An interview with Stephen Baskerville – artist and inker on Marvel’s Transformers comic series

Please note that this interview was conducted via email in 2009

What made you decide to become an artist?

Seeing Gene Colan and Jack Abel’s artwork on Iron Man, in black and white reprint form in a late 1960s comic called Fantastic was what did it for me. My older brother had been buying comics for a while, and none of it interested me much (some guy called Kirby seemed to do most of it!) but seeing this art, in what looked to my young eyes as hyper-realistic detail was an absolute revelation. I’d never been one of those kids at school that were perceived as ‘good at art’, but from that moment on I knew what I wanted to do, and started by copying those Iron Man pages. In those days, there were no British artists working on American comics (though I believe Barry Smith did some of his first work doing back page pin-ups on those Fantastic reprint books), so I never imagined I’d ever be able to do it for a living. But I made my own comic, naïvely calling its hero The Phantom, and sent it to Marvel Comics in New York, and six months later I got a letter from Stan Lee, which even at the age of eleven I knew was some kind of duplicated form letter. Nevertheless, it was signed by Stan himself, or so I thought—it transpires it was more likely to have been office manger ‘Fabulous’ Flo Steinberg—but that signature, along with the encouraging message was enough to hook me in for life!

What was it that particularly attracted you to inking?

Looking back, I suppose I was always attracted by the finish that some guys could apply to the art. I could always recognize people like Tom Palmer and Dick Giordano’s inks, even over pencillers as distinctive Neal Adams and Gene Colan, and I appreciated what they brought to the finished artwork. Too often, artists who inked their own stuff expended all their creativity on the pencils and were burnt out by the inking stage, or they penciled light and did all the detailed work in the inks, and both methods left me as a reader feeling a bit short-changed. Not that I ever intended to be an inker…

Do you prefer penciling your own work or inking others?

I like both, I’m afraid (not a very controversial answer, is it?). It is still a thrill to open a package of someone else’s pencils and see what I can do with them. The trick is, like Palmer and Giordano, to stamp your look on the art without obscuring or defacing the penciller’s. Certainly, if you’re inking loose pencils or breakdowns, or anything other than pencils so ‘tight’ that they already look like they’re inked (as some of the newer generation of pencillers tend to do), it is a really creative and enjoyable experience. Pencilling is more of a challenge—it’s the blank page syndrome, I think—but you learn a lot in the process, and my respect for other pencillers increases every time I try to do it!

How did you “break into” the comics industry, and how hard was it?

Back in the early 1980s I’d been doing fanzine stuff for a while, and studying fine art at college in Leicester, when a friend saw an ad in a local paper in Nottingham, looking for a comic artist for a new comic, which turned out to be 10-4 Action, cashing in on the CB Radio fad prevalent at the time. The pay wasn’t great, but I wrote and illustrated a monthly strip for its six issue run, before it was cancelled, as the fad had run its course. Then a British anthology called Swiftsure was launched by the unsung hero of Brit comics, Martin Lock, on the back of the U.S. black and white indy comics boom created by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some guy called Alan Moore selected my idea, Dandy in the Underworld, as one of the strips. Anyway, about a year later, the black and white indy comics boom imploded, and that was the end of DITU. That’s when John Tomlinson from Marvel UK got in touch. He’d seen my work on Swiftsure, and a strip I’d submitted for a feature called New Talent Showcase or some such, which was running in a Marvel UK monthly, and asked me if I’d ever considered inking, as my finish was ‘slick’. I hadn’t, but I jumped at the chance, inking a few Zoids strips over Kev Hopgood and Mike Collins, and eventually I became a fixture at Marvel UK, and you could probably say I was ‘in’ the industry. As for whether it was hard to break into comics or not, I think it’s probably harder today. I didn’t really try as hard as I should have, but luckily a few people were in the right place at the right time, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Who have been your influences?

The afore-mentioned Adams, Colan, Palmer and Giordiano, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Frank Bellamy, and more recently, Jim Lee and Scott Williams, and actually an inker called Dan Panosian, who had the ‘Image’ style, but was incredibly inventive, using all sorts of textures, but somehow holding it all together.

What are you currently working on?

Currently I’m a videogame concept artist, and have been for eight years, working on everything from SpongeBob Squarepants to Reservoir Dogs. The only comics I’m doing are pin-ups and commissions, which is great fun, as I miss working in pen and ink, as opposed to Photoshop. Hopefully I’ll do more ‘proper’ comics in the future…

What would be a dream project for you?

Probably inking Gene Colan on anything, particularly Iron Man (to fulfill a childhood dream), but Gene’s pretty much retired, and I’d have to join a very long queue wanting to ink the great man.

What qualities do you think comics bring to contemporary entertainment (compared to movies, books or television)?

Workmates always assume, when the latest filmed version of a comic comes out, that I’ll be first in the cinema queue. But to me, all the things I like about comics can’t be there on the screen: all the myriad drawing skills used in comics—composition, anatomy, chiaroscuro, perspective, etc. Even the stories only tend to work within the enclosed reality of the comic book. To me, comics are the perfect synthesis of word and image, the highest of all the applied arts; static images that you view/read at your own pace, and appreciate in your own private way. And they’re the perfect antidote to those mega-buck special effects movies that proliferate—which, ironically, are often based on comics!

How did you come to work on the Transformers comic?

I was inking Steve Yeowell on Thundercats, for Marvel UK, under some crazy assistant editor called Simon Furman (what ever happened to him?) which I really enjoyed. But after Steve left to work for 2000AD, Simon gave me some Jeff Anderson Transformers pages to ink. Jeff’s pencils were very polished, but I did find Transformers quite difficult at first, and even today they’re more time-consuming to ink than super-heroes. Then, having previously drawn some Thundercats covers (Marvel UK had a great policy which seemed to be that covers weren’t very important—at least, that’s what I assumed was the case, given that they were employing me to do them!) I was given some Transformers covers to do. Then, eventually, after Andrew (Wildman) had started doing the Marvel US Transformers comics, and wasn’t too keen on who they’d found to ink him, I got the call.

Prior to that, did you have any exposure to the Transformers, and what were your thoughts on it?

I can’t say that I knew much about the whole Transformers phenomenon before I started working on the comics. I was too old appreciate them as toys, and I didn’t have kids, so to me they were just another licensed property that would last as a comic for six months and then disappear. Little did I know…!

What was your approach in portraying the Transformers characters?

I think, going back to my love for the old Iron Man comics, I definitely looked for the humanity in Transformers, when I was penciling and inking them. And Andrew Wildman’s Transformers were particularly human—they’d ‘bleed’ oil, and circuitry entrails would be popping out! I think Simon Furman also knew that if we were to care about their situation, their human characteristics had to be accentuated (though we were never far from a big old robo-beat-em-up either!).

You were often associated with Andrew Wildman’s work; inking his pencils, particularly during the last years of the Marvel US Transformers comic. Was there anything specific to his style that attracted you to his work?

Andrew’s pencils are very kinetic, really full of life, and generally, just exciting. I find that if pencils are exciting to look at then they’ll be exciting to ink, and hopefully the finished comic will look exciting too. Plus, he leaves room for the inker to contribute, rather than ‘trace’!

For a time Marvel UK published black and white Transformers stories instead of colour. Did you prefer to see your work (your inks, specifically) in colour or black and white?

A In general, as a reader, there’s nothing I like better than seeing comics in black and white (I devour those Marvel Essential and DC Showcase mega-anthologies), but seeing my own work in black and white is a different matter. The masters of the medium (like Tom Palmer) know how to balance lights and darks, detail and white space, negative and positive, texture and black—sometimes I get it right, and those pages look great in black and white, but for the rest, a layer of colour can really smooth out the bumps in the art. The only problem I had with the colour on the Marvel UK comics was that it was restricted by the crude separation process they used, though we sometimes had hand-coloured covers by John Burns Jr, which were gorgeous.

Who were your favourite Transformers characters to draw?

The easy answer is to say that, like your children, you’re not allowed to have favourites, and love them all for what they are. But it’s probably truer to say that the names of each Transformer have blurred in my memory over the years, so I’d be hard pressed to put a name to a face in many cases! I would say that I prefer the ones who actually have faces though, so definitely not Shockwave!

Are you surprised by the longevity of The Transformers?

Surprised and pleased. And I think Simon Furman, Andrew Wildman, and Geoff Senior deserve some of the credit for the longevity, because they made people care about what happened to a bunch of robots, which is no easy feat!

May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!

Published by Graham Thomson

Blogger, photographer, worrier.

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