Writing For The Artist: An Interview With Darrin O’Toole

With the recent release of Glimmer Man issue 3, I thought it was time catch up with Darrin O’Toole on that book, his recent Lightning Strike stories and writing for different artists.

I want to start with Red Lotus (from Lightning Strike 5). I was really impressed with Cormac Hughes’ art in that story. I think it was the design work that went into it. I was wondering how much of that was in your script?

The script was very, very tightly scripted in terms of layout for that story. I had an initial conversation with Cormac about what he wanted to draw in the story and once we came up with the concept of doing this modern Samurai in a cyber setting, we talked about trying to do some interesting things with how we told the story. I suggested to Cormac that since he has a very clean style, I’d like to push him into working in very small panels and dynamic layouts (like the lotus petals falling being the panels, or the tiny cube panels). There was a heavy Quitely influence on how I wanted the story to look, with We3 being a constant source of reference in terms of how Quitely played with panel sizes and angles etc.

The other thing that the story had (spoilers) was that it’s a cyclical tale, so the final page of the story is the first page being told in reverse. I’d previously played with this kind of approach to scripting with my story Perspective and it worked really well here.

So with all that in mind and Cormac eager to take himself out of his comfort zone, I sent the script to him and he went about doing all the intricate panels I described, but me coming up with the ideas and Cormac implementing them were two entirely different things. Cormac took to the challenges the script presented and really excelled. His clean images coupled with Dee’s colours on those lotus petal panels turned out amazing and I certainly can’t take any credit for how it turned out, because Cormac and Dee knocked it out of the park. It was a really great collaborative effort on Red Lotus and as a result it was one of the most fun comics to put together.

The Vault (from Lightning Strike issue 7) kind of reminded me of Tales From The Void with story with a twist element. What was the idea behind this story?

The Vault was initially intended for a new issue of Tales from the Void, but Lightning Strike were looking for a story from both myself and Daryl so I offered it to them to publish. With The Vault I wanted to capture a mix of the old Creepy comics coupled with the mood of an old 60’s Italian style horror movie. There was a big effort to build tension through the architecture of the castle and myself, Daryl and Triona really worked hard at making that story get more claustrophobic with every panel. There was a great Morrison standalone story in The Invisibles that I kind of nod to with the twist, but ultimately The Vault is another one of those stories where the horror is the human greed rather than what comes later.

"The Vault" art by Daryl Shaw

“The Vault” art by Daryl Shaw

Writers have told me that these kind of short stories are a lot harder to write but you seem to be pretty accomplished at them at this stage. Do you find them difficult to do?

I find them quite simple to be honest. The hardest thing with these stories is you know if the plot is solid that you could make more of the story, so you are compressing and compromising characterisation more than anything. You absolutely have to be on the ball when it comes to things like plot, tone, beats and themes, so with short stories characterisation is the thing that normally gets the short end of the stick, so as a writer you really should focus on pushing it when writing these short stories. That’s why a lot of the 2000AD writers are so good, they have been working well in those confines for many a story so when it comes to a bigger page count they can really deliver a story that has solid structure as well as lots and lots of characterisation.

I think Daryl Shaw’s art really worked well here. He is great at capturing the real world as well as the bizarre (people just have to look at Detective 1945).

Daryl did really great work on The Vault. He’s another artist who has a very clean style, so it was interesting to see how he used his style to tell the story. He’s really good at facial expressions and poses that feel natural and he did a great job on the final pages with making the final act kinetic.

I also have to mention Triona Farrell’s colours. She has been doing great work for Lightning Strike. What do you think she brought to the story?

Triona was crucial to this story coming off in the way that it did. When we were talking about how the story should feel, I kept referencing old 60’s Italian horror movies. They are generally terrible movies, but they do great gothic. It was vital to the story that the mansion was a character in itself, and where Daryl did a great job in using the interiors to build tension, Triona really got his intentions and enhanced them with the colour palette.

I really enjoyed Knights of Old (from Lightning Strike issue 8). There was a great feeling of it being plucked from the headlines. It is really evident that there was a lot research involved. How do balance mixing real world events while trying to tell an entertaining story?

Knights of Old is a story I really like and want to get out there. For me it’s a story of doing right by those you share a bond with. With Knights of Old I want to tell a tale about a special teams unit who were put through the ringer in service of their country,and came back to a country that didn’t do them right. They all deal with that in different ways over a decade, but eventually they are given a reason to reunite to intervene and try stop the one member of their unit who kept on fighting.

For me, that premise is the story. That’s what will hopefully get people to be emotionally invested in these characters. After that, the events that follow are just carrying them along on a path to their destination, which where hopefully the plot and the themes intertwine to make the story.

"Knights of Old" art by Robert Carey, Colours by Dee Cunniffe

“Knights of Old” art by Robert Carey, Colours by Dee Cunniffe

It really helps having Robert Carey (with Dee Cunniffe) on the story. I think Rob’s art really fits this style of story.

Rob did really good work on these pages. It’s a simple enough start, with a guy drinking at a bar. Rob did well in conveying the idea that he’d been sat here a lot, and we were joining him on any other day. Dee worked wonders on the art, in particular the flashback panels where we tell the story of The Reaper very quickly, but get the point across. That was down to Dee doing a great job on Rob’s panels here so readers knew we were looking at a selection of news items.

The story was a prologue, correct? Will we be seeing more of this story?

These pages were the initial batch sent to a publisher. We were under the impression it was being picked up, but there was a bump in the road with an editor moving on and Knights of Old was left homeless. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing it as a novel but it may still find itself out there soon in comic form.

Looking at these three Lightning Strike stories, you’re working with three pretty different artists. How does this affect your scripts? Were they written with certain artists in mind or did you have to tailor them to their styles after.

All three stories were done with those specific artists in mind. I figured each one would suit these stories and I’d talk heavily with them about what they wanted to draw with these stories in mind. Once we’d have those talks, I’d write the scripts and everything was visualised with the artists styles in mind. Sometimes you play right to their strengths, whilst other times you play against type in the hope that it brings out something very cool(much like it did with Cormac’s excellent panels in Red Lotus).

More recently we’ve seen the conclusion of your Glimmer Man story. I think one of things you set out to do (and I think you really succeeded at) was showing that he wasn’t just Ireland’s Captain America.

My big thing with writing Glimmer Man was that if he was to be the alpha male of the Atomic Diner universe, he had to be his own person. I worked pretty hard to ensure that by the end of issue two, we’d removed any doubt about whether he was or not. For me the easiest way to do this was to put him in the same shoes as the character people were comparing him to and have him take another, harder path.

With all that in mind, we introduced the serum Dev had acquired from his American friends, and Dev has the uniforms ready to be used as political propaganda, something James wanted no part of until circumstance forced him into putting on the costume, but leaving the serum on the table. That was my way of leaving the comparison right there on the table, and Glimmer Man walks out of that room very much as his own character after that.

The book is steeped in Irish politics. The conflict between James Quinn and his brother kind of reminded me of the Irish Civil War.

Putting Mean Jack Quinn in as James’ brother was another way I worked on making the character as unique as possible. Both James and Jack are positioned as larger than life and very heroic by their nature, but politically both couldn’t be more different. This was a great way to use two characters to capture the mood of the entire country. We were a country of differing opinions and ideologies, at a time in our history where every action and inaction would have huge ramifications. By using Jack as a counterpoint to James, it conveyed the issues with Irish society as a whole back then.

Another thing you made use of was the shady nature of DeValera’s character. To some he’s a hero but he has his detractors too. You could side with James or his brother in their opinion of him.

Exactly. My point with the entire Glimmer Man story was that there is no right or wrong, no clear hero or villain, at least in their own eyes. Emerald Action think they are acting in the best interests of Ireland. Jack Quinn thinks his stance is better than James’ political views. Dev thinks he is walking a tightrope in the best interests of the country and is willing to step over the line when needed if it serves the greater good and James, our protagonist, is a journalist who has his eyes open to all of these opinions and makes his choices based on the glimmers of hope that he sees.

You worked with Luka Pizarri on this issue. What do you think he brought to the story?

Style! Luca for me was a case study in how an artist should attack a script. He didn’t deviate much at all from my panel descriptions, but the way he went about putting them on paper made them 100% more effective than I’d envisaged. For issue two, I’d given Luca this ridiculously bad drawing of how I wanted the page where James decides to become Glimmer Man to look, with lots of cubes containing flashes of his memories and all these cubes falling to the bottom of the page and at the end of the page the final cubes transition from a steely look in his eyes to him wearing the mask. Luca somehow managed to get what I was trying to convey and then did this amazing job putting it onto a page so it worked exactly as I’d hoped. He also did incredible double page spreads in issue one and three. His art on the final pages of issue three as we close out the story is near perfect story telling. Luca was meticulous in the details too, getting references for clothes of the era, buildings and so much more.

You have a story coming out (with art by Ruairí Coleman) in Atomic Diner Mythologies. Anything you want to say about that story?

Myself and Ruairí worked on that a long time ago now, but we have done a story with Druid called Stories and Destinies. I won’t say too much but we’ve put in this really cool new character into the Atomic Diner universe who is pulling all the strings and there’s some great nods to other Atomic Diner books in our story. Writing Druid was really good fun and I’d love to play around more with the character down the line.

Anything else coming out that you can talk about?

Well the project up next for me is a book called Concussion. I’ll keep the details pretty close to me chest for now, but I think I’ve a take on a story that a lot of folk will have one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments, much like we all did when Monty Nero released Death Sentence (where super powers were an STD). I’m taking a lot of time with this one and hopefully when it sees the light of day people will really enjoy it.

You can follow Darrin O’Toole on Twitter @darrinotoole or check out his website www.darrinotoole.com.