Talking With Brendan McCarthy About Chopper: Wandering Spirit, His Artistic Influences, And His Return To 2000AD

by Oliver MacNamee

This week sees the release of the most recent chapter in the life and times of Judge Dredd fan favourite, Chopper in Chopper: Wandering Spirit, by David Baille and Brendan McCarthy. But, with the inclusion of a handful of Judge Dredd strips by McCarthy, this is very clearly a book for fans of his work, which includes myself. Having marvelled at his work on 2000AD in the 80’s I was excited with his return to 2000AD and this series, which really worked to his strengths as an artist and storyteller. So, I was more than happy to take up the chance of interviewing him about this book, his influences and much, much more in this informative and fun interview. Take it away, Brendan!

Olly MacNamee: The most recent Chopper story, Chopper: Wandering Spirit, just collected, seems to have been a comic book written with you in mind, Brendan. When reading this very spiritual story it seems to work to your strengths as an artist known for his more bizarrely stunning and surreal vistas. Was it written with you in mind?

Brendan McCarthy: Well yes, I proposed it to Matt Smith the current editor of 2000AD. I suggested maybe a ‘Return of The Judda‘ yarn and Matt asked for Chopper to be the central character. So we evolved the story together and I wanted to include Aborigine Dreamtime and sorcery and the way-out science of advanced nano technology. Matt asked David Baille to turn it into a script, which he did very well indeed and of course brought his own ideas into the mix. I had a lot of Aborigine reference material, hard to come by in Europe, rare books on sorcery and Dreamtime stories. I had spent 4 years living in Australia when I was writing and designing Mad Max Fury Road. So David took some books and magazines away with him and did a great job of synthesizing the various strands into a lively script. 

OM: What were your artist influences on this lead story? The swirling, ever changing designs in the background. Seem to speak of Aboriginal-inspired art to me.

BM: What interested me was applying some visual experiments I had done fusing patterns inspired by Aborigine tribal art with new digital production methods. I like to use the gutter background area in a comics page and not just leave it blank — which is the traditional approach and works on many strips. But I prefer to use that surrounding space to create a kind of visual ‘mood enhancment’ to the narrative in the panels… Akin to the music soundtrack for a film. As you’re reading the story you take in, via peripheral vision, the surrounding designs and colours.

OM: Why are we still fascinated with Chopper, do you think? 

BM: He’s the archetypal laid back surfer. When you experience the vast open spaces of the Australian outback there is little but red desert and a fairly flat horizon. It’s empty as far as the eye can see. A lone figure on a surfboard plays well in that landscape. I liked how David handled Chopper’s interaction with the Aboriginal tribes that he meets in his travels across the Radback.
I wanted to bring the reader to a new, believable location and experience a different part of the Dredd universe.

OM: And what was it about 2000AD that saw you returning to your former home after a successful stint working in La La Land? Why 2000AD specifically when I imagine any number of publishers would love having you working with them?

BM: After finishing my work on Fury Road, I wrote and designed another feature film with George Miller, a really good cg animated piece, which is yet to be made. Out of nowhere, DC Comics called me and asked if I’d been interested in doing the last issue of their excellent Solo comic series. The brief was that I could do anything I liked and if I wanted to, I could use their characters. It just fell in my lap.

Soon after, Marvel called and asked me to do something with Doctor Strange. The editor was doing some Spider-Man books, so I decided to put Spidey and Dr. Strange together in the mini-series Fever…for some odd reason, they seem to have chemistry as a pairing. It was also a homage to the wonderful 60s Lee/Ditko story where they teamed up.

After working for DC and Marvel, doing something for the old gang at 2000AD seemed like an obvious move. I had created the bizarre character and universe of The Zaucer of Zilk, so I pitched it to Tharg who was tickled green by it. 2000AD has a tradition of doing some left-field stories, like Sooner or Later, Hewligan’s Haircut, the Shaky Kane strips and even DR and Quinch, so it seemed like a fit. Matt Smith brought on board writer Al Ewing, then a rising star and who had previously scripted my idea of a Doctor Who satire for the Judge Dredd two-parter, Doctor What? I liked how Al developed the Zaucer’s character and world and really made the whole thing work. Al was too busy with Marvel, where he’s currently riding high, to write the new Zaucer sequel, which was a shame. 

OM: Was it a comfortable return back into Tharg’s arms? Was taking on Chopper the equivalent of putting on a familiar pair of comfy old slippers? I mean, this story could have easily been a throwback of sorts to the grand work you did originally on designing the whole mise-en-scène of Oz and the Oz judges.

BM: As I mentioned earlier, it did start out as a return to the world of the Judda, but quickly evolved into something different.

I think the Chopper: Wandering Spirit strip has a genuine Australian flavour to it which I was able to evoke because I knew so much about the country and the Aborigine culture. I’ve grown to love the new painting movement going on in remote tribal stations in the outback. I saw a great exhibition, Papunya Tula, in Sydney over 20 years ago, tracing the development of modern Aborigine painting. It really blew my mind (as we used to say) and that style of painting has become a consistent influence on my work. And you see the fruits of that applied in this Chopper story.

OM: How does one work on Chopper and not reflect the work you did on Mad Max: Fury Road? I mean, there are so many similarities. What were the design challenges on this series?

BM: I actually wanted to avoid too much of the Fury Road style. I think that movie was my definitive statement on post-apocalyptic designs and frankly, I dislike repeating myself, so I didn’t play up that aspect of the Chopper strip. I was more interested in the characters, especially the Aborigines and evoking their world which I have studied over the last few decades.

OM: Of course, this is more than just the collection of Chopper: Wandering Spirit. This collection also includes a few of your more recent Judge Dredd strips that are a far cry, tonally, from the work on the aforementioned saga. Judge Dredd is a more satirical, humorous strip than Chopper. How does that affect your approach to such stories when compared with more somber affair?

BM: I came up with the basic ideas for the back-up Dredd strips in this collection, which were then assigned to the various writers: Dredd gets bitten by a zombie and is so totally ‘Dredd’ that he holds off the infection as he makes his way back to Mega City in The Walking Dredd. 

Dredd takes part in a dragstrip hotrod race to rescue some rich kids in Hoverods. 

And of course the Doctor Who parody Doctor What?, where a public toilet cubicle becomes a Tardis-type device for travelling through time. 

Sometimes a good Dredd story idea will cross my mind and I’ll pitch it to Matt Smith (aka editor Tharg), who often is happy to indulge me – providing the idea fits with 2000AD.

OM: What next for you whether at 2000AD or elsewhere?

BM: I’m very happy to get my material out in 2000AD. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s the last venue left in the UK for doing high quality original comic work that may be read by ordinary readers, not just specialist comic shop buyers. I like that somewhere in Britain, a young teenager will be reading Chopper or The Zaucer of Zilk and thinking how can he or she become a comic artist? 

I appreciate that 2000AD is still available in cornershop newsagents in a small town somewhere in the country. There aren’t that many comic shops nationwide, so the comic is still an important outlet for new material.

I’m currently in the tail end of drawing a new Zaucer of Zilk sequel series. It is looking very nice – Britain’s very own magical Dr Strange, but in the lineage of Rupert Bear, Alice in Wonderland, Yellow Submarine and David Bowie. This time written by Peter Hogan, it’s a more laid back tale and takes up the Zaucer’s story sometime after the first series.

I have a couple of new concepts for series and will pitch them to 2000AD in the future, depending on other committments. I’m a big supporter of the comic as a venue for new strips. I’m rediscovering British comics these days and am very happy to be part of a great and ongoing tradition.

Chopper: Wandering Spirit is out now from Rebellion.

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