The annual 2000 AD writer and artist talent search at Thought Bubble Comic Art Festival 2019 took place in November, where potential new script and art droids threw themselves on the mercy of the Mighty Tharg in a desperate attempt to get a chance to work at the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic!

Well, actually, the competition entrants had the onerous task of either pitching their Future Shock script or getting a grilling on their art in front of a distinguished panel of judges. This year it was Leah Moore, Mike Dowling, and Frazer Irving judging the artists, and Matt Smith, Andy Diggle, and Leah Moore (pulling a double shift!) judging the writers.

This year, this unique opportunity for new writers and artists to break into the house of Tharg was won by writer Liam Johnson and artist Robin Henley. You can expect to see their first 2000 AD work hitting the pages of the Prog sometime in 2020, but before then Richard Bruton sat down to talk to them about the competition and just what winning means to them…

Liam, Robin… congratulations to you both on winning the 2000 AD talent search contests at this year’s Thought Bubble.

Now that your wins have had chance to sink in, what does it all mean for you?

Liam Johnson: Firstly, thanks for the congratulations. It still hasn’t sunk in yet!

It’s probably poor form for a writer to say I can’t think of the words to truly describe how it felt! I’ve wanted to be a writer forever. To get something published, in a comic that is so near and dear to my heart, voted for by three judges that I greatly admire… it’s literally a dream come true.

My wife and I recently had our first child and a lot of people joked that it signalled the end of my aspirations of being a writer. Instead, I’ve used it as the reason to be more focused on my writing and set myself clear and achievable goals. Winning this year’s competition is proof that it’s working.

Robin Henley: It’s been a real confidence boost. I have an annoying tendency to be quite self-conscious about showing my work, so to get such a positive response from the judges was really good for me. Also, the feedback I’ve received online since the win was announced has been incredible.

(The Art search judges and winner
left to right; Leah Moore, Mike Dowling, Frazer Irving, Robin Henley)

How did you first hear about the 2000 AD talent search, what convinced you to enter, and was this your first time entering the contest?

LJ: I can’t actually remember the first time I heard of the search. It may have been from the podcast or possibly the website?

I’ve been a fan of 2000 AD and have attended Thought Bubble for so long that it feels like something I’ve always been aware of. I decided to enter having been unsuccessful in the annual written submissions to 2000 AD several times. I felt that pitching a script in person would achieve two things, firstly helping my anxiety of public speaking and secondly, it would get me some much-needed feedback on my work.

I can’t stress enough how amazing it is that 2000 AD is so open to new talent. I hope it never goes away and Matt Smith and his team should be applauded for their amazing generosity in regards their open submission policy.

As I say, I’d previously entered the written submissions. But, with a bit of distance, I know I was probably leaning too heavily on inspiration from previous published works and my submissions just weren’t up to scratch. Last year was my first time entering the Thought Bubble talent search competition and I learned a lot doing it and it really informed my writing this time around. I don’t think I’d have won this year if I hadn’t gone through that experience of submitting and losing! So, if anyone feels dejected after this year’s contest, I encourage you to brush yourself off, take everything that was said on-board and have another go.

(Liam Johnson – winner of the script contest)

RH: This was my first time entering the Thought Bubble competition, but I’d been vaguely aware of it as a thing since I heard people excitedly talking about the then winners at Thought Bubble in 2017. I heard about this year’s competition via twitter, and apart from the exciting prize of a chance to work for 2000 AD, I think what really convinced me to have a go was the fact that I didn’t want to draw anything in the script! Drawing a bus interior, a nighttime setting, a skeleton bus driver and a load of fog sounded like a nightmare, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and really push my drawing.

For those who don’t know, the writers are asked to live pitch a Future Shock script in front of the judges and artists are asked to submit samples but also to complete a sample script for judging. This year, the sample was the 2018 Tharg’s Terror Tale from Prog 2090, The Ticket, by Paul Tobin and Dan Cornwell.

Once you’d decided to enter the contest, what was the actual pitching or portfolio review like at Thought Bubble?

RH: I decided quite late that I was going to take the plunge and enter, so I didn’t have long to work up my strip and was still drawing on the Thursday before the con! Thankfully this meant I didn’t have too much time to get nervous and overthink it, and also as it was my first time entering I had no idea what to expect. However, waiting in line to get an on the spot critique from editor Matt Smith at the 2000 AD table and find out whether or not I was going to be a finalist was a nerve-wracking experience.

As for the actual judging panel, I was one of the last to be called up, so I’d built up a lot of nerves while watching all of the other amazing entrants being critiqued on stage while their work was shown on the projector. But, when I got up there I was blown away by the positivity from the judges. It was an amazing event, and even if I hadn’t won, I think I would have been really happy to have taken part.

LJ: I went over a lot of my favourite Future Shocks to learn the techniques of how to pull off the twists, set up the payoffs, show character in a short space of time etc. In past years I borrowed too heavily on them. Who would have thought pitching ideas that were fresh and creative 30 years are now cliched? Ha! This year I then took a step back, looked at the world around me and pitched a story that was unique to my voice.

I rehearsed my pitch a few times, timing myself so I came in comfortably under the two minutes, and had my notes prepared for the day. Nerves did take hold on the day, you can certainly hear the tremble in my voice, but clearly the judges saw past that.

Having gone through the process and come out the other side victorious, what advice would you give to those who may be reading this thinking about entering next year?

RH: Focus on your storytelling. Read the script you’re given very carefully, and spend the time getting your thumbnails and pencils right. Ask yourself what you’re trying to say with each drawing, and what the focus is. If your composition and visual storytelling doesn’t work then no amount of beautiful inking, hatching or painting is going to save it, so don’t skimp on the fundamentals.

LJ: I feel slightly patronising giving advice to people that are really only 4 pages behind where I find myself now. Instead, I’m going to echo advice that infinitely more talented creators shared with me:

Read a lot. Not just comics, everything.

Try to reverse engineer your favourite comics into script form. And then do it with comics you don’t think are written that well. You can learn just as much, if not more from them.

And do your thing every day. I’ve written religiously at the crack of dawn before work for about ten years now.

Liam, as for the FS pitch that you and Robin will be bringing to life in a future Prog, without giving too much away, what can we expect from the story?

LJ: It’s set in a world that’s just over the horizon, about the risks of our over-reliance on technology and the increasing intelligence these handheld devices contain.

If I may add, having seen Robin’s winning submission and her artwork, she is going to make me look way better than I actually am. It really feels like winning the competition twice.

Robin, can you go into a little detail about what sort of art you brought to the session, what style(s) of artwork you work in and pitched, and what your process for your art is?

RH: I completed the six-page terror tale script, ‘The Ticket’, which was supplied for the competition. My work is fairly stylised, and I worried it would be a little too cartoony for the judges’ tastes, but thankfully I was wrong.

I do my pencils in Photoshop, which I find helps me try out lots of options, and be a bit more daring than if I was working straight on to the page. I then print out a blue line and ink by hand at A3 size with a couple of different brush pens. Then I scan the pages, clean up the inks and, for this comic, I added some grey tones and textures in Photoshop.

This might be your first time in 2000 AD, but has there been other work out there from you before this?

RH: I’ve completed a few short comics for competitions and anthologies, and have some other uncompleted projects. My dream has always been to work in comics, but I’ve taken a few detours, meaning my professional background is actually in illustration and graphic design. I’ve been a freelance illustrator for nearly two years, and before that I worked as an in house illustrator/designer in a London studio, specialising in packaging design.

LJ: This will be my first published work. I’ve worked on a number of other projects which didn’t reach the finish line for one reason or another. I really hope this is the start of something and encourage any artist who may want to work with me to reach out. At worst, it’s a new comic book friend and at best, perhaps we can create something awesome! I’ve also made a number of short films, to various degrees of success and accolades.

Now, as it’s your first time here on the 2000 AD news site, we’re going to hit you with a couple of old favourites!

When did you first come across the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic?

LJ: Ashamedly, I came to comics quite late. A long story short (perhaps one to share at a later date) but at the age of fifteen I suddenly found myself with nothing but spare time. Having devoured pretty much every book, TV show and film I could find (this was pre-streaming, now this would be an impossible task) I was in desperate need of something new. And that’s when I discovered comics.

I suddenly realised so much of what I loved growing up either originated from or was heavily inspired by comics. Then I read every single comic book I could find. Weirdly, even though I’ve been reading for sixteen years now, I still feel like a newbie.

RH: Despite always having been aware of it, I came quite late to 2000 AD, and initially got into it by reading the collections rather than the magazine. I started off with older stuff like The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson and the Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks, and then got into newer titles like Brass Sun by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard.

And now that your 2000 AD journey has begun, what would you see as a dream character or strip to work on?

LJ: Is Dredd too obvious an answer? I would love to write not so much him but about the characters who live in the gutters of his world. I’m drawn to the stories where he’s a presence that can serve as either antagonist or protagonist (or both). I think the minutiae of his universe has infinite possibilities.

RH: Well, I’d love to draw an original series for 2000 AD, but if I was going to work on an existing character, I’d like it to be for a female-led strip, perhaps a Judge Anderson story. And then outside of 2000 AD, my dream would be to work on revivals of other Rebellion titles, like Misty, or Tammy and Jinty.

(A recent Robin Henley Halo Jones)

When it comes to your own work, where do your influences come from?

RH: My introduction to and journey through comics has been quite varied. When I was a kid my Dad had stacks of Mad Magazine paperbacks from the 60s which he used to let me read, and artists like Dave Berg definitely influenced my work and sparked a love of clean inks and solid blacks that I still have now.

Then when I was a little bit older I discovered manga through finding a single issue of a Urusei Yatsura comic. As a teenager, manga eventually led me to UK indie comics, although I’d say that now most of my comics reading comes from graphic novels.

Some of my favourite graphic novels include David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Glyn Dillon’s Nao of Brown, Emil Ferris’s My Favourite Thing is Monsters and The Black Project by Gareth Brooks, and I’m continually inspired by artists like Christophe Blain, Jaime Hernandez, Alberto Breccia and Darwyn Cooke.

LJ: I find this a tough question as I don’t necessarily think my influences display in my work and I’m inspired by new material each and every new comic book day.

If you pushed me, Brian Michael Bendis will always be a favourite. I just love his dialogue, even though it breaks every rule on word count. I know Steven Spielberg isn’t in comics but I certainly aim to emulate the way he tells stories from the common man looking up at epic situations beyond their comprehension. It goes without saying that Alan Moore is a genius. I find Grant Morrison fascinating, not just his outstanding concepts, but how experimental he is with the format. And Terry Pratchett was the first author who made me realise you could read for pleasure. I read his work way too young, not understanding any of the subtext and themes until much later in life, but I fell in love with reading because of him.

And I haven’t even touched on artists! I think Liam Sharp, Christian Ward and Marcos Martin are on top form right now. I could really list a thousand artists. I admire them so much, probably because my drawing ability peaked at eight years old. The amount of creativity in the form displayed over the last ten years or so has been outstanding. No two books look the same these days and nothing excites me more.

With the contest over, what’s coming up for you in the near, or not so near future?

LJ: I’m working on a four-issue mini-series with entitled Missing Persons with co-creator Bernardo Vieira. It’s a time-travel heist story I wrote a couple years ago that should be ready for publication next year.

I’ve been working on a novel for a while now, starting as a passion project for my own amusement, but I hope to start shopping that around next year. And finally, while I can’t announce it yet, I do have something on the horizon that may keep me chained to the computer for most of next year. I hope next time we speak I can give more definite answers but there’s lots of exciting things coming up!

RH: Well, the most exciting thing coming up for me is undoubtedly getting to work on a 2000 AD strip! But aside from that, I’m going to be focusing on trying to get some other paid comics work and perhaps work up a pitch for an original graphic novel.

Congratulations once more to Robin and Liam for their wins and we’ll be looking forward to seeing their Future Shock when it appears, sometime in 2020. In the meantime, you can follow them on Twitter at @LiamJohnsonType and @RobinHenley.

And of course, 2000 AD will be at Thought Bubble 2020 with yet another fabulous talent search, looking for the very best new writers and artists of the future!

Finally, just because it’s a fascinating thing to do, here’s the original Dan Cornwell published art for ‘The Ticket’ page one and page two and Robin’s winning artwork based on the same script that so impressed the judges…