With Saphir, Kek-W, David Roach, along with the talents of colourist Peter Doherty and letterer Simon Bowland, gave us a lush, rich, fantastical slice of period sci-fi fantasy, the sort of thing 2000 AD does so well!
The first three-parts, Saphir: Un Roman Fantastique, appeared as a Tharg’s 3Riller in 2000 AD Progs Progs 2197-2199 with the 3-part Tharg’s 3Riller. And now, beginning in 2000 AD Prog 2265, out 19 January, they’re returning with the new series, Saphir: Liaisons Dangereuses!
Set initially in Paris, 1899, that first Saphir introduced us to Inspector Alphonse Mucha, investigating the reported murder of Lady Sofia Corundum – but Mucha soon discovered that all is not as it seems… and that, in turn, led us on a spectacular adventure and into Saphir, one of the 128 universal æssences, bridging the void between worlds.
Now, with the new series about to begin, it was my great pleasure to sit down with Saphir‘s Kek-W and David Roach to talk all things fantastical and fabulous, Saphir and sleazy politicians, and so much more… welcome to the world of Saphir and Liaisons Dangereuses!
Kek, David, pleasure to speak to you, hope that you’re doing well, keeping safe, and haven’t gone especially mad during the last couple of years of chaotic times.
DAVID ROACH: That’s certainly open to debate….!
Your Saphir strip ran last year as one of Tharg’s 3Rillers, a delicious mix of 19th Century Parisian decadence, particularly extreme murders, and strange worlds… sort of Art Nouveau meets Lovecraft with a Tory knob as the enemy.
That was Un Roman Fantastique, but we now have a new series, Liaisons Dangereuses, starting soon.
The best place to begin then… can you give us a rundown of what the strip’s about, what’s gone before, and what to expect from Liaisons Dangereuses?
KEK-W: Maybe a good place to start might be this extract from the email I sent Matt Smith in July, 2019. It’s a pretty good thumbnail synopsis of what David and I were thinking at the time. We were looking for somewhere to land Saphir and thought we’d see if there was any interest from Rebellion:
“David Roach and I are creating a new fantasy series together and have been playing around with some ideas. We now have a setting, a set-up and a rough framework for something. Two or three of the central characters are taking shape nicely. It feels like something that would sit well in 2000 AD, but it also feels unique – different to other fantasy strips you’ve run in recent years. Our working title is Saphir – French for “Sapphire.”
“It opens in Paris, 1900, and taps into that decadent fin de siècle / La Belle Époque vibe, but the action quickly / dramatically shifts to a strange, exotic world: a place like no other. Our intention is to create a lush/luxuriant fantasy ‘romance’ – something opulent and hallucinatory, but also action-packed and fun. David and I are channeling an Art Nouveau meets P. Craig Russell / BWS feel for this series. Think: Moebius meets J K Huysmans, with David creating fabulous alien landscapes and gorgeous otherworldly magicians and warrior-women as only he can.”
In the end, we settled on 1899 as it was just on the cusp of a new century: the world was changing, becoming more mechanised, moving towards Modernism and that fitted the sorts of themes I wanted to play with, but it was also rich with Parisian decadence, Art Nouveau, Symbolism, occultism, etc. To our jaded 21st century eyes, late 19th century Paris seems a strange place filled with bizarre, beautiful locations and eccentric characters – almost as alien and fabulous as the otherworldly lands we travel to in Saphir.
KW: A quick recap for newcomers: in the first series, we meet Inspector Alphonse Mucha, who is called to a house in the 14th arrondissement to investigate the mysterious death of Lady Sofia Corundum, an “Englishwoman living in exile.” To the staid, uptight, conservative public servant, Mucha, the house – inhabited, much to his horror, entirely by women! – appears to be a den of iniquity and decadence. Mucha quickly falls foul of Sofia’s belligerent, strikingly amazonian chauffeur, “Jorges” who, unknown to him, is actually Jorg, a woman warrior from another world. In a deliberate inversion of Fantasy writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lin Carter, Mucha is a beta-male and it is Jorg who is the alpha. The pair are transported to the fabulous world of Saphir, using an exotic perfume to jump between worlds. Here, they have to team up and form an unlikely double-act in order to rescue magician Sofia who is not dead, but is the prisoner of a rival evil sorcerer who just happens to look like Jacob Rees-Mogg (laughs).
DR: From my point of view, I think I’m honing what the characters look like, how they act, and the Fin de Siecle setting of their world.
KW: Yeah, definitely, David! Same here. In the second series of Saphir, Liaisons Dangereuses, we start delving further into our characters and exploring their relationships. We also meet other members of Sofia’s women-only household, open up the universe they inhabit and deal with an unexpected consequence of their first adventure together. It’s a deranged but heart-warming fantasy ‘romance’ that features an unexpected guest character. It’s about unlikely friendships and the notion of ‘family’. We’re living through terrible, divisive times right now and I wanted to write something that was inclusive and positive as well as a fun, fantastical romp.
Is this one another Tharg’s 3Riller or a longer strip?
DR: It’s a 5-parter this time around, the 3Rillers outing was something of a trial run to see if the readers would take to a fantasy strip in an SF comic… So far I think it’s looked positive so we’re back for another story.
In Un Roman Fantastique, you were in the difficult situation of having to create not just one, but two fully-formed worlds – the Paris of Inspector Mucha and the fantastical world they venture to, complete with those enticing references to the Cobalt Horde, Carrion Men, The Bloated Lands, and a lot more.
Strikes me that there would be a hell of a lot of work involved in all of this world-building? Something of a gamble in many ways, putting in all the work for just 15 pages of story in the hope that it will return for more, paying off the time and energy invested in the work.
DR: The minute Kek and I started discussing the concept of the strip I knew it was something I desperately wanted to take off so I put everything I could into the artwork. The scenes in Paris were very carefully researched (from the comfort of my computer!) so that all the action took part in the right parts of the city, looking exactly as they would have at the turn of the previous century.
I wonder if anyone noticed?
The fantasy scenes were harder in a way, creating everything from scratch and I think I’m maybe getting deeper into the world creating side of things in this second storyline. But essentially, I’m just trying to make an impact in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, fully aware of the amazing artists that appear in it every week- it’s a tough gig!
KW: “I wonder if anyone noticed?” – I did, David! You put so much into this project. I’m in awe, sir.
From my side, I usually tend to approach a project with far more ideas than I probably need. It’s just how my brain works; it generates stuff whether I need it or not (laughs). Anything that doesn’t make it into a story ends up in the sock-drawer and gets recycled into another project – sometimes years later – or else feeds into a second series if the strip get renewed.
With the first series of Saphir, it wasn’t really a gamble in terms of world-building. I had a big bag of ideas (some my own, others drawn from conversations with David), a setting, an opening and set-up, a reasonable idea of where it was going. David and I knew the sort of thing we wanted to do – we’d spent some time talking about the things we liked, our artistic and creative reference points, the areas where our individual interests overlapped – so I had the flavour of it all – the vibe – in my head quite quickly. And sometimes that’s about 60% of the battle.
I was at a comic convention in Gdansk, Poland, in Spring, 2019, and remember writing in a notebook most what became the first couple pages of the first Saphir script, along with notes and names and thoughts about stuff.
Again, it’s very much a Kek-W story, with a LOT going on, and much of it veering into the very strange!
DR: That’s what I wanted from Kek- and he hasn’t disappointed!
KW: Hahaha! You know, I always chuckle to myself when people say my work is weird or strange. We’re living in a bizarre postmodern world where Lynch, Cronenberg, Jodorowsky, etc, etc – people who were once considered oddballs or pioneers – have now been co-opted by the mainstream. I’m no longer sure what actually constitutes strange these days (laughs). At the end of the day, I just write stories about people – people who are looking for love, redemption, validation, hope… who are grieving, angry, broken, hurting, lost. The settings might be extraordinary – it’s genre fiction, after all – but, really, they’re just stories about people with recognisable, all-too-human failings and traits. And Saphir is no exception.
I absolutely love how David has brought Mucha, Sofia, Jorg and the gang to life! They felt very real to me when they were wandering around inside my head and now they feel so very, very real on the page too. David sent me a page of art recently from Liaisons Dangereuses – it was beautiful, of course, but there was a brief reflective sequence where it just focuses on Inspector Mucha… I was just amazed how David showed all the layers that sit within the character: the quiet sadness inside him, that he was unfulfilled and incomplete, but he hid all that under a mask of dignity and duty. For a moment the facade slips. David caught all that in a couple of panels. It was quite remarkable.
Moments like that remind me why I love writing comics and how blessed I am in terms of collaborators.
Obviously, the ending to Un Roman Fantastique was set up for further storylines, with Lady Sofia’s promise to be in touch with Mucha.
So how far in advance have you plotted, just how many storylines are there in your head/notebooks right now?
DR: We have thrown ideas back and forth quite a bit and the 2 strips have gone in completely different directions to where I thought they were going… so there’s certainly a lot of concepts still floating around in the ether waiting to coalesce into further storylines.
KW: Yeah, totally. I’ve not hard-plotted anything. I always assume that every series or story I do could potentially be the last – though you always hope for longevity with a character or series, that you can take the readers and (especially) the commissioning editor along with you!
Usually, the bag of ideas is big enough that I can hopefully reach into my brain – metaphorically, not physically! (laughs) – and pull out the next set of episodes.
I usually plant ‘seeds’ in strips as I go along that could be grown into new stories – and that’s certainly true of Saphir too – seemingly throw-away lines that could lead into new adventures or expand the universe they’re set in. It might sound odd, but if you make your characters rich enough, they will usually tell you where they want to go next. Other writers will probably know what I mean when I say that.
In the first Tharg’s 3Riller 3-parter, Un Roman Fantastique, we had appearances from the 19th Century artist Alphonse Mucha, repurposed as Inspector Mucha of the Sûreté Nationale, and, quite wonderfully, a certain character from the front benches, lounging in his nonchalant, egregious, and loathsome fashion as the main villain, named in Un Roman Fantastique as Sebastian Ensor, complete with his nanny as well.
So – why the playing with real-life characters, names, likenesses?
KW: Why not? (laughs). Like I said: we’re living in a postmodern world – a Real-Time Mash-Up where the amount of information is now doubling every few minutes. A meme-based digital attention-economy where fiction and reality constantly rub up against and bleed into one another, where public domain characters get to hang out with the historical. It seems daft not to plug into all that (laughs). Even better: it provides endless scope for satire and humour.
Was it something in there at the script process, or something David added in during the art?
DR: The Inspector’s name certainly came from Kek as I recall
KW: But very much inspired by you, David! – and the various topics covered in our email chats. You’ll mention something or someone or a place in an email that would send me off down a rabbit hole and get my synapses firing (a dangerous thing!) which then fed back into Saphir in all sorts of different and unexpected ways.
And they really are such wonderful likenesses, especially that certain loathsome lounging MP. [Although with Mucha, wasn’t he more of a light brown, red-head?]
DR: I wish I could remember whose idea it was to use “JRM” as the villain of the piece, but I do remember reading the script soon after he was so notoriously shown lounging in the house of commons, and saving a screen grab to be sure that I could use that pose in the strip. It was just too good a chance to pass up!
But actually, Inspector Mucha is based on my friend Anthony Reynolds -the singer, writer and 90s Indie legend whose band Jack toured with Suede and the Divine Comedy. Anthony is a massive 2000 AD fan and has completely thrown himself into the role as Inspector Mucha, so really any resemblance to the artist is entirely coincidental.
I’m also horrified to admit that since I’m equally tall and skeletal I used myself as the model for JRM in a couple of panels… oh the shame of it! The strip came out in the first wave of Covid and I was terrified that he might catch it and die… and then have Kek and I pilloried as heartless swines poking fun at the recently deceased, but luckily he appears to have avoided it.
KW: I think we settled on having a Mogg analogue as the villain reasonably early in the process. Fairly sure we batted the idea around in emails, David – possibly it was initiated by something that Real-World Mogg did or said – so we can both take the credit-blame for the genesis of that (laughs). It was certainly there on the table by the time I started to script it.
Here’s an excerpt from my script:
‘It’s our Mogg-analogue villain, the posh, aristocratic, English magician: The Honourable Sebastian Ensor. Another character, like Sofia, with a foot in two worlds. He’s accompanied by ‘Nanny’: a hideous fly-headed thing with clicking insectoid mouth-parts dressed like an Edwardian governess in a blouse and long skirt.’
ENSOR: A MIRACLE, GIVEN THE WOEFUL STATE OF THE FRENCH EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM, eh, NANNY?
David, you did such a wonderful job nailing his look and his character! The lounging pose was all over my timeline as a meme at the time, people photo-shopping him into ridiculous scenes, so it was a laugh-out-loud brilliant moment when I saw how David had illustrated him. He also mentioned the artist, James Ensor, to me in an email, then Ensor coincidentally popped up a couple weeks later in a book I was reading on Symbolist artists, so that got folded into the character’s name. Making comics is always that strange, weird mixture of planning and improvising!
Are we going to be seeing any new parodies this time around? A Boris perhaps? Priti Patel is surely ripe for the authoritarian fascist dictatorial type?
DR: Both extremely good ideas!
KW: Don’t get me started on those two (laughs). No spoilers, but – yes! – we do have a new nemesis in the latest series who is based on a well-known real-world character. A prize to the first Squazz dek Thargo who spots the clues.
Now, whilst touching on the whole relationship between writer and artist – how did you work together here?
Is it the case of Kek doing the writer thing of ‘Page 1, huge alien scene, all distinctly different, in a massive vista of figures, backed with distinctive and original fantastical features’ – you know, the sort of thing every artist likes to see!
Or the alternative – writer leaves it vague, artist goes crazy with the details? Or is it more of a collaboration, ideas bouncing back and forth?
DR: We had exchanged ideas quite a bit before the writing of both storylines- often with me saying how much there were certain things I’d like to draw, and perhaps more importantly, a long list of things I’m keen to avoid! But in both cases, Kek has veered off into his own completely bizarre directions… which is exactly what I’d hoped for in working the West Country Wizard himself.
The scripts are very tightly plotted and precisely dialogued (of course), but within that, I get a fair bit of leeway in how things look and how the fight scenes are choreographed. Kek likes to throw quite a lot of visual ideas into the script as a way of sparking off ideas in me, rather than tying me down too much.
I think it’s a great balance and if I want to add the odd extra panel here or there, or bring in a left-field influence for the visuals he’s always open to my suggestions. I think it all works really well.
KW: “West Country Wizard” – hahaha! Brilliant! Thanks, David. I know my scripts give you a few headaches now and then, but you are an utter delight to work with and I’m super appreciative of the extra ten miles you go to when illustrating these tales. You constantly spark new story and character ideas in my head, nudge me into taking things somewhere bigger, bolder, and better.
David, your art has always been highly rendered, veering into portraiture at times on the faces, but there’s also that sense of it all being very realistic, even whilst portraying all of these wonderfully out-there ideas that Kek is throwing into the storyline.
DR: Thank you- I do try to draw everything with the same degree of realism if I can, so that everything is completely believable.
Perhaps the best example of it in that first Saphir would be when Jorges removes her hat, revealing her shock of blue hair, all beautifully rendered in your extreme realist style. This one, in fact…
DR: I do have a couple more panels drawn I pencil this time round too. It might be a sort of character flaw but for some reason I just like mixing up techniques if I can. The pencil panels are a way of standing out from the other artists I guess since nobody else at 2000 AD does it.. possibly with good reason!
You’re also an artist whose art has a sensuality, for want of a better word, to it – your figures, no matter how fantastical, always have a litheness, a reality about them.
And then there’s the detailing you put into nearly every panel – you’re certainly not an artist who ignores the backgrounds or simply gives us a generic backdrop to the important figure work.
But the thing I noticed so much here in Saphir? That would be the drapery – clothes hang just right, fabrics, curtains, everything just has a wonderfully stylised feel to it – very much in keeping to the Parisian times and the Art Nouveau stylings of Mucha (the other one, not your Inspector).
DR: Well I do adore the work of Mucha (the artist) who certainly was a master of drapery, along with everything else. Again I think it comes down to wanting to create something that looks believable and in some cases I’ve taken photos to create that realistic feel that I’m looking for. The sort of artists I’ve been looking at for inspiration – Paul Gillon, Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Lou Fine, Stan Drake, Jesus Blasco, Garcia Lopez, and Nestor Redondo all had that ability to create art that’s completely credible no matter what the subject matter and that’s very much what I was going for.
I also do a lot of life drawing along with larger, more finished “fine art” drawings (often taking a week or more to do) working with models and drapery and I think that underpins my comic work.
Of course, when there’s a panel like Jorge piling into a mass of alien creatures with a large spear that has to come entirely from my imagination.
Oh yes… and that would be this one!
Your art’s certainly developed and evolved over the years since I first saw it – I believe that was with the classic Nemesis storyline, Purity’s Story. Do you see that development through your work as well? How would you describe that?
DR: Oh very much so, and since that was 35 years ago (gulp!) I hope I have grown a lot as an artist over all that time! Nemesis was my first professional strip anywhere and I was only 21 when I started it so I was very much learning as I went along.
Some artists- Steve Dillon being the classic example- burst onto the scene fully formed but I’ve grown very gradually over the years, I think. I guess I’m continually pushing myself and I still have the drive that every strip should be my best, if possible.
Along with my Anderson strip in Prog 2000, I think Saphir is my best strip artwork… that’s what I’m hoping for anyway.
How are you working now, what’s your process entail?
DR: There’s no real mystery to it- I read through the strip, roughly sketch it out on a small scale, draw it up more tightly on the original pages (I work at A2 size- the typical original art size for British comic artwork up until the ‘90s), then go hunting for reference if I need any. For this strip, there’s been a mountain of reference for settings and things like cars, prams, clothes, plants, guns and so on… in fact anything Victorian and French.
For figures, I don’t usually use reference but from time to time it’s useful to work from photos to capture the specificity of a pose. For episode 3 for instance, I had Lady Sofia pick up a cup and saucer, then kneel down and place it on the ground, and it’s such a precise, specific action that I thought it would be easier to get someone (my daughter Belle in this case) to act it out for me. A vast Alien Battle isn’t something we’re ever likely to see so it’s easy to just make it up – but exactly how someone would place a cup and Saucer on the ground has to look believable. It’s possible that I overthink these things!
A quick word on Peter Doherty and his colour work on the original 3-parter. Will he be returning this time to add colour to your art David?
DR: Absolutely! Peter did such a fabulous job the first time round that I was really keen to have him back again. The fans appreciated his work and he made me look good, so I’m relieved he’s coming back for Liaisons Dangereuses.
KW: Yeah, me too. I’m just going to jump in here and echo what David said: Peter did an amazing job on the first series! The colouring was so subtle and sympathetic. I’d also like to mention the great lettering job Simon Bowland did. Peter and Simon, like David, are masters of their respective trades. I was blown away by their work.
He’s definitely a great choice for a colourist for your work here, giving the whole thing that lush feel – going from the dark, earthy tones of Mucha’s Paris, all those blacks, greys, browns (all the better to emphasise the fantastical elements of the story, such as that aforementioned moment of Jorge’s blue hair) and on to the vivid oranges, greens, blues of the fantasy world. An absolute masterclass of colour use and one that, I think at least, really suits your artwork.
Is there not the temptation to colour your own work at all?
DR: Since I’m colour-blind I can safely say the answer is no!
Ah, yes, that would definitely be a problem!
Finally, as always, what sort of things have we got to look forward from you in the future, both 2000 AD-related and elsewhere?
DR: As many of you will know I’ve been compiling the Brian Bolland Apex edition for Rebellion, and simultaneously putting together one devoted to Mick McMahon as well and both are out this year.
I’m also compiling a book collecting the best Fleetway Romance strips, also for Rebellion which will be a Valentine’s Day 2023 release (Hey, we plan ahead!) It’s a book that I think everyone will love, even if they think they won’t. Hey, trust me, it will be great!
Strip wise I think I’m doing something top secret for Germany as soon as I finish Saphir and I’ll try and get through my commission list if I can. I have an art book ready to go if we can find the time to publish it and you can take it as read that I’m always overjoyed to appear in 2000 AD, it still feels like a honour to be an Art Droid. If the readers enjoy this second Saphir strip I’d absolutely love to draw more, believe me, we have so many ideas for future storylines. I’ve never enjoyed myself more.
KW: Me too, David! Here’s to many more adventures in the worlds of Saphir and Fin de Siecle Paris!
Everyone, say thanks to both Kek-W and to David for that beast of an interview! You can get hold of Saphir: Liasons Dangereuses in the new 2000 AD Prog 2265, available from all comic shops, newsagents, and the 2000 AD web shop from 19 January.
As for the very special Brian Bolland Apex Edition that David has been working on – that’s released on 16 February 2022 – and you can get that here!
And since we were mentioning it – some of David’s earlier work on Nemesis Book 8 – Purity’s Story, from 1988’s Prog 558…