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A Short Interview With David Lloyd
posted January 14, 2007
 

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David Lloyd is best known as the artist behind V For Vendetta; his cinematic rendering of Alan Moore's scripts, figures washed out against grim backgrounds in bleaker than bleak fashion, gave one of the best comics of the 1980s a significant portion of its emotional heft and nearly all of its unforgettable mood. Lloyd's work on V made his name synonymous with that visual signature, seen since then in a variety of ambitious short runs and high-profile anthology appearances.

Lloyd's latest project is Kickback, a taut thriller with psychological overtones set in a fictional American town. Kickback hearkens back to the serial crime fiction of the '50s and '60s, and all the works since across various media that operate out of that same moral landscape. It's lovely looking, and boasts page design about as complex and intricate as pages get in modern comics in the mainstream tradition. Kickback's narrative provides a backdrop against which Lloyd sets an unblinking treatment of memory and its traps, how we get locked into certain behaviors and mindsets and may not escape them without first recognizing exactly what they are.

I enjoyed my e-mail exchange with the cartoonist and illustrator, and hope that there are more projects like Kickback in his future.

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imageTOM SPURGEON: David, now that the V For Vendetta movie has finished its full cycle through DVD sales and rentals, are you able to reflect on what that experience -- the attention paid one of your works, seeing your work adapted in that fashion and the advocacy work you did for the film -- was like? Are there any specific experiences from that time you think you'll take with you?

DAVID LLOYD: The experiences of meeting lots of new and interesting people in the press rounds, and the pleasure of finding the cast and crew of the movie such a nice bunch to meet and work with. No Hollywood egos or ivory towers in sight in all the press junkets I did. Just a lot of craftspeople and professionals doing their job and getting on well in pleasant circumstances. I must say I expected a rarefied atmosphere to surround many of the celebrities I spent time with during the period, but it was perfectly breathable air, though sometimes heady.

It was also good to be really looked after well on those press outings, and treated with great appreciation. Not always something I can count on in my usual business.

SPURGEON: You mentioned in an interview archived on your site that you'd like to correct how V was printed, and have been able to do so on a couple of editions. What exactly is it you're correcting? Are you interested in doing this for any new edition from here on out, or are there factors involved that might keep you from doing so?

LLOYD: The color in the new hardback was all tweaked by me -- at DC's invitation, I add, with gratitude -- to get it to what it should be all the time in all editions. It's the definitive color balance. No two papercover editions you pick up at random will have the same balance of color. If they do it's an accident because they're from a certain section of a print run. It's a very long story to go into my problems with the way the color was printed in V in it's early issues and in it's collected edition. Too long for here. But suffice it to say I had some problems, which have been sorted out in the hardback -- and also, as I mentioned in that interview, in the Scandinavian hardback editions, because, by good fortune, their editor invited me to a festival in Finland while he was publishing them.

US papercover editions still differ widely in weight and strength of color tone. Don't ask me why they can't always be consistent. I'm putting my old anger at it all behind me, now. These days, I'm glad to say, computer coloring saves us from almost all of the agony some of us used to go through in the comics color processes years ago.

imageSPURGEON: Kickback was first published by Editions Carabas. I see from your bibliography you'd worked with them before. Can I ask about the events that led to this project being published there? How did working with them on this project compare to working with some of the English-language publishers with whom you have experience?

LLOYD: Well, it was always a goal for me to do something for a European publisher. I had friends in Europe who were always giving me contact addresses for appropriate publishers, which I made use of in various inquiries. But it's a very tight world there, so despite my success in Europe through V, editors didn't rush to commission me. I could have pushed harder, but I only push hard if I really want something -- and I could take or leave working in Europe if the need from publishers there for me to do that was not clearly demonstrated.

Editions Carabas was a small company that called me out of the blue and asked me for a short story for a "Vampires" anthology. They gave me the freedom to do whatever I liked as long as it was five pages long. I enjoyed that freedom, but they were a very small company, so, when I was looking for a publisher for Kickback in France -- my original choice of market because they love crime stuff in strips there -- I tried big publishers first in the hope of bigger advances. But they sat on their hands or said "no" -- so I went with Carabas. Ultimately, I'm glad of it -- because the same trust I was given with the anthology, I was given on Kickback. No big publisher would not have been so generous to me in my position as a foreign creator in France. The one big problem I had with Carabas was a lack of adequate publicity. They had a small budget stretched thin. I believe they recognized the value myself and Kickback had for them, but sadly they were not in a strong position to capitalize on it.

But the big thing for me was the freedom and trust. Apart from the very small ones, English-language publishers are mostly too afraid to give creators their heads -- and when they do they don't know how to market them. They need to control their product. It's an industry "must have" in a business dominated by character marketing rather than creator marketing.

SPURGEON: Ironically, Kickback was published in Europe in serial publication form and here as an original graphic novel. What is it like doing a serialized work for the French market?

LLOYD: Kickback was originally meant as a single book project but I was told a one-off wasn't marketable for them at the time. So I said I'd expand it to two, and did. I'm glad that happened -- it gave me more space and I used it happily.

imageSPURGEON: How much input did you have in the design?

LLOYD: Design? Well, if you mean the format and design of the flyleafs and stuff -- that was up to Carabas and I supplied the material. The compilation volume -- a collection of the series in a US comic book-sized edition issued to capitalize on the release of the V movie in France -- was also designed by them, including the brainwave of the "gun" cover, which was blown up from an interior image, and copied for the US edition.

SPURGEON: Was there anything about working with that market in mind that changed your approach creatively?

LLOYD: The particular market didn't persuade me to do anything other than tell the story and draw it in exactly the way I would have done it anywhere. The "clear line" style is very popular in France, so I could have used that style for Kickback in some attempt to join the club. But then it would have been a fake. I draw a story the way I think it should be drawn, regardless of where it's going. Start creating for the market alone and you're not an artist anymore you're a salesman.

SPURGEON: Was the series well received?

LLOYD: Kickback got some good reviews. But don't ask me for sales figures because I don't know them. See, if Kickback had benefited from sufficient publicity in France, I'd be happy to hear the sales figures. Without enough publicity -- i.e. thousands of people who like David Lloyd's work, and/or V, not knowing about a new book out from him -- such figures are meaningless. Wherever I sell Kickback to now -- I just sold it to Brasil -- I make a point of checking on the publicity that will attend its appearance. You just can't leave it to publishers alone to look after for you in that regard -- even if you think you're an ad-man's dream.

imageSPURGEON: How did you approach the cover to the American edition of Kickback? That's a very clever concept, without figures in the art, and kind of atypical to what I think of when I think of your cover work. It's not even something I can pick up on from your design influences in terms of old crime books. What effect were you going for there and how did you arrive at the final product?

LLOYD: Answered above in part. But beforehand Jerome Martineau -- the Editor/Publisher of Carabas -- went through several attempts to get a cover that was like a '50s crime novel cover using b/w photographs as their base. None of them quite made it. The completely dissimilar "gun" idea came out of nowhere, but it works great and has a great effect. At least it does if people get to see it somewhere...

SPURGEON: David, I know you've written for yourself at times, but most of your career has been spent on other writers' script and I believe this is the most ambitious project of those you've written. How do you write, and how does your process generally differ when you're writing for yourself as opposed to working with someone else?

LLOYD: I haven't written enough to have developed a system, but sometimes I'll sit down with an exercise book and a basic idea -- often culled from an old notebook I have that's full of little ideas and story titles -- and just storyboard something from the beginning, putting the dialog and any captions in roughly as I go. Other times, I'll write it like a regular script. Lots of my planned stories haven't been fully developed whatever form they're in, because it takes time to write something, then time to sell it, and if your core business is drawing for other people you can't take enough time out from it to do that.

Doing my own story I can write whatever I like, change whatever I like and even make it up as I go along if I want to. There is total freedom and, of course, completeness of self-expression in that situation. Collaboration on something is completely different but still satisfying artistically if you're on each others wavelength for the period of the project.

SPURGEON: Why was Kickback set in a fictional American town? Is there some effect you were going for that you couldn't achieve if you had set it in England?

LLOYD: That story couldn't be told in an English setting -- and it was a generic US city because I wanted a) to talk generally about a US city environment and not a specific one, and, b) I didn't want to be hidebound by unnecessary attention to authenticity in settings and props. The people in the story were the only important elements to be "real" -- the objects in the story didn't have to be beyond their basic appearance. Like a backdrop in a theatre. Same principle.

SPURGEON: You've said that computer-aided effects like those in Kickback are best used sparingly. From your perspective, at what point does the use of such effects become too great? Also, how actively do you seek out new tools?

LLOYD: When they start to become the norm. Then no one reacts to their particular values as tools anymore. Like when people started painting books. Then everyone thought they could paint a book, and it becomes a norm. Then that special effect of paint becomes a blunt object instead of a sharp one and doesn't penetrate anymore. Until people go back to line and color. Or like cgi in the movies. Or like the shock effect in a horror movie used so often it doesn't shock anymore.

I don't actively seek new tools. I use whatever is at my disposal that will do a job. Usually, new stuff is by accident. I started using black crayon because I wanted a dry brush effect that was less trouble to use and more consistent, and I happened to have one at the time in a box. I used computer effects because they were there -- and I thought, "Yeah, that would work and be interesting."

On a wider note -- I wish the business wasn't so caught up with this whole conveyor belt of tasking that demands pencilling and inking etc, because then we might be able to have lots of comics drawn with all kinds of tools and techniques. But the business needs that factory process to get the product out.

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SPURGEON: How conscious were you when writing Kickback of layering in metaphors? There are certainly multiple instances of persons trapped in a larger object, for instance -- whales, air ships, cars, houses. Does that come out of the work or are you making sure it gets put in there?

LLOYD: Well, everything was planned that was meant to be planned. But as in all works of self-expression, other things bleed in unintentionally. Those things won't effect the central metaphorical images that help the story, though, so it doesn't matter if they do.

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SPURGEON: There's a compelling discussion of age and regret throughout Kickback, connected to and yet separate from the notion of making peace with earlier events. There's this great scene very early on where a crime continues because 1) the older cop can't blow his cover by leaving the car and 2) the younger cop doesn't act in time. You also have the protagonist's grandfather, who prefers re-runs of ballgames to newer ones. Is that something you feel strongly about, this notion of being trapped by circumstance and dwelling in the past?

LLOYD: Oh, yes. But you know, that early instant with Joe was really meant to demonstrate his cynicism. He won't get out of the car because he doesn't care what happens to the winos and isn't even concerned about any innocent bystanders who might get hurt along the way, because he doesn't think there are any innocent people in the area. Brooks is still fresh. Corruptible but not completely numb to it, as Joe apparently is.

But the whole thing is about using the past to fix the present and future. The airship represents that possibility of the golden things of the past helping the present. It hangs in the air like a dream. Or a castle in the air, as Carlo warns it can be to a dreamer and nothing but. And there's that lesson from Chicago that hasn't been learned...

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SPURGEON: Can you talk about the page design in Kickback? You use an assortment of very complex grids. I was wondering in general how you approach a scene in terms of getting it on the page; how do you stage your story?

LLOYD: That's really just a matter of framing a series of compositions and attempting to string them all together in sequence. If you think certain compositions are necessary for a series of "shots," you need to construct the page to accommodate them. Sometimes you can't, so you need to change one or more of them. But it's always better to stick to the best compositions for the subjects of each panel if you can. It's what happens in cinema, and it's what I try to do as well, without, of course, compromising the values the strip needs to have -- like that great thing we have in strips, the flipover, which is something you have to plan for carefully.

Sometimes, though, an overall strategy is needed in a strip. Nightingale -- a war story I did with Garth [Ennis] -- had mostly landscape frames because that gave more space and scope for the depiction of the sea shots and ships.

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SPURGEON: An interesting notion you brought up in an interview was a frustration as to how much material is out on the stands, and getting a chance to have your book noticed before the next wave of book after book hits. Is that a worry for you just in terms of serial comics, but with books like Kickback as well?

LLOYD: It is a worry, but I think it's a worry for everyone. There's much said from people who know finances that the future is in graphic novels. But are the comic stores geared up for this? Have they got time to gear up for it -- even if they believe it -- when their waking nights are spent coping with the travails of Civil War and suchlike? And meanwhile manga grows. And will the bookstores take too much custom away from them eventually?

Comic store owners have a tough time and tight budgets and the weight of product they see in Previews and have to decide on every month is daunting. If there was less product it would be easier. But I can't wish my fellow creators out of a job because I'm sick of rubbing shoulders with too many of them. It's a terrible conundrum that I think will only be solved by accident -- and maybe not happily.

No easy answers for me or anyone, but if everyone with a common cause talks about it all -- as they do on the CBIA site, for instance -- it'll help a lot, I'm certain.

SPURGEON: I know you didn't read crime comics as a kid, but what do you think of the newer wave of crime books like the Brubaker/Phillips effort Criminal? Do you think Kickback has some fellow travelers it might not have three or four years ago?

LLOYD: Absolutely. When I wrote the first draft of Kickback it was six years ago. Just Sin City was making some headway with crime stuff in the US at that time. When I sold it to France three years later, crime without superheroes was still no big seller for the big three.

I hope there is a line of books that follow Criminal and others like it. Sean is great, and so is Ed. But my wish for comics development is beyond the championing of any particular genre to succeed in the face of the overbearing spandex crew. This business needs some real hard thinking to expand its audience, which is what it desperately needs. Books should reach Joe Public like other entertainment media reach Joe Public for one thing (question: why does our industry never advertise to Joe Public but only to those who are already buying the product?). And it would help if they were stories about something, too -- not just this month's adventure of Muscleman to keep the presses rolling. The big comics publishers rarely think about this as companies, because they can always disappear as comic companies and re-finance as something else. It's the creators, and those who care about marketing the creators, and the good editors of the comic companies who care about the future of the medium and not just their jobs -- they should think about it. And the distributors as well, of course. "Ex-spandex and Expand" could be be a useful motto.

imageSPURGEON: Can I ask after your next project?

LLOYD: My answer to this question right now is that Kickback -- though published in August of last year by Dark Horse -- is still a work in progress for me. Until everyone hears about the book's existence who I think should hear about it, my job is not done. I'm taking the position of any good Hollywood producer to my work now. Getting it made is only half the job.

*****

Kickback, David Lloyd, Dark Horse Comics, hardcover, 96 pages, 1593076592 (ISBN), August 2006, $12.95

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David Lloyd's Kickback-Driven Site
Dark Horse on Kickback

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