"Yesss!” Glenn Fabry has been rummaging through the Lidl bags his wife’s strewn across the kitchen floor in his maisonette. He grabs what he’s been looking for – a tin of no-brand ravioli – and triumphantly thrusts it into the air.
One of the comic world’s most accomplished artists, Glenn has spent three decades painting fabulous gore-and-glory comic strips and covers. He’s inked Pat Mills’s Sláine stories for 2000 AD, and covers for Preacher and Hellblazer, not to mention working on Spider-Man, The Hulk, Batman, Judge Dredd and Tank Girl. He collaborated with Neil Gaiman on ‘Endless Nights’ (a story in the Sandman anthology), drew the graphic novel of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and collaborated with Garth Ennis on the more adult The Authority: Kev. It’s a CV that only heightens bemusement about his relative obscurity. But right now, it feels like few things have excited him more than canned pasta.
Glenn was a sickly child. Born in 1961 and brought up near Shepperton in Surrey, he taught himself to draw as an escape from his chronic asthma. “Often I’d be stuck in bed all day while the other kids were out skateboarding and stuff, so I’d just draw,” he remembers. “At school I’d draw caricatures of pupils and teachers, which always seemed to go down well. It gave this weedy boy a form of acceptance.”
Tin of ravioli in hand, Glenn ushers Bizarre to the open kitchen door, where he sparks up a celebratory Marlboro Light. So much for the asthma. We move into his studio, tucked beneath the house and on the side of a slope overlooking the sea in sleepy Saltdean, east of Brighton. Surveying Glenn’s dilapidated workspace, with its precarious piles of magazines, scrawled-on walls and detritus-strewn floor, it’s hard to imagine how the exquisitely detailed comic art he’s made his name with could be created here. “Generally when you go to artists’ studios, they’ve got their desk, and pots with specific paint brushes numbered up and little drawers with the paints in,” he says gleefully, sinking back into his knackered wooden armchair. “But I sit in my studio with this lump of flat wood on my lap.”
For little Glenn, it all began with Star Wars. “My dad worked for the Civil Service, in the department that made public information films,” says Glenn, beaming proudly. “He helped produce the Green Cross Code campaign. He’d go to into schools with David Prowse (the British actor who played Darth Vader), who dressed up as the Green Cross Code Man.” That wasn’t the only quirky thing about Glenn’s upbringing. From the age of 16, he worked on the till in a garage by Shepperton Film Studios, where he regularly served the likes of Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson. “The studios were like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – really enticing, but you couldn’t get in,” he says. “I was a huge Terry Gilliam fan – I still am – and one day I came home to find a sketch by him, signed, ‘To Glenn, From Monty Python’.” It turned out that the manager of the garage was Terry’s brother-in-law. “I started sending him my pictures and about six months later he invited me to the set of Jabberwocky. I got past the gates for the first time. It was an amazing day!”
In his teens, Glenn soaked up the work of MAD magazine cartoonist Jack Davis, who became a huge influence. “Every picture of his had a dynamism and realism,” he says. “He could do caricature, action, horror and cartoons, and ended up doing Time magazine covers.” But it was another Shepperton resident who’d help Glenn carve out his own style. “Maurice Dodd did a cartoon strip called The Perishers for the Daily Mirror,” says Glenn. “He had a big dune buggy with his characters painted on the side. He told me to stop drawing like Jack Davis, as my work was an obvious clone. He showed me stuff by Jim Holdaway, such as the Modesty Blaise comics, and this was the first time I saw somebody doing something really special."
By now, Glenn was into two things: Richmond Art College and punk. Like a true art-school rebel, he daubed on mascara, dyed his hair orange and wore ripped boiler suits. “There were students with real dead rats as earrings,” he says. “It was a good time, but all the tutors there basically said that the camera had made life drawing redundant.”
Despite some encouragement from the older tutors, it looked as though Glenn was heading for a career in portraiture or children’s book illustration. But he and some college mates produced a comic called Working Class Superhero, which they flogged at conventions in London. Once college finished, Glenn began travelling to the capital to show his work to any art agent who’d see him. “They’d look at my portfolio, tell me I was crap and I’d go home again,” he remembers. Then he bumped into the brother-in-law of The Stranglers’ drummer Jet Black, who was in charge of the band’s fanzine, Strangled. He asked Glenn to create a cartoon character for the magazine, and ‘Jackinblack’ was born. Bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel loved it; Glenn was in. “I used to get invited to their Christmas parties,” he says. “My mum would go, ‘Glenn, it’s that rock star on the phone for you.’ It was my first professional job.”
For the next three years, Glenn spent his days painting signs, drawing people’s pets and designing Christmas cards. Escape arrived in 1984 thanks to Britain’s flagship weekly comic, 2000 AD. One of its artists, Bryan Talbot, had bought Working Class Superhero years earlier, and recommended Glenn as an ‘art robot’ to work on Pat Mills’ celtic warrior comic-strip Sláine. Glenn regularly worked 48-hour shifts, but the money was good and his work was finally getting exposure. “We used to print 2000AD on bog paper, basically, which is why all the unemployed people could afford to buy it,” he says. “And when it went colour, nobody knew how to paint. I’d taught myself as a child, so I got a lot of cover work from then on.”
While painting for politically-charged comic Crisis (a 2000 AD spin-off), Glenn helped out a writer named Garth Ennis. Ennis was working on a comic called Hellblazer for DC – and the rest of Glenn’s career reads like a Who’s Who of comicbook icons: Daredevil, Thor, The Authority, Neverwhere, Spider-Man, Outlaw Nation – over the next 10 years, Glenn left his prints on a million Spandex fanboy fantasies.
In 1995 Glenn received the USA’s prestigious Eisner Award for ‘Best Cover’ for Hellblazer. “For a whole year, I was the best painter in the world,” he says. “I’ve always been doubtful about my abilities – someone could come over and say something I did was crap and it’d put me off for a month. So winning made me feel a lot more confident.” Perhaps this lack of confidence explains why Glenn’s searching through shopping bags in a cluttered house in Saltdean, rather than counting his millions in an LA mansion. “You can try to make sure your work looks good, or you can hack it out and try to make a lot of money,” he shrugs. “In comics, you need to create your own stuff. Inking Batman or X-Men might be good for your profile, but the money is always going to be made by the writers and publishers.”
It’s gone 3.30pm and Glenn’s two kids are due back from school. He’ll make their tea before heading back to his studio for another nine-hour stretch. As Glenn walks Bizarre to the door, he says, “Over the last five years I’ve done four zombie books, and you get fed up with zombies. You never get just one zombie, and they all have to be different. You get zombied-out. You can spend a whole week drawing 100 zombies!”
So now Glenn’s taking his own advice. “I’m doing a ‘creator-owned’ story – that means we, not the publisher, own the rights – with Steve Niles, called Lot 13. It’s going to be a graphic novel, probably published towards the end of 2010, but it’ll come out in comic form in the next couple of months. Steve’s very popular at the moment, not only in comics but also in Hollywood, because his film 30 Days Of Night made money.” So the big bucks could roll in? “Maybe. In a few years I’d like to relax a bit, and have a go at some pre-Raphaelite style paintings. But of course, all the figures’ll be standing around in corners, smoking cigarettes with their entrails hanging out...”
Find out more at GlennFabry.co.uk