I first became aware of the art of John Cooper when I was reading through copies of the comic Battle…quite a “few” years ago now! And “Coops” art-style is very distinguishable:the men of action in his strips look as though they have been through the hell of warfare!
But John is a far more versatile artist than even I imagined before this interview! So,let’s jump to the only interview with the man who has fans amongst some of the UKs top comic creators and has been called “the British Gil Kane”!
Terry:Okay,John,we’ll start with the traditional Hooper Interview question;where and when were you born?
Terry:As a child did you have a keen interest in comics –did you draw your own?
John:I began drawing as early as I can remember. And I read comics as soon as I could read;I used to copy out of them.
Terry:Was becoming a comic artist your ambition,then?
John:I worked in a studio in Leeds after leaving Wakefield Art College then I went freelance at the age of 21. I then acquired an agent in London who introduced me to comic strips.
Terry:So how did you get started in comics and what was your first job/strip in the industry?
John:Well,on meeting my agent in London,’Billie M. Cooper’ [no relation],I drew her a sample page of my interpretation of comic art. She took it from there. My first job was “Agent 21” for the TV 21 Annual 1968 [“Mission Impossible”].
Terry:Have you always worked solely for the British comics industry or have you produced work for overseas publishers?
John:I mostly worked for British comics but did a short spell for Marvel comics.
Terry:For those interested,and I know there are completists out there,the Marvel strips were “Blake’s 7”;”Trakker”;”Dr Who” [1994 and “Biker Mice From Mars”.
There is one –no,I tell a lie— two classic John Cooper strips. The first one has got to be “Johnny Red” in Battle and the other “One-Eyed Jack” from Valiant and Battle and later,[New] Eagle.
Now,”Johnny Red” got a lot of us drawing aircraft and Russian troops and their gear. Before that kids had thought only the British and Americans had fought the Germans! In “Johnny Red” we weren’t seeing Russians as would-be democracy-smashing “commies” [as per US comics] but as human beings caught up in war. Which of the two strips was your favourite and were there any problems in drawing either?
above:Creator bio from BATTLE -with which Coop had some fun!
John:I loved drawing “Johnny Red”! I could easily let myself go. “One Eyed Jack” was written by John Wagner –brilliant writer! I based Jack on Clint Eastwood,one of my favourite actors. I didn’t have a problem drawing either one.
Terry:Oddly,along with other artists I’d meet up with such as John Erasmus and Tom Elmes,we all thought Jack was Clint! It was all there on the page I guess –though I don’t recall Jack ever singing “I Talk To The Trees”!
Now then,back in an issue of 2000 AD [and I forget which issue] it was decided that in “Judge Dredd”,the character would temporarily lose his helmet and you used various ingenious ways to keep his face covered. It was fun! But that wasn’t your first “Judge Dredd” was it?
John:I actually drew the first “Judge Dredd” but it was not published until later on because it was thought too violent so I “tamed it down”. I went on to draw about twenty Dredd stories.
Terry:Twenty?! It’s been so long since I looked at the early 2000 ADs that I’d forgotten [though brother Mike remembered that there were “quite a few Cooper Dredds”!]. I do know that a couple of the strips got very badly coloured and reproduced by Quality Comics in the late 1980s.
I do know a few artists have claimed to have drawn the first “Judge Dredd” so I checked and,according to Gil Page,former head honcho at Fleetway/IPC,John was indeed the first Dredd artist.
So,John,for any of those “John Cooper completists” out there:what strips have you worked on?
John:ah,”Thunderbirds”,”Joe 90”,”Captain Scarlet”,”Lady Penelope” and “Doctor at Sea”. “Wurzel Gummidge”,”Grange Hill”,”Dredger”,”The General Dies At Dawn”,”Goalmouth” for Roy Of The Rovers. Various football strips for D.C. Thomson,”Striker” for the Sun newspaper and currently  “Roy Of The—?“ for Private Eye magazine.
below:I’d read the Marvel GI Joe but being honest Battle Comics ACTION FORCE was grittier and FAR superior. THE classic is “Operation Claymore”. A few selected pages below -all by Coop!
(c)respective copyright owner
John:”Johnny Red” and “Judge Dredd” were the most enjoyable. The worst was “Doctor At Sea” and “Dixy of Dollycabs”,the latter for Mirabelle.
Terry:Artists rarely used to have contact with writers in British comics [who tended to be kept quite anonymous],but did you ever meet Tom Tully who wrote “Johnny Red” [and many more great comic strip scripts]? To what extent did you have contact with people within the industry?
John:I met Tom Tully quite a few times and John Wagner but in general I didn’t get to meet many writers –we were spread all over the country.
Terry:Same as in the U.S. –get script-draw strip-send strip in-get paid –end. No real difference –except in pay!
What type of gear do you draw with,John?
John:I used to draw with a brush only but later used a Pilot Pen and brush. My pencils were quite rough.
Terry:Is there a project you’ve always wanted to work on but never had the opportunity to do so –and if so,what is it?
John:I always wanted to paint the sea and,since the demise of the comic in the UK,devote more time to marine painting these days.
Terry:What was the last comic strip you drew?
John:”Roy Of The Cock-Ups” for Private Eye –still do.
Terry:I think it’s fair to say that since you started in the industry,things have changed greatly –especially in the UK. Presumably these changes have been noticeable to you as an artist in the industry?
John:Comics have almost disappeared these days but I have always considered myself very lucky getting paid for doing something I love.
Terry:So,based on what you are saying,comics’ future doesn’t look too bright. How do you see the British comic industry of the future,John?
Terry:Sadly,it sums things up:dead. I just realised there is a question I should have asked you earlier:has anyone influenced you great –art-wise- in comics and why?
John:I always admired Frank Bellamy in comics. The man was a genius.
Terry:John,if you had to sit back and think about it,what would be your worst,most embarrassing moments in your career?
John:Art college when I arrived late for my first nude life class. They say my face was a picture when I saw my first female nude!
Terry:Alright,John,the final question. Is there anything I’ve not touched upon that you would like to mention here –any words for the fans?
John:Yes. I would like to thank all the fans who wrote to the comics I worked on and to myself. It was very encouraging. And thank you for your interest.
Terry:Many thanks,John –and to Gil Page who helped John and I link-up.
Note:as with Mike Western,in 2004 I did a follow-up interview with John which means I was able to expand a little upon the first interview. This appeared in Comic Bits no.4,August,2004,under the title “On Johnny Red And Fame!”
Terry:John,the strip “Johnny Red” began in Battle Action comic in 1977 [though I swear it began long before that!] and in Denis Gifford’s Encyclopaedia Of Comic Characters  he lists artist as Joe Colquhoun. Now,to many of us who hear the title “Johnny Red”,we immediately think of you. So the first question has to be:when did you take over the strip?
John:Phew! I can’t really remember but I was drawing it most of the time Joe was working on “Charlie’s War”.
Terry:Checking,”Charlie’s War” began in January,1979,so I’m guessing you took over “Johnny Red” in 1978. There is an excellent web site dedicated to the series at:
John,I know you are a big fan of Joe’s work on “Charlie’s War” so was there any point when you took over “Johnny Red” at which you thought to yourself “I’ll have to draw in Joe’s style”?
John:I must admit that I was inspired a bit by Joe’s work. All his characters looked like they had really been through it! But no,not try to copy his style.
Terry:That’s something I like about your work:the characters look like they have had a really hard time and you can believe they’ve been through the horrors of war! With “One-Eyed Jack” your style made him look like a really hard-nosed cop.
Anyway,when was the subject of you being asked to draw “Johnny Red” raised?
John:I really can’t remember when I started drawing Johnny. I was offered the strip now and then and then it was offered to me permanently.
Terry:Was this the first time you’d worked with the legendary [for lots of reasons] scripter Tom Tully –what was he like to work with?
John:I don’t think Tom wrote all my “Johnny Red” scripts at first. Later on he wrote them on a regular basis. I had no problem with Tom’s scripts. He was a bloody good writer!
Terry:I know and he produced some classic stories in his time. I think the trouble is that there are a lot of failed and very jealous comic writers out there who have referred to him as a “hack” and a not very good writer –I think that says more about the critics!
Now,I’ve mentioned,briefly,in Comic Bits,that the one thing that always struck myself and other artists was the amount of detail in your “Johnny Red” strips. Land,air and sea action in one part I remember very fondly! I’ve always used a couple of 1960s Blandford books on uniforms –as well as my trusty Osprey books for reference on historical strips –you’ll no doubt tell me all yours was done off the top of your head?
John:Not really! You should see my reference books. Over the years I’ve built up a large collection.
Terry:I know a lot of comic artists say “I did it for the money!”,but you’ve told me that you’ve had a career where you are paid to do something you love doing. So I have to ask you whether at any point in drawing “Johnny Red” you ever got up in the morning,went to the drawing board,sat down and said:”No more!”?
John:NEVER! I really loved drawing “Johnny Red”. At one point in the 1970s I was drawing 11 pages a week,including 4 to 5 “Johnny Reds”. Some strips got a bit boring now and then,but never “Johnny Red”!
Terry:You do get fans coming to your home and going over your original pages to see how you achieve “the look”,don’t you?
John:I receive letters and emails now and then from fans who want to know what brushes or pens I use. What kind of board I use. If my work influences anyone then I’m very pleased.
Terry:I know people like comic writer Garth Ennis have purchased original pages from you and that you have a big following in Norway [where some of the JR action is based] –and you’ve been invited over there for a convention?
John:Yes,I’m really looking forward to that. As for Garth Ennis –I was quite flattered when he wanted to buy some of my artwork.
Terry:You’ve said you wouldn’t mind doing more “Johnny Red” strips,though with the current state of British comics that,sadly,isn’t very likely. A shame. Another big shame is that Titan has never put out a “Johnny Red” collection as they did with “Charlie’s War”. Maybe with the Dredd Megazine now reprinting Mike Western’s “Darkie’s Mob”,they’ll look at JR next..?
John:That would be great. But I’ll dream on….
Terry:I know you’ve done other war strips such as “Gaunt” and work for D. C. Thomson. Were you working on “One-Eyed Jack” at the same time as JR?
John:Yes,for a short time they both overlapped. “One-Eyed Jack” was another favourite. That one was written by John Wagner –another brilliant writer!
Terry:Apart from the work for Private Eye,you’ve done nothing in comics in the UK:have you ever thought of sending samples to American companies?
John:Sometimes I thought about it,but I preferred the British stuff. As for sending samples to American companies,I just don’t think that I could be bothered!
Terry:I know what you mean. Anyhow,I know they used other artists on JR who tried to copy your style [Carlos Pino for one] but it never worked. Why did you leave the strip?
John:I didn’t leave the strip. I was told one day by the Editor that the comic was finishing or closing or something.
Terry:I was told that it was because Spanish artists cost less money. That said,while at the company offices I was told they’d taken you off JR so that you could draw the “Action Force” strips. Brilliant they were too! And might I add that at least you got to draw SAS Force finishing off Hitler in a South American jungle –Classic!!
Aside from comics,you are an accomplished Marine artist and your paintings sell very well. So,my last question:considering this,would you ever consider going back into comics?
John:I love marine painting but I think I could still fit in a few pages a week,especially if they were of “Johnny Red”. Anyway,thanks for your interest,Terry.
Terry:Oh no:THANK YOU!
And John did have a good time at the Norwegian comic convention where he met fans and talked about his work [perhaps Egmont ought to republish more of his JR work there and in the UK].
John was rather excited when I next spoke to him via telephone. It seemed that,though they were not interested in publishing the old “Johnny Red” Coop strips,the editors at the Judge Dredd Megazine had found that the old school artists attracted more readers.
Issue nos.266 & 267 of the Judge Dredd Megazine featured a new 9pp [in each issue] strip titled “Armitage”. It’s about a Mega City One reporter. Written by a Dave Jones and drawn by the great JOHN COOPER!
Maybe not all is lost?
below and above:ARMITAGE (c) Rebellion
Its taken years to track down but what follows is Coop’s first strip -enjoy!
(c)2010 respective copyright holder [which in the UK means this is Public Domain]
Part of the John Cooper interview extracted [but with extra added colour art here!] from THE HOOPER INTERVIEWS