A kind of comic book life: Gary Spencer Millidge on the return of Strangehaven

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Way back in December last year I posted a snippet of news that one of my all-time favourite comics, Strangehaven, was due to make a comeback in May 2014 in the pages of ‘Meanwhile…’ a comics anthology published by Soaring Penguin Press.

Although that original date slipped; the official date for its appearance in comic book shops (for the U.K and the rest of mainland Europe) is 17th October.

I’m delighted that Gary Spencer Millidge generously agreed to return to Imagination is spicy to answer a few questions I put to him on this long-awaited continuation of the series.

After the announcement in December 2013 that Strangehaven was to return in Meanwhile… you said in response to many fans’ expression of support that: “I wasn’t quite psychologically prepared for the deluge of positive reaction today.” Was it the strength of people’s enthusiasm for Strangehaven or the number of people who were delighted at the news after a long absence that came as a surprise?

The combination of both I suppose. No matter how talented (or otherwise) you are, there are always one or two people that see you as the greatest creative force in the galaxy. And I knew that some of my long-suffering subscribers would be glad to see an end to it, after so many years thinking their investment in me had been wasted.

But to receive dozens and dozens of excited emails, Facebook comments, tweets and retweets was a genuine – and overwhelming – surprise. My phone was buzzing with various alerts every few seconds for about twenty-four hours.

You have to remember that when the last issue and trade paperback were published back in 2006, the Internet, and specifically social media, didn’t bear much of a resemblance to how it is today. Of course I had reactions from the various non-fiction books I’ve worked on since, but nothing on this scale.

Particularly surprising was the prominence the news was given on comics news websites like The Beat, Bleeding Cool, Comics Reporter and Down the Tubes. I guess the longer the period of inactivity, the bigger the news story it is when it does come back.

Back in the day, I used to print out press releases and mail them out to magazines like Comics International and Wizard, then wait a couple of months to buy them and see if they thought what I had sent was news-worthy enough to deserve a mention. It’s the immediacy that’s so startling.

Of course, it’s all over as quick as it started, like a heroin rush, and then you’re feeling empty and sad.

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Strangehaven in ‘Meanwhile…’ Issue 1 October 2014

Once you knew you were going to be able to work on Strangehaven again, did you find yourself thinking ahead about artwork, plot lines and characters, and how/if you’d be approaching that in a different way to how you’d created your self-published work? Specifically, you’re still the same person but creatively you might be approaching things differently because of things you’ve experienced and learned since 2006?

Well, no, because book four had already been written and thumbnailed out some years earlier. Around 1999 – after issue 12 – I had already decided that Strangehaven ought to comprise four books, even if I didn’t make that knowledge public. I took time out to figure out how to pull all the various plotlines together and how to neatly – relatively neatly anyway – resolve everything. Then I went ahead and thumbnailed out the remaining twelve issues.

So I’ve been working from that framework ever since. Those pages have been through numerous revisions and tweaks – and the temptation to throw it all out and start again had to be ignored – but even since completing book three, I’ve still been slowly reworking bits of plot here and there, gathering visual reference materials, experimenting with new techniques and so on.

But you’re right that a lot of time has passed, and life events have changed me as a person, and this will inevitably influence the new work in some way. But consciously at least, I want to try to preserve the original vision I had for the series, back in 1993 or 1994. Exorcising all the demons I’ve collected since will only fully manifest themselves in any subsequent works of mine.

Strangehaven in 'Meanwhile…' Issue 1

Strangehaven in ‘Meanwhile…’ Issue 1

For readers who keenly remember the days of Strangehaven being in black and white; there might be more than one surprise in store finding that the new stories feature colour. Was that one of the long-term aims you had for the comic, or did that come up initially as an idea in discussions with Soaring Penguin?

Yes, I remember it did come up during our first meeting, before I had signed any contracts or even made a verbal commitment, and I said no, no way did I want to do it in colour. I thought it would be too much to learn another skill on top of everything else. It would hugely complicate any future collected editions, it would take too long, and I had never ever given it any thought whatsoever.

In the mid-90s when I first published Strangehaven, black and white was the only financially feasible route to self-publishing. Colour printing was more than twice the price, and computer colouring wasn’t available to the average consumer until some years later, and covers had to be scanned and separated by the printers at considerable cost. Bone, Cerebus, Strangers in Paradise, Kane, Hepcats and all my other self-publishing contemporaries were all black and white.

Now of course with Photoshop and digital print, colour publishing is within the reach of the smallest small presser. But even after the contracts were signed and the announcements were made, I was still working on the first episode in greytones. And John Anderson, my publisher, was continuing to drop hints about the anthology being in colour and using his dirty psychological mind control tricks to subconsciously influence me, but I was still saying no.

I think it was when John tied me to a chair, put “Stuck in the Middle with You” on his CD player and started waving a knife around in front of my face that I started to change my mind. It was something I certainly felt capable of doing given extra time, and wondered if it might broaden my readership – as I know black and white comics are an anathema to some. I’ve also stepped up my rendering techniques with each book – traditional linework and mechanical tone film in Arcadia, digital inking and digital gradients in Brotherhood, and complex ink wash modelling in Conspiracies…so in retrospect, adding colour was the next logical step.

Originally I tried merely adding tints, but it wasn’t working, and I eventually developed a method that I was relatively happy with. Coincidentally, my contributor copy arrived in the post today, and I have to say that in print the colours are much darker and muddier-looking than I expected. No doubt that’s due to my inexperience with digital colouring and digital printing, because Mark Stafford’s colours in the same magazine look fabulous. But I’ll figure it out.

Strangehaven in 'Meanwhile…' Issue 1 October 2014

Strangehaven in ‘Meanwhile…’ Issue 1 October 2014

Were there any particular difficulties with bringing the focus on writing and drawing a comic back into your daily working life, or was it something that you adapted to more quickly than expected?

Oh god, no, it’s like pulling teeth. My eyesight has deteriorated to the point where I need eyeglasses to draw. I’ve been suffering from a frozen shoulder on my drawing arm all year. I’ve lost dexterity in my fingers and I’ve lost hand-to-eye coordination. My power of concentration is shot to pieces. Every panel takes hours to complete and when I’m done, I hate everything about it.

So, pretty much the same as usual.

Finally, a fishing trip for some teasers: the end of Issue 18 has a literally explosive cliffhanger scene portrayed. With the start of the latest episode would you say that it will create as big an emotional impact on readers?

No, it’s a pretty gentle start. Someone gets a haircut, someone has a pint, that sort of thing. Most of what happens in Strangehaven happens off panel and is usually only alluded to. Heaven knows what any new readers will make of it. The first episode is heavy on recap, but it’s a memory refresher rather than a comprehensive précis of what’s gone before. But I can say there will be another explosion in a future episode.

To find out more about worldwide availability of Meanwhile, as well as upcoming appearances at comics events, visit Gary’s blog for details: Strange Maven’s Diary