Interview: Matt Baxter talks Hire A Horror and Monster Fun!
5th October 2021
The Monster Fun Halloween Spooktacular! is out right now – 48 pages of the creepy and the kooky, mysterious and spooky! It’s the scariest fun you can have this Halloween, packed with the greatest creators giving you the very best of classic characters from Brit Comics past and all-new strips.
One of those classics being brought back is the fun-filled Hire A Horror, with writer and artist Matt Baxter joining in the fun for a tale originally seen in the pages of Cor!! back in the 70s!
Hi there Matt, hope you’re doing well amongst the chaos of these times?
MATT BAXTER: Pretty well, all things considered. Phew!
You’re responsible for Hire A Horror in the new Monster Fun Halloween Spooktacular.
So, I guess the first thing to ask is just what it’s all about for you?
MB: It’s all about making the best, most entertaining, funniest, most lovingly produced comic we can. It’s about being reverential and sensitive to the original comic from the mid-70s, without relying on nostalgia. And it’s about having fun. Monster Fun, in fact.
Now, am I right in thinking this is the first thing you’ve done here at the Treasury or 2000 AD?
MB: Yes, that’s right. I’ve been telling people that this commission means that I’m on nodding terms with Tharg The Mighty.
Previous to this you’ve mixed up the worlds of comics with your work over at the Phoenix and work in the worlds of whatever it is you do over at the rather successful Baxter & Bailey creative agency.
MB: Correct! I’m a designer by training and co-founded Baxter & Bailey in 2012, where I’m creative director. We’re a ten-strong team working with clients all over the world. We specialise in brand identity and we’re lucky to work with brilliant organisations like NSPCC, Oxford University Press and the Royal Mail.
But, when nobody’s looking, I write and draw comics too. It’s my sort-of secret identity. I was part of the design team that originally created the masthead and editorial look for The Phoenix Comic. Through that association, I managed to convince the lovely editorial team at The Phoenix to let me draw and write for them as well. I ended up drawing the cover for Issue Zero of the comic and contributing to the first 160 issues.
To go from zero comics experience to a weekly half page strip for three years was very much an in-at-the-deep-end kind of deal. I loved it!
But you’ve been quiet on the comics front for a while – so why the return now?
MB: As Baxter & Bailey grew in size and profile, I made the decision to dial down the comic making for a while. A tough decision, but I think you need to be careful about saying ‘yes’ to everything and then burning out as a result. I’m old enough to have seen that happen to a few people and know that I personally need to be careful not to take too much on.
I have dabbled in the world of comics a little bit in recent years: Titan commissioned me to draw a set of covers for their Doctor Who comic and kids comics maestro Jamie Smart asked me to get involved in his wonderful Moose Kid Comic, which I very happily did. And I’ve been getting my head around long form chapter fiction for kids too, which is hugely challenging but good fun.
But I can’t be a secret maker of comics if I don’t actually make any comics, so it was time to jump back in.
How did you get involved in the Monster Fun Halloween Spooktacular?
MB: Editor extraordinaire Keith Richardson tracked me down and asked if I’d like to contribute. He’d seen some of my comics work in The Phoenix, but it was my Nantastic strip for Moose Kid that really caught his attention. So, thanks Jamie!
And why Hire a Horror? Your choice or something Keith wanted you to do?
MB: That was the strip Keith offered me. Which was good news, as it’s probably the one I’d have chosen to develop given the choice. I love the overall conceit, the setting and the fact that it’s chock full of monsters. What’s not to love? I’d seen that Mick Cassidy had already drawn a great Hire A Horror strip for the Cor!!Buster special, which was a very useful jumping off point for my version.
And are you going to be involved with more Hire A Horror with the new bi-monthly Monster Fun?
MB: Yes, I’ve been invited to create Hire A Horror for all of the upcoming 2022 issues of Monster Fun, which I’m thrilled about. And a bit daunted too.
Hire a Horror was a long-running strip from the late 60s, early 70s in Cor!! The whole concept was one of those oh so strange things where an agency hires out the various monsters to all and sundry – just your standard sort of ridiculous and crazy sort of set-up you could expect from that age of Brit humour comics. It’s one of the many horror comedy strips we see through the history of the Brit comics of the time. So, was it something you grew up with?
MB: I was born in ’73, so I was too young for the earliest iterations of Hire A Horror in Cor!!, but I was definitely buying comics from the newsagents of Burnley as soon as I had the pocket money to do so.
As far as the history of Hire A Horror, this was very much Reg Parlett at his height, replaced by another great, Robert Nixon, so it’s something with a big, big history artistically.
MB: Very much so. I’ve been reading back through some of the archive material owned by the Treasury of British Comics and it’s properly lovely work. Deftly rendered, lovely lines, really dynamic and, crucially, very funny.
So, no pressure there at all, eh?
MB: Like almost every creative person I know, a little bit of imposter syndrome does tend to creep in when I think about the interest and expectation around this publication. Best to just crack on and enjoy making it, I find!
What sort of look are you going for here with your version of Hire A Horror – I think it’s safe to say it’s not the Hire A Horror that originally featured in Cor!!?
MB: I’ve worked hard to be sympathetic to the original. The basic idea remains the same – a mysterious store where customers can hire monsters of all shapes and sizes – but I’ve also tried to develop it in a way I think is interesting and appropriate. The original Hire A Horror was typically a single page story, very much focused on the monster hired that week. As a result, they worked as self-contained, one off gags. I was keen to switch the focus onto the Hire A Horror shop itself, the creatures who work there and to build a story around them. I hope it’ll make for a satisfying, recurring character-led but still very silly strip.
The new Monster Fun comic, beginning right here in the Halloween Spooktacular is the first big new childrens comic to come out since The Phoenix – something you have just a little knowledge of!
MB: Yes, it’s fair to say that I’ve made comics solely for kids since I started with The Phoenix nearly ten years ago. They’re the best audience to write and draw for in my opinion. That said, I think I make my comics for all readers, it’s just that they’re appropriate for kids and they’re the reader I have in mind when writing and drawing.
And now you’re onboard with the brand-new bi-monthly Monster Fun coming out in April – something that we think is a really big deal for comics.
MB: Oh yes, I think so, and I really hope that readers find it and love it. It’s great that Rebellion is putting their focus, energy and money into this. The more high quality British comics for kids we can make available and affordable, the better.
What do you think of the decision from Rebellion to launch a bi-monthly kids comic rather than going the route of the kids graphic novels that have been selling in the millions from the likes of Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemier? Is it something of a radical move?
MB: Is it that radical? I don’t think it should be. The creative talent is clearly out there to make great comics in the first place. And young readers are definitely out there, looking for fun, exciting, affordable things to read. And Rebellion has the marketing nous and distribution clout to get this thing seen.
And I’ve run enough comics workshops to know that kids flipping LOVE reading comics. We should do more!
I hope that it’s read by as many kids as possible. That’s who it was made for. I hope it’s picked up from newsagents and WHSmiths and, ultimately, that young readers subscribe. I hope that those readers who might love The Phoenix, or Dogman, or Beano, will also add Monster Fun to their reading diet!
And a little more generally – kids comics? Discuss…
MB: It’s perhaps too obvious to say it, but I’m going to anyway. Comics once ruled the roost in terms of entertainment for young readers. They were everywhere, plentiful, and cheap.
Not so much now, where television, streaming media, gaming and affordable devices are all vying for the attention of kids. But there’s a place for comics within all of that. Comics are accessible, affordable, enlightening, entertaining, they encourage reluctant readers to enjoy reading, they’re lightweight and transportable, they don’t need to be plugged in and charged… they’re the perfect unit of fun. I’m very glad to see that kids comics have also elbowed their way into bookshops too, thanks to the successes of Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemier, Neill Cameron, Jamie Smart, Jess Bradley and others.
This is a very positive, encouraging time for kids comics, after 30 years of gloomy grown‑ups taking over the comic shelves!
Absolutely right – we swung way too far in the past few decades… from the whole ‘Comics aren’t just for kids anyway’ rallying cry to something more like comics aren’t for kids anymore. Thankfully, we seem to be realizing that the comics readership is young, passionate, and voracious!
You’ve told us some of how you started making comics, but how did a young Matt get into comics as a reader?
MB: Well, I read anything I could get my hands on as a child, including comics. They were easy to find and cheap. I don’t think my parents and step parents ever minded that I enjoyed comics, despite the fact that the medium was generally seen as a little throwaway and unedifying in those days. They were happy that I was enjoying reading anything for fun, I think.
I’d get odd Beanos, Whizzer & Chips, Buster, Dandy and the occasional US Marvel or DC import that mysteriously and unpredictably found their way to the newsagents shelves. I didn’t subscribe to a single title regularly until I saw a Saturday morning TV ad for the first issue of the relaunched Eagle in 1982 when I was nine. I was properly hooked from then on. Our local corner shop Ramsdens was implored to order a growing succession of titles: Eagle, the wonderful Scream, Action Force, Secret Wars, 2000 AD of course, the Dredd Megazine, those Eagle 2000 AD reprints (with amazing Brian Bolland covers), Spiderman & Zoids, the various Star Wars titles. Then came the Marvel UK titles: Death’s Head and the brilliant Dragon’s Claws. And then I was just about the right age to be blown away by the wave of edgier comics which emerged in the late eighties, like Crisis, Revolver and the mighty Deadline.
After an education like that, there was no going back!
Gah! I nearly forgot to mention Oink! Another formative influence, stuffed with crazy and irreverent stuff. Which makes it doubly marvelous that Oink alumnus Lew Stringer is contributing to Monster Fun. Lew is great.
Oh yes, Lew is definitely great – and in the Halloween Spooktacular he’s doing his typically brilliant thing with Kek-W to give us Wiz War!
How about your artistic influences? Who is it that really makes the artist in you sit up and go wow?
MB: We’re lucky enough to live in a city that has a brilliant comic shop, Dave’s Comics here in Brighton. I go ‘wow’ every time I step foot in that place. I have to ration my visits to avoid overindulgence.
There are so many great books and talented creators around that it’s nigh on impossible to single out any one title or artist. In terms of recent reads, here are a few that jump out; I’ve loved the Black Hammer books by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormstron; I massively enjoyed the Geiss books by Alexis Deacon and can’t wait for book three; I love Headlopper by Andrew MacLean; This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews was a stunner; I’ve just this week picked up Oni’s Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters on the strength of its amazing art.
And if you were to twist my arm and make me choose my all-time comic favourites, I’d say that the drawings of two people – Cyril Pedrosa and my south coast chum Warwick Johnson Cadwell – are, in my opinion, pretty much peerless.
Oh, you’re absolutely right! Seriously, someone should throw enough money at WJC that means he can get on and finish Gungle!
MB: I’m also lucky that the job I do for most of my working time brings me into contact with all sorts of truly inspiring work by other designers, animators, photographers, illustrators, 3D designers… I’m a sponge for all of that good stuff!
How do you work – what’s your process? And does it change with the job in hand – if so, how’s Hire A Horror done and how is it different?
MB: I’m an infrequent enough maker of comics to feel that I’m essentially reinventing my process – or at least re-remembering it – every time I start a new comics project. Not good for the old imposter syndrome!
But, very much like the design process, everything starts with an idea. A strong concept, a silly joke, a good ending… something to hang the story off. With a good, strong, robust central idea, I always feel I’m on solid footing.
MB: My process then goes into a weird combination of note-making and sketching, working out the story, the dialogue and some of the drawing, all at the same time. With a good idea of structure and a page-by-page story, I often then type a script for myself. It used to be the case that I’d go from my script to rough pencils on paper, then to inks on paper via a lightbox and then into Photoshop to colour the scanned inks and letter the pages. My illustrator friend Joe Berger taught me some very handy Photoshop tips that I’ve used for years across every comic I’ve made.
But more recently, I’ve pencilled, inked, coloured and lettered the whole thing in Procreate on a nice big, second hand iPad Pro my wife bought for me a couple of birthdays ago.
Hire A Horror was created in exactly this entirely-tablet-based way. I find it very natural to use the screen and Apple pencil to sketch, draw and colour, though I must admit that my trusty brush pens are looking a bit forlorn and neglected. And I do still like to use them to sketch ideas and doodle thoughts, just so they don’t feel entirely abandoned!
And finally, what’s next from you?
MB: More Hire A Horror! All through 2022, in fact.
And, eventually… if I can pull it off… my ambition is to complete something longer and more chapter based. Still for a readership of kids and still illustrated, but definitely a new, more wordy venture. All that and a busy design business. Better get on with it!
And thanks so much to Matt for talking to us! Now, get back to all the work! Now you’re one of Tharg’s minions, even if it’s just on those nodding terms, as you say, you know he’s going to be working you hard! Catch up with Matt over on Twitter and say hi!
You can grab the Monster Fun Halloween Spooktacular right now from wherever comics are sold, including Matt’s own favourite Dave’s Comics, as well as both the from the 2000 AD web shop and Treasury of British Comics web shop.
You can also subscribe to the new regular bi-monthly Monster Fun comic – coming out in April 2022! Be sure to subscribe to the all-new bi-monthly Monster Fun comic at the website. And finally – do both kids and comics a favour and be sure to get Monster Fun into as many kids’ hands as you possibly can!