THOUGHT BUBBLE 2019!
A new issue of John Riordan and Dan Cox’s brilliantly bizarre music industry send-up Hitsville UK has been something of a Thought Bubble tradition over the last few years. 2018 saw the series comes to a conclusion with its seventh and final issue but at this year’s festival there’s one final hurrah with the debut of the handsome collection of Hitsville UK. You can catch up with all our past review coverage here. To mark the occasion we chatted with creators Dan and John about nearly a decade of Hitsville antics, their collaborative process and just which members of the comic’s sprawling cast they’re saddest to leave behind…
ANDY OLIVER: Hitsville UK has had a long journey from the seven individual issues to its compilation edition. For those whose first exposure will be the collection how would you describe its premise and some of the outlandish characters readers can expect to see in its pages?
DAN COX: The tag line we always use is ‘The best musical sit-com soap-opera in comic book form’ and I think that’s still true but also maybe undersells it a bit. At heart it’s about people trying to make something and be something while everything around them is dragging them down. But it’s on this wild and whirling canvas mixing kitchen-sink dramas of kids haunted by imaginary robots, running battles with nazi, zombie punks and folk singers transmuted by occult experiments. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I still find it difficult to sum up because we designed it to burst at the seams. I would say though it definitely rewards your time, this is not a decompressed comic by any stretch.
JOHN RIORDAN: I have nothing further to add, your honour.
AO: How did your collaboration on the title all those years ago begin?
COX: We’d worked together on a short strip for a sci-fi comic I was writing called Frequent Flyers. We met up to talk about it and, I think, hit it off. Then a little later we were in a pub chatting about what we wanted to do next and we were both really into the idea of doing comics about music. I had this great po-faced magick with a k and music with a c thing I was planning called (everything/nothing), all sigils and spells on the sticky dance floor. John had the bones of Hitsville, and that was obviously a much better idea. I’m not sure he even wanted me to get involved now I think about it.
this whole thing is just a pub chat that got out of hand and he’s been too embarrassed to tell me to stop sending him scripts.
RIORDAN: Finally the penny drops, ten years too late.
The Hitsville UK/Revolver print will be available at Thought Bubble
AO: What’s the creative process behind your partnership? Can you tell us a little about how that collaboration works in practice?
COX: We talk a lot, on phone, via email, whenever we meet and chat plot, characters, jokes…
Then I go away and write the script, then John tells me all the things he doesn’t like and we fight a bit, then I change them a bit and then he draws what he wants anyway!
There’s that classic comics debate of who does the most work, the artist or the writer? As writer I can say it’s the artist, absolutely, come on! It was a very collaborative process though, which is one of the things I loved about doing this book. It was mainly fuelled by us trying to entertain each other.
RIORDAN: Yeah, the writer/artist breakdown is a convenient simplification but isn’t quite true of Hitsville. We plotted everything together (particularly as the comic grew and it transpired that it did actually have a plot!), then Dan wrote 90 per cent of the script but I would insist on sticking my oar in and writing or rewriting the odd bit. Dan’s brilliant at dialogue, which I find hard, and we both had great fun writing lyrics for the imagined songs of our bands. I used to play in a band and I would use a similar analogy for collaborating on Hitsville. There’s a different kind of purity to being a solo artist and pursuing your vision but when being in a band really works, it’s this amazing magic that happens when the sum becomes greater than its parts.
AO: When I first reviewed Hitsville UK back in 2012 I described it as “an intoxicating and vibrant fusion of Shaky Kane and Brendan McCarthy” and noted its Deadline-style vibe. What would you describe as the influences on and inspirations for the series?
COX: Definitely Deadline for me, that chaotic energy, that whole magazine was a mess of music, comedy, art and ill-thought out lefty politics. I have such incredible fondness for the talent that came out of there. Shaky Kane and his partner were really kind about Hitsville when we started and that was huge for me.
It was also an excuse to channel some of my lived experience into a comic. There’s lots of Hitsville that I have a personal connection to, it’s just been translated into this big weird larger than life form.
And in retrospect it was a chance to do something different. At the time I was writing all this SERIOUS chin-strokey stuff that was flopping dead on to the page. Hitsville was a really different tack for me, and turned out to be what I was better at. So, I guess a key influence is me reacting against me!
RIORDAN: Yep, deffo Deadline and all the artists and project that spawned – Philip Bond, Jamie Hewlett, Shaky Kane, Gorillaz etc. Dan and I originally met (when he needed extra artists for his Frequent Flyers comic) on the Invisibles-inspired message board Barbelith, and I think you can see the underlying influence of Grant Morrison, perhaps to a fault.
Beyond that, I’d flag the influence of music itself. The visual iconography, artwork, style of bands and musicians have always been a big part of the kaboodle for me. We played with this most overtly on the cover of each issue, but I tried to draw the characters on the Hitsville roster in ways which referenced the bands or genres of music that inspired them, and I would compile relevant playlists in the hope that the music would seep into the artwork.
AO: What new material can readers expect to find in the collection?
COX: We have a fantastic foreword by music journalist, drummer from Menswear and silver fox Matt Everitt! There’s a good mini-strip we did for Gosh! Comics‘ Record Store Day Zine that is nigh-on impossible to get otherwise. And there’s a load of poster images that John’s done of various characters. We’ve also got a little behind-the-scenes section which has character sketches and odd things combined with verbatim extracts from John’s and my emails as we try and work out what Hitsville is. I really love process docs and making-ofs and I haven’t seen one like this. Though i was hoffifed to discover how abysmall kmy spelling puntuations and grammar ad.
RIORDAN: It’s no surprise to me, I’ve been correcting Dan’s grammar for the best part of a decade. The artist correcting the writer’s grammar!
We’ve also got a snazzy wraparound cover, which references seven album covers. It was a bit of an experiment and people have been very nice about it on Twitter, which was a relief because I drew it jet-lagged, immediately after getting back from holiday, and once I finished it I couldn’t tell whether it was good or terrible!
AO: Did you tell the story you originally intended or did the narrative evolve and diverge in new directions as the years passed?
COX: People have asked this over the years and I’ve always said we had the rough framework and destination worked out and then bits changed within that. Because I’ve been looking back through our correspondence for the collected edition I now think that is a comforting lie and we really were just winging it! There was a point after issue #3 where we sat down and worked out the plot of the remaining 3 issues (maths fans can see how well that went). And I ended up with a sort of spreadsheet of plot points, getting vaguer and vaguer as time went on. I remember writing issue #4 according to the spreadsheet and then issue #5 the first thing I did was write a scene not in the plan and the second thing I did was something that shut down a whole plotline. Then John and I started throwing things in to surprise each other. You need to keep it fresh, keep it changing otherwise you’d go mad with boredom. And if you’re not enjoying the work no one else will.
What was quite gratifying was most of the script problems were solved by going back to issue 1 and seeing what we’d left lying around for our future selves. ‘What if we take this joke seriously…where does that get us?’
RIORDAN: Yeah, there were what we thought were throwaway jokes, which turned out to be really important. It’s tempting to think that that was fate but I think the truth is that you pick things up, look at them in a new light and think ‘hmm, that’s interesting…’
Issue #1 was really just us working out how to make a whole comic book, then we had to figure out where it was all heading. I definitely remember one occasion fairly early on when we went to the pub and worked out the whole plot. The trouble was that we’d drunk quite a lot of beer and hadn’t written it down so neither of us could remember the masterplan!
AO: Everyone has their favourite Hitsville UK characters and arcs. Who among the cast did you find yourselves particularly enjoying writing?
COX: All of them! One of the premises was that each character had to be strong enough to power their own series and they just happened to be all stuck together.
Greg Pastis, manic drug-addled producer was always fun. There was a sequence that got cut where he went all Gareth Malone and started breaking into primary schools and old folk’s homes and forcing them to form a choir that I really enjoyed writing. It ends with a load of army wives throwing him out of a Chinook. I think it was cut because John can’t draw helicopters. I enjoyed the quieter characters as well, there’s a two-page scene that opens issue chapter 3 with one of the Dreads remembering being dragged to church to sing as a kid, while getting stoned in a grotty pub toilet before going onstage, that I love.
RIORDAN: Helicopters, cars, anything technological is a nightmare. I’d do a comic about an Amish community but horses are impossible too!
I have a soft spot for depressed troubador Gwillum (below), who was a character that pre-dated Hitsville but found his larger role in the story. I still feel a bit guilty about all the shit we put him through. I also love Ruthie, pipe-smoking cover star of issue 3. Plot-wise, she doesn’t have a huge role but she just swans through the whole comic, effortlessly out-cooling everyone else.
What was the audience reaction like when the series came to a close last year and how does it feel having come to the end of the Hitsville UK journey?
COX: When you’re making something you spend most of your time in your head fighting all the voices that are trying to stop you making something. It wasn’t till around issue #4 or #5 that I got over myself enough to really feel that we had an audience, we had readers, and they were invested in this! Then it was just a crushing sense of responsibility going in to those final two issues, ‘We really need to land this’ you know?
Going in to the final one there was so much back and forth, the script wasn’t fixed and we were tweaking jokes and rewriting while John was drawing. The rooftop conversation was a nightmare to get right and there’s a political joke in there we had very different views on right to the end.
It was really touching when people were coming up at Thought Bubble last year saying how much they looked forward to picking it up and they were going to miss it. And I’m just thinking ‘you haven’t read the last bit yet!’. It was a relief when we started to get positive feedback.
RIORDAN: Yeah, it’s nice when you realise people have actually read it! There were a few moments at Thought Bubble last year and at Hackney Comic + ZIne Fair this year where I started my spiel about what the comic, only for the punter to say ‘yeah I know, I’ve read them, I just want to get the new one’. Knowing it’s finished is a weird combination of intense relief and feeling a bit bereft. I’m hoping that collecting it into one volume will get it into new hands as well.
AO: Would you ever consider returning to the characters at some point in the future?
COX: Oh god yes. I would do everything from Hitsville 2 to a Simply Shirley mini-series. They’re all characters that just generate plot so really fun to work with. We do have a second series worked out which focuses on The Sisters and Gwillum bumbling through a Brexit-addled Britain. We’re shopping it round some publishers so we’ll see.
RIORDAN: I’d love to do more Hitsville (after taking a break!) The problem is just time and money. I know seven issues over almost a decade doesn’t seem like loads but getting a new issue out in time for Thought Bubble each year has been a wrench, on top of earning a living, having a life etc, and this has only become more so as life has got more complicated. We’re both parents now (no, reader, not together) and so we don’t really have time to make comics which are only labours of love now without being paid somehow.
AO: And, finally, what’s next for John Riordan and Dan Cox? What can we look forward to seeing from you both next?
COX: I don’t know. I’ve been writing lots. And throwing away more. I actually have negative words now. I may have just started something that I might not throw away, but I don’t want to jinx it by thinking too hard about it.
RIORDAN: See my answer above. I’d love to do something with Dan again but we have no plans. Right now I’m just enjoying the fact that we finally finished this story we started. I’m planning on doing a graphic-biog-comic about William Blake, but then I’ve been saying that for years. I’m currently stuck in research hell for that (which truth be told is quite a pleasant place to be).
I’d just like to go off-piste here for a moment and thank you for all the coverage you’ve given our strange comic over the years, Andy. It really does mean a great deal to us, and I know I’m not alone in the comics community in saying that the time and energy you and your team at Broken Frontier devote to spreading the word about great comics is incredible. Cheers!