It’s kind of a rough time for British comics. We’ve traditionally produced weekly anthology books, predominantly humor books aimed at youngsters or pioneering science fiction; unfortunately all but the top few books were forced to cease due to declining popularity.
A knock-on effect of this has been that the numerous talented British comic writers and artists have been forced to ply their trade overseas exclusively. This hasn’t been the case with artist/writer Robert Deas however, who has managed to be one of the very few British creators to have created a gainful and prosperous position in what is left of the British market as well as attaining work overseas.
Cutting his teeth, as so many do these days, on his own webcomic, Robert went on to illustrate a number of classic literary graphic adaptations, which always prove popular in school libraries and beyond, and has recently created his own characters and stories for comics that are attempting to rejuvenate the British comic industry.
At the moment the publication called The Phoenix is making a valiant effort and seeing some success, and in the pages of which Robert’s latest creation, Troy Trailblazer, makes regular appearances. Troy is a sci-fi based boy’s own adventure series in the tradition of Tintin, Indiana Jones and Buck Rogers and is an obvious high point in the pages of The Phoenix both artistically and narratively.
Robert was good enough to talk to Fanboy Confidential about Troy Trailblazer and his career to date.
Fanboy Confidential: The Phoenix represents the comeback of British Anthology comics aimed directly at children and is currently enjoying a successful run. How were you approached to work in The Phoenix, what did you think of the attempt to recapture a presumed lost medium and what are your impressions of the comic now?
Robert Deas: I was approached on the back of my work in the DFC, The Phoenix‘s forerunner. I had a Science Fiction strip in there called Spectrum Black. Ben and Will (The Phoenix editors) were keen for me to submit some new ideas for The Phoenix. I’m all for trying to bolster the popularity of comics in the UK so I was keen to be involved and I think the comic is going from strength to strength week after week!
FC: Was your strip, Troy Trailblazer, an idea that you already had or was it specifically engineered for The Phoenix?
RD: Well, initially I pitched a long form story idea called Kid Olympus, which is about a young boy who can take on the form and harness the power of the Greek Gods (Think Ben 10 but with but with Greek Gods instead of aliens). I thought it was really cool but they didn’t feel it was quite right for The Phoenix so that kind of got put to one side. They then asked me to submit an idea for a 4 page stand alone story as all of their long form slots had been filled by this time.
Troy Trailblazer was an old idea but it was very different from the strip you see now in the pages of The Phoenix. I had a short adventure strip that I was originally going to submit to the DC Comics competition website called Zuda but when that went under my idea kind of got lost in the dark reaches of my computer’s hard drive. I decided to dust it off and take another look at it. The original character was a lot older and called Adam Ventura but the core idea was there, an Astro-Archaeologist scouring the universe for alien artifacts. What I had already formed was the basis for my first Troy adventure, The Jewel of Andromeda.
Me and Will Fickling (My editor), discussed all sorts of ways to bash it into shape. Firstly I made the character a young boy to appeal to the target audience. Troy also had a butler in my original script who would stay on the ship and provide backup from afar. He got ditched in favour of sidekicks who accompany him on his adventures and so Barrus and Blip were born. The name change came later. I was reluctant at first but glad we changed it.
FC: Do you find you have to pull in more complex ideas that you might have for the Troy Trailblazer stories to make them more accessible to a younger audience?
RD: Will has to rein me in sometimes. Not because my ideas are too complex as such but because I want to tell too much story all the time. I wanted to do a full-on origin story when we were planning The Creation Stone saga but we eventually agreed that sort of stuff doesn’t matter and isn’t the core appeal of Troy. Troy is all about maximum bang-for-your-buck-action-and-adventure. It’s not about complex story threads and convoluted plot lines.
FC: What adventure stories did you most enjoy as a youngster, in whatever medium, and which inspire you now?
RD: I’m a kid of the 80’s so a lot of my inspiration comes from classic Saturday Morning Cartoons like He-Man, Thundercats, Ulysses 31, Transformers, Mask, Action Force [editor’s note: Action Force is what G.I Joe was renamed here in the UK, us British kids being gleefully unaware of what a G.I actually is]. I was a sucker for the whole action figure/cartoon crossover thing and that’s definitely carried over to my work. Whenever I start designing new characters I was always ask myself “Would this guy make a cool action figure?” If the answer’s ‘no’ it’s back to the drawing board.
I grew up with Star Wars and Indiana Jones too and there’s lots of that stuff in Troy. I wear my inspirations on my sleeve and am quite unapologetic about it. In my teenage years it was all about anime and manga. When I first saw Akira at the age of 13 it absolutely blew me away. Back then there was nothing else like it in the UK and I think that film and the manga really cemented my desire to become a comic artist.
Nowadays, Even at the age of 33 I’m still a sucker for a good Saturday morning cartoon, I love Ben 10 but my favourite show of the moment has to be Tron: Uprising.
FC: You’ve worked on a few graphic literary adaptations in recent years, how much does the working process differ from working on your own material?
RD: The biggest difference is that I don’t write the scripts. On those books my job is purely visual. From a day-to-day page creation point of view it’s pretty much the same and I still have to design the characters and all that stuff. Pride and Prejudice was a little different though. I had to soften my line work and tone down my big bold colours for that project. I took it on as a challenge to push myself. I used a combination of photographic backgrounds and pencil linework to create it’s own visual identity and I was pretty pleased with the final product.
FC: Can you briefly run us through your process of creating a page of art?
RD: I work completely digitally using a Wacom Cintiq 21UX hooked up to a 3-year-old iMac. I draw all my linework in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, use 3D models created in Google Sketchup as the basis for my backgrounds and vehicles and bring it all together in Photoshop which I use to colour and letter the final page.
FC: How did your career as a professional comics creator begin and what would be your single most important piece of advice for those wanting to break in to the industry?
RD: My big break came in 2006 when I entered my old webcomic Instrument of War into the IMAF comics competition. My entry came second. I went down to the awards giving ceremony in London and met up with ILYA who was currently putting together The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga 2 and he asked me if I’d like to be in it. I of course said yes and submitted my science fiction, Espionage thriller November and that went on to be my first bit of published work. That then lead on to Manga Shakespeare Macbeth, which in turn brought me to the attention of the folks at the DFC, which ultimately lead me to where I am now.
The single most important piece of advice is never give up, keep drawing and if you’re struggling to get publishers to look at your work, get it on the internet and get yourself noticed that way. That’s what I did.
FC: What would you consider to be a particular high point in your career to date and why?
RD: It’s got to be Troy. For a comic artist there’s nothing better than working on your own strip. I’m really proud of it and absolutely love every part of the creative process involved in brining it to the pages of The Phoenix.
FC: Which artists and creators do you most draw inspiration from?
RD: In the 90’s it was all about Katsuhiro Otomo, Frank Miller, Jim Lee, Todd Mcfarlane. I don’t particularly draw like those guys but they were definitely a huge inspiration back in the day. Nowadays I’d say Darwyn Cooke is a huge influence. I’m not in the same league but I do love his stuff. And do you know what? The other guys in The Phoenix are a huge inspiration too. I think everyone who contributes to The Phoenix really works their butts off to produce the best work they can muster and it really pushes you to do the same.
FC: Given the opportunity, which pre-existing character or property would you most like to work on in comics?
RD: Batman. Hands down, no contest!
Fanboy Confidential thanks Robert for his participation in this interview. If you want to see more of his artwork or buy his books check out his excellent website, and while you’re at it check out The Phoenix, now available to read digitally.