My "Transformative" Chat with Stephen Baskerville...
Recently I have had the opportunity to interview some Transformers artists. Most obviously Andrew Wildman. It has been my pleasure to chat also to Stephen Baskerville (Andrew's frequent inker) who contributed hugely to the legacy of the robots in disguise and to my pleasant surprise much, much more.
Paul. What was the very first comic you remember buying or especially enjoying?
Stephen: That would have to be an Iron Man strip reprinted in the UK comic called FANTASTIC in around 1966. I would have been 10 or 11 at that time, and I’d been reading comics for several years prior to that-- but it wasn’t until I saw the Gene Colan and Jack Abel artwork on that strip, printed in glorious black and white, that I was hooked. It was the first time I’d seen Iron Man/Tony Stark about to die if he didn’t recharge his suit-- and the realism of the artwork, which was not something that most Marvel comics had at the time, really added to the feeling of jeopardy and suspense. After seeing those pages, there was no going back for me. I was comics fan for life.
Stephen: A few issues later, the Iron Man series in FANTASTIC ended (as they’d caught up with the original American series), so I set out to track down more artwork by this mystery artist (the British reprints had no creator credits) in the imported Marvel comics that sporadically appeared on market stalls and newsagent’s spinner racks. And so began my lifelong love of Gene Colan’s comics work, which never disappointed, no matter which character he worked on. And those pages that began it all for me still look as incredible now as they did way back then.
Paul: Could you explain how you first became published?
Stephen: My first published work as a professional (as in, I was paid for it, rather than, it looked like it was done by someone who knew what they were doing-- which I certainly didn’t at that stage) was in a UK comic magazine devoted to stories about the current craze of the early 80’s-- CB radio-- and was called 10-4 Action. A friend of mine’s mother, saw a small ad in her local newspaper seeking a comic artist, and thought of me—so a small act of kindness and a stroke of luck got me into the comics biz!
Stephen: I was given the job of writing and drawing a 10 page strip every month for 10-4 Action, telling the exploits of the CB Super-Heroes Big Boy and Foxy Lady. Don’t blame me for the terrible names—they were dreamed up by the larger-than-life editor/publisher who went by the unlikely name of Todd Slaughter, (who also happened to be the president of the Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain). The page rate wasn’t great, but it was fun to see my work in WH Smiths for the first time. Prior to that, I’d had a fair bit of work published in the fanzines Comics Unlimited and BEM, and in the independent semi-pro magazine Graphixus (which also featured early work by Brian Bolland and Garry Leach), but they were all done strictly for the pleasure of seeing your work in print rather than for any remuneration, so they probably don’t count.
Paul. How did your relationship with the transformers comics begin?
Stephen: After 10-4 Action went the way of all short-lived crazes, I began writing and drawing a strip for Swiftsure, an anthology comic that featured a new generation of wannabe comic artists, many of whom went on to be pros (Kev Hopgood, Mike Collins, Jeff Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Mark Farmer, Richard Starkings, etc). My strip, Jim Dandy In The Underworld, had been selected by a young Alan Moore for publication, and I naturally sent out copies of my work on this to the main British publishers. John Tomlinson at Marvel UK liked my inking style, and clearly put in a good word for me with the other editors there, which led to my inking a few Zoids strips in the Spider-Man and Zoids comic.
Stephen: That in turn led to me inking Steve Yeowell on Thundercats, and eventually to inking Jeff Anderson on the UK Transformers weekly comic. From there I began drawing covers for the comic and I was hooked up as inker with a certain penciller by the name Andrew Wildman. To be honest, I would have been happier staying on Thundercats, as I preferred the super-hero vibe that it had. But I guess it turned out alright in the long run!
Paul: It may sound like a silly question, but, once you started working on the Transformers did you start to enjoy it?
Stephen: Thanks mainly to the people I was lucky enough to work with, it did become quite a fun job. Simon Furman’s scripts were always entertaining, sometimes comic, and frequently epic. It was nice to be working on something that felt like it had longevity to it (and little did we know just how long-lived it would be!), unlike all the short, self-contained stories I’d done on Thundercats. With its star-spanning storylines and enormous cast of characters, Transformers felt like our own version of the Marvel Super-Hero universe.
Stephen: Art wise, I was fortunate to be paired off first with Jeff Anderson, whose pencils were very ‘tight’; that’s to say, he’d done all the hard work, adding the details you would sometimes need to add as an inker when working with other pencillers. Jeff had previously inked his own pencils on Transformers, and really knew what worked. So initially, I tried to add a little of Jeff’s inking style to my own. My style up to this point, such as it was, had been heavily influenced by the clean, detailed inking style of Brian Bolland (particularly on his Judge Dredd strips for 2000AD), so that fed into my approach to inking Transformers too. There are a lot of shine effects and general mark-making in those early strips that are a deliberate attempt by me to ink like Bolland.
Stephen: When I started inking Andrew (Wildman’s) pencils shortly after, I felt like I had my own way of inking those pesky ‘bots (and couldn’t really imagine inking them any other way by this point), and so, I pretty much applied that style carte blanche to Andrew’s work. There was never any danger of overwhelming his pencils with my inks, as his style was so distinctive and original, and always shone though no matter who inked him. The dynamism, emotional punch and above all, the humanity he gave to the assorted Autobots and Decepticons probably has a lot to do with why he’s still one of the best-loved Transformers artists, even 35 years later, and certainly someone whose work I still enjoy inking.
Paul: You are clearly passionate about the subject, could you point toward a particular cover or page or storyline you are especially proud of? As it were a point where you can say you got it absolutely right.
Stephen: If I gave the impression that I ever reached a point where I got it ‘absolutely right’ I need to correct that—it’s the drive to ‘get it right next time’ in the face of that slight sense of failure I always get when I see my latest work in print that keeps me going onto the next comics job. I know it’s one of those cliches about artists that they’re never happy with their work, but in my case it’s true. Having said that, there was certainly a point where I began to feel confident in my approach-- where I knew what I needed to do when it came to inking Transformers (though of course I could have been deluding myself!) But maybe I can illustrate this gaining of confidence with a couple of Transformers covers I penciled and inked for Marvel UK:
The first is #141, published November 1987.
Stephen: Looking at the back copies I have, it appears that it was drawn very early in my run, possibly even before I inked Jeff Anderson (though I think I can see Jeff’s influence in it). To me, though it has nice colors by John Burns Jr (I think), my line work is clean but quite flat and tentative, showing my inexperience in dealing with giant robots.
Stephen: By #254, published January 1990, having inked Jeff’s work for a couple of years, and with my first inks over Andrew’s pencils under my belt, the inking is more solid and three-dimensional, and the shine effects are more stylized. Overall, it’s just more confidently inked—and pretty much the same as I ink Transformers to this day.
Paul: Has technology altered the way you approach your own artwork at all? Has it affected the way you produce art?
Stephen: Technology has massively affected the way I approach art, with the main exception being Transformers comics, which I still always ink by hand on Bristol board. Though even here I’m usually working on a blueline printout of the pencils that I may well have only ever seen as a digital file, and most of the final clean-up on the inks (whiteout corrections and some highlights, etc.) will be done in Photoshop.... For comics where I handle all the artwork, I tend to pencil digitally (where there are endless opportunities to ‘noodle’ with the art till it starts to look right). Sometimes I draw it so tightly that the art doesn’t need inking, and sometimes I end up inking a printout of the digital pencils, just because I enjoy ‘proper’ inking. Then the colour art will always be in Photoshop—so there isn’t a day that I don’t work digitally at some point.
Paul: It sounds to a layman like myself like quite a steep learning curve.
Stephen: It all began when many of the pencillers I worked with regularly began to take jobs in video games or storyboarding for films—this was in the late 1990’s when comics work from big publishers was generally getting harder to come by—so when the chance to work as an artist/animator for a small London studio that had just been bought by Sony came up, I took it. That was quite a baptism of fire, having previously only taken a few night classes in the basics of digital art. The studio was creating ‘Messagemates’, those annoying animated ‘e-cards’ that were briefly popular before computer viruses put people off downloading the .exe files we used.... From there it seemed quite natural to move into video games, working as a concept artist for various publishers, full-time for around 12 years, on titles like SpongeBob Squarepants, Doctor Who, Barbie and Reservoir Dogs. And in all that time I never did any hand-drawn artwork in my day job—it was all digital. So, yes, technology has had quite a profound effect on my working methods. There’s nothing more enjoyable than working in pen and ink on paper, but for all sorts of practical reasons, in most cases, digital tends to be the best option.
Paul: You mentioned you worked on Reservoir Dogs for the Playsation. I enjoyed that game. Can you say anything about that experience?
Stephen: It was two solid years of hard work, but definitely a career highlight in terms of my video game work. I was involved from the initial pitch right through to the end of the concept stage, working on production art, storyboards, character design, game mechanics and environments. As the only concept artist on the project, everything that appeared in the game, be it characters, props or environments, had all been drawn by me before it was built by the 3D artists.
Stephen: The game didn’t quite turn out as intended, though. We had hoped that Tarantino would give it his blessing—we even made a video for him, showing how much respect we would show his creation—but he wanted nothing to do with it. Then we gradually lost the rights to the likenesses of most of the main characters (with the notable exception of Michael ‘Mr. Blonde’ Madsen). But by that point I’d already moved on to SpongeBob Squarepants, which certainly made a nice change from all the violence!
When the game was finally released, it was the only time that a video game I’d worked on was featured in the window of Game shops throughout the land, and one of those official ‘cheat’ books was published, which featured lots of my concept art—which would have been nice if they’d credited my work!
Paul: Going back to comics. Do you describe yourself as an inker by trade? Do you enjoy pencilling? Or even having your pencils inked by someone else?
Stephen: I suspect that I’m like most inkers, in that I never set out for that to be my ‘trade’. As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably Marvel UK editor John Tomlinson that I have to blame for that ‘career choice’, seeing the way I inked my own pencils and suggesting I might like to consider inking work if any became available. I soon discovered how much fun it was to ink someone else’s pencils--though I can’t say the poor pencillers would always have felt the same! I’ve been lucky to have mostly inked pencils that needed more than the skill of a ‘tracer’ to complete, sometimes even working as ‘embellisher’, or ‘finished artist’ over ‘breakdowns’ (very loose line drawings, somewhere between a layout and full pencils), where a fair bit of the actual drawing is done in the inks. It would be very dull to just be a ‘line follower’, but inking the stuff I get to work is usually a lot of fun.
ABOVE: Stephen's ink finishes over Rurik Tyler's breakdowns for Marvel U.S.' GI Joe
Stephen: And there are good, practical reasons why inking suits me—I am a very slow penciller and a relatively speedy inker, so financially, it makes a lot of sense for me to do the latter. Plus, objectively speaking, my pencils aren’t as good as the pencillers I ink—so the finished work we do together tends be better than what I could produce on my own; and on rare occasions, maybe even better than what the penciller could have produced if they’d inked their own work. Though I would stress that I believe the vast majority of pencillers are also their own best inkers—it’s just that a separate inker can provide a new set of eyes, fix the odd bit of anatomy or perspective, and possibly add a lighting effect or rendering style that improves the final art.
Stephen: As far as being inked another artist, I’ve had very few occasions where that was the case. From memory, I can only recall Paul Marshall and Simon Coleby (who both went on to do great artwork for 2000AD) inking my pencils, and in both cases, they did a good job with what they had to work with – though to some extent, in subtle ways, the artwork no longer felt like mine. So, I can certainly understand how other pencillers may feel when they’re on the receiving end of my inks!
Paul: Covid slightly ruined the convention scene, but in general is that a part of your job you enjoy? Meeting fans and signing your work? Is that a fun part of being a comic artist?
Stephen: I don’t actually get invited to that many conventions. I suspect that some organizers view inkers as the equivalent of drummers in rock bands and see them as unlikely to have anything interesting to say about the creative process—they’re probably right! Plus, I do prefer conventions that are close enough to home to avoid having to stay in hotels. So, living in London, The London Film and Comic Con is ideal for me and definitely the convention I’ve attended most often.
Stephen: I know some fellow comics pros who bemoan the ‘good old days’ when conventions were all about comics, but I love the atmosphere of today’s big shows-- the razzmatazz of the cosplayers, and the thousands of genuinely diverse visitors, just happy to be their wild and wacky selves in a non-judgmental space. I really enjoy doing sketches, and chatting to people passing by, who are always so friendly. The only downside is how exhausting it is and losing my voice by the end of every convention.... I wouldn’t say I actually have ‘fans’ who come to meet me at conventions, but of all the stuff I’ve worked on over the years, it’s always the Transformers comics that fans bring to be signed the most. They love to discuss random TF things with me, too—which, as they all seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Transformers, and I certainly don’t, can be a challenge sometimes. But it’s always nice to hear that I played a small part in their happy childhood memories.
Paul: Do you have any fun convention stories to share? Have you ever had a "I cannot believe I have met a hero feeling"?
Stephen: I’m not sure I can think of any specific, fun convention stories—certainly none that are fit to share in polite company!
Paul: Fair enough. I think. (Sadly.)
Stephen: I do have a little ritual that I perform at every convention though: I put the first ‘warm-up’ sketch I draw on the first day of the event (usually of Spider-Man, as I was inker on several Spider-Man series for Marvel US) to one side. Then, when the first kid who comes by with their family stops and looks amazed at the artwork on my table, I ask them if they like Spider-Man. When say ‘yes’, as they always do, (though sometimes only after some prompting from their mum or dad)—I present them with my Spidey sketch as a gift. As most families that attend conventions seem to be there mainly to meet their favourite movie actors from the latest computer-generated Marvel movie, it’s my small way of bringing the magic of ‘proper’, hand-drawn comics to the next generation.
Paul: Do you experience any hero worship at 'cons?
Stephen: In terms of hero worship, pretty much every writer and artist from my childhood and youth create that reaction in me. So, it often comes down to who I’m placed next to on the convention floor. Sitting next to John Wagner at a Showmasters convention in Brighton was unreal, as I remembered how his early Judge Dredd stories had kept me reading comics when Marvel and DC were in the doldrums. Even though, since then, I had actually inked a few of his Judge Dredd stories, in that moment, I reverted a total, awestruck fan-boy. At least when I was sitting next to David Lloyd at another convention, I was able to appear quite nonchalant on the surface, thanks to our mutual involvement in his Aces Weekly digital comic. But inside my head, I just kept thinking, ‘I’m talking to the co-creator of V For Vendetta like a fellow professional-- there must be some mistake!’
Stephen: My biggest regret though, when it comes to meeting heroes was the time that Neal Adams was a fellow guest at the London Film and Comic Con, and I just couldn’t pluck up enough courage to go over and say hello. He was just too big a hero—right up there with Gene Colan in terms of his artistic talent and influence upon my work—that I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak. I would have liked to have told him how seeing his artwork on X-Men #57 changed my life-- now, sadly, with his recent passing, I won’t get another chance to do that.
Paul: Do you have any creator owned project of your own you would like to pursue?
Stephen: The short answer is probably ‘no’. Pretty much every creator-owned comics idea I’ve ever come up with is available to buy/read digitally already.... In Aces Weekly, I have a Watchmen-style super-hero tragedy called ‘Just Force’; a medieval anti-hero called ‘Maledict, Lord Of Misrule’; and a chinless wonder in a light-hearted romp through class inequality, called ‘Jim Dandy in the Underworld’; and several other shorter try-outs for characters that never went anywhere! People can check them out in volumes 4,6,9,13,19,20 and 28, at http://www.acesweekly.co.uk/volumes for a very reasonable price!
Paul: I didn't know you'd done so many.
Stephen: I also have two creator-owned projects on Comixology and Amazon Kindle:
‘Kinki Aggro, Sex Criminologist’—a sci-fi social satire and whodunnit combined. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09QFGN6YD
‘Zombie & Son’-- Downton Abbey meets Night of The Living Dead by way of Oliver Twist! https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09QDWMD9K
It’s not that I wouldn’t like to do more of my own stuff, but I don’t have the free time, or the finances needed to do a lot of work upfront that may never make any money. And I don’t really have any ideas that are screaming at me to get them down on paper either... In recent years I’ve been happy creating artwork on a work-for-hire basis, helping new writers realize their publishing ambitions. The one that I can talk about is a 100-page full-colour graphic novel that was published in 2020 by Markosia. It’s an exciting, gory satire with a disturbing commentary on fame and the toxic side of the online world, called ‘Stay Alive’, written by James Harberson and Mackie Wildwood. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09QDWMD9K
Paul: What does the future hold for Stephen Baskerville?
Stephen: Well, apart from a regular stream of private commissions, most of my time is being taken up with another work-for-hire project with a first-time writer. I can’t really say much about it yet, but I’ve already drawn 140 full-colour pages of some of the most challenging artwork I’ve ever done, for this time-spanning adventure, and I’m having a lot of fun along the way. I do have one other future project which will probably be of more interest to anyone out there who likes Wildman & Baskerville Transformers artwork, (with extraordinary colours by JP Bove). We’ve been working on ‘something’ Transformers, which again, I can’t talk about yet, but should be revealed soon. Sorry to be so secretive!
Paul: I am Intrigued to say the least. I am sure all of your fans will look forward to what you have planned. Thank you for your time and the interview.
UPDATE: The secret project Stephen mentioned were the Royal Mail Transformer stamps.