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 Kevin O'Neill (Part One)Written: 11 JUN 2001
 
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Kevin O'Neill (Part One)Kevin O'Neill (Part One) They make an exotic and intimidating group. Marshall Law is tall and muscular, clad in barbed wire and restraint-ware, fresh from the killing of another super-hero. Alongside is Nemesis - an alien demon with double-jointed legs and a face that resembles a savage and over-used sword. Around him, dead humans pile up at his feet. A tiny, fat and malevolent creature wearing an ill-fitting Batman costume is hovering around them. This 'Batmite' drips lunacy from an almost hallucinogenic aura.

But nothing can compare with the initial shock of meeting Kevin O'Neill, the artist who has kept these creatures in his head for twenty years, drawing their murders, mutilations and occasional sexual depravities. For O'Neill appears overwhelmingly ... normal.

My expectations were rather different. In one of the many fake Victorian adverts that are placed through his latest project, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, "O'Neill's Compulsion" is described as: "A visual counterpart to Tourette's syndrome found in artists and the users of public lavatories impelling them to perpetrate lewd images. Madness and death are inevitable within 4-6 weeks".

But there seems nothing lewd or mad about him at all - in fact quite the opposite. He seems practical and reasonable - even suburban. Rather than dressing to excess, he wears a white T-shirt and a tweed jacket. His face is ruddy under his white hair and when he speaks, he sounds blunt and matter-of-fact.

He laughs when asked about the apparent differences between his life and his work.

"When I first did signings I think I was a grave disappointment to people," he says with a grin. "I was working on 2000AD and I used to hear stories about myself - that I worked in a room painted entirely black and only by candlelight - that kind of thing. Sadly it isn't true! I'd love to be able to say that I had my own private temple under the basement of my house and work in the pitch black and only using torches, but I work very very normally."

Born in London in 1953, O'Neill grew up with the traditionally English comic books, The Beano and The Dandy. American super-hero comic books were only just starting to arrive in the UK - coming over as ballast in ships. He remembers being fascinated by them.

"They were full colour," he reminisces, "unlike the British ones. They were more expensive too - you had to save up for them. Actually searching down sequential runs was nigh on impossible and you'd see adverts for things that never came over - Justice League and things like that. I became a huge Batman fan. "

But it wasn't the super-hero comics that inspired him.

"MAD magazine started to reprint the old paperback MADs in comic book form," he continues. "I saw one at primary school and totally fell in love with it. I think it is something that people of my generation seem to have in common - Dave Gibbons felt the same. With all the details crammed into the frames, you could read it at two or three different levels and half-a-dozen times and still be entertained by it. That was a big kick for me. I think it was the pivotal moment - I wanted to be a comic artist after that.

It wasn't long before he got his wish, although it wasn't under the best of circumstances. When his father took early retirement, O'Neill found that aged sixteen he was expected to bring money into the home. Unable to go to art school, he applied for a job at the British publisher IPC.

"I went to see a lady who was looking after the women's magazines and she sent me over to what was called the 'Boy's Juvenile Department'. I was sent straight to work on Buster, which was an experience! The men I worked for were ex-military and had all served in the Second World War or had done National Service. They were very strict - they thought comics were all about spelling and punctuation. In fact they would all have been happier editing Caravan Monthly. Certainly, no one thought comics were art form - if you even talked about them seriously people thought you were a bit simple."

It would be 1976 before he got his first major break. He was working as a colourist on reprints of Disney comics and the English humour comics Monster Fun and Whizzer and Chips. It was then when he heard a rumour that a new science fiction title was being developed.

"I went to the group editor and said that I either got transferred or I quit - I couldn't bear any more of the humour comics. I went around to see Pat Mills, who was putting the comic together and I was transferred into 2000AD. I measure my career, such as it is, from that point. If I hadn't started on 2000AD I would have ended up doing humour comics - I would never have had the break to do drama."

When 2000AD was launched it had a huge impact on youth culture in Britain - a subversive and irreverent title, it caught the buzz of a generation that was starting to feel the energy of the emerging punk music scene. Working with Pat Mills on the title gave O'Neill a creative freedom that he had never had before. This relationship delighted him, and has continued to the present day.

"Pat had no prejudice against artists," he says cheerfully. "He thought anyone could do anything! He was the least editor-like editor I had ever worked for - he took on everyone's opinions. We got on well - we clicked. And since 76 I think we've had something out every year since. Comics sometimes throw up partnerships that last a long time."

Their first major collaborative success was with Nemesis the Warlock. They had been working on a strip called Robusters that included a long and overblown chase sequence. They loved it, but the management hated it. He remembers their reaction with a laugh.

"The guy who was in charge of censoring it said that if it hadn't have been running so late he would have put a blue pencil through the whole thing. He thought it was dreadful and a waste of space."

Thankfully both the plot and O'Neill's grotesque and humorous style was proving popular with the readers.

"We decided to follow it up with Terror Tube as a kind of 'fuck you' thing - we did six pages of just chase with these two new characters. We came up with Torquemada who was a clansman - an inquisition-type character - and Nemesis, a terrifying alien protagonist. We decided that it could be a really great series with all the human characters completely evil, with no redeeming features at all."

The series was a tremendous success, and became one of 2000ADs staples. Until O'Neill was forced to leave the series because of financial problems, audiences were thrilled by the ultra-violence and cynical humour of the series. The book developed Torquemada from an obsessive human into a vengeful and powerful spirit - disturbing and iconic enough to become Nemesis' arch-enemy. His art was also developing, becoming more powerful - even Gothic. O'Neill still looks upon the series fondly.

"In a couple of months I am doing the absolutely last Nemesis episode of all time for 2000Ads Millennium edition. It's a long-standing commitment I have with Pat - I said I'd always do the last one.

But the violence and the controversial style O'Neill's was developing again caused friction with the censors. One day he was dragged into the office of his editor who demanded that he change some artwork. He remembers the occasion vividly and with a degree of derision.

"It was a scene in which two giant Torquemada statues had a bridge slung between them. I didn't see what was wrong with - there was no blood or anything. But the editors thought the bridge was some kind of penis! It was above the navel! I just thought, 'Where the hell does he keep his penis?!'. I made the bridge look thinner and that pacified them. But at the same time, they completely missed that Torquemada was married to an underage girl. We had scenes of him in bed with his 14 year-old child-bride and they never even blinked!

Tom Coates

[Originally written for SubMedia magazine July 1999]

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