Interview: Lee Sullivan

Lee Sullivan is a well renowned artist, illustrating for Marvel UK’s Transformers and Thundercats comics, and 2000AD amongst others. He is especially known for his Doctor Who work. Lee has produced strips for Doctor Who Magazine, webcast illustrations for BBC Online’s ‘Death Comes to Time’, ‘Real Time’ and ‘Shada’. He has also produced work for the Big Finish audios.

So Lee, what first got you interested in art, when did you realise that this was the type of career you wished to pursue?

I always drew from the time I fist picked up a pencil; my Mum told me very early on that there were things called ‘commercial artists’; so I never thought I’d be anything else. I think the earliest feeling I had for illustrations were the tie-in annuals like Supercar, Fireball XL5; TV Comic and TV21 – which featured TV programmes I was obsessed with. Obviously Doctor Who, drawn by Neville Main, in TV comic, was pretty formative – I can actually remember seeing the first version of the TARDIS dematerialization – the whirlwind effect – the day it came out. Thrilling! And the Dalek Book; amazingly detailed expansion of the Dalek universe; wonderful stuff, especially Jennings’ work.

What courses/qualifications did you undertake and at which university?

A-level art at school, then a year Foundation course followed by three years on a technical and wildlife illustration course at Barnfield College in Luton. I got an SIAD (Society of Industrial Artists and Designers) licentiate qualification (meaningless) and later a City & Guilds.

What was your first artistic job upon leaving university or college?

A series of display paintings for an EMI shindig at Heathrow Hotel; then a job for 5 years at British Aerospace producing graphics and illustrations in a technical publications department. I got tremendously bored in the end and left to go freelance doing illustrations for local design companies, then a few covers for magazines which led to covers for Marvel UK’s Transformers which in turn led to strip work.

What are your influences, artistically and generally?

Everything affects what you produce; whatever I’m passionate about at the time. Mostly films, these days. My current preoccupation is music; I’m a latecomer to playing in rock bands; so I have to say Roxy Music, which is handy as I play sax in a Roxy tribute band –see :).

Good stuff. As well as being an illustrator for Doctor Who, you are also a well known fan of the show. When did your interest in Doctor Who begin?

I don’t have a certain memory of watching the first story, but I know I saw the first Dalek story and was infected immediately; probably forever. In the last couple of years I’ve acquired my own Police Box and Dalek full-sized props, so it seems to be getting worse . . .

Did you have a favourite story or villain or particular character you admired? Similarly who couldn’t you stand?

Stories: I love the ‘Web Planet’. I know it’s a bit controversial to say so, but it has a great atmosphere and spooky music and is one of the few attempts to be really imaginative about alien civilisations. And the Daleks are just wonderful – still huge potential – see all the TV21/annual strips.

Least liked (of the biggies): Davros. Controversial again perhaps, and there’s no denying that Genesis is a fine serial, but this lazy introduction of one-character-to-portray-a-whole-race is exactly what I don’t like in SF. It emasculated the Daleks as an independent force; downgraded them to Ogron status. ‘Remembrance’ redressed the balance a bit, but if he never tuns up again I’ll be pleased. I’m a Yarvelling and Zolfian man 🙂

When did your professional work for Doctor Who begin?

I asked for a Who story when Richard Starkings, who was editor of the strip at the time, was dishing them out in the pub! Originally he gave me one set on an island and I swapped that for the Gwanzulum strip ‘Planet of the Dead’ which featured the ‘dead’ companions and all the Doctors. I got that when I drew a version of Richard Branson for a Transformers strip, which showed what I could do with likenesses of actual people.

Did you have a particular favourite piece you worked on regarding Who and which Doctor do you favour drawing?

‘Nemesis of the Daleks’ – my first Dalek strip. A dream come true! And the Radio Times strips, which were technically the most demanding given the tight format. The Big Finish preview work was marvellous to work on. The BBC webcasts were tremendous fun; treated well by a flexible team; not having to do the linking illustrations (repetition is a necessary evil of strip work). Second Doctor is my favourite; Troughton’s personality has a lot of potential strip-wise.

What did you think when the show ended in 1989 and did you worry that it might affect your work with the show?

I always assumed it would return. But in the main, Who was never my main bread-and-butter, I was always working on other stuff as well. As far as the show went, I thought it was getting into a very difficult area – closing itself off to the casual viewer. Too self-referential and too self indulgent in so many areas. Stories not thoroughly worked out.

Which artist do you currently admire and what was the last piece of work you saw that inspired you to work?

I don’t get inspired by anything other than deadlines . I don’t look at other strips at all these days – I much prefer films. I’ve never been a huge fan of comics except from a nostalgic point of view; it’s just that I draw them fairly well; the format suits my style. John Romita Jr was my last big influence. Awesome control of dynamics and scale. And a nice guy.

What are your expectations of the new series and what do you think of the casting choices?

Trying not to have any. Casting is great; it’s entirely dependent on the flavour of the series, really. The new Dalek is interesting; the new TARDIS prop is awful.

Do you think the new series should retain continuity from the show or shy away as much as possible?

I’d get rid of the whole Time Lord thing, beyond about the ‘Three Doctors’ time. It was a big mistake to try to map it out, particularly as the mystery was replaced by plain tawdriness. Continuity is a fan-obsession (a reasonable one) but it’s better to involve the broader audience and if you have to ignore it or rework it, then that’s fair enough. Continuity bogged down the TV Movie for no good reason and must have made it almost incomprehensible (and inaccessible) to the mainstream audience that is vital to the success of any series. And it was inaccurate continuity, which, though done with love and the best of intentions, really got in the way of telling the story as far as the target audience was concerned and managed to annoy fans who knew it.

How do you decide how a character will look? For instance, how would you/are you approaching your depiction of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor?

Haven’t been asked, but with existing characters I just try to make them look as much like the actors as possible. New characters are fun to design (like Benny) as are the aliens; also the environments – thinking about the civilisation through its architecture and landscape.

What direction do you expect your career to develop in? Do you expect to be associated with Doctor Who in the future?

I hope so; I don’t know if I fit the profile that the current DWM team requires. I would like the opportunity to do the strip full-time for a period, including the colouring as I’m getting into that computer-wise; apparently Gary Gillatt offered the strip full-time to me way back, if he did I missed it!

Career: careers are tricky beasts, you never know where they’re going to go next. A few years back I almost I stopped getting work altogether for a while, which was horrible, so I’m happy to work on anything these days! Of course, I’d love to have had Bryan Hitch’s job on the new series; it would have been a logical progression for me. I’ve worked for Mike Tucker producing storyboards for some of his effects sequences – not Who, sadly – and it’s an interesting area.

I’m developing my music skills and I’m very enthusiastic to see where that goes; if I could make a living doing both I’d be very happy. would like to thank Lee for his time and co-operation for this interview.

For further information Lee Sullivans work, visit here.



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