Sunday, 21 October 2012

Exclusive Pleece Brothers Interview


If you are a fist time visitor here, just discovering it after seeing my article in The Kemp Town Rag, “Hello, and welcome to my blog!” Glad you got past the content warning OK! There’s a few racy things here but not too much, and generally I just witter on about comics, just as did recently with two fellow Brightonians, Gary and Warren Pleece.

I first met Gary and Warren almost 25 years ago when they came into Comic Showcase hoping to sell copies of their self-published Velocity comic. I recall being extremely impressed by its high quality appearance (glossy and properly printed) at a time when most small press were lucky to have a one-colour photocopied cover. Plus, the stories were unlike anything out there; wry social satire mixed with pure cinematic silliness.

Now, quarter of a century on (boy that makes me feel old!) they’ve had the best of their work collected into one huge anthology, The Great Unwashed, published by Escape Books. We caught up over a pint in a Brighton pub and discussed many things, from how the town influenced their work, football, comics, old Errol Flynn films, and their forthcoming new book, Montague Terrace.
Tim: Let’s start with the obvious question first: What comics did you read as kids?

Warren: When we were little it was Whizzer & Chips, so standard British Seventies comics really. Tiger, sports titles like Roy of the Rovers

Gary: You were into war titles like Warlord, Battle, I was more into the sporty stuff. I was out playing football since I was seven and Warren was stuck in his bedroom drawing and being talented!

There’s a couple of football related stories in The Great Unwashed [Bovril on the Bridge and Len Shackleswick]…

I was playing for the school and I got to 15 and I realised that everyone was getting bigger, and pushing me around on the field, so that’s where my football career finished. And Gary still plays now. 

I set up a club 21 years ago, so I’m the chairman.

Sunday league?

Saturday afternoon, darling! Much more sophisticated! So I don’t think football is rife in out stuff, but it’s definitely there.

On a Saturday morning we’d play football and used to meet up down where the shops were and pick up a comic and a Texan bar, and that’s when I started reading 2000 AD.

Roy of the Rovers was reinvented in the Nineties. It didn’t quite work, but being asked to write for it was a pinnacle moment. Having read Roy of the Rovers as a kid, and then asked to write for it [with Sean Longcroft on art], we did about 10 series and a double page spread, and that was like a dream come true!

Some stuff we did for [the legendarily abandoned Tundra comic] Glory Glory ended up in Roy of the Rovers and in a really dodgy magazine called The Red Card. But we got ripped off by the latter and had to go round there, confront them and get some money off them.

How did you end up in Brighton?

I moved down to Brighton when I was 18 to Art College to do illustration. We come from Worchester Park near Kingston, south west London/north Surrey. So I moved down in 1987.

I followed Warren down in 1987. We used to not really get on at home—no we did, actually. But once Warren moved down to Brighton I really missed him, so I used to come down to Brighton at the weekends, and one weekend I didn’t go back. We got on better at that point and our tastes started to merge…

…We started doing mixtapes for each other. In the past our music tastes we quite different, and by the time Gaz was coming down we were into similar things. He started writing short stories and I was doing comics after college, so we combined the two together, did some stuff for Escape magazine. I think I did a four-page strip called Native New Yorkers and then we did Bum, which Gary wrote, and both are in the The Great Unwashed.

When I used to come down to Brighton I saw what Warren was sketching out, I saw his end of the year show and the stuff he’d done for Peter [Stanbury] and Paul [Gravett] on Escape. I was getting into stuff like Brute and Viz. I was really influenced by Brute, as you could probably tell by the first few Velocities. So we started working and piecing Velocity together.

So how did Velocity come about?

We were on an Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Half of Brighton was on an Enterprise Allowance Scheme—

It was all down to Margaret Thatcher!

You got £40 a week.

Whereas the dole [unemployment benefit] was £32!

It was an incentive to get loads of young unemployed off the official figures. They said it was to get people into setting up their own business, but virtually everyone did it for a year and then went back on to the dole.

It was hilarious, as they’d come to check your accounts books, and you’d go “Er…They’re unfinished?” and they’d go “Yeah, OK, don’t worry about!”

That was an incentive to do something that wouldn’t look out of place in a good comic or bookshop. We had the stories already, so we thought we’d do something with them.

With high production values...

Gary had a background in print, so we thought, “Let’s get it printed properly.” We didn’t really think about it too much, we just did it. Lots of people came up to us after the second issue and said, “How did you do this?” And we said, “I dunno!” It just felt like a natural process. I think a lot of people who were doing comics at the time felt you had to get signed up by an American company, or you just got a crappy photocopier and just stuck it together. But because we didn’t come from that background of having read every single Spider-Man comic ever written—I actually went through most of my teenage years not reading comics. Weirdly enough it was while I was doing my degree, and I was doing lots of painting, but I was also doing lots of storyboard-type things and sketches, and it was only at the end my tutor said, “Why don’t you do a comic?” I was always influenced by film noir.

That leads me neatly on to who are your artistic influences?

When Paul Gravett saw my work at my exam show in London and said “Your work reminds me of Alex Toth, and the Argentine or Spanish artists,” and I was like, “Who?” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. All I knew was 2000 AD, really. Then he showed me work by [José] Muñoz and [Carlos] Sampayo, and I could see the common ground. We obviously both loved lashing on the black ink and the filmic quality. For us, it was a real eye-opener, because we didn’t really know what was going on in this country or Europe. Once we saw them, they became quite a big influence, but the other cinematic influences were already there; from the wide angle and depth of field camera angles; from Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock. I was just really into films, still am.

Describe your working process. Does being brothers make it easier?

When we lived together I used to prance around in my smoking jacket and listen to tinkerly classical music and—No, not really! I was thinking about this and rewinding back to the early days. We used to make up these plays together on cassettes—

This was when we were about 7 or 8…

But if you think about it, the creative catalyst was there. I was mimicking certain genres. And then, leaping forward 10 years on, it was there again. We’ve always shared the same sorts of influences, and they’ve always been diverse, and we’re willing to pay homage to them. That’s why there’s such a range of stories and landscapes. One minute it’s spaghetti westerns; next minute it’s Errol Flynn; war; drama… We wear that on our sleeves, and we’re very clear about that. It’s the opportunity of creative freedom to direct our own versions. But that doesn’t mean that the storyline isn’t submerged by the context. It’s still there, and has its own power. In terms of how we actually do that, generally we bat ideas around together, or I go to Warren with a story. And Warren writes his own stuff, which is great. Or he might say to me “I’ve got this great idea for a story, can you go away and write a script?” So it’s a very organic process.


Sometimes Gary comes to me with a script and I go “Yeah, it’s great.” And I draw it. Other times we actually do a Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau and pace around the room and work it out from scratch together. When we originally started I had some ideas and Gary would write a short piece. As it went on, Gary wrote more and I just drew more. All through the Velocity years I’d always do a little bit of writing myself—right up to our latest book, Montague Terrace. That was an idea that was originally Gary’s. We talked about it, he went away and wrote a couple of scripts and left it for ages and eventually came back to it.

I think it helps being brothers. So to answer your question: Yes! [Laughs]


How has living in Brighton affected your work?

We’d be nothing without it, to be honest. We used to go out—around the time of The Escape Club [no relation to the publisher]—with posers at the bar and all that kind of shit. And we’d come back going “Grr!”

Was that because you didn’t have a girlfriend?

Yeah, partly that, “I’m really angry, I’m going to write about this!” [Laughs] Brighton Gas is all about that.

But it was a really inspirational place. We could see the potential. Everyone can see it now, but back then it still had that sort of sleaze culture in it. And we wanted to celebrate that.

The Great Unwashed, that statement, means the left behind, the unheralded, the uncelebrated—

And it’s a celebration of that…Not everyone’s going to make it, so our characters are the 99% of people who don’t make it!

Absolutely. The people you pass everyday. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and sometimes those are much more interesting than some celebrity’s tale.

Those themes continue in Montague Terrace. Although it’s not set in Brighton, it could very well be. I was trying to think of a building to base the whole thing on and I was looking at Marine Court or Embassy Court.

How did you decide what to leave in and out in The Great Unwashed?

That wasn’t really our choice. That was the publishers—Paul and Peter’s choice. There were quite a few stories we’d like to have included, which is kind of a shame, but obviously, when someone else publishes your work, they have the final say. I think the main reason they weren’t included was that they were only 2-3 pages long and they interrupted with the continuity. If we’d be solely in charge the stories might be in a different order, and some of the stories might not have been included. But that’s the way things go. As a whole, it works really well.

We had a view as to what we wanted in there, and they had a view, and we met in the middle.

The anthology starts off quite light and frivolous and gets darker. Do you think your writing and art have got more serious over the years?

You could crystallize that in the first part of Montague Terrace that’s in The Great Unwashed collection, which was obviously influenced by Muñoz & Sampayo, in terms of the look and the style and tone.
That was done in 1996, and in a way become the prototype to what came later. It would’ve been interesting to see what would’ve happened if we’d carried on with that then. It would’ve been a lot different to what we did 15 years later. There’s a story in The Great Unwashed about two hapless characters in a seaside town. Oops! I don’t know which one is which! That was our first attempt at doing a serial. When Velocity wasn’t coming out—we had a five year gap between #5 and #6—that’s when we decided to wipe the slate clean and do something else and that’s how Montague Terrace developed, as a place where we could have lots of different characters and stories, but a more continual storyline. Then we had the scripts ready for Velocity #7, but it never happened because I got more work from DC Comics and we just didn’t have the time or the money to do it. And it’s only really, years later, when I had a gap in the work and I was fed up doing other people’s stories…

[To Warren] You always said you wanted to come back and work with your brother. It’s our best stuff. I’ve seen the stuff you’ve done with other people and it makes me feel…dirty! I should be more open-minded, some of it’s great, but some of that stuff is not quite you, and it’s not how we do stuff.

Your stories often feel quite erratic or simply stop halfway through.

We like to make it interesting for us.

I struggle with plot. I’d rather watch The Monkee’s [stream of consciousness arthouse film] Head, rather than some elaborate storyline that ties up at the end.

Having said that, the short story Scurvy has a beautiful ending, because you don’t see it coming.

The thing about Scurvy is we tried to make it quite authentic, dark and warty. There’s this pirate called the Crimson Cutthroat who’s going around killing people, and he finds out someone’s actually using his name. And then these two Crimson Cutthroats meet and one is a Hollywood representation of the other one. Of course, the Hollywood representation wins and it goes off on a weird fantasy journey around the world. It was taking the piss out of the Hollywoodisation of things.

Things like Errol Flynn in Sherwood Forest. Which is brilliant as well. You watch stuff like that in Technicolor and it’s exciting, but it also shows history completely abused and tortured by America!

It’s a celebration of that, and how ridiculous it all is. We were trying to make that story all really dark, grim and everybody really ugly. And then it turns into something clean…

There’s a certain confidence in our storytelling where if we think something’s funny then everyone else will think it’s funny, or we don’t give a shit.

There’s something to be said for that. Obviously, we wouldn’t put something out if we didn’t think there was something to it. I said to Gary, “I just want to draw a pirate strip.” I really wanted to drawn pirates, that’s all!

I was really into Errol Flynn at the time and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) was one of my favourite films.

You use a lot of textual non-sequiturs, mangled language and mish-mashed colloquialisms.

I think that might wash over some people. With Gary’s writing, I wonder how many people “get it” sometimes, because I was proofing this anthology and thinking, hmmm! An example is the spaghetti western spoof we did. And in that some of the language is in question.

With Leone Rider, we were watching those films and there’s really bad dubbing in those Sergio Leone films, things like “What was that? First a crash and then a yell!?” There’s a really rubbish script and badly dubbed and we’re just pissing ourselves, and that’s the story right there. You can just wrap a story around that. And in our early stuff, just don’t take yourself too seriously, because we never have.

Lately though, there’s still humour in it, but our work is a bit darker and a bit less slapstick.

We are getting together to start planning Montague Terrace 2 this week.
We finished the first book in May 2011, but we just missed the publishing schedule, which was a bit of a shame, because by the time we’d finished I was ready to do the second one.

That book is a real echo of early Velocity. Velocity could almost be a fictional place and Montague Terrace IS that fictional place, in a different context, so it’s very much in that spirit of Velocity.

What’s surprising in The Great Unwashed is how well the strips have aged. Everything still feels contemporary and fresh, despite over two decades passing. The country is still in a depression, Tories in are still in charge, and the sleazy nature of celebrity “culture”—with the recent Jimmy Savile revelations, for example.

It’s the cult of celebrity, and the way they “got away with it” in the Seventies, because “It was the Seventies, we’ll just leave that there.” No, hang on!

Despite some of it being written over 20 years ago, it still feels very relevant to the social and political climate we are in, especially with the whole celebrity thing.

With politics, we’ve tended to steer clear from that.

I did work for Crisis, which was very political and people were being hit on the head with “This is wrong! This is right!” and I never had the confidence to say that. I’ve done some political stuff with other people who really know what they’re talking about. Because we don’t! So we’re more political with a small “p.” We’re more about the social commentary.

I’d love to stoke that up a bit! We could definitely come at a certain angle on that. I’d love to use our profile to do something a bit more political. I get quite passionate about it.

What? Let’s do a… I dunno… David Cameron?!

Warren’s worked with other writers—

The slag!

Have you never “cheated” on him?

I have, with the Roy of the Rovers stuff. I was down to the last two writers for Hellblazer. Didn’t get it, but it was very close.

Was that Eddie Campbell that beat you to it?

Yeah, I think so. It was being edited by [the late] Lou Stathis at the time. But, yeah…I’m loyal!

Are you dedicated to living in Brighton? Could you imagine living or working anywhere else?

I lived in Nottingham and the States (Baltimore and Washington D.C.) for a couple of years. But we always keep coming back, we’re happy with Brighton, it’s a great place to bring up kids.

I feel it’s Brighton-lite these days. I’d love to look at the next down-at-heels seaside resort along the coast. Fucking stag parties, it’s ridiculous. Starbucks on every bloody corner, what’s going on?

We used to be the heroin capital of Britain. Where’s it all gone wrong?!

But that rage is the meat and taters of Velocity! Those stag parties are ripe for parody! Saturday night on West Street…

Actually, we should.

Did you ever have much contact with the Worthing crowd (Jamie Hewlett, Philip Bond, Alan Martin and Glyn Dillon) down the road?

There was a bit of banter...

Years later I was talking to Philip about this, and he and Jamie had Atom Tan at the same time as Velocity. We weren’t sure if it was true, but we thought they’d had a dig at Velocity

They’d mentioned a “Fat old Pleeceman,” so in our editorial we called there comic “Fatto Pan”!

We always got on OK.

There was never an arranged rumble down on Shoreham harbour?

No! Years later I worked with Philip on his breakdowns, and he did the covers for Deadenders [Warren’s Vertigo series written by Ed Brubaker].

No, we got on fine!

The Great Unwashed is published Escape Books, £18.99 and is available from Dave’s Comics, 5 Sydney Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 4EN. T: 01273 691012 E: orders@davescomics.co.uk. Montague Terrace is published by Jonathan Cape on 7 February 2013, £14.

You can catch Warren's brilliant weekly Alby Figgs strip here.

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