When I wrote my first Fighting Fantasy gamebook Spellbreaker (back in 1992) I asked if Martin McKenna could illustrate it. Unfortunately we weren't to work together until my third gamebook, Curse of the Mummy (1995), but since then I've been fortunate enough to work with him on another three occasions. He painted the cover of Bloodbones (2006) and produced all the art for both Howl of the Werewolf (2007) and Night of the Necromancer (2010).
Anyway, Martin has kindly taken the time to talk to me not just about his art but about his involvement in the Fighting Fantasy phenomenon and so today, I proudly present, the Martin McKenna interview!
1. How did you start out as a professional artist?
I gained some experience as a youngster by doing artwork for fanzines in the '80s. Fanzines, kids, were obscure pamphlets their editors scraped together money for to get printed and struggled through the night to staple together and cart to conventions where they'd be swapped for the fanzines of other editors. Crazy olden days. The stuff I did seemed to go down well with the folk who saw it, and one thing led to another. Twenty years later I'm still at it, since no one's actually told me to stop messing about and get a real job.
2. What was your big break that led to you doing what you’re doing now?
It was probably more like a lot of little breaks. Really early stuff like meeting Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in '86 was helpful. They liked the fanzine work which had included a Fighting Fantasy spoof, and they recommended a submission to Warlock magazine. Coincidentally Marc Gascoigne had seen my fanzine stuff and liked it, and he was then editor of Warlock. Most importantly, an invitation came from John Blanche, then art director at Games Workshop, to produce work for him. John’s initial contact came as a result of me entering an art competition featured in the Citadel Journal. Instead of the hoped-for prize of a two quid postal order, I got a letter from John expressing interest in my stuff. This led to my very first paying commission: illustrations for an Out of the Pit article in Warlock. So a bunch of things came together in the very beginning. And one way or another they've continued to do so ever since. Back in those days (I remember when these fields were all molten lava) the whole fantasy scene was so much smaller, but probably harder to make initial contact with people and get your stuff seen.
3. What is your preferred method of working? Which medium suits your style best?
Doing stuff digitally, but retaining some connection with how I did things traditionally. Line and wash, basically, with some twiddly bits.
4. How did the evolution from Letratone shading to your current scraperboard-style of white marks on black come about?
I didn't use Letratone very often. Thank God that stuff's long since gone in the bin. Yeah, drawing in a pen & ink style digitally is a bit like doing a scraperboard thing, which I enjoy. I still prefer doing things in black and white... I really should do more. One of these picture books I'm doing for children these days needs to be pure black and white linework, or I'm missing a trick.
5. Having illustrated both Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy (and all manner of other things) which setting do you prefer and why?
Oh, I have no preferences. Anything that allows me to do a few monsters and gnarled, pointy things with a bit of mist. Moon, silhouette, twisty tree, bish bash bosh, Bob's your uncle; any setting.
6. How did you find the experience of producing the illustrations for Curse of the Mummy compared to those for Howl of the Werewolf and Night of the Necromancer?
Well, I remember Curse was done in next to no time because time had run out, and I was reduced to desperately scribbling in felt tip, and weeping. The other two were digital and infinitely less gruelling. Howl was enjoyable I seem to remember, I quite like some of those. Oh but thinking about it, I remember now I'd trapped my hand (my drawing, fighting hand) in the car door the previous Halloween and I did most of the Howl stuff with a fingernail hanging off and flapping around getting caught on my pen. Yum.
7. Which was the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook you read?
I think I began at the beginning with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
8. Did you read FF before illustrating FF?
A friend of mine at school bought the first issue of Warlock magazine, which was my introduction to the whole fantasy gaming thing. I bought The Warlock of Firetop Mountain book and one or two others on the strength of that, and a few of the other early titles over the following couple of years. I started doing some illustration work for Games Workshop while I was still at school, and John Blanche recommended I send some samples in to Puffin and it resulted in me being commissioned to illustrate Daggers of Darkness when I was seventeen. So the short answer is: yes.
9. Which is your favourite FF gamebook?
I think I remember enjoying Deathtrap Dungeon more than most, and I really liked the Sorcery! books.
10. How did you find the process of illustrating FF books? Was it an enjoyable experience? How did it compare to other illustration jobs?
Illustrating Daggers of Darkness when I was so very young was a terrifying experience! I barely coped with the burden of the job and the pressure I felt working for Puffin, which for me at that age felt like the big time! I struggled through it and thought I'd done a terrible job, and was truly amazed when they asked me to illustrate another one (they must've been desperate). For some reason I wasn't deterred and accepted the commission and, maybe because I'd gained some confidence having one book under my belt and the editors' praise, my second book Vault of the Vampire was much more enjoyable to do. It's all been downhill from there! Generally I found Fighting Fantasy material a bit easier than other illustration jobs which are often much more complex.
11. How much did FF influence your career and what you are doing today?
I guess FF got me started working in the gaming industry and helped direct me in into the field of fantasy art generally. So I owe it a lot, especially for helping to get me established and find early success in my career. These days I'm doing a lot of much the same sort of stuff! Occasional goblins and things with spikes. I remain busy with book covers and album covers and whatnot. Primarily I'm working on my own picture books which I'm writing and illustrating.
12. What is it that makes FF so special?
From a purely nostalgic point of view FF was special for me, when I was young and first discovered it, because of the look and feel of the artwork by some great illustrators. It was certainly an important part of FF's success, being some of the best stuff around at the time. Plus there was the slightly downbeat British quality to the storytelling, being quite visceral and gritty (or at least it seemed to me as a kid!), and shot through with dark humour.
13. There are notable exceptions (such as House of Hell and Appointment with F.E.A.R.) but in general why do you think the non-Titan adventures were less well-received than those set within FF’s own fantasy world?
I'd imagine it's just to do with familiarity with the fantasy world, and not having to make any kind of imaginative switch into a less familiar setting and adjustments to game mechanics.
14. Which do you prefer working on, black and white pen-and-ink-style illustrations or full colour computer coloured covers?
Almost answered this already... black and white will always be what I prefer and enjoy doing most. But whacking in some colour isn't always painful.
15. Of which piece of work are you most proud?
Anything I can look at and not feel enormously depressed.
16. Is there anything you haven’t illustrated yet that you would still like to?
Yes, the various story ideas I have for picture books. These things are taking me so long I'll be dead with plenty of illustrations left to do.
17. What are you working on at the moment?
Children's picture books of my own devising. Currently one concerning an octopus and a toilet (really you can't go wrong with either), and my epic about a lamp that I'm determined I'll finish before I die. I'm working on these with my wonderful editors at Scholastic. Out for Christmas this year is my first fully illustrated children's book, which I've created with author Penny Matthews. It's called The Gift. It concerns a toy bear, and if it doesn't reduce you to a tearful mess I'll be very cross.
Art's full. Try plumbing.
Huge thanks to Martin for answering all my weird and wonderful questions, and for all the great art he's produced for my books!