Bob Wakelin On Comics, Game Art And Punk Rock

Modern Eon, Jack Kirby Comics and Commadore 64s, what more does a man need from life?
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Modern Eon, Jack Kirby Comics and Commadore 64s, what more does a man need from life?

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Sometime in the early eighties I was living in dangerously falling down student digs in Quorn Street Liverpool. Close to Edge Lane the neighbourhood was edgy, vibrant, unpredictable and populated with a constant cast of walk on characters. One afternoon two such characters dressed in zipped up biker jackets, kung-fu pants and thirty hole lace up doc martens kicked down my front door and gave me the biggest battering of my life. Pleading for mercy the film ran backwards and my paranoid vision cleared to reveal that both had smiles and were, actually, quite amicable and not meaning me any harm at all. It was Danny Hampson and Bob Wakelin who played bass and keys for the recently defunct band Modern Eon.  I remembered I’d recently pinned up a request to join a band on the noticeboard in Probe Records or somesuch and here they were to check me over.

Now Modern Eon was, and still is, a big deal in the roll call of the 1980’s post punk bands. Following the release of their debut album “Fiction Tales” on Dindisc, a tour support slot with The Stranglers, and a legendary Radio One broadcast from Richard Skinner they had become elevated within and beyond The Pool to take to the podium alongside Echo and The Bunnymen, Wah, The Teardrop Explodes, Pink Military, OMD; the list is endless. Listen to the tracks today and you can hear why they so badly desired to be produced by Enrico Morricone to the extent that a call was made to see if the maestro would oblige. He didn’t but he should have.  The album outshines most of the post punk competition of the time and is still a valued collectible today.

After the band folded vocalist Alix seems to have drifted into relative obscurity despite having contributed to the distinctive atmosphere of “Fiction Tales”. Guitarist Tim Lever joined Pete Burns in Dead or Alive and lived the Stock Aitkin and Waterman dream via plentiful appearances on TOTP. Drummer Cliff Hewitt found some success with Apollo 440. Bob and Danny? Well they formed a band called This Time Next Year and recruited a gauche, clueless Yorkshireman to write the lyrics and sing in a semi continuance of the Modern Eon shtick. Me. A few months down the line I got on a train and went down the line to Leeds. Running scared.

In the brief time I became acquainted with Bob Wakelin I surmised this guy, not only capable of delivering a “Dim Mak” death blow, was also rather a good artist. I’d been around to his apartment in Huskisson Street, seen the apparatus, the proofs the work in progress and the finished results.  Through my slothful aberration of youth, the sniffing of imported US comics, the yearning for X Ray Specs, the bowlful of happiness that were sea monkeys, the polaris nuclear sub and the hypno coins I knew my DC from my Marvel and Bob definitely erred towards the Marvel (though I think he’s played for the other side) In short Bob was capable of delivering comic book art work dreams.

I asked Bob to sum up his working life:

“First job for Pete Fulwell, who went on to be part owner of Eric's. First freelance opps for Marvel late 70's. Comic artist to packaging design = serendipity. The transition was purely coincidence and convenience. Time line - '73 - 78 Modula design studio. 78 - present day freelance. 79 - 81 Modern Eon. 83 - 95 Ocean/Imagine etc. 95 - 96 back to Marvel briefly. 96 - present, all kinds of everything.... my timeline is convoluted and twisted by a distinct lack of any idea of what it is I really wanted to do with my life :)”

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And now, dear listener, let us focus on the Ocean years for, tis important.

Ocean Games delivered the gamers wet dream between the years of 1984 and 1998. From “Moon Alert” to “Mission Impossible” From the Commadore 64 through the ZX Spectrum and up to the Nintendo 64 they sucked up film and tv franchises and turned them into bedroom finger flicking good games. And the packaging needed artwork which Bob duly delivered. And it was damned, viscerally, good.  Today, like “Fiction Tales” it is iconic, quality, collectible, culturally valuable.  He may not agree. I get the impression he has that characteristic trait of a belligerent intellectual (he asked me to take out the word intellectual) and not one who suffers fools gladly.

Shall we ask him?

How does Modern Eon and Fiction Tales stand up in retrospect? The album garners great reviews today. Are you proud of it on your CV?

I can't really judge the album in isolation from what was going on in my life back in those days. I had a thoroughly great time, and loved the touring, recording and the general stupidity and bad behaviour that comes with being in a band.

But I was in Modern Eon just for the fun of it, and when it stopped being fun, it meant absolutely nothing to me. It was Danny and Alex's project - I just hitched a ride away from my drawing board for a couple of years.

Danny's bass still gets me going when I (very) occasionally listen to M.E., but Alex's voice gets on my tits – which sounds great coming from a one-fingered keyboard player. Actually, I did become more involved and interested in what direction M.E. might be going, but all that did was set me and Danny, who wanted a harder edge to the music, against Alex and Tim who wanted a lighter, airier kind of thing. Blecccchhh (sic)

I see there is a Modern Eon fan page on Facebook but you haven’t “outed” yourself on there as yet for fear of being asked questions. Does fan adulation get on your, ahem, nerves as well?

It’s not that it gets on my nerves; it merely takes up too much time – something that I have a finite amount of. I prefer to waste my own time, rather than have it wasted for me.

Living through '80's Liverpool, and without disrespecting anyone - which bands still "hold up"?

To be honest, I wasn't paying a lot of attention to what happening musically in Liverpool. Some of the WAH!, Pink Industry and Bunnymen stuff still comes across really well but I couldn't be arsed with most of it.

Musically you seem to have spent your later time engaged with more edgy, hard core rock? Is that a fair reflection of your real tastes?

Yeah. Personally, I found the early/mid eighties in the UK musically depressing, with the odd highlight provided by Costello and Killing Joke. I recall buying music by The Smiths and their ilk and playing the stuff over and over again, trying to ascertain what the hell I was supposed to get excited about.

I used to wander around record shops aimlessly, thinking I had some kind of brain disease that prevented me enjoying what were obviously works of phenomenal genius, but then I heard Minor Threat, Husker Du, Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid and Big Black - to name just a few, and found what had been missing from my life for several years. Thank God for Probe Records!

What was the “Cactus Bob” project with Danny? Was that your “last hurrah?”

I haven’t got a clue why three grown men would decide to waste voluminous amounts of time and money in a project that was obviously never going anywhere. I think it was a last attempt (for me) to play and record some music I could be happy to claim as my own. Unfortunately, it took an age to write the songs – we all had stupefying grown-up responsibilities that severely limited the time we could all get together -  and we only managed to play live once before we faced the truth; we were no longer young men bursting with boundless energy and it was time to jack it in.

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When I first met you, you eloquently described your experience of the Toxteth Riots. 32 years on what do you still remember? Didn't you once take on a car full of cops?

No, I didn't take on a car full of cops. A vanload of cops tried to run me down and missed. One porcine fellow swung at me with his truncheon and marginally disturbed my punkish quiff as they sped past.

Me and my partner at the time were basically spectators, standing on the grass banks a few feet from the rioters, offering much needed moral support. The most enduring image for me was walking down Upper Parliament Street on the Sunday morning, a haze of grey smoke in the air and lampposts toppled across the road, with the still smoldering remains of several buildings looming through the smog. Life during wartime.

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Do you identify yourself as Welsh or Scouse?

Neither, although this city has been a revelation and a wonder to me for the last 35 or so years, and I’ve grown inordinately attached to it.

And me, but it’s moved on from the hard edgy city I experienced to more of a tourist attraction and partnering with Shanghai to draw investment. Do you miss the “Derek Hatton Years”?

I miss being as young as I was in the “Derek Hatton Years”! You had to be young to enjoy the backdrop of continuous conflict and aggression that characterized those years, so no, I don’t miss them from the point of view of an old man who doesn’t really fancy going out there and potentially getting into fisticuffs and running battles, but I miss the days when the government was being challenged head-on (even though I detested Derek Hatton).

The recent development of Liverpool causes me no small amount of confusion – I’m glad to see that the place didn’t crumble into the Mersey, and it’s nice that people visit from all over the world, but the shiny corporate consumerism that has swamped the place brings a little sick into my mouth occasionally when I’m walking through town.

Who first told you you could "draw" Was it in primary school Crayola days? or later?

I can't remember. I do recall a couple of my art teachers telling me I wasn't drawing the "right" things though. I ignored them, when I probably should have given their opinions more credence.

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How did you start working for Ocean Software?

In 1983, I was at a loss as to what I was going to do next, just knocking out the odd record sleeve for Liverpool bands and covers for Marvel UK. I invited an illustrator I knew, who appeared to be even more lost than me, to set up in my studio and start knocking around some ideas.

After several months of getting absolutely nowhere, he told me he knew of a fellow who was publishing these new-fangled ‘video games’. I wasn’t convinced, thinking it would never catch on, but went along to meet him anyway. We came up with our first couple of efforts and they were approved.

Unfortunately, my illustrator friend appeared to be finding it harder and harder to keep his concentration on the work , preferring instead to do sketches of chunks of cannabis resin, looking for some kind of revelation that might be revealed to him within the shapes he was interpreting and wittering on about UFOs and ley lines.

We parted company and I produced the majority of Ocean Software’s box art for the next dozen years, producing well over one hundred illustrations for them.

Which of your own pieces or work are you most proud of and why?

I can't say I'm ‘proud’ of any of it, I was merely fulfilling contracts and trying to do the best job in the time allotted. There are a few game box covers I did that I was very happy with, though - Operation Wolf is currently my favourite, but that changes whenever I’m asked the question.

As with Modern Eon there seems to be a huge fan base for your art. Does this get on your ti….erm, sorry nerves? Or do you now concede that could be used for financial gain?

I didn’t realize that anyone had taken any notice of the game art I’d done until around ten years ago, when gamers who had been teenagers in the early days of the industry started getting in touch and buying the original art from me.

Even then I imagined there couldn’t be more than a handful of them, but it’s gradually dawned on me that there are thousands of fans out there. It was initially disconcerting and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, (having been a comic book fan myself, I’d been a first hand witness to the potentially hazardous business of being in the presence of the obsessed), but I’ve finally come to accept that it is, in fact, a Good Thing to be appreciated for bringing a little happiness and into another person’s life.

I do concede that fan appreciation can be used for financial gain, but I’m not into money for its own sake – fans are not there merely to be exploited and taken the piss out of. Punk Rock left its indelible mark on my psyche.

Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby and why?

Jack Kirby. I love Ditko, but Kirby’s work reached right into my gut when I was a kid, and still does now. I could smell and taste and feel every drawing and I still can’t figure out how the hell he managed to create images that literally leapt out of the page. His drawing technique seems simple, and many people have analyzed and emulated it, but no-one has matched his effortless genius.

Which piece of comic book artwork do you most admire?

The cover of Fantastic Four #49.

If Charles Saatchi offered you large sum of money by way of a commission - what would your conscience say?

Nothing. I’d bring it round with a sensible argument.

Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair? What went wrong?

Behave yourself.

I am behaving myself. And I’m interested in your politics. I suspect you have an active interest in politics but can’t believe you ever embraced “New Labour”. What is the “solution”?

I always liked the idea of Anarcho Syndiclism, but I’m not naive enough to believe it would work. Tories fill me with an almost inexpressible rage. New Labour spiraled into Old Tory within a very few years of gaining power, and Tony Christian Values Blair is a mass-murdering dog turd of a man.

There’s no such thing as Liberal Democrats so I guess the only party that I remotely agree with is the Green Party, and they’re a bunch of failures.

Politicians now work only for the interests of corporate predators and not for the people that elect them - it’s a stitch-up of monumental proportions. I don’t think it’s possible to stop the human race from careening over the end of the resources cliff, so I guess I’m a member of the We’re Doomed party!

You have children now. What has that done to you other than make you skint?

Well, people used to think I looked younger than I actually was. That’s changed. It’s made me like and understand kids, which has been a revelation. It’s finally dawned on me that society only gets the kind of kids it creates, and we should stop fucking moaning about them.

What next? Is there a remnant of ambition in your bones?

Only to do whatever I can to help my kids prepare for their future, and to single-handedly storm a Bilderberg meeting and take ‘em all out with extreme prejudice!

1981. The Odeon Cinema Liverpool. I had the misfortune to sit behind the malevolence of Bob and Danny in the screening of a particular film. It had been raining and I turned up with my girlfriend looking less than sartorial. You turned to Danny and said “He looks like a fucking rodent”. The question is; what was the film?

Actually, that would be “He looks like a fucking drowned rat”. God knows. Time Bandits? An American Wer….. ahhh fuck it I can’t remember.

It was Altered States. And I think it sums up Bob’s contribution to the ‘80’s Liverpool music “scene” and his superb artwork in general (although he’s too modest and self deprecating to admit that)