When I started up Black Tower Comics as a zine (Small Press) venture in the mid-1980s, there were two creators who seemed to pop up in almost every zine I came across. One was Ben R. Dilworth and the other was John Erasmus.
Apart from the odd one off gag cartoon and strip, John also supplied me with episodes of Denizen Ark:Unemployed Crime-fighter and then my first digest sized graphic novel –Dervish Ropey And The Maximin Sword.
Foolishly, I had only printed off 100 copies and word travelled fast and within a month all copies had sold out (I don’t have a copy!).
Always bashful, John took a lot of persuading to be interviewed . So, from the now classic Zine Zone International 13 (1990), here is that interview with one of the most under rated artists ever!
TH: John, can you give us a little background info on yourself —I believe that you just managed to leap aboard an aircraft leaving South Africa with military police in hot pursuit:a rumour?
JOHN: Well, I left school in ‘82, feeling safe behind my British passport, thought I could soak up the South African sun for a few months to recover from the education ordeal, and received an April call-up to the Navy. I dodge the security police getting to the airport but the military were waiting! I jumped into an army jeep and tore along the airstrip, shells exploding all around me as I tried to reach the open cargo door of an aircraft. With bullets whizzing all around I leapt for the aircraft and made it just in time! I left in March ‘82.
TH: Okay, hands up. I added the text from “the Navy” to “I left”….I’m trying to sell copies here! Alright, when did you first get interested in comic art, and were you encouraged to draw when you started? Most parents think it’s a waste of time.
JOHN: My dad used to buy me comics. I underwent the change from Harvey to Marvel comics aged about eleven. My folks are both artists so they stood back and watched me wind my way along this path from about that age onward. I was reading before that age, too, but I’d stop more often and play with my yo-yo then.
TH: You told me once that your more “cartoony” style was inked straight off –no pencils. How do you do it?
JOHN: Lots of Process White!
TH: The more serious style you do pencil before inking, is it a style you’d like to use more?
JOHN: I use it for the colour stuff mainly because there isn’t as much room for manoeuvre with the outline then. Black and white I prefer to do straight off in the pursuit of dynamism but when a more considered and detailed style is called for (not something I myself care very much for) then I knuckle down and work out what I’m doing first. I always use detailed thumb-nail sketches so I’m not being all that daring in fact. The finished artwork is effectively an enlargement of these sketches.
TH: In case anyone thinks John is exaggerating about a “lot” of Process White usage I can state here and now that Ben Dilworth, who was doing the printing for Dervish Ropey and the Maximin Sword, had picked up the artwork and phoned me to say “I can believe he really does do this work freestyle! You ought to see the amount of whitener used and paste-ups!” That said, Ben did admit the work still looked “gorgeous”.
Now, John, you’re interested in Amerindians aren’t you? How did this interest develop –is it something you’d like to incorporate into future work?
JOHN: American Indians are a much-abused population with a miraculously resilient culture. I suppose I follow their story because it’s got more than a little in common with South African black history which I’d seen too much of to really want to think about.
TH: You are my favourite colourist –you use Magic Markers, right? How easy are they to use…is there hope for me?
JOHN: Magic Markers I met in ‘87/’88 when I thought I wanted to join an ad agency and earn £50,000 a year doing storyboards. I used to use coloured inks prior to this in much the same way as I now use the markers. The thing that took me the longest to master was the covering large areas with flat colours. I decided against the ad agency (which meant, unfortunately, the £50,000 as well) but I kept using the markers.
They’re not that difficult to use at all once you get used to being constantly high on the fumes (now I take a Magic Marker where-ever I go!).
TH: You’ve done book covers and postcard illustrations –can you tell me (roughly) who you have done work for?
JOHN: I’ve done 75 or more book covers for the Overcoming Common Problems series for Sheldon Press over the past six years (1985-1990). These books are available in health food shops and self-help sections of bookshops and have titles like The Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diet Book. My favourite book cover was for David Taylor’s Zoo Vet book called Dragon Doctor. They did a TV series about that (pioneering veterinary work in UK zoos –TH) as well.
My greetings cards aren’t selling very well apparently. They feature Dervish Ropey and since I said I’d like royalties for them they’re not making me any money!
TH: Am I right in assuming that your first colour comic work was for Brain Damage (now retitled The Damage) -how did you land this job?
JOHN: Yes. I don’t know. The editor, Bill Hampton, found me (possibly through the Association of Illustrators) and visited me in person. He picked out something he liked from my backlog of work and I developed it from there.
TH: Stonewall question: list ten words that you feel describe John Erasmus without cheating!
JOHN: I was answering these questions quite frankly up until now. When I’m in difficulty I always try to think what I’d do if I wasn’t. It’s the panic that really gets you. If I could have one wishcome true it would be to always be able to stay calm and do the right thing in every situation. Could you pick your ten words from amongst this lot?
TH: No. But, lessee:talented, polite, friendly, a smoothy, helpful, non-egotistical, willing (!), unrecognised, intelligent, woman watcher! Hah! I think that about covers you!
Dervish Ropey is a sort of Indiana Jones type character and the special, Dervish Ropey and the Maximin Sword, sold out within a month but through my naiivete it emptied my pockets instead of filling them! You’ve more of this great character to come I believe?
JOHN: Sorry I dried up your resources. The new one is 86 pages all about American Indians based on the three actual happenings in modern American Indian/White American history combined into one day in the life of a fictional traditional Indian tribe. Paul Gravett of Escape magazine liked it and is seeing what he can do with it. I’m very glad the card company liked Dervish Ropey, too, but wish they could shift a few of the damn things to the punters.
TH: and Denizen Ark: Unemployed Crime-Fighter –what’s happening to him?
JOHN: He’s my present spare-time-consumer. I like to be doing something I can call my own while still maintaining some sort of contact with money-earning sources. Either he’ll eventually be a series of six comics or he won’t be. Either way I’ll complete the work by X-Mas. If the enterprise basks in the glow of unpublished anonymity after that it’ll be altogether in keeping with the nature of the character!
TH: Let’s hope the project succeeds –he is an excellent character. But I understand that you’re making videos with Marek Wedler, who describes them as “hot and steamy”. Is he lying as usual? What are they about and is video film making something you’d like to do professionally?
JOHN: These are videos filmed almost exclusively in the nude. However, all those appearing on the screen are at all times fully clothed. Actually, the production team members generally cover their nudity before commencing filming, too —but of course it’s obvious to all concerned what they are really like underneath.
The films are short stories using whatever props or people are available at the time. Movies are big time comics so, yes, the more of this I can do, the merrier I’ll be.
TH: What are your hopes for the future regarding your comics work —anything you’d really love to do?
JOHN: I’d really like to do just one Spider-Man comic.
TH: Any final comments –words for the fans, you know –the usual?
JOHN: Have you honestly read this entire interview? See you at the next mart, Terry. Cheers!
TH: I’ll be looking forward to it. An interview worth waiting three years for? ANYTHING John does is worth waiting three years for!
End Note: Since this interview was published, John worked on Accident Man for Toxic, a comic based on Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct and much, much more. Sadly, blinkered Marvel Comics has never offered John a chance to work on Sipder-Man!
You can more of John’s work at:
The project with Paul Gravett may not have happened but, after a good few years, Dervish Ropey is set to return in Dervish Ropey: The Totem from Black Tower. A book I am very excited about.
Hopefully, it might convince some European publishers to put work the way of Mr. Erasmus!
And…Dervish Ropey -Totem Pole is soon to appear from Black Tower Comics so here’s a couple of sneak pages!