Interview: The Return Of Black Beth With Alec Worley And DaNi…
25th June 2021
Black Beth and The Devils of Al-Kadesh is the brand-new one-shot Special from the Treasury of British Comics, bringing back the warrior-woman Black Beth, in spectacular full-colour, for a story of swords and sorcery, written by Alec Worley and with some amazing artwork from DaNi. This is one that’s guaranteed to delight and thrill!
We caught up with Alec Worley and DaNi to talk all things swords and sorcery, and the excitement of bringing back Black Beth…
Black Beth and The Devils of Al-Kadesh features the warrior-woman Black Beth, a character first developed in the early ’70s by an unknown writer and Spanish artist Blas Gallego. But it was another decade before the one and only story saw print, in the pages of the Scream! Holiday Special 1988.
And that would have been it, if it wasn’t for a certain young Alec Worley, who fell in love with Black Beth back in 1988 and was first in the queue to bring her back for the Scream! & Misty Halloween Special in 2018 and again in the Misty & Scream! Special of 2020. But that was just the beginning – now the curved blade is back to swing once more, with a full 32-page strip in her own special issue that also includes back-up stories by Alec Worley, Andrea Bulgarelli, Doug Graves and Vincenzo Riccardi, plus pin-ups by David Roach and Andreas Butzbach.
Alec, DaNi, nice to talk to you – hope you’re both keeping safe and well in these trying times.
The Treasury of British Comics is all about bringing back the well-known, fondly remembered and obscure from the depths of the archive of classic British comics. But with Black Beth, we’re really deep into the very obscure – a single 23-page sword & sorcery tale in some far-off medieval world that originally appeared in the Scream! Holiday Special back in 1988, four years after the comic itself had ceased publication.
Alec, in the introduction to the book it briefly mentions that the original Black Beth in the Scream! Holiday Special of 1988 really excited you – so, where and when did you first see the Holiday Special, and what was it about Black Beth that made the young Alec so excited?
ALEC WORLEY: I was on my dreary British summer hols, probably dreaming about Hawk the Slayer and Citadel Miniatures when I first saw that Special.
Scream! was really my 2000 AD. I had all the specials and grabbed this one in an instant. I seem to remember the other strips in there were pretty so-so. Sure there was a reprint or two in there as well.
The rest were dominated by this knockout sword-and-sorcery strip that seemed to have come out of nowhere. I’m sure I must have thought ‘what the heck is a fantasy strip doing in a horror comic?’ but it was so amazing that I really didn’t care.
I adored the artwork and remember thinking it might have been drawn by Bob Harvey, who did the illustrations for Fighting Fantasy’s Talisman of Death and some of the Dragon Warriors books, as that sinewy black-and-white style seemed to me very similar.
I think the mystery of the strip just haunted me. It seemed so exotic and dynamic.
I remember frantically hunting the shelves of the newsagent for another installment, which – alas – was never made – until now, I guess. Haha!
Sadly, the original is one of those that is a little lost to time, and all we know of it is the artist, Blas Gallego, with the identity of the writer still unknown.
It’s also something that just isn’t anywhere online, with just a single page on Comic Art Fans, described as ‘Unknown artist UK / Lion / Scream Esteban Maroto (?) Black Beth,’ and only corrected as Blas Gallego’s art in the comments – such a shame that it’s not more well known.
Alec, do you still have your copy of the Holiday Special?
AW: I don’t! I ransacked the loft searching for it when I was putting together the pitch for the very first instalment of our Beth, but it had disappeared – along with my first-edition Warhammer Roleplay, which I wasn’t too happy about either.
However, Alec did send along a few scans from that original Black Beth series, with all that gorgeous art from Blas Gallego… here’s just one of those beautiful Gallego images, we’ll include the full set at the end of the interview.
It obviously made that huge impact on you, as you were pitching for Black Beth to be a part of the Treasury of British Comics published Scream! and Misty 2018 Special with Black Beth: The Magos of Malice – some 30 years after Beth’s first appearance.
So, how did the story of the pitch go – and at what stage did you get DaNi on board?
AW: What was the first one, again? Magos of Malice, right? I pitched Keith that we tweak the original concept slightly to suit a modern YA audience.
So Beth was made slightly younger (we based her on a young Barbara Steele) and made her relationship with Quido less of a servant/mistress dynamic and had him more as Beth’s moral compass.
Other than that, it was really just a case of thinking through the original strip and getting down who Beth was.
She’s an archetypal ‘slayer’ character, which you can run with just fine, but I was interested in going a little deeper than that.
Anyway, I pitched the whole thing asking if I could work with DaNi, with whom I’d worked on a previous Misty strip called Fate of the Fairy Hunter. I thought her style would be just perfect for a modern take on the character.
DaNi, were you even born when that original Black Beth came out in the Scream! Holiday Special? What was it about the pitch or the strip that appealed to you and brought you on board?
DANI: I was born in the 90s so I think I’ve missed many things but I’m happy with every discovery I make from the past and Black Beth is one of those! What appealed to me was her wild and dynamic character and her badass appearance. Who wouldn’t want to draw a fierce black-haired girl with a helmet and a sword in a world full of dark magic? I just couldn’t say no!
Alec, you’ve mentioned Black Beth being something of a mashup of Red Sonja and The Punisher, with a vengeful young heroine becoming ‘a knight with an unbreakable vendetta against evildoers.’
AW: Yeah, going back to the whole ‘slayer’ thing, I really wanted to dig into that, as I find that kind of zealot mindset really interesting. The notion that someone can commit evil in the pursuit of doing good. The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witchhunters all thought they were the good guys, right? I’ve gone into this with similar characters in my Sisters of Battle stories for Warhammer. Beth is definitely an antihero, certainly not a role-model. So, you’ve got this great thematic vehicle and just the perfect frontier setting in which to explore all that.
But here, you’ve definitely moved towards the classic quest story – so… what can we expect from Black Beth this time around?
AW: Beth and her blind companion Quido, have arrived in the sweltering coastal city of Al-Kadesh or ‘Hell’s Cauldron’. It’s here that our vengeful sword-maiden is approached by a noble Templar of the Cleansing Dawn, who begs her to help him combat an ancient evil…
Expect brooding adventure, dark magic and monster-haunted ruins!
We’re really channeling the swashbuckling spirit of Ray Harryhausen, Savage Sword of Conan, Red Sonja, and Fighting Fantasy here.
You’ve definitely moved Beth on from just the simple sword and sorcery slash and kill story. Here, there’s plenty of chance for her to prove that she’s living up to the oath she swore, ‘to combat evil in all its vile forms!’
AW: The extra page count really helps!
But is there a simple joy in writing the character that you can make her tales something without a whole load of back story, just bring her in to battle whatever she’s got next on the list, that sort of thing? Or, conversely, have you some overarching grand plan for the character involving years worth of stories – should Mighty Tharg or Treasury editor Keith give you the go-ahead?
AW: She’s one of those plug-in-and-play characters. I feel like I could pick her up at any point and throw her into an interesting scenario. I really wanted to avoid any kind of continuity-heavy saga. The joys of comics like Conan and Red Sonja is that you can just pick them up at any point and start reading. The characters are so archetypal, you can just fly away with them without any baggage.
DaNi, it’s quite wonderful to see how your artistic style on the strip has changed over the three appearances thus far. Your first two Black Beth strips were in pure b&w, and as beautiful as they were, this new story is a real step up.
There’s already plenty of comparisons with Toppi in all the press I’ve read about this one – so is that something you were thinking about, influenced by, when putting together the artwork?
DANI: Anyone who knows me in person is aware of how much I adore black and white comics and am always happy to work on just inked stories. Moreover, I have never coloured a published story – usually it’s just for personal projects or passing time. When Keith told me that they would be adding colours to this special I just knew I had to do it!
It also made a lot of sense for me doing my first published colouring for a 2000 AD story since they were also my first publishers when I started working in comics.
My drawing style has differences from story to story according to the vibes I get from reading each script. When reading Alec’s first Black Beth story, I instantly knew that I wanted to differ it from the rest of my projects. I went with a slightly less blocky brush stroke with detailed patterns that thought would connect an old classic comic with something fresher.
Sergio Toppi’s comics have always been such a great inspiration in my art since his books were among the first comics I’ve ever read. I find his art so fine and mesmerizing and just love the way he tells a story by combining many elements into one picture. He will always be one of the greatest masters in the medium.
There’s a sense of your imagery almost going towards the abstract at times, mark making to give the impression of buildings, structures, vegetation, not to mention the plentiful monsters Beth meets along the way. And all the time, your figure work is wonderfully tight and composed.
And the whole thing just comes to vivid life with your colouring here, a wonderful, expressionistic use of colour for mood rather than realism, all those lush purples, pinks, and blues flooding the page. You’re also using colour so effectively on the pages to establish depth to the panels – it just looks amazing.
DANI: Thank you so much!
Abstracting as much as I can from what I draw while being able to show clearly what is happening in each scene, or at least pass the proper feeling to the reader, is my top goal. As much as I admire realism in comics, I always get drawn to more expressionistic art styles even if they might seem off at times and I prefer taking this direction for my work as well. I understand that this kind of art style in comics might not be everyone’s jam so I’m always grateful when readers enjoy the stuff I’m involved into!
DaNi – like I say, it’s something of a departure from previous Black Beth strips with their stark b&w. How did you go about putting together the artwork – is it a traditional process, digital? A mix of both?
DANI: It was a bit of both… my inks, to this day, are always drawn traditionally and then scanned and sent off for colouring. This time I also scanned different watercolour brush strokes I made so I could work on the colours on my own digitally. It was a fun combination!
Alec, hopefully you’ve had the chance to see the finished product and I’m sure you’re incredibly happy with the result?
AW: DaNi just knocks it out the park on every project. I feel like she’s brought something different to every Beth story we’ve done. Her work on this one just feels so sprawling and exuberant. She nails exactly the kind of snark-free wonderment we were going for with this story.
And I’ve got to sing the praises of Andrea Bulgarelli who did such an eye-popping cover and three-pager. (Fun-fact: I had to write the script for that in Italian, or as close to Italian as I could get.)
Now, with the last line of the story being ‘just as Black Beth thrives upon adventure’ – I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say she lives to fight and quest another day – I’d imagine your mind is already busy imagining what perils and adventures you can put her and Quido through in the future?
Any set plans for more Black Beth yet?
AW: I could go on doing Beth stories with Dani forever, if they’ll let us!
DANI: I would join Alec and Beth in a new adventure anytime without hesitation!!
Okay then, let’s go back to some old standards… How did you first get into comics in general, and 2000 AD in particular as a reader?
DANI: I got into reading comics when I was a kid. I would hunt down anything I could find locally in my neighbourhood in Greece (didn’t have a great variety or choice to be honest but it did the work!) I Don’t remember exactly when I was first introduced to 2000 AD stories and characters but I’ve consciously been getting into the world more and more ever since I did my first 2000 AD job.
AW: Scream!, Asterix, Giles annuals, British humour comics like Whizzer & Chips, School Fun, Shiver & Shake, along with whatever random American comics I could get from the newsagent were my first reads. I’m pretty sure my mum wouldn’t let me read 2000 AD as a kid, so I didn’t actually start reading it until the late ‘90s. The Horned God is what lured me in!
And from there, what did it mean to you to get to be a published Droid?
DANI: It meant so many things for me! 2000 AD was my first official job into comics and before that I didn’t know if I would end up in this industry or even if I wanted it. That first job on Fiends of the Eastern Front with Hannah Berry was what I needed at the time to continue pursuing a career in this medium.
While I was in university, I had given myself a year and a half to get even the slightest sign that I could work in comics and if that didn’t happen I would have moved on to another field. Thankfully that chance came just in time through Keith Richardson at a con in London and I wouldn’t want it any other way!
AW: Mind-blowing! It was my first step on the road to becoming a professional creator and I’ll be forever – and I mean FOREVER – grateful to Matt Smith for his patience and direction during those early years. I wrote a pretty extensive blog about ‘breaking in’, which you can find right here.
Next up, another old favourite of interviewers everywhere, what about influences on your writing and art?
DANI: My greatest influences come from all the comics I read early on in my life and shaped my taste drastically. The greatest teachers for me have been Mike Mignola, Eduardo Risso, David Lapham, and Sergio Toppi, but I also get influenced by films and fine art – I’ve studied sculpture at Athens School of Fine Arts so the way I perceive space and bulges has been influenced by that a lot.
AW: Garth Ennis was probably the first comics writer that I consciously tried to emulate and I still think he’s incredible. I’m quite an arty-farty sort into Alan Moore, Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, but at the same time I love monster movies and mile-a-minute action.
Favourite 2000 AD strips?
DANI: Any Judge Anderson story!
AW: Space Girls…?
Any classic character you have a real hankering to pitch something to Tharg about?
AW: Definitely Space Girls!
DANI: Not anything specific. I would definitely do some more Black Beth stories if possible but would like to try other characters too. Maybe a story about Trapper and Skinner Hag? I’d definitely work on something like that with Dan Abnett again!
And finally, feel free to let us know just what we can expect from you in the coming year – more 2000 AD material, other works?
AW: More Durham Red with Ben Willsher, hopefully.
DANI: I’ve got some book projects and covers in the making with old friends I love working with and some with new friends that I’m impatient to start collaborating with… everything will be announced in time!
Thank you Alec and DaNi for taking the time to chat! And you can find Black Beth and The Devils of Al-Kadesh in comic shops, newsagents, and on the 2000 AD web shop RIGHT NOW!
Now, some more of the delights to be found inside, first a few of DaNi’s full pages…
And now, those original Black Beth pages that Alec Worley sent over to us, as seen in the Scream! Holiday Special 1988, with art by Blas Gallego…