Sector 13: An Interview With Peter Duncan

Issue 3 cover by Stuart McCune

I recently purchased the first five issues of Sector 13 and was very impressed with the stories they have published, both in their creativity and their variety so I decided to reach out and ask about about the book. Fitz Tharg instructed Peter Duncan to answer my questions.

How did the fanzine start?

2000AD, and Dredd in particular, struck a real cord with comic fans living in Belfast in the eighties and nineties. Armed, armoured Police on the streets, Block Wars, where neighbours fought each other over incomprehensible disputes and night after night of almost random violence. Mega City one seemed familiar, in many ways we felt it told a version of our story.

Fans in Belfast feel like they have this special link to the comic, so when the 40th Anniversary came round the members of the Belfast, Sector House 13 Fan group wanted to join in the celebrations. What we decided to do was to put together a fanzine and launch it at Enniskillen Comicfest, which had one of the best line-ups of 2000AD related guests at any con, anywhere that year.

We spoke to Rebellion, got the nod to go ahead and Sector 13 was born. I don’t think we quite understood how much we had taken on and we only just made it. I collected the first issue from the printer the day before we headed off Enniskillen. But we had stories that had not quite made the deadline and people wanting to get involved and we decided to keep going. 

If the first issue had been hard work, the second was worse. There were disputes and disappointments and our meetings occasionally focused more on these that on the comic. We got through it, but it quickly became clear that the loose organisation we had was not something we could continue with.

As a result we set up a core editorial team of three, Simon McKnight Laurence McKenna and myself, with me with the title of editor. In reality almost every decision is reached by consensus and my position as editor is more to do with me being an old retired man with more time to devote to the boring stuff.

But we’re now working on our sixth issue, our fifth having sold more quickly than any of the others and we’re very proud of the zine we produce.

Morgan Brinksman artwork from issue 5

2000AD has a Judge Dredd strip as their constant whereas you, appropriately enough, have ‘Sector House 13’. The book features the ‘Sector House 13’ cosplayers. I’m interested in what goes into the creation of this strip.

Our Sector 13 stories started as a way of getting as many members of the Belfast fan group involved in the zine as possible. Laurence McKenna came up with the idea for photo strip and he works with Simon McKnight to put the images together. He organises photographs of cosplayers from the group and from beyond and merges them with real backgrounds from the Belfast Area. Laurence uses fairly inexpensive software to create the images.  There is a basic painting program called Procreate with some additional features added through the Photo Edit option on his iPad. But mostly it’s a lot of planning, dedication and skill on his part. 

Early stories were written by Laurence and were one offs. But from the third issue on we tried to expand things a little, developing back stories for each of the main characters and coming up with an overall story arc for the Sector 13 Judges.  James McBride, who plays Judge McBride in the strips, joined the editorial team to form the ‘Parlour Bar Posse’ to discuss and write up a general story line. I’ve been writing the scripts based on our discussions and James’ organisation of those chats, which usually take place over a drink or two, and then it’s over to Laurence to work his magic.

But these strips have become one of the most truly collaborative projects I’ve ever been involved with in any field, and they are incredibly enjoyable as a result.

Joseph Parangue artwork from Issue 5

The go to stuff for 2000AD fandom seems to be Dredd and Rogue Trooper. I found it interesting that you also have strips like ‘Flesh’ (in issue 3), which os a very good story btw. Do you have any criteria for what kind pre-existing characters you include in the fanzine?

In a way, I think you’ve answered your own question. That Flesh story, by John Farrelly, was so good, how could we turn it down?  I think the reason that other fanzines publish so many Dredd and Strontium Dog stories is that those are the characters that the fan writers want to write about. 

We’ll look at anything, based on any 2000AD strips, and so long as it’s good we’re happy to publish it.

Our criteria regarding pre-existing characters has changed over time.  Pretty early on we decided not to do Dredd stories. Especially since almost every Dredd script we got featured Judge Death. 

But more recently we have made a decision that, except in very rare circumstances, we won’t do stories cantered around ‘lead characters’ from the Progs.  So no Dredd, no Johnny Alpha, no Rogue Trooper, except as background characters.

I think we wanted to put a space between what we do and what the other 2000AD fanzines produce. We all read the other zines and often use the same writers and artists, but we didn’t want to copy what they do, we wanted to do our own thing. I think that helps both of us.

So we ask for scripts featuring new characters who populate those universes. We have the Sector House 13 judges, Judge Whatley, who specialises in supernatural threats and another new character who will make her debut in the next issue. We do have a Johnny Alpha story to come, and we will make exceptions if we get something very special, but in general that’s where we are.

Cat Byrne Artwork from Issue 5

I also liked that you include a lot of original strips unrelated to 2000AD. I had a similar question as to what makes them a fit for Sector 13.

We look at each story on an individual basis. If we like it and it fits into the general, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Supernatural horror genres we’ll consider it for publication.  Although I must say that personally, I’m not really interested in seeing horror in the EC comics mould in Sector 13. But we want the comic to be as varied as possible. We are all fans of 2000AD, but we also like science fiction comics in general, particularly European titles. So we never wanted to limit ourselves to just characters from 2000AD.

The way the submission process works for stories is quite simple. Creators can send finished strips, scripts or story ideas to the editorial e-mail address Sector13@Boxofrainmag.co.uk. I read everything first. If there are glaring problems, I’ll go back to the writer and ask that they are looked at before we move on to the next stage. The biggest issue I see with scripts are instructions to the artist that have characters doing two very different things in the same panel.  A lot of people seem to write with film in mind and forget that comics are made up of still images.

Some scripts will get rejected at this point. For example if a story is outside the genres we want to publish or breaks our aim of a PG-13 rating, or, as in one case, I’d read the story before, with a different by-line. Probably best not to rip-off a Lee/Ditko scifi story from the pre-Marvel days, I have read them all. The scripts that make it through the first cull, are then shared with the editorial team and we have a discussion about them, if we like them, we try to find a suitable artist and just get on with it. If not, we’ll get back to the writer and let them know. 

We are willing to work with writers if we like the story. So things don’t have to be perfect, first time round.

I noticed that some of your stories include a social / political message which gives the book an old school 2000AD vibe. Do you think because you’re a fanzine you have a bit more freedom to do this?

Probably, but then we are old school 2000AD fans and that’s the exact vibe we want to emulate.  I also think that when a writer is writing about the political or social issues they care about it shows in the quality of their writing.  Maybe those stories are just a little better than others. But I do think this is a meme about 2000AD that is not always fair. John Wagner and Pat Mills in particular still hit social issues from time to time. Perhaps not with the same obvious, hit you over the head with it, approach but the satire is still there to some extent. 

Issue 4 cover by Will Simpson

Your second printings all have new covers drawn by artist. I was on a panel with Will Simpson at Worldcon and he seemed really happy about working on the cover for issue four. I think it is his first comics work for a while. How did he get involved?

I’d be surprised if he was as happy as we were! That was a real thrill.

We used to meet Will at the monthly meetings of the Sector House 13 Fan Group (last Friday of the month, Parlour Bar Belfast, 7:00pm on) and occasionally at our Wednesday editorial team get-togethers. One day while chatting he asked Laurence why we hadn’t hit him for a cover. Laurence almost choked on his beer, we’d never thought he’d have the time, so we’ve maybe learnt a lesson from that regarding other big-name creators.

Will has a real love of comics, he seems to like what we do and has been a huge help to us. I think he also likes the craic at our meetings and we’re always delighted to see him. His cover looks great, and he says he really enjoyed doing it. But then I think all our second print covers look pretty good too.

Cover for the reprint of Issues 1 and 2 Cover Lyndon Webb

Do you give the artist any direction as to what characters to include on their cover designs?

Not so far, other than the offer from Will the conversation usually goes:

“fancy doing a cover for us?”

“Sure, what do you want?”

“What do you feel like doing?”

(various answers)

“Sounds good, look forward to seeing it”.

There are great artists out there willing to help us out, they understand what works. Why not listen to them?

There was some discussion online about the variety of art styles in the book, the person’s argument being that it isn’t diverse. I can see the diversity just looking at the covers for the second printing but do you want to comment on that?

We actually pride ourselves on using a wide variety of art styles so we took that ‘discussion’ quite seriously. Looking at the last issue (number five) I think it would be hard to say that we had a ‘house style’ or were limiting artists in any way. As well as the photo story, we had some very slick, charming and cartoon-like art from Cat Byrne, we had Ed Doyle’s caricatures on Gronks along with Donna Black’s, Dave McKean influenced pages that have gathered a huge amount of attention. 

Then you have Davy Francis delivering his usual comic genius and a couple of strips that I was worried might be similar. My own Judge Whatley story and Mark Keenan’s. Terror of Titus Tower are both black and white and both about specialist Judges dealing with the Supernatural. 

I needn’t have worried, Joseph Parangue, turned in this intricate, line-based job on Whatley that shows the influence of the comics of the Philippines, Joseph’s home. On ‘Titus’, Morgan Brinkman gave us a totally different, yet no less effective, style. His pages look designed, his backgrounds sometimes sparse but at the same time incredibly evocative. Morgan has become one of the mainstays of Sector 13.

And then we had Scott Tweels on the Judge Knight story. There is something of Caros Ezquerra in there and maybe some Chaykin, but mostly it’s just Scott and this wild imagination. 

So I don’t think I’d agree that we limit the type of art we are prepared to publish.

The whole thing arose when an artist who had sent work to us was unhappy when I said we couldn’t use it. He then complained on a Facebook forum that we were not ‘artist-friendly’ and that, I, in particular, “knew nothing about good art”. 

In reviewing potential contributions we always start from the position that anyone who is prepared to send their work to be considered for publication is potentially making themselves vulnerable. This is something they really care about and a rejection can hurt. 

So we try to be both honest and constructive and avoid being deliberately mean.

The particular person concerned and I had already had an extensive back and forth. I’d replied to something like 14 e-mails in a week and a half with him sending new versions of the same, slightly tweaked pages over and over again. In my view the tweaking did not address the issues I had with his art. 

Finally, I’m afraid, I said ‘enough’ and gave him the advice that most editors would already have sent him packing and that what he was doing was becoming counter-productive. He was upset and vented.  

We made a bit of a joke of it, trying to keep things light-hearted and added a page to our webpage giving advice to potential contributors on how to deal with those monsters known as editors.

We’ve left the door open for him to submit again, but I can say to any artist out there thinking of submitting to us. We are not closed to any style, but I would suggest that reading a recent copy of the zine will give you an idea of what the competition is like and you must read our submission guidelines before you send us anything. 

Photo story art from issue 5

Could you give us some hints as to what might be coming up in future issues?

Hints? Hmmm, we like to play things close to our chest until we are sure of them. But I can tell you that there will be more Sector 13 stories, both cosplay and art-driven, a brand new character set in the Rogue Trooper Universe, and the return of some of the characters you’ve seen in recent issues.

And maybe, just maybe, that move into fantasy and supernatural stories.

Information Sector 13: