Leigh Gallagher's Great Year Continues with Aquila and DefoeA comics interview article by: Steve Morris
Leigh Gallagher has had a pretty great year. After co-creating Defoe for 2000 AD, he has more recently worked with writer Gordon Rennie for a new series, Aquila, set during Roman times. And this isn't forgetting his work with other characters like the ever-popular Judge Dredd! Or the fact he only just got married this year, after an amazing proposal which caught the attention of the internet.
I spoke with Leigh about his current projects for 2000 AD and the day-to-day hideous monster demon violence art which makes up his working life. And, happily, he spoke back to me. Hurray!
Steve Morris for Comics Bulletin: Firstly, congratulations both on your recent wedding and pre-marital escape from an exploding helicopter.
Leigh Gallagher: Thanks very much Steve. I'd just like to apologise to all the ladies out there, and some men, for breaking their hearts with this news.
CB: How did you first come to work for 2000 AD? I know your first piece was a Future Shock story. How did that come about?
Gallagher: It was long process involving me going to British conventions year after year, getting told I “wasn’t quite there yet” by various publishers, me going home to comfort eat, then forcing myself to get back on that 3 legged horse. Eventually Matt Smith at 2000 AD passed me a Judge Dredd sample script, and from there I got my first Future Shock. I still remember jumping up and down like a maniac in the cinema where I used to work, when I got that news.
CB: Do you ever look back at your old work? How do you think your style has grown or changed over the years?
Gallagher: Only as far as maybe 4-5 years back. Anything further than that is just too damn painful, especially the strip where I drew myself with rubber chickens strapped to my body. In fact I can look back at work from a month ago and still see bits I hate and wished I’d done better. Though I definitely recognise that my work has grown over the years, to the point that I probably won’t need to go back and redraw dozens of panels for the collected editions as I have in the past with Defoe.
If I can say anything with certainty, is that my line work especially on Defoe, has grown more controlled. And one thing I have learnt, is that you’re NEVER as good as what you think you are.
CB: Your storytelling style seems to switch a little, depending on the tone of the story involved. The panels in Defoe are fairly conventional and clear, for example, while your work on Aquila is a little more ragged and experimental, matching the more brutal atmosphere of the book. Is this deliberate? How do you approach storyboarding?
Gallagher: Well from the beginning, the writer Pat Mills wanted Defoe to be more classic in panel design, which for a guy who was still learning at the time (around 5 years ago), worked perfectly well for me. A regimented panel grid allows you to concentrate on clear storytelling, and I think it just works better with the mood and atmosphere of Defoe. Plus it means that you don’t waste time trying to come up with a clever, dramatic panel layout.
Aquila, written by Gordon Rennie is a very different beast. Creatively I needed to do something different for a while anyway, and starting a new series from scratch was the perfect opportunity to try wild layouts that flow better with the more superhuman aspects of Aquila.
I’ve gotten to the stage now that my rough layouts on A4 copy paper are barely even recognisable to myself, as I put so few lines there. Helps that I don’t need to get them approved by the boss.
CB: When you’re asked to create something like, for example, The Devourer, how do you begin designing the character?
Gallagher: At first it’s getting the obvious (and crappier) designs out of your system, getting them shot down by the writer, then coming up with LOADS more better designs that YOU think are great, but the writer STILL won’t approve! So after throwing various chairs and household pets through the window, it’s suggested I forget about the description given and go with something new.
That’s why in the end, instead of using the classic Egyptian elements of The Devourer, I concentrated on its name, and came up with a design that involved a gigantic, obese creature, who entire body opens to reveal its mouth devouring all the souls sent by Aquila.
CB: Is there a difference in working on a villain or monster who may not appear often, and creating Aquila himself? As the protagonist, he appears more frequently and has to grab readers in a completely different manner, I’d imagine.
Gallagher: For me personally, there isn’t really that much difference, as whatever I draw, I want to look as freaking cool as possible. Aquila himself I pretty much nailed first time, though that was after hours of researching a site featuring “hot, black men”.
Would have looked really bad if my (now) wife had walked in on me. Also it was pointless designing an outfit for him, as the stories bounce around time a lot so his clothing changes (though saying that, he’s mainly been wearing Roman armour up to now).
CB: What first drew you to Aquila as a concept? What kinds of stories most attract you as a reader?
Gallagher: Honestly, at the time, taking on another historical fantasy series was the LAST thing I wanted to do after spending so long on Defoe! You have to understand that historical series tend to take longer than others due to the extra time needed to get all the reference material. Otherwise you could face the wrath of a knowledgable reader who starts crying about the fact that people in that time period never wore donkey scrotums as shoes!
And so, when I got the call from Tharg asking me if I wanted to draw Aquila by Gordon Rennie, I was working on a sci-fi pitch for 2000 AD with a very talented writer buddy and was in two minds on whether to take it.
Then common sense (plus the fact that Gordon’s a great writer) gave me a good kick in the nuts, and it’s worked out pretty well and has been getting great reviews! Plus, I’m VERY happy with Gary Caldwell’s colouring on it (you have to check out the big fight on the burning bridge)!
As for what drew me to the concept, how could you NOT love the tale of a crucified Nubian slave making a deal with The Devourer, to come back as an unstoppable killing machine, to collect the souls of evil men?!
CB: Defoe is one of your most well-known creations, a character you draw in black and white. Do you think working in black and white alters a tone of a comic? Is that something you ever deliberately play into?
Gallagher: Yeah, Defoe (2000 AD’s resident 17th century zombie hunter comic) is really the series that I owe the bulk of my career to. The black and white art style is one that harkens back to my love of '80s comics EAGLE and SCREAM! and is just one that I’ve always personally preferred over coloured work.
Part of me prefers it egotistically, as it’s my vision without relying on a colourist, but on the other hand, that’s risky as then I can’t blame a colourist if people don’t like it! But really, for a horror comic like Defoe, where atmosphere is vital, I like having the control of black and white.
CB: Are there any plans to go back to Defoe in future? Or any upcoming projects we should know about?
Gallagher: I actually started work on the fifth book of Defoe as soon as I returned from the honeymoon. Pat wrote the whole thing when I was busy on Aquila. It feels like coming home when I draw Defoe and a crap load of zombies, though I’m having to work on it at the same time as a cool little one off episode of Aquila for 2000 AD at the end of the year…
Many thanks to Leigh for his time! If you want to get a more in-depth look at his work, you can find his blog over here – it’s brilliant. You can catch up on Aquila digitally if you head over to Prog 1792, where the story starts with “Blood of the Iceni.”