Birmingham Post, 31 October 1998
Child's play - no wayEdit
"Bzzzz. Hand laser's only good for one hit. Crack. But fifty thousand volts is a heavy hit by anyone's standards. Even mine. I see his back. I see hairline fractures in the spore pustules. It slows me enough - for him to make his move.
"Can't knock him to the ground or against a wall - for fear of bursting the pustules early. He's going to kill me. He's going to kill Gotham. Unless...Crunch."
That is a script from a Batman comic. John McCrea is the artist.
He gets sent a script by a writer and from his small studio in his home in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham, he creates the colour, the muscle and the pointy-eared hood which is the trademark of the superhero.
Walking into John's studio is like moving into a boy's fantasy. Spiderman is on the window. Batman is on the wall. The place is packed from ceiling to floor with comics of the "bzzzz, crunch and fssss" variety.
Collecting comics and toys is all part of John's work as an artist. Only he and his wife Rachel live in their home but they want to move into a larger house just to accommodate the toys.
Has he thought of chucking half his stuff out?
"Oh no," says John. "I couldn't do that."
Drawing Batman is a job that John does at home, but which also takes him round the world visiting New York, lecturing and going to comic conventions. It is a lucrative way of indulging his childhood fantasies.
But John is keen to point out that comics are not a medium simply for children, even though the toys around the house suggest that the big kid inside him is alive and well.
He says that every so often newspapers will do stories with headlines like "Zap Pow Comics Grow Up," but comics always have been for adults as well as youngsters.
John used to be the artist for a strip called Troubled Souls. "It was about the rights and wrongs and the complete nonsense of Northern Ireland," says John, who is from Belfast.
Despite this, there is still a misconception that if you put an adult story line into a comic it will be read by children and therefore only material suitable for children should be used in comics.
This idea irritates John immensely. After all children read books and watch television, but it doesn't follow that all books and all television programmes have to be suitable for kids, does it?
But aren't comics read mainly by boys and men, none the less?
"It's perceived that way," says John. "Unfortunately it's seen as sad gits in anoraks."
To understand why you need to appreciate the history of comics.
"Comics came into their own during the Second World War when they were printed on pulp papers and sent out in bulk to the guys who were fighting," said John.
"They needed thrillers and fantasy stuff to escape from the terrors and horrors that they were going through and they've been ghettoised ever since."
An over-riding motif for comics is that of the superhero, power fantasies for young boys.
"As long as there are young boys who feel inadequate about themselves there will be a need for superheroes," says John.
But not all comics are like that. John met his wife, Rachel, at a comic convention.
There is a comic called Action Girl which is produced by a woman, but which is boy-friendly, too, and one called Love and Rockets.
It's true that most of the writers of comics are men, but women are getting increasingly involved. Sometimes the artist's work is broken down so that one person draws them and another colours them in. Most of the colourists are women.
So what is it about a comic that appeals to John?
"It works because it's a very visual thing, so it communicates easily," he says. "The CIA has used comics to disseminate information.
"I've done the artwork for information about safer sex funded by the Birmingham Health Authority."
John says a comic is better than a film because it is possible to flick back through a comic and pick up information that might have been missed.
"Having said that I know a lot of people who say they can't get their heads around how to read a comic," he says.
"But it all works very logically. I read my first comic when I was four and it's always seemed natural to me."
And it was when John was four that he decided he wanted to be a comic artist.
"My mum gave me a comic to keep me entertained," said John. "I thought it was great. I thought: 'Right that's it, that's what I want to do when I grow up. When I grow up I want to draw comics'.
"I was blinkered and totally focused."
Both of John's parents were GPs. Taking up comics for a career was not something that was encouraged.
"They said that you couldn't make a living drawing comics. " said John. "Then, after about the age of 18 I think, my mum and dad gave up and just wanted me to do whatever I wanted.
"But now they're completely proud of me. They say: 'Gee, you're earning more than we do'."
It is just as well that John was blinkered and totally focused because he would never have succeeded in drawing comics without such single-mindedness.
After school, at the age of 18, he went to art college in Belfast and gave it up after two months.
"It was terrible. I hated it," said John.
"The teachers were uninterested at the best of times. I was still in contact with one to two people I met there three years down the line and they said I did the smartest thing of anybody.
"They're all in non-art related jobs now."
John said that he now teaches at colleges and universities around Britain and finds the situation different from the way it was in his time.
"I say that they seem to be great places and I wouldn't have minded going there," says John.
But all he experienced 14 years ago was teachers either ignoring or actively discouraging students or being threatened by them.
So John spent four years in effect teaching himself.
He continued living with his parents and spent his time drawing for comics, sending them off to publishers and getting rejection letters.
He drew the dole and supported a child in another country with the money because he figured he did not really need the cash if he was living at home.
How did he manage to stay motivated for such a long time?
"They weren't all bad rejections," said John. "Some of them were encouraging. They'd say that it was nearly right, I just needed to practise a bit more. After a couple of years there was definitely progress.
"A lot of the time it was a grind and sure, after the latest rejection note I'd get pissed off.
"But I had a huge ego that helped me carry it off. I'd think they were wrong not to be taking my work, but looking back I can see that I wasn't really ready."
Being in Northern Ireland did not help John either. He did go to comic conventions and make contacts but it would have been easier for him if he had lived in London and could have met publishers on a more regular basis.
Another thing that he did during that time was run a small comic shop in Belfast.
"It was a pokey wee place," said John. "It was called Dark Horizons and I ran it with my friend Fred when I was 19."
Later they moved in with a chap called Terry who ran a record store from which John used to buy his punk records.
Terry had some space to spare so it became a joint record and comic shop.
"It never really made any money but it was something to do," said John.
It was while he was working there that a chap called Garth Ennis came in. John and Garth knew of each other because Garth was in the same year as John's brother at school.
Garth was keen on writing comics and he came into the shop to tell John that Fleetway was producing a comic called Crisis dealing with political and social issues.
He wanted to pitch a strip to Fleetway called Troubled Souls with Garth writing the script and John being the artist about the troubles in Northern Ireland.
John agreed to the idea but was so used to getting rejections that he did not get particularly excited about it.
But Fleetway accepted the idea. It was John and Garth's big break.
"I was over the moon," said John.
Once established, finding work was relatively easy.
Troubled Souls came to the end but John and Garth developed the two main characters and turned them into a pair of private detectives in a comic called Dicks.
Dicks is published by Caliber Comics and bears the warning that it is for "mature readers", which is code for there being a swear word in every frame.
He also does a comic called Hitman which is published by DC Comics and also written by Garth. John says whenever he gets a new script from Garth he says: "Oooh great," and he runs upstairs to the toilet to read it - and let's face it if it's Dicks thent he toilet is the only acceptable place to read it.
It was at a comic convention when John was 21 that he met Rachel.
"I didn't know her then," said John, "but I got to know her over a period of years and fell in love."
They married eight years ago and John came to live in Birmingham because Rachel, who is Chinese, was working as a social worker in the city.
John's work is entirely portable. He can work anywhere. The couple went to stay in Hong Kong for three or four months and John was able to work while he was there.
"So long as I can get to a Federal Express Depot that's it," says John. "I have to be able to send the stuff off to New York."
John says that he can't sleep on planes or trains but he can work on them.
"I've developed a style where the lines have little tremors in it. That's all part and parcel of it."
Does he find it a very solitary life?
"It can be," says John. "Part of the reason why I go to the comic conventions is so that I get around the place and meet the fans.
"That's a huge ego massage. I sit down and sign comics and people come up and say they would like to buy me a drink. How can you argue with that?"
Is it the writers or the artists that have the lion's share of the celebrity status?
"It always used to be that the people who were popular were the artists. They were the people that the fans clamoured for up until the mid 80s."
John says that now people are becoming more interested in the writers.
"You can earn more money as a writer," says John. "Garth will produce an issue of Hitman in four or five days but it will take me a month to draw it."
What are his hopes for the future?
"I certainly hope that I will continue to get work in comics for the rest of my life," says John.
"I'm having a really great time doing comics and I want to do it for as long as I can so there will be no retirement for me. I'm having far too much fun."
He is interested in going into films, doing what he calls "moving work" but comics remains his first love.
He also wants to have children "at some point down the line."
"But they can't play with my toys," he says. "They'll have to have their own."