INTERVIEW WITH AN ARTIST: ‘Saltire’ Creator John Ferguson on Diamond Steel Comics and Women in the Comic Book Industry

Saltire is known as the immortal protector and Scotland’s very first comic book superhero. He’s big, he’s blue, he’s ginger, and coming to save the day. If you’re Scottish and you don’t know about Saltire then put down that can of Irn-Bru and get yourself to a Forbidden Planet comic shop ASAP. (If you’re not Scottish then just put down the beverage of your choice.) The award winning series has been translated into several languages and has an international following that can be found wherever comic books can be found.

C: I saw on your website that you actually had a competition with university students to find your artists. What was that experience like?

J: Yeah, the original artists, like the concept art in creating the visual appeal of the character that was done through Duncan Jordanstone, which is quite a famous art college up in Dundee. They produce a lot of very, very good quality artists that go on to work from everything from little Dandy and Beano type comics through people working in Industrial Light and Magic – you know, the Star Wars company.

So we knew that’s where we needed to go to and we just made it a competition. Where you (the winner) not only got the job of creating this character and the first book but you know we’ll give you a prize and be in the media and stuff like that. It was great for us because it gave us access to people rather than sending out an S.O.S going ‘Oh, we’re looking for people!’ and never knowing what you get. And like most competitions the cream rose to the top. It’s where the visual appeal of Saltire came from. It was that original competition. You know that guy [Saltire] is a sort of visual representation of all this Caledonian stuff going on. So we were really chuffed with how that worked out. Really chuffed.

C: Were you expecting Saltire to be as popular as it is when it first came out?

J: Not at all. Not at all. You kind of make it just to get it out of your head. You know like most things in the creative industry. A poet writes poetry to get it out of their head. I was just going ‘I need to get this idea out of me head.’ And I spoke to my family about it and they said ‘Yeah, you should go ahead and do it’. If anything else, you’ll at least have published a book. Even if it sold only five copies and all to my immediate family then so be it.

One thing that really helped get us on the map was that the very first thing that we wrote was nominated by The Eagle Award for best British Comic Book. Which was kind of like ‘What! No!’ Like, it was alongside 2000 A.D., it was alongside Judge Dredd. The guy who runs Forbidden Planet kept ordering more and more copies. We would get absolutely mobbed at comic book conventions where kids would come up to me wanting my picture. It was all so unexpected.

C: Do you see any similarities between the creation of Superman and Saltire? Superman having been created by two Jewish comic creator’s right after World War II and Saltire sort of representing a different group of people facing discrimination throughout its own history.

J: Yeah, that’s exactly what we were doing. The history of Scotland is sort of marked – without sounding too melodramatic – it is marked with tragedy. You know Scottish people love being Scottish and we’re very proudly Scottish. But if you actually look at the history of the country it’s not a happy history. We’ve [Scottish natives] got all this history, all this language, and this culture that really goes untapped and unknown. I just wanted to create a character that kind of tied into that.

C: So I know that you started Diamond Steel Comics with your wife Clare, and that the landscape of comic books has changed dramatically from the 1980’s to the present, but did Clare find any difficulties being a woman trying to break into this industry?

J: I think she came along at the right time. There is still a misogyny in the industry. We still haven’t cracked that yet. We haven’t gotten over it. I mean I have two daughters and you see the changes but I still worry about if they’re coming fast enough for them. You know we’re getting more female politicians and female leaders in the world.

C: Oh, I definitely believe the comic book industry needs more women like Clare.

J: Oh exactly. It just needs more women in it in general. Running things. Creating things. I get embarrassed when I see the ‘Oh this is women in comic’s week.’ I look at that and go ‘How can there be only one week for women in comics when women make up 52% of the world’s population?’ Every week should be women in comic’s week.

Clare does an amazing job with her background in marketing. She pushed Diamond Steel Comics into translating it into different languages. She pushed it so that we were marketed at a level where comics don’t normally go. We were on the BBC four or five times in the last two years. We had a double page spread in a national newspaper. People would come up to me and ask ‘How did you do that?’ and I just sort of go ‘Eh, I don’t really know – ask Clare. She’s the brains of the operation.’

C: What comics or graphic novels do you read yourself? 

J: Oh, I hoover up comics every day. I think I read about four or five issues of different series daily. My wife just stares at the piles that I leave behind. I probably read about the equivalent of a graphic novel a day. I certainly read five or six a week.

C: Any recommendations?

J: I read Fight Club 2, actually. The full volume because I just loved the film. It’s one of my top five films of all time and I was desperate to read this Fight Club 2. It’s really interesting and meta and outward. I try to divide my reading between comics about superheroes and other comics that are more down to earth. I try to make it about fifty-fifty. I’ve just read Rats Queen as well. It’s a very cleverly put together comic, and again, it’s very positive about women’s roles.

C: I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, but who would you like to see cast as Saltire should a movie offer ever arise?

J: Oh there’s actually two answers for that. There’s the fan base answer that we get on Twitter or on the Facebook page a lot, which is Sam Heughan from the Outlander series. But if I had to choose, I would go with Gerry Butler. He’s already Scottish so he can do the accent and he can play a big rough and tough guy. I think he’d be a great Saltire.

C: What can you tell me about Diamond Comics’ next upcoming project Mean City?

J: Not too much. I know that it’s finished. I’ve physically seen the first copy. I’ve been told that it’s very comparable to Pulp Fiction in a way. There are a bunch of story lines that intertwine and effect one another. I’m really proud of how the artwork turned out in this book. We’ve got some of the best artists in-house working on this.

C: Which city is the Mean City?

J: Technically it’s just a sort of average city backdrop that could be any city anywhere. But to me, in my head, it’s always been Glasgow. It probably is an American city seeing as how the cars drive on the right side of the road and the police are American police, but to me it’s Glasgow.

C: Thank you so much for interviewing with us, John. This has been a blast.

J: Oh, it was my pleasure.

If you want to follow John Ferguson, Saltire, or anything else that Diamond Steel Comics has to offer, check out their official website, Facebook and Twitter.

Find out more about John Ferguson and Diamond Steel Comics:

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