As a rather fabulous start to the panel spotlighting creator Alan Davis’ work at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the writer/artist was awarded a CCI Inkpot Award in comic art.
“That was a surprise,” Davis exclaimed, as he took a seat amidst a roar of applause. “I don’t have anything to promote or any axes to grind, so I’m here to answer any questions anyone would like to ask…”
An audience member opened by asking a simple question about Davis’ process: “I’ve seen duplications of your detailed penciled pages. On average, how long would you say it takes you to do a penciled page?”
“It really depends on the storytelling,” Davis explained. I don’t like to do drawings that don’t tell a story. The only real problem I have is symmetry, so I try not to draw faces head on.
“When I first started working professionally on comics doing ‘Captain Britain’ and ‘D.R. & Quinch’ I was doing 36 pages a month, but that was too much,” Davis continued. “Now If I can do a page a day I’m happy.”
Next up was a question from a “ClanDestine” reader. “One of your characters [Newton] looks like Woody Allen. Is that intentional?”
“Yes, and Gracie is George Burns,” Davis explained, noting that the practice is something he does fairly often. “When I was trying to do those individual characters I thought I’d make them look like real world people. I didn’t think anyone would notice, it is just a way to retain them in my memory. That’s just how I operate. When I draw Wolverine, I imagine two or three people and it keeps it straight it my mind.”
“Why did you redesign Captain Britain’s costume the way that you did?” asked another audience member.
“It was my first professional work and I didn’t really think it was a big deal,” Davis said. “I looked at one or two images, the idea of the helmet instead of a mask, etc. Then I just handed it in… with two or three turkeys to pad it out.” He ruminated on what would happened if things had gone differently. “I don’t know what would have happened if they had picked one of the turkeys!”
“I always liked the Fury,” commented an audience member on the Captain American villain designed by Davis. He inquired about Davis’ approaching with his design.
“It was always meant to be a homage to the ‘Alien’ [movie] creature, it was very generic. But I think the things that are scariest have no face,” Davis said. “So I started drawing a man-shaped thing with sensors instead of a face. You just keep at it until you feel like you’ve made something that works.”
An audience member asked about the role of fantasy in Davis’ work on “Excalibur.”
Davis explained that he “comes from a European background where historical comics are bigger than superhero comics. I also like American comics so there is a sort of fusion. But I do like things to have a logic, and that is where magic or occult comes in. I think that it is grounded in those two camps.”
One audience member admitted his question might be slightly awkward before asking, “Was Bryan Hitch a protege of yours?”
“Naah…” Davis answered. “He claims to be one, but he isn’t. I never worked with him. He swiped some things from me, but I don’t know his work.” Davis’ candid response elicited a reaction of surprise and amusement from the audience as they processed this information.
Another “ClanDestine” fan wanted to know if the team would be making more appearances in the future.
“The ‘Fantastic Four,’ ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Wolverine’ annuals are all coming out featuring the ClanDestine, but that’s it,” Davis said, blaming his full schedule for part of the reason the team would not be more prevalent. “I’ve agreed to do a five issue arc of ‘Captain America,’ but I only just agreed to that.” The audience murmured with much excitement at this news.
Davis returned the conversation to “ClanDestine, expressing his feelings about the project’s inception. “I was surprised they let me do them in the first place. I didn’t think it was going to take off because the world has changed so much. None of the ClanDestine are nasty, they’re just out to have a nice life and a good time.
“I had asked that Marvel didn’t use them [in the wider Marvel Universe.] I was frightened of the fact that the ClanDestine would be popping up everywhere, that they’d be gradually integrated into the Marvel Universe. If I got great powers, I’d say sod the responsibility… that was the idea behind the ‘ClanDestine.'” Davis continued. “If you got powers, I don’t think you’d necessarily be a great superhero, you’d just hide out and take care of yourself. They’re being clandestine, so the idea of them turning up in the Marvel Universe made no sense.”
After praising his cover work over the years, an audience member wanted to know what Davis still wanted to do that he’d not yet been able to.
For Davis, there was only one answer. “I’d like to do ‘John Carter of Mars,’ but at the time when I asked, they let me do ‘Killraven’ instead, which worked. Other than that, no. Most of the comic characters at Marvel and DC I’ve been able to do. I feel incredibly lucky to do all these characters that I did have such a passion for when I was a child.” He added later that, although he has touched on them, he would like to get a chance to draw “Black Orchid,” “Deadman” and “The Creeper.”
Like the “ClanDestine” fans, the “Excalibur” fans in the audience were keen to see Davis return to their favorite book, asking if he’d be interested in another run on the Marvel title.
“Chris Claremont actually asked me and I said that if he was behind it, I would,” Davis revealed. “Nothing ever came of it, but I’d like to.”
An audience member then asked about the most challenging aspects of Davis’ work.
Davis confessed that challenges can be random. “There are times when I’ve broken out in a cold sweat. For example, in the third issue of ‘The Nail,’ when super Jimmy Olsen and Kal-El first meet, I couldn’t get it right. I finally realized that the problem wasn’t with the art, but the story and the splash page had to come later on,” Davis said. “Usually that is how it is; the problem is when the writer part of my brain is fighting with the artist part of my brain.”
In response to whether there are any current writers he wants to work with, Davis responded that he was “very out of touch with current comics. There are a lot of modern comics that bore me because they’re too violent.”
Davis couldn’t remember his first ever comic book, but said “the comics I remember most fondly from a very young age had characters like ‘Dan Dare’ and ‘The Steel Claw.’ When I first saw American comics they were reprints in black and white, things like ‘Thor’ and the ‘Fantastic Four,’ I just absorbed everything as a kid. I do particularly remember seeing Wally Wood’s ‘Daredevil,’ then Neal Adams on ‘X-Men’ — I just couldn’t believe it.
“It was when I was away in the Boy Scouts for two weeks and I had pocket money to buy sweets. I spent it on comics, then had to spend two weeks protecting them from the rain and the other scouts,” Davis continued. “In fact, I got beat up because I wouldn’t let one of the other of the scouts read them.”
“Were you the first person to draw Betsy Braddock?” a fan asked, still laughing at Davis’ last answer. Davis said he wasn’t, “but she hadn’t been seen much and so there was no continuity to fit in with.”
“You use a pencil, but how do you feel about the use of computers and technology?” asked an audience member about Davis’ tools as an artist.
“With technology you sometimes impress yourself with the technology and not the technique. You can take all sorts of short cuts that allow you to fill a page, populate a panel… The thing I enjoy about using a pencil and paper is that there are no limitations,” Davis said. “Initially I don’t use reference, I only use it to solve problems that come up. If the tools are the tools you feel most comfortable with, that’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be better, just easier or faster.”
Asked about his inspirations, Davis replied, “I just enjoy doing it. It is something that I have a great enthusiasm for. It is problems solving to make it real in my head, and then make it real in someone else’s head. I just find it fascinating.”
A questioner wanted to know if Davis had plans for Rachel Summers that he never got to execute on ‘Excalibur.’ Davis explained that he felt that storyline was complete, adding, “The last story was to separate her from the Phoenix force. I can’t remember what the rationale was, I think it was something to do with the rest of the X-titles.”
“Is the British invasion over?” asked an audience member, to much laughter.
Davis fired back his disingenuous answer: “I don’t know that there was any invasion. I was invited,” eliciting much laughter and applause. “Maybe I’m a collaborator rather than an invader.”
“How did ‘Excalibur’ begin?” asked a fan.
“I had nothing to do with it; it was Claremont’s idea. Actually I was really nervous, but he kept pushing it. Finally he told me that ‘Captain Britain’ and Megan [were] in it, so that was the hook.
“At the same time I’d had a falling out with DC. They offered me a humor book and I said that I don’t do humor. But they said, ‘Yes you do. We’ve seen your Batman.'” Davis continued as the audience responded with angry gasps. Davis laughed and amiably explained that DC did mean that as a compliment, in that his own perspective on the title was a little more comedic in their view. “So my role in things was to bring that wacky and weird perspective to ‘Excalibur.'”
Another artist in the audience wanted to know about how Davis chooses to break down a page.
Davis began by citing two different styles of script writers. “Chris Claremont used to give me this stream of consciousness plot and I just couldn’t figure out how to rationalize it. So eventually I realized I had to forget about the plot and just see the story. You just have these random ideas thrown at you, but when you let them percolate through your mind, it would suddenly make sense to you. That’s something I’ve continued to do; familiarize myself with the story and then try to break it down.
“You’ve got around 22 pages, on each pager there are between 1 and 6-7 panels on a page, so in total you’ve got maybe 100-150 panels you can play around with. At this point it gets to be technical… but not problematic,” Davis continued. “With trying to do different layouts, in British comics we didn’t use grids so much, there were a lot of artists like Frank Bellamy who threw that out the window. So I try not to look at the story as a series of cinematic panels, but like a strip of music where each page forms a chord. You have to remember that even the most experienced comic book reader doesn’t just read panels one after another, they see the full spread, so you have to create an energy, an impression for the whole spread.”
Asking about original work from Davis, an audience member asked, “Is there a Davis-verse waiting to get out?”
“Nah…” Davis replied. “I just feel lucky to have [gotten] to deal with the characters that I’ve [gotten] to deal with.”
Beyond his writing, an audience wanted to know about Davis’ experience working from other people’s scripts, asking if there was anything he wished writers would do better or more often.
“Some writers are very visual, some aren’t,” Davis said. “Sometimes they ask you to do something that they’ve seen you do before. Mike Barr was the most visual writer I’ve ever seen. Claremont was entirely loose. Horses for courses, there’s no right or wrong.”
In reference to his future ambitions, Davis said, “What I enjoy is having a good story. Sometimes I feel quite lazy because I’ve got characters that I’ve been able to draw quite easily. I don’t want to do the ‘rubber stamping it,’ i.e. doing the same thing again and again. I’d like to do something different, that’s what keeps it fresh.”
An audience member had a question about Davis’ relationship with inker Mark Farmer, Davis had nothing but kind things to say. “Mark is REALLY good, I’d never diminish the work he does making me look good. We met at the Westiminster Mart years ago. There was a hierarchy in the cafeteria and the beginners were at one table. That was the place that I met Mark, when he was working with Mike Collins. When I started working in American comics I started working with Paul Neary, but then the situation changed and I thought of Mark Farmer. The main difference [between drawing pencils for them to ink] is that Neary tends to make things very square, whereas Farmer tends to make things more round, so I accommodate that.
“In terms of our work, Mark and I come from similar types of background, he’s very consistent, very dedicated, he’s not someone who cuts corners or misses things out if there’s a deadline. There’s an awful lot of back and forward,” Davis continued. “He knows that to tell the story, I want to make faces and hands a very specific way, the lines have to be the way that I’ve drawn them, because I’ve taken time to work out the body language. They are the crucial parts of the story.”
When asked about how he creates the solidity of his characters, Davis advised aspiring artists to avoid beginning by working from anatomy. “Simply, you draw the movement or the emotion, you never draw the figure, or you get bogged down in text books. Start drawing someone running, then add the muscles. If you learn how to draw the movement or the emotion, they have some kind of life to them. Once you start thinking that way, it becomes more fluid.”
As someone who once redesigned Captain America’s costume, an audience member wanted to know what Davis thought about the recent Captain America costume redesign.
“I prefer the classic costume,” Davis said candidly. “I don’t understand how adding a belt with pouches makes character more interesting.” The audience responded to his deadpan answer with laughter and applause.
The final question was about what Davis listens to and watches while he works.
“I tend to watch, well, listen to, a lot of TV when I’m working,” Davis answered. “I’ll have a box set of something and watch it 2-3 times before I actually see it because I’m working. I’m getting nostalgic, watching old shows, but I do like some American crime shows, like ‘NCIS,’ ‘The Closer’ — I’ll have those on. When it comes to reading, I’ve been reading the Titan reissues of ‘Dan Dare.’ Also I became a member of the Sidney Jordan ‘Jeff Hawk’ club. Sid Jordan was a big influence on me. Things like that, I tend to dig out, a lot of old comics. I get the ‘Showcase’ or ‘Essentials’ and read stuff I didn’t get or can’t remember.”