Returning to the streets of 17th Century London and heading for the Moon, it’s time to battle the zombie hordes once more as Titus Defoe returns to the pages of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic in the new series The Divisor, which began in 2000 AD Prog 2150.
Created by Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher, for this new series Defoe gets a new artist in the shape of SK Moore. And after getting bloody and deep in the madness of the first few episodes, we sat down to talk to Moore about creating the look for Defoe’s latest trip, not just to the rotten heart of an undead London but out to the stars – as Moore puts it…
‘Zombies in space. What’s not to like?’
Stewart – You’ve just exploded into the pages of 2000 AD as the new artist on Defoe, with the first part of the new series, The Divisor, beginning in Prog 2150.
What is the new series all about? How many episodes can we look forward to?
SKM: There are 12 episodes, if you watch the moon in the title you’ll see the divisor line moves each episode, like a clock counting down. The ‘divisor’ line of the moon is the shadow line between night and day on the moon, thanks to this line Galileo could see there were mountains on the moon (by the raking light of their shadows). This is the old name though, Kepler called it the divisor. We now call it the Terminator line. I like that there is a subtle connection to the word ‘Terminator’ because of the Terminators in Pat’s work on Nemesis. I should point out that Pat’s Terminators predate the ‘Terminator’ of the movies for the young ‘uns out there.
(Anyway, there is no connection to Nemesis, it just amuses me from a Millsverse perspective…but I’m easily amused….as you can see.)
The story is loosely connected to a novel by the astronomer Johannes Kepler called Somnium. In it, Kepler is contacted, in his dreams, by Selenites, beings that inhabit the moon and help him in getting to the moon. Kepler’s novel is, in fact, a vehicle to explain planetary motion to the general public.
In The Divisor something similar happens to astronomers in Defoe’s London. Secrets of spacecraft design are imparted to them as visions in their dreams. But this doesn’t just happen to British scientists, London’s enemies receive equally profound paranormal revelations and something of a space race kicks off ….why the information is bestowed upon them and what their motives are is all far from clear….they work in mysterious ways these dreamcasters whoever or whatever they may be!
Now, there’s actually a precedent for this. John Wilkins, brother in law to Oliver Cromwell, genius, co-founder of the Royal Society – planned on making a mission to the moon. The man had vision. This story element was suggested by Colin McNeil who’d read about it somewhere. I met Colin at the Aberdeen con and he had a cracking idea for the spacecraft, had he continued with Defoe that ship would have been a blinder!… I told him I wish I’d talked to him earlier!
So… what’s it about? It’s zombies in space. What’s not to like?
And how did this first 2000 AD gig come about for you?
SKM: Pat was looking for an artist for Defoe and I had just done a comics adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Scots horror Thrawn Janet for David Lloyd’s digital comic anthology Aces Weekly. Anyway I think Pat showed Matt/Tharg Thrawn Janet and Matt asked me to do some sample pages. I guess he liked the samples and we were off….into space….with zombies.
If, as I think, it was Pat Mills who discovered you for 2000 AD, it’s something of a habit of his, getting exciting and visually different artists for his strips – I know he brought Fay Dalton in to work on his American Reaper series, although sadly never in the pages of 2000 AD itself. He’s also, if I’m not mistaken, responsible for the late, great, incredible, John Hicklenton coming on Nemesis?
SKM: I think so. But Pat established 2000 AD so his involvement on the art side goes right back to that, getting the ball rolling y’know? Johnny H’s was a singular voice, not for the chicken-hearted. I don’t know his work very well but what I’ve seen is exciting, terrifying in fact…mad stuff. The kind of thing that reminds you this is not film, not literature, stand well back – this is COMICS!
Fay’s work is very different again, totally classic. Graceful, beautiful, period, classy. It seems a no-brainer to me that Fay should be painting up some sort of ’60s era spy-fi – it could be absolutely amazing. Hmm… maybe I should write one.
I know Pat sings your praises… ‘Stewart is fascinated by the Renaissance and astronomy, so his spaceship design is sublime’, and ‘I think this Defoe will be the ultimate clock punk saga’ – that’s from a Down The Tubes interview I found with Pat.
SKM: It’s been great working on one of Pat’s stories. I am definitely fascinated by renaissance art and astronomy. Pat made it clear at the outset that he was open to me sending things his way. In my research I turn up a lot of strange things, so I posted anything that seemed relevant – or that could be, maybe, of use – to Pat. I made a visual bible of images and found lots of odd things. I found links between code making, clockwork and the Kabbalah. I found visual and graphic links between John Dee and a little known demon, the former was too obtuse to really use, the latter is referenced visually by me. Here and there in the scripts though things would pop up and it’s a delight to see they have been of use to Pat. I think it helps to make these kind of nods to period thinking. Astronomy has been a lifelong fascination….my Twitter feed is full of new discoveries, new planets, Mars Rover videos etc.
Did I mention that I also built a ‘17th-century’ spacecraft practical model? This was how they made Dan Dare spacecraft so effective – they built them and photographed them. Mine now stands atop my fridge.
(Yes, that’s the model SK Moore made for his 17th Century spaceship)
Defoe is one of those creations in 2000 AD that’s very much down to a singular artistic vision, with co-creator Leigh Gallagher responsible for the first five books of Defoe, before Colin MacNeil took over on art for book six in 2017. When you came onboard, did you get any instructions to try and fit in with what had gone before, or were you given free reign?
SKM: No, thankfully. I couldn’t follow those guys, I’d feel a phoney doing that. The great thing about 2000 AD is that it never insisted on style staying the same between artists. It can be jarring as a reader, but I think it grows you as a reader, you see the same world in different and exciting ways. Mega-City One becomes a variation on a theme. That city, the whole comic, is all the more amazing because of this freedom. What would we have if the variant rampant imaginations of 2000 AD alum were stifled by an insistence on some regimented style? It would suck if everybody drew the same.
I change styles to suit my projects. I have no one way. You’d have to ask Matt, but I think he liked the ‘EC’ styling of Thrawn Janet. I had gone for a classic horror comic look on that story. When I started Defoe I realised I had to find another method as my TJ work had colour and I couldn’t use colour.
The Defoe story, too, is darker, grittier….so a new method, unique to Defoe came about. Dark, dirty, murky over elegant line….like Defoe-world was meant to be beautiful but has gone completely to seed….the baroque with a liberal topping of guano!….that’s sort of where I took it.
Now, when it comes to your art, it really was something that blew in with a freshness. Obviously, it takes a lot of work to get to that level. But, there’s so much in these pages, so many stylistic touches, the effects, the exaggeration of certain poses and facial expressions, it really is a treat to read.
SKM: Thank you.
First, let’s talk a little about influences – I know I can see a few in there (maybe I’m just looking too deep?) with D’Israeli, Clint Langley, maybe even John Hicklenton – although that may well be more in the way you seem to have deliberately gone wild with panel and page designs and the more exaggerated poses of some characters?
SKM: This may sound strange but none of these fine artists influenced me. But they all may share the same influencers as me. I was influenced primarily by Bernie Wrightson, Wally Wood, Al Felstein and Jack Davis. I had forgotten how much I loved Bernie’s work as a teenager and have gone through many phases artistically over the years. But drawing Defoe I realised that one jawless zombie (that I thought was a total Stoo original) was somewhat too familiar. Sure enough I later saw a classic Bernie, a jawless zombie, and better than I could have imagined. All my teenage years came flooding back. I was a horror nut for a few years there. My only tattoo, a pinprick, was caused by dropping a Rotring pen while switching pens while drawing a werewolf transformation. Back in the day I thought mapping pens were the secret before I discovered brushes are the secret to fine inking.
Anywa,y Jack Davis and Bernie and the cover art of Bela Lugosi’s Dead are my true pole stars on Defoe. That Bauhaus record cover is a still-shot from a film called The Sorrows of Satan and the scene in which Satan appears, in shadow, is truly terrifying.
I aimed for an inking quality (elegance) and action and character intensity you rarely see today, classic illustration BUT with the added influence of UFA films. It’s just too involved for most artists to be able to afford to do, but I felt Defoe had to look classic – so I upped the detail and that meant a greater time investment from. This comes to a head on the final page of issue 4….I think I nearly broke my hand on that page….
The final page of part 4, the page that nearly broke the artist’s hand
SKM: The German Expressionist horrors of the early 20th century are a major style influence. My images flair, fog, break up, distress and blur because I wanted my panels to look like scenes from Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and the Swedish horror classic The Phantom Carriage. In these films they used soft effects on the lens now and again, no HD back then, it was lo-res. Add the years and we get a distressed look added in…all this adds to the horror for me.
In addition, I ladened the panels with references to classics of horror and sci-fi films and books. It’s subtle, mostly, maybe too subtle. But right from page one we have a crawling text to evoke Star Wars. At first it seemed I’d be handling lettering so the tiny crawling text is all my fault. Ellie De Ville has worked miracles with my tight panels. But that’s another style choice – claustrophobia, pure terror. Probably not a good idea, you have to try things though.
I must admit, I really enjoy the artwork, a few things really stood out for me in the first couple of episodes – your spacecraft, the effects, the blurs, the contrast work you put in. It seems to me you’re really going all out to get as much into Defoe as possible, and it all manages to work really well.
SKM: Well, I hope so. I see no point in doing this if it’s business as usual. I really believe in pushing myself into new territory. I also know the emphasis 2000 AD has on exciting page layout.
Generally, I don’t do too much panel breaching, but here, this had to be explosive. The risk is that, if a panel is going to be used to draw the eye, you risk losing the logic of the story. The feeling is that one should grab the reader but it’s swings and roundabouts because the logical flow of images can be lost. But then, we are dealing with insanity, madness, fever dreams….this is pure horror, so maybe this story can do that in a way that other stories couldn’t.
I decided my pages should almost work backwards in the way thoughts do, we often go over events in the wrong order. maybe, I thought, I’m probably wrong, but maybe with fans something might lodge and they may come back and look again – mid-nightmare. So, to that end, I went the extra and dropped in many tiny details and suggestions.
This is not a story you can read between pings on your iPhone. It expects your attention. If you don’t pay attention you won’t get it. It is, however, designed to be read on iPad. There are extra’s embedded in the details that can be accessed by zooming. It’s my job to give you something exciting but I feel it’s also my duty to strive for something you have not seen – or the rare thing, something new to me. Something new we’ve not seen before. I’m happy to fail aiming for that impossible target in the hope we’ll get somewhere interesting one way or another. So, all this to say, this story has been a steep learning curve.
As for my working method… Basically I can use any media, I’ve studied and used pretty much every visual art media over the years. This extends to ways of drawing, I can draw a strip without sketching and the results are interesting. I can do fast work and slow methodical work, cartoons or photo-realism. I’ve even practised drawing with my eyes closed. (Try it, it can be amazing and surprising). I started drawing digitally on PDA phones back in the mid ’90s or so. Same with iPhones when they came along. I paint with wine, tried coffee, tried whisky (subtle!) and I’ve painted with my own blood (cut finger, total accident, not a maniac – just an opportunist!) and with Defoe I was going to paint everything in oil paint ( I mean, what artist hasn’t painted with their blood?).
Just as well I did not have time as my studio lease was up and the landlord chose to renovate. This always happens to artists, we move into cheap crap holes, they become trendy ‘hoods because of all the artists and then we all get the boot because the place is now trendy and the rents soar…or something. We artists are basically fertiliser.
Anyway, I’d have torn my hair out had I been midway on a painted Defoe because I cannot paint in the house, so I’d have had it, guts for garters….so… anyway, sadly it’s not painted. I went digital – I work by hand, all my drawings are hand-drawn. But I use ‘Manga Studio’ — it has a new stupid name, whatever, it used to be called MS and it’s amazing because it has so much that ink gives you but it’s cheaper than ink and paper and you can do it anywhere. I have an iPad Pro and can draw en route, on a flight, in my hotel, whatever. It’s awesome.
So I begin by reading the script three times. I then try and sketch what I saw in my head as a thumbnail, then scale up the thumbnail to fit the page, grey it out and on a new layer sketch each panel again. I repeat that until I have what I need in details. I then (if I been a good boy) drop in the blacks. I then connect those by fine line to the whites – where need be.
On some pages I then crack out the airbrush. Then, thinking of my UFA films I spray mad white areas and then cut them back where need be. I then do the same with darks. In colour painting ‘pure black’ and ‘pure white’ are to be avoided until the very last. Jim Baikie told me to paint snow blue – he was right. But in black and white work highlighting can come earlier, especially if you’re an idiot like me trying to evoke an ages-old ‘UFA’ look with flaring and blurring and so forth. Hey, whatever, you either get where I’m going or you don’t. I take chances….it’s all very risky because it takes hours and you can be wrong and have to begin again.
I mostly work 12 hours-a-day but on two occasions I worked flat out for 24 hours. The hilarious thing is there is a much easier way to draw this stuff. But I chose a ‘look’ & ‘feel’ and in comics you must proceed the way you begin. This is by far the hardest thing about drawing comics – consistency.
There’s also the character of Kearney, with that incredible tattoo, clockwork effect detailing going on.
SKM: As for the character of Kearney – it’s a tough one. He looks great without the tats, I end up covering loads of great sinewy muscle and expression…it kills me. The tats also darken everything…it’s hard to do with losing Kearney altogether. Delighted you think it works. The technique is collage. So once he is drawn I go nuts and collage in all sorts. I then have to work the tattoos so they lighten and darken so we understand skin contour otherwise he’d become an inky mash of mashy mash quick smash.
‘Over 20 yrs ago I painted the picture on the cover. It’s oil paint and newspaper collage… same technique as I’m using with Kearney on Defoe’.
This is your first 2000 AD work, but you’ve presumably been a working artist for quite a while. What’s your background, both in art & comics?
SKM: I trained as a graphic designer, worked with Jim Baikie for a wee while, great man, great family, went on to become a portrait painter for quite a few years. I aimed for hyper-realism in some of my paintings, thought that might be my thing for a while until I got really close to hyper-realism and experienced the uncanny valley and decided hyper-realism taps in to the same issues we have with highly real automates – it begins to look highly real but deep in the mind we see it’s not and this generates a feeling of foreboding that is akin, I would say, to looking at a well-dressed corpse
While perusing this technique I ran a strip cartoon in The Prague Post newspaper called Morris Mule: Taxidermist – everybody hated it. My editor (who was a fan) delighted in cornering me to read me my hate mail. Comics should be hated. It, at its best, is a subversive medium and why? Because it is devastatingly powerful means of self-expression – words and pictures – what could be more powerful! And anyone can do it.
Keep in mind that every single thing around you was drawn before it was made. Drawing is a fundamental part of creation.
What does it mean to you to be working in 2000 AD?
SKM: Seriously, I was exposed to various classic examples of art growing up, science fiction too, but it was 2000 AD that made me want to be an artist. It was 2000 AD that cocked a snook, thumbed its nose and made you laugh as everything went up in flames. So, it means everything to me. Everything artistically anyway.
How did your 2000 AD journey start?
SKM: I was sick, flu, it was October 1982 (I think) my mum brought me something called 2000 AD….and some Lucazade…..Destiny’s Angels…Dredd’s ‘wife’ was in jeopardy, some futuristic rednecks were….FUTURISTIC REDNECKS???? – I AM IN!! Flu cured!
While we’re on the 2000 AD subject, what about favourite strips?
SKM: Oh, gimme a break….everything! Ok, Abelard Snazz, loved Snazz….Dredd, huge fan, Nemesis (Thoth ‘love me love me love me love me’) Sam Slade (now everybody smokes Robo-Stogies!!), Ace Trucking, Slippery Jim, Sláine….Walter….the Nerve Center stories. I loved the behind the scenes stuff.
How about your favourite writers and artists?
SKM: Pat, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Alan Moore….you have to understand I left Scotland for Eastern Europe decades ago, that meant no more comics for a long time …so my knowledge of the later crop of talent is patchy….I’m catching up though. Very exciting! I remember I used to laugh myself off my seat at Ron Smith. He designed the iPad y’know? (The iPad yes really! See the ugly clinic stuff).
Artists – The legends…Jim Baikie, Carlos Ezquerra, McMahon and Casanovas (I recall sketching C’s Dredd and M’s Fink as a boy), Belardinelli, Bolland, Ron Smith, Brett Ewins, Gibson and Gibbons and absolutely Steve Dillon.
With some it’s not just drawing magic ….it’s the storytelling too that’s exceptional and Dillon was a master storyteller. I don’t know hope to explain that quality…it’s in the flow of the story. Oh, for an ounce of that in my pen!!
Finally… what’s next for you? Anymore 2000 AD/Defoe coming?
SKM: I have no idea, but it has been an honour to work on the Prog and if Tharg will have me back I’m even now reaching for my holster, taking the ‘safety’ off…uh…my pen, servo motors in the fingertips, whirring…….
I will be finishing my graphic novel on CIA excesses (MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA) beyond that I have some film work coming up but other that nothing….oh, my wife wants me to get some lamps sorted out in our gaff…but after the lamps debacle is sorted it’s really anybody’s guess what I’ll be up to.
Some cons… Some pints… Some more pints….
Portrait of the artist – credit Brian Moore 2019
You can find Defoe right now in the pages of 2000 AD, starting in Prog 2150. There are two collections available currently, both by Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher, Defoe: 1666 and Defoe: Queen of the Zombies.