INTERVIEW: PJ HOLDEN TALKS DEPT OF MONSTEROLOGY AND NUMBERCRUNCHER

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After interviewing Michael Carroll about Judge Dredd, I wanted to interview artist PJ Holden about drawing the 2000AD lawman. I then remembered that I hadn’t chatted with him about his creator owned books. So before the Judge Dredd interview, we chat about Dept of Monsterology and Numbercruncher.

You’ve worked with the writer Gordon Rennie before but how did working with him on Department of Monsterology come about? Did he pitch it to you? Maybe you could give people a synopsis of what the book is about? (I’m thinking about those trade waiting people in particular)

I like to think I contributed quite a bit to the Dept of Monsterology, but I think, it pretty much sprung from Gordon fully formed. We’d talked over the years about things that greatly amused us (rarely comics, mostly movies and tv shows) and Gordon I think pitched Monsterology to me, knowing it’d be right up my street. For those that don’t know, it’s about a university department who study strange fortean, mythological and extraterristrial phenomena and the three field teams that go out and collect meet these things face on. Monsterology 101 (the new collection) collects the first mini-series where we meet the teams and get a good sense of the world they inhabit, a world where Brains-in-jars meet giant undersea Cthulu statues guarded by weird human fish monsters, while karate kicking mystical teen fights literally thousands of hopping Chinese Vampires. All done with a pulpy sensability, and some real humour I think.

I’ve read that you and Gordon have similar tastes in movies, books and comics but I was wondering where you drew your inspiration from when it came to designing the characters and the world.

Largely they all come from the script – sometimes there’ll be specific suggestions where Gordon will threaten to provide some photo reference, but nine times out of ten, I’ll google a bunch of images and work from there. If there’s a bunch of conflicting visual things I’ll go for the one that most appeals (which, is usually the one that makes me laugh in some way – but I’m from Belfast, where we laugh at some dark, dark stuff).

You’ve managed to assemble quite a cast of characters and the book jumps from one team to another. It must be challenging coming up with all those designs and locales.

It’s certainly … challenging. Keeping who’s wearing what, what country their in, is it day or night, hot or cold, inside or outside can make your brain spin. But then you get to draw monsters, and it all fades away…
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I think my favourite character is Harry. It is a real case of the character design pulling in the reader and then the story adding layers to make him more interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about the design process for him?

If you like Harry then you should know “Monsterology 101” also contains a 22 page strip giving us Harry’s origins (called “The Trouble With Harry”). I basically googled turn of the century diving suits – Harry’s costume is basically a robot suit, designed at some indeterminate period. I punched out a bunch of sketches for Gordon’s approval (this was all before we had a publisher) some he liked, some he didn’t. Then got a final design. Drew a bunch of pages, decided I hated it and redesigned him and redrew the pages. I added a little bit of ornate decoration. Totally pointless, but it appealed to me there’d be this weird aesthetic touch to his armour.

You really packed a lot of story into those first four issues but there is even more on the way now that Renegade Arts have committed to more OGNs. How much do you have planned out for the series and what is next on the release list?

Yes! more on the way, I’m actually in the middle of the next Original Graphic Novel right now (working on page 18). Don’t want to tell you too much, but as much as we packed into the first one, Gordon has done just as much for the second – not for us comics “decompression”. Everything’s packed in so tight, it’s a book that’ll explode as you read it…
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Your other creator owned book Numbercruncher, with Si Spurrier, is quite a bit different. How did working on that book come about? What was it about the story that appealed to you?

Si and I had talked about a couple of different creator owned projects, and as any one who works in comics can tell you, sometimes these things have a long gestation period and sort of fizzle out. Numbercruncher arrived with a quick email saying “do you want to do this new thing for the Megazine – it’s creator owned and paid”. I was not about to turn it down!

I think when he asked, he’d already written the first four or five episodes, and he knew exactly where the story was going, so I was off and running from there.

I’ve known Si a long time, nearly as long as I’ve known Gordon, and we’ve done small press and pro work together before, so I knew whatever Si was going to write would be fun, but Numbercruncher hit so many of my buttons I feel pretty lucky to have been asked to do it.

It is a quite a bit different to most books. How would describe it to people who haven’t read it yet?

Numbercruncher is a time travelling love story about two souls trying to be one, all while the hardest bastard in the universe is trying to stop them.

Which tells you everything and nothing about the story. It’s very funny, and very clever, and, owing to the fact that parts are set in the real world, are coloured by Eisner Award Winner(c) Jordie Belliare(c) while the parts of the story set in the after life remain a monochrome greywash, it looks like nothing else out there.

I’d be very interested in what influenced the book.

Oh I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about angels and love, and the movie A Matter of Life and Death especially informed the whole monochrome afterlife/real colour world (though my fuzzy memory may be wrong, I think it was Si who suggested some different approach in the art for the afterlife and the real world – I think he suggested the greywash for the afterlife, and a Chris Samnee pure b&w for the real world – I’m no Samnee, but I gave it the old college try!). I think I also tried to rope in a little of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for the afterlife bureaucracy.
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Your style is a bit of a change from Department of Monsterology, Was that something you had in mind while working on both books?

I think every story I to asks for a slightly different approach, lots of Numbercruncher felt like over the top Wile E. Cayote violence, and humour, so I was pretty cartoony on some of it (though I later found out, this wasn’t quiet what Si was expecting, but he liked it and rolled with it). Monsterology is pretty much played straight, the humour for me in it, is about just the crazy ideas and the big over the top spectacle.

The hardcover is already out but will we be seeing more Numbercruncher?

Numbercruncher, at least the story in the hardback, is pretty much a self contained story – a graphic novel, in the proper sense, I think. There may be more tales to tell in that world, and, certainly Bastard Zane – the ostensible hero of the story – has been around a long time (an infinitely long time) so, you know, there’s that. If Si had a story, I’d certainly not say no.

Thank you! Now go out and buy both Numbercruncher and Dept of Monsterology: Monsterology 101 – you won’t regret it!