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  Abslom Daak - An Interview with Steve Moore

ALTERED VISTAS: For those who don’t know you or your work, could you give us a brief introduction?

STEVE MOORE: Well, I’ve lived in London all my life, and in 1967 I started as the office-boy at the Power Comics group, which were published by Odhams Press (founded 1890), who also published the Eagle and later became part of IPC Magazines. By 1972 I’d risen to the dizzying heights of sub-editor on Whizzer & Chips, at which point I decided to go freelance. In the 70s and 80s I wrote for House of Hammer, Hulk Weekly, Doctor Who, 2000AD, Warrior, and about 60 kids’ Xmas annuals, amongst other things. Some of the 90s were spent as a writer/editor for Fortean Times, for whom I edited their scholarly journal Fortean Studies, and wrote a bunch of stuff like the Fortean Times Book of Strange Deaths. Back to comics around 2000, writing for 2000AD again, for ABC comics in the USA, and the novelisation of the V for Vendetta movie. And there are a few non-fiction things as well. Currently I’m writing Hercules for Radical Comics and collaborating (very slowly) with Alan Moore on The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic for Top Shelf.

Mercurius receives a surprise visitor...

AV: How did you come to write for Doctor Who Weekly?

SM: First off, I should say that everything we’re talking about here happened nearly thirty years ago, and my memory’s pretty awful! But I’ll do my best…

I’d known Dez Skinn since my days at IPC, and written for him when he was editing House of Hammer and Hulk Weekly, so when he began Doctor Who Weekly at Marvel UK we already had a track record together. Originally, he talked about me writing the Doctor Who story, but then I suddenly found he’d given it to Pat Mills and John Wagner… I can only imagine because he thought they were bigger names than me… so I got the back-up strips instead. That suited me, because I’ve always been more of a short-story than a series writer and, if I had to use specific Doctor Who races like Sontarans or Cybermen, it still gave me more freedom to come up with my own characters and situations.

 

AV: How familiar were you with Doctor Who and its long history when you came to work on the magazine?

SM: I wasn’t, really. I watched the programme while I was writing for the magazine, and did what research I could, as I wanted to do a good, professional job. But I didn’t watch it before, and I stopped watching it after I finished writing the stories. That’s nothing against Doctor Who… I’m just not much of a television watcher.

Daak

AV: Moving on to Abslom Daak - Dalek Killer. How did that story originate?

SM: I’d done a couple of stories about Kroton the Cyberman, and Dez Skinn asked me to come up with a character that would be an independent creation of the magazine, even though it was still set in the Doctor Who universe. Whether it was his idea or mine to include the Daleks, I really can’t remember… it could just have been that it was their “turn”, after we’d worked through some of the other alien races, and so they got included.

 

AV: The original strip is clearly setting up a series of adventures, both in its ending, in references to Selene, and in lines like "Tell the judge, I'll be back". Was it always the intention to create a series rather than another one-off supporting story?

SM: I suspect “Tell the judge, I’ll be back” was more intended to just be bravado on Daak’s part, but yes, we’d decided from the outset that Daak would be a continuing, occasional character. When I was writing the first story I don’t think I really had any very clear idea of where the continuation would go… you don’t get a lot of time to think ahead when you’re working for a weekly magazine and doing other work besides … so when I returned to Daak with Star Tigers, a lot of new thought went into the story. That was originally intended to run straight through as a seven-part series, rather than be split in half, and was obviously setting up the team ready for further adventures. But again, when I was writing Star Tigers, I don’t think at the time I really had any clear idea of what might happen in those future stories. I would have just got back to it when the time came.

 

AV: How influential was 2000AD on the development of Daak and Star Tigers?

SM: I’d like to think it didn’t really influence it at all. I’d worked for 2000AD, mainly writing “Future Shocks”, and I’d write for it again at various times later, but it’s never been a magazine I particularly liked or felt very comfortable working for, mainly because the SF I grew up reading was much more “ripping yarn space-opera” than the sort of stuff 2000AD usually does. And before you ask, no, Blake’s 7 wasn’t an influence on Star Tigers, as I wasn’t watching that at the time either. I saw some episodes later and realised there were a few parallels, but they were completely coincidental. I think the reason people imagine a 2000AD influence on Daak is simply that the story’s much darker and more savage than the usual run of Doctor Who material, which is just one of those things that happened. But we never sat down and said: “Let’s do a story in the 2000AD style.”

There were influences, of course. One was Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, of which I’d been writing a British version for Hulk Weekly, illustrated by Steve Dillon; Fury influenced the wisecracking dialogue and tough attitude of Daak. Another one was Pressbutton…

Nick FuryAxel Pressbutton

AV: Hold on, I thought Pressbutton came later, and was the story you did for Warrior when you couldn’t take Daak there from Doctor Who Monthly.

SM: No, Pressbutton came first. I originally had the idea for Pressbutton in 1976, but couldn’t figure out what to do with him at the time; there just wasn’t anything on the market that would have taken him. So at the beginning of 1979 I included Pressbutton in a comedy underground strip, as one of the team in Three-Eyes McGurk and his Death-Planet Commandos, which I wrote and Alan Moore and I drew together for a rock magazine called Dark Star. It took us 18 months to finish four one-page episodes, so it was well underway when I started thinking about Daak, and I killed Pressbutton at the end of it. That’s what the reference in Daak to “Curtis Henry Foobl” is all about… it’s an in-joke, as Alan and I were doing McGurk under the pen-names of Curt Vile and Pedro Henry, respectively (“Foobl” was the nonsense-title to a short wordless strip I’d done for another underground magazine around the same time). So, having killed Pressbutton off, I thought I’d never use him again. That’s why I decided to cannibalise a couple of things for Daak. Pressbutton’s cleaver-arm became Daak’s chainsword. I’d also come up with a Pleasure-World called “Depravity” in McGurk, which seemed like too good an idea to let go of, so that was toned down to become “Paradise” in Star Tigers. When Star Tigers was over with and I was doing Pressbutton as a straight strip for Warrior, I used “Depravity” again. In the meantime, though, Alan had started another comedy SF strip for Sounds, the music magazine, called The Stars My Degradation, and asked if he could use Pressbutton in that, so I said yes. Mind you, in the third episode of Stars I suddenly found he’d parodied the courtroom scene from Abslom Daak [Click here to read this episode]. Well, you can imagine how outraged I was by the fact that later, when he asked me to write Stars for him, I said “yes” straight away. He was paying me 10 a week, after all!

I’m not really sure how this idea started that I tried to take Daak from Marvel to Warrior, because it simply never happened, and wouldn’t have been possible anyway. Back in the days before Warrior, no one in mainstream British comics owned the characters they created, and Daak and the Star Tigers were always going to belong to Marvel/Doctor Who. I never even thought of taking Daak away. The nearest thing to this that happened was that when Dez Skinn and I were discussing what sort of “genre-slots” we wanted to fill in Warrior to make it a balanced anthology title (for example, a super-hero story, a horror story, a fantasy-adventure, and so on) we decided we wanted an SF-adventure story “like the sort of thing we’d done with Abslom Daak at Doctor Who”. That’s when I suggested using Pressbutton, as I still owned the character… and I got to write him straight, the way I’d originally intended. Steve Dillon was the artist on Laser-Eraser & Pressbutton, as he had been on Daak, so we included a “guest appearance” of Daak in one episode as another in-joke, but we made sure we didn’t identify him by name, in case there was trouble with Marvel… which there wasn’t. They probably never even realised.

AV: You’ve said that Daak/Star Tigers is one of your favourite  stories. What made it so special for you?

SM: I’d been writing for seven or eight years and, although I’d come up with characters like Kroton the Cyberman, who was still first and foremost a Cyberman, this was the first time since I’d got some experience behind me that someone actually asked me to create my own character. So in many ways it was a breakthrough strip for me. It was also very personal. At the time I was deeply depressed over a broken romance, and a lot of that angst went into the first Daak  story… it wasn’t just Daak who was feeling suicidal and betrayed. And as I was still carrying around a lot of grief about the lady in question by the time I began writing Star Tigers, so Daak carried the dead Taiyin round with him too, in hope of reviving their love.

It was also where I started building up a personal mythology in my work, something I did more of in Laser-Eraser & Pressbutton. Some of it derived from my interest in the classical world, and in traditional China. So, Selene was the name of the Greek moon-goddess, and

Ka-Boom!!!

Taiyin (“The Great Yin”) was a title of the moon in Chinese… the moon, being beautiful but out of reach, symbolised the woman I’d lost. The name Daak obviously represented the dark mood I was in, though I don’t think there was any particular significance in Abslom. I think I started off thinking I needed a three-syllable name to go with the single-syllable Daak… it was a matter of rhythm… and came up with Absalom, but then shortened it to make it sound weirder and more futuristic, and to hell with the rhythm!

Harma

AV: And the other names?

SM: I think Harma was just intended to be a tough-sounding name for an Ice Warrior, like “harmer”. Salander was shortened from salamander, as I was looking for something vaguely reptilian for a Draconian. These were two characters from the Doctor Who universe, of course, which I needed to use as it was a Doctor Who back-up story, so they weren’t so personal… though the whole idea of the conflict between the Darconian civil and military officials of the right and left hand was derived from the way the Imperial Chinese court was run.

As for Mercurius, who I was going to develop as the brains to match Daak’s brawn, he was another personal favourite, being based on a character who’s always fascinated me, called Zhuge Liang. He was a real person who lived from 181-234 AD, and was legendary for his cunning military strategies (though he wasn’t actually a crook!) and without wanting Mercurius to look particularly Chinese, I based his appearance on the Chinese actor David Chiang, sending David Lloyd pictures from Chiang’s 1971 movie, New One-Armed Swordsman, for reference. Obviously I didn’t want to give him a Chinese name, so when I was looking for an equivalent, deviously-cunning character-type in the west, the obvious one was the god Hermes/Mercury, who had winged sandals on his feet. So Vol Mercurius is basically “Flying Mercury”. As for the roses associated with him, which was a symbol I would have developed more later, they came from the sleeve-artwork to Grateful Dead albums, my favourite band at the time.

AV: "Forgive me, Abslom Daak... but you're only useful to me alive," says Taiyin just before she slugs Daak across the back of the head in the original Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer strip. This line always troubles me, as it suggests she has some other agenda... perhaps one that falling in love with Daak gets in the way of. Or am I reading too much into it?!

SM: I think you probably are! As far as I can remember, all I really meant to imply was that she thought Daak might be able to save her and her planet from the Daleks, and he obviously wasn’t going to be able to do that if he stayed where he was and allowed himself to be shot to pieces by them.

AV: The Star Tigers episode in issue 30 ends with the words “more next week”, but the story didn’t return until issue 44. What happened?

SM: Hard to remember, but I’ve a vague notion it was something like this. Steve Dillon was much in demand at the time (he may have been working for 2000AD as well) and was probably running himself into the ground. I think what happened was something along the lines of… Steve Dillon having drawn the first three episodes of Star Tigers but being unable to meet the deadline, David Lloyd was brought in to draw the fourth as an emergency fill-in job, there being a bit of a natural break after the fourth episode before Daak and Salander went off in search of extra crew for the Kill-wagon. Obviously, I would have preferred to keep Steve Dillon on the story, as he was the original artist, and I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about what Dave would do, because at the time he hadn’t really yet shown the potential that would eventually come to full flower on V for Vendetta… but he did a great job on that episode. So when it became apparent that Steve wasn’t going to be able to finish the series, I was more than happy for him to draw the last three episodes, where he got even better. I suspect the delay in the later episodes was just to give Dave time to arrange his own schedule… after all, it’s one thing to ask an artist to do a four-page emergency job… quite another to ask him to do another twelve at short notice as well.

Taiyin
Kill-Mechs

AV: The Kill-Mechs! Discuss! How much rewriting did this entail for Issues 45-46? (Dez Skinn said in an interview that they didn't realize they didn't have the rights to use the Daleks until a year after they started, hence their non-appearance in a couple of parts of Star Tigers).

SM: I have to confess I’d forgotten all about this until I saw it mentioned in the documentary on your VCD… mainly because whenever I wanted to look at Daak I pulled the book off the shelf, where the Daleks had been restored to their original  place. But now that I come to think about it, I seem to remember it was all very  sudden. Fortunately Dave Lloyd had already sent me stats of the unlettered artwork for the second half of the Star Tigers series, so I had it here in south London. As I recall I got a phone-call first thing in the morning telling me about the problem, and that they were going to change the artwork, though actually that turned out to be just a case of patching in some new artwork to three or frames, and not a lot of dialogue; you can spot some of the changes in the original publication by the different style lettering. I’m pretty sure I had to get over to the editorial office in north London as the whole thing had to be sorted out by lunchtime, but I honestly can’t remember whether I wrote the dialogue changes in the office, or did them at home, using the stats that Dave Lloyd had already sent me, and then took them to the office. I probably did them in the office, as I don’t have a carbon-copy of the changes in my old script-folder for the series. What I do have, though, is a copy of the changes I had to write immediately afterwards for the final episode of Star Tigers, on the assumption that we’d have to replace Daleks with Kill-Mechs there as well. As it happened, though, the Dalek situation was sorted out immediately after the doctored episode was sent to press, so those alterations were dropped and it went out with the Daleks, as originally written and drawn.

AV: By all accounts, the final weeks of Doctor Who Weekly was a fairly lean time for the publication, with the editor trying for a younger readership, bringing in cartoon covers, reducing the length of the main strip, introducing reheated filler strips from the 1950s and reducing the number of articles. Did any of this impact on you and on the Daak strip before the publication went monthly?

SM: I don’t recall it really having much impact on me at all. All of Star Tigers had been written with the idea that they’d just run on continuously from issues 27 to 33, and since issue 35 I’d been mainly writing the lead Doctor Who strip, which wasn’t affected by changes to the rest of the magazine. So I just got on and delivered my scripts and, as is usually my way, tried to avoid going to the office if I could possibly help it!

 

AV: The last episode of Star Tigers finishes with: “The end… for now.” You were obviously intending to continue the series, so what   happened?

SM: Well, the first thing that happened was that Pat Mills and John Wagner left the main Doctor Who strip early in 1980… I don’t know why… and I took it over instead. As a result it was decided that when they’d used up all the back-up strips I’d written, they’d hand that slot to other writers, such as Alan Moore, while I was concentrating mainly on Doctor Who. We still intended to bring Star Tigers back and it was agreed that I’d write it when we did. So time passed away, and editors changed, from Dez Skinn to Paul Neary to Alan McKenzie, and…

And here I have to break off in embarrassment. I’d thought I’d got a fairly clear idea of what happened, but I’ve just been going through the old Abslom Daak/Star Tigers file checking stuff, and I’ve found a script for a 4-page complete Star Tigers… a single-episode tale which would have followed on directly from the last published Star Tigers story… and I can’t remember a single thing about it. I’m tempted to imagine that elves and fairies have placed the manuscript in my filing cabinet while I slept, but I rather suspect that I actually wrote it in 1980 and have completely forgotten doing so. It was written when Paul Neary was editor, as he’s mentioned in the script, although it seems I didn’t know who was going to be drawing it when I wrote it, and it’s called “World of the War-King.”

Kill-Wagon

It starts with the Kill-wagon in space, with the voice of Taiyin resonating through the ship. The cooling unit on her cryo-capsule is  malfunctioning, and the only world near enough for them to get a replacement in time is the world of the War-King. The latter is an armoured figure, accompanied by a robot called Napoleon, who is intent on playing a deadly game with Daak, the apparent prize being the cooling units. The Star Tigers land on the planet and split into two teams: Daak and Harma set off in search of the cooling units, which they find too easily to feel comfortable about, with the result that they return to the Kill-wagon. Salander, accompanying Mercurius, is shot dead by the War-king’s defenders and his team-mate disappears from view. The War-king admits to disappointment in Daak, because he should have known that a much greater prize lay within his reach: the head of the Napoleon robot is the finest tactical computer in the universe. Remarking on this, the War-king glances round to see that the head of the robot has already been stolen by Mercurius during the conversation. Mercurius returns to the ship without Salander (but we would have had a talking head on the bridge of the Kill-wagon in future episodes instead), while the War-king suggests that Daak has missed a still greater mystery yet. Removing the face-plate of her armour, the war-king is revealed as having the face of Taiyin. And before you ask, I have absolutely no idea where the story was going to go after that! I’ve also got no idea why it wasn’t published, because even now I’ve read it I still can’t remember writing it or anything about the circumstances.

So, anyway, picking up things the way I thought they were, we get to early 1981, when Alan McKenzie was editing Doctor Who, and Marvel were also publishing a Blake’s 7 magazine. They’d pulled the same sort of stunt there that we had with Daak, which was introducing a character of their own devising into the main Blake’s 7 comic-strip, and now it seemed they wanted to do a cross-over, which would bring their character from Blake’s 7, called Valkac, into Star Tigers as a member of the Kill-wagon’s crew. The artist was to be Jerry Paris, who I knew and liked, and while I imagine I would rather have just gone my own way, it was still an opportunity to do Star Tigers again, so I wrote a load of character notes and began thinking about the story. From the amount of notes I’ve got, this was obviously intended to be a fairly long-running continuing series, but it was intended to take Daak, Mercurius and Valkac away from the Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 worlds so they could have an independent existences as “Marvel Comics” characters instead. As a result, when the story opens, Harma and Salander have been killed in battle with the Daleks two years previously (presumably I’d forgotten, even by then, that Salander had been killed by the War-king…). Beyond that, I had a number of set-pieces planned out to do as the story developed.

So, although I hadn’t got a full plot outline written, I’d got all these notes down and was ready to start scripting, and then one day I had to go into the office in Kentish Town. I talked to Paul Neary, who by then had moved up to group editor, who told me that Alan McKenzie had already written half the next Star Tigers story himself, which didn’t please me greatly. Alan McKenzie denied having done so, and after all these years, who knows… but when I thought about it I could see no reason why Paul Neary should have told me he had if it wasn’t true, so I quit working for the magazine. That’s why I suddenly stopped writing the lead strip and Steve Parkhouse took it over, why there was no more Star Tigers, and why Alan Moore quit writing for the magazine too, in a wonderful gesture of support that was remarkable for someone at that early a stage in their career.

Vol Mercurius
Nemesis of the Daleks

AV: So that explains the long silence until Nemesis of the Daleks.

SM: Yeah, I got on with Laser-Eraser and Pressbutton, swore I’d never work with Alan McKenzie again (I haven’t), and time passed. Eventually, whoever it was that was editing DWM at the time got in touch and asked if I’d mind them bringing back Daak in the magazine, which was a courtesy I appreciated. I didn’t own the character in the first place, and I couldn’t see any way I’d be able to use him again, so I said okay. And that’s how you got Nemesis of the Daleks, although no one sent me any copies, so I didn’t see it until the Abslom Daak collection came out (which I also had to ask for a copy of).

 

AV: And what do you think about later writers’ versions of Daak?

SM: Half of them I didn’t even know about until I saw your Daakumentary! And Nemesis of the Daleks is the only one I’ve seen, so I’m not going to comment on individual cases. But generally it seems to me that later editors and authors have overlooked the extreme importance of Taiyin to the story, especially now that she’s dead. Without her, Daak is just a thug with a chainsaw; with her, he’s a tragic figure who has real depth of character. Unfortunately it seems that most other writers and editors just want the thug with the chainsaw, which just doesn’t go anywhere and certainly doesn’t fit with the more idiosyncratic world of the regular Doctor Who stories, so it’s hardly surprising Daak’s become a figure of fun in later appearances. He may have started with the Daleks, in the Doctor Who universe, but Daak’s trajectory was always away from that toward an independent and much bleaker existence, so my later thoughts on the story killed off Salander and Harma to remove the Doctor Who elements. The irony is that in Nemesis of the Daleks the first thing that happens is that all the other Star Tigers are killed, so Daak can be brought back into the Doctor Who universe. And getting rid of Mercurius removes the other axis of the story, the conflict between brains and brawn. Remove Taiyin and Mercurius and there really is nothing left but a thug with a chainsaw.

AV: So, was that the end of your involvement with Daak?

SM: No, there was one further attempt to get Daak back in print in 1990, not long after the paperback came out. If I remember right, it was a time when Marvel UK were dabbling in American-style colour comic-books, and again the idea was to take Daak away from the Doctor Who universe and make him more of an independent Marvel Comics hero. John Freeman was the editor at the time.

Unfortunately, I can’t really remember the sequence of events properly, but in the file here I have a copy of a proposal by Dan Abnett and John Freeman for a story that would bring back Daak and sort out the continuity problems left by Nemesis of the Daleks with a complicated tale of clones that left a clone Daak contentedly matched up with a clone Taiyin. I’ve a feeling they may have sent this to me to take a look at and comment on. I’m really not sure what happened next, but it seems that story was put aside, and I then found myself writing a proposal for a  ten-issue mini-series called After Daak that also took into account the Nemesis of the Daleks continuity. I guess my major mistake was in deciding I wanted to do a more grown-up, sophisticated type of story that combined a ripping yarn of Daak and Mercurius in their Star Tiger days with a much bleaker mystery story set fifty years later, where two scholars try to uncover the truth behind the Daak legends. For the ripping yarn part, I cannibalised a lot of the stuff I’d come up with when thinking about the Daak/Valkac crossover story. Valkac became “Dagro Zarn” in the new story, while Komorkis was carried over unaltered from the earlier proposal. Anyway, it was probably the most complex plot I’d ever come up with, and the outline was written in minute detail. I was immensely pleased with it, and I really regret that it was never written… I’d write it today, either as a strip or a novel, if I could find someone who’d pay me to do it. Unlikely as that is, though, I’m just glad to have the outline “published” here on the website, so it gets out somehow, rather than just being neglected. At least it gives some idea of where the story would have gone if I’d been able to do what I liked with it. [To read ‘After Daak’, click here.]

The Kill Wagon

AV: So what happened?

SM: So John Freeman asked me to cut the story down from ten issues to four, which was absurd, and to concentrate on “what Daak does best”… in other words, he wanted a thug with a chainsaw. I wasn’t prepared to chop After Daak about like that, so I made a compromise offer that we’d put that story to one side and I’d write another outline for a four-issue series, which would concentrate on Daak’s youth and early exploits with Mercurius and Selene, for which I jotted down a couple of paragraphs. If that went well, I suggested, we might do After Daak afterwards. But nothing ever came of that idea either, and everything just sort of fizzled out. [John Freeman contacted AV with a slightly different recollection of events: My recollection of events surrounding discussions of a new Star Tigers comic is that both Dan Abnett and I discussed several ideas for limited

series Marvel UK projects.  We shared the same office space at the time (and a very kranky office person I often was, too, to my chagrin these days).

The word came down from Marvel US - probably from either Tom de Falco or top sales person Carol Kalish - that ten issue mini series were no longer favoured for costs reasons, and Marvel was seeking to publish four-issue mini series instead to try out new characters. (Proposed projects included a Death's Head revival and a try out for Rourke, a character created by Freeman and Liam Sharp for the Strip comic magazine). The emphasis for these projects also had to be very much on the action, rather than what might have been described as the cereberal.

Four issues were the minimum Marvel could publish - there was some legal or distribution restriction in the US on publishing three-part mini series, which the company would have preferred.

In the end, of course, neither Steve's ten-part or four-part proposal was ever taken up, although both treatments would almost certainly have been seen by Paul Neary when he took up the reins as Editorial Director at Marvel UK in the 1990s. By that time, Marvel US considered Doctor Who a 'dead' franchise and there was no value to Marvel in seeking to extend a brand they did not themselves own. Instead, Paul developed a range of new characters for the company while also revamping Death's Head, drawn by Liam Sharp.

While Steve's project unfortunately went nowhere, this didn't dampen my enthusiasm for trying to get spin-off Doctor Who projects off the ground. That included  the Doctor Who newspaper strip pitched at the Express, and a story by Andrew Cartmel featuring a Doctor Who and Doctor Strange corssover, for example, although that proposal would have been pitched much later, and it was then I learnt of Who's disfavour by Marvel US, even though Tom deFalco was a fan of the show. - Many thanks to John for the additional information.]

SM: So after that, the rest was silence as far as I was concerned… until I just happened to Google “Abslom Daak” and suddenly found you’d made a movie of the ol’ bozo. As I said, it never occurred to me that there’d still be so much interest.

 

AV: So, looking back, any regrets?

SM: I don’t regret quitting Doctor Who on a point of principle, nor do I regret refusing to cut After Daak from ten issues to four. But it’s a shame that all the stuff I would have liked to do with the characters never quite made it into print. I’ll just have to look forward to your Star Tigers movie!

 

AV: Thank you very much, Steve, for your time and assistance with this interview and the accompanying materials.