This month sees the release of the first issue of To The Death, the new series from legendary comics writer Simon Furman, best known for his work on Transformers for Marvel UK in the Eighties, and more recently on Robotech for Titan Comics. Simon took the time to speak to Phil Stewart to chat about the new series, its links to Dragon’s Claws and 2000AD, and working with Geoff Senior again, amongst other things…
Your new series To The Death is coming out on June 17th, and it’s you and artist Geoff Senior back together again. How did that come about?
It came out of a need to want to work together again on something. We always work really well together, but we hadn’t done a series or a chunk of work together for a long time, certainly not where it’s not just an issue of something or a fill in. The last stuff we did together of any sort of note was in the mid-Nineties for Marvel, so we are going back quite a way. We wanted to get those same creative juices flowing we had back in the heyday of Marvel UK, where they wanted us to create something new from the ground up. Not only did we want to work together, we wanted to do something that was ours this time, instead of for Marvel or another company. We were tired of creating a whole world, a whole cast of characters, and yet ultimately we own none of them. So very much, we wanted to go back to that vibe, that energy, we had in the Eighties, and create something that we owned for change.
Although you’ve continued to be in comics, it had been a while for Geoff, hasn’t it?
When comics in the Nineties kind of died for us a bit, Geoff moved largely into advertising, with his own advertising agency handling all the art chores for big clients, which was a slightly more lucrative outlet for his art. He’d been more or less in advertising since. He was finding it a little creatively stifling.
His art for To The Death is different to his previous work, isn’t it?
Geoff’s style has evolved in a way, and because he did it digitally first, it’s got a sort of economy to it. So what you’ve got is a very flowing, energetic thing that sort of pulls you through it quite quickly. It’s digitally painted – he works entirely now on a computer tablet, so it’s made his whole process entirely different. It has a very cinematic-screen flow to it.
You’re best known for your work on Transformers and now Robotech. Is To The Death like those at all?
The easy route would have been mech – we’ve got an in-built audience out there of Transformers fans – and primarily do something with robots or giant robots or something, but the funny thing is neither of us got into comics wanting to do that. I came from a superhero background, Geoff was war comics and fantasy, he was a big fan of John Buscema’s Conan work. So we talked it around a bit, and we decided that although we can’t do [classic 80s Marvel UK series] Dragon’s Claws again, we’d like to do something like it. So we looked at that, and we looked at the characters, the higher concept things behind it, and thought maybe we can take that and do something brand new with it, something completely different.
So how similar is it to Dragon’s Claws?
It has some of that slight dystopian future of Dragon’s Claws, where Earth has more-or-less been used up to the point of nigh-on extinction by forces that don’t really give a damn about the common man – but here we created a three-headed corporation that rules everything, and to whom every possible thing has become a revenue stream, right down to the off-world wars they wage in search of new resources.
Is this a response to how you feel modern day governments operate?
Yes, but I’ve taken it further: in To The Death, there aren’t any politicians any more. Politics is gone, and it’s been replaced by commercialism, consumerism, big business. It’s got to that stage that I feel like we’re going, where the real political power is with money, rather than the actual political parties themselves. You’ve only got to look at America and Trump to get that feeling that there’s that aggression, where really all that matters is making money. And that’s ultimately where the power will lie in the future, and politics and elections and free will won’t really have the same weight they did. In To The Death, the large mass of humanity has gone fairly passively into that, they’re kept appeased by streaming wars into their living room, and being able to interactively participate in wars. They are pacified by this onslaught of off-world aggression that’s happening, and it’s also serving a purpose of bringing revenue in and resources to a depleted planet. This is the Earth we constructed, and the gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is vast now, impossible. The elite are at the top of vast cloud-scrapers, above the smog layer, while the rest toil at the ground level below, feeding off the scraps. It’s a pretty dire future.
Was it always planned to have such satirical elements, or did that just come out in the writing?
A big influence was 2000AD, which always uses sci-fi as a mirror to the state of society today. All their stuff is a veiled (or not so veiled) dig at the politics of the current climate. When creating To The Death, we felt that British comic creators excel in that way of creating something that’s an entertainment but also a comment on the world that we live in at the moment. So, yeah, we wanted it to have those undercurrents – although it’s not a big leap to see that To The Death is sculpted by forces that are happening even now, even though we set it a nominal number of hundred years in the future. And in this world, we meet our hero…
Yes, that’s Aleksy Dryagin. Tell me about him.
He’s a somewhat tarnished hero – not exactly an anti-hero, but he’s the nicest guy we’ve got. He’s a career soldier, he’s been off fighting off-world wars for this TriCorp who have been profiting from his endeavours on alien planets. He’s coming home after a second gruelling tour of duty, and for the masses he’s become a kind of hero, a celebrity – and that’s something that TriCorp decide they really can’t have. They can’t have somebody who the masses might be swayed by in the future… so they decide, quite arbitrarily, to terminate him. He will arrive back and be killed as he steps off his landing craft. Now, that all goes terribly wrong, and our hero, having lost almost everything in moment, he just fights back. He won’t give up, he won’t back down from this impossible fight that can’t win. In that relentless way, he just won’t lie down. He just keeps coming and coming, and everything escalates from that…
Who did you create this comic for? Who’s the primary audience?
We knew from the influences where we were taking this, and it was largely for the fanbase who enjoyed Dragon’s Claws and Death’s Head and that sort of blackly-comic sci-fi that Geoff and I did well together. But young audiences of today will like it, it has a vibe of modern computer games to it. It has that shoot-em-up edge to it that a lot of the younger audience will get. We play on that, in a satirical way, by making it that it’s a game that made society pacified – they’ve got so locked into this thing that they haven’t noticed how bad things around them. Or how much worse they are going to get. So it’s both accessible to the broad fanbase, and newer readers as well.
Is it suitable for kids then?
To The Death is fairly full-on and violent, but it’s not prohibitively so – it’s no worse than a good number of mainstream computer games. So maybe some adult accompaniment is a good idea, a slight vetting of it, but there’s really nothing. There’s very mild language, and just that exaggerated Geoff bloodletting that goes on: it’s very much graphically stylised all the way through.
To The Death is not structured like a traditional long-running title that Marvel or DC might put out. Was that intentional?
We realised that it’s very difficult for kids to engage with characters and comics that are some four hundred plus issues old, or have been reinvented ‘x’ number of times, whereas with To The Death, we’ve gone for a very straight “this is issue one, this is a story that ends in ten issues’ time”. It’s accessible inasmuch as you don’t need to know anything. There’s no pre-knowledge required.
Obviously it’s been a long time since you worked together, and comics have changed a lot since then. It certainly looks visually different to a lot of comics out there.
To be perfectly honest, what Geoff draws best is fast, kinetic action adventure, so there’s no point getting Geoff to draw in a more modern comics way and have a bunch of talking heads for a couple of issues. It really is a case with Geoff is you play to his strengths and you get this just amazing artwork back. So there was a certain amount of ‘this is what we do best’. We like to think of To The Death as a harking back to a simpler time in comics, where entertainment and adrenaline was put above message – I mean, we’ve got that in there, but we want it to play more like a blockbuster action sci-fi movie you might see at your multiplex. It owes much more to 2000AD, Dragon’s Claws, all those things, for a start, just in terms of what it is, where it’s set, what kind of story it is.
Issue #1 of To The Death will be published 19th June, with further issues released every four weeks.