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Tabula Rasa

David de Vries

An interview by David Carroll, February, 2002

The early to mid Eighties was a golden age of Australian comics, with all sorts of interesting stuff coming out for a variety of tastes, and with some true success stories. One of the key players was Dave de Vries, creator of The Southern Squadron and involved in both Phantastique and Cyclone!, before going on to prolific work in the US. I talked to Dave about his early influences, how he came up with Australias most iconic superhero group, some of the practicalities of publication, and how he took that experience overseas.

Before Comics

Tabula Rasa: Starting more or less chronologically, you were born in New Zealand I believe.

David de Vries: Yeah, I was born in Wellington, but I left when I was pretty young... five or six.

TR: Do you remember much about it?

Dave de VriesDdV: I have a pretty good memory of New Zealand, funnily enough. I've been back a few times, and my wife's a Kiwi -- not by design but by happenstance. I lived just out of Wellington in a place called Ngaio. Wellington's an interesting city. It's got a population of 300,000 but looks a lot bigger. And like a lot of New Zealand it's extremely hilly -- very like San Francisco. The town that I lived in was kind of like a suburb -- but in its own little valley. Living there, you're part of a small, isolated community, and yet also part of a city... all in one go. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why I like living where I am now. Tanunda is a town of 3,500 that's part of the Barossa Valley (with a general population of about 20,000). And the Barossa's just on the edge of Adelaide. From my front door to the GPO of Adelaide is only an hour's drive. Interestingly, without consciously trying to do so, it's as if I've recreated by place of birth.

As far as my New Zealand-ness goes... my wife says I'm more Aussie than people who were born here. When I emigrated, I lost my accent in about two days. (Kids that age are very quick to adapt to their surroundings.) I don't thing where you're born as being where your allegiances lie. You're more shaped by how you're raised. For example, Russell Crowe -- his story and mine are very similar. He also came over when he was six, and it's very obvious from his public pronouncements that he hasn't abandoned New Zealand as being relevant to him, but he sees himself as more of an Australian than a Kiwi. I've used New Zealand in some of my stories, and I'm not ashamed of my New Zealand-ness in any respect -- but when the Bledisloe Cup is on, my wife is very pro the All Blacks, and I'm pretty much for the Wallabies.

TR: There's quite a bit of rivalry with New Zealand in the Southern Squadron story where they visit.

DdV: Yes, I like to play with that a lot. I think Australia and New Zealand have a unique kinship, which is even stronger than Canada and America. While they have a lot in common too, they each have different political systems, and cultural goals and ambitions. In my experience it's the essential Britishness of both Australia and New Zealand that makes us far closer. Plus the fact that you can live in either country and not even have to become a citizen to claim unemployment benefits or any of the other perks of citizenship. Really, to be an Aussie in New Zealand or a Kiwi in Australia -- for all intents and purposes the two countries are one.

TR: Do you think that's going to move further apart, or closer together?

DdV: I've heard people talk about uniting us as one nation -- but I doubt it. I could see a monetary union: one currency, or pegging the dollars in some way. But there's enough differences between the two countries, particularly those derived from our indigenous cultures, to justify a healthy separation. Also, culture is often shaped by geography. New Zealand is colder than here, and is very like Scotland in look and feel. Australia is about as far away from Scotland as you can get.

TR: The inevitable question -- did you always want to be an artist?

DdV: I guess the short answer is "Yes". I did a painting degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. My parents were both university lecturers and there was never any serious question about whether or not I'd go to University. I went to a private Grammar school in Melbourne, Yarra Valley in the Eastern suburbs. I remember once when I was in Year 10 a mate said he was thinking of dropping out at the end of the year. I didn't even know people could do that! I just assumed it was compulsory that everybody went through to Year 12. In that respect I guess I had that rather narrow view of the world. My parents insisted I go to University, and since I didn't have a strong opinion one way or the other, I agreed. But I said I'd like to at least choose the course. They didn't care what I chose, so long as I went to Uni. So, in Year 11 I checked out the RMIT where my father was working -- he was lecturing as a surveyor. In Melbourne it had one of the best reputations for art. I looked around the various different art departments, and the one I liked the most was Graphics -- because it could lead to a career in advertising and that sort of thing. However, when I ran it past my high school art teacher he said that I was a natural painter, and instead I should try to get accepted for that. So during Year 12 I taught myself to paint from first principles. At the start of the year I didn't really know much about it -- but by the end I'd gotten together a good enough portfolio so that RMIT would give me the nod.

So I did my three years. I was always struck by the strong iconography of the portrait. In fact in my third year I did something rather unusual -- I had trouble finding people to pose for me so in the end I did a "Rembrandt" and just did self-portraits. It was much easier to just stick a mirror in the room and paint my own face. I don't think that had ever been done before in the course.

Introduction To Comics

In third year I became more and more interested in different graphic forms of image making. My painting style is, I guess, a little bit like Rubens -- but not as "nipple pink". Titian is another one. I like simple, strong iconic images in the portraits. And strong use of light and dark. (As I said, Rembrandt was a strong influence.) The same images that you get with comic book characters on covers... in-your-face, confronting, eyes forward -- with that wanky word we used in art school, "chiaroscuro" (that striking contrast black and white) -- a spotlight effect, movie-poster look. Consequently, it was during my stint in 3rd year that I found myself attracted to comics.

For some reason I sought out Batman. I think that was because when I first came to Australia the Adam West Batman series was all over the TV, and I fell in love with it. As a kid I thought it was the best thing in the world.

One thing that struck me was that all comic books were basically American. I guess it was the cultural cringe of that era. I started looking around to see if there were any Australian comics. I was living in Melbourne, so I'd go into Minotaur books, or some of the other comicbook shops that were around then. The only obviously Aussie comic I could find that was Richard Rae's The Greatest Superhero.

(Richard Rae was a graphic artist who lived in Sydney -- he was the guy that organised the first Australian Comic Book Convention. It was held at the Sydney Opera House. The headline guest was Stan Lee, but sadly Stan never made it. However, Will Eisner and Jim Steranko did. Interesting he chose those two. Both worked in that strong chiaroscuro, light-dark, almost film noir style.)

Even though Richard Rae's comics were heavily marketed as Australian Comics, with characters like Captain Australia and Captain Oz, most of the stories were set in America. And even though they were written by an Aussie (himself) and some of the artists were Australian, Richard used American artists as well. It was the classic case of Australians trying to do American stuff so that it would look like it was being done by Americans. To me that seemed to be defeating the point. But on the other hand, at least it was better than not doing anything at all.

TR: Was he selling them in the States?

DdV: No, mainly in Australia. There was one other Aussie comic doing the rounds, by a guy called Tad Pietrzykowski, The Dark Nebula. The first book he brought out was a mammoth project -- it would have been 80, 90 pages in length. The storytelling wasn't bad, the layout was okay, and the script was reminiscent of the Marvel stuff when Spiderman really bit -- a lot of introspective, personal angst of the character. But the artwork was pretty shoddy. However, it demonstrated enormous potential. What really interested me about The Dark Nebula was that it was set in Australia, with Australian astronauts yet. Yes, it was borrowing heavily from the American culture but with a strong streak of Aussie pride. It inspired me a lot.

Creating The Southern Squadron

I found myself thinking; I'd like to do my own superhero. The opportunity came maybe six months or a year later, when a neighbour read an ad in the paper saying that a group called OzComics in Sydney were looking for submissions. The deal was that, depending on how well the comic sold, the artist would get a share. But I thought what the hell, I'd give it a go.

Cyclone #8The two characters I found most intriguing at that time were the Hulk and Batman. (Probably the fact that the Hulk TV show had just finished had some influence on that.) So the first character I created, the "Nightfighter", was quite literally a combination of the two. Even the name: "Night" from Batman and "Fighter" from the Hulk. The superpowers of the Nightfighter were based on an idea doing the rounds that you only use 10% of your brain capacity at any one time. I figured, what if that applied to the physical as well? And then what if my character that had the capacity to draw upon the entire 100% for limited periods? It's not hard to see the echoes of the Hulk in that. And then with "Batman", I thought I'd reverse everything. Batman was supposed to be the highly cultured, rich intellectual, so I did the opposite, I made my character a beer-swilling ocker. He was only doing it for the money, instead of because he had money.

Because the character was too ill-disciplined to work effectively, I needed somebody who could look after him. I was in the Army Reserves at the time, so I decided to give him a military sidekick who could control his actions -- a "Robin" to his "Batman", but with Robin as the boss. Rather than use an adolescent male, I thought I'd make the "Robin" character a female. That would also create some sexual tension between the characters. As for the name "Lt. Smith"... "Lieutenant" came from the fact that I didn't want to go with "Captain", and the only other rank that would be suitable would be "Lieutenant". I don't think there'd been too many lieutenants in comics, so I liked that. Rather than going with a name in the style of "Captain Action" or "Captain America" -- a name that would be bold and powerful -- I decided to go with the most bland name I could think of. I suppose I could have gone with "Lieutenant Brown", but somehow "Lieutenant Smith and the Nightfighter" had a nice ring to it.

At the start that was going to be the series: "Lieutenant Smith and the Nightfighter". I contacted OzComics and agreed to travel to Sydney to pitch the idea. However, by the time I got to Sydney I'd started playing with the idea they might be the nucleus of a larger superhero team. Of all the superhero teams, I've always thought the best was the classic version of the Fantastic Four -- they were fantastic (hence the name). Of all the super-teams that were around at the time their's was a formula that worked the best. (The Avenger and the classic X-Men -- the original five -- was another team which closely followed their pattern.)

To do the same, I needed a flying character. The most obvious name for an Aussie flying character was Southern Cross. So that's where I started, with his name. I gave him telekinetic powers so he could fly, which naturally led to the development of his other telekinetic powers. I then decided that he needed an artificial prop to make him vulnerable -- so that his flyingness, if you like, could be knocked out. To that end I gave him a power-cane. He needed this to amplify his powers so he could fly, and if it was ever knocked out of his grasp, he would fall to a hideous death. (I guess there was an echo of the Avengers and Thor's hammer in that.) I always liked that -- the idea of characters needing some crutch and that if they lost it, they would lose their abilities.

During this time I'd been travelling up and back from Sydney a bit, so I made The Southern Cross a young, trendy North Shore fashion designer from Sydney to set up a rivalry with the Melbourne-based Nightfighter.

I needed a forth character to balance out the team. So I created the Dingo, the werewolf son of a Serbian immigrant. I guess his character filled a similar sort of role to that of the Beast in X-Men, or the Thing in the Fantastic Four -- that slightly monstrous character which all super teams need. I also made him older than the others... a mentor character, to add a some sanity to the Southern Cross/Nightfighter rivalry.

Finally, as my last blatant rip-off, I decided that one of the characters needed an "It's Clobbering Time" like battle cry. So I gave the Nightfighter: 'Hold on to your braincells!'. (That came from an argument my brother was having with a mate. His mate had said that every time you hit somebody on the head, thousands of braincells get killed off. So my brother started tapping him repeatedly on the head, saying "Hold on to your braincells". It was such a bloody silly thing to say, that I thought it'd be perfect. And the Southern Squadron was born.

So as you can see, there was almost an analytical approach to their creation... looking at where the successes of other teams had come from, but not trying to copy it line for line -- instead, analysing the forms, the structures and the symbols, and asking how I could recombine these to do something new and different.

OzComics came out in '83, edited by Frank Maconochie, and including the Squadron -- this year is their twentieth anniversary, which is kind of freaky. I eventually moved up to Sydney, though not because of OzComics. There were a number of reasons, the simplest one being I just needed a change. For two years I'd been spending half my life driving backwards and forwards up the Hume.

Early Cyclone

A year later a group of us was looking towards raising backing for OzComics mark II. A lot of mistakes had been made with mark I, but on the up side, a lot of the better creative elements had come together. Steve Carter and Des Waterman, who later went on to do Phantastique, were part of this team. At this point, Gary Chaloner, who was the father of Cyclone!, heard about us. He wanted to create an anthology magazine that was superheroic in style. And so, for a brief period, the two groups that ultimately spun off into the Phantastique crowd and the Cyclone! crowd, were all one and the same. In the first Cyclone! there was a short horror story by Steve which was a hint at that legacy.

TR: There was also the Bog Beast story which was in one of the later Cyclone Comic Classics.

DdV: That was one that Glenn [Lumsden] and I did. That originally appeared in Phantastique.

Sunburnt was the original title for the combined project that the Cyclone and Phantastique crowd were going to create. 'Sunburnt' because it had that Australian feel to it, with a slightly painful touch as well. But very quickly it was seen that the superhero people really wanted to do superheros, and the horror guys really wanted to do horror, so rather than force it into this big hybrid, sensibly it was decided to split it into two different titles.

I remember we were sitting around in Gary's apartment. We were looking for a name that had an action feel, that was quick and bright, and simple, but that could mean anything and nothing all at the same time. People were just throwing up names, and when I heard 'cyclone' I said that's a good one. It sounds like one of those 1950s Boys Own titles, like Hurricane and Score and Roar, and it's perfect for Australia. Somebody commented, why is that? My mother was a geographer and I knew about this stuff, so I said that cyclones in Australian turn in the opposite direction to hurricanes in America -- so it's something we've got that unique. I've since learnt that's not entirely true, but that doesn't matter... it sold us on the name. So I didn't come up with the name Cyclone!, but was one of the strongest advocates for it. In the end I think most people agreed it was a pretty good title.

In the beginning there were only three regulars on Cyclone; Tad, Gary and Glenn. Initially I wasn't one of the four. The original format was going to be those three with their three characters, which were the '40s Southern Cross, the Dark Nebula and what ended up becoming the Jackaroo, Harvey and the New Heroes. They decided the best fourth story would be a Southern Squadron story, and the idea would be that I'd do that, then Des would do something for episode 2, and Steve Carter would be in episode 3, and then the fourth would be Squadron again. But Des and Steve moved off to do Phantastique, so the Squadron kind of got fourth spot by default. And as you know, it eventually took over the magazine... [laughs]

Brutal and FrankPhantastique

I was involved with Phantastique right from the start. I did a group called Brutal and Frank, which was based on Steve and Des -- no, I tell a lie, it was based on Steve and Frank Maconochie. Steve was kind of Brutal, and he looked a bit like that, short, with a goatee beard. I just wanted a couple of psycho barbarians that would kill everything.

Phantastique was funded by a government grant -- about $25,000 -- and Steve, Des and Frank were three-way recipients of that. Des wasn't really interested in the business side of things, he just put his name on it so he could be involved in the creative side. So I stepped in on the business side. In effect I became the fourth arm, and was sort of like the silent partner. I wrote some of the editorials, and had a big hand with Steve and Frank and the way it was promoted.

TR: I was interested in the story you did in issue 4, The Beast From Down the Hall. That seemed to fit in, but had a very distinctive feel. It looked a bit like Pulse of Darkness as well.

DdV: Yeah, that was a nasty story, wasn't it? I can't quite remember where I got the idea for that. I remember reading some stories that Steve had demonstrated were kind of like that, where you discovered what you were reading was somebody's coloured, or filtered version of reality, and there'd be the real clues of what was going on in there. I wanted to create a metaphor, which was the beast -- I remember in on of the early drafts the head of the beast, which was based on a tattoo design, was actually the tattoo on the brother's arm. Somebody said: "you've given it away a bit too early on". In retrospect I think it may have been interesting to show the tattoo on his arm at the very end, and figleaf, or disguise the arm before that. You always think about these things after they're published.

Settings For Stories

TR: Back to the Southern Squadron, it never had those fictitious cities that always seem to turn up in comicbooks -- it was set very much in Canberra, Sydney and so on, and you had all the rivalries between cities, and with other countries as well.

DdV: Marvel have always tried to set their stories in the real world -- or the real America, but then of course they start to add all these countries to their planet, and there is no way that the Marvel universe can possibly resemble our own. The moment you have the Baxter Building and the Fantastic Four and Thor flying overhead, the whole nature of society would change. If we had superheros in the real world, the first thing we'd be saying is; "Give us your technology". You would expect the entire world to change dramatically, just through the influence of these people existing. Marvel walks an interesting double line where their superheroes live in a world which is three or four hundred years technologically advanced on the rest of us, and yet, as much as these heroes want to beat the shit out of bad guys for the betterment of humanity, they don't want to share their technology with us.

I like the fact that DC tried to make their world a little bit more real than Marvel, and yet I like that Marvel set theirs in real cities. I always thought it was a bit unnecessary that DC would have Gotham and Metropolis, which don't really exist. They've always had trouble trying to locate them in the geography of the country. Having said all that, Gotham and Metropolis are both New York, and that's something that always appealed -- the dark and the light sides of the one place. It gives the DC creators a chance to explore different aspects of the one city.

I wanted to created a series that was very Australian, without getting into dingoes, kookaburras and stuff, so I thought I'd make it urban based, if I could. I did take them out into the bush a bit, but it was always from a national, high-tech focus.

One thing I consciously tried to do was to be inclusively Australian. I didn't mind playing with the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, but I didn't to limit the series by setting every story in those two cities. I based the team in Canberra quite deliberately, to make it as neutral as possible. In Southern Squadron #9, when they became their own title, I had scenes in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and then I went into the Outback. (We heard that the X-Men were being relocated in the Outback, so we had a bit of fun with that.) With the second all-Squadron adventure, which was Behind Bars... I put that in South Australia. And I think there was a Daintree story set in Queensland. The very first Squadron story in OzComics, was set in the Northwest Shelf up in Western Australia. And I think in the eleventh book, which was the one that went to New Zealand, there was also a story about the Tasmanian Devil character.

TR: Had you travelled extensively in Australia?

DdV: I've been to all states. Haven't been to the Territory though -- I'd love to go.

Cyclone Publishing

TR: What was it like from the production point of view, particularly when Cyclone! broke into the various titles?

DdV: Cyclone! was originally funded by a group called McKerr-Whitfield , who were newsagents. Gary had a relationship with them, which was how it first got going. By the time we got to episode four, they had dropped out. Back then it was being done with offset printing, for which you need fairly sophisticated paper. If you look at early Cyclone!, certainly number three and four, the paper-stock is a lot more expensive than the later ones. We looked at different types of printing, and we decided we'd move into web printing, which used cheaper paper, and you could print off thousands of copies far more quickly and cheaply per unit. But you need decent distribution to make it work. It took us a number of issues to get the formula right -- printing the right number, distributing the right number -- and finally instead of making a slight loss, we started making a profit. The first episode that made money was seven -- but we didn't actually know that until we were half way through episode eight. By then, Gary and I were the only two still heavily doing it.

Glenn had actually gone off to Kalgoorlie for a couple of years by that stage. He's an amazingly intelligent man, who topped the State for NSW in English and Art in Year 12, and had grown up -- if not quite with a silver spoon in his mouth, then as no stranger to privilege. I think he just wanted to get out there to get dirt under the fingernails, learn how to roll cigarettes and work with his muscle rather than his mind. It was like a pilgrimage.

So Gary said that rather than doing the anthology, why don't we try doing a single title book, and call it The Southern Squadron. "I'll draw it and you can write it." I said; "Alright, if you let me draw a backup for each episode, that would be okay". I didn't want to give up drawing altogether, but on the other hand he was dangling an incredible carrot in front of me -- which was to have my characters as the title characters of the book. So we did that, and the sales doubled almost overnight. We went from selling 2,500 -- 3,000 copies, to around 5,500 -- 6,000. Out of a distribution of 10,000 that was an amazingly good number. And that was just at newsstands -- in comic shops it was selling a couple of hundred each outlet. When you compared that with Batman and X-Men which were the biggest US titles, they were doing maybe 3,000 copies over here. Marvel and DC were constantly saying; "How do you guys achieve this?"

Cyclone Becomes Four Titles

Gary and I did our first trip to America in the same year -- I'm not sure if this was '88 or '87. When we got there, all the attention was on Southern Squadron. Everybody liked my storytelling -- the writing -- and they loved Gary's art. (We were invited by DC to submit an idea for a new series that I'd write and Gary would draw. That ultimately didn't happen. By the time Gary and I got into the development of it we found we were moving in different directions. It became easier for us just to pursue our own projects.)

By the time we got to the States, Gary was thinking he did really want to do The Jackaroo. So we decided that with #11 the Squadron would come out on the odd months, and The Jackaroo would come out on the evens. In every Jackaroo issue there'd be a Squadron backup and vice versa, and that way we hoped people would want to read all the books, as a continuous narrative. We worked out it would take us each a month and a half to do a full-length story on our own, and then half a month to do the backup.

Southern Squadron #13In order to maintain the printing schedule, with the next issue to come out, Squadron #11, I had to come out with a shortened story first off, to buy the time we needed. Which is why the NZ story is not the full 22 page-count. Gary did his Jackaroo backup. And we included Little Sister, a really nice little story Glenn drew for Cyclone issue #3 that for some reason had yet to be printed.

Then we ran into a hiccup. It turned out that the one-and-a-half-month schedule Gary had set himself for the Jackaroo wasn't going to happen. By the time I'd finished the next Squadron Issue (#12), the Jackaroo was still a long way of being finished. The problem was that my backup story to the 1st Jackaroo book (about the two guys kidnapping Cicciolina -- that was the Kylie Minogue story) was a prequel to Walrus Rock -- the feature story of Squadron #12. So I ended up putting the prequel as the backup to the main story. I could have put the prequel at the start, but it didn't seem visually strong enough to carry the beginning of the book.

About the time I was doing this, Glenn Lumsden came back from Kalgoorlie, and was really taken by how much the Squadron had kicked on in the meantime. He said if there was any way he could come back in on this, he'd love to. I said that maybe you could ink or draw every second episode. I'll draw the odds, you do the evens and we'll try to come out every two months if we can. And that was the beginning of our partnership.

At the same time, we teamed up with Tad again. Glenn had pencilled eight episodes of Dark Nebula years and years ago. Glenn decided he'd ink and letter them and he and Tad could bring the series out as its own title.

So Gary worked on The Jackaroo, Glenn and I did The Southern Squadron, and Glenn also worked with Tad on Dark Nebula.

While all that was going on, Gary and I were contacted by Milton Bradley to do GI Joe Australia, so we started doing that as well. Suddenly we were doing four titles -- so at least we'd have one out a month, we thought. The trouble was that it was a great idea, but we became more publishers than writers and artists.

TR: What was the GI Joe deal?

DdV: Just reprinting American stuff, with a bit of an Australian spin. We had this character called Digger we worked into it. He was actually a character called Recondo, so we had to change some of the dialogue, give him a new name and so forth.

TR: So you'd redo the art?

DdV: In some instances, but a lot of the time it was just taking stuff from the Americans. It was an interesting exercise. Milton Bradley paid for all the printing costs, because they saw it as one big massive advert for their product. All we had to do was sell one or two books and we'd immediately be in profit. In theory it should have been a real cash cow, but the problem was the amount of time it took up, diverting us from our own stuff. I think Gary did it for a couple of episodes more, but I said, mate, this isn't really what we want to do. It only went for four.

Other Squadron Appearances

TR: You were showing your work to the Americans. Did they understand Southern Squadron?

DdV: Yeah, they loved it; it did really, really well. It was reprinted, with some new stuff, from Malibu, with another series called The Bodyguard, which was one I did for Penthouse magazine -- they were the biggest sellers for the publisher. They were selling about 15-20,000 in black and white, which is pretty respectable when you consider that half of Marvel's titles these days do that in colour. Because most of the work had been done in Australia, we were on a royalty of about 30% -- we really cleaned up. A lot of the covers were done by American mates, who had actually done them for the original issues because they thought I'd be kind of cool to have their work in Australia. Mike Grell did a couple for us -- he did the #11 one, which I recoloured for the American version, and Jerry Ordway did one for us, just for gratis. The guys were great.

The Squadron predated the sort of larrikin humour of the Justice League, when they breathed life back into it. There were times when people thought the Justice league guys must be reading our stuff, because there were these amazing similarities.

The Flash and the Nightfighter was a series that Gary created for Aussie kids, and that lasted for a few years. That was a one-page thing. I drew that for the first year, then handballed it on to Don Ticchio and let him run with it. The Southern Squadron appeared in Dark Nebula and Southern Aurora Presents, and teamed up with Niteside and the Rock. Interestingly, they've walked into just about every other character's universe in Australian comics, so they're kind of like the lynchpin holding all these universes together. Originally Cyclone! wasn't a universe, it was just four individual titles, but all the other blokes wanted to put the Squadron in their stories. So the moment they appear, your story becomes part of the Cyclone! universe.

TR: And you did the crossover with the 1940s Southern Cross.

DdV: Yeah, that was because Glenn said; "Shit, if you've already got a Southern Cross maybe I should change mine to Southern Star", but I said; "No, fuck it, just call it Southern Cross and we'll cross them over one day".

They appeared in some American stuff too. There was a series called Rimjack for First Comics, and they were in an episode of Mundon's Bar. They appeared in Boris the Bear for Nicotatt comics. At some point I'd love to have them team up with the Marvel Universe. I reckon an X-Men / Southern Squadron limited series wouldn't be altogether out of the question.

Malibu and Early US Comics

So the Squadron got us into the States, and then I was flying back through LA from visiting a guy called John Ostrander in Chicago -- John's done a lot of stuff. (Amongst his many claims to fame was that he put Captain Boomerang in the Suicide Squad. While I was there he asked me rather nicely if I'd do the origin story for Captain Boomerang. It was the first thing I did for DC.) Anyway, I was flying back from Chicago and stopped off to see the guys at Malibu and I said, "We've done all this stuff for you which is reprints with a bit of new stuff. Would you like us to do something brand new? I'll tell you what, give me the shittiest thing you've got, but give us the rights to make whatever changes we like".

Southern Squadron #10So they gave us a thing called Puppet Master, based on the Full Moon movie, and gave us carte blanche to do what we liked with it. They said the story's set in the modern day, about all these little puppets created in Nazi Germany, that go around slicing people up. I could see these little things running around the streets of Berlin, and I said, gee that sounds cool. I loved the basic design of the characters once I saw them. That entire series I probably wrote in a week, and that did really well for us. The film company was so taken with it, they kicked in as well -- and that became the first full-colour comic from Malibu. Which was great.

The first colour book they were originally going to do was a series called Ape Nation. Alien Nation and Planet of the Apes were their most commercially successful books at that point, so they decided to combine the two concepts into one series. Because they liked the colour work that I was doing on Puppet Master, they asked me to colour that series too.

TR: So you were selling yourself as both an artist and a writer?

DdV: Oh yes. Outside of Glenn, I'm probably one of the more published Aussie black and white artists, and certainly the most published comic colourist. When we started, Glenn and I were selling ourselves as a package -- I coloured the Phantom series we did for Marvel as well, which didn't take a great deal of selling. I just said I wanted to do it, coloured up a couple of sample pages, and we were in.

TR: How much travelling backwards and forwards was there?

DdV: In a period of four and a half to five years I made five trips -- not because I had to, but because I felt it was good to get my face in front of them.

TR: Would the internet make that easier these days?

DdV: Actually, I've been thinking of getting back into doing some superhero stuff, and have been talking to the guys at Marvel and DC on the internet. And yes, it's a hell of a lot easier. Before you only had the phone and the fax -- the advantage of email is that you don't have to get up at three in the morning. Also, when we were starting to deal with the Americans, speaking to them on the phone cost like a $1.60 a minute. Even at 3:00AM. That's back ten years ago, so in real terms it's probably like three or four bucks a minute. These days you can do 0014 or whatever, and talk for 18c a minute. When you're having a half-hour discussion with someone at three or four bucks a minute -- Jesus, you've got your eyes on the clock. Fortunately some of the editors would do the right thing and call you back and you'd talk for an hour on their dime.


TR: One thing you were down for was Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. Did that ever happen?

DdV: That, believe it or not, still hasn't been printed. Glenn hasn't finished the art -- for a number of reasons, the main one being that the editor died. That was Archie Goodwin. Archie had cancer in the last years of his life, and was often out of the office. As a result the project constantly got stalled. Then we had the problem that his assistant was slow in processing the invoices. And then DC wanted to change the page count, which was kind of difficult since it had been fully scripted and a lot of the art was already drawn. Archie was going to sort it all out, but one thing led to another... The first episode is done, I think. The second one is half pencilled. And the whole thing is scripted. My suspicion is that it'll probably get finished and put out as a graphic novel.


TR: What's been happening for the last couple of years?

DdV: I've been working with Glenn on a number of creator-owned projects in Australia. We do a lot of artwork for magazines like Picture, People and Ralph -- the Financial Review, the Bulletin. We do a lot of the slightly more pornographic stuff for Picture Premium. I've written an episode of a kid's TV show called The Legacy of the Silver Shadow. I'm working on a number of film projects. We've also had some of our series, like Dr Cheeseman, syndicated in Holland.

Other Major US Gigs

TR: When working with established characters, was there any great differences in the expectations of these titles, and how much research you had to do?

DdV: Yeah, but most of the time you just knew it, and the editors would usually give you a brief about things they'd like you to deal with, or stay away from. We did a lot of stuff for Valiant. We did their first yearbook, which was great. We walked in and Bob Layton said anything you want, you can do, pick any of our characters, and you've got carte blanche -- we're going to create this new concept called a yearbook, and you can do the first one. We did a character called the Eternal Warrior there. That sold almost 200,000 copies. I would have written maybe twenty different books for Valiant at different times.

For Marvel I also did a What If...? What if Nick Fury killed the Punisher, rather than visa versa -- I don't know if that ever got printed. The trouble was, around the time I was writing so much stuff, a lot of these companies were starting to cancel titles. Valiant for a while there was number three in the country, and really kicking arse, then died almost as quickly as it came on the scene. That was also when Marvel was in receivership for a while -- they kept sending us bankruptcy notices. I did some stuff on the AC/DC comic. I don't know if they published that either. It was a fun time, but frustrating as well. You'd do the stuff and often it'd be drawn up, and then... But I always got paid, so I never complained about that. I was always well looked after. I'm sure there's a hell of a lot of archive material, not just from myself -- this was a really common experience of creators at that time. It was kind of crazy.

Conditions are better now, it's definitely turning around. Though funnily enough sales now are lower then when they were canning these books, four or five years ago. But that heady heyday of comics, which was the mid to late 80s, sadly is gone.

TR: Will there be a resurgence, perhaps of a different type of comic?

DdV: Nothing is surer, sometime down the road it will all turn around. These days one gets the feeling comics are just a cheap way to trial materials for games and films. If this hasn't already happened, give it time and every single comic company will be owned by a film company, and used as a house of ideas and a training ground. That's certainly the case with DC. Wonder Women will never pay her own way as a comic book, but as an icon she's worth keeping. Most of the Marvel characters are still in print, but with 10,000 sales, they're losing money -- but I'm sure they're keeping them alive because they want to bring out the Fantastic Four movie, or the Black Panther movie or whatever, and want to keep those characters in their domain.

In the last couple of years Marvel have really been kicking some goals in film, with X-Men, Spiderman, Daredevil and the Hulk. Which makes you wonder why it took them so long to get the ball rolling. Having said that, their animation TV shows have always been pretty successful. And on the whole the Bill Bixby "Hulk" was a pretty reasonable effort. Likewise, the Flash did pretty well for DC, and Lois and Clark and Smallville are going gangbusters. But the thing is, the very first Batman movie would have made enough to justify DC's existence. If DC just breaks even, and it would certainly do more than that, you can justify the money being tied up by one $300 million dollar profit from one movie.

I gather the fourth film did pretty poorly. I think they forgot that movies are good stories well told. Joe Schumacher was running around telling everybody, hey, who wants to be in on a big franchise deal to cash in on Batman? I think when you approach any project with that attitude, it's unlikely it will have any value. If you approach any sort of creation in a cynical manner, that comes through in the material. I don't think the audience is fooled for a second.

TR: Are you still involved in the Australian scene in any way?

DdV: A little. The last convention I went to was the one a couple of years ago when they brought Jim Lee and a couple of guys from Image out -- that was at the Centrepoint tower. The earlier OzCons I loved because they were very much an attempt to get the Australian creators all together, to get the American creators to come down, and get an industry happening. They had a lot of energy, the panels were really exciting, and it was a terrific exercise -- very similar to what the American conventions were. The later ones started to lose that -- the emphasis was far more on the Americans rather than local creators. Australian creators who went found that the cost of the booths was so expensive that they had to spend the entire time they were there, if they had a booth, selling their books just to break even. They were unable to mingle, or become part of the panels. At night the Americans would just mingle with the organisers, and consequently there wasn't any ready exchange of ideas.

Also, in the earlier days there were more editors coming down to fly the flag. In the later days it was more guys like Jim Lee who really wasn't coming to Australia to promote the industry, he was there to promote his own books, which was fair enough. I think the retailers where frustrated by the fact that every kid in the place was in a four hour queue to get their book signed by Jim Lee, so they would somehow nominally gain value. The whole spirit of comicbooks as a medium was overtaken by comicbooks as a product. For me, I thought this wasn't really why I was there. Glenn and I went, and we never made money on them. Most of the time it cost us a packet. We did it to mix and become part of the scene.

For a while there, before Issue One had faded out, there were a few local books being done. I wrote a number of stories for the local scene, just for the fun of it. Dark Horse, bless them, tried to get Australia involved by bringing out a thing called Dark Horse Down Under. I wasn't actually chosen to work on that, Gary was the editor and he wanted to focus on people who hadn't had any exposure in the American scene. Darryl Merritt was the artist he had chosen. Darryl and I had long liked each other's work, and decided we'd like to do something together. He had these really interesting drawings of a slightly weird, high-tech version of Victorian England -- it reminded me of manga stuff, a little like the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, all those high-tech cowboys. That became Berries of the Sun.

TR: I talked to you back in '96, and you said there was still a great niche waiting for the next Australian superhero comic. Recently we've had a few titles with a different take on things. But do you think the potential is still there?

DdV: Hell yeah. The reason why Cyclone! really did -- and this isn't being conceited -- did better than any other comic publisher in Australia, just in raw numbers, was that we were always very aware of the audience. We did not market Cyclone! at a comicshop audience, we marketed it at the newsstand audience. Every Southern Squadron story that you ever read assumed that this was the first story that would ever be read by the readers. The reason for that was I was always optimistic enough to believe that #3 would outsell #2, #4 would outsell #3, and so on. If you were planning on the series getting bigger not smaller, you had to allow for new readers. I tried to make each story as self-contained as I could, while not forgetting that one of the things the diehard fans loves is that inner knowledge they have of the series. This was something Marvel were very good at, keeping a sort of soap element running through the series. DC took a long time to catch onto that. Their stories were so self-contained you could put them in any order. The best way to go is to combine the two, getting the self-contained story that works in its own right, and yet teases you enough so you want to read more -- and want to find out how the character got to where they are now.

That was a general philosophy amongst all the Cyclone! Guys. And we did actively talk about that. The editor, Blaire Wentworth wasn't even real -- she was a fiction that Gary and I created. I lived in Blaire Street, and Gary lived in Wentworth Avenue. Many of the early editorials for Blaire I wrote. I remember reading Stan Lee saying that the editorial page was exceedingly important in bringing the reader into the magazine and making them feel part of the process. We never used the editorials to whinge or bitch or say buy our book, or support the Australian industry. Once or twice I actually warned off other creators from doing that. It was almost as if they were begging the reader to read their book. We never did that. We said, we're successful, and the train's running fast. If you want to jump on, here's our hand, we'd love to have you with us.

We tried to engender the sensation that this was a fun, happening thing, that was worth being a part of. We didn't think the reader owed us anything, but just the opposite. If they were going to spend a couple of bucks to buy a magazine then we owed them a really fun experience. I think that attitude, more than anything else, was what the "Cyclone! universe" was all about. It wasn't about the characters, it was about bringing the readers into a world of comics.


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