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 The Fleetway interviews #7

   Steve Maher: The Wizard Of Oz!
   In September 2003 artist Steve Maher talked to The Hound about his
   UK comics past and airbrushed future Down Under...
   On Fleetway...     On his Sci-Fi art...    On Oz...    Some Maher Magic... 

   Steve Maher is probably best known for his Sci-fi and Rock art endeavours.
   He created some of the iconic Rock imagery of the late 70s/early 80s , like
   the Global Jukebox used to promote Live Aid, posters for the Reading Rock
   Festival, and art used by Status Quo, Iron Maiden, The Tubes, AC/DC,
   Motorhead and many others. His work featured lots of airbrushed chrome,
   futuristic robots and monumental structures - quintessentially 80s in feel
   and style. Indeed, many of pieces can be found in those classic Sci-fi
   art compilations of the period by Paper Tiger.

   Today Steve lives and works Down Under, in Australia. But he's a Brit by
   birth and actually spent the formative years of his career cartooning out
   of a London based art agency. In fact, he started out 'ghosting' strips for
   Fleetway/IPC back in the early 1970's, where he brought us the likes of
   'Clever Dick', 'Wallies Weirdies', 'Pete's Pockets', 'Sweeny Toddler' and
   'Super Dad'. For DC Thomson he ghosted 'Billy Whizz', and 'Jimmy Jinx' .
   In time this multitalented fellow quickly moved on to tooning his own strips
   too, not only for Fleetway but for DC Thomson and Polystyle. Steve drew
   'Brian's Bike' for the Fleetway fun comics, 'The Galactic Olympics' for
   2000ad, 'The Incredible Bulk' and 'Captain Caveman' for TV Comic and
   many more besides.

   Here Steve talks about his cartoon past and airbrushed future, his move
   to Australia and his web work for SMILE. Plus, he presents us with
   a super gallery of some of his classic art...


   Steve Maher speaks! The Hound talks to Steve Maher...

  During the heady days of comics past, during the 70s and 80s when deadlines
  were tight and strip work was plentiful and demanding, many of the artists found
  themselves 'ghosting' strips for their colleagues. Even topflight toonsters would
  participate, drawing strips in the style of the regular artist for a week-or-two to
  cover holidays, illness, or absenteeism. In fact, it was such a necessary fact
  of comics life that some almost made a career understudying their fellows.
  That's how Steve Maher started out. So that's where we started our little chat.
  As always, The Hound's questions are in bold...


  Let's take you back, all the way around the globe, back to the UK
  and your time on the comics. I take it your first Fleetway job was
  ghosting on 'Clever Dick' in Whizzer & Chips?

  Yes, indeed. Clever Dick had a shed in his back garden where he invented
  crazy stuff - it was 'ghosted' for Leo Baxendale. Being my very first tryout for
  Fleetway I remember sweating for days over the damn thing as I was so worried
  about getting it correct - Leo Baxendale being a comic strip GOD in my eyes
  at that time, I just couldn't believe that I, a mere mortal, was being trusted
  with his work.

  The ‘ghosting’ aspect of those Fleetway days is often referred to, but
  never properly scrutinized, so can you tell us a little more. How did the
  process work?

  There was a huge amount of ghosting happening in those days. The process
  was very simple. The editor would just phone you up and ask if you wanted to do
another strip for a while. They would then just send you a stack of back issues
  for reference and you then got your script... pretty much a factory really, none too
  romantic I'm afraid!

  Still with ‘ghosting’. Were you urged to copy the style of the lead
  cartoonist on a strip, or given leeway to simply draw a strip in your
  own hand?

  No. We had to get the style 'forged' almost perfectly. However we were allowed
  to introduce our own nuances - like background humour - asides - and the like.
  TV Comic, Disney and Hanna Barbera strips were the hardest to work for as
  they had really draconian rules about what you could and couldn't do.

  Can you tell us more about 'Brian's Bike'. How did the strip
  come about?

  Oh, wow, yea that was a real buzz. I had been Ghosting for Baxendale and
  Lacey for ages and suddenly I got a call from Doris White 'my agent' to say
  that 'they' (Fleetway) had offered me a chance to do a strip of my own. I was
  summoned to Fleet Street to talk to Bob Paynter, Editor bigwig at Fleetway
  then, he offered me a chance at the gig. I was given a selection of ideas and
  asked to choose one and to come up with some initial drawings

  'Brian's Bike' was a bit like 'Clever Dick' really. Brain was a Nerdy Kid who
  had built a Hi-Tek bike in his shed. This bike could fly, go underwater, had
  amazing telescopic wheels, and so on. But the strip just didn't have enough
  originality to keep going for long, I think there had been too many similar ideas,
  so it eventually bit the dust after about six months trial. But it was my first
  original strip and a real buzz.

  I had the original strip framed on my wall for years - but alas like many things,
  it got mislaid during the move to Australia.

  Were there any other specific strips that you drew on your own volition
  as (fanfare) ‘Steve Maher: Strip Cartoonist’?

  I suppose TV Comics 'The Incredible Bulk' would rate as my favourite. It was
  a full colour strip and I was allowed almost complete freedom with it. I had
  a lot of fun with the main character a dopey, ugly looking little skinny kid with
  glasses, bad acne, and a hideous ginger hairdo, who's Dad was a scientist.
  Dad gets some chemicals accidentally mixed up with the boys sherbet dip
  (oops-didn't see that coming). The rest is obvious. Kid eats sherbet and turns
  into this Huge Blue Bumbling Monster who get into all kind of trouble and then
  turns back into a kid again leaving him with all the mess!

  I also used to come up with comic inventions for Buster and Jet (I think?).
  I produced my own idea for a weekly cartoon based on kids ideas. It was a
  sort of Heath Robinson borrow (another hero of mine) and we called it
  'Maniaction'. This was great fun, sometimes getting a bit close to being
  sick humour. And then I did a whole series of crazy stuff for 2000AD Comic
  the 'Galactic Olympics.' But by this time I was moving away from the badly
  paid comic world and getting into the record cover industry.

  Which we'll turn to shortly. But still with the comics; what materials
  did you use. Did you have a favoured pen and board etc....?

  I would use pencil to do the initial drawings, they would go off for approval
  then I would ink in with pen and Indian ink - a Joseph Gillott 1950 Nib I think?
  The nibs were becoming hard to find even back in the 70's and I had to buy
  them in bulk from London. I would also use a series of Windsor & Newton sable
  brushes. I mostly used pressed art board (Bainbridge Board) at first , then I
  started to use CS10 Paper a bit later as it was easier to post.

  You’ve reeled off a jumble of Fleetway and DC Thomson strips. Was
  there a specific point when you moved from Fleetway to the other,
  or was it a case of work for the two merging as as it came through
  the agency?

  I started off with just Fleetway, but after a while was actually working for them
  all at the same time. They didn't know, as it wouldn't have been wise to tell them
  I was working for the competition. At one time I worked for all three; DC Thomson,
  Fleetway, Polystyle. You just had to work for as many as you could and churn 'em
  out as fast as possible as the money was so bad. DC Thomson were by far the
  'nicest - most friendly' people to work for though. They were like a family. The
  editors would take trouble to send back personal notes with your work approvals.
  I made friends with many of them and I loved working for them. Fleetway was an
  impersonal and hard nosed company, as was Polystyle.

   Pete's Pockets Munchie Monster

  So you left the comics world behind. Those Status Quo, Reading and
  Live Aid images are 80s rock classics - and a long way removed from
  your strip work. How on earth did the shift from toons to airbrushed art
  come about?

  I have always been a big Sci-fi fan, loving the early artwork of Chesney Bosnell
  when I was a kid in the 50's. And I also loved Frank Hampson 'Dan Dare' art,
  but I was too young then to draw that kind of stuff. Later I would try to emulate
  this Sci-fi art and I guess I just got better at doing it. I had no formal art training,
  I just loved to draw, and I left school at 15 to become an indentured apprentice
  copper plate engraver, which I hated. This did, however, get me day release to the
  London School of Art. I did the engraving thing for 8 years. I also got married and
  had two children. But I hated my job, it wasn't art and I resented every minute
  wasted in it, and was always spending my time lampooning the factory staff by
  drawing wicked cartoon parodies of them and sticking them on the walls. The only
  thing that got me through this time was the fact that I played guitar and sung in a
  successful pub rock band. I just lived for the nights so I could clock out, get out
  of the stinking factory, and play music.

  It was a much later chance (1968) reintroduction to Mike Lacey who I knew
  from schooldays (Mike had been a successful young comic strip artist for
  many years) that got me to thinking about honing my skills and turning my
  misspent talent into a living. And the truth is that if Mike hadn't helped me then,
  I may not have succeeded getting into art at all. He first introduced me to his
  agent, later helped me to develop my comic art style. At the beginning we worked
  in Fleet Street out of a Dickensian studio on the third floor of a decrepit building.
  This being the office of Link Studios our agency which was run by Doris White,
  a chain smoking, hard faced, sixty year old artists agent. There were about fifteen
  freelance comic strip artists all working in different dingy rooms in Link Studios
  and the practical jokes flowed continually. The favourite joke was that if an artist
  should happen to be at pencil stages with a strip, and went out to lunch, Lacey
  and I would sneak into his/her office and make subtle and sometimes obscene
  changes to their pencil art.

  Usually they got found and fixed after a bit of name calling. I remember one
  particular time Mike made some very phallic changes to the shape of a background
  rock in a Girls Comic strip that one guy was working on, and somehow the art got
  inked in and sent off unnoticed to the publication. Much to Doris' embarrassment
  it wasn't noticed until after it had been printed. Needless to say nobody owned
  up to that one. ...

  Much later I went on to actually team up and work with Mike for a few very crazy
  years (1977-9) sharing a studio. Mike introduced me to the airbrush one day, he
  was using one to Illustrate a colour Annual cover. I had never seen one before
  and I remember (being a bit of a hippy) thinking 'Wow - this is just so cool'. I was
  hooked and I went straight out and bought one (a Devillebis Super 63). The intro to
  airbrush changed my whole outlook on art. I could do stuff I hadn't dreamed of
  before. I started to look into 'heroic art' produced by Boris Vallejo, Chris Achilleos
  and 'freaky' stuff from Chris Foss, Roger Dean and Patrick Woodruffe. I just wanted
  to do work like this. After a while I got quite good at it and was getting commissions
  to do record sleeves and posters for bands.

  And how long did one of those pieces take to create, roughly. Did you
  burn the Midnight Oil, or work to a daily schedule?

  Oh, I guess the whole process could take from a few days to a week or more per
  drawing, depending on complexity. But I would have to also factor in the preliminary
  pencil drawings, meetings, and showing them to the clients. And yes, I have
  burned the Midnight Oil many times to meet a deadline.

  Amongst your contemporaries, Roger Dean was associated with Yes,
  Rodney Matthews with The Scorpions, etc. Did you have a band that
  you were specifically aligned to?

  Not in the same way as Roger Dean. In other words, I wasn't signed up
  exclusively to any specific band. I was totally involved in the Live Aid project,
  in so much as I was commissioned by Bob Geldof and Harvey Goldsmith to
  come up with the official worldwide Global Jukebox artwork for the whole concert.
  This was used in the posters, T-shirts, programs, stage set design, TV ads,
  everything. Over the years though I have personally produced concept art for
  Meatloaf, Boy George, Spandau Ballet, AC/DC, Status Quo, Duran Duran,
  Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Jimmy Page, Paul Rogers, Kim Wilde, and dozens
  of others.

  I recall your art featuring regularly in all those Paper Tiger art
  compilations. Do you have a favourite piece?

  My favourite piece was one I did for an Australian band BBSteal in 1991
  (see the gallery). The painting was a huge (six feet square) mixed media
  (acrylics and inks) artwork called 'Near The Edge' and it took me about a
  month to complete it, with fanatical detail: Wonders of the world, the Great
  Wall of China, the Pyramids, and so on, dwarfed by menacing sci-fi metal
  chess icons and Pentagon war-room imagery. The band however, as with
  my art, got nowhere and remains in obscurity ...ha ha ha!

  Just how closely did you work with the recording artists. Was it an
  ‘arm’s length’ experience, or were they putting their ideas to you in
  close collaboration?

  I got to rub shoulders with many of my music heroes. They were great, mostly.
  Although I did get stood up by Boy George four times before he consented to
  turn up to an art briefing (Grin). Most of them were really down to earth guys
  though. Jimmy Page and Paul Rogers were good blokes and I got to watch a
  Jam session in progress prior to a meeting in the mid eighties, and then got
  taken down to the pub with Jimmy for a beer - tight bugger Pagey made me
  pay for the drinks though :-)

  So there you in the late 80s (fanfare again) Steve Maher: Airbrush Art Star.
  And then you upped-sticks and headed Down Under. Um. Why?

  No big story here. The 80's was nearly over, CDs started to appear, Vinal LP's
  disappeared from the shops, artwork requirements changed and the work for
  big budget sleeves dried up. Meanwhile, I have a brother who moved to Oz in
  the early 70's and had been asking me when I was gonna up stumps and move
  to 'Gods Own' for years. Eventually in the mid-80s the planets aligned (so to speak).
  My parents - bless 'em - had passed on, all the kids were at the right age, I was
  looking for a new challenge and it just looked like a good life changing move.
  So here we are now new life in beautiful Oz, and loving it.

  And now you're working on PC, I believe. What are you up to now, exactly.
  Indeed, what have you been doing this last decade?

  At first when we arrived here I was plying my trade as a commercial illustrator and
  cartoonist, and made a nice living at this for a while. For a few years I was doing a
  lot of cartoon Illustration for LEGO Toys and also getting record sleeve work. Then
  I noticed that it was becoming more and more difficult to get work. I think this is
  down to the computer revolution. I had been working with Macs since the late 80s
  and they just got better and better with graphics. So I thought if you can't beat 'em,
  join 'em. So I started my own Multimedia/Web company called SMILE in 1994,
  producing web sites and then CD-rom Multimedia, music production for video,
  and some video games animation. It has been going strong ever since.
  See: www.smile.com.au

  And finally, do you have any Big Future Plans: a piece, or creation, or
  project that you’re itching to develop (or indeed, halfway through...)?

  Weeell...I have been using graphics computers (Amiga - Mac - PC) now for nearly
  sixteen years, but... As I get older I am slowly becoming more and more frustrated
  and disillusioned with the world of technology and I am finding that, while maybe
  it is all very clever, when you factor in the crashes, Trojans, Virus's, Spam, learning
  new software and so on, it is actually all getting in the way of my creativity. What
  other industry do you actually spend longer sharpening the tools than you do doing
  the work? So I plan to eventually go back to good ol' analogue, dig out all my
  brushes, dust off the drawing board, and paint stuff the old fashioned way.
  (FOR FUN NOT MONEY) I have also gone back to music again after all this time.
  I have my own 32 track home recording studio where I get together with Ozzy Music
  Mates and I bore all my friends rigid with CD's of my own original music...       
  Some Maher magic...

  After all that talk, it's time to look at some visuals. Presented here is a fine
  selection of Steve Maher's artwork from his rock and Sci-fi past. Steve kindly
  emailed over a whole bunch of scans to accompany our chat. So here you are.
  Thumbs lead to larger scans - enjoy!

     Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan   Status Quo - End Of The Road Tour   Live Aid - Global Jukebox   Iron Maiden - Eddie
         Star Trek II         Status Quo           Live Aid          Iron Maiden

     The Tubes   BB Steal - Steve's favourite cover art...   Broadsword   Reading 1978
        The Tubes           BB Steal           Jethro Tull        Reading 1978

     Tinkerbells Fairydust    Reading 1979
        Tinkerbells          Reading 1979


  And so we came to the end of this here Q&A. You know, Mr Maher was
  a gent. Not only for talking to Toonhound, but for  having the courtesy and
  patience of a saint whilst Yours Truly faffed around with a bloated workload
  and a disintegrating PC. And I'm sure you folks will agree, it was well
  worth the wait, don't you think?

  Don't forget, you can keep up with The Wizard Of Oz via his web site: SMILE

     - Till next time!

Pooch again!     thehound@toonhound.com    

all art copyright Steve Maher / F2000-2004