Back in the 1980s, ThunderCats enjoyed some of its greatest success in the UK, and this popularity was reflected by both the longevity and quality of the UK ThunderCats comic, published by Marvel. For many UK fans, the first original ThunderCats artwork that they would have seen in the comic would be the iconic front cover to Issue #1, drawn by Lee Sullivan. Although by his own admission Lee was not one of ThunderCats‘ most prolific artists, his arresting and exciting cover artwork helped to instantly establish the title as one of the most popular action comics on UK newsstands.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Lee towards the end of 2006, and he very generously agreed to take time out of his hectic and busy schedule to take part in this interview. For more information about Lee, his website is www.leesullivan.co.uk – a real feast for fans of UK comic artwork and science fiction!
First of all, Lee, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! I’d like to start with a bit of background if that’s OK – can you tell us how you got into illustrating comics (and drawing in general), and how you came to be working for Marvel UK? Were Marvel UK the first company to put your work into print? Do you remember the first assignment they gave you?
I met comics artist John Higgins through my local art shop, who was looking for someone to help him with lettering and colouring on a strip called ‘The BizzNizz’ he was producing for a music magazine. John was very kind and took me to see some magazine editors and eventually into Marvel UK. I showed my work to Ian Rimmer who was editing Transformers at that point; he commissioned me to produce my first Transformers cover. It was successfully received and I produced many full-colour covers for that title, and I’m sure that’s why I was given the ThunderCats covers. I then moved over to producing Transformers strips as well, once I’d got the hang of comics storytelling.
Let’s talk about your connection to ThunderCats – can you tell us what work you did on Marvel UK’s ThunderCats comics?
I drew and coloured covers for UK issues 1, 3 & 5. My invoices from that time were dated Jan 5th, 26th and Feb 19th 1987 respectively. That was my entire involvement, though some of the portraits from the first were used in the annual, along with a text-free repro of one of the other covers. I would have drawn roughs from cover briefs supplied by Marvel, drawn the black and white version in pen & brush and ink on CS10 paper (line-drawing media used mostly by technical illustrators), sent that as a photocopy and then painted over the line art with a combination of airbrush and handpainting techniques . I think that maybe the portraits were reused in line plus mechanical colour in the comic. The copies of the line arts would have been used for the annual which were then ‘mechanically coloured’ as all comic strips were then.
Given that you didn’t work that much on ThunderCats, how familiar were you with the series and its characters? Were you a fan of the concept? Did Marvel give you any reference materials for drawing the covers that you contributed?
I had no prior knowledge of the characters and never did know what they were about – as far as the concept was concerned, I was pretty oblivious to it. I was probably nearly 30 when I did the work and it felt a long way away from my ‘comfort zone’ of science-fiction! 🙂
Marvel gave me line drawings (I think) of the characters to work from, and I think someone sent me some toys, though I may have bought these from the toyshop!
It seems that a lot of artists at Marvel UK seemed to “circulate” a lot more and work on a much greater variety of comics and issues at one time than used to typically happen at Marvel US where the norm was for a comic book to have a specific team working on it for a protracted period, with other artists and writers just “filling in” from time-to-time. Can you provide us with any insight as to how this came to be – i.e., was it an editorial decision as to who from the Marvel UK stable would work on what issue of what comic on a given week, or how did the system work?
I think ‘system’ is too strong a description! What was going on then was that a relatively modest company with an in-house editorial team were producing a large stable of titles, most of which were going out on a weekly basis; so ‘organised chaos’ is probably closer to the truth. The editors had to work like maniacs to get the titles out, and whilst, if they’d been able to work with fewer creators they would have achieved a more uniform look to each title, it simply wouldn’t have been possible to get the titles out on schedule. It was a great time to get into the business as there were so many opportunities. I believe there was some talk of me trying a ThunderCats strip, but it didn’t materialise as far as I can recall, or if it did I was already on to other titles – Transformers primarily. I worked for Marvel UK for a couple of years and then was ‘poached’ by Marvel US, and my involvement with Marvel UK was then restricted to Doctor Who strips as and when they came along.
Are you still in touch with any of your former colleagues from Marvel UK, and have you had the opportunity to work with any of them since your time there?
Well, we meet up from time to time, but mostly at conventions – it’s like anything in life: nothing stays the same for very long; we’ve all been busy diversifying and editors move on to other things, Marvel UK no longer exists. Back then, there used to be a gathering of people working on the various titles every month or so at a pub in Goodge Street then called the Valiant Trooper. Almost everyone turned up as far as I can remember (through the mists of time & alcohol). But that changed too; the industry dwindled and the meet-ups got more and more morose. I can’t bear that kind of atmosphere so I stopped going to those and also comics conventions too, which had degenerated (for me) into moaning sessions. But with the emergence of things like the Transformers conventions we get to meet up and it’s always good to see the guys; then you don’t see each other for another year or so.
Continuing on that theme – have you worked on any more ThunderCats-related projects or commissions since the 1980s? Given the opportunity, would you enjoy working on a future ThunderCats comic project such as the one undertaken by DC/Wildstorm in the US a few years ago?
The only other ThunderCats art I ever produced was a painted cover for (I think) C&VG (Computer and Video Games) magazine from the same period, which featured Lion-O. I’m always open to offers of work, but I have hardly any association with TCs; I doubt it’ll ever happen!
A final couple of questions – can you tell us what projects you’re working on now? Are you still involved with drawing comics, and if so, do you have a website or somewhere where fans of your artwork can keep abreast of your latest projects?
I’m still working in comics, though that has diversified into occasional educational illustration; since TFs & TCs I’ve worked on Doctor Who Magazine (on and off since 1988); 2000AD; Judge Dredd the Megazine; RoboCop (US – 2 years); William Shatner’s TekWorld (US – 2 years); Transformers Armada; Action Man; an Eighth Doctor Who strip in the Radio Times; Thunderbirds (for 5 years); 3 Doctor Who webcasts for the BBC and lots of covers for UK Marvel reprints. I’m currently working on Doctor Who- Battles in Time. And you can see more of this at my website: www.leesullivan.co.uk.
My thanks once again to Lee for taking the time to provide us with such a detailed interview. Lee also very generously donated scans of three of his his ThunderCats covers to TCL’s very own Original Comic Art Gallery – please feel free to check them out! And, don’t forget to visit Lee’s own site, www.leesullivan.co.uk, for more examples of his fantastic artwork!
— Chris (He-Fan)