John McCrea, hitman and madman

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John McCrea has been working in the comics industry for over 20 years. This self-taught artist has worked for every major comic publisher and every major property: the Hulk, Batman, Spider-man, Daredevil, etc. From 1988 on, he has been working on and off with Garth Ennis on various hit-series like Hitman or the Demon. Right now he is working for Marvel Comics UK on their Marvel Heroes series and being a self professed Marvel zombie, he just couldn't be happier.

Broken Frontier: You started out on the more science fiction oriented 2000AD and from there moved into black satire and superheroes. Was this a natural transition for you, were you getting tired of the 200AD approach?

John McCrea: Well, no, I always worked in a slightly cartoony style anyway and I did actually bump heads with my 2000AD editor a few times over my direction and pushing things in a more satirical approach. But that really wasn't the reason why I left 2000AD, the reason was that DC Comics made me a better offer basically. I always wanted to work for America. I love 2000AD but I started out being a Marvel Comics fan and than DC. So the change to go out and work with the big boys in that territory, I couldn't turn it down. They also tend to treat the comics creators a lot better than their British counterparts. The Americans have a little more extra incentives so it was hard to resist.

BF: So working with Garth Ennis has been good to you then. He does the superhero thing but also the satirical approach.

JMC: Garth and I have the same sense of humour anyway, you know. I have known Garth since school. He used to come into my comic shop in Belfast to buy comics before I broke into comics. We formed a sort of natural partnership, the energy flows quite easily. We're both from Belfast, we both like to drink, we share the same ideas ...

BF: You used to live in the same city then?

JMC: Not anymore but we are both from Belfast, yeah. Now he lives in New York and I live in Birmingham. I guess somebody won out, and it wasn't me [laughs].

BF: How about your creator-owned work like Dicks or your own Carla Allison?

JMC: I don't think Garth and I thought that Dicks was ever going to make us a lot of money. It's just more of our sense of humor again, having a laugh, enjoying ourselves and hoping that a few other people will actually read it and enjoy it as well. We're not going to get a saturday morning-tv show out of it though. That seems highly unlikely.

BF: Is that the reading that you seem to be doing a lot less creator owned-work nowadays?

JMC: The reason I stepped away from it - though we do have another series planned - is very simple: I can't afford it. It just doesn't pay enough, it's a tough sell. I do have a thing I did with Phil Hester called the Atheist at Image Comics, that's creator owned. We do have some possibilities with that like a movie for instance. Phil is sort of a movie machine anyway. He just wakes up for breakfast and flogs up another property ready to sell to Hollywood. He's fantastically good at making up properties that get bought up. If you ask Phil he will tell you that he has no clue how Hollywood works but at the same time he seems to do allright anyway. He's a very modest man, a bit of a genius. He's a great artist but he's an even better writer, I think.

BF: His stories always seem to have a philosophical underpinning about the human condition, like the existential meanderings in the Atheist.

JMC: Yeah, it was a great book with some great scenes. It pissed me off that I couldn't do the last part but again, it was a financial decision. It was just one of those damn things that couldn't be helped, unfortunately.

BF: Going back to your beginnings, are you a self-taught artist or did you went through a formal art education?

JMC: I went to art college for two months and dropped out. I didn't really see that was I going to learn anything that I couldn't learn by just working and producing comics. I had no job making comics though, it was one those "Well, I'm just going to sit in the dark and start drawing comics and make it work myself." I actually got my first job when all my school buddies got their degrees so basically it took me three years just submitting stuff and sitting in the dark. And most of the people that started art school with me ... none of 'em got art-related jobs. So I think I made the right decision.

BF: So how did you judge your art? Where did you go to for feedback?

JMC: I just send work in to publishing houses and in those days, they actually answered. They had art submission editors back then. In some ways it's easier to get into the comics industry these days because of the internet but in other ways it's much harder because people do not tend to look at artwork anymore. It's getting pretty ridiculous actually. It's the meticulous aspect of things. If you produce a piece of artwork that you have drawn up yourself and you wrote the story for that piece ... if you send it in they won't want to look at it. They're worried about being sued if for instance three years later, they publish a story that looks a bit like your story.

So some publishers have gotten really closed but others have good online submission pages, it has become a somewhat more awkward arena to get into. There are ofcourse the comic conventions too, I used to do a lot of that as well.

BF: Your cartoony exaggerated style has a very unique look and seems to harken back a bit to Kevin O'Neill and maybe even a dash of Don Martin and some Gonzo sensibility like Ralph Steadman. How did you arrive at this style? Did you go through a phase where you emulated certain artists while you locked yourself up in your room?

JMC: Sure, sure while I was growing up, I was just a big Marvel zombie. I love John Byrne. Most of the people of my age that read comics all worship John Byrne. Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Alpha Flight, all the good stuff. These days ... well, I won't say nothing [smiles]. Otherwise, there's a variety of artists but I have always been a major Steve Ditko fan.

BF: The way you draw hands have always seemed very Ditko-esque to me ...

JMC: That is a beautiful thing to say. Any comparison of me with Steve Ditko is ofcourse completely deranged but most welcome. I couldn't be half the artist. There's also Jack Kirby, Jaime Hernandez I really love ... I could just go on and on. I like to look at these artist and maybe extract things from them but I'm hoping I don't sortof actually draw like any of them. You don't wanna end up like that.

BF: For Eaglemoss, you're drawing Spider-man again. Did you look at the Ditko issues for inspiration?

JMC: Yeah, Ditko and Romita Senior. I got all my essential Amazing Spider-man volumes. Oh and also a lot of Gil Kane Spider-man stuff too, absolutely terrific. In fact especially when Gil Kane was drawing it and then Romita Senior came in inking him, oh my god what a team. Kane did a run from around Amazing Spider-man 75 all the way up to basically a few issues after Gwen Stacy died and then Ross Andru stepped in I think. Kane did a really nice solid run. Very consistent in the inking and his figure drawing, his knowledge of anatomy was just phenomenal. When he constructs a figure, it looks like when you take a human figure and you flay the skin off it you can see all the muscles in action. Beautifull. And he was also very fast.

BF: John Romita Senior once said that if you're doing a great flashy drawing in a comic, you only make the reader aware of the fact that it is a great drawing. The artwork is only a tool to tell the story so if you make a drawing so clearly a drawing, you have failed as a storytelling comic book artist. Do you agree with this and does this jibe with your opinion on painted art and comics storytelling?

JMC: Well that's just it ain't it? Everybody likes a looking at a pretty picture but not to the point where it is distracting from the story. That is our job at the end of the day, telling a story. Steve Dillon always said that if the people stop reading to look at his artwork, then he wasn't doing his job right. I admire his work immensely because he draws up to a point where he sublimates any sort of flashy elements of the art. Even his splash pages have that aspect, they serve the story without being a flashy picture. I haven't got quite the maturity to do that I guess [laughs]. I have a fragile ego and I want to show off a little bit and be loved and admired. I still try to draw a nice picture, flashy shot every so often, big splash. I want people to go 'Oooh he's a really good artist!'. But I admire people who can say that that is not the way it works, that we're here to serve the story.

BF: But you have your own way of dealing with that, right. If I look at all your comics, you can sorta see you adapting your skills for each story. It's still a John McCrea drawing but there are differences in the way you draw different series, like the style of Dicks versus Hitman versus the Atheist.

JMC: It's sort off a blessing and a curse at the same time for my art. I tend to get bored so I like to experiment with different styles and I think that sometimes people tend to like pigeonholing you. They don't like it when one minute you're drawing Scooby Doo and the next minute you're drawing Jenny Sparks or a Bart Simpson. And I do like to jump around and be kindoff everywhere. I have enjoyed doing Scooby Doo, that was great fun. It just like to have many varied styles. I think it was one of the MAD artists who said that it's best to draw in as many different styles in as many different ways as possible because then you'll never be out of work. Styles come and go you know. I like to have as many artistic strengths as possible. If something happens and I can't get work in one arena, then I can go and work in another arena, you know. That's the half-assed theory. Whether or not it fricking works is a whole matter entirely.

BF: Are you still teaching comic art?

JMC: Sure, yeah, I just started teaching another class and I'm going to Bulgaria next month to teach for three days there and then next year I'm running a workshop over six months between Bulgaria, Spain and the UK. I'll be sorta moving around between all three. So I'm still doing quite a bit of the teaching and enjoying it as well. A lot of my students are having quite the success. There was a show in Birmingham just recently and one of my students got hired by DC to do a Flash cover so that was thumbs up. A lot of 'em ended up working for Beano or MAD Magazine, so lot of successes in that field. It's like giving something back. The students respect me so much, you know me being the famous John McCrea. They say stuff like 'Euhm ... who is he?' [laughs]. Some of 'em do know me though. Who cares though.

BF: With all your different projects and the travelling to do teaching, can you find a good balance between work and family life, raising the kids?

JMC: Me and the kids, you know, I just got another one, 12 weeks old. So I'm not getting out of the house much except to work. Lot of late nights, working at home has it advantages and its disadvantages you know.

BF: You've also done poster work and record sleeves among others. Do you consciously look for this kind of work or do you focus on your comic work?

JMC: Very little of that going on right now. I'm doing a sort of online animated webcomic for a Scottish tv company who hired me to produce storyboards/comics. It hasn't been seen yet though.

BF: What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favourite piece of art that you own, like an original Ditko maybe?

JMC: [laughs] An original Ditko, in my dreams yeah. I got a bunch of Gil Kane pages. I got a lot of artwork, I got some Arthur Adams pages from X-Men. Probably my favourite artwork that I do have of are two fully painted comics by Brendan McCarthy. I bought them from a comic shop in London just before I broke in to comics. They were selling for like 40 pounds each which was nothing for two fully painted comic strips by Brendan. It was an old comic for a London based newspaper; the comic strip was called 'Summer of love'. I think it ran for four episodes, I got two of them and my old mate Rufus Dayglow - if you can believe that name - he's got the other two. Rufus has got a loooot of stuff. He's a funny guy. He wants me to sell 'em the two pages but he can't have them! They're mine!

BF: What’s currently sitting in your CD player?

JMC: Nothing new that's for sure. I'm still an old punk. I listen to Dead Kennedy's a lot. What the hell do I listen to? I got a big taste, I like disco, I like soul, Donna Summer. So I listen to the Dead Kennedy's and Donna Summer, I don't know where the consistency is but you know.

BF: Well, thanks for your time John and good luck with all your future projects and congratulions with the new baby!


Keep abreast of the latest going-ons of John McCrea at his  website and while you're there, check out all his art and preview pages.

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