Steen on Ricky Gervais's "Flanimals" & Richard Starkings' "Elephantmen"

Comic book artist Rob Steen has made a career out of creating art and music in obscurity. As a guitarist working in the British music industry in the early nineties, Steen was a member of The Cure spinoff bands you've never heard of, The Presence and Babacar, bands that released exactly one album each. However, it was Steen's friendship with "The Office" and "Extras" co-creator Ricky Gervais that thrust him into the limelight of more prominent obscurity as the co-creator of Ricky Gervais's line of family favorite children's books, "Flamimals."

More recently, Steen colored "Strange Embrace" for Image Comics, co-created "Afterlife" for TOKYOPOP, illustrated a "Chronicles of Wormwood" one-shot written by Garth Ennis, and this week he's the guest artist on the latest issue of Richard Starkings's Image monthly, "Elephantmen" #12. CBR invited Starkings to sit down with Gervais's "baked bean-headed New York chum" Rob Steen to talk about his ever expanding track record in comics and the future of "Flanimals" in books and film.

By Richard Starkings of Comicraft

Richard Starkings: Rob, you're looking a bit hot and bothered, how's the weather in New York?

Rob Steen: It's 98 degrees and I'm melting. That's my excuse for no new pages today.

I hear that you've been keeping cool by throwing drinks over yourself.

Oh no, I see you've been reading Ricky's blog . His version of events are different than everyone else. Of course, the truth is he knocked the drinks on me.

You're talking about Ricky Gervais, obviously, the star of "The Office" and "Extras." He describes you as his "baked bean-headed New York chum," can you explain to us the vast complexities of your relationship and how this led to you being the famously unknown artist on his book series for children, "Flanimals?"

He's also stated that I have a pear-shaped head, which is also untrue. He's obsessed with the shape of people's heads. This would be a good time to point out that his isn't the most normal looking. I've known Ricky for over 20 years. We originally started working on "Flanimals" about 15 years ago but publishers thought it was too weird for a children's book. Once he became internationally famous, they seemed to change their mind. We've now done four books in the series and there's a movie in the works with Universal.

How come you're slumming with the likes of me on "Elephantmen?" Fed up with all the fame and celebrity and megabucks children's books have rained down on you?

Fame and celebrity? Someone forgot to tell me. Most people think Ricky draws the books as well. "Elephantmen" and "Hip Flask" have been a part of my life for many years, from my humble beginnings at Comicraft, putting together the "Hip Flask" hardcovers to finally drawing this issue of "Elephantmen." Though it's a bit scary following on from the brilliant work of Ladrönn and Moritat. Hopefully you won't get too many letters of complaint -- don't tell me if you do.

Who were your favorite comic book creators when you were but a wee pear-shaped head? Comic book creators who have bought you pints of Guinness don't count, Rob.

My favorite creators were Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bernie Wrightson, John Buscema, Ramon Sola and Gil Kane to name a few. They never bought me Guinness. When I was young I used to think people like Frank Robbins were terrible, but now I think he was a genius. Why is that, Rich?

I think your work has an element of Frank Robbins, Rob, with a dash of the old EC comics. Were you a fan?

I'm not quite old enough to have been around for EC omics at the time. I was really into the Warren books like "Creepy" and "Eerie." Always loved the horror stuff.

How did your working relationship with Garth Ennis come about? Please don't say, "Over a pint of Guinness." Everyone that ever worked with Garth could say the same thing. Tell us the human side of the story!

Oh, the humanity. Yes, it was over a pint of Guinness. Isn't that how everything is done?

How disappointing was it to realize Garth was actually prepared to work with you?

Quite. I thought he had much higher standards.

You were just saving yourself for "Elephantmen," right?

That's right. Waiting to draw the dark twisted evil that came pouring from your mind.

I wrote dark and twisted because I know you so well, Rob! Plus, you have an English accent. And speaking of dark and twisted, tell us how you came to work for TOKYOPOP.

I used to do some design work for them, so when they announced they were going to do original books -- OEL -- I submitted a pitch for "Afterlife" with Sam "Stormcrow" Hayes and they accepted it. I'd drawn about 60 pages of volume 2 but was unable to continue due to schedule conflicts. Someone else was finishing it but I have no idea if it will ever see print after the recent shakeup at TOKYOPOP. Luis, the editor was one of the people they let go and no one's been in touch to update us. There were some great people at TOKYOPOP, but most have gone now.

Yes, including your lovely better half, Jill Freshney. Didn't you warn her about working in comics?

I did, but she can't stay away. She now works for First Second, who have put out some great books such as "Laika."

Yes, written and Illustrated by my old Marvel UK mucker, Nick Abadzis, a top indie talent. Interestingly enough, "Afterlife" was full of strange looking corridors that looked like intestinal walls, and dead people. "Elephantmen" #12 is also full of human remains and walking dead people -- is this a theme in your work?

I think it is. I seem to be fascinated with rotting organic matter. There's even some in "Flanimals." Is that bad?

"Flanimals" has, of course, been described as "Godless," not only by Christian observers on Amazon, but by Ricky himself. Rob, have you been abandoned by god? Is that the real reason England has been doing so badly in international football competitions, because god is punishing Rob Steen?

I have indeed been abandoned. I've got no explanation for England's failure in football other than we are a nation of "glorious losers."

I don't want you to pick a favorite, but how does working with me on "Elephantmen" compare to working with Ricky Gervais on "Flanimals" or Garth Ennis on "Chronicles of Wormwood?"

ROB:The only thing I can say in Ricky and Garth's favor is that they have more hair. So, you and I are ideally suited to work together.

That's true. Plus, neither of us have a private jet or a movie option in progress. Well, except you. How is the "Flanimals" animated feature coming along?

Slowly. Still trapped in the endless maze of legal negotiations. Hopefully, we're almost there.

Is there anywhere people can see clips?

Nothing yet. There is a clip from a proposed television series that never got off the ground, you can find it on the "Flanimals" MySpace page.

Will there be any more books? And any chance that your name might actually appear on the cover alongside Ricky's?

We're working on another book. It could be a pop-up book this time. My name is actually on the cover of the box set, which collects all four books. I've finally made it!

Of course, you're too busy with "Elephantmen" right now to work with movie stars. Tell us about the next issue you're working on.

The book I'm working on now is issue #17, which features Tusk, who I believe we last saw in #4. It's a tragic tale of a misunderstood monster and a little old lady. Plus, more of the terrible, terrible things from the writer's deranged mind.

I'm playing to your strengths -- as an artist you're clearly an expert in human misery. Tell us about your long and torturous involvement with Dave Hine's Gothic epic, "Strange Embrace."

As long as I can remember, I've been coloring "Strane Embrace." I think there have been three versions of Photoshop released since I started. It's one of my favorite graphic novels, so to have the opportunity to work on it was amazing. I just hope more people get a chance to read it.

What is it about "Strange Embrace" you found so appealing?

The flogging. Definitely the flogging.

On Ricky's own website -- you took advantage of his "Right to Reply" feature. You said...

I would like to respond to some of Ricky's recent blog reports that appear to represent me as some sort of charity case on his version of "Jim'll Fix It.

He has predicted for me that I will only live another ten years. He has also predicted that I will lose an eye. He likes to remind me of these two things quite frequently.

Ricky says that he's going to make my remaining years "the best yet." This weekend I asked for many things from him and none of them were to "hold a puppy" (though that did actually happen).

These are some of the things I did ask:

Stop trying to wrestle me in the middle of Central Park.

Stop rubbing the top of my head.

Stop choking me.

Stop taking photos of me while I'm eating.

Stop pulling out my chest hair.

Stop saying "You know what?" and then singing "...goes up, must come down" every time.

Stop washing your fingers in my glass of water.

Don't sit on me.

Don't tell waiters at restaurants, "He loves a little Creme Brulee."

Are there any conditions you'd like to list in regard to your upcoming work with me on "Elephantmen?"

All of the above apply to everyone I work with.

Ladies and gentleman, Mister Rob "The glass is always empty" Steen. This is Richard "The glass is always half-Welsh" Starkings signing off. It's creators like us that make you wonder how the British ever took over American comics, isn't it?

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.

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