Get ready for the SMASH! Special, the latest 64-page giant from the Treasury of British Comics featuring some of the greatest heroes (& anti-heroes) from the gloriously strange history of British comics!
Alongside the likes of The Spider, Steel Claw, Mytek the Mighty and more greats from the world of Brit comics, you;ll read Simon Furman and Chris Weston‘s take on the strange world to be found in the House of Dolmann… we sat down to talk creepy dolls and the strangeness of Brit comics of old…
Simon, Chris, in the new SMASH! Special, you fine gentlemen are bringing back House of Dolmann.
So, first things first, what is House of Dolmann and what are you doing with it here in the Special?
Simon Furman: House of Dolmann was one of Valiant comic’s stranger strips, that existed within its own hyper-reality where a ventriloquist and his sophisticated robotic puppets fought crime in one of those slightly ‘suspended in time’ Britains you got a lot of back then. The strangest thing was that Dolmann is a kind multi- or split personality, providing the voices for all the dolls and effectively talking to himself. And yet, there are plenty of moments when Dolmann is entirely absent from the action, and the dolls are still conversing. Anyway, rather than try and do a modern comics overhaul for the Smash Special, we (with a few twists and turns along the way) kept that hyper-reality bubble of Dolmann intact, and went with the (barmy) flow of things.
Dolmann really is one of those magnificently weird things from older Brit comics. A crime-fighting inventor who, of course, decides not to create Iron Man type armour or Bat-themed accessories, but instead, being a master puppeteer, creates a small army of puppets, giving them all special abilities and having them fight crime. Seriously, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne have nothing on Eric Dolmann!
What is it, do you think, about Brit comics of that time that always went for the weird and somewhat darkly bizarre rather than the sunny heroics of US superhero comics?
Chris Weston: Unlike the USA, which revelled in the shiny and atomic, Britain was still in thrall to the ‘gothic’ imagery that sprung from the Penny Dreadfuls. When these comics were originally published, our popular culture was still shaped by Victoriana: the cobbled streets and shadowy alleyways, jam-packed with Rippers and Spring-heeled Jacks. On top of that, post-war Britain was still bomb-scarred and gripped by austerity and rationing. I think some of this atmosphere permeated its way into the art and stories found in our comic books.
SF: There must just be something in the British psyche that veers more to dark, twisted and more subversive/sardonic in terms of comics. Back in the day, they tended to be either ‘Boy’s Own’ style adventure strips or just plain odd. Often, the ‘leads’ in the stories were villains (Von Hoffman’s Invasion, Dr. Mesmer’s Revenge, The White Eyes, etc), with the obligatory pair of plucky schoolboys bent on thwarting them. Very rarely did the stories feature spandex-clad superheroes. Growing up, I definitely leant more towards the weird and wonderful – Cursitor Doom, Master of the Marsh, The White Eyes… and, of course, House of Dolmann.
And Dolmann, to me, is a seriously wonderfully creepy concept as well. First, the puppets themselves are just plain horror movie style creepy. But then there’s the underlying idea that, from what I’ve gathered, Dolmann’s puppets never actually speak, it’s all Eric throwing his voice. And that puts a very, very creepy take on the whole thing.
Now, is this something you’ve picked up on, or is this just me being triggered by some traumatic birthday party that I’ve obviously blocked out from my memories?
SF: Yeah, it’s a very strange strip – even the dolls’ powers were oddball. The whole vibe owed more to Looney Tunes than anything else. The nearest parallel in terms of US comics I can come up is Doom Patrol. It has something of that same off-kilter atmosphere. I even had Dolmann himself in a wheelchair in our updated version. Other touchstones I used when scripting were the likes of The Prisoner and the (John Steed) Avengers TV series. Oddball and very, very ‘British’.
What do you remember of the strip in it’s original incarnation in Valiant (from 1966-1973)?
CW: I discovered House of Dollman through the Vulcan weekly which reprinted the best of IPC/Fleetway’s output.
SF: The Eric Bradbury art was a big thing about House of Dolmann‘s appeal for me. Eric particularly just had this naturally dark and vaguely sinister style, and the little backstreet where Dolmann has his shop/base of operations always looked like it existed in a pocket of Victorian London. There was just a mood about the whole strip that said, “don’t try to hard to place this strip in any real-world/time.” It just was. And we’ve tried to recapture that.
Looking at the strip here in the SMASH! Special, it’s obvious you and Simon have deliberately gone retro on it, embracing the look and feel of the original. But more than that, you seem to have made it a thing out of time, with modern touches and retro looks, and objects from multiple times cropping up in the panels.
CW: Yeah, I have the police driving around in Triumph Heralds, and laptops exist alongside typewriters. Both Simon and I wanted this to feel like it existed in its very own universe where different rules and physics can exist, allowing for the fantastical creations we discover in the pages.
SF: In the script I asked for that kind of timeless mishmash of eras, so it’s almost impossible to buttonhole in terms of an actual ‘date’. Again, it was just trying to recapture that ‘bubble reality’ feel of the original.
And as for your art here, am I right in seeing a lineage in terms of style between Bradbury’s line and yours?
CW: Okay, confession time: Eric Bradbury was never one of my favourite artists at the time of the original series publication! I was more into Don Lawrence, Reg Bunn and Jesus Blasco; a shocking admission, I realise.
Okay, completely wrong on that then!
CW: However, he’s definitely someone I have come to appreciate more in recent years. Now that I do this for a living myself, I have a better understanding of Eric’s qualities: immaculate story-telling and illustration skills… plus a professional attitude towards productivity and consistency. These are quite underrated attributes in comic-book illustration, and they made Eric one of the pillars of the British comic book industry. In short, he may not have been a “showy” artist, but the comic books wouldn’t have existed without the likes of him.
Simon, you’ve been heavily involved in the world of Brit superheroes for a long time, marshalling the return of so many classic characters in the ongoing adventures of The Vigilant. Was there any temptation to link Dolmann’s bizarre crime-fighting into that universe at all? Or is there a link that I’m not seeing?
SF: It felt best to distance ourselves a little from the updated/conjoined universe of The Vigilant, which has that more modern feel to it. But, we do use The Super Security Bureau (again, very John Steed Avengers) from the 1971 Pow! Annual in House of Dolmann, which has loose links to The Vigilant in terms of some background characters in that.
While we’re talking The Vigilant – the saga, or at least the first storyline, concludes this summer in the pages of Megazine 421. Is this the end… or merely the end for now and what can we expect from that particular ending of the series in the Meg?
SF: The end… for now! The Vigilant was always conceived as a trilogy, with events leading up to the much-heralded Blood Rapture – which goes right back to the Scream Special featuring (what would become) The Vigilant. But having established these characters and their (updated) lives, it would be a crying shame not to do more. I for one would love to do more… it’s been a proper labour of love.
What can you expect from the finale? Nothing less than Hell on Earth of course.
Thanks to both Chris and Simon for that – and you can see all the creepiness and weirdness of House of Dolmann in the SMASH! Special! Order it today from the 2000 AD web store.
And that finale for The Vigilant comes in Judge Dredd: Megazine Issue 421 – out in June!