking of names:are "bristle","Reuben","SOS",
"Rich" names??

This is indeed the internet and the truth is EVERYONE is actually anonymous.We are judged by WHAT WE WRITE not by our usernames.Looks to me you have a problem with names only if you don't agree with an opinion.

There,I've used a "name".Am I now more credible? I think not.

Talos said...

"as an example of the sort of cowardice that is rampant on the internet."

Is that the best you could say? Where exactly is the cowardice? I wrote an opinion,I didn't threaten anyone or call names.Speaking of names:are "bristle","Reuben","SOS",
"Rich" names??

This is indeed the internet and the truth is EVERYONE is actually anonymous.We are judged by WHAT WE WRITE not by our usernames.Looks to me you have a problem with names only if you don't agree with an opinion.

There,I've used a "name".Am I now more credible? I think not.

Lew Stringer said...

You're absolutely right "Talos". You're no more credible hiding behind an alias than you were posting as "Anonymous".

Reuben said...

Could I add, as my name has been used as an example, that I make no secret of who I am. I'm Reuben Willmott, I live in Ipswich but post comments on blogs and on forums just using my first name. Unlike some others I haven't blocked my blogger profile. I have nothing to hide. I never post comments I wouldn't say to someone's face. I think that is basic common politeness.
Seems to me that there is too much anonymous lazy snarky comments on the net, and not not enough constructive criticism.

And who on earth ends a post with a variation of the old 'I bet you won't print this letter' sign off.
Well I suppose it's better than 'my Mum says you make up all your letters, so could you print mine to prove her wrong.'

Talos said...

I see you insist on this nonsense.
So I'm "hiding" behind an alias?

And what about SOS,Reuben,Rich etc?
Oh yeah,they wrote things like:

"A truely unique legend"
"What a great mini-retrospective!"
"a fantastic post"

So they 're not hiding right? Finally you wrote:

"next time have the guts to put your name to them"

I would say have the guts to write exactly what you think with no ridiculous excuses.

Lew Stringer said...

Too bad you can't see the difference in principle between using an alias to post praise and hiding behind one to call someone's work "disgusting". And has been pointed out, Reuben isn't an alias, neither, I suspect, is Rich.

Perhaps you could explain what it is about Kev's work that you find "disgusting", "ridiculous" and deserving of CCA disapproval?

Talos said...

"Too bad you can't see the difference in principle between using an alias to post praise and hiding behind one to call someone's work disgusting".

Oooooooh so if it's praise it's okay to be anonymous? I think not.The thing that matters to me is the truth,and to write what you believe.
And let's face it,arguing about names on the internet is pointless and even stupid.

So Reuben your name is Reuben Willmott and you live in Ipswich?

1.How can I verify that?
2.Why should I care?

If you write 1+1=3, should I ignore the fact that you wrote something false,just because you used your real name?

"Perhaps you could explain what it is about Kev's work that you find disgusting"

Are you kidding? You want me to explain the OBVIOUS?

Lew Stringer said...

Well "Talos" I gave you the opportunity to express your opinions constructively but you chose you respond like an immature troll.

I'm sure the fact that Kev O'Neill's work makes you so angry, yet you're unable to vocalise exactly why, will be a great source of amusement to him and his fans and a testament of Kev's unique talents. Thanks for your input.

Talos said...

"Well "Talos" I gave you the opportunity to express your opinions constructively but you chose you respond like an immature troll."

Immature troll??? I was PERFECTLY clear on my responses.So why don't you show me EXACTLY which part of my posts makes you say that?

Surely you can't mean this:

"You want me to explain the OBVIOUS?"

Talos said...

Well mr. Stringer it looks like you are "unable to vocalise" exactly why I'm an immature troll.Too bad.

Oh,and about this:

"a testament of Kev's unique talents"

http://iparxei-mageia.pblogs.gr/files/89975-lucky_luke.jpg

Have a nice day.

Lew Stringer said...

"Well mr. Stringer it looks like you are "unable to vocalise" exactly why I'm an immature troll."

I don't need to. You've demonstrated it quite clearly yourself. ;-)

Steve M said...

alright talos you've had your 15 minutes of fame now go troll someplace else

Laughing Indio said...

Erm! After all that Argy Bargy I would just like to say thank you Lew for putting those page up, Im a massive Kevin O Neill fan and it was brilliant to see his really early stuff!

Anonymous said...

Although that Talos guy was a prat - he did bring up an interesting point about censorship in the media (some people are liberal, some are more conservative and that's ok), But i would like to say Kev's art did have an effect on me as a 10+ year old buying comics, I was a bit of a scaredy cat and as such Kev's Nemesis covers for 2000AD did put me off for a while, they put the willies up me and as such I missed out on 2000 for a while sticking to lighter fair like Battle, Victor, Eagle, Whizzer and Chips etc. Looking back I absolutely love Kev's work, but we need to think back to what we could 'tolerate' as children - I made the mistake (some years back) of showing my younger cousin the Terminator film and it gave him nightmares!
So as much as I don't think 'scary' or even sexual images make you into a raving loony, they can effect the minds of younger kids in a way that we as adults can't always appreciate.

JASE said...

Jeeeezus Lew your blog attracts the best and worst people dunnit? Ignore COMPLETE SADDOS like Talos and the other guy who usually trolls your blog. They only want people to notice them. Insignificants. Keep up the good work Lew.

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