A Dialogue with Mr Simon Davis
Simon Davis has been an artist the readers of 2000AD and the Megazine have come to count on for many years. He has put his mark on so many characters from Sinister Dexter and Slaine, and many more in between. I found his insights after working so prolifically under Tharg to be genuinely eyepopping, much like his artwork itself
Paul: Simon, I'd like to start by asking how your relationship with comics began. Can you recall the earliest comic you read or especially enjoyed?
Simon: The earliest comic exposure was probably the same as most British children, namely the Beano and The Dandy. Me and my sister used to get them weakly, and occasionally other stuff like Whizzer and Chips and Topper etc. At around the same time I started reading Asterix a lot. I didn't like Tintin really. Beautifully drawn but a little strait-laced...Asterix was much more fun. Then it was onto Look-in and Look and Learn, which featured the brilliant Trigan Empire.
Paul: Who or what would you credit as having influenced your art the most? Is it a mixture of some comic artists and more traditional classical art? Would that be a fair guess?
Simon: It's a mixture really...when I was growing up, I read dinosaur books, bird books and things like that. They were invariably beautifully illustrated, so I copied lots of that stuff. Particularly Ray Ching's AA Book of Birds. I also loved the Look-in covers by Arnaldo Putzu and Ron Embleton's work on Trigan Empire in Look and Learn. Those sorts of magazines were full of absolutely brilliant (and often uncredited) illustrations so it was all that that was feeding into my brain. Film posters too for Sinbad films etc. Then, as I became a teenager, the 2000ad artists were hugely influential and then as I began to paint portraits, the usual suspects, Sargent, Jenny Saville, Egon Schiele became foremost in my mind. So really, it's being a sponge and soaking up everything that's about. I was blessed to grow up in a time when illustration was really valued.
Paul: Would it be fair to say I can see a little bit of Drew Struzan and his film posters influencing your style?
Simon: He is great, but I wouldn't really call him an influence. Obviously, his painted posters were part of my childhood, but Putzu was my illustration god.
Paul: Can I ask how you first found work at 2000AD and with Tharg? Who was your first editor?
Simon: David Bishop...some Dark Judges story...very ropey to see it now...early '90s I think.
Paul: Did you have to show a portfolio at a convention as many artists did? or was it a different route to publication for the first time?
Simon: I did go through many years of trogging around with a portfolio. It was generally very dispiriting though occasionally I did show it to an editor who gave me good advice but usually conventions are a really depressing and a futile place to show work. There was always someone REALLY good ahead of me in the queue so by the time it was my turn, I was demoralised and just wanted to get the fuck out of there. Showing work to established artists was, however, very important. There would be a solidarity as these artists would see themselves in my stooped shoulders and empty eyes. They were always encouraging, and I try to be the same, now that I am able to do so. My route in was direct to the then 2000ad editor David Bishop…with a good word put in by Simon Bisley.
Paul: You have been very loyal to 2000AD over the years. Can you describe at all why you find it such an agreeable working environment?
Simon: It’s pretty simple really. I can do full colour painted work, have minimal editorial interference and I’m now in the position that I can work on specific projects. Matt at 2000ad is a great editor. He’s very clear on what he does and doesn’t like but very open to ideas. This is the perfect set up for me.
Paul: Despite the fact you may not have a creator credit for Sinister Dexter you have worked upon the characters quite extensively. Do you have an approach to illustrating the characters? Do you enjoy their storylines?
Simon: The stories were fun. It was really the first time I got to work on the same characters and on longer stories. There are benefits to being quick when it comes to working on a weekly title.
Paul: Can I ask in regard to Sinister Dexter, Dan Abnett is such a prolific writer for 2000AD, how did you find working with him?
Simon: Dan is a ridiculously good writer. Full of good (and bad) puns. He was really collaborative and if there was something I wanted to draw, he would invariably write it in for me. We produced a lot together and looking back, it was a very fertile period.
Paul: In recent years you have be the "go-to" artist for Slaine. I would imagine that must have been quite an honour and responsibility. How did you approach it? It must have been a huge commitment?
Simon: Yes, I remember thinking that I had worked for 2000ad for 25 years and a good way to mark it would be to draw my favourite character. Simon Bisley was hugely influential and generous to me and to a great extent his Slaine was what made me think a career in fully painted comics was viable. Mick McMahon’s Slaine was, to my mind, the pinnacle of 2000ad and remains some of the best work to have ever appeared in it. So those shoes, along with Dermot Power, Clint Langley and Glenn Fabry’s were too huge to think about. Like a lot of my thought process, I though simplicity was best. So, I went back to Slaine being not that muscular, a bit beardy and painted in a very earthy palette. I did four books in total and that was huge fun and a dream to do.
Paul: Can you say anything at all about how Pat Mills was like to work with? There are stories that his scripts are quite detailed and include expensive illustrations from obscure books, is there any truth to that or is that convention gossip?
Simon: Pat really was great to work with. Hugely knowledgeable and very enthusiastic. He used to email and send me references that were invaluable. This was never sent in a controlling way as he is a very collaborative writer and he greatly respects his artists. He was always open to suggestions: in fact, I wanted to draw giants and mermaids, so he was great about putting those into the stories.
Paul: Do you have any opinion about digital comics. Do you prefer your art and storytelling to be seen on paper, or are you okay with things going digital?
Simon: There are only two ways of doing comics, regardless of how you produce them. They are either done well or they are done badly. So, I have no opinion of digital v traditional methods. I have always painted as that’s what I love doing. I’ve not felt the need to change for the sake of it. When I started, there was a lot of sub-Bisley painting going on and now there are only a handful remaining now. Financially, painting traditionally is helpful, as you have originals to sell afterwards.
Paul: You have obviously and clearly worked outside of comics as an exceptionally talented artist. How do you balance your comic work, which is by definition commercial, between being a very highly respected artist?
Simon: I generally balance it about 50/50 though these days so I tend to work on comics one year then work on painting the following one etc etc. This isn’t hard and fast but now I’m doing Thistlebone, that is the way it’s working out.
Paul: You haven't worked extensively on Judge Dredd, which is arguably 2000ad's flagship character. Is he a character that doesn't appeal to you, or have you just not had the opportunity?
Simon: Yes, Sci-fi just isn’t my thing! I’m simply no good at it. Dredd is far better in the hands of Henry Flint or Boo Cook etc. They have a deeper understanding of the character that I just don’t have. His suit was a nightmare to draw, and it just doesn’t work if you, like me, try and literally think about it.
Paul: You seem prolific. Just to give your fans an idea ...how long does it take you on average to complete a page? They are all incredible. How do you manage it?
Simon: I average about 12 pages a month with maybe a cover or two. I do a lot of (probably unnecessary) stages when I plan a comic. Roughs, a full colour watercolour version of the whole story and then really finished inks that I then paint over. It takes me a day to paint a full page. I'm quite quick as I get bored quickly and try and maintain the elusive energy that the roughs invariably have. Speed is one way I find helps with that.
Paul: Can you comment at all about BLAIR 1. David Bishop said it was commissioned at a time when 2000AD was trying to be a little more edgy. I remember it quite fondly. It was a fun strip. What are your memories of the story behind its creation?
Simon: It’s a long time ago now (25 years) so things are a little sketchy but I did remember having to trawl the papers (pre-google images days) for reference of the likes of Edwina Currie and John Redwood which is always a depressing thing to have to do. But I remember enjoying doing it at the time, mainly because my parents were really into how much press coverage it got. It was in most newspapers at the time and was also a question on Have I got News for You. It was a fun little diversion from the usual stuff I did for 2000ad but it was always going to have a limited shelf-life.
Paul: I have to ask about Thistlebone. I loved it. It is remarkable. Can you say anything about how the project came together please?
Simon: Yes, after 30 years in comics, I feel like I’m doing what I really want to do. It’s all down to editor Matt Smith and writer Tom Eglington really. I’ve known Tom a while and we have a mutual love of folk horror. We discussed doing a story and Thistlebone was the result. Matt was keen to maybe re-introduce a horror element back to 2000ad as it started as a sci-fi/horror anthology but had maybe become quite heavy with the former. We’ve created something that have a scope and longevity that we can write and illustrate stories that can have a very different feel from each other.
Paul: Thank you for your time Simon.