THE BALLAD OF HALO JONES - The creation of an all-time classic.
An Interview with Ian Gibson.
The following is an interview with the artist Ian Gibson on the subject of perhaps his best-loved work, The Ballad Of Halo Jones. I have been a longtime fan of this series and felt that there was much more to be told about this classic 2000AD comic strip. I approached Ian with the idea for this interview after I had contributed material I had collected over the years to the Wikipedia article on Halo Jones.
Let's start with that Titan post-signing party where the idea for the Halo Jones story first started - did you have a discussion with Alan Moore on this occasion?
Ian Gibson: Yes. I'd been talking with Steve MacManus (then editor) and he'd been asking what I fancied doing as I'd just finished a long stretch on Robohunter. I'd previously approached him about doing a female lead story but he'd shied away from the notion. But when I asked if I could work with Alan on something he okayed the idea and we wandered across the room to introduce me to the hairy beast. I started by introducing Alan to the idea of a girl's story and suggested that it should be as lifelike as possible with no thought balloons or panels to "explain" things. I told Alan that I thought we could get away with making the story "self explanatory" in the way that we figure some things out (in our lives) only after the event. I never see any panels floating in the sky to warn me that "I'm in for a big surprise" or any handy "little did he know" notes attached to the lampposts. And Alan agreed that it would be a nice change in comics. So he went away to work on the project. Some six months later he came to see Steve and I and said he had all the ingredients for a great story: girls, rockets and monsters!
Why were you so keen to develop a story about female characters?
I had noticed that most female characters portrayed in the 2000AD stories of the time (and for that matter most comics worldwide) treated women as men with tits! They didn't have dialogue which a girl could relate to, they might as well have been fellas. I originally approached Steve Mac with a request to do an adaptation of "Friday" by Bobby Heinlein. As the mag had done a version of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, I figured that a story by the Master would be ideal. And, natch, it had a female lead. But the editorial position was a no go. Either they couldn't afford it or couldn't get permission or just plain didn't recognise Bobby as the best. But I was determined to get a respectable story dedicated to women into the mag. So, with Alan's help, it happened. I guess I was just in favour of treating women with respect rather than them just being there as eye candy.
It strikes me that at this time you were keen to be much more in control of the direction the story took, perhaps more than anything you had been involved with before - would that be fair to say?
I guess it was that way. Mainly because Alan allowed me in on the creative process. Previously it had always been something like John Wagner calling me up and throwing an idea at me about Robohunter etc. And then the scripts arriving with only occasional input from me and that being mostly in the reshaping of an episode or an event to improve the story-telling. And previously when I'd suggested ideas for Dredd story-lines they had been turned down (even if they appeared later reshaped by another hand).
The pre-planning stage of the series seems to have been very involved and lengthy - any particular memories of this process? Any rejected story ideas that spring to mind?
The very first storyline suggested by Alan got thrown out when I suggested to him that for us to relate to Halo's need to escape we needed to get a look at what she was escaping from. Thus the shopping trip was born. I told Alan that the best way to get to know a place is to go shopping in it. And it seemed like an ideal "girl" story - without being too chauvinist, I hope. I remember saying to Alan "imagine what it is like if going shopping is like a military expedition, requiring planning ahead of time. If there is a hostage situation in Sainsbury's and a fire bombing of Tescos etc." He turned my suggestion into a very fine tale! On this same kind of subject: the Hoop Alan envisioned was being powered from Manhattan. But I pointed out that the city wouldn't waste resources on what was essentially a prison for no hopers. I said, howabout if it is like an enormous wave power generator. That gives it a reason to be there and the inhabitants work to maintain it too - that way they are supplying energy to the city, not vice verca. But then I realised that on that scale it would need to flex enormously to allow big waves to pass without destroying the structure. Happily Alan took note and worked the concept neatly into the story.
Alan Moore has admitted to writing pages of instructions for artists as to how a single panel should look (with the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen for example). You've said that Alan left a lot of the internal workings of Halo's world to you. How free did you feel in the visualisations of Halo's universe? He has praised your "fertile brimming imagination".
Alan and I had spent some time discussing what we wanted to do with Halo - like was she going to have children? Where was she going to end up? And what was our final message about that going to be? (not that I'm going to tell you here!). So, when it came to creating visualizations for the many worlds she visited, there were few problems to work out. It was only occasionally that Alan really went heavily into panel descriptions. And, then, I didn't always go with his ideas. And, naturally, the page layouts are very "Gibson".
Similarly did you have many suggestions or input into the final writing?
The writing I left to Alan. He just asked me once if there was a name I'd like him to use for one of the main characters. My response was "Mona" - after Mona Ryberg; the beautiful Swedish editor who gave me love and encouragement back in the early part of my career.
Were there any visual ideas that were debated more than others?
There weren't any visual ideas as such. It was more a matter of a logical design of the Hoop, where I sent Alan stats of my designs so that he could know how it worked.
Fascinatingly, the "Esperanto-like" language that the Hoop's street signs have as an alternative to English is a real workable language that you invented yourself for fun - do you still use this in your work?
No. I've mostly avoided repeating myself on that one. I designed the "alternative alphabet" when I was at college as a fun thing to do. And even exchanged letters with some genius boy who cracked the code after it appeared in an 'underground' newspaper of the 60's!
Can I ask you to comment a little bit about specific designs:
The Hoop - has become a classic science fiction setting, it was the perfect physical representation of the world Halo had to escape from.
As I said, the Hoop was something that I worked on quite a bit in the design phase. I wanted it to have a reality and reason, as opposed to being just a backdrop.
Toby - the idea of designing a robot dog that didn't prompt comparisons with K-9 from Doctor Who must have been difficult?
I don't know. I never quite liked Toby. I don't think I ever quite resolved his anatomy. But I played with his "semaphore" ears to give him character.
Moab - how much of a challenge was it to depict the effects of gravity on time?
The gravity game was quite silly really! On one hand we have the problem of the architecture to withstand that kind of pressure. I'm sure that an arch is actually stronger than the pyramid forms I used. But I'd done arches so much on the hoop and we didn't intend (or at least I didn't) to make it seem like a return to that environment.
The idea of gravity being so strong that it bent the light was possibly amusing. But how do you draw an image if the light is so bent it will distort all visual references? I just had to do the best I could with odd skies! The only drawback was the fact that Alan went on to use "bullets" as weapons in the "Crush"!!!?? Not really workable! But it was just a fantasy story and you can't always figure all angles when you are rushing to meet a deadline in a poorly paid job like comix! So, we'll let him off this once!
Luiz Cannibal - Did you arrive upon his character design easily or were there many incarnations? (also, are the snakes meant to be synthetic or real?!)
Luiz took a little designing. But I followed Alan's directions as far as the tusks went and his height. The rest was up to me. The snakes evolved thanks to my first wife, Jaqui. I'd been playing with his ears. Trying to make them Buddha like (just to make him a more interesting character) and I'd tried suspending rocks in them, when Jaqui wandered past me in my studio and commented that the "stones" looked like snake heads. Et voila! We have snakes in his ears. My intention, as you may see from their movement from frame to frame, was to suggest that they were real. And I based them on one of the most deadly snakes I could find reference for. I thought it gave him a quality of great power and domination. Scary dude!
The Clara Pandy - simply one of the most beautiful spaceship designs I've ever seen...
Why thank you! The ship was supposed to look like nothing that had ever appeared as a "space ship" before. There is a little of the 'Concorde' in her long lines. But she's really more of a swan come Canada goose in space.
How do you feel about the character of Halo Jones herself? Does your own character inspire you?
I guess if I was a girl I'd be a Halo.
Apart from Halo's own origins, Brinna is a main character who seems to have a fascinating back story - did you write a detailed back story for most characters that wasn't necessarily revealed in the books?
I recall discussing with Alan the relationship between Halo and Brin. But there was no detailed back-story involved for any of the characters. I trusted that Alan would know them well enough in his head. Though he may have had copious notes of his own..?
You draw dolphins beautifully, was this a factor in the ingenious decision to have Cetaceans running the Earth's affairs?
No. I just worked hard at learning about dolphins when Alan put them into the story. He decided that they would make excellent navigators in space as they have an all-round spacial awareness - not being stuck to the ground like us. But I would think birds would do just as well though they do lack the brain!
The strip is notable for the many side characters with interesting back stories of their own (Glyph, Life Sentence etc), but you were even able to turn the most fleeting characters into memorable ones; Snivelling at the Hoop skidstop, the slain Lobis Loyo girl terrorist, the trapped woman in Moab staring at the exploding eggs - had you been able to explore such a rich array of characters before? Any particular favourites? (I'm a Yortlebluzzgubbly fan myself!)
Maybe all the work I had done previous to Halo allowed me to indulge in "character". I was enjoying the story and that allowed a flow of energy into the illustrations that couldn't always be mustered at will...with the exception of most of Book Two, which, I am ashamed to say, I drew particularly badly for the most part. But this was in revolt against the editors who had demanded violence in the book if we were to be allowed to continue with the series. Alan handled it well - I did not! I think one of my most characterful scenes is the crowd on Pwuk - gathered around the recruiting officer and ship. The crowd has a body language all its own. When I was living in London John Wagner asked me one day where I came up with all the odd characters in my stories. My reply was that I travelled in on the tube every day!
The story of Glyph is a classic and heart-wrenching story unto itself. Where did the idea for the character come from?
That's one to ask Alan. As I said: I left the writing to him. Especially on Book Two where I had lost the plot!
The Ballad Of Halo Jones was unique in 2000AD at that time for the adult approach to the writing about these mostly female characters. The theme of sexuality is certainly addressed in that mature fashion - the women in the story are portrayed as living, breathing, sexual beings. The relationships varied from the comic (Halo and Mix) to the tragic (Toy's secret attraction to Halo) to the erotic (Halo's relationship with Luiz Cannibal). How important was this aspect of the story to you?
The secret attraction of Toy was certainly a secret, as Alan just threw it into the mix as Toy is dying in the petrified forest. He'd never mentioned it before! Happily the way I had portrayed them didn't jar too much with the concept. But if I'd known about it at the start I may have done more with body language. The death scene - or dying scene of Toy is one of my all time favourite sequences. Where she is hearing the 'voice' in her head. Wonderfully written! Thank you Alan. But the writing was Alan's. Not mine. He is the one who crafted the story-lines and the interaction between the characters. I just had to draw it as the scripts arrived. Which was usually one a week and I just had to sit down and draw 5 pages as soon as I'd read it. No time to ponder or procrastinate. I was good with deadlines in those days!
The humour in the books is rarely discussed and yet The Ballad is full of some hilarious situations and characters - for example Rodice provides this function for much of Book One. Was it more difficult to find a balance between comedy and tragedy as the story evolved?
Again that was Alan's domain! Personally I love the "check your spigot" stuff in Book 3.
The science fiction elements take a back seat in some ways in the terrifyingly human portrayal of combat in Book 3. What were your inspirations when tackling the war in the Tarantula Nebula?
I just wanted to make it real! A comment about war and how it impacts on civilians as much as the soldiers. Alan supplied wonderful opportunities for our ideas to blend in this.
I remember following the series each week in the pages of 2000AD - wonderful for the readers who could agonise over the cliff-hangers, but for a creator surely a slow extended process to gauge any reaction I'd imagine? Were you aware at the time they were first published that people were responding in a positive way, or was it the later enthusiastic reaction to the collected volumes that made you realise it?
The editorial team gave us pretty negative feedback...leading to the violence requirements for Book 2. So it came as a shock (pleasant surprise) to learn that the first Titan book had sold out before it even got printed! Alan and I had been ploughing on in our belief in the story despite the editor's coolness to the project.
Halo Jones is now often referred to as an all-time classic "graphic novel" and it is now available in that format only. Considering the episodic nature of the stories and how they originally appeared in 5-page instalments in a weekly publication, Halo Jones works extremely well in the collected format. The original three separate Titan volumes from 1986 are, in my opinion, the best possible way to experience Halo Jones - would you agree?
I agree that the three book series was especially nice. Maybe because I got to do some rather nice covers for each book.
You have said that there was a projected nine books for the series, was this story arc talked about from the very beginning or did you see it take shape as the second and third books came together?
Alan and I decided on the length of the series even before the first episode was written. We planned her life and her ending - not in precise detail, but with a pretty good idea of where she was heading and what we could tell of her. And how much of a gap in her life we could leave between books. Which is where Dr Brunhauer comes in.
Would you care to comment on the rumours that Halo was to become a "pirate queen" at some point?
That was me! I'd been nagged by so many fans to continue the saga that, even though I'd lost contact with Alan, I decided to write some continuation in the way of Books 4 and 5. Being the naive that I am, I took the first draft of Book 4 to the editor of the time to see if they wanted to contact Alan about continuing, and send my efforts to him for approval or otherwise. I told them that I wouldn't do anything on Halo without Alan's consent. But I think they were so in fear of him that they never even tried to make contact. But my story ideas got "leaked"! And I ended up reading about them on the Internet!
The situation with the series being interrupted by the dispute over copyright allocation must have been frustrating (if not heartbreaking) for you as a creative person with so much love for this project. At this point what would it take to get the story continued into Book 4 and beyond?
Alan's consent. I believe that he holds the copyright to the character. All Rebellion have is copyright on what has been produced previously - i.e. Books 1, 2 and 3. Simple as that.
Do you enjoy the writing process?
I love writing. I was a writer before I started drawing professionally. But not a "published" writer. Just a story teller - and comix seemed like a good way to use that urge. I have a lot of stories in various stages of development that I'll maybe get round to some day. But, right now, just making a living working on other folk's ideas takes most of my time.
Fans of the series speculate about the possibility of a movie version. Alan Moore has been very vocal about his disapproval of the three film adaptations of his work - so his co-operation may be unlikely. Surely in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive film-maker (like Peter Jackson) a superb film adaptation could be made...have you ever had any thoughts on this?
There have been rumours and myths surrounding Halo for a long time. When I was working on Reboot with the guys from the Mill in London, they told me that Raquel Welch was toying with the idea of a Halo TV series. Just for the use of the name!! A Modesty Blaize with Halo's name!? One of the things, that I and some pals in the industry are hoping, is that the film world will wake up to the fact that they could save a lot of money developing comics themselves. Economically it makes sense, as producing a comic is a lesser budget than all the prep work they do on a film before shooting. And they would have a ready made audience - fan base established! Makes sense to me. So why not a Halo movie? Copyright complications are the big stumbling block.
And finally, if you were to write a few sentences by way of a teaser introduction into Book 4 what would you write? Failing that, what would Dr I.J. Brunhauer write?!!!!
I can tell you exactly what (my version of) Dr Brunhauer would write - it's in my version of Book 4 itself! The dialogue will be interspersed with images of the historical references etc so hopefully it wouldn't be just a boring waffle - especially as this is a three page intro to Book 4. Let me dig out a faded copy and quote a little from the learned man himself:
"In our last lecture we examined the circumstances which drove her to leave Earth. This archive footage of the last riots on the Hoop give us a brutal insight into the squalor from which she escaped on the Clara Pandy. Many romantics see some link in the fact that Clara Pandy herself was the most mythologised woman of space before our subject arrived on the historical landscape. The true reasons behind her enlistment in the 'army' can never be known. Nor can the truth about any implausible relationship with General Cannibal. It seems the further she went into space - the more fanciful the stories grew. In this lecture we will deal with the "Escape Syndrome". It has been suggested that she was a victim. Contrast that with the premise that she has shaped so much of our history, she understood her destiny and bonded her life to it. We observe the actions but not the motives. Distance in space and time requires us to infer motive from action. I would like us to find the woman behind the myth! Who is Halo Jones?"
Interview conducted by Seán Twomey, Copyright April 2007. Please visit Ian Gibson's official site at: Gibson Studios. Also, a good place to start exploring Halo's universe is the ever-expanding article at Wikipedia here.