MARTIN ASBURY was one of the biggest names in British comic art in the 1970s. Drawing the famous Garth for The Daily Mirror from 1976, he contributed a wealth of dynamic action strips to Look-in between 1973 and 1981, most notably KUNG-FU, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, DICK TURPIN, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY. Now working as one of the world's best known names in movie storyboarding, Martin had just come off the set of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace when he took time out from his busy schedule to speak to me in February 2008.
You grew up in the 50s and early 60s - a time of ubiquity for comics in Britain. What comics did you read as a kid? Did any particularly inspire or influence you?
I was addicted to American Comics. I had had a spell in hospital when I was a kid and I think it was my mum who gave me some large pulp re-prints of especially Tarzan by Burne Hogarth. These just blew me away and from that moment on I wanted to draw and wanted to draw comics especially. I trawled any and all newagents, bookshops and even places like Woolworths where I found reprints of Classics in Pictures. I didnt know who the artists were except i saw Joe Kubert's name on Jesse James comics. I thought he was fab! Then came the English copy of Classics called Classics Illustrated. These influenced me greatly, were a fantastic informative and instructive medium, and I still think there is a place for such publications even now. Along came the Eagle and I was blown away all over again! You must remember there was no real TV at that time so a weekly dose of Dan Dare etc was extraordinary and exciting. I was an avid reader for the first three years of its life and was of course influenced to a certain degree by Frank Hampson.
When you went to London's famous St Martins Art School was it your ambition to want to work in comics then? Did you think St Martins would help you in that ambition and was that the case? It's renowned today as a hotbed of very esoteric and creative bohemianism - what was it like in the 60s? A pretty crazy place one imagines ...?
I was there in the late 50s and early 60s studying both painting and illustration. For a very brief period I thought I wanted to make it as a painter but quite quickly, due to my lack of ability and incipient laziness coupled with the daunting ability of others, decided against the idea.
When you left St Martins what sort of work did you get at first?
I remember thinking at the time of leaving St. Martin's that I could be God's gift to the advertising world and so bowled into the leading Ad Agency of the time (Hobsons? or Bensons? Can't remember) asked if there was someone who could see (and therefore marvel) at my portfolio. There was a guy walking through the foyer at the time, and he said: "Sure I'll have a look". I
followed him up to his office little knowing that he was one of the foremost designers of that time, one Bob Gill
(who had done some terrific things - notably a huge campaign for White Horse Whiskey). He cleared a desk and I put my vast A1 type folio (the sort that had fastening bits of ribbon around it ) and ceremoniously opened it. He literally bent over the sheaf of drawings and paintings and flicked through them by the corners. He straightened up, looked at me and said: "Burn it!" turning away to his secretary and ignoring me thereafter. I was left to gather my work together, tie up my folder with its annoying ribbons and slither under the door and outside to slit my wrists! And of course he was absolutely right - the work was complete crap!
The first work i did (apart from a sheet music cover for the Maigret theme) was illustrations for a give-away comic in small independent shoe shops around London at that time. It was a written serial taken from a childrens' book called 'Kor and the Wolf Dogs'. That finished pretty soon and I then managed to get work as a fill-in artist painting flat areas on cardboard cut- outs which were used as semi animation diagrams on TV. I was absolutely hopeless! Took a lot of stick from my fellow workers as I claimed to be an artist but couldn't even lay a flat area of grey paint! Ho hum ... I then saw an advert in a magazine devoted to advertising seeking an assistant for an 'international strip cartoonist'
I was very excited by this and immediately applied using my Kor and the Wolf Dogs pictures as samples of my work. On the basis of these and much to my surprise, I got the job. (I later found out it was because i was the youngest, cheapest and most malleable of all the applicants!).
Above: Asbury drew football strip Forward From the Back Streets for TV21 in 1969
The strip turned out to be Flash Gordon - a daily syndicated strip by King Features. The 'international strip cartoonist' was one Dan Barry and I worked for and with him for six months in Austria. Needless to say I wasn't very good and he thought that I was "British Shit" and said so on numerous occasions. We fell out after he stopped paying me and
I returned to England - it was a miserable time and I was very sorry for myself!
I was back again sponging off my parents and casting about for work. I had been drawing a few ha-ha greeting cards for friends and on impulse took them to Hallmark Greeting Cards which at that time had a base in this country and was not far from my home. By luck I was offered a job there which I gratefully accepted; drawing the border designs
round the edge of satin padded cards. Pretty ignominious I thought but actually all I was worth. It was here that I met my wife-to-be. A happy time there and eventually after a few years I graduated and became their chief designer - designing those long, tall 'Contemporary Cards', shop fronts, sale banners etc.etc. Seeing no future there for me and never giving up my ambition to draw comics (and a deep desire to eventually have a daily newspaper strip of my own) I decided - big decision - to go freelance. I found myself an agent and slowly but surely eased into the comic strip world - scary, scary ...!
My first regular strip was 'The Secret of the Sheridan Sisters' in DC Thomson's Bunty comic (I wanted their secret to be that they were rampant lesbians and worked in the sex industry - but no such luck). Must have caught someone's eye 'cos I was then given a boys' adventure strip in Hotspur, 'Soldiers of the Jet Age' and I did series 1 and then series 2 and one other long-running strip called 'The Crimson Claw'. Then along came TV21 ...
Yes, the earliest comic work of yours known to me is 'Forward From the Back-Streets' which appeared in TV21 & Joe 90 from September 1969, stories of a tough young Glasgow orphan, Val Hudson, now a triallist for top London football side Kingsdown United. Were you aware of how things like football strips were a huge departure for TV21 away from the comic's SF roots?
At first I was asked to draw the occasional 'one-off' encapsulated story - a few Joe 90s and a couple of SF tales - and then came 'Forward from the Back Streets' All I can remember of it was that it was fairly arduous, in that I didn't and still don't understand football and ran into all sorts of trouble from the readers. For example: I had no idea what or where a penalty spot was, how large a football pitch can be, what offside consists of and in some cases how many players should be on the field! And I wasn't really aware that a football strip was a departure for TV21 - sorry!
I think it's fair to say TV21 quickly declined from this point on, with much material being bought in from US Marvel. Could you see the writing on the wall - was that frustrating as you perhaps saw yourself starting to become an established comics artist? Or were you perhaps more aware that you had to be light on your feet and go where the money was, like all freelancers?
You say that TV21 declined - all my fault, the Hand of Doom - and I was definitely aware that the work situation was dodgy, but of course being freelance it was always dodgy - comes with the territory. I was not at all confident with my potential or whether indeed I had any worthwhile talent at all. Therefore I was most anxious - being freshly married - about my future and was ready to do anything in the art/illustration/comics/ advertising world.