Frank Barrell talks to Terry Hooper-Scharf about The Ultimate Game, The Cosmic Fulcrum and The Return Of The Gods!
I’ve interviewed Terry a couple times before –the last time about his resurrection of an old UK Golden Age character in The Bat Triumphant. Not easy to interview someone who doesn’t like interviews and has rarely taken part in one in 30 years but here goes nothing!
Frank: Now I know you are a major fan of the obscure UK Golden Age heroes and you’ve incorporated many into your “Black Tower Universe” since 1984 and you have also published a book -400 plus pages?- of many of these old obscure strips, both humour and action. So, Return, is the biggest all original work book you’ve published to date?
Terry: Yes, biggest comic book or “graphic novel” if you prefer. I’ve published about five (?) bulky prose books –Some Things Strange & Sinister, Some More Things Strange & Sinister, Pursuing The Strange & Weird, The Red Paper and, of course, the best of 25 plus years of interviews in…The Hooper Interviews.
Normally, I’ve published A4 comic albums of between 15-120 pages. Return, however, is the first graphic novel.
Frank: How many pages?
Terry: It’s 318 pages.
Frank: I may have gotten ahead of myself a bit here –I was reading Paul H. Birch’s Q&A with you on SpeechBalloon and got diverted –
Now, I know you’ve read comics since you were about six or seven years old and your influences were outlined in a full interview by Phil Latter (yeah, give a Canadian the opportunity to interview you but not your mates!)
and you’ve expanded on this background with postings on Manhwa, Manhua and Manga as well as European (particularly German) comics on CBO….
Terry: This is going to be a very long interview, isn’t it?
Frank: I’ll get there in a minute just hang about.
Terry: Then hurry up!!!!
below:art from the original The Ultimate Game. Pencils T. Hooper/Inks B. R. Dilworth.
Frank: Okay, we’ll get back to Golden Age stuff in a while. As you are so impatient maybe you can tell us just how Return started?
Terry: In a way I think it goes back to when I was a nipper, drawing comic strips in old receipt books my gran, Rose, used to get me from work (she worked at Pople’s Popular Pies in Mina Road, St. Werburgh’s, and old blank receipt books were thrown away but she found it a very “economic” way to stem my need for paper to draw on)—
Frank: And you don’t have any of those books any more, do you?
Terry: Sadly, no. My parents kept moving about and I lost so much stuff but only managed to keep the odd cherished comic.
Any old way, I used to draw UK characters such as Billy The Cat, Billy The Whizz and The Spider –even The Phantom Viking—alongside US comic characters like Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Batman and so on. Actually, as I’m saying this I suddenly realise that Return is a sort of expansion of those old books. That is weird. I never really thought about it until now.
below: More of the original UG -credits as before!
Frank: To save any legal threats we need to make sure that its clear you have not used any of those characters in Return!
Terry: Absolutely not. I’m not insane!
Frank: So you started drawing these strips in old receipt books and so on and you never lost interest in comics as you grew up?
Below: a colour “swatch” page for the colourist.
Terry: No. Not at all. I never had a terrible childhood –my grandparents, Rose and Bill, mainly raised me and though we were poor Bill did try to keep me supplied with a weekly comic or a shilling (5p today!) pocket money so comics and plasticine were always with me. And when I eventually went to Greenway Secondary Modern Boys School in Southmead, Bristol, I found a few people interested in comics and later on taught a few younger lads to draw comics. School was not a good time for me so drawing and comics were a distraction.
Frank: Your original plan was to get into publishing and publish comics as a business or work as a comic editor, right?
Terry: Yes. All my contact was mainly with editors or publishers and I soon learned that it was a real closed shop. But that’s a very, very long story!!
Frank: Alright, zooming ahead. You were going to various comic companies in the mid 1980s and trying to sell comic title or strip series ideas. It was at this point that the germ of what was going to become Return started: can you tell us about that?
Terry: Well, in a way it began (excluding those old receipt book cross-overs) with Fleetway in the 1980s. I had met Steve McManus and Dave Hunt and others at the editorial level but my real insight into things came through Managing Editor Gil Page –when he later retired (around 2000) he had been with the company since 1957 and had been there from Amalgamated Press, IPC, Fleetway, Maxwell PP and then Egmont.
I learnt things such as the fact that, as Gil put it in a letter: “everyone was excited about this big American comic writer who had created the Spider for us” –yes, Jerry Siegel created The Spider. And talk of the old characters they still had and never used led to me “kinda” talking Gil into letting me put together a 10 page preview titled “The Ultimate Game”. I say “kinda” because no one could persuade him to do what he did not want to –he was affectionately known as “the UK Stan Lee” and I still hold him in great respect.
However, though the end result –The Ultimate Game– was liked and copies made and passed around all over Fleetway –I went to see Steve McManus about a 2000 AD related idea and he took the pages out of a drawer and said “You’re the guy behind this, aren’t you?” Ah, the recognition at last! Anyway, “someone” put a spoke in the works. Sheer malice but they bi-passed the editors and contacted upper management. From then on the old characters were really “a thing of the past” and later incarnations never treated them properly –though I love Shane Oakley and George Freeman’s work on Albion.
By total accident, I met a fella who was in management at Maxwell Pergamon Publishing and he blurted out -by accident?- that Robert Maxwell was buying out Fleetway and that Maxwell really wanted to publish successful comics in the UK. I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes but apparently Rupert Murdoch had a newspaper empire and had said at some point his company was going to publish comics -red flag to Maxwell! I met the man once, very enthusiastic. I counted my fingers afterwards.
It took a while but then his people decided The Ultimate Game was going to be a full colour, 32 pager, old style weekly –a bit like Battleor the new Eagle but full colour. At this point I was very excited but a warning voice always tells me to not get carried away. Everything was ready…then Maxwell died and I have no idea what was going on.
Eventually, I was writing for Egmont, mainly on Revolver and then someone found the old Ultimate Game project. I think they were trying to impress their bosses with ideas which should have warned me! I spent a lot of time up-dating it. Then the editor involved left, apparently on not very good terms with Egmont, and the project died again.
Marvel UK had shown an interest but wanted all rights so I said no. It would have been nice money but giving up rights to all the characters? No.
I ought to point out that after Fleetway and Egmont and Maxwell I had incorporated my own characters, some that I had created in the 1970s, into the story as I could not use the old Fleetway characters.
When I re-launched Black Tower Adventure in…2009 I needed a meaty main feature. The Ultimate Game had been adapted and the title changed to The Cosmic Fulcrum for Marvel UK and that title was used when it finally appeared in a Small Press version. So, what I had in 2009 was a strip that had been reworked and re-titled as The Return Of The Gods: Twilight Of The Super Heroes. I had thought Adventure would only go for six issues so the strip was perfect and I would finally see it in print in some form!
Frank: And Adventure is at issue 10 now! But you combined the strip into Black Tower’s first graphic novel in 2012 and it did quite well –glowing reviews— so why a new version and how is it different (I know I’ve read my copy and its brilliant but for the readers)?
Terry: Well, the original book was a trade version of the six part series from Black Tower Adventure and came to a total of 196 pages. I talked to reviewers who are also comic artists/writers and we had a round robin discussion of the book. Most said that it was far better and certainly more enjoyable than DC Comics “52″ series and…fun!
But as we talked I realised that I had missed an opportunity because, since 1984, Black Tower has incorporated a lot of very obscure old UK Golden Age characters and some of these just appeared in a strip -no origin or anything.
Frank: But not included in the original six part story?
Terry: No, and as far as I was then concerned, it was too late to sort that out and include some of them –though the Golden Agers are represented. However, I had to re-think seriously re-think this later on.
Frank: You notoriously do not use scripts for your own work so how did you go about this series?
Terry: As you say, I never ever work with a script on things I am working on myself. I always start with a blank sheet of paper, pencil, pens and then see what develops. It gives a lot of spontaneity -I really have no idea what is going to happen on a page or even the next panel!
As far as the story is concerned I found that I was incorporating bits of The Ultimate Game and The Cosmic Fulcrum –another multi-character series.
After Return was published I was rummaging through an old box looking for an old reference image and found a thick wad of A3 pages –about 45 pages in total that were the build-up to the original strip -I thought those pages had been lost years ago. I read through it and realised the pages actually explained a few things and was paced for the big event. That put me in a rather odd position.
I had a week or so to decide whether or not I wanted to leave Return as it was or to tidy up the old pages and make it more complete. I also realised that there would have to be new pages drawn to bridge the various story links. Then I thought that this was a chance to once and for all explain everything that had been going on in Black Tower strips since 1984 and explain the incorporation of the old Golden Age characters and their origins. It also helps to set up The Green Skies book in late 2013.
I figured the final book would total 250-260 pages so when I finished it and found over 300 I was a little taken aback.
A few people who got the advanced rough book just started raving about it so I thought “Okay. Job done. Move on!”
Frank: And it is a real cracker. But for those who know nothing about the book could you summarise it?
Terry: AGH! Well, it begins slowly enough with Earth’s heroes going about their daily tasks –such as fighting a giant robot controlled by a mad scientist’s brain, some villains, both “regular” and mystical not to mention even vampire alien high priests of some mysterious cult and their zombie followers attacking various heroes to put them temporarily out of the way. Oh, of course there is a ghost and a young genius lost in time.
Pretty mundane super hero stuff really. “Just another day”.
But there is a huge alien Mother-ship near the Moon and psychics around the world have been getting vivid images of this for months –even non-precogs. Earth’s mystical heroes are stumped.
Then strange orange spheres chase some of Earth’s heroes in the UK, France, Czech Republic, Mexico, Russia and other parts of the world. Once touched by the globes that deliberately seek them out the heroes vanish into thin air –are they dead? Is some super villain exacting revenge?
Black, impenetrable domes suddenly appear and cover cities world-wide. Those outside are puzzled while those within face a terrifying reality…
…Alien invasion of Earth!
And then there is a war brewing between the Dark Old (Lovecraftian type) Gods and the pantheons that followed –Greek, Babylonian, etc.. After millennia of waiting the new gods will either triumph and return to Earth or be defeated…and whichever side wins it won’t be good for humanity.
There are warriors from various conflicts in the Earth’s past that are having to battle each day on some mysterious endless plain and whether they die in battle or not they are back the next day!
No one suspects the driving force, the evil twisted schemer, behind the events that could cause destruction and chaos throughout the multi-verse. Assaulted on all fronts can Earth’s defenders succeed or will they fail…is this truly the end?
The final words of the character Jack Flash on the last page apparently gave readers goose-bumps!
Frank: Those are chilling final words!! But, as no shops or distributors wanted to touch what I, in my honest opinion, consider the really be one of the greatest British super hero sagas I’ve ever read –better than my old favourite Zenith- how can people buy a copy?
Terry: I thought you would never ask! It’s only available online at the moment so people will need to check out:
Frank: Terry, good luck with the book and I cannot wait for Green Skies!!
ALL artwork and characters are (c)2013 T. Hooper-Scharf and BTCG