by Stephen Greenwood-Hyde and Jeff Coleman
Progressions originated a long time before this comic came out in November 2001 - ten years before, in fact - so it's hard to write concisely about our first issue. It was a one-off in a lot of ways. Jeff didn't have his graphics tablet yet, and my PC was unwell, so it was the only issue both written and drawn on paper. It was our first work together for a long time, and pretty much my first comics script.
The idea was to kick off with a straightforward action-adventure story, starring Pam and Henry and taking place at a Psychobabes gig. It'd be easy to write and simple to draw, and we'd get to introduce a bunch of our main characters. We got to introduce the characters, anyway.
The writing was accomplished largely via transatlantic phone calls, with Jeff forced to write it down as we came up with it. The drawing was delayed several times by the erratic nature of the scripting process (and the script!). Even though it really is a straightforward story, we still managed to make it hard work and stress?
The start of a learning process, for real. If you doubt that, check out how much better our second issue is! But I still have love for this story - we got to go to a Psychobabes gig and see Pam and Henry in action, we got to play out some daft gags and some fun fights? and besides, we'd been waiting for this since 1991!
I don't remember exactly what catalyzed us into finally starting work on Progressions #1, but the main thing I do remember was what catalyzed me personally to finish it. I had the artwork about halfway done during the Summer of 2001 and was procrastinating on the rest of it. I'd made valiant efforts over the years to be inspired by Dave Sim's "draw a page a day" philosophy, but at the time it was far too easy for me to look at a page and see only the BAD parts, which pretty much made the whole process of drawing a painful experience.
To make things worse, I was working in pen, brush and ink, in the sweltering heat of my tiny Manhattan apartment, and the slightest mistake was either PERMANENT FOREVER, or a big pain in the neck to white out and clean up. So the pages sat there for weeks and months as Summer ended and Autumn rolled around.
Then September 11 happened. The first week after was just complete chaos, the streets blocked off and the breathing masks and the horrible stench in the air and the crying and listening to the radio constantly. After a week or two I could not focus on anything properly, and I KNEW that I had to CREATE SOMETHING to get out of that rut and get back into the world. I started back to work drawing Progressions #1 and finished it during October and early November, and we were on a streak for a good while, driven by that initial need to create as a form of healing.
Both Jeff and myself were among the audience members who cheered aloud when the Shaw Brothers logo came on screen at the start of Kill Bill, so it's no surprise that our second issue features our first martial arts story. We also wanted to give a big intro to Jane Cutler - she was another character who'd been waiting in the wings since '91.
The story itself is pretty simple, and it contains the first decent lines of dialogue in what's now become the Progressions style. The story briefly introduces some of Jane's conflicts - there's a certain tension between her Official status and her practicing martial arts, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. It says a lot about our working method (and love of randomness!) that Jane isn't featured again until #12 - which we're working on at the time of writing!
One of the reasons Jane fascinates me so much is that she's an overachiever, which is totally alien to me. Jane is a Government Official, which in Minerva City means she's passed the highest level of the Official Examination, and she's on a career path which could potentially lead to a Ministerial post. She's well-paid, she's socially active and focussed on promotion, and she still finds time to practice intricate Hawk Fist pugilism! She's also the closest Minervans get to blue-blooded, the equivalent of some Mayflower-sailing type in Rhode Island?
Progressions #2 was fun because I was learning new techniques, it was my first story with the Wacom graphics tablet and using Painter to draw completely digitally. I'd always felt more at home in the digital realm than in "natural media", and once I had experienced being able to draw with an "Undo" command, I never wanted to go back!
This was an ambitious story that was let down in a couple of places by some ambiguities in the artwork, but Stephen never lets me say I don't like it, so I can certainly appreciate it for the enormous learning experience it was! I get a kick out of reading it now, but I wish some things had been clearer. The next issue was much better for me!
"Gastronomy in Blue" was an important issue for Progressions in a number of ways. It was our first non action story, the first time we got a good look at Pam's character (she's cool in #1, but she basically just runs around!), and the first time we brought the pop culture of Minerva City directly into the story. More than that, though, it introduced Keith Noise, and Minerva's legendary mice!
Since the earliest day of Progressions, we've known about Keith Noise and his iconoclastic band Gastron Space Monkeys. The inspiration behind his character and his band is best left unmentioned (just think of revolutionary, rule-breaking records that inspire you, whatever the hell they are!), but Keith himself is an archetypal touched genius of the type exemplified by, say, William Blake. His dialogue was especially fun to write! A bit we didn't have room for on page 11, in the last panel, was Keith saying "I'm going across the street to drink with my personal friend Marcus Tharton?"
In Minerva City, believing in mice is a clear signal to the average citizen that you're on the fringe in some way. Either a mild eccentric (like a UFO believer), or an unhealthy obsessive (like an abductee) or a complete loon (like David Icke and his worldwide cabal of shape-shifting lizard-people).
When we were selling the minicomic this was the only issue which never sold out - we always had a pleasingly high proportion of female readers, who apparently didn't like the name of Keith's show, "Women (I Have Licked)". I suppose I can see why, but I think the women who bought the issue anyway would agree that the sexist undertone of the story clearly belongs to Keith Noise, not to the creators!
Both Keith and the mice will be appearing again - thematically if not actually - in our forthcoming story "The Discovery of Mice", beginning in Progressions #15!
One of my favorites! It's ironic, as much as I love drawing action comics, it was a joy to draw someting with a weirder and more sedate tone for this story. I used a bunch of photo references for Keith's exhibit, and used some more grey tones for the first time. I spent some time drawing pictures of mice even though none actually appear in the story, and I got some cute mice pics out of it! One of the fun things for me is to make Pam a sexy character who has a very sexual nature but to keep her from becoming a simple stereotype that you might find in a "fan service" manga. But mainly it's just fun to draw cute girls!
The first Psychobabes story (not counting their pinup appearance and cameo in "Boiler-Room Bust-Up!") takes us deeper into the Minervan music world? and, in case you hadn?t noticed, the ?Babes aren?t exactly thriving there!
This is their second riot in as many gigs, and right on the heels of a panning for their first single by the Dome?s arbiters of hipster taste (read it for yourself in the Cin?Culture from"Boiler-Room Bust-Up"). On top of which, the Mud Hut is a notorious dive for fans of crash music, and our gals are a pop group?
They?re also caught in the crossfire between rival high-school crash combos Blood Circus, fronted by belligerent ?Ard Fist, and Nightmare Consortium, whose central vergence is the entity known as Dark Wombat. (the Consortium?s d?but single is reviewed in this issue?s Cin?Culture.) We made these guys up for the issue, but they?re destined to return ? once you have an unintentional double-act like ?Ard Fist and Dark Wombat you know you?re on to something!
It was a lot of fun to write this one, but it features more characters than issues one through three combined, and I was still having trouble keeping everything straight (my planning and notes were still pretty erratic back then), but as ever my doubts about the script were cancelled out by Jeff?s art. In this issue Jeff hit some kind of next level, his style got more cartoony and confident without sacrificing detail.
This was our most popular issue until #7 ? I got great feedback when we were selling the minicomic in Travelling Man in Derby. The title, incidentally, was what came out of my mouth one time when I was trying to say ?from bad to worse?? we just liked the sound of it. I wonder ? it?s got a riot and a guy in the Crane Stance, so does this qualify as an action story?
I tried a slightly newer style for this issue, and decided to forsake grey tones and use hatching, scribbling, solid blacks--all manner of natural "inked" style shading. I had made up the Psychobabes' costumes years earlier at the Joe Kubert School. Their pinup from "Boiler-Room Bust-Up" was a piece I spent weeks working on at Kubert. It may have been for an assignment, but I forget now. It was ink on illustration board, and is still one of the pieces I'm most proud of. I referenced all the clothes, made sure the anatomy and everything was just how I wanted it, and the inking went great on it too! Incidentally, Charlotte's hollow-body electric guitar and Ariane's bass were both referenced from guitars I own: Charlotte's is my Epiphone Casino (a favorite guitar of John Lennon in the mid-to-late 60's) and Ariane's is a Fender Jazz bass. Isabel plays a Telecaster, but I just used reference photos for that. And I think Jo plays a drum kit that Ringo used to use--I have a book on the "Beatles gear" which came in real handy for this one!
Our first retro issue, dealing with Minerva?s past, is a story where we really let loose and turned the stylistic knobs all the way up to eleven! We both love our old-school shit, and we?re not just talking Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five ? the first half of the 20th century was a fertile time for our favourite genres.
The rise of pulp magazines and paperback novels, the birth of contemporary science fiction and fantasy, the diversification of detective, crime and mystery stories into radio and film? not to mention the rise and rise of comics! EC Comics are a big influence on this story ? not their horror comics, but their cool-ass crime shit like Shock SuspenStories, plus radio shows like Suspense and the wry, dry twist-ending tales which peppered the pages of mystery magazines from Argosy to Black Mask to Weird Tales.
One of my favourite things about this issue is the sheer unlikeliness of a man fleeing Police pursuit ? hiding up a fire escape, no less ? declaiming to thin air ?I know you?ll believe me, Janet ? I could never kill ? not even my wife!? Attentive readers will notice we don?t really use captions or thought balloons, but that?s got bollocks all to do with it. Our nameless protagonist narrates his own back-story as he runs headlong into the maw of fate for the pure, simple, life-sustaining joy of cheesiness!
If you can pick out all the references in this issue, you deserve a prize (or possibly a stay in a nice, restful institution).
Another super-fun issue to draw. This issue has its own specific soundtrack in mind, and if you find it I'm sure you'll enjoy listening along with the story as you read it. We've determined different eras of Minerva's past and their rough parallels to Earth history, and this period was fun to draw in, especially for the Cineculture! The stylish and sophisticated look, the elegant wealthy celebrities. And it has one of my favorite pinups ever, the Forever Human centerfold. This was incredibly enjoyable to do.
#6: Once a Gangster
Without going into too many specifics, this is another very referential story, all about the Hong Kong flicks. From the cast and plot to the goofiness of the humour, we were HK trippin? on this one ? which is a different thing to kung fu trippin?. Hong Kong movies are known internationally for martial arts, action and crazy wirework, but the home market is dominated by comedy, and from the Hui brothers to the present day it?s the comedians who clean up at the HK box office.
The references are all there if you?re into HK movies, but still I hope the story stands by itself as a string of dumb gags. Hey, I?m an artist, I care about my characters, all that shit? but I love a string of dumb gags as much as the next man! Writing this was a blast, of course ? I didn?t worry about realism once, at least not in the usual context. The toning-down I had to do was mainly grammatical. I didn?t want to end up making our characters sound like Hong Kong subtitles ? a distinctive tradition in which people frequently exclaim ?Do you scare?? and ?I won?t give it a damn!? Not too much, anyway.
The challenging side of this story was that we?d only really flirted with this kind of comedy before, whereas this time we wanted to really get stuck in (so to speak). We used the HK style and references as a crutch to support us through our first major bout of slapstick, and as a result it?s kind of self indulgent on both our parts? but shit, even the big Hong Kong blockbusters have wonky plots, so I don?t really mind. Besides, it was this issue which gave us the confidence to try some new tricks on the next issue?
This episode was fun to draw in a few places--I especially enjoyed designing the look of Ugly Shing, and Sharla and Chow. I definitely worked a little faster than I might have on this one, and looking back on it, I have to imagine it might have been a little better with, oh, say, backgrounds in it! But it was a giggle and we learned from it so it's all good. Chow will be back soon, and I doubt we've seen the last of Ugly Shing either...
Jeff really outdid himself in our seventh issue. Skyline is another story that let his art step up to the next level, and it also marked some major progress in our collaborative style of storytelling. Basically, this was the issue where we felt confident of our own storytelling to let our manga influences show, and it worked. It was more a natural progression than any kind of talked-over decision. A lot of our inspiration for this issue came from shojo manga ? we?re both fans of Clamp, and I was dying to do something on kind of a romantic theme ever since I read A, A??
But we?ve never been interested in imitating manga. The aspect which has been most influential in the mainstream of Western comics and animation is the look, that very specific combination of character design traits, speed lines, toner, whatever. But what we?re interested in is the storytelling ? unique ways of conveying place, time and movement, and perhaps most importantly emotion. In a lot of ways the Japanese model fits better with the perspective we already had. Instead of superhero comics and alternative comics, there?s a broad range of genres, and in each a number of titles whose adherence to their chosen genre is whimsical or negligible. We always wanted to do stories about ?people doing stuff? (in Jeff?s inimitable phrase).
We?ve always considered Progressions to be kind of a playground of ideas and genres to be mixed and matched at will rather than ?an sf comic? or any such thing. It?s about the range of characters as much as the individuals ? having adventures and fights and acting up and everything, but in large measure just living their lives, letting the more out there shit spin off naturally from what they?re like, who they are, where they are, how and why?
Anyway, Skyline is also our second retro story, and the first of a strand in which we?ll be exploring the lives of Pam and Henry as teenage teraways! When Jeff and I met we were both still mere youths, still living with our folks. Both our families relocated to Paris (from Austin, Tx., and rural Hampshire in the UK), and the fact that we did some silly and excellent teenage type shit together (girls, gigs, parties, pranks, excess and all-round idiocy ? believe it baby!) is a big influence on Progressions in much the same way that Paris is one of the cities which had a big influence on Minerva City.
Pam and Henry?s turbulent teenage years are a theme we?re set to return to in our upcoming story ? a tale of two girls, one dancefloor, and a showdown of serious shape-throwing, coming in Progressions #11: Dance Dance Resolution!
My absolute favorite issue to date. This was drawn suprisingly fast. After "Once a Gangster", I decided to make sure that "Skyline" had BACKGROUNDS. It was an obsession on this issue, and the entire 16-page story was drawn in about a week. That's probably still a record for me!