Holden His Own: An Interview With PJ Holden

Having just won a ICN Award for the second year running for Best Artist (Major Publisher), there isn’t really a better time to catch up with PJ Holden. Well perhaps just after he’s made his writing debut too?

You just made your writing debut with 2000AD. Is writing something you always wanted to do?

Always. In fact my first brush with getting a possible gig at 2000ad was from a simple future shock idea I posted on the old alt.comics.2000ad message board. There was a thread with future shocks in it and I’d posted a little story synopsis and Andy Diggle, then editor, offered to buy it! I was torn, though – I’d been spending all my days trying to get a gig as an artist and here I’d stumbled in to selling a pitch. At that stage I’d’ve said my art wasn’t ready (is it ready yet? maybe) but my scripting wasn’t up to snuff, so I let the opportunity pass.

Working with Gordon on Dredd in the early part of my career was great fun as we’d chat about upcoming story ideas and I’d plant ideas – so rejected out of hand for being rubbish (and fair play, they usually were) and some were given space to grow and become something – the three parter about the intergalactic space wig Gordon and I did way back (“It Came From Bea Arthur Block” – weirdly as I type this, my wife is watching the Golden Girls in the other room) came out of one such daft conversation.

Over the years I flirted with stories, some I’d turn over in my head as I was driving, or doing something a bit mind numbing, but any time I’d chat to a writer I’d find someone much more capable than me of taking the idea and doing something with it. So I tended to just let that go.

I’ve also always felt that writers have slightly more control of their destiny than artists – usually I’ll suggest to an editor that I’m free, but more often than not someone will ask me “hey you wanna do this…?” which has been great, and I’ve been working pretty steadily for 20+ years (albiet some years have been emptier than others!) but I did like the idea that if I wanted to – I dunno, draw a cowboy story, draw a romance, draw a horror, or whatever, I could pitch a story and then draw it. Giving me a little bit more control over the career.

The past year or so I’ve been working on various projects and just wanted a change and so came up with this little horror story (“Roots” in 2000AD prog 2268) that would let me draw something else. I told my 13 year old son Thomas (himself an extraordinary producer of a prodigious amount of comic books – 300-500 pages worth over the last few years). Having heard me tell him various cool ideas for stories he asked, coldly, “yes, but are you going to do it?” so I emailed the synopsis that night to Matt. 

“Roots” in 2000AD prog 2268

What are your influences writing-wise? Are they different to your art ones?

I think my biggest writing influence (which feels like an absurd thing to say) is Alan Moore, his work when I was a young teenager just haunted me. It was so good. Coming to writing later though, it was reading Junjo Ito that really opened my head up to possibilities – Ito’s stories often relied on an abstract dream logic, that still gave satisfying conclusions but didn’t necessarily follow the logic of Moore. So it was thinking about Ito’s stories, and Moore’s structures that really kind of helped. I’d say as well, one trick I played on myself to convince myself I could do it was to say “well, you know how to tell a joke on twitter – how is this different?” well, it is different, but you know, telling stories is telling stories.

Has this made you think about doing a creator-owned book?

If you mean writing/drawing a thing? Not so much, I’m a long ways from writing a single four pager to pitching a six issue mini. I mean, I’ve played with ideas of stories in my head, and there’s some characters I’ve come up with that could probably handle a long story, but I suspect it’s not something I’ll ever do – I’ve been particularly lucky in my career to work with some of the best writers in the industry, and many of them still want to work with me! So, while I hope to do far more creator owned work (I think it’s not only financially the smart thing to do, it’s good for the soul to know the bulk of the work you’ve done is work you own) it’s unlikely I’ll ever be ready to take the risk inherent in doing that all on my own. Maybe – MAYBE – I could see myself over the course of a few years writing short stories and bringing them altogether in a Tales From the Crypt style graphic novel, but even that seems like a stretch.

You recently stepped in to help John McCrea out on Soul Plumber for DC Comics. (We’re hoping John is feeling better). What was that experience like? Did you feel like you needed to change your style to match John’s?

John has long covid, a thing that seems to effect different people differently and the same people differently on different days. But, from what I can tell, with rest people do recover reasonably well (plus I imagine research has begun on what can be done) the main difficulty, I think for everyone who has it, as far as I can tell, is it just leaves you exhausted – not unwell, just tired and in need of rest. And with a young family, as John has, that’s exhausting enough. He asked if I could help him with some pencils on a tight deadline, and I was happy to. I’d assumed that would be it, though, ultimately, I think I’ve pencilled most of the book and inked a good chunk of it too. John and I share some sensibilities – and I knew I could push the cartoonyness further than usual since I’d already seen how John was doing it. On the pages I’ve inked I’ve tried to give it something of the same texture as John’s – just so the change isn’t too jarring for the readers. But I love seeing what John does to my pencils – they’re always lifted and made to look a huge amount better, it’s no longer my work and it certainly looks to anyone else like 100% John – sometimes I’ll switch between the pencils and inks just to see what magic he’s performed to make it look so much better.

Honestly, it’s been great working so closely with John – who I’m sure you know, I’ve known since I was 18 when I used to go round his house to watch Kate Bush VHS videos. Plus, it’s done my reputation no harm with DC, and it’s been a fun book to work on, unexpected but fun! 

I can’t remember, is that your first DC story?

Technically my second – my first was a short I did with Garth for a Halloween special – the Doomed and the Damned, about Baytor vs Darkseid in a drinking contest. Utterly mad. 

It was great fun to do, nice to work with Garth on a non-war story for a change, a fab opportunity to draw practically every single character in the DC universe and a little foot in the door at DC, though, to be honest, I’m not sure anyone at DC knew or cared who drew it.

The Doomed and The Damned

You’ve another series out with Garth Ennis called The Lion And The Eagle. It seems to me that a lot of your collaborations with him would require a lot of research. Is that the case? Has that gotten easier over time?

Hah – easier? Nope. There are elements that are easier certainly, I know the process for the research (I buy a load of books, I find a bunch of 3d models, I sketch some characters, then watch some films – if I can find any – on the topics – and use those as best as I can) then start drawing. And revise as I go through and discover new bits of research or where I’ve got something wrong. What’s gotten easier is I know what Garth is after, I can match his expectations, I think. So The changes to the art have reduced as my storytelling has tuned in to his. This is a big book, 40 pages per issue, 4 issues in total, and there’s a LOT of jungle. A LOT.

Were you a fan of war comics, like Battle, growing up?

Well, I wish I could say I was a Battle kid, but I wasn’t – I was a Warlord kid. Warlord was to Battle as the Dandy was to the Beano or Magpie was to TISWAS – which is to say, a little bit safer, a little bit more timid, it was the comic where the good guys always won and you knew exactly who the bad guys were. But I also read Commando.

War was my favourite comic book genre. When I was 7 years old, I’d be pretending to be fighting the Nazis, with nothing more than an invisible hand grenade – and if I was really really lucky – the leg of a broken chair that happened to look a bit like a machine gun.

Sci-Fi came later, for me, and even then, while Rogue Trooper was running in 2000AD it was instantly my favourite strip.

It’s a wonder that Commando has survived this long and even prospered, but I would have loved if Warlord or Battle had had the same kind elongated lifespan.

You’ve also a one shot story in Time Beyond Time coming up. What was it like collaborating on that book? Is it a different experience because it is creator-owned?

Declan Shalvey asked if I’d like to do a fill in, and I’ve known Declan so long I can’t say no to him (I think I gave him his first pro portfolio review). Plus I’ve worked with Rory McConville before so I knew it’d be a fun little gig. I think I was a little intimidated by the art of Joe Palmer – whose elongated stylish artwork has really left a mark on the series. But, I wanted to see if I could do something that leaned heavily into Sci-Fi noir. 

Everyone involved was a pro, so it was just another professional gig as far as I could see. I largely don’t think about creator owned/not creator owned, as – unless it’s creator owned by me, it’s all work for hire anyway!

You and Garth both picked up ICN Awards for a second year in a row. I don’t know how much the more established creators care about these things but congrats.

Hah, well, thank you. I CARE! I care that people have voted, thank you, and honestly, I know who my competition is so I don’t take it lightly. That said it’s never a great idea to let one thing get in your head – I’m always one nice compliment from turning into an unbearable egotistical monster, so I have to be extra careful about these things!