"2000AD hid behind the idea that it was just science fiction," he says. "They were only robots or cyborgs with their guts flying out... But we still had huge rows with management over the things that we could do. John Sanders, the managing director, knew that "drok" meant "fuck" but because it was "drok" he let us get away with it."
O'Neill's ongoing battle with the censors has continued throughout his work. And while British comics allowed him a certain amount of license, the Americans were not so forgiving. His move to the mainstream DC and Marvel books was far from successful. In the mid 80s DC began to look to England for fresh talent - or as O'Neill puts it "cheap labour who could speak English". But having agreed to work with the company, he found it difficult to find a project that excited him. His style was considered too quirky and subversive for the most mainstream titles. Even when he found work, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) often considered his work too extreme.
"I was working on an Alan Moore story," he says, suddenly serious. "The CCA objected - not to the actual story but to the style that it was drawn in. I had aliens being crucified and stuff like that. My editor asked if we could run it with a code sticker if we toned down the crucifixion. They said there was NOTHING they could do to the artwork that would help. I loved that! I loved the idea that these old grannies were sitting in an office in New York poring over every comic page. It was 1950s.
"The whole comics code thing seems so anachronistic to us in Britain. The big worries in the UK weren't about violence, but scenes with characters pushing fireworks through grannies' letterboxes and kids playing in abandoned fridges." He laughs as if suddenly remembering something. "That got us in a lot of trouble."
The Americans were also unhappy with his next project - Marshall Law. The idea, of a masked and psychologically scarred character that hunted super-heroes was popular with Epic and with the book's readers. In fact through the whole run there was only one censored panel. However it still had its problems.
"People often took Marshall Law seriously, but it was really a black comedy. We pushed each other to the limits of bad taste - and occasionally pushed it over the edge. The second issue had a Superman-like cover and a rape storyline. It had originally been on sale in chains of bookstores all over America. Marvel got a complaint because a mother had bought an issue for her son - the kid kept asking his mum all about these pictures. It was never sold in a chain store again. One complaint and it was out."
Discussing this period with O'Neill the overwhelming impression is of a man who was beginning to look beyond the desire to shock. He describes the conflicts and crises of his controversial work with a mixture pride and resignation. It is as if the thrill of provoking a reaction no longer holds the same charm for him as it once did. He speaks animatedly about Marshall Law and his work on Nemesis, but when we turn his most recent work with Alan Moore he seems more focused and thoughtful.
"I have drawn hundreds and hundreds of bullet riddled bodies, mutilated people, heads blown off and stuff like that. As much as I get great pleasure from bodies ricocheting off walls and limbs flying off I think I was really ready for a change. I started to feel like some sad tired old cabaret act. I loved Marshall Law but The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a real change. It had a female protagonist and some of the hardest stuff I've ever had to draw - people doing nothing. It's much easier to blow someone's head off than to do long scenes with smoking-jackets."
The series, which uses popular characters from books by Jules Verne, HG Wells, H Rider Haggard and Edgar Allan Poe (amongst others), describes the exploits of a team of classic Victorian adventurers. Along with the change of subject, O'Neill worked to develop a more restrained and figurative style. He seems particularly happy to be working with the notoriously detail conscious Moore and to be able to research both the 19th Century and its genre fiction. Much of O'Neill's initial work on the book was researching the look of his protagonists from old engravings in the original novels.
"Some writers are more giving than others. Jules Verne is not terribly helpful on the look of Captain Nemo. In the engravings for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, he is this white-bearded Neptune type character, but in Mysterious Island he has suddenly got this Indian background. Allan Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines is interesting, because all the films confuse him with Sir Henry Curtis - a vital barrel-chested character. Quatermain is an old man, covered in scars and short. In our book he's seventy, although he's obviously met Ayesha [from Rider Haggard's She] at some point! The look of the Invisible Man was easy of course! None of them have been really difficult, except perhaps Mina - I read Dracula for clues, but Bram Stoker didn't really go in for detailed descriptions."
"I have always been interested in the period, but we decided early on that this was some kind of parallel London. There was a plan to turn to turn the Crystal Palace into a thousand-foot vertical glass building, which would have been incredible. Hopefully we'll get that in - it's too good to miss. I particularly love Victorian illustrators and that kind of choked, ugly dirty London that they depicted. I have loved drawing the street scenes and the period's drunkenness and prostitution makes that all the more fun. I grew up on a council estate and it was really common on a Monday morning to see the mums with their black eyes at the school gates, the kids being dragged along with their arms almost out of their sockets."
The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is currently selling well in both Britain and America and O'Neill has faith in its future. With six issues in this series and a further six planned for next year, he and Alan Moore are looking to move the book into the 20th Century. And he is hopeful that it may even reach a third volume.
But even after all we've discussed, my initial sense of the difference between his work and his life resurfaces. It is almost as if his bizarre and transgressive work is the Batman to his everyday Bruce Wayne. Somehow his protestations of normality don't ring entirely true - after all, his art has seen more than its fair share of decapitations and disembowelments. Surely, there is something about this English family man that inhabits a strange and darker world.
By way of a challenge to his charming fašade, I mention that his work might be seen to have the same relationship to normal comic art as S&M has to sex. He splutters to life and after several minutes of astonished silence, he responds.
"I've never been asked that before! Hugely flattering of course! I suppose there is probably something underneath my work - a hint of bondage! There is certainly a fair amount of racy costumes and restraint-wear. I don't know what to say! I'm going to put that on my headed notepaper!" He smiles broadly and his eyes light up with mischief.
"I suppose I have a kind of parallel life," he says after a pause. "I don't have any suburban friends at all. I'm great friends with a band called Rockbitch and I have a lot of occult friends and friends who work in the sex-industry. I suppose my benign smiling face might just conceal an appalling secret life!"
[Originally written for SubMedia magazine July 1999]
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