Wizard #71: Gary Spencer Millidge

As we are quickly approaching the end of the original lifespan of “Palmer’s Picks” in Wizard magazine, there are a few notable “lasts” that are going to pop up along the way, like this profile of Strangehaven creator Gary Spencer Millidge: the last time I would feature a self-publisher.

Preacher, created by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, was the first Vertigo comic to snag a Wizard cover, courtesy of this painting of Jesse Custer by Glenn Fabry.

Thankfully, Millidge was (and is) one of the good ones. While his comic book might not have kept a regular schedule—it took ten years to release 18 issues of Strangehaven—he was a diligent publisher and really paid attention to all of the details. Each issue of the series and the three paperback collections had a nice, eye-pleasing design that complemented Millidge’s artwork, and he put in a lot of extra work to make sure his comic stayed afloat in a tumultuous market. In the years since the original run of Strangehaven ended, Millidge has kept busy on a number of comics-related projects, like Comic Book Design: The Essential Guide to Creating Great Comics and Graphic Novels and the indispensable Alan Moore: Storyteller. And he’s even begun a continuation of the Strangehaven story in the pages of the anthology Meanwhile… from Soaring Penguin Press.

One of the perks of writing “Palmer’s Picks” as an employee of Wizard (I was the assistant editor for ToyFare magazine at the time) was that I could conduct phone interviews at the office and save myself some long-distance costs. Remember that this was back in the mid-’90s when unlimited calling plans were few and far between, so all of the calls I made while writing my column as a freelancer were charged by the minute. While I was eventually reimbursed for all of my monthly expenses, I still had to come up with money to pay my bills, so I jumped at the chance to cut out the hassle of filling out an expense report and made the overseas call to Millidge from the office. Calls from New York to the UK were really expensive!


Palmer’s Picks

A Strange Story Of Secrets

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Talk to your typical self-publisher for a few minutes, and he’ll probably tell you how much trouble it is to put out your own comic. Not so for Gary Spencer Millidge, creator and publisher of Strangehaven. He actually likes all the grunt work involved in self-publishing.

“I enjoy all aspects of it,” the British artist/writer claims. “I enjoy keeping in contact with people in the industry, dealing with the printers and packing parcels up. It’s fun making decisions and watching them come off. Possibly I would get bored if I was just sitting down drawing. It’s the variety that actually attracts me.”

Variety is also the key word when it comes to describing Millidge’s Strangehaven, a bizarre soap opera set in a remote English village with a cast of unusual characters, each with his or her own secret. Many have compared the comic to David Lynch’s cult TV series “Twin Peaks” because of the strange goings-on in the village (including a secret underground society akin to the Freemasons, Amazonian shamans and talking animals), but Millidge takes extra care to make sure his comic doesn’t veer too much into the realm of the fantastic.

One of the ways in which Millidge keeps Strangehaven grounded is through his photorealistic artwork. Before the first issue of Strangehaven hit the stands in the summer of 1995, Millidge conceived the story as being done in a loose, almost impressionistic style. But when it came time to put pen to paper, he fell back on what he learned in art school. “My natural tendency is to put a lot of detail into stuff, and I like to get my facts right, whether it’s in the illustration or the story. When I actually sat down to start it, I naturally drew realistically when I got all the reference together. I just did a complete about-turn and decided to go whole-hog and base it on lots of reference photographs and made sure I got everything right.”

Millidge estimates it takes 12 to 18 hours to complete a page of his comic, with all of the intricate photo references he has to assemble. Why would someone put such an insane amount of time into a comic book page? For Millidge, the answer is quite simple. “I wanted to play to my strengths,” he explains. “At the time it might have made more commercial sense to do a superhero comic or a Bad Girl comic, but my strengths lie in more realistic illustration. I wanted to make Strangehaven as good as I could possibly make it. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

For every issue of Strangehaven, Millidge must assemble his cast of characters, based mostly on friends and family, for photo shoots. Naturally, he gets quite a few offers from people who want to be in his comic. “When they ask, they tend to want to write their own characters as well. ’Hey, can I be in your comic and can I be an ex-rock ‘n’ roll star with a drinking problem?′ They start writing my plots for me!”

His friends did serve as part of Millidge’s inspiration for Strangehaven‘s characters, however. Alex Hunter, the main character, stumbles upon the village of Strangehaven when he gets lost and smashes his car into a tree. Millidge and a few friends had a similar experience while driving through the English countryside, although without running into any of the local flora. “We kept going around and around, coming back to the same crossroads and going past the same places. Eventually we came over this hill and came face to face with this beautiful little secluded village. I modeled Strangehaven after it; I’ve put some landmarks from the village in, as well as a few of my favorite shops and buildings, so I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Millidge has taken the germ of an idea he had on his outing with his friends and expanded it into a rich comic book experience. Strangehaven will stick in your mind after you read just one issue, because the characters are so vividly portrayed. Not only do they look real, but they sound and act real as well. Millidge also has a knack for setting a scene by carefully choosing background elements, like time of day and camera angles, that other comic creators might take for granted.

Despite all of the advantages of planning ahead, Millidge realizes there is the possibility of losing interest when it comes time to sling ink. “My problem with my past projects is that I’ve planned them out too much and got bored with them, which is why there’s so many plotlines going on in Strangehaven. Although I’ve got it roughly planned out, I like to allow myself plenty of chances to make last-minute decisions to lighten things up or add a little bit of drama to it. There’s usually something that pops in at the last minute.”

Millidge’s top priority is to get as many people as possible reading Strangehaven. “I’d like to think my comic is easy to follow,” he explains. “I’d also like to think it’s accessible to people who don’t normally read comics, and hopefully I’ve done my bit to bring new people into reading and buying comics.”

Tom Palmer Jr.’s turn-ons are chocolate and fuzzy slippers. His turn-offs are rainy days and noisy people. Hee-hee.

FYI: Six issues of Strangehaven are available at your local comic store. If you can’t find a copy, you can contact Millidge’s American agent, Chris Staros (publisher of the highly recommended Staros Report, a resource guide for small press comics) at P.O. Box 1282, Marietta, GA 30061-1282. Single issues through mail-order are $3.50 and six-issue subscriptions are $20. Strangehaven #7 will be shipping in June and #8 should be out in August. In June, Millidge will be releasing a “Strangehaven Starter Pack,” which consists of issues #1-#4, plus a signed and numbered print.

Gary Spencer Millidge’s Recommended Reading

“I’m incredibly impressed by what David Lapham is doing with Stray Bullets. Eightball gets better and better with every issue. I also think Charles BurnsBlack Hole is very good. As for as British comics go, I’d have to recommend Sleaze Castle. It’s chock full of references to this, that and the other, and it’s a really dense read.”

Recommended Reading

Brilliant Boy – Brothers Tim and David Dang have a delightful little comic on their hands. With their slick cartooning style and fun stories, these brothers will have you clamoring for more adventures of Gill (a.k.a. Brilliant Boy) and his adorable little pals. Write to Gran Comics, P.O. Box 45523, 747 Don Mills Rd., Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3C 3S4. The first, extra-sized issue is $2.95 and regular issues are $2.50 (plus $1 per issue for postage). Subscriptions will set you back $15 for six issues.

A Jew in Communist Prague – Italian comics master Vittorio Giardino, with his perfectly rendered artwork and laid-back storytelling, makes it all look so easy. In “Loss of Innocence,” the first part of this ambitious graphic novel series, Giardino tells the story of Jonas Finkel, a young Jewish boy in communist Czechoslovakia. Finkel finds himself the victim of racism and bureaucracy after his father is mysteriously imprisoned. This is an important comic that deserves to be read and examined. If you can’t find this at your local comic store or bookstore, write to NBM Publishing, 185 Madison Ave., Ste. 1504, New York, NY 10016, for a free catalog.

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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