Interview With Steve White, July 2004
Steve White is a man of many talents. Transformers wise he is best known for being a colourist on the Marvel UK strip. This is not his only skill, far from it, Steve has also been an writer, an illustrator and an editor on many different works. Click the link to his resume on the right for a taster of some of the things he has done.
Steve is one of the best animal artists we've seen. His Dinosaurs are breath taking and we are big fans on Dinosaurs. We urge you all to take a good long look around Steve's website thunderlizard.gn.apc.org at the amazing work he has done. You will find samples on the right of this page as well.
Now to the interview.
TF at The Moon: First off can you tell us who you are, and how you are connected to the Transformers line? (in case people do not know)
Steve White: I was colourist on Transformers starting, I think, from #98. I was employed when Transformers switched from painted artwork to mechanically processed colour. I was in may pink stage at the time.
TF at The Moon: You originally started working for Marvel UK in 1986 working on titles such as Care Bears and Acorn Green before moving on to Action Force, Thundercats and of cause Transformers. What were the differences between these titles (in terms of what you did / what was expected of you)?
Steve White: With the junior titles, the expectations were. I don't mean in the quality of work ! I always tried to do my best. But the subject matter wasn't particularly thrilling and wasn't what I got into comics for. However, it was a great stepping stone up the ladder; I learnt a great deal about the mechanical colouring process ! what we called 'the 9-sheet method'.I should probably explain a bit about this process.
The colours for each page was split into three section; cyan, magenta and yellow. Each section was then split into three more; 100%, 50% and 25%. It was by combining these sheets that you got different colours e.g. brown was 100% yellow, 50% red and 25% blue. Optimus Prime's chassis was 100% red 100% yellow (I would often remember a Transformers by its colour percentages...). Anyway, at the end of the day, you have nine sheets with three colours at three different percentages ! with me so far?
I was originally employed at Marvel as a colour separator. We would have a PMT (a kind of photographic reproduction of the page lost in the midst of the computer age) of the black and white page stuck on acetate attached to a pin bar on a drawing board. We would then put on another sheet of acetate over the top and fill in all the section of 100% yellow that appeared on the page, then do the same on another sheet for 50% yellow and so and so on. We used these special acetate pens that gave off the most pungent fumes. I can only guess at the long term effects... Now where we knew where each colour section was was the job of the colourist.They coloured up a photocopy of the black and white then came the joyous job of marking up each page (a mind-numbingly dull job). You had to point out the various colour combinations for the separator for him to follow. Transformers could be a nightmare if you had a lot of characters on one page and you would have to mark up every single one. We actually had style guides for the colours with the Letraset colours marked up on them by Hasbro and we would have to follow them as closely as possible. This was sometimes easier said than done for the colourist. We used these Stabilo markers which closely approximated all the various colour permutations you could get from the 9-sheet method. However, there were some we couldn't get a marker for. I remember one of my favourite colours was 50% red 25 blue 25 yellow. We had no pen for that so we used two, a bright pink and a pale green. Then of course they'd go out for separation, which was an art form in itself. This was often done by freelancers, some of whom became brilliant at, creating really great effects. One guy even used sponges! Because we couldn't, at the time, getting the graded effect of painted artwork, we'd do things like feather the lines and graduate the colours, for creating reflections in metal, for instance. If you look thru those pages, I'm sure you'll be able to see what I mean. You could also see the change in quality in between the separators ! some pages are great, some by the people who would make my heart sink when I heard they'd done it because one of my editorial chores was to check each page, which meant checking all nine sheets to make sure the inks was completely block in so you wouldn't get colours dropping out. This required you to be hunched over a light box, filling in the gaps and cleaning up the edges where the separator had gone over the line. Joy.
Anyway, I digress. When I started at Marvel, I was just separating, but then managed to start doing some colour rough work; the first title I got may name was the now-long forgotten Get Along Gang. I also started doing Care Bears, which is where I really started to learn a few tricks from a friend of mine, Gary Gilbert. He was an old school chum who had helped me get the job at Marvel and was now designer on Care Bears but also did some of the colouring. He did some pretty nifty things that really started to push the envelope on what could be done ! we are talking, mind you, about Care Bears! I seem to have then developed a reputation as a halfway decent colourist so when Transformers switched I was summoned to the boys action dept. to ask if was interested in having a go.
Now the thing to bear in mind hear is that at this time, the junior titles and the boys action dept. were very much separate entities and never the twain shall meet. I'm sure Simon won't mind if I say but they were pretty elitist and I hardly spoke to them in the first few months I was at Marvel. So being called into their department was a bit unnerving. Anyway, Ian Rimmer was a great guy and told me what he wanted. So I took the roughs home and started on them over the weekend. I remember it really hard work for what later be came such a straight forward job. But I was nervous and wanted to do the best I could. I was also doing them full size (later, we switched to actual comic size, which speeded things up). I was also working from Will Simpson artwork. Will's artwork was a nightmare to colour. He would often leave lines unfinished or just sketchy and the mechanical method really needed solid lines to work. For this reason, I loved Geoff Senior's artwork the best ! not just because it was great art but because it was nice and clean. I realised this difference the first time I coloured one of his strips ! one of the Predacon stories as I recall.
Of course, the principal difference between the likes of Care Bears and Transformers was the complexity. With junior titles, you employed the KISS principal. With Transformers et al, the artwork was generally more detailed and you were come at it from a totally different perspective, trying to make it as realistic as possible within the limits of the colouring process. However, we've just been collecting the Transformers stories I first did here at Titan and I was looking at them the other day. Gak! man, I was still in 'junior' mood ! so much pink! I think it was actually a standing joke at Marvel for a while. Still, I had to start somewhere.
TF at The Moon: You also used to do some writing, on Action Force and Ghostbusters. Are there any stories that you wrote which stand out from this time?
Steve White: I guess you always remember your first. I was lucky enough to have Geoff do my first story ! an AF story set on Salisbury Plain with Destro and the testing of a new missile. I was the Marvel military buff (which drew a lot of flak in itself) and I remember reading an article about a new anti-helicopter missile that could be fired for tanks. I just liked the idea of arms dealer Destro sacrificing a couple of Cobra gunships to see how effective it was in a 'live-firing' test against Action Force.
The Ghostbusters stuff was some of the best times I had at Marvel. I wrote most of them with Dan Abnett and we had a riot. We often came up with the title first then just wrote the story around that. 'Minotaurs Please' ended up as a story about a minotaur loose on the New York subway, with loads of jokes about' bull's in your court' when it goes running through the Hall of Justice and ending naturally in a china shop. It was at that kind of level. Dan and myself would often right them in our lunch breaks at marvel. He was the quicker typist and we would bang them out, laughing hysterically at the terrible punning. The editor of Ghost once told me we had more puns per strip than any other writers. It also helped that Dan and myself were huge Ghostbusters fan.
TF at The Moon: What did you / do you prefer writing or drawing?
Steve White: That's tough. I have to admit that I'm certainly a better artist than writer. I do love writing but the chances are rare these days and I really miss it. But when I first went freelance in 1993 I expected my artwork to support the occasion foray into writing. As it turned for sometime it was the other way round; I ended up writing Rogue Trooper and other strips for 2000 AD on a regular basis. However, I look back on that again with a certain horror.
TF at The Moon: Which do you find harder to do ! i.e. which comes more naturally.
Steve White: Artwork. I doodle all the time. I actually have a hard time writing. I like writing collaboratively as I can bounce my ideas around and feel more secure. I was often the ideas man. I wrote regularly with Dan Abnett and John Tomlinson, who wrote Knights of Pendragon at Marvel, which I edited. Even though I was editor, we co-plotted it together and when the opportunity arose, we decided to work on a book together (The Lords of Misrule). In fact the only Transformers story I did was one I did with John for an annual. Anyway, we've done various stories together and it's often a case of me coming up with an idea - "hey, wouldn't it be good if...", that sort of thing. Dan would then run with it and a plot would take shape and then we'd all get together and hurl the thing around. So, it's a real collaborative effort. Artwork, however, is something I usually do on my own, although I have done full colour over the top of black & white artwork in the past.
TF at The Moon: In 1991 you left Marvel (sob sob) for Tundra Publishing, as Senior Editor. What titles did you edit for them?
Steve White: Nothing of significance. That was a wild time for me. The company had a lot of money and a lot of talent but was ruined by corruption and greed. A lot of good projects were side-lined or blew up on the launch pad. I did a few anthology titles, which were fun ! Monster Massacre, Hardware Havoc, Carnosaur Carnage. I also did various other titles that were finished but Tundra went belly up before they could see print. Many were subsequently published elsewhere, which was no doubt for the best ! was for me! Two of the projects I had co-written, Hypersonic and Lords of Misrule, ended up being published by Dark Horse, as did Kingdom of the Wicked, which I edited. A couple of other projects I was involved with, Strange Embrace and Skidmarks, have been published recently by Comicraft.
TF at The Moon: Your site, thunderlizard.gn.apc.org, states that you launched your career as a Freelance Peacekeeping agent (oh sorry that was Deathshead) as a Freelance Illustrator around the same time as Jurassic Park came out, finding work on various Dinosaur titles released by Orbis Publishing. How did you decide to make the change from Editor to Illustrator on Dinosaur books?
Steve White: It was mainly as a result of the disenchantment I was feeling at Tundra and the arrival of Jurassic Park. A friend of mine had helped me on a dinosaur book I had done for Marvel. She was a freelance illustrator and had gone along to Orbis herself, who were published a dinosaur part-work to ride the Jurassic Park tsunami. She came back and said I should go along as they were looking for anyone who could draw dinosaurs. I wasn't a very confident artists at the time and although I was thinking of going freelance, I assumed it would be as a colourist. However, I went along. As if to reinforce my opinion of my artwork, they didn't like the colour stuff. However, they had been doing these 3D spreads and had been using these really archaic photos I remembered from when I was a kid! But they'd used them all up and were thinking of commissioning black & white artwork instead. They were still unsure if I was the man for they job but I offered to do the work for 350 pounds instead of 500 pounds on spec', so that if they didn't like it they didn't have to pay me. Fortunately, they did and I had enough other colour work to enable me to leave Tundra, which was no wrenching departure for either party involved.
TF at The Moon: Speaking of Dinosaurs, and Jurassic Park. We are huge Dinosaur fans, and we were wondering what your thoughts were on the Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park films? The species became very well known, and "cool", even though they were incorrectly portrayed in the films (where there resembles is more like Deinonychus?
Steve White: Now you're talking my language!
Once I'd overcome the initial wonder and the brilliance of the special effects, I joined the throng of dinophiles who could see the long term damage this film was going to do to palaeontology. The raptors were good examples. Velociraptor itself is about the size of a wolf and sure as hell was not as fast a cheetah or as smart as a chimp. In appearance it was more like Utahrapter, a large raptor found, ironically, about the time the film came out.
The problem for me was the same as the other Spielberg monster movie, Jaws: because it's in a film, it must be true. Everybody believed great whites were rapacious, malevolent human killers. As a result of Jurassic Park, everybody thought raptors were super-intelligent, super-predators, that T-rexes could outrun a jeep and that Dilophosaurus spat and had that ludicrous frill.
I went to a lecture by Jack Horner, the palaeontologist who was advisor on the movie. His take on it was that he would be asked what the actualities were then would completely ignore his comments in favour of dramatic license. So you have kids saying, "It was in Jurassic Park, it must be true," when actually Jurassic Park was a Palaeontological Top Gun, in that it bears absolutely no resemblance to real life. It also did serious harm to the study of palaeontology as, to get funding, scientists were having to resort to making spectacular media-friendly dinosaur discoveries instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty and looking at the stuff that the media would isn't interested in. So there.
TF at The Moon: Staying on that subject, have you see the Deinocherirus arms in the Natural History Museum in London? They are amazing, being over 2 metres long!!
Steve White: They are great. Maybe one day someone will find the rest of it.
TF at The Moon: Your website is all on Dinosaurs, as of cause you have a great interest in them. When did that start and when did you decide to create your own website?
Steve White: It does have a lot of dinosaurs but would like to point out that there are other animals on it too.
One of the problems I had as an illustrator was that I was pigeon-holed by editors as the 'dinosaur guy'. It seemed that in their minds that was all I could do. Subsequently, when the dino craze was over, my career crashed like an airship hitting an iceberg made from napalm, and in a circular manner that led me to Titan.
The irony is that I ended up working in a book shop four days a week, but I ended up getting regular artwork almost from the word go. However, it was not enough to go back freelancing. Yet, the fact that I was still gainfully employed drawing dinosaurs (and other things) was enough to contemplate getting a website.
My girlfriend Emma is a bit of computer whiz and persuaded me it was a good idea to get one and said she's put it together for me, which she did. I think I went on-line in 2001 or 02, can't remember, but it has been pretty successful.
Editors (and this was the principal reason I decided to get one) prefer to surf the net looking for artists than have you wander into their office with your portfolio. I've picked up various bits of work as a result of someone looking for a particular dinosaur or shark and visiting my website when they get a hit.
It also means if someone gets in touch, they have instant access to your portfolio.
TF at The Moon: What did you think of the Dinobots, and if you drew them now would you draw them differently then "back in the day"? As of cause the shape of the T-Rex and Stegosaurus have now changed
Steve White: I guess I always had a soft spot for them but they did always look 'prehistoric'. Now days, they'd be much more limber instead of lumber. I am surprised, they haven't had a make-over, to be honest. Certainly Grimlock could do with a new look.
TF at The Moon: Now you are the editor of Titan Books, who are responsible for the Graphic Novel reprints of the original TF comics. How did that all start?
Steve White: My relationship with the Titan collections is kind of tenuous. I have only been at Titan for about a year and a half, and the books were up and running long before then. I think it all came about mainly as a result of Simon Furman working here. When Dreamwave started the new comics, I think Simon saw a market for the 'classic' material and Titan agreed with him. When I came on board, Simon was still here (well, actually, he was instrumental in getting me the job) and I was assisting him. Then shortly he after I started, he left (he assures me the two events are not linked) to go freelance again ! a very bold steep if I may say so. Now Simon edits them freelance.
TF at The Moon: How well have they sold, as they seem very popular with the fans?
Steve White: They have sold well. They've been a pretty solid hit for Titan, who I don't think were quite expecting the books to do as well as they did. I think we'll be pretty sad when they finally wrap up, which won't be too long from now.
TF at The Moon: In 2002 Paul Cannon, organiser of Transforce, had an exclusive Hard Back version of Target 2006 made. It was famously incorrectly put together, with pages out of order. I bet heads rolled for that one?
Steve White: Not really. I was before my time but it's worth pointing out that these things happen. With the best will in the world, when you're dealing with hundreds of sheets of film whilst also running other series as well, things slip by. It was just bad luck.
TF at The Moon: Do you know which is your "best selling" TF Graphic Novel?
Steve White: Not off the top of my head, but I have a feeling it's something like Target 2006 or Fallen Angel.
TF at The Moon: How do you, or whomever it is who's job it is, decide on who to get to do the art work, and what to have on them?
Steve White: It's usually the series editor. In the case of Transformers, it's usually Simon. Content is invariably dependent on the book's content. Sometimes a cover really pops out; other times you have to really struggle to think of something eye-catching. As for who to do it, we usually have a list of artists who want to use and it's just whose around and has a gap in their schedule at the time.
TF at The Moon: Have you drawn any of the covers yourself?
Steve White: The only covers I ever did were for 2000 AD for a Flesh story I was writing at the time. However, if we ever do a Hookjaw collection, I can push for that!
TF at The Moon: Titan's TF Graphic Novels are now sold in the US. What has the reception been like for them across the pond?
Steve White: It's been very positive. I think one of the real successes has been the sudden availability of the UK material which had been largely unseen in the US. Those whole new story lines were suddenly there for a new audience, many of whom were probably unaware there even was such a thing. I think think this has gone a long way to explain the success of the collections.
TF at The Moon: Can you confirm that you hope to release the entire original TF comic line, and if so can you announce any future titles of the Graphic Novels / any details?
Steve White: I think we'll do as much as we can conceivably do. I know we're planning to do the black & white stories that marked the end of the Marvel UK run. We've got books planned well into 2005 that should wrap up the US collections and what's left of the UK material. As it stands, we have 2nd Generation (UK), Trial by Fire (US) and Maximum Force (US) currently wrapping up. Then we have Dark Star (US). Then we have the B&W material and the start of the Dreamwave Energon mini-collections.
TF at The Moon: If you were asked to work for Dreamwave on a new TF comic, would you?
Steve White: Unlikely to happen. I was a colourist and given the computer-generated stuff they do now, I don't really think I could compete with that. Although, I wouldn't mind doing some fully-painted artwork.
TF at The Moon: Do you ever get people come up to you (either at work or in general) and say, "Hey you're Steve White. I loved your drawings in ...?
Steve White: Not in the street ( although I know Simon recently did)! I did get it here at Titan when I first started, There are several die-hard Marvel UK fans working here who were really nice to me and said they knew my name from when they were kids, which made me feel suddenly very old... I often sit around like some sad old git, telling them war stories about my days at Marvel and they're always amazed at how many people I know. But they forget I started at Marvel in 1986 ! nearly 20 years ago! So, that's a lot of ink on the paper. It's also strange to see them idolise guys who I used to go down the pub with or guys who I loathe with a passion. There's usually fans as well at conventions who remember me, which is nice.
TF at The Moon: Are you going to be attending any conventions this year?
Steve White: I've done the Bristol comicon under the Titan aegis this year and I'm planning to be at Transforce in August. I also think there's a couple of other comicons I'll probably attending in an officlal capacity later in the year.
TF at The Moon: On your work with Action Force, did you ever wonder why they changed the name from GI Joe, as well as the "real names" of some of the Joe characters?
Steve White: Not really. GI Joe is synonymous with America and I think they wanted to make it more accessible to a UK audience. I remember one occasion when we had Footloose in both the UK main strip and the US back up strip. We had to change his name in the American one to Long Slide (which I got from The Terminator). As I recall, we got the inevitable letters from confused American fans.
TF at The Moon: Were you a big comic fan when you were younger, and are you now?
Steve White: I was never a big fan. I read mostly UK titles like 2000 AD, Starlog and Action. I had the occasional US comic ! I was a big fan of Epic Illustrated - usually because it had dinosaurs in. However, when I started at Marvel and was exposed a great many more titles, I started to read a lot more. That kind of subsided when I left but has again picked up now that I'm at Tundra. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.
TF at The Moon: Did you ever read the comics which you worked on, when you were not writing them?
Steve White: As I mentioned, I was a big 2000 AD fan so it was great to actually get to work on something you had revered as a kid. I guess everything else I;ve written has been mini-series so the point is moot.
TF at The Moon: Are there any funny stories / moments that you can remember from your time at Marvel UK?
Steve White: The water pistol fights spring to mind. We all had motorised water pistols in the boys dept. - very realistic and you would have to fill the magazine with water. Very cool. The offices at Arundel Street were huge and we had running (lterally) battles up and down the various floors. I remember one of the girls there had chased me into the kitchen when I was unarmed, She had a Fairy Liquid bottle that she was using and she thought she had me trapped. However, I filled the washing up bowl with water and when she came blasting into the kitchen, I let her have it. She was left looking like a drowned rat whilst I lay corpsed on the floor with laughter.
Another moment we often talk about was a music incident. We had a tape of James Bond themes and it used to drive Richard Starkings, who was then boss editor in the room next door, mad! We used to play it over and over and finally Richard had enough. He stormed into our room, ripped the tape and smashed it to pieces with a hammer. Thing was, it wasn't our tape ! It belonged to one of the other guys. I remember Simon leaning across his desk perplexed and asking if Richard would be buying a replacement.
TF at The Moon: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Steve White: Only what the Eagles sang in Hotel California; "You can out any time you want but you can never leave." That's seems to be the case with Transformers and Marvel UK.
TF at The Moon: We'd like to thank Steve White for answering our question and hope you have enjoyed reading this interview.
Official Website: thunderlizard.gn.apc.org
In 1986 Steve White landed an editorial job for Marvel Comics UK where he worked on titles such as Care Bears and Acorn Green before moving on to Action Force, Thundercats and Transformers and finally graduating to adult sci-fi and fantasy titles such as Knights of Pendragon (the biggest selling title of its kind in the US). During this time Steve brushed up on his skills as a colourist and illustrator and began writing in titles like Ghostbusters and Action Force. In 1991 he left Marvel and joined Tundra Publishing as Senior Editor
After the release of Jurassic Park Steve launched his career as a freelance illustrator, working on various Dinosaur related titles for Orbis as well as working for 2000AD
In 1997 he rediscovered his love for Dinosaurs, whilst working for Marshall-Cavendish and in 2003 finally joined Titan Books as their graphic novel editor. Here are some samples of Steve's amazing illustrations.