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Warren Pleece:

Life Sucks

Brighton-based Warren Pleece this year has two lengthy graphic novels out from US publishers. Clearly, he has come a long way since I first came across him. Back then, as part of our talent search for Escape Magazine, I used to check out art college degree shows and in 1986 I struck lucky. Among the Brighton Polytechnic graduates exhibiting at London’s Centre Point, I spotted someone who promised all the confident economy, caricatural portraiture and black-and-white bravura of Alex Toth, José Muñoz and Jordi Bernet rolled into one.

His publishing debut was a solo four-pager for Escape #13, our ‘I Loathe New York’  issue. In 1988, he wrote his own stuff but soon he teamed up with his brother Gary, who moved to Brighton and became the main scriptwriter on their self-published anthology, Velocity (the title perhaps a subconscious nod to Escape, as in ‘escape velocity’?). Something very special emerged here from the psychic understanding between two brothers, their darkly humorous storyworld laced with cultural references and social satire, but for some reason the mainstream industry preferred Warren as a solo illustrator to Los Bros Pleece in tandem.


Gary & Warren Pleece in 1989

True Faith in 1989 was Warren’s first big-time British break, producing seven pages in colour every two weeks for Crisis and working with fast-rising scallywag scribe Garth Ennis. Tapping into Garth’s loathing of the Catholic church, this deliberately provocative demolition job on organised religion and stinging satire showing how easily faith can become fanaticism stirred up some controversy. Some bright spark sent Mary Whitehouse’s pressure group the collected graphic novel and not surprisingly they went ballistic. Rather than stand by their product, however, Fleetway, headed by Robert Maxwell, pulled the books from the shelves, not the first time the company would cave in to outsiders’ demands. In 1997, however, when DC reissued it in the States, not a murmur of protest was heard.

DC/Vertigo and Dark Horse have been Warren’s principal American publishers to date, where he collaborated with fellow Brits Grant Morrison on The Invisibles, Jamie Delano on Hellblazer: Bad Blood, and Peter Milligan on Vertigo Pop: London. Other oddball projects included Skin Graft with Jerry Prosser, involving, would you believe, Green Lantern’s old enemy The Tattooed Man, and the unusually slow-paced Kinetic, part of DC’s Focus line of real-world superheroes, written by Kelley Puckett. Forced to choose, Warren rates as his best US series the post-apocalyptic Mod eco-thriller Deadenders, which he pencilled for writer Ed Brubaker.

One unusual homegrown collaboration came in 1996 with Neil Gaiman for the collection It’s Dark In London edited for Serpent’s Tail by Oscar Zarate. Set in Earl’s Court, The Court delves into the underworld dealings of an impossibly wealthy gangster obsessed with owning beauty and willing to pay a mysterious wandering sect any price to buy the ravishing youth they have raised. This intriguing, magic-realist noir fantasy is reprinted this summer in the Mammoth Book Of Best Crime Comics which I’ve edited and Peter Stanbury has designed. Advance copies should be on sale at the Comica event on June 11th!

Which brings us to Warren’s strong double-bill out this year. Incognegro is a 136-page Vertigo hardback, published in the UK by Titan Books, written by award-winning author Mat Johnson. It’s a political period piece about a black newspaper reporter in the Thirties, Zane Pinchback, who is able to pass for white and infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan to expose the perpetrators of their horrific lynchings. Incognegro is the pseudonym he uses to write his exposés. His secret identity threatens to be blown when he tries to rescue his brother, framed and facing execution for the murder of a white woman in Mississippi.

Johnson himself grew up as a black boy who looked white. Later he found inspiration from the history of Walter White (1893-1955), the aptly named African-American head of the National Assocation for the Advancement of Coloured People, who would go undercover to investigate racist lynchings. As well as packing a neat twist ending, Johnson includes another form of "passing" from this period, that of a woman who disguises herself as a man so she can "live without limitations". Incognegro is the sort of substantial challenge which Warren rises to so well. He illustates Johnson’s narrative with clarity and conviction, proving his skilled draughtsmanship of compelling, individualised characters, whether black, white or mulatto, and all appropriately in bold black and white.

His other brand new book is Life Sucks (First Second), a funny and original 192-page colour album which manages to take the mickey out of the whole gloomy goth youth cult and come up with a fresh take on the rather played-out vampire schtick. Imagine Shaun Of The Dead but with vampires in Los Angeles and you get the idea. Co-writers Jessica Abel, a graphic novelist herself and author of La Perdida (Pantheon), and Gabe Soria come up with young Dave Miller, a vegetarian wuss-turned-vampire who gets queasy at the mention, let alone the sight, of blood, forced to work nights in The Last Stop convenience store for his 450-year old Romanian lord and master who “made” him his vampire slave. On top of mundane problems like “I’ll never be tan again”, or having to hold your nose to drink your bottle of plasma from the fridge, Dave has to compete with buffed psychotic surfer-vamp Wes for mortal Rosa, the goth latina he pines for. Though the blood gets sucked mostly out of view, this is the sharpest (ouch!) teen rom-com in ages, its laugh-out-loud repartee laced with some delicious schlock-horror scares.


Self-portrait by Warren Pleece

Paul Gravett:
Did your parents know your name sounded like War and Peace? I’m sure I read this on Wikipedia once but it got removed!

Warren Pleece
Actually, they didn’t! My English teacher often called me his little Tolstoy, though.

I can still remember spotting your work at a degree show in Centre Point?

That was the summer of 1986. I’d been studying Illustration at Brighton Polytechnic and a little after we’d had our degree show in Brighton, everything was moved up to show at Centre Point. I guess it was a way of reaching a wider audience and potential clients, which it did for me because you came along!

Did you have any gripes from tutors for creating comics while at art school?

My tutor actually encouraged me to develop my sketch-book film-noiry scribbles into a proper comic strip for the final degree project. Raymond Briggs was a tutor on our course at the time, but not mine unfortunately.

I saw you as a sort of British Alex Toth or Jordi Bernet or José Muñoz, almost right away - but did any of these guys infuence you or did you only discover them later?

The first time I heard about these artists was when someone called Paul Gravett jotted something down in my degree show comments book and then from subsequent meetings with yourself and other people drawing comics. If I’d known who you were talking about at the time, I probably would’ve been extremely proud that someone thought my style was anything like their’s, even though my comic strips then were naive and rough round the edges. Later, I became more familiar with their work and really liked their style, but even though I admire them, I think the seeds of what I was doing was already there. We all just like slapping on the ink in big splodges.

So did ANY comics inspire you growing up or later at at school?

I was reading your basic British kids comics, everything from Whizzer and Chips, Tiger, Warlord, Action and 2000AD, with the occasional Marvel reprint. 2000AD was probably the biggest influence on me as a 12 year old into science fiction at the time. The first time I became aware of different artists and different styles. People like Brian Bolland. Later, I discovered French artists like Moebius and underground American comix by Crumb and Corben, but that was mostly from a book I bought when I was 15. I was a bit wide-eyed and clueless as to what there was around then.

Were B&W films more of an influence on you than comics really?

Even though I read comics as a kid, I was really inspired by old black and white films I’d see late on a Friday night. Everything from classic British flicks to artsy fartsy French new-wave and gritty film noir. I was about 16, 17, doing a foundation course in general art and design at Epsom art college and I was getting into art, music, bands and films in a big way. Comics have always been there in the background, but I’ve never relied on them solely for inspiration.

Was Escape the first place you got published?

Yep. Thanks for that. It’s all your fault.

How do you and Gary get on, writing and drawing your strips together?

Me and Gary started working together when he came down to live in Brighton, about 1987. He’d been writing stories, I was starting to draw comics and it just came together. We were both on the enterprise allowance scheme at the time, basically an excuse to get people with a vague job idea off the unemployment figures, but it gave us a chance to produce the first few Velocity‘s. At first, Gary was writing prose and the occasional script, I’d write and draw everything else like The Higsons, but as we went on we collaborated more on stories like Scurvy and Dead Souls and then, as we went on, Gary would be writing most of the scripts and the regular short story.

What was the genesis and aims of Velocity?

There was no real manifesto for creating Velocity. We incorporated things in our stories that we liked and hated; film noir/ crappy posy bands etc. The one thing we did want to do, though, was to create something good, that stood out. We made sure Velocity was always printed well, or as well as we could afford, so it wasn’t like a fanzine and it wouldn’t look out of place next to the mainstream stuff. People often asked us "how we did it?", like we had some magic recipe, but the answer was simply that we didn’t think too much about it. Idiot enthusiasm maybe, but it worked.


Native New Yorkers from Escape #13 (1988) by Gary & Warren Pleece

I tend to see everything relating to Escape, but it just struck me that ‘Escape Velocity’ is an actual term?

I never really thought about the similarity of Velocity to Escape, but I suppose there’s something in it. Velocity implies urgency, speed and dynamism (probably all the personal traits I was lacking in my life at the time). It sounds good, it’s one word and people remember it. I guess that’s what you want from a title.

What film directors and writers do you both find inspiring?

We took a lot of inspiration from all over the shop, everything from films, books, tv, music. We were both fans of Hitchcock, Ealing Studios, Powell and Pressburger, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Sergio Leone, 60s and 70s French and American cinema, Monty Python etc. Maybe we had differing tastes in writers, but we always met in the middle and being brothers can be a help with the old psychic communication thing.


Montague Terrace
from Velocity #6
by Gary & Warren Pleece

True Faith in Crisis written by Garth Ennis was a big break - how did you cope?

True Faith was my first big job off the back of Velocity. I had to produce 7 pages in colour every 2 weeks, which considering my previous work rate, was quite a handful for me at the time, but I always seemed to make it just before the deadline.

How did you feel about the shift to colour?

Working in colour was fine. At art college, I’d painted a lot with acrylics; life studies and landscapes, so it was nice to have the opportunity to transfer colour to comics, something I did for my first DC jobs.


True Faith
by Garth Ennis & Warren Pleece

And what about the anti-religion themes? Weren’t their complaints about this series?

Apart from the attraction of a properly paid job, True Faith was a good edgy script that I took to right away. I probably didn’t have the venom that Garth had about religion and didn’t want to shoot my sports teachers in the head or burn churches, but then I’m not Garth Ennis.

Mary Whitehouse‘s pressure group got wind of it once the PR at Fleetway sent them a copy of the graphic novel, collected from the original Crisis series: for a laugh? Who knows? They in turn complained to Robert Maxwell, the then publisher, who in turn made sure it was pulled from the shelves. After all that fiasco, it was good that DC took it up years later. I still get a small royalty from it every now and then.


Crisis #29, 31, 41 & 49

covers by Warren Pleece

Of your considerable output for the US mainstream - DC and Dark Horse mainly - what stands out to you as work your proudest of and why?

I’m very critical of my own stuff and often when I look back on previous work, I just see all the crappy bits; the wonky faces, the rubbish hands, etc. I also find it hard to single out one in particular. Sometimes the best stories I worked on involved the least input from me, like just being a penciller for Deadenders. I’m probably happiest with my latest work: Life Sucks and Incognegro because, like my earlier work, I had a greater input into how it came out in the end. I’m always trying to improve something. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.

What lessons did you learn dealing with American writers and publishers?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to make a living from what I do most of the time and that’s thanks to DC and the American comic industry. If I’d relied solely on British publishers, I’d be doing something else, which is a shame, because there’s a lot of vision and talent over here. It would be nice to be able to work on something closer to home and maybe without that American accent. That was my basic inspiration for Master Twaddlethwaite’s Malaise in Velocity #6, inspired by my time living in the States and seeing how our country is viewed through a period costume gauze. Maybe I’m just a Brit-Thesp at heart, slumming it until the next Charles Dickens turns up.

Were you ever expected to do some mainstream penance and say draw a Batman? If not, would you?

I was asked to draw for a mainstream super-hero comic once, until someone in the higher echelons found out and promptly got me taken off. All those wonky faces and British teeth, see. I wouldn’t mind given the opportunity, but at the same time, I’m much more interested in telling a different story and I think there’s something intrinsically warped about the constant obsession with so called "super-hero’s".


Deadenders

by Ed Brubaker & Warren Pleece

Ed Brubaker, how did your work with him go?

I liked working with Ed on Deadenders. It was a good story and well told and even when we had to suddenly cut it short, he managed to wrap things up with skill and a certain poignancy. Because he was a cartoonist himself, he had a lot of understanding of the whole process and was always really encouraging, which helps when you’re spending all this time on your own creating something you’re not sure looks any good or that anyone’s going to like. Mostly I seem to have contact with writers solely by e-mail, which is fine, but Ed always made a point of phoning and chatting, which makes a nice change. Who knows, maybe I’ll even meet some of these writers one day.

I recently put you two back in touch. Do you see the possibility of collaborating again?

I’d like that. He’s pretty successful now, which he deserves. Who knows if that’d happen?

Take me through the highlights since Deadenders.

After Deadenders, I worked mostly drawing layouts and pencils with the ever talented Philip Bond on some good projects you may or may not have missed for Vertigo like The Invisibles (I forget which issues) by Grant Morrison, Hellblazer: Bad Blood by Jamie Delano and Vertigo Pop: London by Peter Milligan. Deadenders is still probably the best US series I worked on, even though working on the pencils for a monthly title, I couldn’t have complete control over the artwork (megalomaniac or what?).

In between those and the new books just released, I did some illustration and comic work for the Horrible Histories magazine for kids, Kinetic for DC and the series Second City Blues for 2000AD, all good fun to do in different ways. The kids’ stuff because what isn’t fun about drawing double- page spreads of historic battles; Kinetic because I was back to doing all the drawing myself and it had a pace you don’t usually see in contemporary American comics (probably why it was pulled in the end); and Second City Blues (Rollerball in Birmingham) because it was a kind of childhood ambition to draw for 2000AD (26 years later) and I got to colour stuff in on the computer (debatable as to how successfully that worked out), but still good to have the opportunity.


Life Sucks
by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria & Warren Pleece

You have two mammoth original graphic novels come out this year. How did your collaboration on Life Sucks start off? What appealed about this project?

My good friend Nick Abadzis put me onto Life Sucks because he knew

Jessica Abel. Jessica and Gabe Soria, along with Mark Siegel at First Second Books, were looking for a suitable artist to draw it and I was "in between jobs", so to speak. I really liked the idea, which is basically a Thirties-style screwball comedy, teenage-vampire, indie-flick horror, er, comedy. Mark Siegel at First Second is also a really nice bloke with an amazing enthusiasm for what they’re doing and the whole genre of comics and I liked their whole attitude and outlook. Their artists roster is pretty hot, too.


Life Sucks
by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria & Warren Pleece

How did the work go with Jessica Abel, a writer-artist herself?

Jessica was really good to work with, because like Ed Brubaker, she’s essentially an artist/ creator herself and she knows what she wants. We had a lot of contact and she sent me a lot of reference and ideas for the characters which were indispensable. Her enthusiasm, along with Gabe’s and Mark’s, helped me a lot while I was drawing Life Sucks. I even got to meet her!


Incognegro
by Matt Johnson & Warren Pleece

I also enjoyed your Vertigo graphic novel Incognegro written by Mat Johnson, a powerful period piece about a black man able to pass for white and infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan to expose the perpetrators of their horrific lynchings in the Thirties.

As far as I was concerned, I was really glad to work on projects with more meat and substance than I had for a while. Life Sucks and Incognegro are completely different, but both are really good stories with an original take. For me, drawing each one had its own distinctive challenges, but then that’s what it’s all about.


Incognegro
by Matt Johnson & Warren Pleece

So what can we look forward to from you later this year?

Apart from hoping to get Velocity collected this year, I’m going to be doing an American Splendor strip with Harvey Pekar (!) and Vertigo and I’ve been busy writing/sketching some original stuff, myself and with Gary: Montague Terrace. That kind of started in our last Velocity, but like a lot of things me and Gary did in the past, it wasn’t planned properly. Years later and hungry to rekindle the creative spirit of Velocity we came back to the original idea because there was loads of potential for dozens of stories all glued together with the crumbling mortar of one decrepit building. This time there’s more cohesion to the stories and how they relate to each other. I think it’s going to be our best work yet. It’s actually set in London, though probably as inspired by Brighton and it’s characters as anywhere else. People should be able to see snippets and teasers on our web-site soon.

WARREN PLEECE SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Original Graphic Novels:
Life Sucks with Jessica Abel & Gabe Soria (2008)
Incognegro with Matt Johnson (2008)

Comics:
Kinetic #1-8 with Kelley Pucket (2004-5)
Vertigo Pop: London #1-4 with Peter Milligan (2003)
Deadenders #1-16 with Ed Bruebaker (2000-1)
Hellblazer: Bad Blood #1-4 with Jamie Delano (2000)
The Invisibles Vol 3 #11-9 with Grant Morrison (1999)
2020 Visions #2-6 with Jamie Delano (1997)
Mobfire #1-6 with Gary Ushaw (1994)
Skin Graft #1-4 with Jerry Prosser (1993)
Velocity #1-6 with Gary Pleece (1987-89)

Anthology Stories:
2nd City Blues in 2000AD #1420-31 with Kek-W (2005)
The Court in It’s Dark In London with Neil Gaiman (1996)
Chicken Run in Crisis #49 with Gary Pleece (1990)
Brighton Gas in Crisis #41 with Gary Pleece (1990)
Leone Ryder in A1 #3 with Gary Pleece (1990)
True Faith in Crisis #29-38 with Garth Ennis (1989-90)
70s Cop in Escape #19 with Gary Pleece (1989)
Swing Bernie, Swing in Sinister Romance #4 (1989)
Betrand de Plastique in Sinister Romance #3 (1988)
No Place Like Home in Sinister Romance #2 (1988)
Compulsion in Sinister Romance #1 (1988)
Bum! in Escape #16 with Gary Pleece (1988)
Native New Yorkers in Escape 13 with Gary Pleece (1988) Posted: May 25, 2008

Part of this article first appeared during May 2008 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.

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Life Sucks
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