“Most comic readers are heavily into sci-fi and a large proportion of them hate football.” John Wagner on the perils of creating the worlds first alien football comic with Rok of The Reds

This weekend sees the return of the Leamington Comic Con, and one of it’s main guests is comic book royalty John Wagner. As well as being the creator of Judge Dredd, and writer of History of Violence, Button Man and more, he is also the co-creator of our favourite alien football adventure Rok Of The Reds. We caught up with John ahead of the launch of the collected edition at Leamington to find out if he is still match fit?

Rok of The Reds sees you team up with old pal Alan Grant, can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for Rok of The Reds? Did you have a long running desire to write a football story? Or did it just evolve out of the sci-fi concept?

JW: We were working on a new anthology comic – this would be about 25 years ago. We needed a football story, but we wanted one with a difference. What about, one of us suggested, the first alien footballer? We had a lot of experience with a similar story – Doomlord – and unlikely as a football/alien combo sounded we knew it would work.  We decided, however, not to go ahead with the anthology comic and the first Rok (then called Rom of the Rovers!) was put away in a file. I dug it out about three years ago when I was looking for something new and different to write, read it, decided it was too good to be sitting unloved in a filing cabinet.

One of the our favourite things about Rok is that it feels like it is quite an all ages books, perfect for a young teen audience. Was that always part of the plan for it? 

JW: It’s always better if you can gear stories to all ages. It gives you a much greater potential audience. So I try to make all my stories accessible to young people.  It’s not always possible because of subject matter, but generally I try not to over-complicate while not allowing the story to become moronic. With Rok it’s great to be able to offer a tale that parents and children can both enjoy. It helps bring them closer together and also to enlarge the comic audience. 

Why do you think there aren’t more broad appeal stories like this in comics today? 

JW: More stories aren’t written this way today (though I don’t know why) largely because the comic-reading demographic has changed.  In my early days comics were for kids. Today most comic readers are post-teen to elderly. That saddens me, remembering what pleasure as a young teen I got from comic reading.

And why do you think there aren’t more football comics out there? Was this your attempt to rectify that?

JW: It was the nature of the anthology we were working on, otherwise I’d never have attempted it. Most comic readers are heavily into sci-fi and a large proportion of them hate football.

How important was it for you to get the football elements correct? Are you a big football fan?

JW: I enjoy football when it’s played well. Football played badly can be dire. Generally you’ll see a better game of rugby.  I started attending football at roughly the same time I started reading comics. Morton, my team, had a fantastic year in 63/64. In the Scottish second division, they went through the whole season losing only one game (yes, East Fife, you bastards, we haven’t forgotten). That was football as it should be. The excitement was incredible. I still get flashbacks to those Saturdays on the terraces at Cappielow. In many ways, although the skill level is not as high, lower division football is a better game. It’s much more honest, players aren’t always throwing themselves to the ground and feigning injury. I hate the divers. They go a long way toward spoiling football.

Do you find writing a book like Rok a nice distraction from writing Dredd? Or do you still enjoy the challenge of writing a character who you’ve been working on for so long?

JW: Rok has been a sheer joy. I positively skip to my office on the days I’m writing the big red alien. I still enjoy Dredd, but I’ve written so many that fresh ideas get harder and harder to come by. That’s why it’s good to see other writers having a go. It helps keep the character fresh.

How did you connect with artist dan Cornwell, and what was it about his work that made it such a perfect fit for Rok?

JW: I tried to interest a couple of pros, but neither of them could afford to do the story on spec, or for the kind of minimal rates I could pay. So I looked for my artist in the fanzines, notably Dogbreath and Zarjaz. Dan’s artwork jumped out at me – humour, style, great characters, strong inking. Perfect for Rok. So I emailed him – have you ever drawn football? He thought it was a wind-up at first, but I’m glad to say it’s worked out well for him. He’s now quit his job on the buses and gone freelance, with work coming in from 2000AD and other sources.

And how did you team up with an up and coming publisher like BHP, and why go with them rather than a more established brand like Rebellion or Titan?

JW: 2000AD were willing to publish it.  If I’d placed it with them I’d be a lot better off financially – I never realized how expensive publishing an independent was.   But I didn’t think Rok was a good fit for 2000, and it would have skewed the way I had to tell it (6 page episodes rather than 20 page books).  So although I’m writing this from the workhouse I don’t regret that we went the way of BHP. I had intended to self-publish although I knew very little about the various processes involved.  When BHP’s Sha Nazir offered to publish it I could see the many advantages.  And it was nice to do something Scottish based again.

And finally, would you like to return to the world of Rok in the future or have you told that story now?

I’m currently working on series 2 – Rok the God.

You can pre-order Rok of The Reds from bhpcomics.co.uk or pick it up from John in person at Leamington Comic Con on April 14th.